Sunday Sermon – 30 June 2019

What’s in a Name?

Sometimes I am asked how I get ideas for sermon subjects. Occasionally I can truthfully say that I don’t know – an idea simply came into my head. But at other times it is something I have read, or something I have heard, or some incident during the week which triggers off the thoughts.

Two things coming together started me off on today’s subject. One was a short item in the paper, and the other a letter from my youngest brother. My brother has developed an interest in our family history, and has spent no little effort in tracing Rosling ancestors back over a number of generations. He wrote to me the other day asking if I could help him with some dates and names of relations, enclosing a copy of the family tree he had drawn to date.

And the newspaper article? This was on a subject reported on in my paper each year. It gives the most popular boys and girls names bestowed by parents upon their newly born children during the previous year. It is drawn up by a government department which deals surveys of the population in this country. And as a government department is responsible we can naturally be assured of its accuracy.

These parent-given names – christian names as we often refer to them, though forenames nowadays are normally asked for on forms, for we can no longer assume that we are all christian; there are many other faiths practised in the land – these names often go in cycles determined by fashion. At one time biblical names were common. They still are. Usually those we hear now given to boys are largely from the New Testament – Paul, John, Timothy, Andrew, Matthew, Peter for example. It is seldom today that we come across Eli, Ebenezer, Job and Abel except in Victorian novels, though Daniel and Benjamin are still in favour. Once girls names based on desirable qualities were common. Names like Grace, Faith, Charity, Prudence, Joy, Felicity are now not much heard among young girls. Nor are names of flowers and plants such as Pansy, Daisy, Primrose, Hazel, or Rose.

On the family tree my brother sent me many of the boys’ names from the past were from royalty – James, Arthur, William, George, Richard, Henry. Among the girls were Mary and Edith, Phyllis, Ethel, Alice and Nancy – all names which apparently now are regarded as rather old-fashioned by modern parents. I wonder how many here would guess the most popular girl and boy’s name in 1995? I have the newspaper cutting before me, from which I now quote.

(Comment on cutting: Michael and Jessica)

Of course our forenames are not chosen by ourselves. We are not consulted about them. Reference books will sometimes give the meanings of names. If parents chose a name because it means beauty or bravery, handsomeness or humility, it reflects their ambitions rather than the child’s still unformed character.

Most of us grow up to like or at any rate to tolerate and accept our given name. Some of us change it when we become able to do so. My father preferred John to his parents’ choice of Joseph. My daughter-in-law has varied her given name of Margaret to Maggie. But mostly that to which we have become accustomed, we accept.

If we do not chose our forename, equally we have no say in our surname or family name. We are Smith or Jones, Cooper or McDonald, Peterson or Fletcher, because our ancestors were so called. Perhaps because of what they did, or how they behaved, or their appearance. It is pretty obvious how Redhead or Short acquired their names, as is Farmer or Forester, Hunter or Gardener.

We may be proud of our ancestors, or possibly not. But whether or not that is the case, we carry the name, not by choice but by chance. The names tell where we came from but little about ourselves. So our names, both christian or forename, surname or family name, are not about the real us, but a mere label on the packaging. A label moreover which reveals little or nothing of the contents.

A phrase is sometimes used in exhorting someone else to live their own life, to be their own man or woman, “Go and make a name for yourself”. And it is that name which we make for ourselves which is the most important name of all. We do not inherit it. It is not given by parents, insisted upon by grand-parents, registered on a certificate and confirmed in a church service. It is our own choice and responsibility, though it mirrors the judgement of others. The name we make for ourselves is the label which does describe the contents.

We cannot claim a name for honesty whilst living a life of deceit. A name for compassion is not earned by condemning out of hand. To be called tolerant is a title bestowed to describe our everyday actions and behaviour.

When folk say of someone that he or she has lost their good name, they are not referring the titles placed on the envelope in which we correspond with them. We are referring to that name they have fashioned for themselves.

We talk sometimes of living a good life – a christian life. Perhaps a simple way of describing what is mean by this is to say it is a method of acquiring, and keeping, a good name. A name of which we and others may not be ashamed.

Though this may be a newly written sermon, it is in truth a repeated for the umpteenth time. A repetition of an oft-given message on the well-worn theme. Who we are is of little moment; what we are is supreme. Who we are is determined by others; what we are is in our own hands. What we say is not so revealing as is what we do. The name which will live in people’s memories is not that which was given by parents, rather that which we designate ourselves according to the life we lead.

Parents gave us a name which pleased them. Our surnames link us to our ancestors. But the name we make for ourselves is the one by which we shall be judged.

