Sunday Sermon – 27 May 2018

Labour and Wait

As a child, no doubt like a number of others in the congregation, or so I suspect, I went to Sunday School regularly most Sunday afternoons.

In our Sunday School the men in overall charge – in those pre-war days I don’t think it was ever considered that such important posts could be held by a mere woman – as I was saying, the person in overall charge each Sunday was one of four men who officiated in rotation over a four week cycle. I believe the office in most Sunday Schools went under the title Superintendent. But ours was different. For reasons I know not, our leaders had a much grander, if more pompous, title – that of Director.

Each of the four Directors had his own idiosyncrasies. I won’t go through them all, but Mr. Harrison was nick-named the “shush man” (he had a boring, monotone delivery and as people became restless and chattered he punctuated his delivery by saying “shush please”), and then continued without a pause. At other times he was referred to as “old Labour on”. Let me explain. At the opening of Sunday School we all assembled, the Director for the day standing on the front of the platform, for a hymn and a prayer before dismissing us our classes. Similarly, the Director closed the school after the notices with a final hymn. Mr. Harrison’s closing hymn was invariably the same one, with the possible exception of Christmas time, when we might sing a carol. The hymn? “Come, Labour on”. (not in our hymn-books, quote the first verse) Hence his nickname. Easter, Whitsuntide, Autumn, Winter, February snows, Summer sunshine, Harvest festival, no matter the season or the weather, we still laboured on in the harvest field, the field which was wide and in which the labourers were few.

Why this hymn was such a favourite of his I don’t know. Was it the rousing tune, the sentiments expressed in the verses, or a feeling that we were a slack lot who needed to be exhorted to become more industrious? “Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain?” the hymn asked The reason for his choice remains a mystery. Whatever the explanation he obviously liked the hymn. And once a month we sang it. The fact that we sang in Sunday School in a cotton mill town during the depression of the 1930’s, when mills were closed, unemployment rife, labourers plentiful and work in short supply, only struck me as ironic some years later.

Whatever lay behind our Director’s choice, the sentiments in the hymn are and were widely shared. The true Christian is a worker. After all one of the seven deadly sins is sloth. The Victorians warned that the Devil finds work for idle hands. We noted as we sang that our hands would not be unoccupied, for there was “No time for rest ‘til glows the western sky.”

Like many others of our generation, I still find sitting idly induces a feeling of guilt. If we are busy and occupied, curiously we are at peace. Whether it be bustling around with household chores, weeding the garden, earning a living toiling for others or self-employed, undertaking voluntary tasks, or completing many other duties which fall our way, to have work to do is satisfaction. Work may be tiring, and sometimes boring, but idleness is sinful, or so we suspect.

In my boyhood my companions and I were surrounded with exhortations to toil. Latin mottoes abounded with labour as a central feature (I’m not describing a political party but referring to the sweat of the brow). “Work conquers all”, translated our school motto. “Without work, nothing” proclaimed the Latin text under the town’s coat of arms.

My grand-father’s dressing gown was passed on to me when he died. Too good to throw away for it was nearly new, thick and warm. Its quality was assured for it had been purchased from the London Co-operative Society, and their motto was displayed on a label inside it. Some years later my wife borrowed the gown when she went into hospital to deliver our first child. It caused some amusement on the ward for the motto read, “Labour and wait”. The labour went on for several hours, and the waiting became more and more tedious.

It comes then as a bit of a surprise to read in the New Testament those words of Jesus, “Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin, yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”.

Then again, Jesus defended Mary when Martha chided her for sitting idly talking when she, Martha, was up to her eyes in the kitchen preparing a meal for the guests. Or again, industrious fishermen are told by Jesus to stop working, drop everything and come with him wandering round the countryside.

Do we not feel sympathy for the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son, who complained that there seemed to be no justice in the world? He had, so to speak, flogged his guts out working the farm, whilst his younger brother had gone swanning off enjoying himself, spent all his money, then returned to be rewarded with a banquet in his honour. Honest work had been given no such reward.

