( Originally Published 1912 )
I have finished the work which thou gayest me to do—Jesus
Whatever may be thought of the personality of Jesus, all will agree that he was faithful to his life mission. His success was fairly won. Whether persecution or praise attended his efforts, he did not halt until he had done his best. Secure in the consciousness that all that was demanded of him was faithfulness in the performance of every task, he felt superior to all penalties and all rewards. Whatever man might say of him, he felt sure of the friendship of God. He had put heaven in debt to him. Always earnest and sometimes severe in his condemnation of wrong, yet he was always gracious and tender in his contact with persons. He had his intimate friends to whom he gave special confidences and he loved to tarry longest with those who understood and sympathised with him, but he never lost sight of his main duty. In a piece of music, whatever variations there may be, whatever side excursions there may be into the surrounding realm of sweet sounds, there runs one persistent theme. It is so with this noble life. Whether toiling at his trade in Nazareth, walking with his friends through the fields, visiting those whom he loved at Bethany, speaking to multitudes on the mountain or by the lake, weeping at Gethsemane, standing in the court of Pilate, or climbing the slope of Calvary there is always present the conviction that he must be faithful to the trust committed to him.
For us his career serves as perpetual illustration. One incident widens into a universal law. That which ennobled a life in Palestine, will ennoble a life in Michigan. Nothing can furnish a better reason for existence than unwavering allegiance to work. Life exists for the doing of duty. Whoso believes this, is there-by freed from much anxiety about his future. He knows that, however it may be now, finally every action is rewarded, not by the vote of majorities, but according to its own nature and worth. Let the work of life be done earnestly and with a high purpose, desirous not for the applause of the multitude, but for the approval of one's own higher nature, then, whatever it may be, writing a ledger or writing the laws of a nation, it has a meaning and is a necessary link in the chain which binds events together. Thinking of the notable works of man,—the Pyramids, the Parthenon, and the English Minsters,—a poet thought that, coming in sincerity from the human soul, they were natural and necessary to the beauty and usefulness of earth.
"Earth proudly wears the Parthenon,
And Nature kindly gave them place,
This is very suggestive and very true. But a like necessity belongs to things that are not great. They, too, spring from the soul and their influence will far outlast the days in which they are performed.
Our world is arranged upon the principle that the final success of any movement is dependent upon the toil of many different kinds of workers. In the first and simplest state of society the law of distribution of labor was absent. Each one made his own weapons of war and implements of industry. After a time some one would develop a genius for making certain things and with that a love for making them. Here is one who thinks if he had nothing to do but make arrows or axes or tend flocks or minister at the altar or prophesy or make the battle songs of his tribe he would need nothing else to bring him happiness. But a similar thought was passing through the minds of many. Each one followed his own inclination and finally the world's labor was distributed. Thus each one has something to do and every person is indebted to all other persons. Man of thought, man of action, poet, philosopher, prophet, shepherd, farmer, teacher, sailor, iron-workers and wood-workers are all engaged at their favorite tasks. If they are doing their work well, permitting no pretense to insinuate itself into its doing; faithfully going to their tasks each day, with a certain serious determination as if they were to render an account to One who would surely disapprove of all make-believe, they need never offer any apology for their calling. If the artisan needs the artist, if the peasant needs the prophet, so do artist and prophet need artisan and peasant. Paul and Plato have placed the world in their debt? Just as much are they indebted to the world. Their doctrines of Charity and Ideal Republics would have been useless had there been no multitude tending the flocks, tilling the soil and pruning the vines. Every vision of the seer, every creation of the artist, every victory of the warrior, every law of the statesman is found at last burrowing in the furrow and twining round the meal bag, as the the fairest flowers, facing the sun and filling the air with fragrance, strike their roots into the earth. Whoever is turning the furrow or filling the meal bag, if he carry faithfulness into his work, like a very apostle may magnify his calling. In the strange voyage of life we must all work our passage. We cannot all pay in the same kind of work, but we must all pay. If we cannot all pay in writing hymns and bibles of religion nor in making laws nor in leading armies of freedom nor in becoming martyrs for truth nor in discovering worlds, as some have, then we must pay in some other way. Let the click of the pick, the ring of the hammer, the grating of the saw signify our willingness to discharge our obligation. It is not the character of the task, but the character of him who performs it that is important. The grade is not in the work, but in the soul. All work done faithfully and with a high intention is divine work. Making the soil more fertile, and thus reducing the cost of food, firing engines, trimming sails, teaching youth, nursing the sick, comforting the sorrowful, leading forlorn hopes, and cleaning the streets are all necessary tasks and, if faithfully performed, are noble.
