My Brother’s Keeper

Apr 19, 2017
Henry M. Morris, Ph.D.

Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859) to his younger brother, on the virtues and vices, the duties and dangers of youth. Life is Short My dear brother, Life has been compared to the flight of swift ships, and also to an eagle hastening to the prey. It is a moment, a hand’s breadth, a dream. This is the account which the Scriptures give of human life, and if you will consider it, you will see much in it to make you alter your present course of conduct. When a youth looks forward, he almost always thinks of long life. He thinks somewhat in this way—”I am now thirteen, or fifteen, or seventeen years old, (as the case may be). In so many years more I shall be of age. Then I shall be my own master. I will do so and so; I will try such and such schemes; I shall be happy.” Mistaken boy! How different from this does life seem to the old man! He looks back, and says to himself—”It was but the other day that I was a boy. I was then full of hope. Life seemed a long and flowery path. I have mistaken it. It is a short journey, through a valley of tears.” From this, we all learn to say with Moses in the ninetieth psalm—”So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.’ Is life short? Then, my dear brother, whatever you have to do in life—ought to be done soon. You ought to begin at once. If you were put to a hard task, and an hour-glass were put by you, and you were told, “This sand runs out exactly in an hour, and at the end of the hour I will come to see whether you have done your task,”—how anxious would you be not to lose a moment! Just as anxious should you now be to make a good use of your time. If the whole of life is but a span, then the little portions of it—which we call childhood, youth, middle age, old age—are short indeed. The little portion of youth will soon be over; yet in this very season you are laying a foundation for all the rest of your days. If the young twig grows crooked, the full grown bough will have the same direction fixed. Think of this. Youth is the gathering time. You must now be busy in laying up useful knowledge for time to come. Youth is the seed-time. If the farmer lets the time of sowing pass by, he will have no harvest in summer, and must starve. If you do not fix in your mind the seeds of truth and wisdom now, you will be ignorant and foolish when you grow to be a man, if you ever do become a man. For you must never forget that multitudes never reach manhood. Everything you do, however trifling it may seem, has its bearing upon your future life. You will reap as you sow, and every moment you are sowing some good or some evil. It seems to you no great matter to trifle away an afternoon; but you are thereby getting a habit of idleness—you are losing just so much of your life—you are letting just so much sand run down without attending to your assigned task. The great thing for which you were made is, to please God, and to enjoy his love. Life is short; therefore, do not put off the service of God until tomorrow. If life is so short, you ought to give God the whole of it. Surely, you will not rob him of the spring of your days—the very best part of them. He has as much right to this day as to the morrow; he demands your youth as well as your old age. Follow the example of our adorable Redeemer, who said, “I must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; the night comes when no man can work.” This is what few boys think much of; but those who do are wiser and happier when they become older; and none enjoy life so much as those who have early …affections to Jesus Christ the Lord. Your affectionate brother, James Gratitude to Parents My dear brother, I wrote you on this subject thus early in my course of letters, because I think that gratitude to parents is the foundation of a great many virtues; and that one of the first and most distressing symptoms of a decline from the paths of virtue is the unkind or contemptuous treatment of parents. The first commandment with promise is the command to ‘honor our parents’, and our earliest duties are those which we have to render to our father and our mother. You will find counsels on this subject scattered through my letters; but as young people are apt to be impressed by narrative, I will give you a little history, which I am sure you will find interesting. There lived two poor men in a very rough and mountainous country, where they kept their flocks, and cultivated such little spots of earth as they could find among the rocks and crags. It was a region abounding in rapid streams, which poured in torrents from the precipices. There was scarcely any point from which you might not see the tops of mountains covered with snow. The hills were so rough that it was difficult and dangerous to travel even a mile, from one hamlet to another. Carriages were almost unknown, and most of the inhabitants traveled on foot, and carried their goods upon mules or donkeys . Each of these men had large families, and in each of these was a little boy about eleven years of age. These boys often played together—but they were exceedingly unlike in