THE man who had been talking looked earnestly across the little distance that separated us in the church-study that Sunday afternoon, and I looked back at him in silence; but emotions far deeper than surprise had been stirred by his confession: for he was one of my most trusted church-members, a college graduate, a public-spirited citizen, and a very near friend. I had never dreamed of any trouble like this in his domestic relations, which I had always supposed to be ideal. Now I learned for the first time that the ‘ breaking-point ’ had come to another American home, and to one that. I had taken for granted was unbreakable.
He had related with almost brutal frankness the reasons for separation from his wife. They were the reasons that most people give for such an act. Incompatibility, whatever that is; nagging; constant fault-finding with liltle habits; loss of interest, each in the other’s interests; breaking health; weariness with the monotony and drudgery of housekeeping; and a number of other reasons which, as he named them over seriously, seemed to me so trivial that I felt like laughing, had I not been so near sobbing.
There had never been another man, or another woman. It was not a triangle, but a try-tangle, as O. Henry might say. But the bond had been broken just the same, the man said, as he sat there on that Sunday afternoon in the church-study.
‘If you and your wife have ceased to like each other, do you still love each other?’ I asked, after a silence which the man seemed to feel even more than I did.
He leaned forward, and his eye gleamed, Then he slowly drew his chair a little nearer the table that was near my study-desk, and after a curious sort of hesitation, he put his elbows on the table and his head between his hands. When he lifted up his head again, he said slowly, ‘There is fire under the ashes yet.'
My heart bounded to hear it. ‘Are you and your wife willing to come together here next Sunday and talk it over, before you take the final step?’
He waited so long that I was sure he was going to refuse. But as he rose to go he said, ‘Yes, but we —’
I waited for him to finish the sentence, but he drew himself up rather stiffly and went away, after I had named the hour for our meeting. As the door shut, I found myself wondering if he would come with his wife to the Open Door next Sunday. He was evidently struggling with conflicting emotions, and being a very proud man, he went out abruptly, for fear, I think, of breaking down completely and showing his whole heart, one little glimpse of which had been revealed when he spoke of the fire under the ashes.
There were others waiting in the Primary Room, which opened into the study by a side door; and when I looked up from my desk, my sight was cheered by the two visitors who had been ushered in by the deacon and his wife, who served as introductory hosts to all who were waiting in the other room.
They took the chairs I indicated, and sat down timidly, with openly expressed anxiety. They were not members of my parish, and I did not remember ever seeing them in the congregation. But the young man introduced the young woman and himself by saying, ‘We don’t belong here, but we came to church a few weeks ago and heard you mention the Open Door as being for anyone in trouble or wanting advice, and that is the reason we are here to-day.’
‘ You don’t either of you look as if you had ever called up the Trouble Clerk,’ I said. I could n’t help it. They looked so absolutely frank and simple and childlike, in spite of the anxious wrinkle on the forehead, that I caught myself wondering if somehow these two had ever seen an automobile or been to a movie hand in hand.
‘We have been engaged for three years,’ said the young man, not looking at the young woman, but at me.
I did not have enough insight to guess what the remark was going to lead up to, and waited for more.
‘Two and a half, George,’ said the young woman, looking at him and not at me.
’It has seemed longer,’ remarked George with the first, exhibition of real feeling he had yet shown. ' But you see, sir, I am a clerk in the Santa Fé offices, and Emma is in a milliner’s store, and we have been saving up so as to have a home of our own and not pay rent.’ (Here he went into some figures that I will not put down.) ‘And we want to get married — don’t we, Emma? ’
‘Yes,’ murmured Emma, with a blush that I was glad to sec had not been purchased in a drug store. ‘But there are obstacles.’
George looked at Emma, and there was a moment of interesting silence. Then George said, ‘We know your time is all taken up, and there are others waiting. You see, the obstacles are these. Emma is a Baptist and I am a Presbyterian. I don’t like her minister and she does n’t like mine. We don’t agree on some of the doctrines. We have talked the whole thing over, and finally agreed to ask your advice. If we get married, Emma won’t go to my church and I don’t want to go to hers. What do you think we had better do?'
I used to think that Inspiration was a thing of the past. But as I looked at these Babes in the Wood, I was seized with something that closely resembled the real thing.
‘Why don’t you both join the Congregational church?’ I said, with apparent brevity. But the Open Door sometimes necessitated short cuts to reach long results.
George looked at Emma and Emma looked at George, then both looked at me; and there was a look of sudden and surprised joy in the double glance.
