Sunday Sermon – 29 July 2018

On Clothes

I have this conceit that my views on life, my politics, my social conscience, philosophy and so on are radical and progressive. That doesn’t appear to be how others see me, and I fear, the others are right. There is a saying that you can judge a man by the company he keeps and the clothes he wears. If that is so, then though I am always keep good company, judged by my preferred raiment, I’m far from the vanguard when it comes breaking new ground, rather stuck on the conservative wing.

For example, I don’t go with the recent trend for men to dress smartly in suit and shirt, but with the shirt open at the neck and no tie. That’s neither one thing or the other in my mind; not smart and not really casual either. Mind you, I have been known to sit on the beach in a deck chair with no jacket on, shirt open at the neck, socks and shoes off, and trousers rolled up to the knees. Still having a protective covering of hair, there is no need for the knotted handkerchief on my head. Then at the seaside, anything goes. There you are allowed to undress in public, albeit under a towel.

What an important part clothes play in our lives. They do quite contradictory things at one and the same time. They both hide us from prying eyes, and reveal us to the world. They protect us from the elements, whilst making us vulnerable to the critical opinions of neighbours. We are judged by our attire, as we judge others in the same way. Garments enrich our lives whilst emptying our purses. Since Eve persuaded Adam to take the apple, the clothing industry has expanded in leaps and bounds, seeking to satisfy human desires.

Yes, clothes may be our protection from the outside world. Sometimes it is literally protective clothing, or armour, so we may be saved from harm. And how ugly and menacing such clothing can look, be it armour, riot clothing, diving helmet or space suits. But more often it is a kind of figurative shield that comes between us and the rest of the world. In this case the clothes are meant, not merely to cover our nakedness, but in order that the real person shall not be too closely observed and judged.

Uniform, or the clothes of office, may do this. G.K. Chesterton wrote a series of detective stories, the Father Brown stories. In one of these, I recall, witnesses swore nobody had approached the premises where a crime had been committed. It turned out that someone had, in full view of every-one. It was the postman. But because the postman in his uniform was so much a part of the everyday scene, those who had seen him, had sub-consciously ignored him.

The priest in his vestments, the judge in his robes, the policeman in his uniform, become anonymous beings. Uniform can become a cloak of invisibility. Yes, we may dress so that the world shall not observe the real “we” too closely. Some will welcome, either through shyness, or because of the nature of the job, or because we are up to no good, being able to merge into the background. We may not want the world to know our real thoughts or character.

Alternatively, we may want to flaunt ourselves, to be noticed, to show the world what grand, important people we are. At times this is a harmless peccadillo. We are going to a party, or some special occasion, perhaps. Only men go to a dinner party dressed like all the other men; ladies go to great pains to ensure that no other woman is dressed as they are, and are upset if they fail. They each examine the dress worn by the other women, and conclude that Ann is pleasingly modest, Bess brazen, Clara wore that dress last time, Daisy really has no taste, Ethel is too daring for her own good, and Freda is old sheep trying to ape young lamb.

Another fact about clothes, or about other people’s clothes, is that we form an assessment of his or her character by the clothes he or she is wearing. Wasn’t it the late Jack Warner who used to recite a monologue in the Music Halls, titled “Brown Boots”? As I remember, it was about a man who wore brown boots to a funeral instead of the expected black, and was therefore judged as lacking in respect. In truth, he was one of the sincerest of mourners, with sorrow in his heart. Michael Foot whilst Prime Minister was greatly criticised for wearing the wrong kind of jacket to a Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph.

There are conventions to be observed. Turn up for an interview for many a job with a multi-coloured hairstyle, patched jeans and a slogan-covered t-shirt, and the interviewer will likely come to certain conclusions before a word is spoken. At the very least, the conclusion will be reached that this person is likely to make a rather unconventional Bishop, funeral director or Cabinet Minister. At worse the candidate will be rejected regardless of any qualifications he might have gained.

