A True Story of Westminster.
IT is now a good many years ago that there lived in a slum in Westminster, a man whom we will call George. He, his wife Betsy, and his little son Dick, inhabited a room of tolerable size, but yet you would say it was scarcely fit for a human dwelling.
It was dark, for the broken windows were stuffed with paper and with grimy rags; it was cold, for though it was winter, there was no fire in the rusty hearth. The floor was broken, and the walls, which had once been papered, were begrimed and bespattered, and the last shreds of paper waved in the icy draughts from the shattered windows. The furniture consisted of a heap of rags in one corner, which served as a bed for the parents, and a smaller heap in another corner, which served for Dick. There was also a rickety table, and there had been chairs, for their splintered remains were still to be seen. But seats they were not. The only seat was an old saucepan, which stood topsy-turvy. One or two broken plates and cups and some old bottles completed the furniture.
There were splendid houses within a stone's throw of this court, richly furnished and decorated. Did the inhabitants ever think of their miserable neighbours, to whom they might give some of their abundance? I do not know. But I can tell you this—had a rich man found out George's wretched home, and, filled with pity, had he sent there the carpenter, and plasterer, and paperhanger, and glazier, and upholsterer, and made all clean and comfortable and pleasant, so that you could never believe it was the same place, yet, had you gone there again six months later, you would see it was the same place, and no mistake. The windows would be broken, and the floor stained and bespattered, and the furniture either broken or at the pawnshop, and darkness, dirt, and rags would be there, as in old days.
For there was something for which George and Betsy cared more than for nice furniture and cleanliness and comfort—alas! more than for their poor little neglected, starving Dick. The gin-shop was their one delight. Dick seldom saw them, for he roamed in the streets, stifling in summer, cold and muddy in winter. When he came home at night, it was to hear loud and angry words, and to see the quarrelling and fighting which were the cause of the broken windows and broken chairs. He was glad to escape again in the morning, and beg, or run errands, and live as best he could, hungry and ragged and uncared for.
One day Dick saw some ragged boys he knew going into a house with many other children. "Come along, Dick," they said, "it's warm inside." And Dick went in. The room was filled with benches, on which the children sat. It was at the time when what were called ragged schools were first opened in the slums of London. A man with a kind face came up to Dick, and asked him if he could read, to which he answered, "No." He was therefore led to the A B C class, which was a new and mysterious sight to him. He wondered at the children who learnt sounds from the white marks on a black board. But Dick was a sharp boy, and he soon understood what it was all about. He learnt several letters that day, and determined to go again till he knew how to read. The teacher observed in time how eagerly Dick learnt, and how quickly, and he showed him a beautiful book, which he said should be his very own as soon as he could read it.
It was some time before Dick could claim his book. Months had passed, and he had to learn first to read easy words in other books. At last, the day came when he could read the long words, and the teacher told him he might now read aloud to him the name on the title-page of the book he had shown him. Dick read, "THE NEW TESTAMENT OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST," and waited, wondering what was coming next.
Then the teacher gave him the book and showed him that he had put the string in a certain page and had marked that page with a pencil. "When you go home," said the teacher, "I should like you to read this book aloud sometimes to any who will listen to it. And I have put the string and marked the verses where I should like you to read the first time." Dick thanked his teacher with a joyful face and ran home with his book. His father and mother came home that day before they went to the gin palace. They had never found out that Dick went to school. When he showed them his book, and told them he could read it, they thought it was a joke. But Dick assured them it was true, and said, "Now you shall hear me." He opened the book where the teacher had put the string and read the verses that were marked. The parents listened attentively. But when Dick came to the words, which he read slowly and distinctly, "Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God." George interrupted him, and said, "I told you, Dick, you couldn't read. You're just making believe because you know mother and I can't find you out. It ain't sense to say a man must be born again." "But it's there," said Dick, "I read it all right." And Dick read it again. "Now, how am I to find out the boy's tricks?" said George. "Who is there hereabouts that can read? Why, there's that missionary man. Next time he comes this way I'll call him in—that I will." "Father," said Dick, "I'll call him now; he's down below—I saw him only just a minute ago."