Again, there are the oft-quoted lines of the tramp poet, W.H. Davies, who envying the cows in the field as they looked around doing nothing in particular, wrote

“What is this life, if, full of care
We have not time to stand and stare.”

Is then all the emphasis on work and labour right , or have I got it wrong?

A thought which occurs is that perhaps we need to ask, labouring for what? Possibly we need to differentiate between toil and service.

Years ago prisoners could be sentenced to hard labour. This would consist of physically exhausting, but purposeless tasks. They walked round the treadmill, they broke up large stones into smaller pieces, they dug holes and filled them in again and so on. It was as if work in itself, for whatever purpose, or for no purpose at all, could have some power to elevate a person, to make them better citizens.

Another of our Directors in that Sunday School had a favourite prayer. It was the one which contains the lines, “We come not to ask him to make our way easy for us, but rather that he would teach us to endure hardness.” I suppose that if hardness is inevitable, we ought to endure it with fortitude, but why should the way not be made easy where possible? Hard work, or suffering surely has no inherent value for its own sake. My mother felt no guilt, as far as I recall, when she ceased hanging the carpet on the clothes line after we finally bought a Hoover on the never-never.

In our Sunday School hymn the toil in the field was not work for the sake of it. The hymn was a metaphor. The farm labourers worked that their families and others might be fed. They toiled to a purpose; their harvest was life-giving and life-preserving. We too should labour doing what some describe as the work of the Lord. The metaphorical field in which we are called to labour is a call to service; service which eases, elevates and enhances the lives of the community. In real fields the sustenance required for life is produced. From the fields of the hymnist came the wherewithal to sustain a purposeful life of the soul.

A reason for working is to serve, to give a service to others. A third Director of our Sunday School would pray “Teach us …. to labour and ask for no reward, save that of knowing that we do thy will.”

Those Victorian forebears who spoke of the dangers inherent in idle hands would also remark that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.

It’s the balance that is all important. Labouring to better the lives of others, to serve the needy, to assist the helpless, to succour the weak, to harness the strong, is right and proper. Nay more, it is essential and an obligation we should fulfil.

But a Christian is asked not only to work to serve others. He or she must find time to reflect, to contemplate, to stare, to rest. It is in moments of so-called idleness that the spirit is renewed. This is a time of stillness, to renew strength prior to once more rising up as eagles and rejoicing as a strong man to run the race.

There is nothing valiant in working, however hard, if to no purpose. To love one’s fellows is to wish to serve them. That is true labour, a labour of love as a common phrase has it. There is no Christian virtue in working purely to satisfy a yearning for self esteem. Mere toil without an element of service is as barren and worthless as is self-indulgent sloth.

Nevertheless, he or she who labours without pause lives Davies’ “life … full of care”. There is no time for contemplation and spiritual refreshment. No time to stand and wonder. No time to reflect, no time for awe. No time to experience a feeling of smallness in a universe which is infinite. The fable which is the story of creation has God labouring hard to create the world throughout the week, but he took time to rest at the end of it. Time to look upon what he had achieved.

A Christian way of life includes becoming what is often described as a whole person. And what do we mean by that? Surely, in part, that is balancing work and rest. Ensuring that labour has within it that element of service to others. Toiling inspired only by acquisitive greed sours the person and warps the vision. The fruits of labour are to be shared with others.

Conversely, never taking time to see, as the poet Whittier says, “The stars shine through his cypress trees” is to stunt the growth of an essential component of the whole person. “Labour and Wait” counselled the worthies of the London Co-operative Society. The waiting is the resting, not in pure idleness, to wonder at the miracle of the seed which holds the secret of life, at the interdependency of life upon life, at the grandeur of the heavens canopying above the harvest field, and reflecting upon the mystery of creation and the creator.