Of course there are conclusions that may be rightly drawn from external appearance. He who is ignorant of, indifferent to, or aggressively against, conventions of dress or appearance, may show the same characteristics with regard to other aspects of social behaviour.

But frequently we go too far. Society easily divides itself by social divisions. Some forty years ago I was secretary to the Sheffield District Sunday School Association, now defunct, and had access to the old minute books. Over a century ago debates were held at meetings of the Association in this area. One subject of debate sticks in my memory. “Should the children of the Sunday School mix with the children of members of the Congregation?” I expect you could tell them apart from the clothes they wore. I have forgotten the conclusion of the debate, but the fact that it was held at all is astonishing to our ears today.

We no longer sing the verse of “All things bright and beautiful” which goes
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
The attitude which allowed such sentiments to be widely accepted have not disappeared. Dress is but one aspect, albeit a crucially important one, in dividing society into layers.

Jesus, I remind you, was harshly criticised by the hierarchy of his time as one who consorted with the poor and with sinners. The critics – Scribes, Priests, Pharisees – all members of the establishment of the day, were well dressed in the acceptable clothing the time. No doubt the poor were ill clad, and maybe the sinners dressed outrageously. Today Jesus would possibly turn up at the synagogue in a t-shirt and jeans.

Fashions change. Once showing braces was the mark of the “working class”. Then they became part of the uniform of the “skinhead”. Later red braces were an essential part of the dress of the so-called Yuppie as he sat in front of his computer screen playing the financial markets of the world.

Skirt lengths go up and down as fashion dictates, colours are “in” or “out” from year to year, and the world will judge you according to the extent to which you conform or not to fashion’s whims. Only if you have achieved what the world deems “success” are you able to ignore criticism of your taste in fashion, or devise your own standards.

“Clothes make the man,” goes an old saying (and presumably the woman as well). What nonsense this is! Clothes are an important aspect of life. But the real character of the individual is independent of the external covering.

The real man or woman lies within the outer shell. The Judge, the Policeman, the Priest, the Civil Servant and the rest may put on the uniform of office. The clothes may make them anonymous, grand, insignificant or intimidating. But who, or what, they are will not be determined by the clothes they wear. If the Judge is foolish, harsh or self-opinionated, the robes of office will not disguise it. The arrogant or the brutish policeman, if such he be, will not be rendered humane by his uniform. Nor will the hypocritical priest become saintly by donning clerical garb.

Solomon, we read, was a King, richly attired. But his epitaph is not about his clothing, but of his wisdom. Men and women may be renowned for a short time on the tastefulness, or extravagance, of their dress. But such renown, if there be any, is as temporary as the fashions of the moment. What abides is the old value of tolerance and compassion, of kindliness and understanding, of forgiveness and gentleness. Faith, hope and charity are real eternal values, preached Paul.

Nothing is wrong with dressing up. Sunday best is not inappropriate wear for coming to church and worshipping God. But Sunday best is but the outer shell. It is not the real me. The real me dwells beneath the outer covering: not put on or discarded according to the calendar, or by what the fashion houses of the world dictate as appropriate. The real me is the one who practises, or fails to practice, what the everlasting laws of God, which are eternal, demand. What is worn on the catwalk is here in the morning and gone as night falls. How neighbour regards and acts to neighbour, abides.

The judgements made on others purely from the clothes they wear can at best be silly, at worst, dangerously prejudiced. But then, aren’t we ever prone to judge others, as Jesus pointed out a long time ago.

And clothing isn’t the only unreliable indicator. Race, colour, language, class, accent, the church or mosque attended, the street where one lives along with many other outward signs are unimportant compared with everyday actions. After all, the Samaritan was a foreigner. Certainly his skin was swarthy; and goodness only knows where he got that raiment from he had donned. It made him look like an Arab. Perhaps he was one. Yet he is remembered for tending the wounded Jew.

I was grateful for the care the hospital doctor displayed towards me a short while ago. He was reassuring, skilled and courteous. His skin was dark. I think his country of origin was probably India. Maybe he was a Hindu. He treated me, a white Christian, with compassion, as I am sure he did all his patients of whatever sect or creed.

