Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year Message from F W Boreham

F W Boreham wrote this essay on the last night of the year:

'PLEASE SHUT THIS GATE!'

It was at Criccieth; and Mr. Lloyd George was playing golf. It happened that, after a round, he and a friend had to cross some fields in which cattle were grazing. ‘I was so eager to catch every word that fell from Mr. Lloyd George's lips,' explains his companion, `that I failed to close one of the gates through which we passed.' But Mr. Lloyd George noticed it, paused, went back and carefully shut and latched the gate. They resumed their walk. 'Do you remember old Dr._____ of _____?' asked Mr. Lloyd George, mentioning a local worthy not long deceased. 'When he was on his death-bed a clergyman went to him and asked him if there was anything he would like to say or any message he wanted to deliver. "No," answered the doctor, "except that through life I think I have always closed the gates behind me!"'

There is, I fancy, a good deal in that. I had in my congregation at Mosgiel a little old man of singular serenity of countenance and sweetness of disposition. Nothing seemed to ruffle his faith or disturb the perfect tranquillity of his spirit. One evening, in the early autumn, he came down to the manse to bring me a basket of freshly gathered fruit. We sat for a while on the verandah chatting. It was an hour for confidences, and he opened his heart to me. I asked him how he accounted for the calm that seemed a perpetual rebuke to our fretfulness and worry. He would not at first admit that he possessed any features that distinguished him from the rest of us. But I pressed my point, and at length he became more communicative.
`Well, I'll tell you this,' he observed, 'I've always made it a rule that, when I've shut the door, I've shut the door I'

I sat pondering in silence this cryptic utterance. My friend saw that I was somewhat mystified, and hastened to the rescue.
`Years ago,' he explained, `I used to take all my troubles to bed with me. I would lie there in the darkness with closed eyes, fretting and worrying all the time. I tossed and turned from one side of the bed to the other, as wide awake as at broad noon. As life went on, the habit grew upon me until it threatened to undermine my health. Then, one night, things reached a crisis. I could not sleep, so I rose from my bed and sat at the open window. The garden below and the fields beyond were flooded in silvery moonlight. Not a breath of wind was stirring; the intense stillness was positively uncanny. The perfect tranquillity mocked the surging tumult of my brain. How quiet the room seemed! And I had entered into it—for what? My behaviour seemed absurd in the extreme. I had come to this haven of peace; Nature had wrapped around me her infinite calm; and here was I allowing all the worries of the world to fever my brain and break upon my rest! Why had I locked the office door so carefully if I wished all the ledgers and day-books and order-forms to follow me home? Why had I closed the bedroom door so carefully if I wished all the cares of life to follow me in? I knelt down there at the window-sill, with the delicious air of the still night caressing my face, and I then and there asked God to forgive me. And, since then, when I've shut a door, I've shut a door!'

I have often since, when the fret and fever of life have been too much for me, recalled my old friend's story. It is a great thing to be able to go through life, like Mr. Lloyd George's doctor, closing all the gates behind one. Take our decisions, for example. I have sometimes to make up my mind—to buy or to refuse; to sell or to hold; to go or to stay; to accept or to decline. The process of decision should be as leisurely and unhurried as the circumstances will permit. But when a verdict is reached, that judgement should be final. I have no right to insult my own intelligence. I must learn to treat it with respect. There can be no profit in establishing within my mind Courts of Appeal that have no power to carry their findings into effect. Nine times out of ten the verdict of the first court is irrevocable; why then rehear the case? When a man has once made up his mind, let him close the gate behind him, or he will never know happiness again. He has weighed all the evidence; he has balanced all the issues; and he has pronounced sentence. Very well; let it go at that. Why review it again and again? If the decision was sound, why question it? If the decision was doubtful, the sooner it is forgotten the better. Why torture yourself dwelling upon it? The horse is sold; the house is bought; the contract is signed; the situation is declined; the step taken cannot be retraced. A wise man will firmly and finally shut the gate. It is the better way.

I know that it would have been a great thing for my friend George Cairncross if he had been able to acquire this art. George is a minister; we were in college together; and we have been on the most intimate terms ever since. When he entered the ministry, he settled in a small country church at Langford. The work prospered exceedingly, and he was as happy as any man could be. After seven years the pastorate of the church at Grenville, a large town some distance away, fell vacant, and George was unanimously invited. He was at his wits' ends. The cause at Langford was so prosperous and he was so perfectly content. And yet he was young, and Grenville offered much wider scope! But at last the hold of his own people upon his affections proved too strong to be broken; and he declined the tempting overture from the larger church. So far, so good! But it was afterwards that George made his mistake. From that time forth, whenever the least thing went wrong at Langford, George turned his thoughts towards his lost opportunity at Grenville. As surely as a fit of the blues overlook him, he began to dream about Grenville. In poor George's brain Grenville became enveloped in a golden haze of romance. If only he had gone to Grenville! Oh, if only he had accepted the call to Grenville! In his better, wiser, saner, stronger moments he laughed at this frailty of his. He knew that he had decided rightly in remaining at Langford. But there were weaker moments. And in those weaker moments George harked back upon himself. It would have saved him a world of misery if he could have closed firmly and for ever the gate that divided the Langford field from the Grenville field.

