No wonder Dean Brown has so rich a ministry; he is a teacher of preachers as much by example as by precept. In a style simple, direct, clear-cut, he deals with the matter in hand, and one forgets the fine art of his homiletics. While never falling into slang, he speaks the familiar language of everyday, with now a glint of humor, and now a flash of insight into the lonely places of the soul. Like Dolly Winthrop in the George Eliot story, one goes away “all set up” for the week after hearing him preach; and that is what preaching is for.
Born in West Virginia in 1862, Dean Brown was educated at the University of Iowa and Boston University. For fifteen years he was pastor of the First Congregational Church of Oakland, California, and since 1911 has been Dean of the Divinity School of Yale University. To name his books would be to recite a long list, the latest being The Art of Preaching, These Twelve, What Is Your Name, Ten Short Stories from the Bible; in which both the art and insight of the preacher are revealed.
No man among us knows better how to deal with the moral problems and spiritual needs of folk in all walks of life. The young man or woman in business, the financier in the depths of failure or on the crest of success, the man broken in health, the woman unhappily married, all who are suffering or handicapped find help and healing in his ministry; and as a preacher to students there is no one like him—no one near him.
Lot pitched his tent toward Sodom. Genesis 13:12.
Abraham went out not knowing whither. Hebrews 11:8.
I shall preach to you on a very familiar phrase—“Where do we go from here?” I shall use two texts. They stand far apart in the Scriptures—one of them from the first book in the Bible, the other from almost the last—yet they have to do with two men who lived next door. There was a time when the two men touched elbows daily. “Lot pitched his tent toward Sodom.” “Abraham went out not knowing whither.”
Now the key words in those texts are the two words “toward” and “whither.” They indicate the general direction each life was taking. They deal not with achievement but with tendency—and that is the most significant fact about any life. Here is a man moving along a certain line—you can judge as to the outcome by the direction he takes! “Lot pitched his tent toward Sodom.” “He was not there yet but he was headed that way.”
Sodom was one of the cities of the plain there in the Jordan Valley. It was a prosperous town. Business was good. Bank clearings showed up well. The price of real estate on Main Street was going up. “Watch Sodom grow,” the Rotary Club of that day was saying through its publicity man.
Lot sensed the situation—he saw the big buildings going up, and he wanted a share of the fat prosperity they housed. He stood ready to overlook the fact that it was a vile place—its morals were unspeakable and the very name of Sodom had already become a byword and a hissing. “No matter,” he said, “I can make money there! Sodom is good enough for me and it shall be my home town.” He therefore took his wife and daughters and pitched his tent toward Sodom.
Abraham, on the other hand, turned his back on Sodom. He would not bring up his family in any such place. He did not want the men of Sodom to be slapping him on the back and calling him by his first name. He wanted something higher, finer, vaster, than anything offered in those cities of the plain. He was looking for a city that had foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
He did not know just where it was nor how long it would take him to reach it, nor just how he would gain a footing there. “He went out not knowing whither”—it was a venture of faith. He set his face toward God and righteousness and a life of service—and in his influence all the nations of the earth have been blessed. The two men stood side by side that day when they made their choice, but the tendencies they showed had already set them as far apart as the North Pole and the South Pole.
“I am the way,” the Master said, indicating the right road! No man cometh to his best but by Him. The Christian religion in the first century was commonly called “The Way.” “I persecuted this way unto the death,” Paul said, looking back with remorse upon a certain period in his own career. “After the way they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers,” he said later. This is “the way”—walk in it! Every one who is in that way or faced that way, becomes a Christian even though his present spiritual achievements may be meager.
“What is Christianity?” Willard Sperry asks in his little book. “It is a way of life.” General Grant telling General Lee at Appomattox that the Southern cavalrymen had better keep their horses because they would need them for the Spring plowing! John Hay returning the Boxer indemnity money to China to create a fund for the education of Chinese young men! David Livingstone letting his light shine in the Dark Continent that Africa might see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ! William Booth, head of the Salvation Army, standing supreme in his generation as the friend of publicans and sinners! Wilfred Grenfell devoting his unusual intellectual ability, his professional skill as a physician, the charm and force of his personality as a man, to the service of a lot of unfortunate, neglected, forgotten fishermen on the coasts of Labrador! Edith Cavell facing death in Belgium and saying, “Patriotism is not enough—we must have no hatred in our hearts toward anybody.” She is still saying it while the tumult and the shouting dies, the captains and the kings depart, and the “Hymn of Hate” fades out.
