The end of the road

The final sermon in this collection, entitled “Two’s Company”, was one of Chris Rosling’s favourites. He delivered it many times, in a variety of venues and under several titles. It was also his final public sermon delivered from his favourite pulpit at the tiny Unitarian Church in Great Hucklow, Derbyshire (Hucklow Old Chapel).

The Pulpit – Hucklow Old Chapel

This is also the final resting place for his ashes. That place is marked by a simple headstone engraved with the names of other Ministers, parishioners and people who contributed to the enduring character of the Church and its caring community. So at the end of the road, as throughout his travel along it, Chris Rosling shared selflessly. He was a man you don’t meet every day.

This blog will close on 8 March 2020, exactly two years to the day I began it. I hope to archive the entire collection of sermons on or www. when I finally get the hang of setting a website up properly. But as my Father would doubtless remind me: I am only a year older than he was when he bought his first computer.

Sunday Sermon – 26 January 2020

Two’s Company

Many of our superstitions are connected with numbers. Seven is often said to be lucky, whilst thirteen many believe should be avoided if at all possible. Though the law gives certain rights from the age of eighteen, many will still regard twenty-one as having being an occasion for the special celebration of “coming of age”. An old superstition has it that bad luck or tragedy comes as a set of three. What the origin of this is, I do not know. That it is a law of nature I doubt. Though examples of when it has appeared to be true may be quoted, I suspect they are the result of chance rather than proof of a rule. Some still hold that seven years of ill fortune follow the breaking of a mirror.

But whatever the truth be, fortune, whether good or ill, being linked with numbers, I maintain that there is sure evidence to support a theory that many good things in life run in pairs. Two’s company, we learnt long ago, but three’s a crowd. In spite of the growth of Indian and Chinese takeaways, fast food shops selling burgers or chicken nuggets, I read recently that still leading the field – and rightly so – is an old and trusted pairing, that of fish and chips. Sprinkled with another linked couple, that of salt and vinegar.

As every nursery-aged child knows, the animals entered the Ark two by two. The popular song of a few years ago asserted that love and marriage go harmoniously together like a horse and carriage, and who is it that dares to contradict. Bread and butter, cheese and biscuits, strawberries and cream, are favourite pairings which reinforce the theory that two is a number to be respected.

There is something about a matching pair which is satisfactory and complete. Whoever heard of a left without a complementary right? To balance the argument we call upon the phrase “Yes, but on the other hand….”, for we all know there are two sides to every question. In a heavy downpour, it rains not merely cats, or only dogs, but cats and dogs. Not by accident, in the old children’s rhyme both oranges and lemons are included. To call for pen and ink is much grander than to ask merely for a pencil, or a biro.

Sometimes the pair is composed of two parts which together comprise one whole. Steak and kidney are not in opposition as ingredients of the pie. Both stand in their own right, but as partners together they form a unity which is greater than the parts.

But let us turn to less frivolous examples. In the 23rd Psalm goodness and mercy are linked. Goodness and mercy are not one and the same. They are admirable, desirable qualities in their own right, but, coming together, form a unity which is greater than either alone. Sympathy, coupled with understanding, is to be preferred to the demonstration of either quality in isolation. The wholeness of the person exhibiting this synthesis is rightly applauded.

Tolerance is a noble quality, but if it is paired with compassion it approaches the saintly. Peace and quiet are naturally linked, for to have either one without the other, is less than satisfying.

The philosophy of the complete life which Jesus espoused to his disciples was that of this “two-ness”, of pairing. The commandments which governed a good life were boiled down to an essential two – to love God and to love one’s neighbour. To love God alone is to have a theory which is not put into practice. Sincere love of neighbour arises out of, and is sustained by, a religious philosophy ground in the love of the Creator.

Again, the coin has two sides. Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God that which belongs to God. James put the same point slightly differently when he spoke of the conjunction of faith and works. Wholeness arises from the coming together of these two sides of a person’s nature. They are the two legs which enables a man or woman to stride through life a complete person. To neglect one in favour of the other is to limp, to stumble and eventually to fall.

And of course therein lies a truth. We have the power of choice. Just as the cook chooses the ingredients with care, balancing the one against the other to obtain the optimum result, so we in life balance, or fail to balance, our pairs. We may devote ourselves completely to our faith, our love of God, until we become introverted, isolated, other-worldly and oblivious to the needs of others.

We may on the other hand be so involved with ministering to neighbours that we have no time for worship, for the renewal of strength and the ability to place in perspective, which comes from communion with forces outside ourselves. The complete and mature person has learnt to balance on both limbs.

But pairing is not always of the similar but different, albeit complementary. Perhaps some of us dimly remember from those science lessons of long ago the name of Sir Isaac Newton and his laws of physics. What those laws stated in essence was that stability comes from forces that are opposed to one another, but yet in balance. One needs two balancing forces to give restfulness. The pencil lies still on the desk because the determination of the pencil to fall to the earth is matched by the resistance of the desk against it. The aeroplane remains airborne as the upward pressure on the wings balances the weight of the whole craft.

A debate calls for the presentation of two points of view in opposition; a discussion in which all have the same opinion is lifeless and unsatisfying. An alternation of sunshine and showers, as well as giving us an endless opportunity for discussion – conversation surely would die if weather was constant – enhances our appreciation of both types of meteorological phenomena.

And as in physics, so in life. Stability comes from the balancing of forces; unease and unrest reign where there is imbalance.

In the world of politics and government it is truly said that democratic government depends on vigorous opposition as much as on the ruling party. Whoever holds power, whether it is in national or local government, in institutions, in the work-place or where-ever, moves to authoritarianism and oppression unless there are opposing and checking forces.

And so in our personal lives. Tolerance is a virtue, but it needs to be balanced by refusal to accept the unacceptable, or our tolerance deteriorates to mere indifference. Patience is a virtue, but only if balanced when necessary by righteous anger. Our attitude to life and our application to problems which life throws up should be serious, but unless balanced by a sense of humour we all to easily move from seriousness to self-importance, from profundity to pomposity.

Examples of balancing forces are legion; we have the power of choice as to how and when to balance the one against the other. The rules of life call for pairing. Surely this must be true or the satisfaction and security which follows from such a practice would not exist.

Duty to God and to neighbour, the dynamic stability which comes from matching forces in opposition, the linking of wisdom with understanding, the freedom of the child to grow within the protective support of the loving adult, all point to the same conclusion. Life is lived to the full with balance. And by definition, balance involves at least a pair.

Our lives are ultimately judged by our success in this balancing process. Our failures are brought about as we give undue and unprincipled emphasis to one of the pair at the expense of the other. If indulgence of self becomes more important than duty to others, then we are egotistical and self-centred. If spirituality is disregarded for pleasure seeking, then selfishness becomes our trademark.

If we suppress or ignore the criticisms of others, then arrogance and pride mark our existence. The still, small voice within must curb our judgements if we are to approach the standards implied by a Christian life.

Though we have self-will and are free to make our own choice, I believe the choice cannot be wisely exercised without the help which comes from that force for which we use the omnibus term, God. That force, that power, whatever it may be, enables us the better to use our inadequate judgement.

Though we accept that God is and must be universal, and not confined to any one place, to a special building, or is only available by appointment at specific times on certain days, church worship brings our minds to a state of readiness. Without worship the discipline is lacking and we merely drift.

The knowledge that we are in the presence of other seekers, other searchers for truth, helps support us. That is an essential pairing, oneself and the congregation.

I entitled my address “Two’s Company”, having in mind that the phrase evokes a picture of happiness and contentment. We think of husband and wife, mother and child, God and people, tutor and scholar, and countless further examples. A vignette showing hand in hand, arm in arm, or hand on shoulder appropriately illustrates the book of friendship.

We are free to walk through life in solitude if we so choose. We are free, if we so desire, to reject the pair and select the single, seek only power without curb, to receive and never to give. But if we do, our road will be indeed a lonely one, satisfaction and completeness will be denied, balance will not be achieved, and our mouths will taste the gall but seldom the sweetness.

Tragedy and ill-luck may or may not come in packages of three. What is, I believe, is proven is that the true life is based upon a duality, a pairing, a coupling. Two is not only company, it is peace and contentment. Though there are those who proclaim an orthodoxy based on a Trinity, I find a duality more to my taste. Two is not only company, it is also a comfort.

C.J. Rosling 26 April 1992

Fulwood 26 April 1992; 30 June 1996
Chesterfield 26 April 1992
Mexborough 3 October 1993; 25 August 1996
Upper 14 October 1994
Underbank 28 July 1996
Doncaster 18 August 1996
Hucklow 22 September 1996; 2 December 2001
Bradford 22 February 1998

Sunday Sermon – 19 January 2020

Young People today ain’t what they used to be

This morning takes me back some fifty years. King George Vl, had recognised with gratitude that I, with the help of one or two others, had ensured that democracy had been saved, at least for the time being. So His Majesty graciously granted that a indebted country could now spare me from further military service. I was allowed to exchange uniform for demobilisation suit, and return to my family.