And Dick ran downstairs. I must tell you the "missionary man" had several times called upon George and Betsy. But George had always shut the door in his face, and told him if he didn't take himself off, he would send him downstairs head foremost. However, now when Dick came back followed by the missionary, George did his best to be polite. He couldn't offer his visitor a seat, for as you know, there was only the saucepan. But the missionary only thought how glad he was to find George sober and willing to see him. Dick now explained why his father had asked him to come, and, finding the verse, he asked the missionary if he would kindly read it.
The missionary read the words as Dick had read them before. "Now, that beats me," said George. "I say again, it ain't sense. How can a man be born again? It ain't possible." "No," said the I missionary, "not as you see it. You're thinking of a man's body. The Lord Jesus was speaking of his soul. You know a man has a soul that makes his body move and act and speak. When he dies, that is, when his soul leaves the body, you know it moves no more. But the soul goes on living when the body dies. When man became a sinner, his body and his soul suffered from his sin. The body has aches and pains and diseases and dies at last. The soul, that ought to love and obey God, became wicked, and led men to do bad things instead of good. Just, you know, as if the works of a clock were out of order, the hands would go wrong. Now, God said not only that men were wicked, but that they were past mending. So He said He would give them a new life, so that the sinful man should become a new man. That's the meaning of being born again. It's a fresh start, you see, altogether. And God gives this new life to every man who comes to Jesus to be saved." Then the missionary read on about the serpent lifted up in the wilderness, and God so loving the world that He gave His only-begotten Son to be lifted up on the cross, to bear the punishment of wicked men and women. "And whoever believes this," said the missionary, "has eternal life. You see, Jesus said so, and it is as He said. If you want to have eternal life, He will give it you now. Then you will be a new man—born again." "That's news to me," said George. "Yes,'' said the missionary, "the Gospel is the good news of the Saviour. The word Gospel means just that, good news." George talked a long time with the missionary and asked him to come again. They had many talks, and Dick read every day to his father and mother out of his book.
And now, had you gone to George's home a year later, you would have seen a wonderful sight. All was bright and clean, the broken panes were gone, the rags were gone. Beds and chairs, and a bit of carpet were there, all clean and neat. And a fire was there, and near it sat Betsy, clean and neat as her room. What had happened? Had the rich neighbour at last paid a visit to George's grimy room? No, he had not been there. BUT GOD HAD BEEN THERE, AND THE BLESSED SAVIOUR, WHO HAD KNOCKED AT THE DOOR, HAD BEEN WELCOMED IN, and He had given to George and Betsy the eternal life He had promised to give, as Dick had read in his new book. And so, the old things had passed away, and all things had become new, because George and Betsy, and Dick too, were new creatures in Christ Jesus. And George came home from his work, not to fight and quarrel, but to speak kindly and lovingly to Betsy and to Dick. And the earnings of George and Betsy had not gone into the publican's pocket, but the glazier and the carpenter and the furniture dealer had been the better for a good share of them, and enough was left for wholesome food and good, useful clothes. George and Betsy were thankful for the new life, and the new home, and the new happiness. They were more thankful for the new heart and the new spirit than for the many blessings of this present time, and most of all, they thanked God for the Home that was to be theirs for ever—the Father's house, where they should be for ever with the God who loved them, with the Saviour who died for them. How often have I heard it said that "people must be raised, and educated, and made clean and comfortable, and well fed, before you talk to them about religion." Yes, it is perhaps true that talking about religion is wide of the mark. BUT GIVE THEM GOD'S MESSAGE, THE RECORD HE HAS GIVEN OF HIS SON, and how truly will it be seen that godliness has the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come. The devil is a hard master; but God, the tender Father, who pitieth His children, who numbers the hairs of their head, who feeds and clothes even the birds and the lilies, and much more His redeemed ones who trust in Him, is for ever and for ever their blessed portion, and having given His Son, shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? "I feel convinced," said the good Lord Shaftesbury, "IF WE WANT TO MAKE HEAD AGAINST THE MISERY AND WANT OF OUR SLUMS, WE MUST BEGIN WITH THE GOSPEL," for it is written, "The work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance for ever" (Isa. xxxii. 17.)
"Then come, ye sorrowful and weary,
Ye heavy laden, come to Him
From desert places lone and dreary,
With fainting heart and aching limb;
For ye have borne the heat of day,
And now the hour of rest is come;
To you the Lord doth call and say,
'My people, I will be your Home;
Fear not for devil, world, and sin,
But saved and pardoned, enter in.' "
“The Springing Well” 1898