Sunday Sermon – 31 March 2019

Unless The Lord Keep The City

Like many other folk, among the various pictures and photographs we display on our walls at home, is a framed map. It is of what used to be called Yorkshire, before parliamentary legislators in 1974 decided to get rid of many of the old county names, re-draw boundaries and invent new titles like Humberside, Kirklees, Calderdale and South Yorkshire.

It isn’t a conventional map, but a stylised one with drawings, quotations and comments indicating the towns and other locations. It includes a recipe for Yorkshire pudding, the old beggars’ litany, “From Hull, Hell and Halifax, good Lord deliver us”, and Mother Shipton’s prophecy, happily unfulfilled or we wouldn’t be here today,

“The world to an end shall come,
In eighteen hundred and eighty one”.

Across the top is an inscription taken from Ripon Town Hall facade, which itself is a quotation from the psalms. It reads,

“Except ye Lord keep ye Cittie ye wakeman waketh in vain”.

Or to up-date the English slightly, “Unless the Lord keeps the City the watchman watches in vain”.

I’ve looked at the quotation many times, and it has sparked two trains of thought in my mind. The first I suspect was the one in the mind of the original Jewish author. It is that in conflict God takes sides. The anonymous original Jewish composer of the psalm probably had no doubt about that. Much of the Old Testament is given to accounts of the battles the Isrealites won or lost according to whether God was supporting them, had left them to their own devices, or was opposing them as punishment for misdeeds. The Phillistines, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the rest were defeated when God was on the side of the Jews.

As they neglected their religious duties, the Jews were punished. Enemies prevailed, the Temple was razed, and the citizens of the towns and cities were taken into slavery, forced to dwell by the banks of the Nile, the Euphrates or the Waters of Babylon.

Later Christians adopted this mantle of righteousness. The crusade against the so called infidel in the Middle Ages for example was regarded as a battle with right on the side of the Christian warriors. But that is only one example among countless. Indeed, it is a universal practice to claim, explicitly or implicitly, that God is on one’s side, whether one is defending, attacking or both.

But the idea of God as a participant in battle, or as the manager on the touch-line, or even as a cheer-leader, is not one that is universally acceptable. Blessing instruments of war, with one side claiming that all moral justification is on its side, and the opponents are totally evil, is rejected by thoughtful Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike.

There are too many contradictions for any intelligent person to imagine that God weighs up the arguments and then concludes he must throw his weight on one side of the battle or the other, quite apart from the moral and theological objections to such a philosophy.

But the quotation of the Lord keeping the city, still for me holds a valid truth, for it has an alternative interpretation which seems the more logically sound, and theologically justified. It is that the enemy to be feared is not without, but within.

During the Second World War, among the sayings in common currency were the word, “quisling” and the phrase, “fifth column”. Quisling was a Norwegian who betrayed his country to the invading German troops, and the name was thereafter used as an epithet to be applied to any internal traitor to the cause. The fifth column was a description of subversive groupings undermining a country’s resistance by working secretly and insidiously from within, to spread gloom, despondency and a feeling of hopelessness.

It is the evil that is within that destroys. Again history gives many examples, both apocryphal and factual. Perhaps one of the earliest recorded is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. But the downfall of civilisations, empires and countries is repeatedly attributed to internal cancers which destroy the host body.

Unless the Lord keeps the city, watching out for attacking enemies is vain, for the structure is rotting from within.

The city is a metaphor, descriptive of any community, be it large or small, a family group, or a nation. Likewise, the picture of the Lord keeping the city is descriptive of the need for sound principles of concern, justice, fairness and compassion to motivate the individual and inspire the community. There is an old worn cliché about internal evil corrupting from within that uses a damaged and decaying apple in a barrel, which left to itself will infect the whole. The rotting fruit which poisons societies, pretending to be wholesome but in reality a sham, is greed, hatred, or arrogance.

Any community can contain its quisling, its group of fifth columnists, its corrupting apple which if not recognised and countered will infect and ultimately destroy the whole. What is true of communities applies with equal force to individuals within that community. Unless the Lord keep the individual, seeds of malignancy may take root within him or her.

Racism, intolerance, greed, hatred, envy and the like may spread the virus of decay, and so the individual becomes the rotten apple mouldering inside the pile destroying him or herself and infecting those around.

But there is another analogy of how a whole may be affected by a part. A countervailing force which may pervade the body, be it small or large. A more optimistic and agreeable image. A tiny tablet of saccharine or similar, dropped into a large volume of tea or coffee, will spread throughout and sweeten the whole. The salt which has not lost its savour will flavour the whole dish. Their influence is out of all proportion to their size. The effects are immeasurably greater than one might suppose from the discrepancy between the volume of beverage and the mass of the tablet, or the volume of food and the pinch of flavouring.