" A servant with this clause
Martin Luther once said: "God needs strong men." This is true; but He needs men who are not strong. The oak is necessary, but the palm is also useful. The world needed Luther to reform religion and Columbus to discover America, but it needed Stradivarius to make violins. Jesus said: "I must work the works of him who sent me;" and Stradivarius may be represented as saying;
" If my hand slacked
God could not make Christianity without a Christ; but neither could He make a steam engine without a Watt. The architect is necessary; but it is impossible to dispense with the stone-cutters whose hammers and chisels keep up their cheerful music for so many hours of the day and in all kinds of weather and thus help realize in actual form what the architect, unaided, could only see as a possible thing. Railways could not be built unless the men of large brain would project them and the men of large means would advance the money. But the roads would be useless, when built, were there not engineers and firemen who are willing to stand faithfully at their posts, braving all the dangers infesting every mile of their wild journey kept up day and night through sunshine and tempest. Railways could not be maintained without the Wall Street millionaires ; but neither could they be maintained without the village switchmen.
At intervals we are startled and shocked by some awful accident which is caused by the carelessness of an employe of the railway. A telegraph operator gave wrong instructions to trainmen; a conductor's watch had not been properly set; an engineer disobeyed orders; a switchman had fallen asleep; a brakeman had not gone far enough back with a warning signal when his own train was delayed. Then maledictions are showered upon the one who committed the error and many homilies are delivered upon the sin of carelessness. But how much faithfulness there is in the railway service of a great country ! Think of the ten thousand trains, running in all directions upon a net-work of roads covering the land like a huge spider web, to which no accidents happen! There are thousands of telegraph operators who make no mistakes; of engineers who are always on the alert; of conductors who are always careful; of switchmen who always do their duty. Millions are every year carried in safety all over our continent. They are hurried forward in pursuit of business or health or pleasure over an iron road in a chariot drawn by fire. Road and train are triumphs of human wisdom. As the travelers read or converse or gaze at the ever varying landscape or, at night, lie down to sleep, whether they may think of it or not, they are being carried along over an invisible road in an invisible chariot made of the faithfulness of a thousand unknown human hearts.
The true test of nobility is not so much the kind of work one is doing as the way it is done. Into whatever we do we import our own character. A small person in the chair of state is a small person still; the great person at a menial task is a great person still. Cincinnatus in the furrow was as honorable as Cincinnatus in the forum. Iole said of Hercules that whatever he did he revealed that he was a god. It is so in all of life. Common actions are a test of character. There must be opportunity, we say; but there is always opportunity. The searching questions is: How are we using the opportunities lying just before us? With what spirit do we approach our daily work? A famous Crusader said: "It is a noble mission to rescue Jerusalem from the Paynims; and it is not a dreadful thing for a brave gentleman to die with his face toward the foe if his conscience is clear." That is true; but it is a noble thing to do any duty; and it is not a dreadful thing for any one to die bravely facing his work meanwhile keeping a clear conscience.
Things are so inter-woven and inter-dependent that it is difficult to know where the greatest praise should be given. Persons far removed from each other in time and space and of different talents combine to produce any completed work. In hearing or reading a great oration one man receives all the merit. The torrent of eloquence seems to have issued from one heart alone. But this is not true. A multitude have helped swell the flood. There are those who formed the language of the orator; those writers and poets of all the past; those who in every age have believed in liberty and justice; those who have made the laws. There are the members of the family in which the orator was reared; the teachers of youth; the companions of the playgronnd; the nameless throngs who have suffered from oppression, whose hearts are capable of great emotions and who give sympathy to their eloquent brother. Beethoven composes the music and, when our hearts are subdued and purified by its pathetic notes, we are ready to crown him alone. But our gratitude must be distributed. There is an invisible group of men and women who help make the purity and happiness of the hour. Back of the composer are thousands of musicians whose music helped create him. Carried aloft by his music in some twilight hour we will, indeed, not forget him, but we will also remember the one sitting that moment at the piano awakening harmonies which, for us would have slumbered forever, but for that loving touch. We will remember him who first conceived the instrument and every workman who aided in its construction; remember those who by their sympathy and instruction formed our taste and made our souls sensitive enough to respond to such sweet and sacred influence; remember the laughter of children, prayers of mothers, hymns of trust, vows of love, all the mingled emotions of a thousand generations of unnamed mortals who have helped make that holy scene and woven the crown for its central figure. Thus is merit distributed to many. Each is dependent upon all.
