SERMONS AND WOODBOXES
On the afternoon that Pollyanna told John Pendleton of Jimmy Bean, the Rev. Paul Ford climbed the hill and entered the Pendleton Woods, hoping that the hushed beauty of God's out-of-doors would still the tumult that His children of men had wrought.
The Rev. Paul Ford was sick at heart. Month by month, for a year past, conditions in the parish under him had been growing worse and worse; until it seemed that now, turn which way he would, he encountered only wrangling, backbiting, scandal, and jealousy. He had argued, pleaded, rebuked, and ignored by turns; and always and through all he had prayed—earnestly, hopefully. But to-day miserably he was forced to own that matters were no better, but rather worse.
Two of his deacons were at swords' points over a silly something that only endless brooding had made of any account. Three of his most energetic women workers had withdrawn from the Ladies' Aid Society because a tiny spark of gossip had been fanned by wagging tongues into a devouring flame of scandal. The choir had split over the amount of solo work given to a fanciedly preferred singer. Even the Christian Endeavor Society was in a ferment of unrest owing to open criticism of two of its officers. As to the Sunday school—it had been the resignation of its superintendent and two of its teachers that had been the last straw, and that had sent the harassed minister to the quiet woods for prayer and meditation.
Under the green arch of the trees the Rev. Paul Ford faced the thing squarely. To his mind, the crisis had come. Something must be done—and done at once. The entire work of the church was at a standstill. The Sunday services, the week-day prayer meeting, the missionary teas, even the suppers and socials were becoming less and less well attended. True, a few conscientious workers were still left. But they pulled at cross purposes, usually; and always they showed themselves to be acutely aware of the critical eyes all about them, and of the tongues that had nothing to do but to talk about what the eyes saw.
And because of all this, the Rev. Paul Ford understood very well that he (God's minister), the church, the town, and even Christianity itself was suffering; and must suffer still more unless—
Clearly something must be done, and done at once. But what?
Slowly the minister took from his pocket the notes he had made for his next Sunday'sFrowningly he looked at them. His mouth settled into stern lines, as aloud, very impressively, he read the verses on which he had determined to speak:
"'But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.'
"'Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.'
"'Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.'"
It was a bitter denunciation. In the green aisles of the woods, the minister's deep voice rang out with scathing effect. Even the birds and squirrels seemed hushed into awed silence. It brought to the minister a vivid realization of how those words would sound the next Sunday when he should utter them before his people in the sacred hush of the church.
His people!—they were his people. Could he do it? Dare he do it? Dare he not do it? It was a fearful denunciation, even without the words that would follow—his own words. He had prayed and prayed. He had pleaded earnestly for help, for guidance. He longed—oh, how earnestly he longed!—to take now, in this crisis, the right step. But was this—the right step?
Slowly the minister folded the papers and thrust them back into his pocket. Then, with a sigh that was almost a moan, he flung himself down at the foot of a tree, and covered his face with his hands.
It was there that Pollyanna, on her way home from the Pendleton house, found him. With a little cry she ran forward.
"Oh, oh, Mr. Ford! You—you haven't broken your leg or—or anything, have you?" she gasped.
The minister dropped his hands, and looked up quickly. He tried to smile.
"No, dear—no, indeed! I'm just—resting."
"Oh," sighed Pollyanna, falling back a little. "That's all right, then. You see, Mr. Pendleton had broken his leg when I found him—but he was lying down, though. And you are sitting up."
"Yes, I am sitting up; and I haven't broken anything—that doctors can mend."
The last words were very low, but Pollyanna heard them. A swift change crossed her face. Her eyes glowed with tender sympathy.
"I know what you mean—something plagues you. Father used to feel like that, lots of times. I reckon ministers do—most generally. You see there's such a lot depends on 'em, somehow."
The Rev. Paul Ford turned a little wonderingly.
"Was your father a minister, Pollyanna?"
"Yes, sir. Didn't you know? I supposed everybody knew that. He married Aunt Polly's sister, and she was my mother."
"Oh, I understand. But, you see, I haven't been here many years, so I don't know all the family histories."
"Yes, sir—I mean, no, sir," Pollyanna smiled, looking into his face.
There was a long pause. The minister, still sitting at the foot of the tree, appeared to have forgotten Pollyanna's presence. He had pulled some papers from his pocket and unfolded them; but he was not looking at them. He was gazing, instead, at a leaf on the ground a little distance away—and it was not even a pretty leaf. It was brown and dead. Pollyanna, looking at him, felt vaguely sorry for him.
"It—it's a nice day," she began hopefully.
For a moment there was no answer; then the minister looked up with a start.
"What? Oh!—yes, it is a very nice day."
"And 'tisn't cold at all, either, even if 'tis October," observed Pollyanna, still more hopefully. "Mr. Pendleton had a fire, but he said he didn't need it. It was just to look at. I like to look at fires, don't you?"
There was no reply this time, though Pollyanna waited patiently, before she tried again—by a new route.
"Do you like being a minister?"
The Rev. Paul Ford looked up now, very quickly.
"Do I like— Why, what an odd question! Why do you ask that, my dear?"
"Nothing—only the way you looked. It made me think of my father. He used to look like that—sometimes."