Yes, the secret of the good life is getting the balance right. The story of Noah and the flood ends with the words of the covenant, the promise to keep the balance of seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, on which life depends. And so do we need to keep the balance between labouring in service to others, and standing and staring. “Labour and Wait” as the motto said.

And the reward? to quote finally from Mr. Harrison’s favourite hymn,

A glad sound comes with the setting sun –
Servants, well done!

C.J. Rosling 24 April 1999

Hucklow 25 April 1999 21 November 2004
Fulwood 20 June 1999
Stannington 26 June 2005

Sunday Sermon – 20 May 2018

Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom

Long ago, in the first half of the seventeenth century, a minor writer named Owen Felltham wrote his short essay on the value of acquiring knowledge in order to, and I paraphrase his words, give one something to think about in old age. I expect most of us would suggest that though that might be one reason for education, there are certainly many more compelling arguments to support a thirst for learning. But for whatever reason, like it or not, we all from a very early age fill our heads with facts. Then as we grow old we regurgitate them, thus boring younger people as we repeat experiences from our youth, over and over again.

Some facts might be regarded as more useful than others. I once knew a man whose boast it was that if you gave him any year in the last sixty or so he would name the winner in that year of the Grand National, the Derby and many other horse races as well. Quite a feat of memory without doubt; but to my mind, as one whose knowledge of horse-racing would rest comfortably on the head of a pin, of rather less practical use than say multiplication tables, or, since we went metric, and I shall come to recipes in a few moments, knowing how many millilitres in ¾ of a pint.

All of us, I admit, carry round a huge amount of what might be dubbed junk facts, of little value and even less interest. But it isn’t always easy to distinguish the rubbish from the gems. In any event, we frequently have little control over what sticks in the mind and what disappears without trace. I remember clearly the name of my first infant school teacher, who taught me to read seventy five years ago, but that couple’s name to whom I was introduced the other day already completely escapes me.

Mr. Gradgrind, in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ had no doubt about it. Education was about memorising facts. “Now you know what a horse is”, he said to the poor girl who had failed to answer his question. It had been subsequently described by a fellow pupil, the know-all Blitzer, as being a quadruped, a grazing animal, which shed its coat as the seasons changed, whose hooves required to be shod with iron, had forty teeth, an examination of which would enable the age of the animal to be determined. Gradgrind, Charles Dickens grotesque business man, knew the importance of knowledge. Knowledge gained through the assimilation of facts. Any facts, all facts, the drier the better.

Of course, Gradgrind had a point. From an early age, even before we learn to speak, we humans are acquiring facts, some of more significance than others. Trivial facts, important facts, some retained, many forgotten.

Do you remember the school-master in Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village”?

The village all declared how much he knew;
‘Twas certain he could write, and cipher too;
Lands he could measure, terms and tides
presage,
And even the story ran that he could gauge:
In arguing, too, the parson owned his skill,
For even though vanquished he could argue still;

While words of learned length, and thundering
sound,
Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew,

It is amazing how much can be crammed into one small head. Mind you, it does eventually get full. How else can it be explained that as we grow older things we were told only a few minutes ago are completely forgotten? Obviously, it is because our heads are full to busting. We have been stuffing them since infancy and there is no room for any more facts to be crammed into the skull.

But getting hold of facts is only the beginning. It is like the first stage in baking a cake, where you assemble the ingredients. Then comes the harder, if more interesting, bit. The printed recipe reveals, underneath the list of ingredients needed, the heading, ‘Method’. So the eggs, flour, fat and the rest have to go into the bowl to be stirred, mixed and blended; so the mind must relate facts to one another, and bring experience to bear. The facts are the ingredients of knowledge. Intelligence is the spoon which stirs the selected elements.