All that is Christianity, for Christianity is a way of life. It is the way of life and when it dominates a man’s career he is a Christian.
Go back to Lot again—he pitched his tent toward Sodom! Lot’s first name was “Babbitt”—it does not appear in the Authorized Version but you may find it in some of these modern translations of the Bible. He was out for the goods and he wanted them in the large. He wanted a fortune with all the power, the privilege and the pleasure which fortune is supposed to bring. “He lifted up his eyes,” the record says, “and saw the plain of Jordan that it was well watered.” There was no better pasture anywhere in Palestine. Lot coveted that pasture for his flocks and the money it would mean when he marketed them.
The love of money lies at the root of all manner of evil. The offer of all the kingdoms of this world in exchange for moral aspiration is one of the best cards Satan has in his pack. He wins many a trick with it. He sees many a life go down in defeat when he leads from that long suit.
Sodom is not just a place on the map of that ancient, half-forgotten world. Sodom is a state of mind, a way of looking at things, a mode of life. And Sodom is still doing business although that city of the plain was burned up three thousand years ago. Sodom is listed on the Stock Exchange. It is entered up in Society’s Blue Book. It shows its ugly head in clubs where men do congregate. I am afraid that we might find what the chemist would call “traces” of Sodom in some of our educational institutions and even in some of our churches.
Sodom is that mode of life which sets its heart mainly upon things which perish with the using. It insists upon an abundance of good things to eat and drink—the latter especially, law or no law! It wants a lot of nice things to wear and a wealth of expensive furniture and an endless series of thrills from a round and round of amusement and self-indulgence. Faith, hope, love, moral aspiration and Christian devotion—all these it pooh-poohs. “Let’s get down to brass tacks!” it says in cynical fashion! All that is Sodom!
This man Lot lived in a world of things which could be bought and sold. Now that stream of commodities flowed this way, now it flowed that way, but always in such a way as to turn the wheels of his mill and grind him out a grist of profits. He lived in that stream as a trout lives in the brook. He ate in it, slept in it, worked in it, thought in it, seven days in the week. He was never out of it for an hour from Monday morning to Sunday night. There was no holy day on his calendar. If you had talked with him on any other topic than that of trade you would have found him as dull as a pine stump. He believed that a man’s life does consist in the abundance of the things that he can buy. All that too is Sodom.
When Abraham and Lot came together that day the older man offered the younger man a generous option. “Let there be no strife between thee and me! The whole plain is before thee—take thy choice.”
The young man rather plumed himself on the fact that he had the “inside dope” on that situation and that he was getting the best of an old man now a bit shaky on his legs and a bit sentimental in his business judgment. Lot made a shrewd, selfish choice based entirely on his desire for gain. He was bound to break into Sodom, even though the moral tone of the place was low and mean.
That choice indicated the general trend of the man’s life and it spelled ruin. The fire and brimstone which rained from heaven upon Sodom are vivid symbols of the fate which in one form or another always overtakes that mode of life.
The rest of the story follows naturally and inevitably. Lot filled his purse—“he was rich,” the record says, “in flocks and herds and tents, in silver and in gold.” But he lived to see his home life become as bitter as a pillar of salt. He lived to see his daughters become shameless and profligate. Disaster came and swept away all his property. He lost everything and wandered as a homeless outcast among the caves of Zoar.
Last of all, he lost himself. What shall it profit a man though he gains all the outward advantages which can be named and then loses out himself! When Lot looked in the glass, he did not see anything—there was nobody there. This is the tragic outcome of every life which pitches its tent toward Sodom.
Look now at the other man! Abraham turned his back on Sodom and went out not knowing whither—it was a venture of faith. He was betting his life, as Donald Hankey said, that there is a God and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him. He was staking his whole future on obedience to the highest impulse he had ever felt. And that way honor lies, and victory, and a destiny which will outlast and outshine the stars.
“Get thee out,” a voice said—and it was a divine volce—“get thee out unto a land that I will show thee.” He did not know just where it was nor how far away. He had no friends there as yet. He carried no letter of credit drawn upon the resources of that unknown country. He was a moral pioneer breaking the path for all who might follow in his train. He was a discoverer charting the course for all who might sail the high seas of spiritual adventure under sealed orders. “He went out,” he went west, all unaware of the full significance of his action.