It is sometimes said of a great person that he changed the course of history. One said of Jesus: "He lifted the gates of empires off their hinges." But this is only rhetoric. Singly no one has ever wrought so great a change. Christ did not alone make Christianity. Many toiled before him to produce a more spiritual religion. What he did was his own work and his merit consists in his having done it faithfully. Sometimes petulantly, sometimes pathetically we ask: "But what can I do to help the world?" For us all the answer must be: "Truly, you cannot do very much." But not being able to do much by no means frees one from obligation to do anything. A light-house cannot do much. At best it can only throw its friendly beams a few miles from its rocky headland. Beyond is an ocean of darkness. But as far as it can its duty is to send forth its light. We are often told that immense issues hang upon small events. In childhood we all learned the dire fate overtaking one because a single nail was lost from his horse's shoe. Alluding to rain falling the night preceding the battle of Waterloo, Victor Hugo says: "A few drops of water changed the fate of Europe." In the story Silas Marner' s whole nature was transformed by a baby that had crept into his miserly home during his absence and had fallen asleep on-his hearth. The helpless child became his savior. In the poem Pippa went forth without thought of doing anything great, intent only upon enjoying herself during the holiday and keeping her heart pure and thankful. Through the day she went singing her song whose simple refrain is:
" God's in his heaven,
Unconscious of the work she was doing, before evening she had stayed a current of sin that without her would have swept over a half score of lives. She was an unconscious evangelist of purity and redeemer of souls. Like a Christ she had done the work given her to do. Had she asked herself, what can I do for the world? she would have answered, " nothing." Thus no one can absolve himself except by doing up to the measure of his ability. As each receives he must give. He has only one talent? Then he should put it to use and not permit it to rust in his hands.
When man has made it a law of life to do the best possible, although his efforts may partially fail, he is consoled by the thought that he has done what he could. He has not been faithless to his task. This brings a rich peace to the soul. To live and die in the attempt to do duty is all that God asks of His children. Of course we can always picture some higher form of service we might have rendered. As human sensibility increases the heart becomes less satisfied with what it has accomplished. One of our good poets well expresses the burden which comes from falling below the ideals of duty. The lines run thus:
"Labor with what zeal we will,
But this poem does not destroy the peace man draws from duties done. It only means that the earnest heart can always find more tasks than there are hours in which to perform them. The verses only come like pensive music reminding us of that which is perfect, but for us unattainable. The work is infinite; the worker is finite. But it still remains true that when the soul is faithful in its business career, in its home, in its relations to nature, in its relations to mankind, for each hour there comes to it a strange satisfaction and peace.
In a story from the French there is a picture of a poor woman who was caring for five orphan children. "Beneath this roof worthy to be named with the stable where Christ was born the hardest duties were cheer-fully done. It was impossible not to believe in some sacred tradition of heaven coming through this woman who had made herself a mother, who gleaned and toiled and suffered for outcast children." Through the whole volume sounds the sad music of human suffering and the glad music of human faithfulness. By his unceasing devotion a country door transforms the physical and moral condition of the neighborhood. An old soldier who had gone trooping up and down through 'Europe with Napoleon, made the sport of destiny and having lost all faith in man and God, came into the district not long before the doctor died.
Seeing what had been done, gradually his belief in human goodness returned. With that came another belief long a stranger to his heart. One night the doctor told him the story of his life. As they rose and were about to separate he caught the doctor's hand and cried out: "I wont part with you this night without saying that you have made me feel here that there is something up there."
The incident is instructive. He who faithfully does his duty is the most persuasive preacher of the gospel of Christ. Show me thy faith without works and I will show thee my faith by my works. By this sign we shall know that ye love God, that ye love each other, are sentences coming from the Christian Scriptures. The familiar legend put into verse by Leigh Hunt is a page of lifes' great volume.
"Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase,
To be faithful to the trust committed to it is the highest lesson a soul can learn. It is a religion; it is a salvation; it is a blessedness. For all who have learned it the past can hold few regrets, the present few rebukes, the future no terrors. They compose the true church of God throughout all the world. They may be found in all ages and all lands; they are the numberless host which the old Mystic beheld walking upon the sunlit heights.