Within a month or two I left home once more. This time to a college in Sheffield to train as a teacher. Part of the training consisted of giving prepared lessons to a class of pupils, while critical tutors looked on, and took notes. Afterwards there followed a debriefing, no doubt kindly meant but rigorous in the analysis of what had gone wrong.

Coming here this morning as an amateur before an audience amongst whom are professional preachers, puts me in mind of those far-off days. It is not so much reading the lesson, and preaching the sermon, which causes the internal butterflies to flutter. It is any analysis afterwards I fear. I come with the humility of the man who married the widow and was conscious that it had all been done so much better before. So just in case any-one is taking notes, I get my plea of mitigation in first.

For what do I know of youth that others have not articulated with much greater eloquence and authority? My thoughts are the result of observation, lightly seasoned with a little experience, rather than grounded in research. Father, grand-father, retired teacher I may be, but that experience has opened my eyes to a depth of personal ignorance, rather than providing a fund of knowledge, or supplying a sackful of answers.

I start by making obvious points. First, we use the term “young people” or “youth” as a convenient collective noun. But in this context, a collective noun can be misleading, if not dangerously simplifying. Collective nouns often gather members within a group who are largely indistinguishable one from the other. A murmuration of starlings is composed of birds of a feather. A farmer might demur at the proposition that a herd of cattle are kine which are much of a muchness, though that’s how it seems to us townies. Some suggest that a college of cardinals, a collection of clergy, or a fraternity of ministers are made up of clones, but I’ll not push that point.

But, to class young people, whatever the age range our definition of youth might allow, as largely indistinguishable one from another except by sex (ignoring the complaints of those who murmur that these days you can hardly tell the girls from the boys, or vice versa), is an obvious absurdity. And yet we hear constantly, and regularly read phrases, about “the youth of today”, “modern teenagers”, “disco ravers”, “youth culture”, and so on, which imply that the collective noun covers a group of identical members feeding, moving, playing together like a shoal of herring. When you have met one, you have met them all.

Intellectually we may know the individuals are just that, individual, independently minded souls. Our mouths proclaim the importance of personal identity, but in practice, when it comes to thinking of the needs of the members of the group, prejudice denies individuality.

The young person may be described as, say, a studious student, a talented musician, a drunken yob, a pop-star crazed teenager, a football hooligan, an insecure adolescent, a love-sick swain, a drug experimenter, a tempestuous spitfire, a rowdy and awkward rebel, to name just a few sub-divisions.

But further than that, any one young person will properly be identified with most or many of the various categories, over a period of time. Not only is it foolish and wrong to try and put young people into fixed groups, it is quite misleading to tag the individual with a simple label which is comprehensive and permanent. Shakespeare described the seven ages of man from birth to death in terms of character actors. Most young people play many parts within one age, often within a single day.

For youth is a time not only of growth, but of experimentation. To play many parts is to learn many lines. Maturity evolves from experience. Experience comes through sampling.

So my plea is that, by thought, word and deed, preserve individuality and beware the simplicity of the filing cabinet; it may look impressively neat but that disguises the fact that once filed is to be lost for ever.

The second obvious point is that we were all young once. But paradoxically, this is both an advantage and yet a handicap. It is advantageous because it proves there is life after youth. The young learn fast. Remember Housman’s young man who sadly reflected,

When I was one and twenty
I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free”.
But I was one and twenty,
No use to talk to me
When I was one and twenty
I heard him say again,
“The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
Tis paid with sighs a-plenty
And sold for endless rue.”
And I am two and twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

Painful as the learning was, I expect the young man survived.

One who survived youth, Robert Browning, could later write more hopefully.

“Grow old along with me
The best is yet to be
The last of life
For which the first was made.”

For if youth is destined to acquire knowledge painfully, then age enables one to polish memories of joys, and bury away painful recollections.

There can be few of us who do not recall aspects of our youth about which we feel a degree of discomfort. There were those things which we ought not to have done, as well as the occasional sin of omission. The parts we played, whether as leading actors or in supporting roles were not always in contention for Oscars. From time to time appeared critical reviews. So we know what it’s like to be young. Or do we?

Memories are notoriously selective and unreliable. Summers were hotter, winters colder. Doors were safely left unbolted; Samaritans were to be found on every street corner; policemen boxed the ears of unruly delinquents and the reprimand was acceptable and effective; the poor were honest, and the rich man’s word was his bond. Those things must be true, for many a senior citizen will tell you, from personal experience, that it was so.

But the young live in the society of the day. And the society of today is not quickly summarised. It is more complex than ever before. Compared with the those golden years which were our youth, much has changed. Few now leave school and go straight into a job. More grow up, for better or worse, in a family with just one parent, or as a step-child, having first-hand experience of the trauma of divorce. Fear stalks streets that once knew nothing of mugging, and contrary to common belief, the young are in greater danger than the elderly.

The chance of going to University is greater than ever, but, conversely, for many, education has been an unhappy experience. A larger total of examination successes, but for some, no certificate, merely reinforcement of failure. Families where parents are unemployed, or who daily fear redundancy, are common-place. The sour experiences of the elders have set the child’s teeth on edge. Shops are crammed with consumer goods, advertised ad infinitum on the ubiquitous television screen. But the real income of poor families has fallen for at least a decade.

For much of my life and maybe yours, drugs were desirable. They were medicines from the chemist shop (the Americans used to call them drug stores); medicines to cure illness. Cocaine was something the dentist injected before extracting a tooth. I read of opium dens in history books and in the stories of Sherlock Holmes, but had little idea of the characteristics of the drug. How many of us did?

Now, we are told, a large proportion, maybe a majority, of young people sample, at some time, so called soft drugs. A few progress to harder varieties. Alcohol is not only more readily available than was once the case, but the brewers, distillers and importers direct much effort in their advertising and promotion campaigns specifically to appeal to the young. And what of the ambivalent attitude to the tobacco industry? As the law insists on health warnings, it allows sponsorship and advertising on a huge scale. To put it mildly, the message to young people is unclear.

Thou shalt not steal, but cheating creditors is different, particularly if millions of pounds is involved. Avarice is a sin, but apparently not if you head a large multi-national or privatised company. We have learnt of a new phrase; “to be economical with the truth”.

So if we were all young once, perhaps not only have our memories been edited as time has gone by, but the environment in which we dwelt was a radically different one.

It is not surprising that many young people act from time to time in ways that we, who are older and wiser, see as irresponsible and unsociable. It is not extraordinary, though not to be excused, if, living in a consumer led land, where to have is to be successful and to have not is despised, some youngsters seek to acquire life’s comforts by any means, and at any cost to others. After all, does not the devil take the hindmost? It is remarkable is that, in spite of everything, so many thoughtful, idealistic, and altruistic young people stand up for right, rather than be drawn into selfish greed.

I still have contact with a large number of young people, for I act as chairman of two secondary school governing bodies. One of the schools is in the centre of a large pre-war council housing estate with many of the problems associated with such areas. The other school has a truly comprehensive intake ranging from the affluent owner occupier to the dweller in a run down estate. Though I don’t deny that there are some pupils in both schools who exhibit anti-social behaviour, what I do see is a large majority of, and I don’t mean to sound condescending, decent, albeit at times boisterous, socially conscious young people.

In one sense, young people today aren’t as they used to be. How could they be unaffected by the changed environment from yester-year? That is not a value judgement; just a factual observation. But in another sense, they are the same in all their infinite variety. All the same adjectives used over the years still apply to most of them, at one time or another – frustrating, irresponsible, loveable, thoughtless, considerate, immature, idealistic, companionable, unsociable, emotional, intolerant, sensitive, and all the rest. None of that has changed very much, if at all. Let us note that we are gathered here this morning in an ancient Chapel, holding a Christian service. I claim to be a christian, even if an inadequate one. Change and decay in all around I may see, but a central theme of christianity is belief in the eternal. Youth is transitory, but truths proclaimed from many a pulpit are everlastingly valid.

I have no new advice to give as to how to deal with young people. How to solve problems of youth crime, drug culture, mindless vandalism or hooligan behaviour. All I can suggest is that we must continue to preach what I think of as christian values, freely admitting they are not exclusively christian. Values such as truth, honesty, tolerance, respect, consideration for others, faithfulness, forgiveness, understanding, to name a few.

But much more than preaching, we need to practice and not merely proclaim. Pointing the direction is not nearly as effective as leading the way. Youth clubs, Sunday schools, moral initiatives, support schemes and the like are fine, but cannot be completely effective whilst double-standards are condoned, commandments are as pie-crusts, and hand-wringing is substituted for hand-holding. If there are young people who are failing, then surely the responsibility in large part lies with the generations which proceed them. The truths on which a society at peace with itself depends have not changed; they are eternal. A great majority of folk pay at least lip-service to them even today. What is less evident is that through society, thoughts and deeds have stayed in harmony one with the other.