C.J. Rosling 18 February 1996

Mexborough 18 February 1996; 22 November 1998

Sunday Sermon – 23 June 2019

Music

I suppose many of us succumb to repetitiveness by airing time and again matters which concern us, or about which we have strong views. Topics that are important to us keep recurring in our conversations. Maybe they are what others rather dismissively call “Bees in the Bonnet”. I am, unashamedly, a repeater. Therefore it will come as no surprise to the congregation I suspect, if my theme this morning is one I have spoken about before – the joys of music.

Our family calendar in the nineteen thirties contained a number of fixed dates centred upon chapel and Sunday school. There were the religious festivals, Christmas, watch-night service, Easter and so on; the anniversaries, separate ones for Sunday School and Church for the church had been built a few years after the Sunday school was established. I mustn’t forget the annual fund-raising bazaar, the Christmas pantomime, various social events, including a weekly whist drive and dance, or overlook the Whitsuntide walk in which the whole town participated. The two bass singers in the church choir, Herbert Hall and Tom Whitehead, headed our procession, proudly holding the banner aloft.

Twenty-two churches and chapels participated as the processions, each one preceded by a brass band, converged on the market ground for a united service, with hymns accompanied by our two local bands, the Town Band and the Borough Band. Some churches included additional musical groups in their procession, with drums and bugles played by scout groups or Boys’ Brigade. Music and rhythmical beats are essential ingredients making up a splendid procession, be in a Whitsuntide gathering, a protest march, a floral dance or a Lord Mayor’s parade. In all these church events, music had a part. It unified; it brought people together.

Music, in one form or another, is found in every community throughout the world. In Africa, Asia, South America, among the dwellers in the jungle, round the prairie camp fire, in the villages of the Indian sub-continent, people express their joy or their grief, their frustrations or their contentment, in rhythmic sounds, made by instrument or vocal chord. Be it the excitement of the disco, the stately minuet, the frenzy of the rain-dance, people are compelled to dance as the drum beats thump and strings vibrate.

For all races and nationalities, and as far as one can tell this has been so from earliest time, music was and is an integral part of one’s being. This is so, right throughout our life span. The babe is lulled to sleep to the sound of the lullaby; the couple are married leaving the ceremony to the accompaniment of joyous and triumphal sound; solemn tunes and dirges may attend the ceremonies marking the end of life. Be the occasion hatch, match or despatch; be sure a suitable melody can be found to suit.

Music, frequently combined with movement, with dance, with marching or with tapping feet, being such an essential ingredient of human life, it is no surprise to find that music is included in many forms of religious worship.

The organ swells to the magnificent works of Bach, the voice of the solo choir boy sends tingles down the spine, the Halleluiah Chorus, sung with full voice, threatens the roof timbers, the plainsong chant bathes the listener in peace, and so one could go on. “Praise him with the sound of trumpet; Praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: Praise him with stringed instruments and the pipe”, sang the psalmist.

As children in Sunday school we left part way through the adult service and concluded our own assembly as we sang

“If I were a blackbird, and lived in a wood
I’d make it the happiest place that I could
I’d whistle and warble and carol all day
‘’Til all the world’s troubles I’d warbled away.”

Meanwhile our elders, not necessarily our betters, who stayed in church for the remainder of the service, chanted the Te Deum:

“We praise Thee O God,
We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord”

The words and tunes were different in Chapel and Sunday school, but the messages had this in common. Religion and worship are a matter for celebration. God’s creation is wonderful. It behoves us to marvel, and to sing of it with joy.

Music vocabulary spills over into life in general. Discords resolve and harmony is restored; chords find an expression in a sympathetic response, as in “striking the right chord”; to hit the right note is to set up a good relationship; our affections are cemented as we are in tune with one another, and so it goes on.

Central to Christian philosophy is the concept of love. The two great commandments – love of God and love of neighbour – are foundations of Christian thought. We who profess the faith attempt to build the framework in which we live our daily lives upon that solid rock.

“If music be the food of love
Play on, give me excess of it
That surfeiting, my appetite,
May sicken, and so die.”

Orsino was suffering from love-sickness for a lady, rather than love of the human race in general. Nor can he have been entirely serious in hoping his capacity for loving should vanish completely. But it is undeniable that music is a stimulant, a trigger that releases the deepest feelings. Music does indeed feed the emotions.

There are many words within our everyday vocabulary whose meaning we find difficult to define when asked. We know what we mean but we find it hard to explain that meaning in words. The word “love”, I suggest, falls in this category. We use it in so many ways, from explaining our appetite for cream buns at one extreme, to enveloping the profoundest emotional and spiritual experiences, at the opposite end of the scale.