Or we might use the drop of that detergent widely and frequently advertised on television, which will allegedly cleanse all those dirty pots long after lesser washing up liquids have ceased to function.

Similarly, the goodness of one individual, saintliness if you like, can affect the lives of many. Cheerfulness, optimism, courtesy, generosity and concern are themselves infectious. Like the small tablet of sweetener, the influence of goodness is a thousand times greater than might be supposed from a comparison of size and volume.

And this gives us an insight into what might be meant by the Lord keeping the city. The city, community or individual which the Lord keeps is one where thoughtfulness, generosity of spirit, tolerance, compassion and understanding are to be found. The watchman’s vigilance is undermined when thoughtlessness, meanness of soul, intolerance, indifference and ignorance are attributes most frequently to be found within the walls.

Our society is in danger not so much from the foe who may or may not attack from afar. It is at risk from subversion from inside its walls. Goodness will prevail as long as we identify the quisling and fifth columnist who preaches the tempting doctrine summed up in the libellous so called motto of the Yorkshireman

“If ever thou do ‘owt for nowt
Do it for thi’ sen”
The Lord dwells in that community where all do for others, whether paid or not, because that is the only way to true happiness, and to a healthy society.

And in the search for the fifth columnist, we must not omit to examine ourselves. Revd. Parkinson, one time Minister of our Doncaster Church, used to tell a children’s story about a warrior searching to do battle with his greatest enemy. The fighter was directed into a room where he found himself faced by a large mirror. “Physician heal thyself” goes up the cry.

And so I draw to my conclusion and summarise. What we may encapsulate in the general title of Christian values will be contaminated, infected, by evil unless we are vigilant. Vigilance begins with self-examination and spreads outward into our communities. But those Christian values, if practised and maintained will themselves spread outwards into the communities of which we are a part, sweetening the whole and cleansing the whole body.

The responsibility for corporate well-being is an individual one. If society is said to be sick, then it is because the individuals who compose it are indisposed. Society in itself is neither good nor bad, healthy or unhealthy. But how a society is perceived, and what it is like to be a member of that society is dependent upon the health, the character, of the individuals making up that society. I firmly believe that goodness is ultimately triumphant, and evil doomed to defeat. But the speed of that defeat is contingent upon the values we hold dear being preserved by individual men and women of good faith.

The Lord keeps the city not by conquest and imposed rule. But by invitation, and then partnership. If the Lord is not to be seen, then we must ask if it is because we have bolted and barred the gates, and allowed the devious traitors in our midst to spread decay throughout the whole body.

“It’s not my job”, is the cry of the idler, the buck passer, or the pleader for a quiet life throughout the ages. But preservation of truth, fostering of love and understanding is the task of each individual Christian. The Lord keeps the city not by a treaty signed with the Mayor and Corporation, but by an acceptance of His values by individuals, and the preservation of those values throughout the individual practising them.

Presumably the original city fathers of Ripon wished to proclaim their faith to the citizens of Ripon. It behoves us to keep before us the words they carved in stone. They are an epigram worth the keeping; they apply more widely than the confines of Ripon.

C.J. Rosling

Fulwood 18 November 1990; 24 July 1994
Upper 25 Nov. 1990
Mexborough 25 Nov. 1990; 2 April 1995
Hucklow 7 April 1991; 6 September 1998
Chesterfield 16 August 1992

Sunday Sermon 24 March 2019

Let there be Light

I don’t imagine I am alone in my conservatism when it comes to hymns. There is a reluctance to look for the new, rather a preference for the old and familiar. Not that all hymns first sung when I boasted fewer years than now are equally agreeable, for there are some that I have never particularly cared for. “When a knight won his spurs” for example; and I wouldn’t grieve overmuch if I never heard “All things bright and beautiful” sung again. “Onward Christian Soldiers” has not seemed the same to me since many years ago a boy I taught wrote that was his favourite hymn, writing memorably (spelling was always a struggle for the child) “marching out to war” with war spelt w-h-o-r-e.

The other day I was glancing through a hymn book, looking for hymns for a service I was to take, when I came across one remembered from the past, but which I haven’t heard sung for many years. It was Lead, kindly light.

“Lead, kindly light, Amid the encircling gloom!
Lead thou me on.”

It is not one of my favourite hymns – rather too doleful for my taste – but it recalled evening services attended long ago when it was commonly chosen. The stained-glass window, based on the picture by Leigh Hunt entitled “The Light of the World” over-looked the end of the pew the family normally occupied. The high electric lights gave hardly adequate illumination to read the words on the page of the hymn book. Reading those verses again, my thoughts moved on to thinking about lights. It came to me just how many of lingering memories are connected either with light, or, alternatively, with the lack of it.

