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THE GUARANTIES OF A NOBLE LIFE.
BACCALAUREATE SERMON, JUNE 24, 1888.
Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. — PHILIPPIANS 3: 13, 14.
T is a delightful feature of Paul's epistles that
though official and apostolic they are so pervaded by his personality. All the great truths he teaches seem to have passed through the alembic of his own experience, and we receive the divine message by the most human of messengers.
And thus as he goes on his extraordinary career, we look in upon the workings of his mind and heart. In these two verses he reveals the mighty motives which lay beneath that marvelous life-work. No higher standard or ideal can be set before a human soul. In the presence of such a model, it becomes those who are looking forward to a life-work of their own to pause and ponder.
We will, therefore, follow the several suggestions of the text, and consider
THE GUARANTIES OF A NOBLE LIFE.
I. The first of these guaranties is a wise dissatisfaction with one's past achievements. “I count not myself to have apprehended.” We are to live in the future, and not on the past; to cherish a manly convic
tion that we have never yet been at our best, nor done our very best.
This rigid criticism of our own work and attainments means no disparagement of other men or even of other times. Humility and reverence walk hand in hand. Contempt is the daughter of conceit. The most helpful are most frankly beholden to other help, and the clearest mind most clearly sees how the world's arena has been trodden on every path by great personages — how the statesmen and the philosophers, the orators and the poets, the traders and the warriors, the explorers and the philanthropists, that are gone, have not always left even their peers behind. The palms that wave against the modern sky strike their roots deep into the alluvium of the ages.
In proportion to a man's veneration for the great and good, behind, around, and above, will be the rigidness of his self-criticism and his self-exactions. The sight of the “great cloud of witnesses ” may be as humiliating as it is stimulating, for they have won the race which he has but begun. It was the lamentation once of a great sculptor that he was perfectly satisfied with his statue; for he felt that when he could form no higher ideal than he had attained, his artistic life was at its ebb. But it was the stout claim of Johnson at seventy-five: “Pick out the best of my essays, and I will make it better.” Titian at ninety-eight began one of his largest paintings to prove that his powers had not failed, and he died at his work. When the enthusiastic Moses Stuart was reproached with having changed opinions once published to the world, he answered well : “ I trust I know more now than when I wrote my book.” It was perhaps a struggling in the same direction when Emerson extravagantly wrote: “I hope we have heard the last of conformity and consistency. If you would be a man, speak what you think to-day in words as hard as cannon balls, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.” The cannon balls, however, might be reserved for the day after to-morrow.
It is nevertheless a great and fatal mistake, this living on the past – past reputation, past success, past character, past acquisition. Unless living streams run through the pond, it becomes a puddle. Old opinions unrevised lapse into bigotry; old ways unmodified become iron grooves and mannerisms; old sermons unimproved, sere and yellow leaves. The business firm cannot trade always on its trademark, and the manufacturer must improve his machinery or shut his mill. The disgust of the British people for a man who spoke powerfully once, but never again, embodied itself in the epithet, “Single-speech Hamilton.” It was the fatal mistake of the most brilliant of modern generals that he relaxed his early vigilance. On the fourteenth of June, 1815, he proclaimed to his army: “This is the anniversary of Marengo.” Had his scouts but followed the defeated Prussian on the night of the sixteenth with his ancient watchfulness, Waterloo might have been a greater Marengo. But disease
and corpulency of body and transient flabbiness of will saved Europe.
An evil day it is for any man, young or old, when he rests in self-complacent satisfaction with his attainments or with himself. It and the flattery that accompanies are the secret of how many a blight of early promise! Those were wholesome if hard words of Carlyle to the young aspirant for literary fame, who sought his opinion of his poetry : “You seem to me a young man to whom nature has given a superior endowment, which you run a considerable risk of failing to unfold. There is undoubtedly a sign of talent in it, but talent in far too loose, crude, and unformed a condition. To have such accounted real finished talent, and praised and preached abroad, is precisely the fatalest failure to a youth of any merit — the sweetness in the mouth which in the belly becomes bitter as gall.” I remember years ago a young man in his second year in college, showy and able much beyond his fellows, flattered and satisfied. For more than forty years he lived on, and died at last a college sophomore.
Self-satisfaction breeds and marks stagnation. So not only through the range of art and literature, but of morals and religion. The self-applauding moralist is wont to be the shallowest of characters, and a class of religionists who claim to have reached a sinless condition attain their standard only by depressing the law of God and the rule of righteousness. On the other hand, that phenomenon which has sometimes so startled the unsympathetic, namely, the self-depreciation recorded
in the private journals of such good men as Edwards, Brainerd, and Martyn, is easily explained. Just in proportion to the height to which they rose the clearness of vision with which they saw the heavenly light beyond, and the greatness of their sorrow over their shortcomings. Theirs was the beatitude: “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” And their comfort lay not behind but before. The Christian cannot live upon an old experience: it is but the desolate camp ground, where he pitched and then folded his tent on his moving pilgrimage. He counts not himself to have apprehended.
• There are sweet fountains in the wilderness
And flowers by the loneliest wayside,
Are never satisfied."
II. Another of the guaranties of a true life is a recovery from errors, faults, and failures. “Forgetting those things which are behind.” Fault and failure are the common lot. “Walking,” says one, “is but a succession of falls." And so is moral walking. But the Psalmist says of the good man : “Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down.” And Micah wrote: "Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I. shall arise.”
The best of this world are not marked by perfection but by the constant rallying from imperfection. The men that make no obvious mistakes, if such there are, are the men who make no mark. The man with the