The Shakespearian quotation was of sexual attraction. But music may, way beyond that, touch upon what we are trying to express by the love of God. Bach wrote his great choral mass, Handel his oratorios, Haydn his symphonies, Beethoven his mass, all of which we hear with a sense of reverence and awe, transcending mere enjoyment, out of religious conviction. They were acts of creation, reflecting faith and conviction. Love of music and glorification of the almighty are aspects of one whole.

Love of God may be difficult to define in simple words, but the great composers have in their music encompassed something of the awe, emotional ecstasy, the peaceful security, the reverence and the spiritual dependence, which fall within the definition of “love of God”. It is in creative expression – that which we call the Arts, of which music is a part – that humankind comes nearest to the expression of that love.

And love of neighbour? If love of God is about what we do in private to and for ourselves, then love of neighbour is about the way we live our daily lives. It covers all our relationships with our fellows, those private acts that nevertheless impinge on others. It is demonstrated by what we do as distinct from what we say we do.

When neighbour loves neighbour, then harmony is assured. Discords can be resolved. The melody is agreeable. We are in tune with one another’s needs. The different instruments blend sympathetically to create a balanced whole.

To sing in a choir, or to play in a band or orchestra, is to learn the discipline of co-operation. Self is important only in so much as it is a part of a much bigger whole. Even the soloist may need an accompaniment. The joy comes from a feeling that parts are blending to create an entirety that is more, much more, than a sum of the parts. Successful communal music making is a small snapshot of life where neighbour loves neighbour in order to create harmonious sounds that express a love of God.

Surely that is one of the reasons why musical sounds and rhythmical beats have become such an integral part of church worship. The hymnist pens the words, but it is the tune that many of us remember. However fine the words, the tune has to be right if we are to sing it! The organist played the wrong tune to that hymn, we complain. But the full glory of the tune comes when the parts are blended to the whole, the chords are struck and the harmonies emerge.

Some in the congregation of my generation and older, will remember that old Victorian ballad beloved of musical hall baritones, “The Lost Chord”.

“Seated one day at the organ
I was weary and ill at ease”,
were the opening lines.

The song goes on to describe the accidental discovery of a chord whose mellifluous tones brought peace and contentment in the place of stress and unease. Though the ballad was toe-curlingly sentimental, it contained a truth that music can and does bring solace and peace to the fevered mind. David long ago played his harp to soothe the torments of Saul. Today’s worshippers find an inner peace as the rousing hymn or the contemplative music swirls around them.

Music is the food of love. Comfortingly it embraces our worship of the almighty, eternal creator of us all within its arms. As we lift up our voices, or blow, scrape or bang our instruments, we, often inadequately, but sincerely express our deepest thoughts. And in making music together we glimpse for a moment the Kingdom of Heaven where neighbour recognises neighbour, and harmony prevails. However poor our voice, we all can enjoy singing a good hymn together.

Silence is golden, it is said. Certainly it has a precious quality, a time for peace and reflection. But a world without birdsong, the roar of the waterfall, the lapping of waves on the shore, the rustle of leaves, the sound of the trumpet, a choir opening their voices in harmony, the child singing the nursery rhyme to herself, the workman cheerfully whistling, or the orchestral climax at the end of the symphony, would be a poor world indeed. Play on, I shall not be surfeited.

C.J. Rosling 28th October 2006

Hucklow 29th October 2006

Equinox – 21 June 2019

Today is the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, or the shortest night if you prefer. Depending, I suppose on how well you sleep.

The summer solstice for me in Ireland is the winter solstice for my sister Jenni in Australia so my longest day is her shortest and vice versa.

In many parts of the world summer or winter officially begins today – that’s the astronomical view. The meteorologist’s view, based on weather patterns,  is that the season begins on the first of the month in which the solstice occurs.

Then there is the Irish take on it, based on the Celtic calendar. The Irish summer has the summer solstice bang in the middle so summer starts on May 1st and finishes 31st July. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the weather since rain here is no respecter of seasons. May rain, however does tend to be warmer than December rain.

For the younger, urban Irish though, summer is generally believed to start when they board a Ryanair plane to Alicante.

———————

Today is also Chris Rosling’s 96th birthday.

Happy birthday Dad x

Sunday Sermon – 16 June 2019

Messages all Around Us

I am just about old enough to remember the crystal set – that early form of radio, or rather wireless as it was then called, which required the contact between a thin wire known as the cat’s whisker, and the surface of a small crystalline substance. How it worked I know not, but that a crackling sound, which with some difficulty could be recognised as a human voice, came from it I do recollect, and we marvelled at it as well we might.