‘But George has not been baptized,’ said Emma; and for the first time I noticed a firm line between her lips.
‘Yes, I have,’ said George; and I noticed for the first time that George had a Presbyterian lip.
‘I am willing to join the Congregational church, if George will be baptized my way,’ said Emma.
‘I don’t mind,’ said George unexpectedly. ‘But how—’
‘The Baptist minister is a good friend of mine, and we can have the use of his baptistry,’ I said. And then, to settle the whole decision I added, ‘And what Congregational church will you join?’
‘Yours!’ said George and Emma together. And then George added, as he smoothed out the wrinkle that had been on his forehead, ‘And would you marry us, sir?’
’With all your hearts,’I replied. And then I asked them to name the day and the place.
‘Suppose we say the day after we join the church,’said George.
‘Why not on the day?’ suggested Emma.
‘Yes, I think that would be better,’ George assented, with a smile that revealed his confidence in Emma’s good judgment. ‘And could you marry us here in the study after the service?’ he asked, with business directness. ‘ We don’t either of us have any relatives living here, and it would — ’
‘Glorify the study to have a wedding in it on Sunday,’I said. ‘By all means. You secure your church letters and your license, and I will do the rest. And I am sure the Lord will add his blessing.’
It is safe to say that never in all my experience with the Open Door, have I ever seen two human beings more blissfully happy than George and Emma as they went out of that study. They left a glow of light so strong that I hardly needed to turn on the electricity, although it was getting to be late in the afternoon.
There were two or three cases of inquiries from older men asking for positions, and from a college student wanting answers to some religious difficulty; and then, in came a case of real trouble: not even the man who was contemplating divorce could quite equal this.
He was a member of the church, had been an official in the Bible School, and prominent in the social activities. And the first tiling he said was, ‘I need five hundred dollars, or l shall be in jail tomorrow morning.’
It was one of the understood conditions of the Open Door that those coming to confess should not keep back anything vital, but tell the entire story. So the man went on.
‘ I have taken the money sent me to invest and spent it to pay my own debts.’ He went into details. ‘ And I have been found out and notified to pay up tomorrow or be arrested. Pastor, do you realize what that means! Disgrace to my family! Dishonor to my children! I must have this money! My credit is gone on the street! All my business friends are suspicious. I don’t know where else to go. And I have carried this thing around alone so long that I can’t bear it any longer.’
The sweat rolled over his face and he clutched at the edge of the study-desk, almost down on his knees in his agonizing appeal and shame. It was getting dark in the room now, but it was no time to turn on physical light. It was a case of real need, and I thanked the Lord and the farsighted Board of Trustees that we could meet it.
‘You can have the money the first thing in the morning,’ I said. ‘The Emergency Fund will take care of it. I will call up the director of the fund, and by the church rules you can borrow this amount on your note without interest, subject to renewal after six months. You know about that provision of the church, don’t you?'
’I do, but I had forgotten it. I was going to borrow the money from you.’
‘Brother,’ I said, ‘you are not borrowing this money from me, but from the Lord. I lay it on your soul to make full restitution and sin no more.’
He laid his head down on the little table, and flung his arms across it, and the silence and the twilight helped to make the prayer we had together do its healing work on his tired heart. He went out after receiving the order from the director, whom I had called up, to secure the money the first thing in the morning. And when, several years later, this brother laid his head down, not to lift, it again, he did it with the proud knowledge that all obligations to the church and to his creditors had been fully met, and what was more, with the full knowledge that his sin had been forgiven and forgotten by a Divine Redeemer whose memory is as short as his mercy is wide.
Sitting in the study the next Sunday, at the hour appointed for the man and his wife to come in together, I noted with a sense of gratitude that one of my plants in the window, which I had thought was dying, seemed to be reviving after the dry spell of the past week; and I had just started to sprinkle over the still drooping leaves some fresh water, when the door from the Primary Room opened, and the man and his wife came in.
They came and stood together by the little table near my desk, and I knew in a second that nothing, no, not even ‘death’s cold sullen stream,’ as the church hymn untruly calls it, would ever separate these two.
‘You see, pastor,’ the man was saying after a while, ‘we found that, there was a fire on the hearth, and not under the ashes, and by God’s grace it will never go out. I think it must have been the recital of the trivial reasons I gave to you that made me see, as I went away from here a week ago, how mean and small and cowardly I was.’
The woman’s hand went, out to lay firm fingers on the man’s lips, and the tears rained over her worn cheek as he placed an arm around her shoulder and let it slip down to her waist.