Bonfires and fireworks on November 5, with rockets snaking heavenwards, and sparks flying like glow-worms over the roof tops, as branches crackled and burst into flame came to mind, with the communal celebration on the spare ground behind my childhood home visualised in the mind’s eye. Strange patterns dancing on the ceiling from the front room open fire – it was always called the front room in my childhood, the lounge is a modern affectation – on a winter evening as dusk fell and before the lamps were lit. Fairy lights flicking on and off on the Christmas tree in the window. The comforting light shining into the bedroom from the landing before one fell asleep.

To many in my generation, the years of the Second World War remain fertile ground in which to delve for memories. Many are connected with the black-out when streets were unlit. Phases of the moon were followed with keen interest, for we re-discovered how bright a full moon could be. On dark clear, nights the stars, normally obscured to town and city dwellers by street lighting, were suddenly revealed. Hand held torches shining dimly downwards tracing a small illuminated circle, were an accompaniment to many a journey after sunset.

Those who did not live through those years will find difficulty in understanding how heartfelt was the relief when street lamps were once more lit, and lights could be switched on in houses, shops and offices when night fell without first meticulously blacking out windows and doorways. Most of us are creatures of the light, and enforced darkness is not to our comfort.

Many memories that linger, however, are not of darkness, or conversely, of light itself, but rather of darkness punctured by light. I remember once when I was what we would now call a teenager (a word not yet coined in my youth, weren’t they then called adolescents?), walking home from some social function with a group of friends. The road wound above the town which nestled below in the valley and on the lower slopes of the hills. As we walked we could see the roads delineated by the lines of street lamps, the un-curtained windows of houses and shops sparkling like jewels on a black cloth of felt. Amongst them crawling clusters of lights that were the buses and trams carrying their human cargoes.

It was a common enough sight, and yet I found it an arresting one. For some reason the memory has remained fresh for more than half a century.

Yet another memory which returned as I thought about lights was one of our local football ground. One side consisted of a roofed area under which spectators stood. The other sides were largely uncovered. On a winter day, when the nights started to draw in before the end of the game, from the opposite side of the pitch the spectators under the roof were invisible in the gloom. Small pin-pricks of light however would momentarily flicker and die from all parts of the darkness, as men lit cigarettes or pipes as they watched the last minutes of the game.

So one knew the darkness was inhabited, and this was comforting and re-assuring. The flickers of light through the darkness confirm human presence, even though no-one is visible. Perhaps the memory of the view over the town, or across the football pitch, has remained because of the realisation that light in the darkness represents contact with others; more of that later.

It is of no surprise that the imagery of light is frequently used in religious literature and pictures. Whether it is the analogy of the light-house shining over a blackened sea, the candles burning in the gloom of a cathedral, or saints depicted on stained glass windows as men and woman bathed in light, the inference is the same. As light is a destroyer of darkness, so is goodness the power which overcomes evil.

We are only fully aware of light when it contrasts with the darkness, or comparative darkness around it. Fireworks need the night to show off their splendour; a torch switched on in full sunlight is unseen; a struck match, unnoticed in the daytime, shows up for a surprising distance in the blackness of night.

God make my life a little light
Within the world to glow;
A little flame that burneth bright,
Wherever I may grow

So we used to sing in our Sunday school in days gone by. The image of light contrasting with darkness is that associated with goodness, with comfort, with reassurance, with hope. But further than that, it is also a symbol of knowledge and learning.

One of the prayers commonly used in our worship speaks of “God in whom there is no darkness at all”. But whatever be the nature of God, we certainly do not inhabit a world in which there is no darkness, actual or metaphoric. Darkness is the antithesis of light, associated with evil, with unease, with fear, with despair. It is symbolic of ignorance.

Though it would be palpably untrue to say our world is unrelieved blackness, we cannot pretend that the globe is always bathed in light, either actually or figuratively. Whether we speak of our personal lives, our nation, or are referring to a world-wide stage, gloom is frequently the back-cloth. Ignorance and fear, evil and inhumanity, are all too commonly observed and experienced. Then there are lights which knife through the darkness, pushing it aside, blowing away the wisps of foggy gloom, and uplifting the spirit.

All of us, at some time surely, have sat in a cinema or theatre as the lights have gone down and been surrounded by the blackness. Suddenly a light comes on revealing a figure or a scene and our hearts leap as excitement rises. The darkness was but the prelude to the pleasure to come.

So in moments when all seems dark and depressing, a voice of reassurance, a kindly act, a thoughtful deed cuts through the gloom; the darkness is lifted, and delight returns. We watch the pageant unfold, we learn that human passions, human deeds are not all of sinfulness, wickedness or self-serving greed. There are actions which, as the old saying has it, “shine like a good deed in a naughty world”.

Earlier I spoke of light in the darkness representing contact with others. We look in the evening sky wondering if there are other dwellers in space. We look to the lit window in the distance knowing that this confirms that others are around us. The candle lit in the church represents a presence we may not see but are confident is there.