I remember, though, more clearly the wireless sets in wooden cases with the cut-out fretwork fronts, the long pointer which moved over a semi-circular dial to call up Droitwich and Daventry, the silver coated valves inside and the accumulator batteries which had to be regularly re-charged, in our case at the local cobbler’s shop. But what I recall also, and what remains with me to the present day, is an emotion, partly of puzzlement but mainly of awe, that a small piece of wire waving in the air – the aerial – could capture sounds of speech and music produced tens, hundreds or even thousands of miles away, and conduct these sounds through the set into our own houses.

“It is perfectly simple”, no doubt the scientist will tell us, but the magic of that seemingly miraculous trick is not tarnished by explanation. That words spoken in Stranraer or San Sebastian fill the air around us in Sheffield or in San Francisco, waiting to be captured on small pieces of metal sticking up and connected to a box of electrical parts, is breathtakingly wonderful, and so shall I always view it.

Of course, if the air was full of words and music waiting to be captured in my youth, how much more is that true now. And not only words and music, but pictures and what the computer buff calls data or information. The air around us is a veritable Tower of Babel, as television stations, satellites, mobile telephones, national radio stations, local radio stations, radar installations, aircraft, ships, space-craft and goodness knows who else scatter their messages and images into the air, to fall to earth God knows where.

We may sit quietly, conscious of no disturbance, as all is silence and peace, and yet, with the right boxes of tricks, we could pluck out from that silence conversations, music, images of folk far away, cries for help, reports of battles in distant lands, happy laughter from Birmingham or screams of terror from Burundi. I find it awe inspiring. The apparent silence around us is in reality a cacophony of sound, a portfolio of views, an encyclopaedia of information. All we need to access it is a magic box of tricks, a piece of equipment which will translate the unseen to the seen, the unheard into recognisable sound.

These sounds are generated by humans. Broadcast and scattered by the ingenuity of men and women through the machines they have built. Collected on other electronic gadgets around the world, and even in the skies above. But they are not the only sounds around us, which are unheard in the normal course of events.

Many will have seen on the edge of the Cheshire plain, not far from Manchester, the huge metal dish-shaped structures at Jodrell Bank. These dishes are one a number of installations built to collect and map the source of origin of sounds coming from far into space. Some of these sounds come from objects so far away that their journeys commenced shortly after the beginning of time itself. Their sources of origin are so distant that the length of journey is hardly comprehensible to our minds. If one were able to travel at eleven million miles a minute, roughly the speed at which light travels, it would take not millions, but thousands of millions of years to reach the source from whence some of these sounds originated. Their journey commenced before the earth itself had been formed. They will be travelling long after the earth has disappeared.

Until fairly recently, certainly within the life time of many of us here, no-one knew of this noise which moves through the air around us. The vibrations were there, but the means of hearing them had not been discovered. Now astronomers are not only enabled to hear, but are beginning to interpret. The weird discord which is an essential piece of evidence to enable better understanding of the universe and its origins.

If say, two centuries ago, it had been said that one day men and women would watch pictures, hear music and listen to news readers in their homes, their places of work and even when travelling around the countryside, and that all this information was in motion soundlessly and invisibly through the air and over the oceans, most would have found it difficult to accept.

If it was further said that there would be hand-held instruments which ordinary people would own, and which would enable them to speak to friends on the other side of the world, then this would have been thought a fairy tale. In earlier centuries men and women have gone to the stake for lesser so-called heresies.

In the same way, if it had been suggested that there were sounds inaudible to the human ear all around us which had travelled over millions of years from far distant space, and that it would one day be possible to hear these sounds, to map where they had come from, and to determine from them some of the deep secrets of the beginnings of the universe, I think that many folk would have treated such statements with a certain amount of scepticism. Doubting Thomas subscribed to the view that seeing was believing, and doubting Thomas’s are plentiful.

This leads me to a number of thoughts. First, because concepts and ideas are difficult to understand does not mean that they cannot possibly to be true. The concept of a force, a creative power, for which we use the shorthand “God” is not to be dismissed on the grounds that, with our present powers of understanding, it seems improbable. I find it beyond me to fully comprehend just how sounds, pictures, information and the like can travel through the ether, then be plucked from the air and translated into sounds and images on television sets, mobile telephones, radio sets, computers and so on. But though I may not understand it, I know it happens, for the evidence confronts me.

