Sunday Sermon – 25 March 2018

Inventors and Discoverers

There are some discoveries or inventions, even if comparatively few, which have changed the course of history. Two of those often referred to, dating from pre-recorded historical times, are the ability to make fire, and the discovery of the wheel. Two crucial discoveries on which the advancement of civilisation critically depended. There are other momentous discoveries which have led to fundamental changes to the way we live, and can be added to the list.

Among examples from more recent times is the ability to generate and harness electrical power, the discovery of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and the invention of the internal combustion engine. Not all discoveries have been to the unreserved benefit of mankind. But beneficial or not, they have led to deep and lasting modifications in the pattern of our lives.

Many of those associated with such grand, earth-changing revelations are undoubted geniuses, some of whose names which are recorded in the history books, whilst the identity of others has been lost over time.

What started me off thinking about great discoveries and inventions was not, as you may be thinking, because I was studying history or reading philosophy, but through a trivial, though at the time important, incident. It was the temporary loss of a product of some-one’s flash of inspiration; the absence of an essential tool which was preventing me completing the task in hand..

One of the most valuable of household tools is surely a pair of scissors. I have no idea which man or woman invented the first pair, but he or she must have been one of those gifted people with the ability to devise a simple solution to a pressing need. Knives have existed from earliest times, even if only in the form of sharp edged stones, but the idea of fastening two knives together to make a pair of scissors must count as the product of an accomplished intellect. Cutting a broken finger nail with a sharpened stone, or even a knife, is not easy. Haircuts in pre-scissors days must have been painful, particularly in the stone age.

My scissors were not in their appointed place on my desk, and I was, quite naturally blaming others. Who had borrowed them and not put them back where they found them? No-one owned up. Actually the scissors were found eventually where I had placed them after last using them. As you would expect, I kept quiet about where the blame really lay, but that is another story. Scissors might not have changed the course of history, but they are one of the essentials of life, for the invention of which we owe eternal gratitude to an unknown genius.

The other simple, modern discovery which has transformed our lives, even if not changing the development of the human race, is of course, sellotape. How ever did we manage without it! We must have struggled on with inadequate substitutes, no doubt, just as we did before biros were produced.

Satisfaction within our lives is crucially dependent upon the contribution of a comparatively small group of inventive people. Take medicine for example. Compared to the population at large, a mere handful of gifted and talented men and women have improved our life expectancy through the discovery of new drugs, appropriate surgical techniques, anaesthetics, nursing methods, vaccines and so on. These innovations have not only lengthened life expectancy, but also improved life quality. (Story of childbirth) Few have the skill, aptitude, mental agility, possibly coupled with good fortune, to uncover secrets, but vast numbers benefit from the contributions of this small number of people. And this continues apace.

Though perhaps discovery and invention are not the most appropriate words to apply to those whose work has lain in the arts – the painters, sculptors, architects, writers, poets, musicians, composers, and many others – a few in all these fields have by their genius or their creative thought, brought joy and happiness to many of us.

The debt owed, to paraphrase Churchill’s ringing tribute to the pilots following the battle of Britain, by the many for the contribution of the few, is not confined to material benefits, or to the area of aesthetic pleasure. It is the insight of prophets, philosophers, preachers, divines and others which has extended our understanding of matters spiritual.

All peoples from earliest times onward have had some form of religion, though initially this was pagan in belief and practice. The development of faiths which have shaped human development – Hinduism, Judaism, Muslim, Confucian, Christian and many others religions – has been through the influence, writing and preaching of the few. Just as the invention of fire or the wheel advanced human progress, so the pronouncements and analysis by religious giants have advanced human understanding.

But, as in the other areas of human progress, not all inventions or discoveries have been as dramatic as that of the discovery of fire or electricity. Biros, sellotape or pairs of scissors may not have changed the world, but they have made life easier and more convenient.

So in religious and spiritual development, there has been the equivalent of the invention of the pencil sharpener and the potato peeler, the drawing pin and the non-stick saucepan. Minor in the history of human advancement they may be, but all have played a part in adding to the sum of human happiness.

Prophets and religious leaders have opened the way to great advances, or have changed the direction of exploration, but numerous others have added a cog here, mapped a field there, stanched a wound and applied a salve. Human knowledge and happiness grows not only, to use another analogy, because some have given large sums, but also because widows have donated mites.

I remember wondering, when a child, if we had not nearly reached the end of wonders still to be discovered. After all, we had steam ships, aeroplanes, wireless sets, cars, electric trams, trolley buses, type-writers and telephones. We had named all the elements, and we had surveyed the heavens with our telescopes. Surely, there could not be much more in store.

My father died in 1947 whilst I was still a young man. He had never having seen a mobile telephone, (lucky man some might add), a television set, a photo-copier, a pocket calculator, a computer, a supermarket till which read prices on a bar code, a compact disc, a parking meter, a video recorder or much more which is commonplace today. No man then had trod on the surface of the moon, in no person’s breast beat a heart taken from another. Everest was unclimbed and cling-film unknown. As a child I thought as a child, and did not realise how much there was still for the world to learn.