Light is thus a symbol of not only of decency, rightness and integrity, but also of companionship, of a kinship with others.

The symbol used for a place of learning is a flaming torch. As we acquire knowledge, we illuminate the darkness of ignorance. In ignorance lies misery, fear or superstition. “The light of knowledge in their eyes” we sing in a well-known hymn, confirming the third facet of the use of light as a symbol. Thus we have morality, fraternity, and learning.

But even this wide-ranging list leaves something out.

When thousands gathered to remember the unspeakable horrors that were the holocaust, many lit candles. Over a tomb a flame flickers. A small light represents memory, but surely more than that. In many places of worship, a candle is lit as the service proceeds. It is a concrete sign of a belief in a spiritual power.

A power alluded to in different words – Creator, Spirit, God, Presence, Almighty, and many, many more. The flame is an acknowledgement of a power we may not define but of whose presence we do not doubt.

“What is electricity?” said the teacher to the boy.
“I’ve just forgotten”, the pupil replied.
“Pity”, said the teacher, “apparently only you and God knew, and now you’ve forgotten”.

We may not know the nature of that which we worship any more than we know what electricity is. But of the reality, we do not doubt. The representation is in light.

Let there be light, that we may advance goodness, cherish friendship, increase knowledge, but above all bow down in humility before immensity of the force which created us, and now sustains us.

The power that is, in the words of one of our well used prayers “….the light of the minds that know thee…” This is the God in which we dwell, and from whom we seek re-assurance.

C.J. Rosling 18 March 1995

Fulwood 19 March 1995
Mexborough 19 March 1995; 16 August 1998
Hucklow 2 April 1995; 11 Mar 2001; 27 Jan 2008
Doncaster 20 August 1995
Chesterfield 9 February 1997

Sunday Sermon – 17 March 2019

Sitting in Judgement

Over a number of years now, from time to time I have been asked to sit as a member of various local appeal panels or tribunals. It may sound rather grand but is not really. It is a matter of listening sympathetically and patiently, then trying to arrive at an honest conclusion. Though these hearings are of various types and cover a variety of purposes, they are in essence much the same.

Two sides have a different point of view on some problem, proposed action or topic. They have come to a neutral third party to try and resolve the matter. Both sides present their evidence and arguments, and leave it to the panel to judge who has the more convincing case, and thus, which party should be successful in achieving the object of its desire.

I sat on one such panel the other day. The two sides had each presented their arguments and retired, leaving we three members to decide the case on the strengths of the evidence. Our conclusion would be binding; there was no further appeal.

I idly, thoughtlessly, remarked that being in the position of God making judgements, was an uncomfortable process. The other two members agreed, and we went on to consider the matter, reached our conclusion and went on our way.

I said that my remark about being like God sitting in judgement was idle and thoughtless. It was unconsidered, and it came back to me later that evening as I was sitting relaxed, thinking over the day’s events. I thought about my analogy more carefully.

The Old Testament is full of examples of God as judge. The followers of Moses constantly were being judged. More often than not they were found wanting, and the appropriate punishment meted out. Lot’s wife paid the penalty for disobedience, whereas Solomon passed his test and was granted his reward. The examples are numerous and varied. Old Testament prophets and writers were sure in their vision of God, that of judge and arbitrator. More recently the Victorian, Canon Scott Holland, Anglican scholar and Oxford professor, was able to write his well-known hymn,

“Judge eternal, throned in splendour..”

again a word image of God as a sort of Old Bailey Lord of Appeal, upon whose decisions our fate rested.

A favourite theme of the painters of the renaissance period was of the day of judgement, with God as Judge Supreme sitting above the people who pleaded their case before him – there were no female judges in those days, and no-one had thought to question the maleness of the divine being. There are still some who speak of “the awful day of judgement” to come. The vision of God as a supreme ruler and magistrate is still held as strongly by many today, as was the case in the past.

But let us leave aside the imagery of God as a person, and all the theorising about his or her maleness or femaleness, race or nationality. Is the spirit or creative force for whom we use the shorthand title “God”, and whom we worship, really a judge or arbitrator? For my part the answer has to be no.

Just to make one simple point. Making a judgement in essence is to declare winners and losers. The belief that we are ruled by a God who identifies some of us as losers runs counter to much that is incorporated, implicitly or explicitly, in Christian philosophy. Nor are many of the decisions made about one’s conduct in day to day living such as to draw clear boundaries between that which is right and that which is wrong.