The receptionist in hospital uniform smiled at me as she made a new appointment, and I remembered afterwards the smile and cannot recall the colour of the uniform she wore. I smiled back and like to think she ignored the rather grubby stain I had not noticed down the front of my tie.

C.J. ROSLING 24 June 1990

Fulwood 24 June 1992
Mexborough 22 July 1992
Chesterfield 29 July 1992
Hucklow 2 Jan 1993:  11 October 1998
Hucklow 14 May 2006

Sunday Sermon – 22 July 2018

Seeing Ourselves

My starting point this morning is a verse of poetry, but it has presented me with a dilemma. It is written in a broad Scottish dialect. I fear my attempts to mimic the Scottish lilt are pitiful, so at the risk of deeply offending lovers of the poetry of Robert Burns I use an English translation of the stanza.

O would some Power, the gift to give us,

To see ourselves as others see us!

And would from many a blunder free us,

And, foolish notion:

What airs of dress and bearing would leave us,

And even pridefulness!

You will probably know that the poem’s origin lay in Robert Burn’s wandering mind in church, when, instead of paying attention to the sermon, as the good folk of Hucklow always do, his eye wandered to a fine decorated bonnet on the head of a proud lady. She was blithely unaware that crawling among the finery was a loathsome insect, a louse, thus spoiling the whole effect. Maybe it was a case, as Thomas Grey, an English contemporary of Burns, wrote, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.”

Self-deception is a comfort zone that many of us enjoy. We have as it were, an imaginary mirror which we glance at from time to time, finding the reflection pleasing. What a fine, grand, intelligent, pleasing person I am, we murmur. Then we catch an unexpected reflection in a real mirror, or see one of those TV screens in a department store showing images that a surveillance camera has picked up, and we hardly recognise our own image. Shamefacedly I show my bus pass with its photograph, expecting to hear mocking laughter from the driver, before he calls the police. Some say the camera doesn’t lie, but that is surely an old wife’s tale. That cannot be me as others see me, surely not.

Achieving unbiased, critical self-examination is one of the most difficult of exercises. We tend to veer to extremes, finding the middle course elusive. At one extreme the faults are over-stated, the defects magnified, the positive features over-looked. Thus depression and a feeling hopelessness is the result. At the other extreme, conceit disguises short-comings. We are self-satisfied. Vanity precludes criticism, over-riding any suggestion that the image is flawed.

But a looking glass, a mirror, is a device which shows the external view, the outer covering which encloses the real person within. And though that external shell can be affected by what lies within, it is not necessarily so. Ill-temper, pain, compassion or other emotions do not invariably mark the surface, even if they frequently do so. The real person requires more than a reflected image to reveal it. To see what we really are, to use a medical illustration, requires an X-ray or a body scan, rather than a simple likeness on a piece of polished glass, or a photographic image.

Self-examination is an attempt to probe beneath the surface, allowing an evaluation of what is there to be discovered. We say of others, when you really get to know him, or her, you see a different picture. Really getting to know ourselves can be more difficult even than knowing someone else.

In his novel, Lord Jim, Conrad had the central character musing,

“I didn’t know what he was playing up to – if he was playing up to anything at all – and I expect he did not know either; for it is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge.”

What a powerful phrase that is; “…the grim shadow of self-knowledge.” We are all aware of those “artful dodges” even if we don’t quite understand them. The special pleadings, the evasions and the excuses are recognised more readily when employed by others, but curiously difficult to acknowledge when used by oneself.

In the Authorised Version of the Bible, there is another powerful phrase in the story of the prodigal son. All money spent, deserted by friends, and with hunger racking his body, the son reflected upon his position. At this point, the story reads, “Then, he came to himself”. What a vivid phrase that is to describe the process of self-examination, with the reflection seen starkly and accurately. “Mirror, mirror on the wall…, show me the person I really am. Show me my true self.”