What a long way we have come, with the help of thinkers, preachers and philosophers, both great and small, from the primitive, pagan beliefs of our forebears. Can there really be much further to go? How foolish the question. Compared with the advancement in material goods, we have scarcely begun the journey; childlike as we are, maybe we do not realise how much there is still to learn. We see through the glass dimly, not comprehending just how obscure is the lens.

Future advances in thought about, and understanding of, the spiritual world there will be. Some perhaps as dramatic and world shattering as the invention of the electric dynamo and the electric motor, many others more akin to the letter opener – helpful but not life-changing. We marvel at our inventive powers in the material and the artistic world, but we shall neglect the advancement of our spiritual understanding and maturity at our peril.

In the world of material things, in areas of art, literature, economics, music and the like, few of us are or ever will be, even minor innovators, let alone discoverers of world changing ideas or concepts. In the realm of religious development the out-standing thinkers and philosophers are few.

But the few do from time to time push us towards greater understanding of the meaning and purpose of life, of our relationships with others, and with that power we call God.

In this world of religion, we are all potential discoverers in the practical task of living what, in short-hand, we might call the good life. Within the larger framework we build our own structure. We adopt and adapt as we are influenced by others and as we are taught by personal experience.

Children often learn best by personal discovery. They re-invent or rediscover what is all ready known to the adult, but which comes new and revealing to them. The experience of exploration strengthens the lesson learned.

So it is within our religious experiences. We are as little children. We must become investigators and discoverers ourselves. So we learn, for example, the fulfilment of meditation, the purpose of self-examination, the joy of corporate worship, the value of solitary contemplation.

The inventor produces a pair of scissors. How we use them, for what purpose, and with what result, we invent for ourselves. The unknown genius discovered the wheel, which enables us to construct a chariot of war or a ambulance. The scientist reveals the secrets of the atom which we may use in a bomb or to build a power station to light a city.

Seers and thinkers have led men and women into the great religions of the world. Sometimes, too often sadly, instead of peace and understanding this has led to Sikh attacking Hindu, Muslim and Jew into strife, Protestant and Catholic into mutual terrorism.

As in all fields of life inventors give us the tools and the framework. We as individuals and nations, invent and discover how we take and use the gifts, for an inventor must have not only power, but responsibility.

It is as we proceed down the road of religious discovery that we take a small step towards achieving that responsibility. Material goods ease the path of living, but the quality of life lies in our attitudes and beliefs. Man may live without the aid of the products of the ingenious inventor, but his soul survives only as he learns the lessons preached by the religious leader as he maps the road to divine understanding. And we become explorers in our own right, discovering for ourselves the truths that ease our living, and smooth our path.

C.J. Rosling.  27 June 1993

Fulwood:  27 June 1993, 21 January 2001
Mexborough:   31 Oct 1993, 15 June 1997
Chesterfield:  22 May 1994
Hucklow:  12 June 1994, 5 July 1998, 7 Aug 2005

Sunday Sermon – 18 March 2018

Price and value

Way back, at the end of the thirties, after leaving school and getting a job, I travelled daily to work on the train. Not one of your modern diesel or electric inter-city transporters, not a sprinter which stops when the wrong kind of snow or autumn leaves fall, or a pay-train, more like a bus than a proper train, but a train with soot-grimed carriages pulled by a locomotive which poured thick black smoke from a stubby funnel and clouds of white steam from various orifices about its body. LMS or LNER was painted on its side.

Running through the carriage compartments, from front carriage to guard’s van, was a red chain with the forbidding message printed below it, “Communication Cord. Penalty for improper use £5”. At the time I wondered what happened when the cord was pulled; did the train squeal to a sudden halt; were fines ever levied. That was in 1939. Eleven years were to pass, to the summer of 1950, before I was actually a passenger on a train when the cord was pulled – improperly.

The Sheffield Star and Telegraph newspapers ran, for a number of years following the war, an annual appeal to send children from poor families for a day at the seaside during the summer. Cleethorpes was the chosen destination. The chief organiser was one “Uncle Timothy”, if memory is remains true. I believe this was a nom-de-plume. In real life, among other pursuits, Uncle Timothy served as a Sheffield City Councillor.

On several successive Saturdays around June and July, a special train left Midland Station for Cleethorpes packed with children, supervised by adult volunteers, mainly teachers. Thus it was I went one Saturday to the seaside, along with twenty excited twelve and thirteen year olds from the Sheffield Flower Estate. In spite of the idyllic names of roads in that area – Bracken, Bluebell, Daffodil, Foxglove, Heather, Hyacinth, Lilac, Primrose – it was, and still is, a Sheffield Council Estate where ugliness of poverty blights the area.

On arrival in Cleethorpes the children were fed, presented with ten shillings worth of vouchers to spend in the fun fair and turned loose on the town. At teatime they gathered for fish and chips and ice cream, were addressed by Uncle Timothy who, shouting to make himself heard over the din, thanked, on the children’s behalf, the generosity of the benefactors; then all of us were shepherded back on to the train for the journey home.

We hadn’t been travelling on the return journey to Sheffield for very long when the train slowed and eventually juddered to a halt. Shortly the guard appeared. Our carriage had been identified as the one in which the communication cord had been pulled. Eventually a boy owned to having jerked the cord in the lavatory, pleading, improbably, that he had mistaken it for the flush.

