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Procrastination

"When I have a convenient season, I will call thee unto me." - Acts 24:25

Harry Emerson Fosdick: WE are to think this morning about the homely and familiar factor of procrastination. Instead of letting our thoughts dwell upon that abstract noun let us from the beginning have in our mind's eye a concrete picture from the life of Paul.

Paul had been mobbed and nearly killed by his fellow countrymen in Jerusalem; and, saved only by the intervention of the Roman soldiery, he soon found himself in prison in Caesarea, where he had been taken to escape lynching. There Felix, the governor, was alike his jailer and his judge.

One night, when the governor's wife, Drusilla, wished to hear and see this tempestuous and troublesome Jew, Felix had Paul brought before Him and allowed him freedom to speak. One might have thought that Paul's spirit would have been tamed by his perilous experience; but Paul was always like a fire that is not blown out, but fanned to a fiercer heat, when the hard winds blow.

Let the twenty-fourth chapter of the book of Acts tell us the simple narrative: "After certain days Felix came with Drusilla, his wife, who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul, and heard him concerning the faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned of righteousness, and self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was terrified, and answered, `Go thy way for this time; and when I have a convenient season, I will call thee unto me.'"

Felix is one of the most unlovely characters in Scripture, and all that we know of him outside of Scripture simply deepens our distaste for him. Yet it is apparent from this experience of his with Paul that, like all the rest of us, he was a strange combination of good and bad; that deep in his heart he had chords that the fine, strong fingers of a personality like Paul persuasively could play upon. Bad as he was, let us remember that there was one time when be heard the gospel of Jesus and was stirred by it, when he heard great words about righteousness and self-control, and felt their appeal, when he looked upon his life and the end to which it was tending, and shrank back from it. He was not all bad.

This morning we are going to think of the way he dealt with this significant hour with the apostle. You will notice that he was not abusive and discourteous, he was not blasphemous and skeptical. He merely procrastinated. He simply postponed decision; he politely waived the matter aside, and said, "When I have a convenient season, I will call for thee." And so he lost the supreme opportunity of his life.

Is it not so that we are continually making failures of our lives? Here in this church, where through another winter we have so repeatedly presented appeals for the Master, for the type of duality and spirit which He represents, for the concrete opportunities of service which His cause offers, one does not suspect that there has been much brusque and deliberate rejection, much scornful and contemptuous skepticism; but one does suspect that among all the people who have gathered here there must have been a great deal of procrastination. It is so popular a method of avoidance. It can be indulged in so easily and without offence. How many times in this church do you suppose these words have in effect been spoken in the hearts of men, "Go thy way for this time: and when I have a convenient season, I will call thee unto me"?

We are all perfectly familiar with this habit of procrastination in practical details. We do not decide not to answer a letter from a friend. We simply postpone answering it. We take it up, and dally with it, and lay it aside for a more convenient time.

We do not decide not to make a call that ought to be made. We merely postpone making it. We let the days and weeks pass; and ever, as we postpone it, it becomes easier to postpone it still, until at last the call is never made at all.

We never decide not to hear the best music and read the best books. We merely defer doing so. We comfort our consciences by saying, "Sometime we will see this or hear that."

And we never decide not to pay serious attention to the religious education of our children. We simply put it off : we refer it to this nebulous, convenient to-morrow when all letters are going to be answered, all calls made, all privileges enjoyed, and all duties done. With this popular habit of procrastination we are perfectly familiar.

But surely it is not so small and trivial a matter as too frequently we are tempted to suppose. Leonardo da Vinci's picture of the Last Supper was spoiled by a single broken tile through which the rain poured down across the face of Christ. So great a picture to be spoiled by so small a thing! Yet after many years of watching folk from the vantage-point of the ministry I am sure that many lives are spoiled in that way, and that the broken tile is the habit of procrastination.

Pick up the words of Felix this morning, one of the classic utterances of a confirmed procrastinator, and look into them, as in a mirror; they reveal us to ourselves.

First of all, how full of hope they are! Felix is counting on the future. "A more convenient season," he says politely to Paul as he bids him good-night; and at once we are aware that procrastination is the perversion of something good. It is the abuse of hope. It is the misuse of tomorrow. Now, to-morrow is one of God's best gifts to men. The animals do not possess it. They have only to-day - their yesterdays dim and vague, their to-morrows prepared for by instinct, but not by expectation; but man has yesterday and to-day and to-morrow.