But why should we want to know ourselves in this sense? Is it merely morbid curiosity? The prodigal son needed to come to himself, because until that happened he was unable to retrieve a life which had fallen into emptiness, misery and futility. But more than that, it was at that stage he could relate his life to others, to see what was good, and begin to understand the “artful dodges” which allow the pretence that a mirror image is actually the real person.

Who am I? What am I? Where am I? Why am I?” these are questions at the heart of spiritual experience. And naturally we start by looking at ourselves. We travel down what Francis Thompson called, in his poem, The Hound of Heaven,

“….the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind;”

Examining “who I am” is a quest for an identity. But more, it is a search that leads to humility. We can hardly pursue this test without coming to see how small we are in the whole scheme of things. We may fill important positions in small ponds, or even large lakes, but we are dwarfed in the vast oceans. A whale may be a monster in a loch, but is a mere speck in great seas. Surely this is what Jesus meant by becoming as a little child, asking “Who am I?” and deflating the over-stretched ego.

It is impossible to face sincerely the question “who” and remain pompous and self-important, which is an explanation of why the image in the mirror can be unwelcome.

I said a moment ago that “why” is also a search for an identity, which leads me on, for so in a way, is the question “What am I?”

What I am may be determined by my actions and behaviour to others. If I am arrogant and ill-tempered, I am surely tyrannical and dictatorial. If I am weak and indecisive, I will be vacuous and ineffective. If I am covetous, I am greedy and selfish. An analysis of what I am is the start which enables me the better to relate to others, to acquire compassion and understanding, to practice tolerance and forgiveness. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, show me who and what I am.”

Any vehicle driver quickly learns that one of the most important pieces of equipment is the mirror. The mirror reveals where the vehicle and driver are in relationship to the other vehicles, and to the road and surrounding objects. “Where am I?” needs assistance from the mirror if an adequate answer is to be found. Where have I come from, where am I going to, what is this place I have reached? The question “where” is no less important than those of “why” and “what” if we are to live a wholesome and satisfying life.

This does not mean constantly gazing, Narcissus like, upon the mirror image, but looking frequently and appropriately, asking the questions and accepting the answers. The mirror can also reflect surroundings and where we are placed within them. However, the car driver who fixes his eyes permanently upon the mirror to the exclusion of all else will soon meet disaster. He will know where he has come from, but have no idea where he is heading. A crash is inevitable.

I have left to last the question “Why am I?” This is the most difficult and profound question of all, and perhaps incapable of being answered completely. Down the ages philosophers and divines have wrestled with the challenge, providing various theories, but no complete solution. Paul referred to this in that famous letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote of seeing in a glass darkly. The mirror is clouded, we have no sharp image. Some would argue that the question is meaningless. There is no why. Life is accidental, mechanical, without purpose. As Macbeth groaned,

“Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow,

Creeps on this petty pace from day to day.”

All is empty and without meaning. But most Christians and many others would reject that conclusion. The answer may be elusive but the question is valid. By believing that there is an answer, many accept the force of the questions we can answer, at least in part, the “who, what, where”. For the time being, not knowing “why” in full, we get by with at least a partial answer: “That I may love God, and strive to love my neighbour”.

The Wicked Queen in the story of Snow White valued her mirror when it gave agreeable answers. Her wrath was aroused when the answer was truthful but unacceptable. She could not bear the truth.

Used judiciously, mirrors are valuable, nay essential tools in our lives. A reliable mirror will report accurately and truthfully. The extent to which we can accept this is a measure of our maturity. To shrink from seeing ourselves as others see us is, in Conrad’s words, “artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge”, it marks the failure to live up to our belief.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me who, what, where, and why I am, and I promise to try not to dodge the answer”, might well be our daily prayer.