Selfish has become a commoner word than selfless. Hypocrisy is hardly just an old-fashioned word found only on the pages of the Gospels. It is pervasive in public and private life. If it is the case that “young people today ain’t what they used to be”, I doubt if the explanation is in their genes. The generation who criticise could, with advantage, look into the mirror.

So my conclusion is neither original nor profound. It is encapsulated in the lines of a well-known hymn.

“Be what thou seemest; live thy creed”

Not a bad motto for all seasons. Applicable to all human creatures, great and small.
But, if we fail to implement it, then, to the list of adjectives to be applied to young people, routinely we shall have to include “cynical”. Young people ain’t what they used to be, for they never have been. If they ain’t what they ought to be, then the explanation might be uncomfortably near to home.

C.J. Rosling

Hucklow 17 November 1996

Sunday Sermon – 12 January 2020

Another New Year already!

Surely not another year gone by already? It was only a couple of days ago when the last one started – or so it seems. Why is it that when I was young, days lasted for weeks, and every year contains thousands of days? Why, as we grow older, do days get shorter, and each year contains fewer of them? Another of the many mysteries of life as yet unfathomed. My wife insists that most changes for the worst in the this world are the fault of men, but that I deny. Perhaps it is to do with global warming, which gets blamed for everything these days.

As a child I wondered, as I expect many of you did, why, on my birthday, did I seem no from different than how I was the day before. A. A. Milne wrote a book titled, “Now we are Seven”, surely implying that the seventh birthday was a day on which momentous happenings came to pass. One expected, on waking up and hearing folk say, “Happy Birthday, seven year old,” that you had changed into someone who was very different from the six year old who fell asleep the night before. Yet, as far as I recall, that wasn’t so. And that puzzled feeling has persisted. The old music hall song reminded us that at twenty-one the key of the door is ours (in modern Britain rather sooner than that). Nevertheless, maturity doesn’t suddenly fall upon one, like a cloud descending from heaven

The day I became entitled to what I still persist in calling the Old Age Pension, in defiance of bureaucrats who want to call me a Senior Citizen, I still felt, thought and acted very much in the same fashion as I had on the previous day. No wiser, just as awkward.

Am I alone in feeling that anniversaries ought to herald a palpable change? A day when the moon shines blue, or geese lay golden eggs. I suspect I am not. And what is New Year but an Anniversary? What was so very different on 1st January 2004 when compared with 31st December 2003? Not very much as far as I could make out.

I thought of some lines from a poem by A.E. Housman. He is describing a reveller who had drunk freely at Ludlow Fair, rolling homeward, but not making it. He fell down and slept where he lay: “Happy till I woke again,” he recalls.

“Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.”

Even if the reveller had caught a taxi home; even if he had slept, sober as a judge as the saying has it, in his own bed, he might still have observed in the morning that “the world, it was the old world yet”. Yes, few are the occasions when, overnight, the world changes from being the old world into something startlingly new.

On the rare occasions when change is dramatic and sudden, it is invariably for the worse rather than the better. The twin towers burn and collapse; the earthquake shakes the ground, destroying buildings and lives of those inside; the car bomb explodes and the innocent die; the waters cover the land, drowning both beast and human being. The fairy god-mothers’ who produce, on the instant, golden coaches from pumpkins, live only in nursery books, or on the pantomime stage. The wise remind us that the magnificent city of Rome did not arise between one sunrise and the next. Instant transformations tend to the apocalyptic. Improvements, as anyone who has commissioned a builder to build a house extension will confirm, take place only over time.

However, tradition demands that New Year is not a time of gloom, but of hope. It is the time when New Year Resolutions are embraced, and very occasionally – kept. Resolutions are the very antithesis of accepting that “the world is the old world yet …. and nothing now remains to do”.

Resolutions are about either doing something towards improving things in our own lives, or for other people; or alternatively, about not continuing with those things which we ought not to do. The world might be the old world yet, but we say, as a new year dawns, maybe we can do something to change it.

Things might not be much different today than they were yesterday, but, over time, changes do come about. When I think about it, not much happened to make the world a better place as I slept through to the morning of my seventh birthday. But as that figure six, and then seven, and whisper it quietly, now eight, moved into the tens column, much has altered to make the world a better place.

Oh, I know some terrible things happen in the world, and much suffering exists: but in our land, in social terms, huge changes have happened and life for many is immensely better than it was for their parents in the depression years of the thirties. Some of these changes have occurred at an almost imperceptible rate, others more rapidly. But changes there have been.

True, one might fairly point out that these are matters which fall under the rather vague heading of political changes. But politicians, some might add cynically, even politicians, can be moved by noble motives.
But those of us who gather here, whilst by no means indifferent to changes which improve the living conditions of our neighbours, have perhaps a wider agenda. This would include those who dwell in lands where poverty and disease is rampant. Those whose lives are not significantly different from the hardships suffered by their fore-bearers. We are touched by what, rather vaguely, we refer to as our conscience, to think beyond our own demands. We believe we have a duty to do something about the plight of others in less fortunate circumstances.

It was fashionable to hear in Unitarian churches at one time, sermons about those great Unitarians of the past who had been committed social reformers. Victorians, and some from earlier generations, who had been in the vanguard of social reform. Others had been scientists, politicians, or philosophers whose enlightened views changed the society in which they worked; changes which continued after their death. I must confess that in some cases the links with Unitarianism seemed a little tenuous, but let us not be too critical. The major point was that, as for the New Testament James, faith and works went hand in hand. The resolutions they adopted were not merely to think good thoughts, but to do good deeds.

We live in impatient times. That was so in the old year just ended; it did not alter as the clocks chimed twelve midnight on New Year’s eve. We may like to think that we can turn everything around for the better on the instant. But we can’t. Change for the better comes slowly, moving day by day, almost imperceptibly, like the hour hand of a clock. It never seems to move as we watch, but look back later and surprising progress has been made.

That oft-quoted passage from the letter of Paul to the Corinthians speaks of changing from thinking as a child to adult understanding. We all go through that process, but not as an instant conversion overnight. The change is subtle and the edges blurred. And similarly when it comes to changing the world. We have our aspirations. We set our goals. The vision is essential, but, altering, scrambling rather, the metaphor, the journey to the city on the hill will be a slow march on foot, not in a sound-barrier breaking Concorde.

Our new year hymns are full of hope. A dream of a peaceful, happy, prosperous world. A belief that things can get better. Man-caused suffering is not inevitable; the figurative lion and lamb can co-exist. We sang at the beginning of our service “… let the new years shame the old”; we shall sing as the service ends of “…nobler modes of life/With sweeter manners, purer laws”.
There is no rationing of inspiring goals, neither are resolutions in short supply. We come here today with a desire for change; a passion to see a world which is better than anything which has gone before. We know that an anniversary is a marking post for reflection about changing ourselves and influencing as best we can alterations to the world around us. At the same time, we accept that individually our influence is small, but collectively great changes are possible. Instant transformation, commonplace in the climax of the traditional pantomime scene at Christmas and New Year, is make-believe, not experienced in the real lives of the audience. Things can and do grow better, if we so will it, albeit at a pace which seems infuriatingly slow.

But this year let us note the words concluding the short prayer used from time to time in our service:“be with us in our dreaming, then turn our hands to the plough.”

Let us resolve this New Year that though we awoke to find that “the world it was the old world yet” we shall not despair and wail that “nothing now remains to do, but begin the game anew”. That is, unless the game is to join those who, slowly as it may be, have enough faith to believe that transformation scenes are possible; given time, patience and determination.

Happy New Year, and may all your resolutions be intact this time next year.

C. J. Rosling 3rd January 2004

Hucklow 4 January 2004

Sunday Sermon – 5 January 2020

Bradford Broadway Anniversary

An anniversary, be it a personal one, or a church one as today, is, among other things, an occasion for reminiscence and historical musing.

The Church I attended as a child in Stalybridge, eight miles from Manchester City centre, where my father was minister, was built in 1870, the Sunday school, now demolished, pre-dating this by some five years. I recall as a boy watching the anniversaries approach sixty and then seventy years, and thinking that perhaps one day I would see the hundredth anniversary. Well I have. That has come and gone.

And now today, in this affectionately named “tin tabernacle”, where my grand-father preached as its first minister, and where my father must have worshipped as he grew up, the thought crosses my mind that I would like to be present at the centenary of this building. Not too long to go now, but who knows what fate has in store.

When this temporary structure, as it was regarded, was erected, nigh on a hundred years ago, was it expected to survive into the following century? I suspect not. But thanks to the devotion of many, and the building and repair skills of a few, it continues to serve a community, much changed in many respects from 1906, but with spiritual needs which are timeless.

One may observe that today is simply a date. As with a birthday, normally nothing is dramatically different, for change and ageing is a continuous process, imperceptible from one day to the next, a movement scarcely detected, like the advancing fingers of a clock. There is nevertheless a sense of occasion in celebrating an anniversary; to look forward with optimism as one enters another year, is an exciting prospect.