temperament. Little Ulrich was sullen and crude; while his playmate Godfrey was kind and gentle. Ulrich’s mother found it very hard to manage the stubborn little boy. He was undutiful and unkind, and gave his parents many hours of anxiety. Sometimes when he was sent to look for the cattle, which strayed in the mountains, he would go to some of the neighbors’ houses, and stay several days, while his mother would be in the greatest alarm, lest some accident had befallen him. The ungrateful boy seemed never to think of what might be the cares of his parents. He did not reflect on the hours and days and months of solicitude which his poor mother had felt on his account; how she had watched by his pillow when he slept, and nursed him when he was sick, and provided his food, and sat up many a long night to make or mend his clothes. Forgetful of all this, Ulrich would be sulky and sour when she spoke to him, and would even reproach her in the harshest and most inappropriate language. Little Godfrey was just the reverse of all this. He loved his parents most tenderly, and delighted to obey them in every particular. Consequently he was far happier himself, and made all around him happy. One afternoon, Ulrich’s mother had directed him to do some little piece of work which was not quite agreeable to him, and the bad boy as usual flew into a passion, and called his mother several harsh names. The poor woman wept as if she would break her heart—but this only made him rage more furiously. At last, giving his mother a look more like that of a wild beast than a son, he dashed out of the house, muttering to himself that he would never return again. This was as foolish as it was wicked, for the silly child had no place where he could live for any length of time; and he might have known that his father, whose temper was as violent as his own, and who was often drunk, would soon drag him back home, besides chastising him. But people in a rage seldom stop to consider—and Ulrich hastened away, and began to ascend one of the steep mountain paths. As he advanced, his mind was drawn away, by degrees, to other thoughts. At one moment he would pause to examine the scanty flowers which peeped out from among the rocks; at another, he would stand and listen to the distant waterfall, or the hunter’s rifle; and then he would be attracted by the circling flight of the Alpine eagle. Amidst these thoughts his conscience began to whisper to him, “Ulrich, Ulrich, you are a wicked boy! You are breaking the heart of your affectionate mother! Go back, go back!” As Ulrich sat by a tall cliff, looking westward to where the sun was going behind a range of blue mountains, he thought he heard voices in the winding path above him. “I think I know that voice,” said he; “it must be old Mr. Simon, coming down the valley. Poor old man! I wonder that he does not fall and break his neck among these sharp crags.” I ought here to mention, that Mr. Simon was a very aged man, more than eighty years old, who used to travel about the mountains with the aid of a little dog; the faithful animal ran before, with a little bell at his collar, and the old man, who was totally blind, felt his way with a long staff, and held a small rope which was fastened around the dog’s neck. But on the day I have mentioned, the poor little dog had been disabled by a large stone which fell upon his back from one of the crags, and Mr. Simon was forced to sit down and wait some hours for assistance. It was indeed his voice which Ulrich heard—but to whom was he speaking? Ulrich listened, and soon perceived that it was a child’s voice, and a moment after, as the blind man came into sight, by turning a corner, Ulrich saw that he was guided by his playmate, little Godfrey. “Step this way, Mr. Simon,” said the kind little boy, as he helped the poor old man along. “Now lean on my shoulder, and put your right foot down into this hollow.” “May Heaven reward you, my dear boy,” said the old man; “happy are the parents who have such a son. My poor sightless eyes cannot behold your face—but I hear the gentle tones of your voice. I am weary; let us rest for a few moments here, where the ground seems level.” So saying, Mr. Simon slowly bent his aged limbs, and sat down by the side of a rock. At the same moment Godfrey recognized his neighbor Ulrich, who was seated a few paces off, and whom he was delighted to meet. I have said that Ulrich was in no very pleasant state of mind. Conscience was piercing him for his filial ingratitude; and, at such a moment to see his friend Godfrey engaged in an act of kindness made him feel still more guilty. He could not help saying to himself, “See what Godfrey is doing for that old man. He is kinder to a poor stranger than I am to my own mother! Indeed, I must be a very wicked boy.” As these thoughts passed in his mind, he drew near to the others, and Godfrey told Mr. Simon that this was one of his friends and playmates. “Well, my children,” said Mr. Simon, “if you will rest with me here for a short time, I will try to say something to you which may be useful. This little boy has been very kind to a poor old blind man; he has perhaps saved my life, for since I have lost my dog, I have no friend left, and I might have lain and perished on the mountain. My child, God sees and approves such conduct, and he will reward it. The command of God is, ‘You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man.’ I hope you remember what became of the youth who cried after an old prophet, ‘Go up, you bald head!’ When I find a child who is very kind to poor and aged people, I feel sure that he is affectionate and obedient to his parents.” Ulrich felt very badly when he heard this, for it seemed as if the old man had known what was passing in his mind. Mr. Simon went on to say—”I often say these things to young people, because I remember with sorrow many things I might have done for my parents when I was a child; and I think of them the more because Providence has left me in my old age without son, or grandson, to take care of me. Children, mark my words—if you desire to lead happy lives, obey your parents; love them, honor them, and serve them. Never let the evil one tempt you to give them a harsh word or an angry look. Little Godfrey looked up, and said, “Mr. Simon, I think none but a very wicked boy could be cross to his dear father and mother.” Ulrich’s face became as red as crimson at these words, because he knew that he was just such a boy. Mr. Simon went on to say—”If you wish to make your parents happy in their old age, take pains to please them in every way. ‘A wise son takes a glad father; but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.’ Your parents are the best friends you can ever have in this world; never let your conduct give them pain. ‘A foolish son is a grief to his father, and a bitterness to her who bore him.’ When parents become old and weak, their greatest comfort is in their children; be sure to attend to their wishes. ‘Hearken unto your father that begat you, and despise not your mother when she is old.’ For if you should grow up in wickedness, and treat your parents with contempt, you will fall under that awful curse—’The eye that mocks at his father, and despises to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.’ The whole course of God’s providence will be as much against you, as if the birds of prey which you see every day in these mountains were to turn against you, and tear you with their talons.” Here the old man, being somewhat rested, arose, and taking Godfrey’s hand, proceeded on his way. Ulrich sat still under the rock; he was so agitated and alarmed, that his limbs trembled. At length he suddenly arose, and said to himself, “I will go back to my mother.” He quickened his steps, as he saw that night was coming on, and soon reached his father’s cottage. As he went along, he thought a great deal about what he would say to his offended parent. He slowly lifted the latch, and found her sitting in her little room mending his clothes. Her eyes were red with weeping, and she was so grieved by his conduct that she hid her face in her hands, and was unable to speak. O, what a return was this for a mother’s love and kindness! Ulrich was moved to tears. He fell upon her neck, and begged her forgiveness. She put her arms round him, and forgetting all his unkind looks and reproachful words, pressed him to her bosom. Ulrich promised to love and obey her, and if at any time he felt for a moment disposed to be angry or sullen, he remembered the promises and tears of that day, and the words of Mr. Simon. Your affectionate brother, James . Early Rising My dear brother, In the course of my reading I am always glad to meet with anything which strikes me as suitable for your instruction. This morning I opened upon a page of Mr. Jay’s daily devotional books, in which he speaks of early rising, and his thoughts are so excellent, that I shall make free use of them, and mingle them with my own. “The habit of early rising, if ever formed, is commonly established in childhood or youth. If one has wasted the delightful morning hours of fifteen years in bed, he will not readily learn to deny himself as an adult. Therefore, I wish you now to learn to enjoy, The cool, the fragrant, and the silent morn, To meditation due, and sacred song.” Perhaps you are ready to ask, “How much sleep is necessary?” This cannot be answered in a word. Some need more than others. But Mr. Jay says, “It is questionable whether they require much more. Yes, it may be questioned whether they require any more, as to length. What they need more of, is better sleep; and the quality would be improved by lessening the quantity.” This remark used to be often made by the celebrated and excellent Dr. Benjamin Rush. Try the experiment of shortening your slumbers; you will have fewer dreams, fewer turnings and tossings but more solid repose, more refreshment. But you must shorten your rest at the right end; not by sitting up late at night—but by rising early in the morning. Physicians say that one hour’s sleep before midnight is worth more than two hours after it. However this may be, one hour of study before breakfast is certainly worth two after supper. The mind is more fresh and cheerful, and the health is less injured. And then, how much more delightful are