For example, telling the truth is important, but which of us has not been faced with the dilemma of being either frank and honest with the consequence of hurting feelings, or prevaricating in order to be kind. “Thank you for a lovely evening”, we say, rather than, “What a boring time we have had!” A trivial example perhaps, but one that makes a point that, to use a time-worn analogy, if right and wrong are to be regarded as black and white, there is an infinite number of shades of grey in between the extremes. How much poorer life would be if there was no place for some deception. Father Christmas, tooth-fairies, and birthday surprises are part of, what a friend of mine always used to refer to as, “life’s rich pageant”.

Life is full of compromises, and not necessarily because of lack of principle or for personal gain. Those who see God as judge of human behaviour make allowance for this by speaking of a merciful God. A God who will take into account such things as motive, the circumstances of our deviations and transgressions. We are allowed, as the law courts put it, to make a plea in mitigation. That is to say that although we were in the wrong there were special circumstances, and so we should not be treated as severely as would otherwise be the case.

But for my part, I find difficulty with even this interpretation of our relationship with God.

We are here in the world with the opportunity to choose in the area of relationships with one another. There are all sorts of restraints upon our actions. There are the laws of the land which lay down penalties for exceeding the speed limit, for robbery and assault, for deception and fraud, for theft and murder, and so on. But our treatment of one another, our respect for views of others, or, to use a word in an old-fashioned context, our charitable behaviour, is a matter of free choice.

The law cannot make us love one another. There are no statutes which include penalties for surliness. No acts of Parliament have been passed which force cheerfulness upon us. Oliver Cromwell and his fellow Puritans once issued decrees which stopped citizens being too cheerful, as he prohibited dancing or the eating of mince pies, but that’s a different matter. There are no proclamations which compel us forgive slights and wrong-doing.

The uncomfortable feeling which descends upon us when, though we know we have broken no law, we are aware that we have behaved badly, is an indication that a judgement has been made. The judgement in this case is not one made by some outside authority, it is an assessment compiled by ourselves. These self-judgements are a matter of conscience. It is not a judge throned in splendour, but a still small voice within who passes sentence.

I recognise that there is a danger in making a case against God as a judge. One might be seen as arguing that God has no rules, no laws, is a fence-sitter leaving it to us to decide how to behave, or how to conduct our relationships with one another. That is not the case. God is palpably a god of love. It is through love in its various aspects, that we achieve joy and contentment. Our lives are fulfilled, not when we spend our time wielding the censor’s blue pencil, but, when writing encouraging comments..

In very broad terms the laws of God are encapsulated in the commandments. Awe and reverence to the creative force which assembled the universe and all that dwells within, coupled with a true respect for others, is the basis upon which communities and individuals alone can flourish. Love God and love your neighbour in the succinct language of the New Testament.

Perhaps these are not so much laws, as standards to which we should aspire; or rather the necessary conditions to be fulfilled in order that life is complete and satisfying.

If there is no awe and wonder, life becomes empty and meaningless. The wonder of creation, the interdependency of one life upon another and of both upon their environment is a source of astonishment. The vastness of the universe and the structural intricacy of minute organisms both bespeak of creative powers beyond our comprehension. It is not by the imposition of external laws that we feel compelled to bow before such awesome power – to fall and worship – but because by failing to do so our life is incomplete.

Our indifference to, or our hatred of, our fellow beings is not a crime to be punished by a sentence pronounced by a vengeful God. Such attitudes and behaviour are punished, if punishment is the correct word, by what we suffer as a consequence. That is, at best a stunted growth as an individual, and at worst unhappiness and despair. The judge is within us. We sentence ourselves, we restrict our own liberty, confine our own freedom.

The God of the Old Testament, with his fearsome rages, his readiness to call to account, his punishments, was in many ways an easier option than concept of self-judgement. It removed personal responsibility by imposing an framework of acceptable behaviour which the individual either accepted or suffered the consequences.

“To thine own self be true” is not to move away from an acceptance of God but to move nearer to it. It implies a measure of maturity, of responsibility, of trust.

If a child behaves badly, the greatest punishment is often a recognition that some-one he or she loves, perhaps a mother or father, has been made unhappy by the fall from grace. The parent does not cease to love the child, but has been upset by what has happened. The punishment is self-inflicted, remorse brings the situation back to normal.

So it is with God. Our sins do not bring thunderbolts from on high, or fire and brimstone down upon our heads. If we love God then the realisation of our misdemeanours is its own discipline. The subsequent unhappiness is relieved as and when we reconcile ourselves with God.

I do not believe all is stored up for a future day of judgement. We judge our selves continuously, and the extent of our contentment is proportionate to the margins of our errors.

C.J. Rosling 28 January 1995

Fulwood January 1995
Mexborough August 1995
Hucklow March 1996; June 2001
Chesterfield March 1995
Doncaster June 1997

Image result for shamrockSt Patricks day 17 March 2019

Sunday Sermon – 10 March 2019

Illuminating the Ordinary

The other day I was chatting to an acquaintance about the changing face of Sheffield. We started off from the work going on to improve the City centre. Road-works closing off familiar routes, the mess, the noise – all the moans that accompany any sort of inconvenience, however minor it be, were aired.