But let us first look back to the past. Though I never knew my grand-father, for he died several years before I was born, he must have been a remarkable man. Born in Lincolnshire into a poor Catholic farm labouring family, after not a deal of formal schooling, he worked whilst yet a child to help support the family. He practised as a Methodist lay preacher, then enrolled at Glasgow University to prepare for entry to the Congregational Church ministry. Later, after spell as a minister in Belfast, where my father was born, appointed to a charge in Oban. Finally to Bradford, where he left Congregationalism for reasons of conscience. Bringing many of his flock with him, he entered this Unitarian church as its first minister.

Conscience seems to have directed his spiritual calling. “Unto thine own self be true,” must have been a quotation with which he was familiar. He chose the hard path of putting honest belief before material security. and preached accordingly.

Historically, two words are linked with those who rejected the teachings of an established church; non-conformists and dissenters. Earlier such folk had been labelled heretics, to be persecuted, tortured and put to death, lest they contaminate the truth as perceived by the orthodox rulings of authoritarian priests. If heresy is no longer so punished, then dissent and a refusal to conform continue to be irritants to the establishment, not only in religion but in other aspects of life as well.

Though I am unclear about the nature of his disagreements, there is no doubt that William Rosling was a dissenter. Newspaper cuttings of the time both in Oban and Bradford quote him as saying that he would not, and could not, preach against his conscience – the classic statement made by those in the latter half of the seventeenth century when many left the Anglican church to form their own churches and chapels. It would be surprising if the authorities from whom William Rosling dissented were not irritated by his stubbornness, as were the divines of the second half of the 1600’s in their generation, for dissenters invariably have that effect upon establishments.
Many of the seventeenth century dissidents took the extremely hazardous step of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in small ships, enduring unbelievable discomfort, to start new lives in the colonies, where they might worship as they chose. The fortitude, determination and strength of character of those early dissenters, non-conformists who would not pretend to believe that which offended their intellect, is a matter of wonder to us today.

Grand-father Rosling did not emigrate, but stayed in Bradford to build upon the foundations of a new emerging church. It is right and proper that on an anniversary day we pause, ponder and give recognition to our forebears. Looking back is part of the purpose of an anniversary, albeit only a part.

Earlier I linked anniversaries with birthdays. To the young, a birthday is not a time to look back, but marks the occasion when a new phase of life starts. The child, later the young person, says – now I am old enough to go to school; now I can stay up later before being sent to bed; now I am older my pocket money should increase; shortly I shall move to the secondary school; tomorrow I can apply for a driving licence; at last I can (legitimately) go to the pub; we sing, twenty-one today, for now I’ve got the key of the door. To the young, birthdays are entrance portals, not rear-view mirrors.

Somewhere in middle life, a change occurs. Looking back and gazing forward are both part of the birthday experience. Sadly perhaps, the old man or the old woman will start looking back only, and forgetting the scene in front, for that ceases to be of relevance. To come to that is to lose all interest or faith in the future, and to live in a world that has passed into history.

Here in Bradford Broadway today we have moved from a new-born church celebrating future prospects with no past to recall, like the young child on his birthday. I trust we have attained the middle-age stage, when we can look back with some pride at what has gone, but also forward with hope for what can yet be. We can hope for the future as we learn from the past. What shouldn’t and mustn’t happen is that we celebrate like the old man by the fireside, with memories only and no ambition for the future.

Our times today are seen as troublesome and anxious. But perhaps we ought to think back to the times when our forefathers were meeting and founding this Chapel. It was by no means a time of quietness. The old order was changing. Suffragettes began to demand the vote, universal education meant that many were more able to question the rules that governed society

Within eight years of Broadway Avenue Church opening, the terrible World War One was wantonly destroying young lives. Families here in Bradford, as elsewhere in the land, waited anxiously, praying in this very chapel fervently, that no telegram would come with the dreadful news that another husband, brother, son or father would not return from the mud of Flanders.

In earlier times, our dissenting fore-fathers risked further hardship in order to worship in a manner of their choice, and according to their conscience. Their courage, which at the time some no doubt referred to as obstinacy, mulish stupidity or in similar terms, is something which we must not forget today as we worship in freedom, and with no fear of prosecution for our beliefs.

We pay tribute today to those who worshipped in faith, and expounded a conviction that freedom of worship was a core right in a civilised society.

And what were those strongholds? Not to sacrifice truth to expediency. Not to fear man, but rather to love God. That worship is the nourishment upon which faith feeds and by which it is sustained. That love of God and love of neighbour are not separate, but indivisible parts of a whole. That our duty, our obligation, is not merely to the present, but to bequeath to the future the wisdom of the past, modified by the experiences of the present.
These and other tenets were the bricks of faith with which those long dead built this Chapel, both in a physical sense but also in a metaphorical sense. That this building as a symbol of the devotion of men and women should continue is important. That the unseen temple built from bricks of truth shall be safe-guarded is imperative. In both may God preserve our coming in and our going out.

The heroes and heroines of religious dissent, and the founders of this Chapel had this in common – they lived with their eyes on the future, not to bask in memories of the past. In our celebration today, let us by all means pay tribute to our fore-fathers, but our main focus must be on the future.

What challenges does the future hold? William Rosling and his children, living and growing up in this part of Bradford would find much to astonish them if they were miraculously to walk around the city today. The diversity of cultures would be a surprise. Places of worship, churches and chapels, are joined not only by synagogues, but by mosques and temples. The Yorkshire dialect now spoken by Bradfordians whose parents and grandparents once lived in lands which were shown as red on a map of the British Empire, now no more.

First then, as we look forward, we recalling that our ancestors struggled and suffered as they insisted that religious tolerance was a central to their faith. Today, where much strife and antagonism in our land and throughout the world is rooted in religious intolerance, the challenge to us is to preach and practice tolerance, understanding and inclusiveness in this changed world.
Secondly, working alongside your new spiritual leader, the challenge for the future is to ensure consolidation, growth and renewal. The fundamentals of faith remain tried and tested by history. But the means of expression, perhaps the forms of worship, certainly the reaction to the pressures inherent in today’s society, must be relevant to this century.

Thirdly, it is to go into the coming days with the affirmation spoken earlier in this service ever before our eyes. The Jews of ancient times wore a small leather box strapped to their forehead. It contained the scriptural words reminding them that it was their duty to love God and honour family members. The demands of their faith were literally always before their eyes as they went about their daily business. Figuratively, the words spoken earlier in this service,

“To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love and to help one another”

Should remain before our mind’s eye as we go forward into the future. At midnight on New Years Eve, it is traditional for church bells to ring out the old and to welcome the new. There is no bell tower or belfry here in this place of worship, but let us listen to the chimes within our hearts and minds as we celebrate what has passed, but more importantly, welcome with hope, optimism and enthusiasm the beginning a new year for Broadway Avenue Unitarian Church.

C.J. Rosling

Bradford 15 October 2000

Sunday Sermon – 29 December 2019

Golden Windows

At our bedside we have a radio alarm. It must be at least thirty years old, but it works. I set it for, say, eight o’clock, Radio 4 news switches on and the day begins. Well not quite. A period of floating in a sea which lies between the shores of dreamland and the beaches of the stark land of hard reality is a prelude. A pleasant voyage on the Sea of Tranquillity. One drifts idly between two continents, the news-reader drones on, and I catch on phrases from what is being reported, remembering little of it. Finally the ocean current washes me ashore at the foot of the climb inland, marooned to experience the joys and pain of a new day.

A few mornings ago I was being told through a sleepy haze that some-one, some-where, was expressing alarm because addiction to shopping is apparently on the increase. There are those, it is said, who have a compulsion to shop and shop without stop. Or at any rate, until they drop. At that point I drifted off again for a few more minutes. I dreamt of shopping. It was not a pleasant reverie.

I consider that whatever addictions I might fall prey to, I am safe from compulsive shopping. Where there are those who live to shop, I am driven to enter store or emporium only when it is necessary to shop to live. As chauffeur and porter I have to accompany Marie, my wife, on regular shopping trips, most frequently to the super-market. She enjoys it. I, at best, tolerate it.

Though I have lately had to take responsibility, though only temporarily I hope, for shopping, this is not the norm. In the normal routine, Marie knows it is no use giving me the list in order to share the burden, or occupy my mind, for I invariably get the wrong thing, the wrong colour, the wrong brand, or the wrong size. So I amuse myself and try to be helpful by tidying the shelves, or pushing the trolley into places where it won’t be in every-one else’s way.

The other day I was trying to park the trolley away from the bustling crowd, without much success, when a lady, watching my efforts, said, “It’s no use, where-ever you go you will be in the way!” She was absolutely right. So I abandoned the trolley and went to the cafe for a cup of tea. Then sat on a chair near the check-out and read the paper.