"Did he?" The minister's voice was polite, but his eyes had gone back to the dried leaf on the ground.
"Yes, and I used to ask him just as I did you if he was glad he was a minister."
The man under the tree smiled a little sadly.
"Well—what did he say?"
"Oh, he always said he was, of course, but 'most always he said, too, that he wouldn't stay a minister a minute if 'twasn't for the rejoicing texts."
"The—what?" The Rev. Paul Ford's eyes left the leaf and gazed wonderingly into Pollyanna's merry little face.
"Well, that's what father used to call 'em," she laughed. "Of course the Bible didn't name 'em that. But it's all those that begin 'Be glad in the Lord,' or 'Rejoice greatly,' or 'Shout for joy,' and all that, you know—such a lot of 'em. Once, when father felt specially bad, he counted 'em. There were eight hundred of 'em."
"Yes—that told you to rejoice and be glad, you know; that's why father named 'em the 'rejoicing texts.'"
"Oh!" There was an odd look on the minister's face. His eyes had fallen to the words on the top paper in his hands—"But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" "And so your father—liked those 'rejoicing texts,'" he murmured.
"Oh, yes," nodded Pollyanna, emphatically. "He said he felt better right away, that first day he thought to count 'em. He said if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must want us to do it—some. And father felt ashamed that he hadn't done it more. After that, they got to be such a comfort to him, you know, when things went wrong; when the Ladies' Aiders got to fight—I mean, when they didn't agree about something," corrected Pollyanna, hastily. "Why, it was those texts, too, father said, that made him think of the game—he began with me on the crutches—but he said 'twas the rejoicing text that started him on it."
"And what game might that be?" asked the minister.
"About finding something in everything to be glad about, you know. As I said, he began with me on the crutches." And once more Pollyanna told her story—this time to a man who listened with tender eyes and understanding ears.
A little later Pollyanna and the minister descended the hill, hand in hand. Pollyanna's face was radiant. Pollyanna loved to talk, and she had been talking now for some time: there seemed to be so many, many things about the game, her father, and the old home life that the minister wanted to know.
At the foot of the hill their ways parted, and Pollyanna down one road, and the minister down another, walked on alone.
In the Rev. Paul Ford's study that evening the minister sat thinking. Near him on the desk lay a few loose sheets of paper—his sermon notes. Under the suspended pencil in his fingers lay other sheets of paper, blank—his sermon to be. But the minister was not thinking either of what he had written, or of what he intended to write. In his imagination he was far away in a little Western town with a missionary minister who was poor, sick, worried, and almost alone in the world—but who was poring over the Bible to find how many times his Lord and Master had told him to "rejoice and be glad."
After a time, with a long sigh, the Rev. Paul Ford roused himself, came back from the far Western town, and adjusted the sheets of paper under his hand.
"Matthew twenty-third; 13—14 and 23," he wrote; then, with a gesture of impatience, he dropped his pencil and pulled toward him a magazine left on the desk by his wife a few minutes before. Listlessly his tired eyes turned from paragraph to paragraph until these words arrested them:
"A father one day said to his son, Tom, who, he knew, had refused to fill his mother's woodbox that morning: 'Tom, I'm sure you'll be glad to go and bring in some wood for your mother.' And without a word Tom went. Why? Just because his father showed so plainly that he expected him to do the right thing. Suppose he had said: 'Tom, I overheard what you said to your mother this morning, and I'm ashamed of you. Go at once and fill that woodbox!' I'll warrant that woodbox would be empty yet, so far as Tom was concerned!"
On and on read the minister—a word here, a line there, a paragraph somewhere else:
"What men and women need is encouragement. Their natural resisting powers should be strengthened, not weakened.…Instead of always harping on a man's faults, tell him of his virtues. Try to pull him out of his rut of bad habits. Hold up to him his better self, his real self that can dare and do and win out!…The influence of a beautiful, helpful, hopeful character is contagious, and may revolutionize a whole town.…People radiate what is in their minds and in their hearts. If a man feels kindly and obliging, his neighbors will feel that way, too, before long. But if he scolds and scowls and criticizes—his neighbors will return scowl for scowl, and add interest!…When you look for the bad, expecting it, you will get it. When you know you will find the good—you will get that.…Tell your son Tom you know he'll be glad to fill that woodbox—then watch him start, alert and interested!"
The minister dropped the paper and lifted his chin. In a moment he was on his feet, tramping the narrow room back and forth, back and forth. Later, some time later, he drew a long breath, and dropped himself in the chair at his desk.
"God helping me, I'll do it!" he cried softly. "I'll tell all my Toms I know they'll be glad to fill that woodbox! I'll give them work to do, and I'll make them so full of the very joy of doing it that they won't have time to look at their neighbors' woodboxes!" And he picked up his sermon notes, tore straight through the sheets, and cast them from him, so that on one side of his chair lay "But woe unto you," and on the other, "scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" while across the smooth white paper before him his pencil fairly flew—after first drawing one black line through "Matthew twenty-third; 13—14 and 23."
Thus it happened that the Rev. Paul Ford's sermon the next Sunday was a veritable bugle-call to the best that was in every man and woman and child that heard it; and its text was one of Pollyanna's shining eight hundred:
"Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, ye righteous, and shout for joy all ye that are upright in heart."