But the conversation soon moved on from present day grumbles to reminiscences about the past. It was the sort of conversation in which we old delight, living in the past to avoid thinking about the present and the future. It could have taken place in any town or city, with words hardly changed.

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

wrote Robert Browning. And for we over-sixties, and perhaps for some of us a year or two more than that, not the least of that best is to indulge in recalling a rose-tinted past when the sun always shone, rain came only in the night, and if hardships now and again came our way, we bore them with admirable fortitude. Nostalgia is the drug of choice for we senior citizens.

So my companion and I remembered the fields of youth now covered by factories or industrial estates; meadows upon which maisonettes stand where cattle once grazed; valleys in which the winding stream has been hidden beneath the dual carriageway; the woods from which now sprout, not trees, but high-rise flats and office blocks; the play-grounds of childhood transformed into super-market car parks.

My companion spoke also of buildings from his childhood which were now either demolished, or used for purposes far removed from their original intent. Before retirement, he had been a builder in a small way. As a youth he had served an apprenticeship as a carpenter (or was it a joiner, I’m never too sure about which is which). So he looks at buildings with a professional eye, particularly at those aspects in which timber plays a part. He appreciates points which pass by laymen like me.

He spoke with warmth of a building, near the City centre, which stands on what was once a railway goods yard, now a timber yard. “Just look at that roof”, he said. He used a technical term to describe it. I’m afraid I do not recall the word now, but I have looked at that roof since. It is a timber roof with an intricate pattern of beams and struts. My friend, who prided himself on his ability to lay out the framework for a house roof, understood the skill, the technical problems to be overcome, in constructing a great canopy over a large space. A covering which was at once both effective and aesthetically pleasing.

I relate this trivial anecdote because it illustrates a point. There is beauty to be seen in the ordinary. Not only that, but the enthusiast can relay to others something of his or her joy, so that the listener has eyes opened to majesty to be found in the mundane. Even a wood-shed roof may rival the vaulted covering of a church.

One of the minor satisfactions in life comes when it is revealed that the ordinary is not merely humdrum, if seen through the eyes of sympathetic understanding. Walk round an area with a local historian, say, and houses, streets, squares come to life, for they all have a story to tell.

Maybe we listen to the naturalist describe a world of wonder within an ordinary meadow, or stretch of woodland. Millions sit watching the television set as the expert reveals that even a rubbish dump, or the motorway verge, or an apparently empty wasteland is full of interest to those who know how to look. We older ones wandered with Romany and Nomad in Children’s Hour on the wireless, long before television entered virtually every home. Today’s children sit and see on TV images from exotic places far from home. I trust they marvel as did we as children.

Many of us have had the experience of going round a cathedral or a church in the company of a guide. Windows, tombs, carvings and plaques become more than cold inanimate objects, as details are explained and tales woven around the cold bare facts. It is as if a light has been turned on and we see what was previously unobserved.

The world in which we live is full of wonder, much of it unnoticed, disregarded, until a carpenter says, “Do you see that roof?”, or the bricklayer marvels, “That’s a fine stretch of wall”. The craftsman looks at the type of brick and the skill with which it was laid, or the way heavy wooden beams are inter-locked to give strength, proportion and symmetry.

There were no photographers or television cameras recording episodes as Jesus wandered the countryside, preaching in the villages, conversing with friends. We rely on the New Testament accounts, mostly written down a little time after the event. But we cannot doubt that crowds listened as he spoke. And what did he tell them? He spoke of common domestic experiences, of farming, of the countryside, the herding of sheep and goats, of fishing, of simple inter-actions between ordinary folk. And those who heard, saw these things in a new light. The common things of life might be everyday, but they were precious – rich in meaning, full of beauty, the yeast of life.

He described searching for a lost coin, and related this to reclaiming lost souls. Planting a small seed, and seeing the miracle of life as a great tree grew, spreading its branches, was something his audience witnessed daily. He pointed out that helping a victim of crime was truly charity to a neighbour, even though the victim be a stranger, born of another race. Child-like humility was a starting block in a race to true greatness, he proclaimed, as the children gathered round him.

As the enthusiast conveys the excitement and beauty of life to the ignorant, understanding develops. Many can recall how a teacher or preacher, parent or friend, neighbour or chance acquaintance, through enthusiasm communicated a little about the underlying verities of life. They opened our eyes and we marvelled. They touched our hearts and we remember.

Such is conversion. We enter a career, we become sportsmen or sportswomen, ramblers, painters, train-spotters, DIY cranks, stamp collectors, cooks, or gardeners, because someone was an enthusiastic advocate and we were hooked.