Some weeks ago a shopping expedition took us to an establishment which boasted of no place of refreshment. I was instructed to wait by the entrance, and not to wander off. A couple of chairs are to be found near the door. One was occupied by an old man. Actually he was about my age, but then one naturally thinks of others being old, whereas I know that I am in the prime of life. Or, as I read recently, some-one described his own years as being in the springtime of one’s senility.

I sat down and immediately the old man struck up a conversation. Not really so much a conversation as a monologue. It was one long moan. The general theme was, day by day, things were getting steadily worse. Kids played outside his house, shouting and running about. I quote, “At our age we can do without that”. The boys played football in the road, and from time to time kicked the ball over his fence. They then opened his gate to retrieve it. When he told them to go away and play some-where else, they cheeked him before running off. Pointing out, I dare-say, that he didn’t own the road. Children nowadays were not the angels they were in his youth. At least, that was the general drift.

I thought it wise not to reveal I was a retired teacher, as that would have started off a new diatribe. I wondered silently to myself if, as a boy, he had ever played in the streets, and if he did, was it quietly, speaking in a low voice, walking on tip-toe and never running about? Did his ball never go over a garden hedge? But he had gone before I got round to asking him.

Later I thought of an old book which was used in my youth as a basis for Sunday School lessons. It was a book of short stories, each illustrating a moral. The volume was named, as often is the case, after the title of the first of the stories. This was, “The House with the Golden Windows”. Perhaps some of you remember the story. Let me briefly remind those who either are unfamiliar with it, or have forgotten it.

A house stood at the top of a hill. Below the hill was the valley with a further hill rising beyond. A second house occupied the crest of that far bank. In the first house, the back of which looked to the east, lived a boy with his family.

The boy would look across the valley at the second house, wondering about its inhabitants. He noticed that every morning, as the sun rose at the back of his own home, the rays glinted on the windows of the distant building. Those windows shone, and were quite clearly of gold. One day, he determined to visit this wonderful house with windows of gold.

Eventually he started off on the journey. Down the hill, fording the river in the valley, and up the other side. It was a long way, a day’s walk. It was evening when he reached the distant homestead. Disappointedly, he viewed the windows and saw that they were, not of gold, but of plain glass. The sun was setting and he looked back over the valley at his own home. The evening rays glinted on his windows and now they were revealed as shining like gold.
It is a simple story on a familiar theme. Sometimes it is expressed by saying the grass over the fence is greener. Did not Petula Clark once sing a popular song about this? Sometimes the same sentiment takes the form of believing that the apples on the neighbour’s tree taster sweeter than our own.

The old man who, for a few minutes, sat by my side near the door of a retailer thought of a golden age when everything was so much better. I know nothing of his life, but I suspect that much of it had been spent bewailing the present, and, as it were, looking across valleys seeing that others had golden windows, whilst resenting the fact that his were of plain glass.

Count your blessing one by one, the Victorians used to say. Physically and materially we have so much better living conditions than was true in the past. The drudgery which was house-work is so much easier than it was for our mothers and grand-parents. Many of the slums, which were barely more than hovels, have disappeared. Most people in this country are better fed, better housed, warmer and healthier than has ever been the case. This in spite of the fact that homelessness and poverty by no means have been eliminated. There is much more to do, but let us not pretend nothing has got better. That everything is now so much worse. These are improvements in the physical sense, material changes for the better. Less easy to measure progress in the sensory world, let alone the spiritual domain.

If we are not careful, we shall fall into the trap of believing real charity, selfless service and consideration for others has gone from the land. This is a falsehood. I know, and I am sure you know, many who give of their time, their money and their skills as they serve the community in a variety of voluntary organisations. And not all are of one age group. There are young people, middle-aged and older folk who are thoughtful of their neighbours’ needs. Loutishness and boorish behaviour make screaming headlines; daily courtesies seldom do.

The danger of ever looking across the valley at the golden windows of others, or looking backwards with nostalgic rose-coloured spectacles whilst decrying the present, is that we become morose, bitter and arguably even worse, self-centred. We ever bemoan our fate, we never offer our service. And that to my way of thinking is irreligious.

One of my favourite New Testament readings is from the Book of James. The passage about faith and works. You can’t have one without the other, to borrow a quotation from an old popular song concerned with love and marriage. If we think things only get worse, if we never cherish what we have. If we live unto ourselves with no regard for others, then we are denying one of those three pillars of Christian religion of which Paul wrote. For we are lacking in Faith, with Hope little more than an idle dream, devoid of expectation. The greatest may be Charity, but let us not devalue Faith and Hope.

Despair will never improve upon what we have now. The challenge is to make the world a better place. Our encouragement is seeing what has already been achieved. The coupling of faith with works is the mechanism by which our fore-bearers made progress to a better life.

There is a tendency to think, or imply, that making the world a better place is a task for the great and the good. It is true that a number of thinkers, philosophers, philanthropists, statesmen and women, scientists and inventors, whose names fill the history books, have made huge and lasting changes which have improved the lot of uncounted millions. None of us here will make such claims for ourselves. But all of us have the ability to couple faith with works.

Much of joy in life is given and received not from the few figures who adorn pages of history, but by the small actions of the anonymous many. Hope is not nurtured by envious eyes cast at the green pastures over on the other side, but by cherishing that which we have, and sharing our portion with others.

We too have golden windows. To do something about the rest of the structure which may need some attention, is the task to which we should commit ourselves.

The parable of the talents is one about which I’ve never felt too comfortable. Then I suppose it depends upon the interpretation. What I do feel comfortable with is the notion that, whatever talent, gift or skill one may possess, it should be used to the benefit of others. To pretend that one has nothing to offer, even though it is merely a smile or a word of encouragement, is sinful, is unchristian. To moan that things were once much better, but fail to contribute to efforts to improve matters, is deplorable.

I know it sounds condescending to say so, but I felt sorry for the man I met by chance whilst avoiding strolling around the shelves and racks of the store. I felt sorry, not out of a feeling of superiority, but because I know that his dismal view of the world harmed no-one more than himself. He sounded without hope; he appeared to be without faith; charity was absent from his discourse. Joy seemed to play no part in his life. The exhilaration which comes from service to others was missing.

To live a life gazing at the mirages of golden windows, whether they be conjured up by nostalgia for a past that never really was, or by a present where paradise is always over the distant ridge, is to live in a slough of despond, a morass created by oneself. How much more exhilarating it is to observe that one lives in a mansion whose windows glow like gold, if only one looks at them from the right angle.

C.J. Rosling 14 July 2004

Venue unknown

Sunday Sermon – 22 December 2019

Peace at Christmastime

December. Season of carols, Christmas cards, mysteriously shaped parcels; frantic, desperate last minute shopping, flashing credit cards in hands giving no thought for the morrow, home to open envelopes with puzzled brow. “Who on earth are Edna and Graham?” we ask, as we look at the inscription on the inside of the card, the front of which shows a red breasted robin stranded on a log in a snow-covered landscape. “The post-mark seems to be Skegness. I didn’t think we knew anybody in Skegness.”

Read the printed messages inside cards, scan the verses of those well-loved, favourite carols, observe the messages hung in shops and stores with the letters outlined in tinsel, and one stumbles over again and again the words “peace”, “goodwill”, “happiness”, “joy” along with similar nouns and adjectives, reminding us that this anniversary is a celebration of delight; a time when lion and lamb can be expected to snuggle up to one another, secure and safe in one another’s company.

I was musing about Christmastime the other day and I wondered idly why Christmas had become a symbol of peace. Rather strange on the face of it, when you come to think about it. But then there is much that is illogical about the Christmas festival.

Take the story of the nativity around which the Christmas celebration is built. Joseph and Mary lived in an occupied land. A cruel tyrant, Herod, ruled, relying on his Roman masters to maintain him in power. The Roman overlords required a census to be taken under such rules that the heavily pregnant Mary, accompanied by her husband Joseph, had to make a long arduous journey, only to find at the end of it that there was nowhere to stay. They realised their plight just as Mary was coming into labour. Eventually, they did manage to find some shelter in an animal shed. One might get the impression from some carols that the place smelt sweetly of hay, but I believe in reality, without going into too much detail, it must have stunk to high heaven.

In such a setting, in labour, suffering the agonies of child-birth, I can hardly imagine the words “peace”, “joy”, “goodwill to all” were going through the parents’ minds.

We all know from daily reports on the radio and in the papers, that in present times, the land in which Jesus was born, where he grew up, preached and taught, and finally was executed, is not today a region at peace. But neither was it as the calendar changed BC to AD. Indeed, as even those with only a cursory knowledge of the Old Testament will ready recognise, the area had been a centre of armed conflict and dispute for centuries, long before Mary and Joseph found a make-shift maternity ward which doubled as a shelter for domestic animals.

