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Sermons from the Psalms, 16 - The Turning Point

By Clovis G. Chappell


      "I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies." (Psalm 119:59)

      Clovis G. Chappell: This man is giving us a bit of his personal history. He is telling how life for him took on a new departure. He is looking back to a certain yesterday when he entered into possession of that transforming experience which the writers of the New Testament describe as a passing out of death into life (John 5:24). As he looks back to this radiant yesterday there is a warm glow in his heart, there is a joy shining out from his eyes that has grown deeper and sweeter with the passing of the years. "On this day," he declares humbly and gladly, "I thought on my ways and turned, and in turning, came into possession of the peace and power of a great discovery."

      Now about the most abidingly interesting something in the world is a human experience. We delight to hear of the struggles and failures and triumphs of men and women like ourselves. But of all human experiences there is none quite so gripping as the experience of a soul with God. Here is a man who has made life's supreme discovery. Here is one who has found his way into the secret place of the Most High. It is a discovery that we ourselves should like to make if we have not done so already. How did this man come to make it? How did he find his way to spiritual certainty? What road did he travel? Let us find that road that we may plant our wayward feet upon it.

      I

      When we ask this man the secret of his conversion, when we ask what marked the turning point in his life, he tells us that it was an outcome of his thinking. All right conduct has its fountain source in right thinking, just as all wrong conduct is born of wrong thinking. This man was somehow made to think. It is always a good day in the life of any man when he can be brought to do some straight, honest thinking. Many of life's supreme tragedies are results, not of our viciousness, not of our cruelty, not of our depravity, but of our thoughtlessness.

      "And yet it was never in my heart
      To play so ill a part,
      But evil is wrought for want of thought
      As well as for want of heart."

      How many lives are destroyed every year in America, for instance, by accidents! We kill more in any single year in this fashion than we lost in the First World War. Now, a large part of these accidents are not necessary at all. They are the results of sheer carelessness. They are born of our refusal to think. We dash madly and thoughtlessly down the street in our cars. Suddenly there is a crash. Then we think how easily the catastrophe might have been avoided. If we had only been as thoughtful before the tragedy as we have been since, it need never have occurred.

      How many fine opportunities we throw away because we refuse to think! How many men do you know who are misfits? They have not chosen their vocations, they have rather been pushed into them by the stern hand of necessity. They are not the least in love with their work, but in their unwelcome grooves they must remain whether they wish it or not. How did it come about? In many instances it was the result of mere thoughtlessness. They trifled with their educational opportunities. They refused to look ahead. They refused to prepare themselves for the doing of any definite task. Through sheer refusal to think they flung away their opportunities, till, by and by, they found themselves weighted with responsibilities. They had to do something and that something turned out to be a task altogether uncongenial. It might have been vastly different if they had only been willing to think.

      What pain we often inflict upon others through our thoughtlessness! Sometime ago there were two small boys who found themselves alone with a magnificent wax doll that belonged to their sister. Upon examining the face of that doll they saw that it was made of wax. At once they wondered what kind of chewing gum this would make. So they picked off a piece, tasted it, and found it to their liking. Then they took another. By and by their mouths were crammed with the gum, but the poor doll, while still bravely smiling, looked as if she had had the worst possible case of smallpox. These boys did not intend to make a wreck of the doll. Still less did they intend to wet their sister's face with tears. They were only normal boys that just failed to think.

      Years ago I knew a great husky man who married a frail little slip of a girl. He loved her devotedly in his rough uncouth way, but through sheer thoughtlessness he wrecked her health and broke her heart. One day I visited that home when the wife lay close upon the borderland of death. To break the monotony of watching and to secure some fresh water, I took the old-fashioned bucket, for their home was in the country, and went down the winding path to the spring. As I made my way along the narrow trail among the trees I heard a sound that startled me. Turning in the direction from which it came, I saw through the leaves this man upon his knees. He was clinging to a little sapling that shook in the grip of his brawny hands. He was sobbing as I have never heard a strong man sob before or since. "God, I didn't mean to do it! I just didn't think! Give me another chance!" That was the substance of his prayer. I did not disturb him. I could only pass on and leave him with the agony that his own thoughtlessness had brought upon him.

      Then how often we wound by our ingratitude! How many fathers and mothers in our city are learning even now how sharper than a serpent's teeth it is to have a thankless child. Why are we so ungrateful? One big reason is that we are so thoughtless. "Bless the Lord, O my soul," sang a certain psalmist, "and forget not all his benefits." (Psa. 103:1)

      The words "thank" and "think" come from the same Anglo-Saxon root. To refuse to think is to refuse to thank. To be thoughtful is the very first step toward being thankful. Hence, in speaking of certain choice souls we say, "He is so thoughtful," or "She is so thoughtful." And these thoughtful ones are also grateful. Being grateful, they give expression to their gratitude in words and deeds of tenderness and love.