He was lectured sternly on the risks to life and limb, and the dire consequences which would follow a repeat performance. Mercifully no fine was imposed, and the journey proceeded without further incident. No doubt the culprit felt the risk had been worth it. Possibly he boasts of it yet.

It was then I realised that the name “communication” given to the emergency chain was ill-chosen. According to the dictionary, communication includes the exchange of ideas to facilitate greater understanding and sympathy. It is a means of spreading knowledge. It is also, as the old saying has it, a “two-way process”. The communication cord is geared to a one-way message, with an assumption that it must hardly ever be used – more an absence of communication than a channel for greater understanding.

There are those who view religious experience as available through the communication cord. There for emergency, seldom to be used, penalties for improper use, and afterwards the journey can continue just as before. But emergency only communication is not the most satisfactory way of life.

It was on that journey back, another failure of communication came to my notice. One boy in my party, his name has gone but let’s call him Paul, sat next to me. During that return journey,
Paul proudly showed me what he had purchased during the day.

There were small parcels of cheap knick-knacks as gifts for mum, dad and young sister, of little monetary value, but priceless in that they represented Paul’s wish to share the pleasure of the day with his family. Paul was described as not very bright, but he knew what many brighter had yet to learn, that true delight comes when pleasures are shared.

Then, when the presents had been stowed away, Paul produced a small package about the size and shape of a cigarette packet. Inside was a block of rough wood.

“I was done with this,” he said.

I was puzzled. “Where did you get it?” I asked.

He explained it came from a machine which contained a large number of valuable prizes in a glass case. For a penny you got access for a short time to a crane with a grab on the end, which could be manoeuvred among the prizes. With luck or skill a prize could be grabbed, raised carefully from the pile and dropped into a hopper, thence to be retrieved by the lucky player. Paul had lifted a prize which turned out to be the block of wood – hence his remark about being “done”. His hopes of something better had been raised, only to be dashed again.

I looked at the package and written upon it was a printed message. “Give this to the attendant in exchange for your prize”. Poor Paul. His rudimentary reading skills were unequal to the task of translating the message, so he had come away with the block of wood and without his prize. The message had been given, but not received. The prize had been his but he had not the knowledge to claim it. Possibly that is a parable.

True and satisfactory communication involves skill and care by both the giver and the receiver. If messages are clumsily given, they will not be understood. If receivers are unwilling or unable to comprehend, or are obstinately obtuse, then communication breaks down and the message is lost.

Among the many joys of seeing a young child grow gradually through childhood to maturity, is that of observing the growth in the ability to communicate, first hesitantly, then more confidently, and eventually, God willing, with fluency and intellectual agility. Whatever years are given to one born today, during that time he or she will grow in ability to communicate in a multiplicity of ways.

Today, communication to and from that young infant is rudimentary, confined to basic needs like food, warmth, comfort. But shortly, all too soon some will say, by word, written and spoken, by gesture, by arts and by science, and by many ways beside, communication will be enormously expanded.

And as that happens, so will knowledge grow. But knowledge in itself is not important. It is only a step on the way. In the book of Job there is a line which goes “Knowledge is the beginning of understanding”. To stop short at knowledge is to be stunted. Mr. Gradgrind in Dicken’s “Hard Times” thought learning facts was the sole purpose of education. But just as communication is the key to acquiring knowledge, so is knowledge the door to understanding. It is the understanding which is important; knowledge is merely the means to the end.

A character in a play by Oscar Wilde speaks of “… knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Many here today will believe, with conviction, that the world is not simply a mechanical creation, with a scientific explanation. There are values to be encompassed. Price is a matter of fact; value a matter of judgement and appreciation.

I suppose there are many motives why parents chose to bring their children to a church service to be named, but surely a prime motive must be, or ought to be, because they wish the child to grow from communication to the acquisition of knowledge and thence to understanding; an understanding of the difference between price and value.

All children, should walk through the world with awe and reverence, wondering and marvelling. Children will grow to communicate with those they see and hear around them. They should learn to be attuned to that which they neither see nor hear, but of whose presence they are assured. They should learn of values – of truth, beauty, tolerance, compassion, mercy, and the rest. But what they are and become depends not only on acquiring skills in communication, but in the care and skill we employ in our communications with them.

A child is born, and officially welcomed into the family of God. We all have a duty to ensure that as the child is valued today, so shall he or she grow in the ability to truly communicate, to understand and marvel, and to achieve adulthood able to distinguish between price and value.

C.J. Rosling

Fulwood Old Chapel:  22 Dec. 1991
Hucklow Old Chapel:  22 January 1995
Mexborough:  14 May 1995

Starting out

This blog will open by publishing a sermon on Sunday 18 March 2018.

A new sermon will be published each Sunday thereafter for at least a year up until Easter 2019. God willing.

You are welcome to reproduce the material, except for financial gain but an acknowledgement of the source – Chris Rosling, with a link to http://www.sermons.blog would be greatly appreciated.

Many thanks

Martin Rosling