Captured and transported time and again into slavery, in Babylon and Egypt, the Jews had experience of defeat in battle. Between times, successful campaigns had been fought by Israelite kings and others against invading tribes and armies. A heroic account of how the walls of Jericho had been breached comes to mind, no doubt followed by pillage and rape. The description of the manner in which Goliath came to be laid low is part of folk-law. Bethlehem, the birthplace of the of the child whose nativity we celebrate, was known as the City of David. David’s reputation had been built upon his successes as a leader of armies.

Is it not strange then that the birth of a child in an occupied country, a turbulent land long used to battle, a member of a race whose best-loved, long revered King was a conquering army general, should have inspired people the world over to talk of peace on earth and goodwill to all men and women?

Let me come back to this linking of Christmas with peace in a moment, for another thread crosses my mind.

Christmas is frequently described as family time. Christmas cards will stress this theme as they picture the Christmas tree or the laden table with all the family gathered round, laughing, smiling upon one another, welcome and affection in their eyes.

Presents are opened by wide-eyed, grateful children as their elders smile benignly. Adults receive tokens of affection, wrapped in coloured paper tied with ribbon, from their spouses and relatives. In traditional scenes of Dickensian bonhomie, toasts are drunk and gargantuan turkeys carved. The only tears are those caused by excess laughter. Such are the scenes which are used to illustrate the Christmas festival. The land may be gripped with winter frosts, but the warm hearts within the breast more than compensate.

Yet I have read reports by professionals, from children’s charities and other relevant charities, expert on the nature of relationships within families, that Christmas is frequently a crisis period when incidents of domestic violence rise, and physical abuse of children increases. Stress grows and explodes in violence. Not all is peaceful and calm in some homes amidst the celebration of the birth of a babe lying in a manger.

However, I must not become a kill-joy. A miserable scrooge saying “Bah” to Christmas and to those who join round the table with joy in their hearts, minds full of hope, words of genuine good-will on their lips. In spite of the contradictions, in the face of much tatty tinsel, commercial exploitation, false sentimentality and the rest, Christmas does succeed, if only temporally, to bring comfort and joy in numerous ways. Numbers of homeless are invited to come inside from the street, given food and warmth. Children whose lives are blighted in one way or another, are treated with generosity, some lonely are offered companionship for the day, charity appeal boxes are filled, consciences are pricked, old friends remembered.

Within our own communities and family circles, we suddenly renew contacts which should never have been neglected. We think, if only for a short time, beyond our immediate circle, and generosity wins a temporary victory against selfishness.

I spoke a moment or two ago of the stresses Christmas brings in some family circles over the Christmas period. No doubt a deal of that is due to the fallibility of human beings. But I have no doubt that pressures are added because of the ever-growing commercialising of Christmas, with relentless advertising, encouragement to spend and pay off the debt later. If sales are up on last year, that is good. If sales are merely steady, that is disappointing. If spending is down, that is disastrous. Peace of mind, joy and contentment, is incompatible with huge debt burdens. Charles Dicken’s character, Mr. Micawber memorably commented upon that fact that expenditure which exceeded income brought misery.

Perhaps we miss the point, as we often do. Christmas is not a time when the world changes. It is a time when we shield the flickering flame of hope as we tentatively raise our sights and see that the world might be changed for the better. It doesn’t have to be how it is now, given the will, things could be so different.

Certainly the child whose birth we honour was not born in a peaceful land, at ease with itself. His home-land was not free from strife. But his preaching and teaching through adulthood were about peaceful co-existence, love and charity, not of warfare and conquest. Like many before him, as well as a number who followed after, though the reward was violent death, the message did not waver. Violence begets violence, love and understanding lead on to peace.

We all have our favourite carols, I imagine. One of my favourites is the one we shall sing to close our service this morning, “It came upon a midnight clear.” It recognises the world as it is – far from peaceful, not even peace-loving in many respects. Yet there is a message. If only we would shut up for a bit, stop shouting at one another, peace could become a reality, not just for a day or two at the end of December, but throughout the rest of the year.

Just before I started to speak, we sang words in another of my favourite carols, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. May I remind you of them.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said.
“For hate is strong
And mocks the song:
Goodwill to all and peace on earth!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, and does not sleep!
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail –
Goodwill to all, and peace on earth!”

So it is right to link Christmas with peace and goodwill, even if that is in hope, and with confidence that one day reality will match our dreams. Happy, peaceful Christmas

Hucklow 15 December 2002

Sunday Sermon- 15 December 2019

Messages on the Wall

My knowledge of the bible is rather superficial. If it were not so, I would be able to put my finger on the exact passage I was searching for. But I can’t. I know that it is in the Old Testament, and probably in one of the early books – possibly Exodus or Leviticus – but just where, a quick scan has been unsuccessful in locating. Thinking about it now, it must surely come after the account of how the ten commandments were collected by Moses on stone tablets from the mountain summit.

The passage I am seeking refers to the injunction upon Hebrews to place in a small leather box fastened to the forehead (I think it was called a frontlet), and in the cylindrical container fixed to the door-posts of their houses, the text of, if memory serves me rightly, the first two commandments. Thus the true believer would be constantly reminded to love God and honour his elders and ancestors. Or then again, perhaps it contained all the commandments.

As usually happens with me, what brought the elusive passage to mind was a quite unrelated, trivial event – a card my daughter brought back from an American holiday. She gave to my wife, who framed it and placed on the wall by the front door. It reads, “Do you want to speak to the man of the house, or to the woman who knows what’s going on?” The implication that I don’t know what is going on is quite scurrilous. However daughters and wife are firmly of that opinion. I have lost the argument, and so the matter rests.

Placing texts, sayings and slogans upon the walls of buildings has a long tradition. In mediaeval times those on the churches would frequently be in Latin. The chapels of the Victorian era had texts from the bible in English, enjoining the congregations to seek the Lord, or worship in holiness. Framed samplers, poems, quotations and the like have been hung upon the walls of our homes, certainly since Victorian times, and possibly earlier than that. In the last century a common injunction was to “Bless this house” or the statement that “Home is where your heart is”, or possibly “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”. Modern texts are inclined to be less pious. A mother I know has a notice in her kitchen, “You have two choices for dinner, you can either take it or leave it”.

Perhaps the modern equivalent of the frontlet is the T-shirt emblazoned with words, sometimes funny, occasionally rather rude, often with a political or social message. But, in contrast with the ancient Hebrew leather box, seldom carrying a religious text. The frontlet, the small box containing the text hanging on the forehead, was there so that the holy words were literally before the wearer’s eyes at all times. Wherever he or she went, however the head was turned, there in front was the word of God. The wearers could not be unsure of the obligations religion imposed upon them, and which were accepted. As the Jew entered or left his house he would touch the small cylinder on the door-post in an act of obeisance, and as a reminder of the demands of his faith.

The text on the wall, the cylinder on the door-post, the ornament on the head, or even the sticker in the car rear window, in addition to reminding the owner of his opinions, serve another purpose. They say something about the owner or the occupier to the world at large. Sometimes it is a simple message or slogan, or a demonstration of the sense of humour of he or she who displayed it. But the ancient Jew gave a more substantial message to the world about himself. It was, “I am a Jew and as such I accept a way of life which requires me to love my God, the only true God, to honour my parents, to refrain from actions which the religious law prohibits, and to undertake the obligations my faith demands of me.”

In other words, the display was both a private reminder and a public demonstration of belief. And both aspects of faith are essential to the good life.

Let us take first the private reminder. A common theme of a number of hymns we sing, and the prayers we repeat, is that we must have before us, constantly, an awareness of the essential bricks of which the house of faith is constructed. The need for tolerance and understanding; the place of forgiveness, charity and humility; reverence and awe are a part of our religion, as are exultation and joy. The Jew of old put them literally in front of his eyes. We may not do that, but yet they should be, to coin a phrase, at the front of minds.

All of us know how easy it is to repeat sincerely the tenets of faith, and then to fudge them, or forget them in the course of daily life. It is one thing to say we must forgive those who trespass against us, it is quite another to put that noble aim into practice. Love of neighbour is a central plank of Christian belief, but applying it in real situations can be, to put it mildly, at times sorely trying. And so it goes for many of the other articles of faith.
The Jews of old were probably, nay certainly, patchy, as we are today, in the application of high ideals to everyday life. But they endeavoured to remind themselves of what was required of them from their God. The words were constantly before them. Their houses had the texts upon the entrances and exits. Most of us, dare I say all of us, have selective memories and an ability to over-look the inconvenient. We need reminding of our vows as was once said on the theme of forgiveness, not seven times, but seventy times seven.

If the words are not literally before our eyes as was the case with the Jews of the Old Testament then, we have to carry before us, at least figuratively, our statement of belief, as a reference against which we measure our actions.

And now to the second point; that of displaying before the world our posters and placards, our texts and stickers. I said they say something about ourselves to others. True as that is, it is not always the case that what is portrayed is to our advantage. Sometimes we see slogans and messages on walls which are intended to humiliate others, or to fill them with fear. We have all seen photographs and film clips from Belfast or Londonderry of wall murals proclaiming hatred, or twisted, triumphal rejoicing. And in our own towns and cities graffiti attacking minority populations is, sadly, all too prevalent. Those responsible for such scribblings say much about themselves, as they proclaim a message which both saddens and disgusts most of us. Other messages are comparatively innocuous. Seeking to persuade in some way, or advertising our membership of a group or our profession perhaps.