In the same spirit, Paul went out when his hour struck. He too went west, crossing the Ægean Sea from Troas in Asia to Macedonia in Europe, that he might plant the gospel of Christ in that newer continent where it found its highest development in the centuries which followed.
In the same spirit, Christian missionaries in the time of Augustine went out—they went west from Italy to England when the latter country was still pagan. In that same spirit, the Pilgrims of England and Holland went out—they went west from Europe to America to lay here the foundations of a great republic in faith and righteousness. They went out not knowing whither, all unaware of the mighty development which would follow upon their action. It is a long, honorable procession of spiritual adventure. And it too is to be judged, not by the meager achievements of those earlier years, but by its general tendency and direction.
It is not what you are nor where you are at this moment which determines your rating on the books the Lord keeps. It is what you want to be and where you desire to go—and by the grace of God mean to go before you are through with it—that tells the story.
It is the way you are faced! You may not be in Sodom—God forbid—but if you are headed that way then the best that life holds for you is imperiled. You may not be walking with sure, firm tread on the higher levels of spiritual achievement—very few of us are—but if you are faced that way and are moving, then you can afford to sing a Te Deum. It is only a question of time, for you are going on and up.
Take long views of life! You cannot bring the growth, the advance, the destiny of a human soul within the limits of some movie film which is soon reeled off. How brief this whole earthly life is at best! “The days of our years are threescore and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet it is soon cut off and we fly away.” It is only a clock-tick in the eyes of Him with whom a thousand years are as one day.
“So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom! Satisfy us early with thy mercy! Establish thou the work of our hands and let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us!” It is a prayer which every thoughtful person feels moved to make even before his sun has passed the meridian.
It is tomorrow even more than yesterday which makes today what it is—and that is saying a great deal. All the yesterdays have their part in determining our present status but all the tomorrows as well have been casting the spell of their influence upon us. If there be an endless series of tomorrows awaiting us, then how mighty becomes their appeal!
Look ahead—a long, straight look ahead, facing the highest that life can hold—and then move toward it in that same mood of high resolve shown by this man of old! Look for that social order which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God.
Once more, you notice that this man of faith was unselfish! He had never been bitten by that fad which is forever talking about “being left free to live its own life.” He was not yielding to every chance impulse nor seeking constantly for his own self-realization, whether or no. His robust nature would have made short work of that sort of fol-de-rol. Self-realization with him was only a means to an end. He had no desire to become a stagnant pool, forever receiving but never giving, and therefore destined to be covered with a thick, green, useless scum. He would make his life a river of water, moving on and with an abundant outlet.
His main function in life became a transmissive function. “I will bless thee,” the voice said, “and thou shalt be a blessing. I will make of thee a great nation and in thee shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”
His mark of distinction lay not in possession but in transmission. As Francis Peabody of Harvard says, “There is really nothing glorious in mere possession. It may be mean and inglorious—as mean when the possession is brains or power as when it is bonds or wheat.” The worth of any life is to be found in its transmissive capacity. “I will bless thee, and thou shalt be a blessing.”
How splendidly those Pilgrims here on our own Atlantic coast embodied that principle! They sailed out from the old world bound for the new, not knowing whither they went. They made it a spiritual as well as a physical venture of faith. They bravely committed themselves to “the ways of God made known and to be made known,” as they put it. They boldly announced their belief that “more light was yet to break from God’s word.” They did not know it all—they left that to the Sophomores who are found in a great many other places besides the second year in college. They were eager to know more and they went ahead believing that “more light would break.” And because they too had the Messianic spirit, all the nations of the world have been blessed in what they did. “I will bless thee, and thou shalt be a blessing.” The only man who ever finds his life is the one who stands ready to lose it in unselfish service.
Come back then to the place where we started—“Where do we go from here?” It all depends! The significant fact about any life is not its present position and achievements but its tendency and direction. If you are pitching your tent of aspiration toward a world of things, then you will go as Lot went. If, on the other hand, you fare forth on a spiritual quest intent upon the best that life holds, it is already yours.
You may be standing this very day at the parting of the ways. You can go forward or backward, to the right hand or to the left, up or down! You can go toward Sodom or toward the city of God! How much is involved—think hard before you make your choice!
Here is the line which the greatest of the Apostles would have every one of us take! “We all with open face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord are changed!” Not in a moment, nor in a month, nor in a lifetime, but through all the unending years! “We are changed into the same image” until at last “we awake in His likeness.”