Signs Of The Times: 9 - In My Youth Said The Sage

"In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
"I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment—one shilling a box—
Allow me to sell you a couple?"

Come on now, you don’t need me to remind you, do you? Surely not? Oh, all right then. It’s from “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, a.k.a. the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson; and it’s stanza four of “You Are Old, Father William”, a parody of Southey’s didactic poem, “The Old Man’s Comforts And How He Gained Them”. Interestingly enough, the sound advice given in Southey’s poem is bible-based, drawing on Ecclesiastes in particular. That doesn’t seem to have stopped Rev. Dodgson having a good go at it. It’s worth finding and reading the rest of it. It’s about a young man asking for advice - and the answers that he receives.

What’s your own attitude to advice? Is it something that you habitually seek from your elders and betters; or are you more interested in handing it out? I’ve spent much of my working life advising other people, because that’s what I was paid to do. I don’t do it all that much nowadays, despite what you might think; as my wife so often says: “Why bother? In the end, people will do just what they want to do.”

Questions about the giving and receiving of advice came into my mind as I read the next section of the foreword to John Ritchie’s “500 Gospel Sermon Outlines”, first published in 1910. (See previous entries.)

The passage is entitled “Gift, grace, and gumption”. Perhaps a deadline was pressing, or perhaps he’d just been in the book of Proverbs; whatever it was, he seems to be falling over himself to get as much good advice into two paragraphs as is humanly possible. This is how he begins.

Gift, grace, and gumption are all needed for public ministry, which all do not possess, and apart from which no one will long continue either to hold or have a people to hear him.

If we were talking about the Circus church, then we might say, “Tell that to Jimmy Swaggart or Todd Bentley!” But Ritchie is not concerned with the shysters and charlatans of our age or any other. He is writing for the benefit of all those who genuinely “go forth with the Gospel, whatever the sphere may be”. He continues as follows.

Gift is a thing of measure: some have five talents, others ten. Care should be taken not to exceed the measure of gift or grace possessed. Some who can speak to a score in a cottage, are unfit to address a thousand in a hall: it would be wrong to try it. A man’s gift makes room for him, and where the gift is, and grace to use it, it will sooner or later be recognized. Experience is gained by using what we have. A gift well and wisely used, develops and grows - according to the Word, “to him that hath shall be given,” while one neglected and unused rusts away. Mistakes and failures ought to humble, but not discourage. Whatever helps to lowly thoughts of self and to more dependence upon God, is good.

All sound stuff, eh? Yes, it is, but…

Allow me to put in a pennyworth of my own advice at this point. Old Father William wasn’t just giving guidance on mobility in old age, was he? Look again at the stanza at the start of this entry: he had something to sell. Men may be sincere and their advice may be sound, but even then, it’s always worth asking the question: “Is this man trying to sell me something?” If he is, then we need to beware.

I quote from a brief biography of Mr Ritchie.

“He might, like so many pioneers in the gospel, have been single minded and not as easy to work with as some would have liked, but no-one doubted his sincerity and the passion with which he held to his beliefs. The truths of the Scriptures were dear to him and compromise was a pathway which he never considered.” (My italics.) May I suggest that what Mr Ritchie is selling here is - himself. He wishes to emphasise, by implication, his own position of authority and his achievements and his experience, so that you will take him at his word. Why do I think that? Because of his treatment of the text from Proverbs.

Proverbs 18.16, KJV: “A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men.” This is often, as here, wildly over-spiritualised, and taken to mean that a man’s spiritual gift will without doubt be recognised in a church, and will ensure that he is placed in a position where he can exercise this gift. The coded message, when used unscrupulously by someone in office, is this: “I’m in authority because God has given me the appropriate gifts and put me in this place - and nobody else here is going to be doing anything without my say-so!”

Matthew Henry has an alternative reading.

“Of what great force gifts (that is, bribes) are he had intimated before, ch. 17:8, 23. Here he shows the power of gifts, that is, presents made even by inferiors to those that are above them and have much more than they have. A good present will go far, 1. Towards a man’s liberty: A man’s gift, if he be in prison, may procure his enlargement; there are courtiers, who, if they use their interest even for oppressed innocency, expect to receive a gratuity for it. Or, if a mean man know not how to get access to a great man, he may do it by a fee to his servants or a present to himself; those will make room for him. 2. Towards his preferment. It will bring him to sit among great men, in honour and power.”

That’s more like it. You might also wish to consider Ritchie’s comments on Matthew 25.14-27. That said, it doesn’t matter much here, because, in general, he’s on the right track, offering all this useful advice simply in order to do his readers some good.

He then goes on to speak of the judicious use of praise with regard to preachers; of the importance of humility; and of the need to have a realistic view of our own abilities. This is his conclusion.

Study to present yourself as and where He may find you, if He sees fit to use you. If He does not, then search your ways, there will be a cause.

Just those two sentences make reading all this well worth your while - provided you take the advice he offers.

But then, what is it that my wife so often says?