But the important messages about us are today’s equivalent of the ancient Jewish frontlet and the text on the portals of the house. They may not be visible in the sense that the eye may behold them, but they are clear and unmistakable nevertheless.

The Jew who attached the commandments to his home was saying to the world, “I endeavour to live by those precepts, and I invite you to judge me against those standards. I am not hiding the rules by which my life ought to be lived. If I fail I will not, and cannot, pretend the rules are other than they are, or that I was unaware of them.”

Matters are little different for us. Our faith is understood by others in how they see us as we speak to or act towards them. Our real beliefs are interpreted by those who observe our actions. Our neighbour is aware of what our true principles are, not by examining the doors of our houses and our facial features, but through our relationships with him. We may believe that we subscribe to the dogma which includes tolerance, but if that is not how the world judges us, because our deeds and actions contradict this precept, then what is written on the walls of our houses by us is in contrast with the opinion of the world. By your deeds so will you be known.
And if we can put up a message based on love and understanding upon our walls, which is seen by others to be valid and true, so we are also capable as a race of defiling our walls with vile and disgraceful graffiti. We may not physically take our spray paint cans to cover the walls with massages to frighten and denigrate others. But, if by our words, our actions, by our whole demeanour we give out messages of hatred, then it is as if we have actually written the words upon the surface of the buildings.

On the outside of our places of worship we put up posters. They give details of what to expect within – the name of the church, the denomination, the times of services, perhaps a wayside pulpit, occasional sermon subjects and so on. All useful, helpful information to the passer-by.

But as individuals we carry other posters round with us, as sandwich boards hung about us. They proclaim what we believe that we may be reminded – lest we forget. And we write those words ourselves in our own hand. But others add their contribution to our posters. Words that compare statements with deeds. Words that cast us as Priest, Levite or Samaritan; as arrogant hypocrite or humble repentant sinner; as a brother or sister, or as an indifferent bystander.

Our beliefs are the frontlets before our eyes; we must strive to ensure that our walls and gateposts carry the same text. As the words of the hymn put it: “Be what thou seemest, live thy creed…”

C.J. Rosling 3 March 1996

Mexborough 3 March 1996
Hucklow 16 March 1997; Doncaster 10 July 2005; 27 July 1997
Fulwood 11 January 1998

Sunday sermon – 8 December 2019

Signs and Symbols, signifying What?

It is now some years since I saw a chemist shop with the three great vials of coloured liquid in the window. Were they green, red and blue? Possibly they are still to be found, but if they are around I haven’t noticed them. There was a time in my youth when this familiar sign was displayed in every pharmacy window, and when every barber’s shop displayed the red and white striped pole outside. Come to think of it, where are the barbers’ shops? Now replaced by the uni-sex hair stylist. But that is another story.

Long before my time, keepers of taverns hung a bush outside their inns, denoting to the passer-by that alcoholic drink could be found within. Hence the old saying, good wine needs no bush, for the tavern which sold such produce advertised itself through satisfied customers. Yes, shop-keepers and traders, for the major part, no longer use the old traditional signs to advertise their wares. Even the once universal sign of the pawn-broker with the three brass balls is now rarely hung in the high street or the back alley.

The signs date, of course, to the days when few could read, so an easily identified symbol was used to inform the customer of the nature of the business to be found within.

Not that the use of signs has ceased. Indeed they have proliferated in the form of logograms, usually shortened to the word logo. Much time, thought and money is expended upon designing and choosing an appropriate sign, logo or trade-mark by which a company may be recognised. No letterhead, visiting card or advertising poster is complete without the firm’s logo impressed upon it.

New ones are being constantly designed. A year or two ago the crossed fingers of the National Lottery was devised and began to to appear outside shops and super-markets.

A decade ago, British Telecom decided to drop their then current logo, which had a capital “T” made of dashes and dots, in favour of a figure of the pagan god Pan. Millions of pounds were spent on the exercise. Some-one must have considered it worth the cost. But British Telecom are only one of hundreds of commercial, manufacturing, charitable and voluntary institutions adopting new, or adapting old, logos.

The eye-catching sign, be it a Black Horse or Captain Birds-Eye, the umbrella of the Legal and General, the initials or short word – BA, ICI, Oxfam, C of E or RC, is deemed of great importance in the public relations world, or as it prefers to be known, the PR industry.

Logos, or names, are considered as to whether or not they, to use the advertising executives’ jargon, “create the right image”. Do they sound caring, or soft, or honest, or business-like. This one will be rejected as being old-fashioned, another is ambiguous, this one, it is alleged, gives the wrong message. An organisation with which I was connected for many years changed from a hand holding a torch to a stylised hand held out in greeting because, it was said, this was a more caring representation of what we stood for.

We may doubt whether all this effort and expense is worth-while, but so much time, effort, and most of all, money, is expended, perhaps, there must be something in it.

Image is the great “in” word of today. Maybe people do decide, for instance, which political party to vote for according to the logo in current use. Perhaps folk are more likely to vote Labour because it symbolised by a red rose, or support the Conservative candidate whose election literature is headed with flaming torch. No doubt folk did put their savings in that well advertised building society because they like the bee that buzzed about the television screen advertisement.

But common sense, and practical experience tells us that no matter how carefully chosen the logo, no matter how well presented the image, no commercial firm will succeed, no charity will continue to attract support, no bank will fill its branches with customers, unless it effectively fulfils that which it promises. The sign, the logo, shows what the institution is. What the institution does, and how it behaves in doing it, has to be measured and tested by other means.

For instance, are its customers welcomed, and do they leave satisfied? Does the organisation achieve that which it has set itself to do? Is the institution more concerned with its own internal organisation than it is with satisfying the needs of the clientele it serves? Do customers think once bitten, twice shy, or do they come back again and again?

Any organisation which fails to answer satisfactorily these questions, no matter how well-chosen its logo, and whatever the slogans it uses, is doomed to eventual bankruptcy and closure.

One of the oldest logos, one of the simplest to design, and one universally recognised, hasn’t been re-vamped or replaced in nigh on two thousand years. Nor should it be. It consists of but two straight lines, one a little longer than the other and which intersect. We call it a cross. Copies of it abound, some hundreds of years old, some very recent.

It is a marketing man or woman’s dream, for it is recognised all over the world, regardless of language, culture or geographical location. Words are unnecessary, for outside a building it proclaims a place of Christian worship; on a piece of ground it marks a Christian grave; on a book cover it reveals that the contents contain a Christian message; hung round the neck it is a statement of belief.

It stands for a set of values universally recognised, even if not universally accepted. But just as with a commercial company, a charitable organisation, a corporation or a shop, the sign or logo by itself is an empty thing.

If a church shall call itself a Christian place of worship it will surely be judged by those who ask the questions I referred to a moment ago. Let me repeat them.

Are its customers welcomed, and do they leave satisfied? Does the organisation achieve that which it has set itself to do? Is the institution more concerned with its own internal organisation than it is with satisfying the needs of the clientele it serves? Do customers think once bitten, twice shy, or do they come back again and again?

If a man or woman shall proclaim himself or herself a Christian, marked actually or figuratively with a cross, the true test of membership is not the sign but the life the person lives. “..if I am without love” says Paul, “I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal”. Or James “… what is the use for a man to say he has faith when he does nothing to show it?”

The temple Solomon built, following the preparations by his father David, was an outward sign of the inner religious convictions of the people of Israel. It was not an end in itself. It was a place where the experiences of the past might be handed on to the generations which followed. Its glory was not solely in the splendour of its construction, but in the devotion of its worshippers.

In spite of my rather sceptical words, signs and logos are important and do have a value. They are a visible demonstration in a sort of shorthand of something for which we stand. They show, as we display them, that we have joined and been accepted into a corporate body larger than ourselves. If I go around displaying a swastika, that says something about me. Wear a football scarf and my allegiance is known to all.

Equally if my emblem is a simple cross, that ought to say something about me. If I am a Unitarian and my logo is the flaming chalice, again that should be not merely a piece of ornamentation, but a proclamation.

And just as say, the British Telecom engineer whose work is shoddy, or the operator whose manner is offensive, will damage the organisation whatever its logo be. So the proclaimed Christian, will be judged by individual action rather than by professed belief, be he or she Unitarian or from some other denomination.

Unitarians have not universally adorned themselves, or their places of worship with a cross. For some, that symbol may be associated with more orthodox creeds, a greater rigidity in belief than is acceptable to an individual Unitarian. So they have adopted a torch, a chalice, as a symbol of light, of seeking after truth.