Which leads to the second point. I may know no more about the nature of God than I understand of the nature of the mysterious sounds which inhabit space, and which are gathered by astronomers at Jodrell Bank and elsewhere. But, just as I am convinced that pictures travel invisibly through the air by the evidence on my television screen, so I am convinced of the existence of God by the creation which is revealed on the earth, under the oceans and throughout the vast universe.

If light and sounds are permeating throughout the vast realms of space which are the universe, why should it be in any way remarkable that the creative spirit which we call God should not also be a force within this same universe. invisible yet omni-present, universal yet accessible, full of mystery, awe inspiring.

Thirdly, the sounds which are around us are accessed with the right techniques and equipment. Here in this Chapel this morning the air is full of these sounds, but we don’t hear them. Bring in and activate a television set, a radio, a mobile telephone and those sounds would be heard, those sights would be seen. Switch off and they would fade as far as ear and eye are concerned.

The presence of God is also here around us in this Chapel as indeed it is in the countryside, the town, in our homes, our work-places, our sports arenas and within our vehicles. But as we need to switch on our television set to get a picture, or to dial a number on our telephone to speak to a friend, to tune to a station to hear our radio, so we take the right action to attune ourselves to God.

In the infinite space of the universe there are massive objects which give off no light and which are invisible even to the huge astronomical telescopes, so how did we know that they were there? We didn’t until the radio telescopes were devised which mapped the sounds which came from them. We needed to tune in the right way to find out.

Is there not a parallel here? The fact that we are not tuned in, that our sets are turned off, our aerials dismantled does not negate God’s presence. If I turn my radio off, or disconnect my television set, the BBC transmitters are not destroyed, nor does Radio Sheffield or BBC 2 cease to exist. Nor if I choose to deny the presence of God does that affect the power and might of God.

Life is the poorer cut off from communication with others. Though some of the television and radio programmes may be of dubious worth, without doubt our lives have been enriched and our knowledge has grown with the advent of this miracle of communication. So it is that, to use the familiar religious phrase, communion with God enriches our lives, increases our understanding, bringing ease, pleasure and peace.

Tuning in is easier in some places than others. There are good and less good reception areas. Places of worship perhaps are good reception areas. The atmosphere is, or should be, conducive to peace and contemplation, other distractions are minimised. The fact that we worship in the presence of others also seeking this contact with God helps build as it were a bigger aerial, or a larger dish to gather and concentrate the messages.

But contact with God is not confined to the Chapel or Church. God is as we say, omnipresent – that is present everywhere. We carry our mobile sets with us, for we are all so equipped. All we need is to extend our aerials, switch on and listen. The sound will be heard, and the sight will be seen.

The analogy may be poor, but the message is clear. God is seen and unheard, though not absent if the switch is not activated. Activating the switch may be a small and simple action, but it puts us in immediate touch with an immense force, it enriches our lives, it broadens our perceptions, it enables communion to begin.

C.J. Rosling 17 October 1993

Fulwood 17 October 1993
Mexborough 20 February 1994; 28 September 1997
Hucklow 7 January 1996; 30 June 2002
Upper Chapel 4 August 2002

Sunday Sermon – 9 June 2019

Cleanliness and Godliness

In 1993 I wrote and spoke these words in this pulpit.

At one time it was samplers, bible texts, comforting sayings and stirring exhortations that were displayed upon the walls of the home. “Waste not the golden hours”, “Keep thy tongue from speaking evil”, or simply “Home, Sweet Home” reminded our Victorian fore-bearers of their duties and responsibilities. But now these artefacts have gone; relegated to museum pieces or collectors items found in what were once second-hand shops, but now given the grander title of Antique outlets.

Instead, the printed cardboard or plastic plaque is displayed in the office or perhaps the car rear window. “Look busy, the boss is coming”, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps”, “Don’t hoot you’ll wake the driver” or boastfully and improbably, “My other car’s a Rolls Royce”.

A much favoured saying of Victorian time, now seldom heard, was “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. A thought struck me the other day as I walked through a litter-strewn back street that perhaps the saying ought to be revived in the form of a modern wall or car sticker. Though whether those who so thoughtlessly drop their cigarette packets, empty crisp bags and soft drink cans on the ground would be deterred by the injunction that they were moving away from a holy state is a mute point.

There is much truth in the statement that present day society generates rubbish in a more prodigal manner than has ever previously been the case. We are described as a throw-away generation. It seems nothing is built to last. Our goods are wrapped and then wrapped again to cover the wrapping. Items are purchased pre-packaged to an extent never before seen. Not infrequently, the container is heavier than the goods it carries. Public or commercial buildings, erected less than forty years ago, are demolished so others can be put up in their place.