      But if our thoughtlessness works havoc in our relationships one with another, it is, if possible, even more deadly in our relation to God. It is so easy to forget God. We even forget each other in spite of the fact that we may clasp hands and look into each other's faces day by day. How much more prone we are to forget our unseen Lord! He does not utter his voice in the streets. He does not strive nor cry. (Matt. 12:19) We cannot see him with our physical eyes.

      In the rush of things, for many, the unseen becomes the unreal. For many, therefore, the fact of God is as dim as the shadow of a dream. But this man tells us that on a certain day of which he could never think without a quicker beating of the heart, he thought, and through his thinking passed out of withered winter into colorful and blooming spring.

      II

      I wonder what led to his thinking. He does not tell us. We can only guess.

      1. He may have been led to think by a sense of the sheer futility of life as he was living it. He found himself in the grip of unsatisfied hungers. He found himself tortured by thirsts that the fountains of this earth had not been able to slake. Tormented by these hungers and thirsts, he began to look about him with inquiring eyes. "I wonder," he said, "if there is anywhere a bread of which, if I eat, I will hunger no more. I wonder if there is anywhere a fountain from which I may drink and find it a well of water springing up into everlasting life?"

      Possibly, then, he was driven to thinking by an aching void that this world could not fill.

      2. He may have been made thoughtful, as we sometimes are, by the bursting upon him of some terrible calamity that left his life in ruins. One day he was passing along the road with a fair degree of comfort and ease. Then suddenly dire tragedy was upon him. The treasures to which he clung were ruthlessly wrung from his hands. The staff upon which he leaned was knocked from under him. The road that seemed so solid beneath his feet became a bog. In his desperate strait he began to wonder if there was not somewhere a hand mighty to help, a treasure that no thief could wrench out of his hands. He began to wonder if there was not a solid roadway that would be beneath his feet the very Rock of Ages. He may have been made thoughtful by having his heart broken.

      3. Or possibly he may have come face to face with a life of such rare spiritual beauty that it made his own seem very paltry and very cheap. Yesterday he was quite smugly content. Yesterday he said with a careless shrug: "I am as good as the average." Then this face came into view and he lost his confident swagger and lapsed into silence. For there was about this life a beauty that he did not possess. There was a peace to which he was a stranger. There was a haunting loveliness that took captive his mind and compelled him to ask for a reason. He was made to think, and in thinking he was driven to the conclusion that God was back of this radiant life, that nobody could account for such rare spiritual loveliness except God himself.

      I well remember a turning point in my own life. It was the first time that I ever hungered to know. As a lad I was the despair of the family. At the age of twelve I could not read with any degree of decency. I not only did not know, but what was far worse, I did not care to know. Then one day I was made to think. It came about in this fashion. A beautiful little girl, slightly younger than myself, came to our home for a visit. She was a great reader, but she knew nothing of the country. I was skillful with the horses as well as with the calves. I was an excellent rider, and in her eyes I became a hero overnight.

      Really, I have never been quite so great either before or since. But it was too good to last. One morning I went into her room to find her ill. She called to me and said: "I am ill this morning. I want you to read me a story out of one of these books." I felt flattered. No one had ever asked me to read before. They knew better. But my pleasure was short-lived. I could not read her story. But I thought there might be a "getting-out" place. So I said: "I can't read this. I read in the fourth reader." "Get me that," was the reply. I went for the book and, to my sorrow, found it. I then came back a bit like a galley slave at night, scourged to his dungeon. She found a story that she desired to hear, but again I failed. Then, in her surprise she laughed at me a little. But what stung far more, I saw pity in her eyes. She was actually sorry for her one-time hero. Then she said: "You ought to be in the first reader." And you know what I said to her? I said nothing. But what I said to myself was: "Some day I am going to know as much as you."

      In one of his books. Dr. Sockman has an illuminating chapter on "The Vanishing Sinner." He gives four very keen reasons why this present generation has lost its sense of sin. Somehow I feel like he has left out one supreme reason. The first step, in my opinion, in accounting for the vanishing sinner is the recognition of the fact of the vanishing saint. Wherever there is a sense of God there is always a sense of sin. The purest man must needs put his lips in the dust and cry, "Unclean! Unclean!" when he comes face to face with him. Now this sense of God is a personal experience for some, but for a vast multitude it must come through a Spirit-filled personality. Wherever a truly vital man appears to-day men are still convicted of sin. It was when the dying robber saw himself against the white background of Jesus Christ that he realized his guilt. And in the presence of genuine Christlikeness men are still made to think, they are still made to face the truth about themselves. In the saint they see not only what they are, but they see also what they might be. It may be that this psalmist came upon such a saint one day and became thoughtful and determined to discover his secret.