But we have been diffident about what is known in the commercial world as marketing. Our symbol is too little known, what is offered is too little displayed. We should set ourselves the task of proclaiming what we stand for; we should prepare ourselves by demonstrating by the lives we lead that our symbol, whether it is a cross, a torch, a chalice, or whatever it be, stands for something precious and desirable; that it affects the lives we lead, and the service we give to others.

There is an old saying about shining like a good deed in a naughty world. Our individual logo may be an illuminated sign, a neon display that all may see if we choose. It is James’ “faith with works”, Paul’s charity, Jesus’ love of neighbour which both design our logos, formulate our slogans.

Let us wear our signs, be they actual or implied, proudly and prominently. Let them be signs of quality, trade-marks on which others may rely, knowing that the service which is offered and the care bestowed is steadfast and sure. And as good wine needs no bush, so the true Christian need display no cross.

Christian, rise and act thy creed,
Let thy prayer be in thy deed;
Seek the right, perform the true,
Raise thy work and life anew.

So we sing the words of our well-known hymn. Let it be our signature tune to complement our logos. And may they be symbols of excellence, and recognised as such.

C.J. Rosling 14 April 1991

Fulwood 14 April 1991; 23 June 1995
Mexborough 9 June 1991; 9 July 1995
Hucklow 8 December 1996; 24 June 2001

Sunday Sermon – 1 December 2019

Snappy Slogans

“If you want to get ahead, get a hat.” So announced the hatters of Luton and elsewhere some years ago. I put my failure to gain a place among the country’s leading figures down to foolishly ignoring that advice. As a schoolboy I wore a cap. Briefly in my teens I owned a trilby until it blew off into a river. As a reluctant army conscript I was obliged to partially cover my cranium with a forage cap. But for the majority of my life my locks have been exposed to the elements; either blowing in the breeze or channelling rivulets of rainwater down my face, dependent upon the prevailing weather conditions. Consequently, so manufacturers of head-gear would have me believe, I am doomed to follow at the rear, rather than proudly marching in the vanguard.

However, my subject this morning is not head-covering, but slogans, catch-phrases, sound-bites and advertising jingles. To gain power and influence in a chosen field you not only need a hat, you need a snappy, memorable phrase. Politicians understand that and so expend much time, effort, and consultancy fees, devising them. “You never had it so good”, Harold Macmillan informed us. “Labour isn’t working,” Margaret Thatcher bemoaned. “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” Mr. Blair promised. It was a politician who inserted “double-whammy” into everyday language. So it goes on. The short, sharp phrase which sticks in the mind is an essential precursor to gaining success in an election.

But the search for a pithy phrase is not confined to politicians. Unsure what else to say, the school-teacher writes ambiguously on the school report, John, or Jane as the case might be, continues to try (the final word ‘everybody’ is omitted). Peter has made some progress, Phillipa is showing some promise, (the exact extent of the progress or promise is not specified). I am sure Joanne’s new teacher will find much to challenge her. Meantime Gregory has made an impression on his class-mates throughout the past year (with his fists and boots, no doubt)..

Comedians have long recognised that the road to fame is best trodden accompanied by a recognised catch-phrase. Older members will recall that Stainless Stephen always enquired of his mother if she could hear him, Tommy Handley’s Mrs. Mopp announced her entrance by asking, “Can I do you now, sir?”. More recently Captain Mainwearing referred to Private Pike as “Stupid boy”, and the department store assistant solicitously asks if you are being served.

The history of marketing branded goods abounds with slogans and one-liners. Every time I see a bottle of bovril I think of the posters on the hoardings of my boyhood showing a man in his pyjamas (today it would be a nubile young lady in a bikini) sitting astride a large bottle of bovril in the middle of the ocean, announcing that “Bovril prevents that sinking feeling.” “Drinka pinta milka day”, was the prescription from the old Milk Marketing Board. Not only the Irish have been assured that Guinness is good for you. I refrain from repeating any of the current marketing slogans lest members of the congregation accuse me of being in the pay of one of the multi-nationals.

A particular rich source of eminently memorable phrases, slogans you might call them, is to be found on the pages of the gospels. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s” is the concentrated essence of a philosophy which could occupy a tome hundreds of pages thick. There is a recognition that many of us, probably most of us, have no intention of withdrawing into monastic seclusion, but prefer to live a social life, working alongside others. Mostly we choose our curtains, paint our houses, buy our tooth-paste, select our groceries, hopefully with some regard to any ethical implications as we make our decisions, but, to be honest, largely with convenience and price in mind. The Caesars who devise those clever TV advertisements ensure we render unto them that they may earn their fat salaries.

But true living requires more than homage at a materialist altar. There are values, ethics, obligations which are not purely materialistic. Worship, compassion, service to others, awe, humility and the rest are not Caesar’s values. So in a pithy statement Jesus summed up a whole philosophy of how life should be lived. Whilst living an everyday existence and paying our dues and taxes, there are other duties required of us. They are to be found in a spiritual kingdom.

There is a whole raft of aphorisms in the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke about inconsistency of standards according to whether they apply to one’s own behaviour, or that of others. Separating wheat from tares, or sheep from goats, comes to mind, or the arresting sentence, “Judge not that you be not judged”. Eyes whose vision is impaired by mote or beam encapsulates in a few words wisdom of the ages, and Jesus gave in a ringing sentence a judgement that a High Court Judge might have taken hours to pronounce, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

And what of that seven word phrase which for many of us expresses what a Christian life should be about. “Love God, love your neighbour as yourself.” Does not that say it all?

The modern marketing director or advertising executive talks of packaging the product. Part of that is about giving what he or she regards as essential information succinctly in easily memorised words. Jingles and slogans are a tool used in this technique. But hundreds of years ago in a simple agrarian land an itinerant preacher with his followers instinctively understood the value of this technique. To mention simply the good Samaritan is to portray a message of caring and compassion. A doctrine of forgiveness lies within the words, the Prodigal Son.

I forget where the passage in the Old Testament is to be found, but somewhere is a reference to the small leather box fastened to the forehead of a devout Jew and to a cylindrical container fixed to the door-posts of the house. They contained just a few words taken from the commandments. They reminded the owner of his obligation to love God and honour his elders and ancestors. Though the ancient Jewish code covered every aspect of life and laid down in considerable detail how the believer’s life should be conducted the core of the message was reduced to the central message, honour both your God and your family.

So the slogan should not be despised because it reduces a message to a few words. It is a quick and convenient way of enabling recognition or of reminding us of a wider message. The comedian’s catch-phrase is his signature tune which he hopes we will welcome. The successful commodity jingle will bring the item to mind, and convince us of its excellence. The religious adage will guide us in life’s important decisions.

But the catch-phrase in itself is but a start, an aide memoire. The advertisement may tell me that this particular washing powder washes whiter than white, but if experience shows that soiled items remain grey, then that particular slogan is discredited. The comedian whose entertainment value is poor will not suddenly achieve success through a catch-phrase. Printing “Love God, love your neighbour” on my T-shirt won’t mean anything unless those values become part of the tapestry of my life.

As I have pointed out, the sound-bite, easily remembered, is not a new phenomena. It goes back generations, over decades and centuries, What is new, or if not new certainly more common, is the tendency to think a sound-bite, a memorable phrase, call it what you will, can stand alone. To recall another phrase from the gospels, Jesus spoke of a house built upon a rock. A clever pun on words, an easily recalled jingle, will be meaningless unless it chrysalises a truth. Should there be no rock on which its foundations rests, the saying preaches of dross, not wisdom.. The catchy phrase should be a summary of, not a substitute for a product, a policy, a philosophy.

It was an American politician, I forget who, speaking of an opponent for office, and drawing attention to what he regarded as windy words belying substance, used the words, “Yes, but where’s the beef.”

All of us know how easy it is to repeat sincerely the tenets of faith, and then to fudge them, or forget them in the course of daily life. It is one thing to say we must forgive those who trespass against us, it is quite another to put that noble aim into practice. Love of neighbour is a central plank of Christian belief, but applying it in real situations can be, to put it mildly, at times sorely trying. And so it goes for many of the other articles of faith.

We use a descriptive expression about speeches which are not backed by behaviour. We call it “paying lip service”. Politicians have in recent years gained a reputation among many of the electorate for insincerity, and even hypocrisy. My observation is not concerned with whether or not that is deserved. But one reason given for this widespread belief is the use of catchy sound-bites which too often have provoked the question, “But where is the beef?”

I have pointed out that Jesus frequently used the arresting short phrase, but it is worth reflecting that they would not have lasted 2,000 years if there was no substance behind them. The phrase was about the reality, not a glib statement hiding indifference.

The catch-word has been long around, and is here to stay. Nothing to be regretted about that, as long as it summarises accurately a reality, and does not hide a vacuum.
I don’t think it right to call it a catch-phrase, but I end my ramblings with that familiar summary word familiar to all church-goers, which means “So be it”. Amen

C.J. Rosling 23 August 2002
Hucklow 25 August 2002
Upper Chapel 27 October 2002