Gradgrind’s horse is truly a grazing quadruped, but more besides. No romance permitted, he failed to notice it also has beauty, motion, strength. It leaps fences, it drags carts, it carries burdens, it roams freely, it gallops with streaming mane. It once enabled man to till the land and gather the harvest. It pulled chariots into battle; black plumed, it drew the hearse to the cemetery. It competed in the sport of kings. It was the hero in Dick Turpin’s epic ride to York. The horse helped shape the history of mankind. To understand the horse needs the facts to be gathered, assessed, mixed with the spices and herbs garnered from gardens and fields where beauty dwells, and love blossoms.

Facts are cold, inert objects which, when assembled, ordered and weighed, enable us to become knowledgeable. A necessary stage on the road to understanding. Oh dear, I am now mixing metaphors as well as ingredients, but I hope you can follow my thinking.

A couple of examples, from my own experience, of how facts might lead, through knowledge, to greater understanding.

The boy, the senior teacher told the governors, had undoubtedly behaved in a violent, anti-social manner. The facts were not disputed. His rudeness was inexcusable; his out-burst threatened the safety of others. Why should any-one want to act in such an anti-social manner to others. He ought to be banished. Perhaps you should know, said the head-teacher, that the boy’s father died a couple of Christmas’s ago of a heroin overdose, and his mother’s new partner is suspected of abusing the lad. A couple more facts to stir into the mixture.

All I know about Hazel is that she wrote a poem which I found in a small anthology of verse written by children, and published by a teacher of English. I suspect that the adults who encountered her, saw Hazel as quiet, patient, maybe lacking in ambition. But she wrote what I take to be a cry from the heart.

I’m sitting in the classroom waiting.
I’m standing at the bus stop waiting.
The teacher says I’ll be with you in a minute,
but then I’m still waiting.
I’m standing outside the football ground waiting
to go into the kop.
I’m sitting in the Doctor’s surgery waiting in agony.
Waiting is my life, it’s all I ever do.
I would like to be the first one too.

As the facts are assembled, we sympathise and understand a little more.

Last Sunday, Roy Wain quoted from the Book of Job, and I too have a quotation from that story. Job railed against fate, which had brought great troubles upon him. His bitter words brought a reprimand God; “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”

Job ruefully and remorsefully, confessed.

Who is he that hides counsel without understanding?
Yea, I, Job, uttered what I understood not,
Things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.

One moves from facts, through knowledge, to understanding. Our understanding is built upon the knowledge we have. But for the few there is a further stage. That of wisdom. And what is wisdom?

When I am stuck for a definition I turn to my dictionary. Wisdom, it says, is making use of knowledge to judge rightly, to be skilful in applying learning.

The owl is said to be wise. Remember the nursery rhyme.

A wise old owl sat in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke.
The less he spoke the more he heard
Try to copy that wise old bird.

Whether owls deserve the reputation for wisdom or not I don’t know. I suspect not. However, the message that listening, thought, contemplation are essential steps to take before making judgement is valid. Wisdom is part of the postscript, not to be found in the introduction, or the preface.

But as well as facts to be learnt, knowledge followed by understanding, there is something in addition to be added to the pot before wisdom is achieved.

A story is told of a simple working lad, maybe he was a shepherd boy, could have been a carpenter, or perhaps he swept the streets. I cannot be sure, and it is not central to the tale. The young man gained a reputation for wisdom, giving advice to colleagues, who respected his judgement. The story goes on, because he was acknowledged to be wise he was elevated in the land and asked to sit in judgement in the higher courts of the country.

But there were those who envied his good fortune. “Have you noticed”, they whispered, “that box which goes everywhere with him as he travels about? Do you know, when folk ask what it contains, he always simply replies, ‘it’s my treasure’”.

“Ah yes, treasure. I believe it contains the bribes he dishonestly takes from those who seek a favourable judgement,” asserted another.

The rumours grew so persistent, that eventually the poor man was forced to open the box and reveal its contents. The box contained the working clothes he had kept from his original, menial employment. “They are with me to remind me that I am not a grand academic, but a humble workman. It wouldn’t do to think I am on a higher level than those I try to serve.”