They told me simply of their plans for a change of programme, to redeem the monotony and lack of interest. and begin all over the romance that had not, been broken after all, but only sadly warped. And when at last they went away, after the prayer of thanksgiving they craved, I plucked the last blossom from the reviving plant and gave it to them. The woman took it, touched her lips with it, then laid it on her husband’s, and they went out leaving a rainbow in the eyes that watched them go.
That was many years since, but a letter came not long ago from a distant home. ‘The fire on the hearth is still burning. And the ashes are under it.’
The Open Door swung in almost as fast as it swung out, and the faces and their; troubles kept changing as the afternoon shadows lengthened. It was not always trouble, either. Questions about child-training; requests for referencebooks in college studies; earnest young souls in doubt as to life’s call to profession or business or activity; not infrequently, the open longing for the higher life in spirituality; many requests for prayer for wayward sons and daughters, some at home, others far off on land or sea; questions as to proper ways of conducting one’s daily affairs on the basis of the Golden Rule, especially w hen the other parties involved refused to do so; very many anxious members in debt or struggling with ill health; these latter could often be helped by counsel, to which devoted and wise souls in the parish gave of their wisdom in the days that followed the private visit to the Open Door. And cases of fear, with the dread shadow of serious operation and hospital expense, were not a few.
The stream of human sin and sorrowseemed at times to be dark and deep, as the Sunday afternoons went by. An astonishing revelation of the inner life of the parish, never apparent to the man in the pulpit as he looked out into the faces of the decorous congregation, but revealed in the little study, with the agony of the cry for help or the struggle of those who had yielded to defeat, and were ready to sink in the slough of their own cowardly admission that they had failed to put to the test, the faith they had claimed to have at the Communion table or the marriage altar.
It was one of those days that common consent calls dismal. A rainy Sunday is no worse than a rainy Monday or Saturday, but it often seems so; and as I stood looking out of the little study that particular Sunday afternoon, and watched the elm trees in the churchyard drip and the water run over the curb of the little driveway on the side, I said to myself that even the faithful could hardly be expected to come out to the evening service. I opened the door into the Primary Room, where the deacon and his wife were waiting, and they agreed with me that no other visitors were likely to come that afternoon. There had been only a few in the first part of the hour, and they had all gone.
But as we stood in the gathering twilight, one came in, drenched as if she were a part of the storm, with trembling look and uncertain step. I think the deacon and his wife must have known already something of the truth, they were so widely loved and so deeply trusted; but after the deacon’s wife had removed the rain-soaked outer garment and the girl had stood shrinkingly by the cheerful grate-fire a few moments, she moved over to the study door, and slipped in ahead of me. The deacon’s wife turned to me a face that glittered with warm tears, as I went in and she softly shut the door.
The girl had fallen on her knees by the side of the little table. Her wet straggling hair fell over her arms. She sobbed as only those sob who pass through the valley of woman’s fall, and I knew without a word that one of the choicest of my flock had to come tell of a shame she could not bear to endure alone. Her people, her girl friends, the church, her future, the Christ of God whom she had vowed to love and follow and obey, — the world of acquaintance, — it all swept over her as she lay there, tortured into an old grown-up life without its experience, except the terrible experience of ageing transgression.
But I know that when, at last, after full and abject confession of her sin, she found the arms of the deacon’s wife about her, and knew that there was still friendship even for her, and she finally went out into the storm, it beat upon her heart with less terror. And when her child was born, and all the world knew, there came to her in following days a peace and comfort that stayed her soul as she read the story of the Magdalene and repeated the act of pouring the contents of her alabaster box on His feet.
A letter lies on my desk, written during the war from a nurses’ headquarters near the front, and the girl, now a woman in years as well as transgression, says that the good God has been to her a well-spring of joy. ‘Joy!’ And then I hark back to that dark Sunday afternoon in the little study, and the sobbing figure in the centre of it, and I no longer doubt the healing strength of God and Time, the two Companions of Hope for sinning and despairing mortals.
I have kept no written record of the human histories that unfolded pages of sorrow and humor and selfishness and nobility and reality in the little study, as the Door of Hope stood open on Sunday afternoons for many years. It did not seem at the time that any records ought to be set down for others to read. And the accounts already given here, in this brief manner, would not presume to violate sacred confidences there received. But the ones of whom mention is here made are no longer living or, if they are, consent has been freely given to name the circumstance or event. But of one singular experience connected with the Open Door for Confession no mention has ever been made before this, and it is made now with some diffidence, because it was so unusual, that to relate it seems almost to be running as great a risk of losing the confidence of friends as to vouch for the catch of a ten-pound trout in a pool where no fish had ever before been hooked. At that risk, however, may I be allowed to speak of the Open Door as it stood open one night, owing to the great number who came for counsel and could not be waited upon during the afternoon?