What is less obvious is the success of the churches, and by that I mean men and women who profess a Christian faith, to portray to others their enthusiasm. The peace that comes through worshipping with others; the strength to endure adversity; the patience to accept our short-comings along with those of others, are what we enjoy. But perhaps we practice rather than preach. We hold unto ourselves rather than sharing with others.

Why this is so I find difficult to analyse. Is it because in dealing with profound, yet personal emotions, we feel we should wrap our thoughts in obscure language? Do we believe that things spiritual cannot be ordinary, that intense feelings should be enveloped in fog? Is beauty something apart from everyday life? Is the appreciation of aesthetic form something not to be confused with day to day living?

Surely this is not so. Though there are moments of spiritual rapture which are special, personal, a private inner sanctuary in the building housing everyday living, surely the essence of faith is that it permeates life.

There are those occasions when faith supports through grief, trouble or despair. There are other times when joy may swell into rapture because of our religious convictions. But these times are not the whole of life and living. Indeed they are but a small part when set against the whole. Much of life is ordinary, predictable, normal. Unexciting and routine tasks are repeated, familiar routes traversed, common sights and sounds observed. But there is a form of worship in marvelling at the small nugget of yeast which leavens the whole, observing the intricate construction of the web of the spider, watching a leaf turning from the delicate green of spring to the golden russet of autumn. To hold in the hand the pebble formed tens of millions of years ago, can be to humble oneself before powers beyond our understanding.

We speak of our spirituality enabling us to live life to the full. Life to the full is many faceted. It is about relationships with others. Respect, love, charity, tolerance all come into it, as do forgiveness, understanding and compassion. A part is worship, contemplation, meditation and an acknowledgement that there are things too great for our understanding. But to my mind one can encompass all this and yet find something lacking.

For the additional ingredient is the ability to see beauty, awe, and the miraculous in the ordinary, the everyday.

The other day I heard a carpenter point out there was love and craftsmanship to excite the mind in a roof over a wood-shed. Two thousand years ago another carpenter talked of ordinary, everyday tasks and sights, linking them to a philosophy of life that has endured for two millennium, spreading around the whole globe.

As we grow old we have a responsibility not merely to reminisce about the past, but to use what we have learnt and pass it on to those who follow. All generations should learn of the glory to be found in the familiar. Grandeur is not only to be found in the grandiose, but may be discovered in simple sights and sounds.

An old Sunday School hymn went

“I learned it in the meadow path
I learned it on the mountain stairs,
The best things any mortal hath
Are those which every mortal shares.”

What we share is life. What we share is familiarity with the ordinary sights around us. What we share are the common experiences of life, with its hopes and fears, disappointments and moments of ecstasy . We grow older and hopefully wiser with experience. Let us make sure that we seek to past on to those who come after us the joy of the everyday, the splendour of the simple, the deep satisfaction of knowing that wonder surrounds us.

Age withers us, as in time it will wither our children’s children. But as we once learned to sing

“Glad that I live am I,
That the sky is blue..”

let us endeavour to see that they too will rejoice in the glory of living in a world where the ordinary is extra-ordinary, the mundane a source of marvel, the everyday a part of eternity.

C.J. Rosling 20 August 1998

Hucklow 23 August 1998; 10 August 2003

Sunday Sermon – 3 March 2019

Get Lost!

An acquaintance of mine told me recently of an experience he and his wife once had when on holiday in Spain.

They decided to visit a nearby town to do some shopping. Friends of theirs had described how easy it was to catch the bus from outside the flat where they were staying into the town, some ten miles or so away. All they had to do was to get on the bus at the bottom of the hill, and get off at the bus station terminus in the town. They could then see where they were, and would be able to return to the same place and catch a bus back after a pleasant few hours looking at the shops. There was an hourly service. Nothing could be simpler.

They caught the bus and some twenty five minutes later it stopped. Most of the passengers dismounted. John and his wife assumed that they must be at the bus station and got off too. After the bus had set off again they realised they were not at the terminus, but in a residential area a little way out of the town centre.

They were lost in a foreign country, unable to speak or read Spanish. They spent, what they claim, was several hours walking miles, until by chance they eventually came across the bus terminus. Exhausted in body, mentally worn out with the stress of fearing they were doomed to wander like homeless refugees for ever, they climbed on the waiting bus and, thankfully abandoning all thoughts of shopping or expeditions, returned to their holiday flat.

Anyone who has ever been lost, and that must be most of us at one time or another, can easily understand the terror of being separated from all that gives the comfort of familiarity and security. I may have told you on a previous occasion of an experience my wife and I had when we parked the car in a strange town, failed to note the name of the car park, and despaired of ever seeing the car again. Our daughter, then fifteen and averse to shopping with parents stayed in the car reading a book. In fact she had read the whole of the book, and was resigning herself to the fact, or possibly rejoicing in the knowledge, that she was now free of her parents for ever.