How utterly bereft we all should be without that backreach of memory and that outreach of hope! If to-day the clouds overspread our sky, to-morrow the sun may shine again. If to-day sickness has invaded our homes, to-morrow health may come back once more. If to-day our business is vexatious and troublesome, to-morrow may see the turning of the tide that will bring back better times. If to-day our temptations seem insupportable, tomorrow we may find spiritual power to overcome. And, if to-day we are cast down by the weariness and tragedy of this tear-rent mankind, we turn to a prophet to encourage us about to-morrow. "My own hope is, a sun will pierce the thickest cloud earth ever stretched" [Robert Browning: Apparent Failure]. We should all be lost without to-morrow, for in hope we are saved.

But here as always the perversion of the best is the worst, and the perversion of to-morrow is procrastination. For we keep putting off till to-morrow the enjoyment of privileges and the use of opportunities that we ought to rejoice in to-day. I suspect that we ministers are sometimes partly responsible for this very attitude against which I speak. For continually we plead for ideals we are at some time to realize but have not yet attained; we urge gains in personal and social life that are at some time to be achieved, but are not yet achieved. We fill in the picture of to-morrow with blessings to be enjoyed, ideals to be attained, until the upshot may be that we draw the thought of our people away from what they have to-day to what they may have tomorrow. To-day in our preaching becomes too often something to be overpassed and outgrown, but to-morrow is the home of fulfilled ideals. There is, however, a serious fallacy in this. We need continually to be reminded not simply of what we may have some time, but of what we do have to-day.

It is a shame to see a man running across his to-days as a boy runs a race, with his eyes tightly fixed upon the far goal, thinking only of what lies ahead. But many men do so run their lives. "To-morrow" they cry, while all the time to-day presents to them privileges and blessings that they run past, not seeing.

"Felix, come out and enjoy the sunset," but Felix says, "To-morrow." But to-morrow the sunset will not be one whit more beautiful than it is to-day if we have eyes to see it.

"Felix, let us rejoice in friendship"; and Felix says, "To-morrow." But friends will not be one bit more beautiful to-morrow than they are to-day if we have eyes to see and hearts to understand.

"Felix, let us grow up with our children, and even here on earth gain a foretaste of heaven which a true home affords." And Felix says, "To-morrow." But your children will not be one whit more fascinating in their youthful companionship to-morrow than they are to-day; and you may say "To-morrow" too long, until there are no children to grow up with in your home at all.

"Felix, let us enter into the sustaining fellowship of Christ, see life from His height, and live it in His spirit"; and Felix says, "To-morrow." But Christ will not be one whit more gracious and redeeming to-morrow than He is to-day.

My friends, after all, to-day is all we actually do possess.

Yesterday is gone, and to-morrow is not yet here; and procrastination is a deadly habit of blinding one's eyes to the opportunities and privileges we have in our hands and dreaming of something that some time we may have. "Carpe diem," [Horace] cried the old Latins, "Seize the day."

There are many of us who do not learn the significant lesson until we learn it in the hardest of all ways: we lose something that we have had in our possession a long, long time, too little appreciated; and then we wake up to wish above all things that we might have had it back again. So an old man may look back upon the strength of youth that once he had. What a splendid time when he awoke each morning with power sufficient for his tasks, and went out to work with joy! Why did he not appreciate it more when he had it, and get more out of it? Often a man feels so about his friends when they are gone. What tonic, refreshing spirits they were! Why did he not take more advantage of the boon of their fellowship when he had the chance? So, oftentimes, mothers feel about their children. They were so beautiful! Why did they leave them so much with others and live with them so little when they had the chance?

So, continually we are waking up to discover, only when we have lost them, that for years we have had life's choicest privileges within our grasp; for years we have been saying, "Tomorrow," while each to-day was filled with unrealized possibilities. You will know where this applies to you. I am sure it does apply, for I am sure that every one of us has in his possession now relationships, blessings, opportunities, privileges, concerning which, after they are gone, he will say, "Why did I not make more of it while I had it?"

My friends, it will not do to go on postponing everything till to-morrow. If a man is going to live a fine, rich, radiant and joyful Christian life, it were better to begin to-day.

Once more pick up these words of Felix and look at them. "A convenient season," he says to Paul, and at once we are aware that he doesn't think that he is deciding the question that Paul has raised. He thinks he has postponed the decision, but he hasn't. For indecisive procrastination is one of the most conclusive methods that mankind knows. Now, the reason for this is perfectly simple.

Life's processes do not call a halt simply because we have not made up our minds. If here in New York City or in the country round about you have this spring a garden-plot, you may suppose that you have three choices, either to have flowers, or to have weeds, or to be hesitant, uncertain, indecisive. But, in fact, you have only two choices. If you choose flowers, you may have them; but if you choose to be indecisive, nature will decide for you. You will have weeds. The processes of God's eternal universe do not stop to wait for us to make up our minds.