I start with facts, go on to knowledge, hopefully to understand the better. But if I aspire to be wise, then I must learn to be humble, and that is the hardest part of all.

When Solomon became king, we are told, he said, “….I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or to come in”. Then went on to pray, “Give thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad”.

Centuries later didn’t Jesus charge his followers to become as little children?

C.J. Rosling April 2004

Hucklow 18th April 2004

Sunday Sermon – 13 May 2018

Asking Why?

It is no secret to many in the congregation that I spent most of my working life as a teacher, though I claim no more than as only a moderately successful one.

It came to me early in my teaching career, as it comes to all teachers, as well as to most men and women soon after they become parents, that we adults only truly start our education when we are brought into close contact with, and have responsibility for, children. And the tutors who guide us through that education process are the children we are supposed to be teaching.

Possibly that is a little exaggerated, but only marginally so.

My first experience of standing in front of a class of children came soon after discharge from the army at the end of the war. During my time away, I had applied to become a teacher, and had been accepted for training. But as the course did not start until September and I was released the previous Easter, I asked the local education authority in the small town where I then lived, if I could acquire some experience in a school during the intervening summer months.

I was sent to an old, church primary school where they were desperately short of staff. So much so, that I was placed immediately in front of a class of ten years olds and left largely to my own devices. That is when my education began in earnest. One incident from what might be termed a roller-coaster experience, sticks in my mind.

The class-room was heated by an open coal fire. On the mantel-piece, over the fireplace, was an old fashioned alarm clock, which busily and loudly ticked off the passing minutes.

I had discovered that one of the boys in this mixed class couldn’t tell the time. Ten years old and not able to tell the time, I thought! So I set about teaching him, using the clock as an aid. I would make progress where others had failed. Over several days I persevered, explaining the different functions of the large and small hand, and how these related to the figures on the circumference of the dial.

A week or two went by, and then towards the end of one morning I asked Billy – I think that was his name, and if not it will suffice – the time. He glanced at the clock and said confidently, “Ten to twelve”. It was! I felt a sense of pride and achievement. I must be one of those rare individuals, a born teacher. Unable to let well alone, I asked him how he knew, expecting him to refer to the position of the two hands on the clock face.

His reply was unexpected, and deflated my all too expanded ego. “Well, the dinner ladies have just arrived,” he explained patiently, surprised at the question.

Billy was more interested in the practicalities of life than in theories of time. Children have different thought processes from us, and who is to say that they are wrong and we are right. Maybe the arrival of dinner ladies is as good a way of telling the time as any other.

The never-ending curiosity of the child, and our desire to satisfy it, to increase our knowledge that we may slake their thirst, obliges us to educate ourselves. We need to know, so that we do not lose esteem in the sight of the child. We need to know so that the child may grow in knowledge and understanding. As we love the child, we want him or her to grow up wiser than us.

Though the child may be the spur, the goad, forcing us to discover more and more about the mechanics of the world, in order to satisfy what the elephant child in Kipling’s Just-so Stories possessed, “‘satiable curtiosity”, we adults have much more responsibility than merely answering “how” questions. There are “why” questions too. They are not only more difficult to respond to, they are crucially more important. Billy felt instinctively that how to tell the time was much less important than why tell the time.

It is the answer provided to the question “Why?”, or perhaps the search for a satisfactory answer, which influences the way we live our lives, and how we relate to others. The search and the reply determine the kind of people we become.

Appreciation of art, music, literature, drama, not to mention the spiritual search which is at the core of religious experience, are all quests for truth. A definition of truth might be, “It is the answer to the question ‘Why?'”.

Children seem to appreciate instinctively that “Why?” is the most important of questions, which could be the reason they reiterate it so persistently. It is a difficult question to answer. One which, expressed by a child, causes much irritation to we adults. We are apt to give a short, exasperated and unsatisfactory response. “Better go and ask your ….father, mother, teacher, grandad!” But searching for reasons is an attempt to make sense of the world. The need to do so is, I believe, a spark of the divine, of God if you like, within us.