C.J. Rosling 5th March 2008 (adapted from Mirror)

Hucklow 9 March 2008

Sunday Sermon – 15 July 2018

Not Hearing is Not an Acceptable Excuse

For as many years as I can remember I have been a sufferer from a chronic medical condition which claims many victims, though it is seldom, if ever, fatal. The ailment, I suspect, is endemic. It knows no boundaries. It is found in every land and among all generations. Though the old are prone to it, the young are not immune. More common than the common cold, I believe it must have existed from ancient times. I have fears that our great-great-grand-children yet unborn will fall prey to it, for there is no sign that it is on the wane. Yet the cure is simple and the necessary treatment inexpensive. The remedy can be self-administered in the home, without the need to visit doctor’s surgery or hospital, if the will to be rid of the plague is firm enough.

What is this mysterious wide-spread epidemic from which so many of us suffer? It is often referred to by its acronym, SHL. Its full title is “selective hearing loss”, sometimes called “voluntary deafness”. It is triggered by the awkward question, or follows a request for help to which we find it inconvenient to respond. In truth it is not so much an illness as a convenient tool. “I didn’t quite catch what you said”, allows a few extra moments in which to compose an excuse. Or “I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear you”, “Oh, did you say something?”, are among the time-honoured phrases which reveal the disease has taken hold. Sometimes we say in aggrieved tones, as we seek to divert blame elsewhere, “Well, why didn’t you ask me?” This is an attempt to wrong-foot the accuser when we know full-well that the plea had been made and ignored.

Of course the condition can be a blessing if constructive use is made of it. There are occasions when to ignore a remark made in anger, out of spite or through thoughtlessness, by pretending not to hear it can calm a difficult situation. The non-response may prevent an indiscretion becoming a major incident. However, much more frequently, SHL, selective hearing loss, stems from selfish self-protection rather than indicating a concern to protect another from their folly.

Recently my hearing loss has become less selective and more actual, but that is another story. Like losing teeth, noting silver hairs among the grey, and complaining that newsprint is smaller than it used to be – it is just a milestone indicating the terminus is not as far away as it was a year or two ago.

The Israelites of old suffered from selective hearing loss. Why else, as the Old Testament reveals, did God preface his remarks, nay his commands, with the words “Hear, O Israel”, unless He thought they weren’t listening? That old phrase is now replaced by the injunction, a standard phrase in the teacher’s repertoire, “Now pay attention. Listen to me, carefully”.

Hearing, listening to what is being said, is an important aspect of life. It must be, because all the main political parties reiterate over and over again that theirs is a party for folk who listen to what people say. Whether they do or not might be a matter of opinion, but no aspiring politician dare say, “I am not listening to you. I suffer from SHL, and I am not seeking a cure just yet”.

But if listening, hearing, is a crucial aspect of civilised living, it is only a start. In itself it achieves little or nothing. In Romans 2 Paul writes in one of his many letters these cautionary words,

“It is not by hearing the law, but by doing it that man will be justified before God”

As we know Paul didn’t consider the possibility that woman might also seek justification before God. Equal opportunity was a concept still to be developed in the first century A.D

In biblical language the word “law” covers not merely the rules of the state and the requirements of religious observance, but also norms of what we might call Christian behaviour. This desirable mode of life is not, of course, confined to Christians, all religions warn against mere lip service, but most of us understand what is meant by that convenient piece of short-hand.. The law in this sense covers not only criminal acts – murder or theft – one’s obligations to the state – paying one’s taxes and advocating change by democratic means, – the demands of religious observance, but as Jesus constantly preached, love of one’s neighbours, coupled with understanding and charity are also matters of law.

So, though listening and hearing are essential first steps, it is not the end of the journey. It is a precursor to action.

It is not always easy to listen. It is not an original or profound observation to note that the world gets ever noisier. Sounds, most of them man-made, swirl around us. Traffic noise drums; overloud radio and television sets blare; background music in hotel, shop, supermarket, restaurant and hostelry whines on constantly; voices raised in anger beset our ears; triumphal applause and shouts of encouragement fill the sporting arena; machinery on building sites alternatively shrieks and rumbles. We are surrounded by din and, paradoxically, the louder the noise the less we hear. We switch off in self-defence. In our anxiety not to be deafened, we are in danger of hearing nothing. The plea for assistance and the cry for help are subsumed into a general background cacophony.