Now, life continually is facing us with these enforced decisions, where to endeavor to escape by procrastination is utter futility. For procrastination is irretrievable decision. Reach down into life at random, anywhere, and you will find illustrations in plenty.

Shall we try to stop the starvation of the Chinese? is a question that has been facing us all these winter and spring months. Do you say you will wait for a more convenient season to make up your mind? You may as well say that you will not help them at all. For the processes of starvation do not cease until you have decided. They still stalk their ghastly way through the Celestial land, and take their toll of thousands and tens of thousands every day.

To be indecisive, is not to be indecisive. It is one of the most conclusive, fatal, irretrievable decisions you can make.

Or come in to a more homely episode. You see a purse dropped in the street and you see the one who dropped it. You may suppose you have three choices, either to be honest and return it, be dishonest and keep it, or be indecisive, uncertain. But you have only two choices. If you decide to be indecisive, the processes of life will not wait for you. The crowds will surge in between you and the purse's owner, and the opportunity of being honest which was yours for a moment will vanish; and, while you yourself will not decide, life will have decided for you and leave you standing there - dishonest.

Or, once more, let your imagination reach out to the most stupendous problem in the world today [1925], the avoidance of war. Some people think we have three choices, either to make a united stand in favor of disarmament to save the world from this intolerable burden of taxation for war that is breaking the back of our civilization; or to refuse to do that and plunge deliberately into huge competition in armament in preparation for another war; or to be indecisive, to dally and defer, to procrastinate, put off. But as a matter of fact we have only two decisions. The processes of life are not waiting - God pity us! - for us to make up our minds. We are like ships upon a sea where to drift means wreck as certainly as though with fell deliberation we steered towards the rocks. A little more indecisiveness, uncertainty, procrastination, a little more folding of the hands and crying, "To-morrow," and it shall be decided. We shall have another war. [Fosdick was prophetic. There was no united stand, and WWII resulted.]

In the same class with those illustrative instances lies that question on which Felix tried to postpone decision, the question of a righteous, self-controlled and Christian life. For see this one element that runs through all these illustrative cases. To make flowers grow means positive decision; to help starving Chinese means a deliberate action; to be honest in a crisis means a thrust of will; to move towards disarmament means a resolute act of the public conscience. All great things cause positive decision. You cannot float into them like thistledown blowing in the wind. You cannot become a Christian in your sleep. You must make up your mind to it. And if Felix endeavors to be indecisive, he is not really indecisive. His life's processes still go on without Christ because he has not positively decided for Christ.

No earnest minister could speak on such a theme without thinking of the young men and women here who, it may be, have been in attendance on these mornings' services all this winter past, and now as school or college closes, go to their homes, or, it may be, begin their business or professional careers. I speak to some of you as though I might never have the chance to speak to you again.

No one would urge you to choose something which you do not understand or that you do not believe. But if you have caught at all the emphasis of this pulpit you must see how little we care here about those sectarian peccadillos that have marred the Church, and the theological peculiarities that have disfigured her serious thought; you must have seen how earnestly we have pressed our emphasis back to that central matter, the spirit of Jesus, His filial life with God, His brotherly life with men, His sacrificial passion for the coming of the kingdom of righteousness upon the earth, for the faith that empowered Him, the hope that sustained Him, his character that was His crown and glory.

You haven't three choices about that. You may have two choices. You may glorify your life if you will by having Him for the Master of your soul. But if you try to be indecisive, you are not decisive; you are missing Him; you are missing Him as though you had said, "No" to Him. For you will go out to live a life not mastered by His positive faiths, not dedicated to His positive cause.

As one thinks of this refusal through procrastination, he sees how many men are living in just this attitude. For there are multitudes of people to whose hearts the highest impulses are not strange at all, who again and again have risen to the appeal of Jesus like waves that almost come to their crest, but not quite; they never break into the white foam of a finished billow; but they rise and sink, rise and sink, forever moving, but moving nowhere, forever promising, but never consummating. How futile is a life like that in any realm!

In literature [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge [1772-1834] was the consummate example of procrastination. He projected more poems than any other man that ever lived; but he finished almost nothing, a few things like The Ancient Mariner but not much else besides. He planned everything, but he postponed work on anything. You pick up a page and read:

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree,
Where Alph, the sacred river ran,
Through caverns measureless to man,
Down to a sunless sea."
Kubla Khan

You say, "This is fascinating." But the trouble of it is, he never finished it. It was a passing impulse. He never made up his mind to write it through. He was an animated prospectus, full of deferred plans.