Billy couldn’t make sense of the two black sticks moving round a white circular disk. But he understood the passage of time was important, and he had answered for himself the question “Why?”. Ten to twelve meant an imminent end to the drudgery of a morning’s school; the paradise of freedom was at hand, followed by Lancashire hot-pot, prunes and custard served by those dinner ladies. Possibly there might even be seconds.

There are those who say that life is aimless, meaningless. It is, they explain, simply the result of chance that we exist. There are no real answers to the question “Why?”, they assert. It is all purposeless. We are here and we should get out of existence what we can, enjoying ourselves whilst we can. If that means taking every advantage, regardless of others, then so be it.

We have heard, and still hear, that competition is the thing. That’s the way the world is … (occasionally “unfortunately” is added to ease the starkness of the proposition). It no use the weaker looking to the strong for sympathy, for the race is to the strong, and the devil takes the hindmost. There is no such thing as society, only individuals concerned with how, and never mind asking why.

If that is the spirit, if not the words, in which we respond to our children, then one can only say, with piety and despair, God help the future generations, for we can’t.

But it is not an answer we gathered here this morning should accept, nor want to give. Worshipping here implies the answers on our lips are in direct contrast to that rejoinder. For if christianity isn’t about tolerance, compassion, supporting the weak and comforting the sorrowful, it has become an empty sham.

I read somewhere that if a monkey was put in front of a type-writer keyboard and allowed to thump the keys long enough, the works of Shakespeare would eventually be produced. Even if that is accepted, and I must say I find it a difficult proposition to embrace, then it is certain that the monkey would have no appreciation of what he had achieved, or any understanding of it.

The whole aesthetic satisfaction in the works of Shakespeare is lost if we believe that it is only something a monkey could produce by chance. It is the creative mind at work that raises the spirit, and gives meaning to life. A creative mind is a curious mind, ever looking for the ‘why’.

“Pure chance” is a totally inadequate answer to a question “Why?” about the miracle of life; it belies all our experience. I believe in God, the creator. To create is an act of love, so the Creator is a God of love.

Though I started by saying that children taught their parents, that is of course only true in a limited field. The grown-up may lack knowledge to satisfy all a child’s questions, but the greater maturity of the adult enables him or her to dream, to have vision, to know of the joy which comes from creating, to possess knowledge which allows us to relish the world around us.

It is the mature adult who knows the deep satisfaction which may be found in serving another, in generosity of spirit, in sacrifice for a partner’s or friend’s benefit. Many will know the sense of contentment which comes, as a phrase we often use in our worship puts it, from “walking humbly with our God”.

If we have not learnt that the language of the market place, that which says: the strong survive at the expense of the weak; the race is to the fit and the devil take the hindmost; those who fail to win deserve to fail. If we have not learnt that such so-called ideals are the way to sterility and misery, then we have nothing of comfort to say to those who ask “Why?”

But if we know those things are false and omit to pass the truth on to our children, and to all who are bewildered or misguided, then we are ignoring their cries of “Why?”.

Though the main weight of care for children lies with parents, none of us, whether teacher or preacher, god-parent or grandparent, relative or neighbour, is immune from the childish question. The child asks “Why?”, we must respond by word and through example.

We can ignore the question, or treat it lightly by stone-walling or avoiding an answer. We can answer it, in fact and by example, by advocating a world that is based on greed, self-interest, avarice and jungle law. Or we can reply by showing the world we create around us is one of beauty, of caring, of love and understanding.

It only the latter response that will lead the child or the adult into joy and happiness. An answer to “Why?” is that only by the giving of love is contentment found. Other answers are a betrayal of trust.

That response is not only applicable to a child’s question. We must all be as little children searching ceaselessly, asking repeatedly, curiosity never slackening, if we are not to become self-satisfied puddings.

The community to which we aspire will encourage questions of “Why?”, and will answer, “We don’t know all the answers but we do know that love engenders love, and brings joy, as nothing else will or can”.