So, that is the excuse. Justification for failure to hear comes easier than admitting a failure to respond. Easier to say there was so much going on that I couldn’t tell what you were saying, than to admit to selective hearing loss. “I never heard you”, is so much more comfortable a position than, “I just didn’t want to know, so I stopped up my ears”.

And what is it we should listen to? Part of the answer I have already hinted at. The world is full of requests for help, voiced or implicit. Some minor, some major. Frequently the demand is small. A sympathetic ear, a direction sought by a stranger, a friendly word, a helping hand over a small obstacle, a moment or two of our time.

Other cries for assistance call for greater sacrifices on our part. This may mean giving time, maybe goods and money, sometimes commitment is requested; often all three are on the list. Hearing pleas challenges us to respond to the needs of others. In one of the church litanies, possibly used less frequently in our worship than was once the case, the congregational response went, “O Lord, hear our prayer”. There are many in the world who cry out to us, “Hear our prayer”. To ask God to react when we fail to hear those who call to us, is a form of hypocrisy which Jesus frequently condemned.

But listening and hearing is about more than responding to shouts for assistance. There are other voices to detect. One is commonly described as the still, small voice. It is the nagging of conscience. Sometimes it is a call for action; at other times a cautionary warning calling for restraint. Conscience preaches both of the things that ought to be done, as well as warning about that which should be left undone. The selective deaf frequently overlook the whisper. “Speak up, so I can hear you more clearly”, is a response infrequently given by SHL sufferers to the whispers of conscience. The voice may be small, but the pitch is such that the words come clearly enough. There are none so deaf as those who will not hear.

Then there is the voice of experience. In this context, hearing is broadened to encompass all forms of communication. There was a time when reading and writing was a skill only a few possessed. Books along with other written materials were scarce. The learning of others was passed on by word of mouth. Prophets and the preachers, wise men and women, relied on speech, the gift of tongues, to transmit their message. Human memory was the record book. But today wisdom, as well as much foolishness, is passed down through books galore, through media outlets present in every home. Telephones and computer screens proliferate, posters line the streets, and thoughts or opinions circle the world with the speed of light. Newsprint gobbles up whole forests every year.

There is such a lot to hear that inevitably much must, to use a cliché, go in one ear and out of the other. Selective hearing loss is an inevitable result. Indeed it becomes a proper defence against madness. It is not the hearing loss that is to be deplored; it is the way selection is made that needs to be regulated.

Clever men do not always speak wise words. Foolish folk may sometimes utter profound thoughts. Thousands of words are about trivia; others are barbs of malicious poison. Truth and falsehood exist side by side. Mischievous gossip needs be separated from human concern. Is the preacher leading the congregation towards false gods or to an better appreciation of the mysteries of creation? Is the message we hear leading to a more humane world, or to deeper divisions between brother and brother, sister and sister, nation and nation?

How do we know what to hear and what to ignore? There is no simple formula that will ensure that we always get it right, but I believe there are ways of testing our judgement. If we try to live our lives within a framework that recognises that there are things greater than we can understand; that we are surrounded by, and live within, a creative power which is a source of the moments of a deep peace which passes all understanding; then we start with a reverence for life and for the wonder of a universe in which that life exists.

If we believe that all people are created equal in the sight of God, if we believe that we are all brothers and sisters, neighbours one to the other, then our selective hearing starts with a reasonable chance of being right. That which we choose not to hear is tested as to whether it falls within or without the framework of our professed beliefs. Did we not hear because we did not want to be personally inconvenienced, or were we ignoring cruel or thoughtless words which distressed our neighbour?

Perhaps we cannot eliminate SHL, selective hearing loss, entirely and maybe we should not try to do so. Used wisely, it oils the wheels of human progress. I shall not, alas, always employ SHL with wisdom. I shall continue to make mistakes, deliberately or otherwise. I shall still, I admit, hear what is best ignored and ignore what ought to be heard. But I am trying not to benefit from the infliction, using it only for selfish advantage. I trust you are too.