Eight years later, after a most notable and memorable ministry, George did leave Langford. The church at Bellhaven called him; and, after another desperate inner struggle, he resolved to go. But after the excitement of the farewell, of the removal, and of the welcome, there came the inevitable reaction. Every day George missed at Bellhaven something to which he had grown accustomed at Langford. To be sure, there were compensations; but George was not in the humour to pay much attention to them. The strange conditions grated upon him. At Langford everybody knew him; at Bellhaven he walked the streets a stranger. Every mail from Langford intensified his malady. He thought of the people there who needed him, and whom he seemed to have forsaken; and his soul as filled with bitterness unspeakable. This, so far; is it went, was entirely to his credit; but unfortunately he allowed it to go too far. He let it develop into a habit. Whenever the least thing went wrong at Bellhaven, he convinced himself that he should never have left Langford. It was Langford that now became enveloped in a golden haze. If only he had remained at Langford! Oh, if he had never left Langford! In his better, wiser, saner, stronger moments he felt ashamed of this weakness of his. But there it was! And it would have saved him a world of distress if, when he left the Langford field for the field of Bellhaven, he had closed the gate firmly and finally behind him.

We are expressly told that cattle were grazing in the field that Mr. Lloyd George and his friend were leaving behind them. That is the trouble. There are always things in the fields behind us that may escape unless we carefully close the gates. Who is it that says:

I have closed the door on Fear,
He has lived with me far too long,
If he were to break forth and reappear,
I should lift my eyes and look at the sky,
And sing aloud, and run lightly by:
He will never follow a song.

I have closed the door on Gloom,
His house has too narrow a view,
I must seek for my soul a wider room,
With windows to open and let in the sun,
And radiant lamps when the day is done,
And the breeze of the world blowing through.

It is true that my life cannot be divided into watertight compartments. It is a whole—one and indivisible. But it is a whole, as a fine estate is a whole, with green hedges and white gates conveniently separating one part from another. The gates may be opened and closed at will; but it is good to have them there. We do not want the cattle to stray indiscriminately everywhere. It is pleasant to have some fields from which they are shut out—fields where the children can gather mushrooms and blackberries without fear.

I am very fond of Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler. Does the world contain such a triumph of gate-shutting? Our gentle angler lived through the most turbulent years of British history. He was born in the spacious days of great Elizabeth. He was ten years old when the illustrious Queen died. He saw the rise of the Stuarts, the Civil War, the ascendancy of the Puritans, and the execution of Charles the First. He lived all through the days of the Commonwealth; and he witnessed the Restoration! Yet who that has read his book would suspect that bloodshed and civil strife were raging around as he wrote? From the first page to the last, as Professor Jackson has pointed out, we have nothing but 'the murmur of brooks, the rustle of the wind in the trees, the shower falling softly on the teeming earth, the sweet smell of the soil after rain, the shining of the sun on green spaces.' It is a fine thing for a man to be able to shut out the cattle as effectively as that!

Or what about Wordsworth? Was it by some whimsical freak of circumstance that Wellington and Wordsworth were contemporaneous? Was it a mere oddity of chance that a generation almost wholly absorbed in the momentous issues that hung upon the fleets that grappled at Trafalgar, and the armies that fought at Waterloo, should find something very much to its taste in the poetry of Wordsworth? The terrible and long-drawn-out conflict, which ended in the complete overthrow of Napoleon at Waterloo, lasted, with scarcely a break, from 1793 to 1815. Now, singularly enough, it was in the first year of the war—in 1793 that Wordsworth published his first poem; through all these critical years in which the fate of the Empire hung trembling in the balance the poet continued to ravish the ear of the British people; and it was just as the armies of Wellington and Napoleon, of Ney and Bl├╝cher, were being drawn up in readiness for ‘that world-earthquake, Waterloo,’ that the ‘Excursion’ was to the nation. Whilst Europe reverberated with the thunder of guns, and shuddered beneath the tramp of armies, Wordsworth sang of the cuckoo and the skylark; of the redbreast and the butterfly; of the linnet and the nightingale; of the sparrow and the daisy. And to such music all the world listened. And why? Simply because we love to escape at times from the horned cattle, and to roam at will in the meadows in which the cowslip may turn its face to the sun, in which the lark may build her nest among the grasses, and in which lovers may wander in the gloaming undisturbed. Walton and Wordsworth helped people to shut the gate; that was all.

I am writing on the last night of the year. It is an hour for gate-shutting. If the fields behind us contain any creatures that we do not wish to meet again, let us carefully close the gate.

Let us forget the things that vexed and tried us,
The worrying things that caused our souls to fret,
The hopes that, cherished long, were still denied us,
Let us forget!

Let us forget the little slights that pained us,
The greater wrongs that rankle sometimes yet;
The pride with which some lofty one disdained us,
Let us forget!

It is of small use hoping for a happy New Year unless I carefully fasten all these gates behind me.

But the best possible illustration of my theme is to be found in the Old Testament. When the children of Israel, in hot haste, escaped from bondage, the Egyptians close upon their heels, a strange thing happened. ‘The angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face and stood behind them; and it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel.' A screen of Deity interposed itself between pursued and pursuers. The gate was divinely closed behind them lest the cattle of the land of Egypt should rush out and trample on the chosen people. And, long centuries later, when Israel escaped from Babylon, and dreaded a similar attack from behind, the voice divine again reassured them. 'I, the Lord thy God, will be thy rearguard.' There are thousands of things behind me of which I have good reason to be afraid; but it is the glory of the Christian evangel that all the gates may be closed. It is grand to be able to walk in green pastures and beside still waters unafraid of anything that I have left in the perilous fields behind me.

A while ago I preached upon this theme. An old gentleman, a regular member of my congregation, was present. I noticed that he followed me with the closest interest and attention. Next day he quite suddenly passed away. But, before going, he turned to those about him and exclaimed, 'I have shut the gate! I have shut the gate!' Like that of Mr. Lloyd George's doctor, it was a fine testimony! May my sunset be as serene!

Source: F W Boreham, ‘Please Shut the Gate’, The Silver Shadow (London: The Epworth Press, 1918), 109-119.

Dr Geoff Pound