C.J. Rosling 18 October 1991, amended 12 April 1992

Fulwood 20 Oct. 1991 22 March 1998
Hucklow 23 Feb. 1992 22 June 1997
Upper 12 April 1992
Mexborough 8 August 1993

Sunday Sermon – 6 May 2018

Wishes, Dreams and Visions

It was Goethe, the German poet, writer, playwright, philosopher who said, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Judy Garland, less profoundly, and in less portentous language sang, “It doesn’t matter who you are, when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.”

Someone, I can’t recall who, opined, “A man has more fun wishing for the things he hasn’t got than enjoying the things he has got”.

Goethe got it absolutely right, Judy Garland was partly right, and my unknown cynic, in my opinion, merited the McEnroe rebuke, “You cannot be serious.”

We all do it. Whether it is dreaming of a white Christmas, idly imagining that the long forgotten relative has died leaving us a fortune in his will, or waking up to discover we haven’t scored the winning goal in the cup final, neither have we been feted by the cheering crowds for our brave, selfless deeds which saved the nation. It was all but a dream. I suppose there is a short-term pleasant feeling when one is in the “if only” mood, but that is an ephemeral delight. The awakening to reality bursts the bubble.

Housman writes of the drunkard rolling home from Ludlow fair.

And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,
Happy ‘til I woke again.
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’
Nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Yes, wishes, castles on cloud-cuckoo-mountain, all come with a health warning reading, Beware of the rude awakening. “If only” implies a further conclusion, “not a chance”. It is a fiction in a non-fiction world.

As with many of the everyday words we use, wishing can have a number of definitions, and within those definitions, subtleties of meaning. Wishing might be a forlorn desire for the impossible or unattainable, a sort of escapism from reality, or it may be a desire firmly grounded on determination. It was once pointed out to me by a wise man, in fact a bishop, that there are short-term wishes, which are often about the trivial, and also longer-term wishes linked to serious aims. The latter may be more properly described as dreams and visions. I will return to that thought in a minute.

A further peril connected with wishes is the paradox; the wish might come true and prove to be not what we wanted at all. Unforeseen, unpleasant consequences may follow from the realisation of our flight of fancy. A fair slice of literature uses this theme, in fairy tale, legend, novel or play. King Midas is just one example among a host of tales showing that the wish come true can turn from dream to nightmare. All he touched might turn to riches, but at the cost of destroying those things whose value is beyond gold. In real life, examples abound of a desire achieved turning into a disaster in the making. The lottery winner whose overnight fortune led to grief rather than contentment, the promotion at work that was a step too far, leading to despair, the new life in a new town or land that became a desert of loneliness and gave birth to a longing to turn back the clock.

Just as the words could, would, should, can, may, might are frequently used carelessly, as if they all more or less meant the same thing, so what I see as a clear distinction between wish, dream and a vision transmutes, blurs into a distorted image. At its most precise a dream, and particularly a vision, is an aim, an aspiration, and a goal to be achieved.

Wishing is a passive exercise, waiting for something to happen, a Mr. Micawber philosophy that something will turn up. Though Judy Garland was right to set her sights high, up in the stars, her song was mistaken in implying that simply wishing is sufficient. Apart from the risk of unexpected and unwanted results if wishes are granted, there are further difficulties about idle desires. It is a state of mind that ignores, even refutes, the need for effort on our own part. Fate, chance or someone else will bring about the change whilst we relax and hope for the best.

Wish fulfilment is the most likely when some action has been taken, when we, or someone else, has brought about a change. “God helps those who help themselves”, runs the well-worn cliché. In whatever area of life, results are dependent upon our contribution. To modify an old saw, wishes butter no parsnips. God may create the plants with the power of life within them, but we must till and weed, select and plant, if there is to be a garden.