The recollection of being lost, the experience of being lost, the fear that one might become lost, are among the most powerful of emotional occurrences in one’s life. Though perhaps stronger in childhood than in adult life, the reactions never entirely leave us. And it is not only about loss of contact with other people, or a failure to find directions, it extends to loss of material goods.

My age in years can only have been in single figures, but the memory remains of dropping a shilling whilst running an errand and seeing it bounce on to waste ground and disappear for ever. The anguish of that time has hardly diminished as the years have gone by. Spending money is acceptable; losing money is traumatic. Perhaps I still hope it will turn up some day.

But the reverse side of the experience of losing and being lost lies with the joy of finding and of being found. Wander round a shopping centre or on a seaside beach and the tearful face of a lost child will sooner, rather than later, be observed. Then see the relief which lights up that same face as the familiar figure of Mum or Dad appears, and see the joy of re-union. “For that which was lost is found again.”

And the same applies to losing possessions. Even misplacing quite trivial objects and then finding them brings its own feeling of satisfaction – almost peace. Which of us has not put down a half-eaten sandwich, and then felt unease when we cannot immediately find it. It is not hunger, but a feeling of being separated from that which is rightfully ours which upsets us.

No wonder that amongst the most well remembered and oft quoted parables are those of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. They are stories with which we can identify, and more importantly, understand the feelings of the characters.
We do use the description of losing or of being lost about intangible or abstract objects within our life. We talk of losing hope, or losing faith, that life is without direction or purposeless. This sort of loss is as equally charged with emotional stress as is the loss of friends or companions, protectors and guardians, material goods and treasured possessions.

Here too we may need others to help us search or to give signs about the direction we might take. And no less as aims and meanings become clearer, or hope is renewed, is the sense of relief and joy. The metaphors commonly used are those that associated with finding, re-discovery or now seeing the way.

One of the commonest of metaphors applied to life is to liken it to a journey. All journeys, even though they be modest and local, carry with them the risk of losing one’s way or mislaying one’s possessions. But the risks are minimised if we go prepared upon the pilgrimage. If we can read the sign-posts, carry a map, take a companion, avoid the trackless wastes and so on, the dangers are, not eliminated – that can never be – but are minimised. If others know our approximate route, when we are lost we may be found again.

The equipment we take, and the knowledge we possess, comes from many sources. But family, neighbours, church people, teachers, men and women of goodwill all have much to provide. They are our sign-posts, our compasses and inform us of land-marks on the way.

But getting lost is not only a negative occurrence: there are positive aspects to being lost. Wandering in places we have not visited before is a journey of exploration, and can be full of delights. Putting on one side old beliefs and familiar ideas whilst new ones are examined is to walk through new territory not knowing where one will eventually emerge. Always to be with the familiar and known is to miss the unexpected vista, or the opportunity to tread repeatedly the well-worn paths of custom.

But this is a self-made decision to deliberate forego the familiar to explore the unknown, or to discard, perhaps temporarily perhaps not, the possessions we have accumulated. The terror of being lost is when we feel out of control and in the hand of malignant forces.

Among the idioms in our language is one – “Get lost!” It is usually used in a dismissive, exasperated sense when we want to get rid of some-one, or of their ideas. But for child or adult it is good, indeed it is essential to full development, that it is told from time to time, “Get lost!” For being lost is to explore, not only new territories, but to explore our inner selves.

All of us have a responsibility to seek those who are lost involuntarily, so they may be re-united and experience the joy of being found again. But all of us, and for parents this can be particularly difficult, need to be able to say occasionally, “Get lost, wander through the new, strange and unfamiliar”. But of course that is within the knowledge and assurance that the search party is at hand if required, and that the joy of reunion will be the rewarding culmination.

This is a house of God. I am not absolutely sure what I mean by that, for I too am still wandering, not a hundred per cent sure where I am. But of this much I do feel sure. As we wander on life’s journey, sometimes knowing where we are, often uncertain, we are never completely lost, we have God ready to rescue when we cry out for help.

It occurs to me that to be welcomed into a Unitarian Church is to enlist in the company of lost souls. Not lost souls in the usual interpretation of that phrase, but of deliberate adventurers who rejoice in being told to “Get lost”. Explorers we are, maybe not discovering new lands or continents, but finding for ourselves paths that others have trod, and viewing vistas fresh to our eyes. The excitement of exploring is as much a part of true living as is the joy finding, or being found.
May we all become adventurers and explorers, sometimes lost, but guarded and cherished in the arms of God and may we all experience the exquisite happiness when that which is lost is found.

C.J. Rosling

Fulwood 30 June 1991
Chesterfield 18 August 1991
Mexborough 21 March 1993
Hucklow 16 October 1994