Industrial processes create the waste that poisons land, sea, rivers and the air we breathe. The things that should last, whether cars or clothes, washing machines or gas ovens, are obsolete in next to no time, whilst it seems the plastic rubbish we discard will be preserved for ever. The advent of bathrooms in all houses and of modern sanitation generally means our bodies are cleaner than those of our fore-fathers, but the environment in which we dwell has surely deteriorated.

Why is it that, though we are surrounded as never before with amenities to make life easier and more comfortable, we carelessly fill our streets with rubbish, our open spaces with debris and unthinkingly, uncaringly, pollute the waters of the earth, and the air we breathe?

That was fifteen years ago, almost to the day. I wonder if anything had changed in the decade and a half that followed. The answer, as to so many questions, is not straight-forward; yes and no one might respond. In the negative column we note that streets and public places still are strewn with the detritus we carelessly, thoughtlessly throw down. After any large gathering literally truckloads of rubbish is removed the following day. Most goods and commodities are still sold encased in packaging. Throughout the world millions starve, yet prosperous nations like our own daily discard huge quantise of edible food.

But there is a positive column too. A greater awareness of the problem now exists. The word re-cycling has found a place in the common vocabulary of the street. Supermarkets encourage us to bring re-usable bags, as we used to do years ago before plastic bags were invented; low energy light bulbs are now the norm, or nearly so.

It may be argued that this is a social problem, and little to do with religion or spirituality. Yet is this so? Can we be truly concerned with our neighbours if we drop our unwanted goods and walk away? If we extravagantly use finite and irreplaceable resources without regard to generations to come, do we live a good and wholesome life? Is it really possible to separate social behaviour from private belief?

The language of religion is full of references to cleansing, to purity. Sinning, to use an old-fashioned word, or evil-doing and the contemplation of evil, are frequently illustrated in metaphors, comparing these baneful actions to dirt and infection. The soul may be purified just as the body may be washed clean, we picture. To sink into the mire is a graphic picture of a person defiled spiritually as well as physically.

Is it then mere coincidence that in a decade where crimes have grown and public morality standards lowered, that many of our towns and cities grow dismal with graffiti covered walls and litter profligately strewn on street and pavement?

The problem of waste and litter is a three part one.

First there is the sheer volume of unwanted and unnecessary material which is created; bottles within plastic containers within boxes. Packets are intended to attract the eye and to deceive as to the quantity. We have moved a long way from the injunction of Jesus to those selling corn – pressed down within the measure and over-flowing. The postman delivers daily quantities of so called “junk mail” which few want and which largely goes, unread, straight to the bin. We walk the shopping precinct where leaflets are pressed upon us and dropped unread on the floor.

Secondly, there is the prodigal consumption of scarce and irreplaceable commodities. Fossil fuels developed over millions of years used in vast quantities over a mere handful of years. Scarce metals consumed in armaments; trees are felled in their millions without re-planting. Indeed, much is burnt in order to clear the land for other purposes, and so the timber is not even put to use.

Thirdly, in the midst of all this extravagance we strew the rubbish which we have so thoughtlessly created, around us. Some of our streets and public areas are a disgrace, made so by the indifference of so many of us. Towns and cities are running out of sites in which to bury waste. Even the very seas around us are polluted; land is sterilised and rendered useless without regard to the future. The fish of the sea die, and the birds of the air perish as a result of our greed.

One of those Victorian texts which used to be displayed read, “Waste not, want not”. Like many of the homilies our forebears were found of repeating, the words contain more than a grain of truth.

There are some who will say that criticism of social conditions are matters for politicians and other agencies, and that the churches should stick to their own last. But I reject that argument. The spirituality of a man or woman is not to be measured only by frequency of church attendance, by how fervent the praying, or how lustily the hymns are sung.

Spirituality has to do with the whole person, and that means how he or she behaves and thinks in the community at large, as well as in church on Sunday. I refer, as I frequently do, to James on faith without works. You cannot divorce the one from the other.

Some years ago the Unitarian General Assembly decreed a theme for the year ahead should be “Cherishing the Living Earth”. My dictionary says that “cherish” means “to protect and treat with affection”. If we cannot protect the earth in which we dwell, how can we pretend to treat those who share the world with us with affection?

That was certainly a large part of the message Jesus was preaching. His parables were taken from ordinary life; the emphasis was frequently upon relationship between the individual and community; his scorn was for the isolation of the Pharisee or scribe from everyday life; he castigated the hypocrisy of preaching, as a substitute for practising.