C.J. Rosling 14 May 1999

Hucklow 16 May 1999; 26 February 2006
Mexborough 16 May 1999
Fulwood 12 September 1999
Chesterfield 6 August 2000
Upper Chapel 28 October 2001
Stannington 19 February 2006

Sunday Sermon – 8 July 2018

Counsel without Knowledge

As I have remarked before, the Old Testament is not so much a series of books on a topic, as a library covering many themes. There are books of history, anthologies of wise sayings, tomes on law, religious philosophies, collections of songs and poems, and moral tales.

Often, as one scans pages recording events of centuries ago, and written when our own islands were inhabited by warring tribes, I am struck by how ageless are the yearnings and longings of people down the centuries; how timeless the moral dilemmas. Rape, robbery, murder, greed and dishonesty are found in every age and clime. Affection, devotion and self-sacrifice are not characteristics of just one human family found in only one generation. Nor are struggles by mankind to make sense of life, to establish meaning to it, peculiar to one nation. The story is universal, continuous and continuing.

Take the not infrequently expressed opinion that a loving god, who many believe has equal regard for all of us as Children of God, should not allow gross inequalities to exist. Why does suffering exist in a world created by a loving god? they ask.

A short time ago the papers and news bulletins were full of the alleged views of an English football coach that the disabled in our society suffered today for misdemeanours committed in a past existence. The expression of this opinion caused an uproar, and many were deeply offended. I don’t intend to comment upon his views this morning beyond saying I totally disagree with them. But as the words were reported, I was reminded of the books of the Old Testament – the Book of Job.

The Book of Job, written probably two and a half thousand years ago, the Book of Job you will recall, was about a prosperous, good living man suddenly smitten by illness and financial disaster. His three visitors, Job’s comforters, did nothing to relieve his anxiety and distress when they suggested that Job’s apparently saintly life must be a sham. His afflictions were by way of punishment from God for failings known to God, even if he had concealed them from others. That was the only explanation that made sense.

The whole story is based on the problem of reconciling a belief in a loving God with injustice and suffering found within the world. God might be loving, but those who erred could expect to be punished. The observation is sometimes made that rain falls upon the just and unjust alike, but the just suffers the more because the unjust has borrowed, and not returned, the just man’s umbrella. But according to the theory of Job’s comforters, this is not the end of the story. The just man will be eventually compensated, whilst the unjust man will get his comeuppance.

Job cries out in complaint to God, who starts His response with the words, “Who is this that darkens counsel without knowledge?” Words that were echoed centuries later from a man dying by crucifixion, “…. they know not what they do.”

How much trouble in this world is caused by counsel given without knowledge, or at best with only partial knowledge. There are numerous examples which spring to mind where misery and suffering, death and disaster, are the consequence of actions following counselling without knowledge. We knew not, and often cared not, what we did. And examples are by no means confined to the past.

The threat to our environment, to the planet on which we live and to the air enveloping it, provide a multitude of examples of accepting the truth of counsel, even though it rested upon a dubious foundation of knowledge.

To cite just a few examples:- over-cropping has produced dust-bowls in North America, in Africa and elsewhere, creating deserts where the rose may no longer bloom; equatorial forests have been ravished and continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate; over-fishing has reduced fish-stocks until some species may well not recover; curbs and bans on whaling may be too little and too late to avoid extinction of some species of that great mammal; one might also include big game poaching and its effect on land-based creatures. Greenhouse gases causing climatic changes, nuclear weapons and power stations with waste products dangerous for tens of thousands of years are problems left to future generations to live with or solve. The list of foolishness and greed is endless, breeding anxiety, threatening disaster. All substantially caused through accepting blindly and foolishly counsel without knowledge.

“Mad Cow Disease” was a direct consequence of counsel trusted without knowledge of the consequences. Today many worry, rightly, that growing crops from genetically engineered seed is a venture where advice and recommendation proceeds apace, whilst knowledge lags somewhere to the rear.