But there are many of us who have no business to laugh at him. In a far more deep and important matter than writing poems we are living that kind of life. Again and again we have felt the appeal of Christ. Again and again we have felt the lure of the open, decisive, consistent Christian life in a generation when open, decisive, and consistent Christian lives are more needed than anything else; but we are still uncertain, irresolute, procrastinating.

I wish there were one here this morning who could cease the refusal of the Highest through procrastination, who would say, "As for me, now, now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation."

Just once more pick up these words of Felix and look at them. "A convenient season," he says politely and cheerfully to Paul as he bids him good-night, and you perceive at once that he confidently thinks there will be a convenient season. He has not deeply perceived that serious truth which runs through all human life, that there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination a small fault? No, not in a universe where some things have to be done on time if they are going to be done at all. Says the tree in April, "I will not put forth my leaves now - in May"; and in May the tree says, "A more convenient season - June." But it would better take care. If leaves are not forthcoming in April or May or June it is getting late. July is no time for leaves to come and August is almost hopeless, and September is quite too late [in New York].

He must have blind eyes who cannot see that truth running all through human life, a serious truth to which no cheap and easy optimism ought ever to blind our sight. The truth is inherent in the very fact of growing up from youth to age. What a fairy-land of possibilities youth is! Listen to this lad talking. He is not sure, he says, yet, whether he is to be a civil engineer or a lawyer or a business man or a professional aviator; and he thinks he might be a minister. And when he talks to you like that, what is more, you must listen to him seriously. He may be any one of them. The doors are all open. He is young.

But we who have reached maturity have all these years been listening to a sound with which we are perfectly familiar, the sound of shutting doors. The range of our possible choices has been narrowing down. We know well enough that there are some things on this earth we never can do now. It is too late. Happy the man who has chosen right. Happy the man who has not put off too long doing something that he wanted to do very much indeed.

Alongside this fact of the inevitable passage of the years the possibility of being too late is accentuated by the companion fact of habit. There may have been a time when you could straighten out the down-town streets of Boston, when they were meandering cow-paths along the shores of Massachusetts Bay, but it is too late now. They have been widened into streets, and set in asphalt, and curbed into stone; and the life of the metropolis has immovably solidified itself around them. It is too late. So is the set of habit in the life of man.

It is no small matter, then, to say to young men and women in their fluid years of choice that they would better make the decision that concerns the deep interests of their spiritual life. For Felix is no ancient character alone. He has had a multitude of reincarnations.

Edgar Allan Poe [1809-1849] was another Felix. He died as a result of a drunken night's revel in a saloon in Baltimore. You say he was bad? A man cannot content himself in speaking of such a man by saying, "He is bad." Look upon that brutal drunken death and think of what he wrote:

"For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee,
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling - my darling - my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea."
Annabel Lee

Surely, men who write like that are not all bad. There are harbors in the world where the harbor bar is so high that it can never be passed at low tide: so the ships wait for the high tide that they may enter in. So are the souls of men. Think of the flood-tides then that a man like Edgar Allan Poe must have had when the sky called to the deep, and in his heart there were voices speaking, like Paul before Felix, about righteousness and self-control and judgment to come. But he would not decide! Up and down, up and down, outside the harbor bar he sailed his craft, irresolute, procrastinating, till the tide went out, and then it was too late.

And this possibility of being too late is, of course, accentuated, so far as this earth is concerned, by death. I do not know whether that impresses the more when I think of my own death or when I think of the death of my friends. For, when death comes, it comes very suddenly. Ah, if you have anybody to love, you would better love him now. If you have little children to be brought up in the spirit of Jesus, you would better do it now. If you have quarrelled with some one with whom in your deepest heart you did not mean to quarrel, you would better make it up right now. If you have any contribution that you can make to build here a juster, kindlier world for our humanity, you would better make it now. And, if you know a Lord whose service is freedom, a Saviour, whose love is wider than the measure of man's mind, you would better choose Him now.

My young friends, there are three great choices that a man makes in his experience: first, his vocation, what he will do with his life; second, his marriage, who will be the mother of his children; and third, his faith, who shall be the guide of his soul. I think you know that Jesus Christ has a right to that place. Then put Him there - not to-morrow - to-day.

PRAYER

Eternal God, our Father, who has given unto us the great gift of hope, help us not to spoil ourselves by Thy benefaction, and grant that no longer in futile expectation may we put off the thing that now lies within our power to do. Speak, O Spirit of the Living God, to some heart here, and say: "Now is the accepted time. Now is the day of salvation." (2 Cor. 6:2) - Amen.

Sermon preached by Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick of Union Theological Seminary, New York, at the First Presbyterian Church, New York, ca. 1925. BV3797.A1T4


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