Cleanliness has a kinship with godliness. The cleanliness of our towns and cities, of our open spaces, of the air we breathe and of the water which surrounds us, is a measure of the real regard we have for our colleagues and neighbours. It measures our love for those who will follow us; sincere regard demands that we strive to hand on a world of beauty and not a barren, stinking slag heap.

Blest are the pure in heart, said Jesus. But how can we attain purity in heart if we are indifferent to what has been described as public squalor? A pure heart must look with concern upon a polluted ocean, a barren sea, a tainted atmosphere. The adjective attached to sin is habitually “ugly”. The ugliness of sin is a phrase in one of our prayers. Yes, that which is unclean is ugly. It stains and mars; it distorts, it infects the whole.

The world God created is one of beauty, of infinite variety, rich, but not limitless, in resource. If knowingly, or through ignorance, we defile and debase the living environment, we sully ourselves. But more importantly, we are reckless in our attitude to others.

I posed the question earlier, “Is it then mere coincidence that in a decade where crimes have grown and public morality has lowered, that our towns and cities grow ever more dismal with graffiti covered walls and litter gaily strewn on street and pavement?” I believe that it is not a coincidence at all. The two go hand in hand. Love is a multifaceted jewel. A flaw on one face destroys the beauty of the whole. What then to be done?

First, of course, we must practice that which we preach. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, is a powerful text to observe.

Secondly, we should join forces with those who also abhor the waste and filth we create.

Thirdly, we should impress upon all legislators and those who would achieve that position our deep concerns and anxieties. The best known verse of a children’s hymn goes

“All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all.”

That which has been created beautiful is all too easily defiled or even destroyed. Ugliness is the contribution of men and women, not the creation of God. And he or she who mars the landscape imports grime within the heart. Cleanliness, public and private, material and spiritual, is next to godliness. The sincerity of our belief is measured not so much by what we say, as by what we do.

A notice often seen in a room hired by others reads, “Please leave this place as you would wish to find it”. Not a bad thought for all of us who reside in this land, and upon this planet.

C.J. Rosling 8 February 1992

Fulwood 9 February 1992
Mexborough 6 December 1992
Hucklow 16 May 1993; 29 Aug 1999; 1 June 2008
Mexborough 11 June 1995

 

Sunday Sermon – 2 June 2019

Knock, Knock, Who’s There?

It is now some nine years since I last spoke on the subject of doors, so I thought it might be permissible to return to the topic.

What triggered off a train of thought was reading the other day the words of a highly paid, and therefore, it surely follows very important, chief of some large commercial company, who intoned, in reply to the suggestion that his company had been involved in some secret dealings, “This organisation has an open door policy”. This observation, you will know, is from a collection of modern, standard jargon, to be quoted when one wants to give an appearance of frankness whilst at the same time avoiding the necessity of confirming or denying any wrong-doing, let alone answering the question.

Nevertheless, the concept of an open door is a good one. It suggests, amongst others things, a welcome to all, a lack of obsessive secrecy, a person prepared to listen to the fears, anxieties or complaints of others, a generous spirit, someone to be regarded as an every ready help in trouble. A person I know well and much admire, who heads a large establishment, always has the door of her room open, unless speaking with a member of staff or a visitor. It is then closed to protect their privacy and so that visitors may be sure that that confidences may be respected.

After the interview, the door is again opened wide. The unspoken message is one of inclusion, of accessibility, of being part of the whole community of the workplace.

It is a statement of the obvious to say a door has two sides, and that many doors may be locked from one or other of those sides. I am informed that a prisoner hearing for the first time the door of the prison cell shutting and the key turning from the other side feels complete desolation. I can’t vouch for this statement from personal experience, at least not up to the present moment – but who knows what the future holds, my luck may run out – but I can imagine the loneliness and isolation of being shut out from the world.

That is not to say that there aren’t times when we are glad to lock the door from the inside, feeling safe and secure in our home. We enjoy privacy at a time chosen by ourselves, so we shut out the outside world. The difference between closing the door of ones own home, and being locked in by the jailor is a question of who is in control. We voluntarily shut ourselves in, barring intrusion from the outside world, whilst in the other instance the world isolates us. In the one scene, we choose, as opposed to the other example when the choice is imposed upon us..

Shutting out, shutting in, opening the door, leaving the door ajar, are just some of the phrases built around this word ‘door’ which have entered the language as metaphors, as verbal pictures illustrative of abstract ideas, situations or emotions. No Victorian melodrama was complete without the inclusion of the phrase, “Never darken my door again”, the words of rejection, whereas an assurance that “You will not be turned away from my door” marks a friendship offered without reservation.