To come back to dreams, or more grandly, visions, “I have a dream”, exclaimed Martin Luther King. “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” warned the prophet. But again, if visions degenerate into mere indolent wishes they become empty hopes rather than targets to be worked at, objectives to be attained, promised lands to be reached. Martin Luther King’s life was not solely one of introspective musing, but of action towards attaining his vision.

Among those who speak of the failure of religion, are individuals who think that praying is about mere wishing, worshipping solely devoted to the contemplation of pleasant dreams. The need for personal effort is over-looked; the prospect of active labour abhorrent; the need for personal contribution rejected.

Prayers are not an opportunity to set down a series of demands, like a letter to Father Christmas, with the obligatory postscript promising to be good. Nor is contemplation a rosy, comfortable daydream of how things might be if only someone would grant our entirely reasonable wishes. There is much more to it than that.

The cry goes up, “The churches have failed us”. There is lawlessness on our streets, intolerance in our communities, greed and selfishness throughout our society. But perhaps not to the extent that one might think from reading the popular press, or listening the daily news bulletins. However, none of these are qualities advocated by the churches, quite the opposite. The failures within societies and institutions are those of people. Simply wishing, even if it is on a star, will bring about no change. It is a sleeves rolled up, hands to the plough, noses to the grind-stone, shoulders to the wheel (choose your own metaphor) – it is that sort of a job to put things right.

It might be argued that this is not a particular religious philosophy, though I would disagree. The cloth of my dreams is woven within an ethical framework of a religious faith. The vision of a world at peace, of good neighbours, of tolerance, respect and of a land where human dignity is fostered, evolves from a belief in a creative God, of whom we are the children. The world in which I want to live is one in which, what one can loosely describe as Christian standards, though in truth they are the standards of most people of many differing faiths, speaking a variety of languages and living throughout the world, are upheld, and ethical values cherished.

Samaritans, who do more than rub their talismans and merely hope things will change for the better, help the casualty recover. The passer-by who just hopes somebody else will call an ambulance leaves the stricken one to perish. Faith might move mountains, but a pick and shovel doesn’t come amiss. If churches, or more to the point, church people, regard their devotions as merely a form of escapism, then little will change. Pleasant as it is to lie gently relaxing, contemplating life as it might be, there is a time to get out of bed and start work.

The message of personal responsibility for one’s share of the labour perhaps has not been given enough emphasis. Or if it has, it has not been effectively put over. Rightly or wrongly, many regard the church as simply a place of retreat where cares can be forgotten, and the everyday world shut out.

Use of the stars as a metaphor for higher things, for great aspiration has been long established. Of course sights need to be set high, visions held, dreams dreamt, and even wishes expressed. Set our sights on the stars by all means, but wishing on stars in a vain hope that things might change without effort – well those dreams just don’t come true.

So if this year, this century, this millennium, is to lead to a on to a better life for all; to a society where all are honoured, none despised; all are clothed with love, no-one goes naked and exploited: where the hungry are fed, and the fearful protected and comforted; then it will be not simply because we dream dreams, but because we perform deeds.

Let me come full circle and return to Goethe. “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

A verse from an old revivalist hymn that I have quoted previously, is appropriate to repeat, for it speaks of boldness and daring.

“Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone;
Dare to have a purpose
Dare to make it known.”

We must never cease to dream dreams, to have our vision of what might be. I am always a little sceptical when I come across yet another Chinese proverb. Not of their content but of whether the words truly are translated from the one of the many Chinese dialects or languages. I wonder if Westerners, who think that by adding the word Chinese it will make the words sound wiser, actually compose many of these sayings. However, I will quote one allegedly genuine saying, “Who is narrow of vision cannot be big of heart”.

So may our vision be wide, our resolution formidable, but our labour untiring, and service to others replace wishful thinking. As James centuries ago pointed out to his listeners, “…the man who looks closely into the perfect law, the law that makes us free, and who lives in its company, does not forget what he hears, but acts upon it; and that is the man who by acting will find happiness.”

C.J. Rosling 30 June 2007