The enthusiasm to give counsel even when knowledge is questionable or rudimentary, is not confined to scientists. In most fields of human activity – social, political, medical, national, religious, educational, and others – counsel is freely given when possible consequences are either not understood, not taken seriously, or recklessly disregarded. Unregulated competitiveness, expressed as the race is to the strong and the devil can harvest the weak, has done much to increase the burden of human suffering, poverty and misery throughout the world.

And what of the patriotism which goes beyond national pride into denigration and oppression, riding with indifference over the rights of others? Or religion which, whilst nominally about qualities which most religions share, but for short-hand convenience I might call Christian values of tolerance, compassion, brother and sisterhood, and mutual respect, encourages its adherents to terrorise those of other faiths. Holy wars (what a contradiction) against the infidel are in our historical past, but counterparts can be found in news reports of today.

Even between members of one religious faith, antagonism flares into violence between Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and other Christian sects. Moslem fights Moslem, as well as Hindu, Jew and Christian. Religious rivalry degenerates into hatred and violence, though the religion professed is about peace with God and love of mankind. Knowledge is the basis of understanding. Counsel given without it is a road to disaster.

The laws we enact, the examples we set for others, the messages we send out, the newspapers and magazines we produce, commercial norms of behaviour displayed do have outcomes beyond the immediately apparent.

Much damage done, whether to the environment, to our social structure, to our relationships with others, is not the result of deliberate decision calculated by evil men or women, but through ignorance. Counsel given and accepted unquestioned, action undertaken without proper consideration, arrogance replacing fore-thought – these cause a high proportion of misery and suffering throughout the world.

It is true that the total of knowledge available to mankind is greater now than ever in the world’s history. Particularly in the last century knowledge in every field – archaeology, science, philosophy, engineering, medicine, the list is endless – has increased and continues to increase at an accelerating rate. Not only has the store of knowledge grown, but its availability and accessibility has grow also.

We perform in everyday living that which only a few years ago would have been thought miraculous. Men and women, almost as a matter of routine, travel through space. Oceans depths are plumbed for oil. We may travel to the other side of the world in the time taken for the sun to circle the globe. We watch events as they are happening thousands of miles away. We holiday in exotic climes, places not long ago only visited with great difficulty by explorers accompanied by native porters carrying supplies. In our hospitals, hundreds of operations are carried out each week to repair or replace organs within the human body. Through the Internet the world’s libraries can be accessed from the home.

But though we have so much knowledge and skill, and perhaps because of that, too often we act as if we possess complete knowledge. We are filled with self-congratulation, admiration for our achievements and our cleverness. That there is still so much to learn is forgotten. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we start actions which we cannot ultimately control or stop. Yet to question is to run the risk of being labelled a crank, a loner, an odd-ball, an eccentric.

Many references may be found in pages of the Old Testament as to the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom rests upon knowledge, which is hedged about with humility, reservation and questioning uncertainty.

In the story of Job, health and fortune began to return to him when he was able to utter these words.

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

My own belief is that suffering, hardship, poverty come not from God by way of punishment, but commonly from man by way of arrogance and indifference. Counsel without knowledge in the words of the Old Testament story.

Job’s relief from his woes followed recognition that his knowledge was limited, that he “…uttered what I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” Recognition of the limits of his knowledge put him on the road to acquiring wisdom.

It is a message of universal application. It is the secret passage leading to an fairer, more equitable and peaceful world.

This is not a plea to abandon a search for knowledge. Knowledge should be pursued and acquired. It is properly a part of human nature to learn, and to try to understand. And knowledge should be applied, but with humility. Doubt and caution, humility and the certainty that what we know is always partial, are signs of wisdom.

The world will be a far better place when all peoples, with a sense of humility, can echo the words of Job:

“Yea, I uttered what I understood not,
Things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.”

But better still if we counsel with care, and with thought for consequences. Only fools boast of their knowledge; the wise are certain only of how much they still don’t know.

C.J. Rosling 10 April 1999

Fulwood 11 April 1999
Hucklow 11 July 1999