Archibald Alexander on Redeeming the Time

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Archibald Alexander, in his “Counsels of the Aged to the Young” (found in Thoughts on Religious Experience, pp. 367-369, 1850 ed.) gives us some reminders about spending time wisely that are needed today by both young and old:

XVII. My next counsel is, that you set a high value upon your time. Time is short; and its flight is rapid. The swiftness of the lapse of time is proverbial in all languages. In Scripture, the life of man is compared to a multitude of things which quickly pass away, after making their appearance; as to a post, a weaver's shuttle, a vapour, a shadow, &c. All the works of man must be performed in time; and whatever acquisition is made of any good, it must be obtained in time. Time, therefore, is not only short, but precious. Every thing is suspended on its improvement, and it can only be improved when present; and it is no sooner present, than it is gone: so that whatever we do must be done quickly. The precious gift is sparingly parcelled out, by moments, but the succession of these is rapid and uninterrupted. Nothing can impede or retard the current of this stream. Whether we are awake or asleep, whether occupied or idle, whether we attend to the fact or not, we are borne along by a silent, but irresistible force. Our progressive motion in time, may be compared to the motion of the planet on which we dwell, of which we are entirely insensible; or, to that of a swift-sailing ship, which produces the illusion that all other objects are in motion, while we seem to be stationary. So in the journey of life, we pass from stage to stage, from infancy to childhood, from childhood to youth, from youth to mature age, and finally, ere we are aware of it, we find ourselves declining towards the last stage of earthly existence. The freshness and buoyancy of youth soon pass away: the autumn of life, with its "sere leaf," soon arrives; and next, and last, if disease or accident do not cut short our days, old age with its gray hairs, its wrinkles, its debility and pains, comes on apace. This period is described by the wise man, as one in which men are commonly disposed to be querulous, and to acknowledge that the days draw nigh in which they have no pleasure. "The keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows are darkened. When men rise up at the noise of the bird -- when all the daughters of music are brought low, and there shall be fears. And the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper be a burden."

Time wasted can never be recovered. No man ever possessed the same moment twice. We are, indeed, exhorted "to redeem our time," but this relates to a right improvement of that which is to come; for this is the only possible way by which we can redeem what is irrevocably past. The counsels which I would offer to the young on this subject are: Think frequently and seriously on the inestimable value of time. Never forget that all that is dear and worthy of pursuit must be accomplished in the short span of time allotted to us here. Meditate also profoundly, and often, on the celerity of the flight of time. Now you are in the midst of youthful bloom, but soon this season will only exist in the dim shades of recollection, and unless it has been well improved, of bitter regret.

If you will make a wise improvement of your time, you must be prompt. Seize the fugitive moments as they fly; for, otherwise, they will pass away before you have commenced the work which is appropriated to them.

Diligence and constancy are essential to the right improvement of time. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." "Work while it is called to-day." Walk while you have the light; for the dark night rapidly approaches, when no work can be done.

Let every thing be done in its season. There is a time for all things; and let all things be done in order. The true order of things may be determined by their relative importance, and by the urgency of the case, or the loss which would probably be sustained by neglect.

If you would make the most of your time, learn to do one thing at once, and endeavour so to perform every work, as to accomplish it in the best possible manner. As you receive but one moment at once, it is a vain thing to think of doing more than one thing at one time; and if any work deserves your attention at all, it deserves to be well done. Confusion, hurry, and heedlessness, often so mar a business, that it would have been better to omit it altogether.

Beware of devolving the duty of to-day on to-morrow. This is called procrastination, which is said, justly, to be "the thief of time." Remember, that every day, and every hour, has its own appropriate work; but if that which should be done this day, is deferred until a future time, to say the least, there must be an inconvenient accumulation of duties in future. But as to-morrow is to every body uncertain, to suspend the acquisition of an important object on such a contingency, may be the occasion of losing forever the opportunity of receiving it. The rule of sound discretion is, never to put off till to-morrow, what ought to be done to-day.

Archibald Alexander's Advice to a Young Pastor on How to Arrange His Schedule

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We have recently posted the first four volumes of Home, the School, and the Church, edited by Cortlandt Van Renssalaer in the 1850s. This journal/magazine was a collection of articles on Christian education in the three arenas mentioned in its title. Van Renssalaer was the Corresponding Secretary of the Board of Education of the Presbyterian Church from 1846-1860, so he had a special interest in seeing the church think deeply about its responsibility to educate its members.

In the third volume of Home, the School, and the Church, a letter by Dr. Archibald Alexander to a young pastor is included. His counsel about how to spend mornings and evenings in study, and afternoons (presumably) in ministry to people, is instructive both from an historical and a practical standpoint.

[The late Dr. Alexander, who was exceeded by none in sound practical wisdom, gave the following counsels to a pupil who had left the Seminary and gone into the active duties of the ministry.]

Princeton, June 21, 1838.

While you remain at home, I would advise you to spend much of your time in making yourself familiar with the English Bible, and also read a portion of the Greek Testament. Compose one good sermon every week; and set down such texts in your common-place book, as strike you at any particular time, with such a division and leading thoughts as occur; and when you insert a text, leave room for a few leading thoughts or illustrations, to be added from time to time. Spend an hour or two each day in carefully reading the writings of some able theologian. The particulars mentioned will be sufficient for your morning occupation.

In the evening, when at home, read history, ancient and modern. Cultivate an acquaintance with the best English classics. Read them with some regard to your own style. And if you have a strong predilection for any branch of science, literature, or theology, indulge it, at least to a certain extent, and endeavour to make yourself eminent in that department. Make some experiment in writing paragraphs for the periodical press, or in composing a tract. By writing a good evangelical tract, you may be the means of more good than by preaching all your life; for that would live when you were dead.

Do not be idle in the exercise of the ministry which you have received. Your commission reads: "Be instant in season, out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and doctrine." Carry the Gospel to the ignorant in the suburbs and vicinity of B___________. Seek a blessing and expect a blessing on your labours. Make use of this resting-time to cultivate piety in your own heart; endeavour to keep up communion with your God and Saviour. Be much in meditation, self-examination, learn more and more the wisdom of self denial. Beware of being guided and governed principally by a regard to your own ease or emolument. For Christ's sake be willing to encounter difficulties and to endure privations. Think much of the worth of the soul, and exert all your energies to rescue sinners from ruin. Be not afraid to go to any place where Providence opens the way. Be sure to mark the leadings of Providence towards you, and to follow the path indicated. If you, through inattention and selfish affections, take a course different from that indicated, you will get strangely entangled and bewildered in your pilgrimage, and may never enjoy comfort or be of much use in the world. Through God's blessings we are all well.

I am, affectionately, yours, &c.

May the Lord enable pastors to redeem their time with diligence.