the early hours! The poet says truly, “Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet, With charm of earliest birds.” In the delightful months of spring, summer, and autumn, you should be up at sunrise. When the morning haze begins to disperse, you will observe all nature bedewed with sweetness. Fresh odors breathe from the woods, and fields, and gardens. A thousand birds are singing in the branches. The morning walk among such scenes is as useful to the health as it is pleasing to the taste. It is time that you should begin to care for your health, and take measures to secure strength for future usefulness. The advantage of early rising, as it regards this, will be apparent in your vigor, your appetite, your nerves, your spirits, and even your complexion. Ask your physician. Is there a medical man on earth that would risk his reputation by a contrary opinion? Dr. Sinclair, in his volumes on health and long life, remarks, that though those who lived to a very great age differed in many things, they all resembled each other here. There was not one who did not rise early. Whatever business you may ever be engaged in, will be furthered by early rising. What an advantage has a student from this habit in planning and arranging his pursuits for the day! And in having leisure for any incidental engagement, without putting everything else into disorder! While another is disposed to cry out, “A little more sleep, and a little more slumber,” and who begins at ten what he should have begun at six, is thrown into hurry and confusion; and bustles about trying to remedy his situation. He feels himself a drudge all day; and at night is weary, without having accomplished his task. All this is so well known. Among all businessmen, a man’s reputation suffers from the want of this virtue. The heathen used to say, ‘Morning is the friend to the muses.’ It surely is a friend to the graces. If it is the best time for study, it is also the best time for devotion. When prayer and praise are neglected in the morning, they are commonly neglected all day; and if you let the world get the start of your soul in the morning, you will seldom overtake it all day. Morning devotion sweetens every succeeding hour, pours a balm on the conscience, gives a pleasant savor to business, locks the door against wicked thoughts, and furnishes matter for pious reflection. It is better to go from prayer to business—than from business to prayer. Fellowship with God prepares for fellowship with our fellow creatures, and for every event, whether pleasing or painful. Boerhaave, celebrated physician, rose early in the morning, and through his life, his practice was to dedicate an hour each morning for private prayer and meditation. Colonel Gardiner, even when in camp, used to spend two hours of the early morning in pious exercises. The great Judge Hale, also, rose early for prayer, and read a portion of God’s word, without which, he said, nothing prospered with him all day. Howard, the philanthropist, was an early riser. John Wesley usually slept five hours; and for many years, he, and all the first Methodist preachers, had a public service at five in the morning. President Dwight of Yale, was in the habit of studying Scripture before day. And there was in one of our southern States, a laboring man who, by devoting two hours of every morning to study, before he went to his work, became a learned theologian. If you have already acquired the disgraceful habit of lying in bed late, break it off now, not gradually—but at once. Do not regard the little unpleasant feelings you may have to endure for a few weeks. Go forth, and inhale the fragrance of the charming spring and autumnal mornings; it will be a cordial to your body and your mind. And in the summer, the season from early dawn until breakfast is the only time you available, when you can enjoy a book, a walk or ride in the open air. I have written to you more than once, concerning the example of our adorable Savior; and I wish the chief object of these letters may be, to set His blessed example more fully before you. Now, what do you suppose was our Lord’s practice? Just imagine to yourself, the way in which he spent his morning hours. Can you for an instant suppose that he passed them in slumbers upon his couch? When the hum of business began among the laborers of Judea or of Galilee, and the sun shone warmly on the fields and villages—was the Redeemer asleep? Is it possible for you to think so? No, it is not. On a certain occasion, we read, “And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed”—and yet he had been greatly occupied the whole of the day preceding this. We think little of time—but he never passed an idle hour. The language of the whole of his life was, “I must work the works of him who sent me, while it is yet day—the night comes, when no man can work.” Yet he was really a man. He took our infirmities, and wearied nature required repose. But he distinguished between what was necessary and what was needless. It may be also said of his whole life, “He pleased not himself.” Your affectionate brother, James

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