      III

      Not only does this poet tell us that he thought, but he tells us that about which he thought. "I thought on my ways." That is hopeful. He could have refused to face the facts about himself. Many of us do. When a glance at our own lives threatens to make us uncomfortable, then we often look about us for some moral pygmy to put us at our ease. We seek out some renegade in the church and think on his ways. We say: "Here is a man who professes to be a Christian. Here is a man who belongs to the Church. But what is the good of it? His life is shoddy. He is only a dishonor to the cause he professes to love. At least I am not a hypocrite. I don't profess to be anything." And so thinking we fortify ourselves in a course of moral and spiritual weakness and cowardice. Such thinking is fruitful of disaster. This man was wise and brave. He thought of his own case.

      Suppose you and I do that. What about our ways? Or to put it more personal still, what about my way?

      1. If I may put any confidence in the New Testament, my way is an eternal way. I am on a road that stretches away into the infinite. I may rejoice in this faith with joy unspeakable, or I may be quite indifferent. I may not care for such an endless road. I may wish that my road might terminate at the little ditch that men call the grave. But regardless of my wishes, the road that I travel stretches as far into the eternities as the roadway of God. I shall always be myself, just as you will always be yourself. When all the continents have dropped into the sea, when our little world has ceased to exist, I shall still be journeying on. I am a child of eternity. That ought to make the business of living a high and solemn business. "I have to live with myself, and so I ought to be fit for myself to know."

      2. My road has a certain moral direction. That does not mean that I am wholly good, nor does it mean that I am wholly bad. It does mean that the main tendency of my life is either upward or downward. What I am to-night is a question of vast importance. But the most important question about me and the most important question about you is not how far we have climbed toward the stars, nor how far we have dipped toward the mud. The biggest question is not even what have we become. By far the biggest question is, what are we becoming.

      Scientists are fond of telling us how much alike the embryonic man is to the embryonic monkey. One cannot tell the one from the other. But there is a difference, and it is far wider than the spaces between the stars. This difference is in what they are becoming. It is in the vastly divergent directions in which they are traveling. One is traveling out to a life that is essentially of the earth, earthy. The other is traveling toward a destiny as deathless as that of God. The baby mocking bird is little more handsome than the baby vulture. But one is facing out toward the life of a scavenger, the other toward green boughs, toward a choir loft in the magnolia trees, toward a concert tour that will lift the soul of the listener and set his heart to dreaming.

      What is the direction of our lives? That is the big question. If we keep on traveling as we are traveling now, where are we going to park when the sundown comes?

      IV

      Then the psalmist tells us the outcome of his honest and fearless thinking.

      1. When he asked himself as to the direction of his life, when he faced the facts honestly and candidly as to this moral quality of his way, he was forced to the conclusion that he was traveling in the wrong direction. This does not mean that he recognized himself as a hideous and outrageous sinner. This does not mean that he discovered bloodstains upon his hands and shrieked with Lady Macbeth : "Out, out, damned spot!" But it does mean at least this - that he was forced to say to himself: "Life is not counting for me as it ought to count. I am not realizing the possibilities that I ought to realize. I am not traveling in the direction that I ought to travel. I know that I might use life in a better and braver way than I am using it." And such clear and candid thinking on your part and mine would surely lead many of us to the same conclusion.

      2. Then, having reached this true and wise conclusion, he took that next step without which the sanest thinking is futile. Having realized that he was traveling in the wrong direction, he did not content himself by merely wishing that he were going in the right direction. He did not content himself by frankly declaring that he knew himself wrong and that he ought to change his course. When the prodigal came to himself he did more than say, "I wish I were home again," and then lie down among the hogs. He said: "I will arise and go." (Luke 15:18) That was his salvation. This man said: "I am wrong. I will get right. I will turn." That was a most sane thing to do, was it not? In truth, nothing can be more sane than, having recognized that we are going in the wrong direction, to face about and go in the opposite direction? That is a course of conduct that helps to remake the world, and also sends a thrill through all heaven.

      3. The final outcome of this poet's thinking was that it brought him to newness of life. It is this turning that we Christians are accustomed to speak of as conversion. It is what the Bible calls repentance. Whoever so thinks and turns always finds God. This is true without exception. If the worst of men will only dare to turn, he will surely find himself face to face with him who is able to save to the uttermost. God may burst upon the vision of such a one with the suddenness of a flash of lightning, or he may dawn upon him with the slow gentleness of a northern sunrise. But whether suddenly or slowly, the man who so repents will be able to make this entry in his spiritual diary: "I thought on my ways and turned, and turning, found God." (Psa. 119:59) May this be a part of the biography of every one!

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