It had been a constant and absorbing stream of human need and yearning and questioning all the afternoon, and when the evening service was over and the congregation gone and the last, confession had been made, apparently, and the deacon and his wife and even the janitor had departed, I found myself alone in the little study, and ihe hour was near to midnight. I had notified the folks at home that I should be delayed about getting away; and in the quiet following the storm of human passion and sorrow, I sat down to rest, and brood over the craving that the soul has always, and always will have, for companionship, even to the desire of sharing its wrong with others.
I had been sitting perfectly quiet for several minutes, when the study door leading to the little driveway on the side of the church was flung open and a man stepped in, with one long st ride up to the side of my desk, flinging the door shut with a great hand, and, wit hout a word, seated himself heavily, simultaneously with the banging of the door. At the same time, he laid down on the table an automatic, but covered it with his left hand.
‘ Have you got a Bible? ’ he said. And as the question was a fair one to put to a preacher, I said, as honestly as I could, ‘ Yes, I have several.’
‘Hand over one,’he said; and as he spoke, his hand that lay on the gun moved significantly.
I ‘handed over’ a copy of the King James version, and the man, without taking one eye off the gun, opened to Ezekiel 9:5. And he began reading in a dead-level tone that was the first real intimation that possibly he was n’t just ‘right.’
‘ “And he said in mine hearing, Go ye through the city after him, and smite; let not your eye spare, neither have pity.” ’
At that point he stopped suddenly, and said, as he slowly lifted up the gun and began turning the muzzle of it in my direction, ‘I have had orders from above to kill you to-night, and these words are my authority.’
Now I do not claim to be any less afraid of anything than anybody else, and I don’t mind saying that, at this point in the meeting, it seemed quite certain that it was going to adjourn sine die, so far as I was likely to attend any more. But by what I hope may go down as a providential circumstance, I had just been making a special study of Ezekiel, and I knew the ninth chapter almost by heart; and before the gunmuzzle was quite in line with my heart, a part of which I hoped he might miss, because it was not in its usual place, I said, ‘But you have not finished the verse. For it goes on to say, “ But come not near any man upon whom is the mark.” ’
He hesitated, and laid the gun down, still covering it with his hand, and, as I measured the distance critically, I saw it was just a little too far for me to reach. And then his eye went back to Ezekiel, and I saw a sudden gleam in it as he spoke: ‘But itgoeson to say, “And begin at my sanctuary.” This is a sanctuary, a church. And it was in a church that I was ordered by the authority to smite you.’
Again his hand began to turn the muzzle of the forty-two in my general direction, and again I was reminded that if I ever preached another sermon from Ezekiel, I should have to make some special preparation. But I found myself saying, with calm authority, ‘Let us be certain that you do not act too hastily in this matter. For surely you must remember what Elisha said to a great king, when the king said, “My Father, shall I smite them? shall I smite them?” And Elisha said to the king, “Thou shalt NOT smite them.”
As I spoke with some eloquence, evoked by the audience, the man seemed quite impressed, and he said as again he laid the gun down, ‘Where is that passage? ’
Again I thanked a devout mother, who had us read the Bible all through by course, because it gave me the ability to say promptly, ‘Second Kings, seven, twenty-one and two.'
With the cunning of an intelligent crazy man, I saw him turn the Bible leaves back from Ezekiel to Kings, and find the verses.
‘You are right,’he said gravely. And that part of my heart which had been under my tongue dropped down into the place made for it. But I was too hasty. The man suddenly turned back to Ezekiel and to the verse he had first quoted.
‘It says, “Come not near any man upon whom is the mark.” Where is your mark?’
Now I am not ashamed to say, I hope with due modesty, that I had sometimes hoped I had made my ‘mark’; but it was not visible to my Biblical visitor, and I thought quickly. I knew enough about the child-mind of crazy people to realize that it must be something very real and tangible in the nature of a mark or sign, to make his next move with that gun in another direct ion from the one in which it was now aimed. And, ridiculous as it may seem, my memory at that, moment went clear back to the old prairie homestead farm in South Dakota, where I passed my boyhood in a log-house. And quicker than the man’s hand could swing the weapon toward body, I recalled the wound I had received when an angry Texas cow had gored me and tossed me over the barnyard fence, to lie bleeding with a severed artery and torn ligaments.
