"Detour!" This highway sign is greeted with smothered groans or ejaculations of impatience. The motorist glares at the sign and the barrier across the road as if he were half determined to go on regardless of sign or barrier. But if so, he runs the risk of danger, and ultimately meets with failure and is compelled to turn back. The detour is rough, dusty, and at right angles to the direction in which he has been traveling. Yet it is a necessary change of route, and if followed patiently it brings the traveler back to the main highway.
Life has many detours. After many miles of smooth going in fine spirits and rapid progress, suddenly we come upon this sign, "Detour!" and are arrested by the barrier. Then we leave a fine road for the rough way, and life is heavy and labored and difficult.—Clarence E. Macartney
At the time of his serious sickness and operation in August, 1893, Grover Cleveland wrote: "I have learned how weak the strongest man is under God's decrees; and I see in a new light the necessity of doing my allotted work in the full apprehension of the coming night." Thus to be laid aside for a season from our task not only teaches us humility but makes us more earnest and industrious when strength returns to us. This was the verdict of David after his trouble: "It is good for me that I have been afflicted" (Ps. 119:71). This was this verdict of Hezekiah after his near approach to the gates of death: "By these things men live" (Isa. 38:16).
In Jerusalem today there is an institution known as the American Colony, founded to help little children in the city where our Saviour died. And this is how it came to be. A well-to-do, beautiful, and talented young woman, resident in Chicago, was crossing the Atlantic on her way to visit her aged parents in Paris. On the journey the steamer was struck amidships by a large sailing vessel, and immediately began to sink. The four daughters who were with this woman were drowned, but she herself was rescued.
When she reached land she sent a cable back to her husband in Chicago, "Saved alone!" Then she began to think about that word "alone"; and, accepting her great sorrow in the death of her children, and her own deliverance from death, as a divine message, she resolved to give her life to the welfare of her fellow passengers on life's long voyage, and so established in Jerusalem the Colony, which has brought the knowledge and the spirit of Christ to so many of the children and youth of the Holy Land.
Richard Cobden, the Manchester manufacturer, and John Bright, the Rochdale spinner, were men who were not content merely to make money and to succeed in life in the business sense. They looked upon the masses of Great Britain and were moved with compassion. They began to think and to write and to speak of a better day. They met first in the chapel of a Baptist church at Rochdale, where Bright had asked Cobden to come and speak in the interests of education for the children of laborers. But it is doubtful if Bright would ever have become the colaborer and codisciple of Cobden in the work of reform had it not been for the sorrow that crushed his early hopes, and the ministry of his friend Cobden in the critical hour.
Bright, who was a Quaker, had written to Cobden informing him of the death of his young wife: "It has pleased the Almighty to take from me my beloved and cherished companion. She sank peacefully to her rest about one o'clock this day. She had almost no suffering, and death to her had long lost his terrors. Until she became mine, I did not know that mortality ever was the abode of so much that was pure and lovely. Her sainted spirit, I cannot doubt, is now an inhabitant of that city 'where none can say he is sick,' and in this deep affliction my heart rejoices in the full assurance that to my precious wife the change is inconceivably glorious. I know thou wilt sympathize with me in this very deep trial and it is therefore I write to inform thee of it. I hope this may reach thee before thou leaves tomorrow."
In his speech at the unveiling of the Cobden statue at Bradford in 1877, Bright told the story of Cobden's response to his letter. "At that time I was at Leamington, and on the day when Mr. Cobden called upon me—for he happened to be there at the time on a visit to some relatives—I was in the depths of grief, I might almost say of despair, for the light and sunshine of my house had been extinguished. All that was left on earth of my young wife, except the memory of a sainted life and a too-brief happiness, was lying still and cold in the chamber above us. Mr. Cobden called upon me as his friend, and addressed me, as you might suppose, with words of condolence. After a time he looked up and said: 'There are thousands of houses in England at this moment where wives, mothers, and children are dying of hunger. Now,' he said, 'when the first paroxysm of your grief is past, I would advise you to come with me, and we will never rest till the Corn Law is repealed.'
"I accepted his invitation. And since then, though there has been suffering, and much suffering, in many homes in England, yet no wife and no mother and no little child has been starved to death as the result of a famine made by law."
In writing of the final and heroic period of Walter Scott's life, when troubles came in on him like a flood, R. H. Hutton applies to him the words with which Cicero described a contemporary: "a man who had borne adversity wisely, who had not been broken by fortune, and who, amidst the buffets of fate, had maintained his dignity." In that description of character there is something which makes the heart leap in quick and generous response. The greatest, highest task that can ever fall to man is that of maintaining the awful dignity of the soul amid the bufferings of fate.
When the Confederate army retreated after Gettysburg, General Lee wrote to Jefferson Davis a remarkable letter in which he said: "We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters." True of a nation's life, this is also profoundly true of the life of the individual. And what shall we say of sickness, sorrow, and affliction? Shall these things overwhelm us, or shall we be able to say, with that great spirit who kept both his soul and his body under the dominion of a great and holy purpose, "Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us" (Rom. 8:37)?
Our own American history affords a shining example of fortitude under misfortune and sickness. The preface to General Grant's Memoirs opens with the quotation, "Man proposes, and God disposes." Then follows an account of how he came to write the Memoirs. First, a fall from his horse, which kept him indoors; then the rascality of business partners, which plunged him into debt and made him dependent upon the kindness of friends. To pay his debts he commenced the laborious task of writing his story of the war. He had not gone far with the work when his mortal sickness fastened itself upon him. From then on it was a race with death. There he sat on the porch at Mount McGregor, propped up in his chair with pillows, the awful disease clutching his throat, toiling at the manuscript, until, just four days before his death, he wrote these final and prophetic sentences: "I feel that we are on the eve of a new era, when there is to be a great harmony between Confederate and Federal. I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel it within me that it is to be so." That was Grant's greatest victory.
Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Appomattox, are nothing alongside of that last heroic battle against poverty and cancer.