I did not dare take off my coat, but with the words I rolled up the sleeve of my right arm as I said, ‘Behold the “mark! ” ’
Thanks to the thorough work of that cow, the scar that I shall always bear is large and convincing. And the man seemed to be ready to accept the testimony. His gaze went keenly toward it, but his hand never let go the gun. In the second of his absorption on the ‘mark,’ however, I saw what I shall always think was my only escape from a final shot, in spite of all the Biblical proof, and with a sudden turn of the electric switch, which was fortunately close enough for me to touch it, I turned out the light and, not stopping to say goodbye, I made a dash for the door into the Primary Room, opened and shut it, and through that room, out-of-doors; and once out-of-doors, I am frank to say that I ran down the alley that bounds the church on the rear.
I was a good runner in college, and once held the record for the 400-yard dash. But I shall always regret that no one was present to take my time dowm that alley, where I am quite sure a world-record was broken that night.
When I reached home, I telephoned the State Hospital that I thought one of the inmates was at large, and without going into details, gave my reasons. I found that my suspicions were correct. The man was caught next day thirty miles from the church, so I gathered he must have made almost as good time getting away as I did. And the event passed into Mr. Wells’s Outline of History, and time dimmed its truthful absurdity, which the reader does not have to believe if he does not want to, any more than he believes any other authentic history. I have not, however, mentioned it because it was in itself any more remarkable than scores of human stories that were acted out in that little study. And I surely hope that the relation of it in connection with this narrative of the Open Door will not frighten any other minister away from the establishment of a like custom with his Protestant folk.
For, as the years flow down the channel of time, and other interests and ambitions lose their hold on mind and imagination, that Open Door still stands in my thought as one of the parts of a church-life t hat I believe the church in America is missing, and, as a result, losing its hold on real life.
The three things that have made the Catholic Church a power in history have been its Unity, its Dogma, its Confession.
The Protestant church does not have these. It may not need the first and second; but there is no reason why it should not have the third. One of the first struggles of the average Protestant minister seems to be to get an audience to come into a building to hear him preach. If he cannot do that, either by sensational methods or by moving pictures or unusual preaching, his ministry is called a failure. The average church committee, seeking a man for a church, wants a man who can draw a crowd. The church is looked upon as a place to go to, to hear someone.
But people want something more than preaching. They want comfort and courage and the help that does not come to them when it is handed out wholesale. The confessional of the Roman Church is a recognition of a human craving so deep and eternal, that it is a bewildering thing to see how it has been ignored by the Protestant church, which has emphasized preaching above pity, and the pulpit above the person. It is always easy to predict what might, happen if something is done in place of something else; but I would like to suggest that if the churches of America opened a Confessional that; would minister to the primary needs of peoples’ souls, in between the preaching and the multiplied committees and meetings and organizations, the church — the Protestant church in this country — would begin a chapter in its life that would do away with the questions, how can we reach the masses? what shall we do with the second service? why don’t people go to church? and all the rest, of the wail that goes up concerning the churches’ weakness. A whole Sunday afternoon given every week to the Open Door, established as a church custom, might in multitudes of churches prove to be worth more than all the pulpit ministrations and all the machinery of multiplied organizations.
One of my reasons for this belief is found in letters like this, which dropped on my desk the other day from one who had come into the study years ago, and is now living on the other side of the world, under the Southern Cross, in the quiet places where men seldom meet, and where no church-bell ever rings, and the only public worship is the worship of a few who sit together on Sunday afternoons in a small cabin and dwell on the infinite power in their finite but eternal spirits: —
’That Sunday afternoon in the Open Door saved me from physical and spiritual death. I was tired of the struggle. I was terrified over my sin and shame. I did not know where to go for the rest and peace of mind I knew I must have, or I would lose my grip on all the things that make life worth having. When I went in, I was empty with despair. When I went out, I was filled with hope. It is no exaggeration to say that those few minutes meant more to me than all the years of worship in public I had ever known. You will forgive me. I often fell asleep when you preached. You said good things to me, but you never let me talk back. I was hungry to say something to you. The sermons were good enough, but they never found me, and They never understood my personal sin and my personal hunger. Under this canopy of the stars that form the eternal symbol of the suffering Redeemer, I send this to you as a slight token of my gratitude for a Door that stood Open to welcome my need in its darkest hour.’
I wonder, as the years flow down the channel of Time, why I have put so much emphasis on the Pulpit, and so little on the People in my parish. God forgive me if I have thought more of my sermons than I have thought of my souls.