Physical doors, and the way we use them, tell much about the sort of person we are. Do we slam them in another’s face, or do we open them so that we can form a friendship. Do we go out into the world to see life and beauty around us? Do we go through the portals into the world outside so we can be a part of the community, or do we bolt and bar the door because we don’t want to “get involved”?

To be outside an unanswered door is a depressing experience. “Is there anyone there?” said the traveller, knocking at the moonlit door. But the door was unanswered and he rode away, leaving silence and emptiness behind him. “Tell them I came, and no-one answered,” he complained.

De la Mare’s poem reminds me of the stained glass window in the church I attended in childhood copied from that well-known picture illustrating words from the 3rd chapter of Revelations; I stand at the door and knock. No battering ram is used. The onus on opening the door rests with the person within.

As an aside this reminds me of an incident from childhood, and apologies if I’ve mentioned it before. Whilst on a summer holiday, we children were taken by our parents to a local Methodist service. The preacher had chosen the passage from Revelations as his text. I remember only two things about that sermon. First it was very long, and secondly each time the minister referred to the text, I stand at the door and knock, which he did at frequent intervals, he illustrated it by thumping three times very firmly on the side of the pulpit, so the sound reverberated round the chapel with a noise fit to waken the dead. No one slept through that sermon. But I’m digressing, one of my many sins.

Lest it be thought I am arguing against having doors at all, let me make it plain that doors are not merely useful, but essential. Even the most gregarious knows that there are times for privacy. Mediation, reflection, study, thoughtful wrestling with the problems life turns up, are all best done in the peace and quiet achieved by closing the door and shutting away the din and bustle of everyday life. Physical comfort demands the door be tightly closed when, as the old nursery rhyme puts it, “The cold winds do blow, and we shall have snow.” Doors also protect us against other unpleasant experiences, the thief or robber, the ill-disposed aggressor, the con man, the saleswoman, and maybe the political canvasser.

I could add the Jehovah’s Witness, but I mustn’t be uncharitable. The door will prevent the small child or the vulnerable adult from wandering into danger. Life without doors would be at best unpleasant and mostly dangerously insecure. No, I for one, along with most others, recognise that doors are an essential part of life.

We cannot live comfortable without them.

The whole purpose of a door is to act as a barrier. The difference between a door and many other types of barrier is that a door is hinged. That is, it is a barrier that may not only be erected, but can also be removed to allow ingress and egress. Knowing when it should debar and appreciating when it should open to allow free movement is in the hands of the doorkeeper.

I mentioned earlier that doors become metaphors. Our personalities are determined by the way we manipulate these stops in the entrances and exits that surround our relationship with others, our ability to make sense of the society in which we live, and perhaps most important of all, our spiritual development.

Much of what is said about doors in a physical sense translates easily into philosophical terms. We may shut people out of our lives or, alternatively we may lock them into ours, imprisoning them by our demands, our possessiveness, by emotional blackmail, by tyrannical rules. We may closet ourselves in our own little world, uncaring about the wider world, the appeals for help, our social responsibilities, hoarding what talents we may have in locked repositories. The rat-tat of the knocker, the peal of the bell, go unanswered. We know what we like and this doesn’t include any form of intrusion, be it physical or intellectual.

We live in a castle, a fortress so we stay safe inside, risking nothing, giving nothing, yielding nothing.

Ideas need to have open access to minds, not to be ignored without examination because the door is unanswered. It has been said that education is about opening doors, and windows also, so that new vistas are opened, vision widened and one may step out into world fresh to our experience.

However, just as I argued that doors were essential in a physical sense, so I believe that doors in this figurative interpretation are equally necessary. There are times when we should shut our minds to intrusive suggestions, tempting attractions or evil ideas. The story of Jesus in the wilderness rejecting temptation to seek personal power is a case rightly made for shutting the door. I mentioned the prison door earlier. Many, probably most, hear the physical clanging of that door because they failed earlier to close their metaphorical door to one or more of the deadly sins. Totalitarian ideologies ought to knock in vain at a firmly barred door. Not every siren call should tempt us outside.

We are our own doorkeepers. Doorkeepers in everyday life need training and experience to enable them to judge when the door should be flung open, when to be cautious and change the intruder, and when to firmly keep the door shut. Likewise we judge when we ought to venture outside, and when it would be more prudent to remain indoors. Mistakes can be made, but may be minimised with good judgement based on our experience and that of others.

Compassion and tolerance need a free passage, the voice of conscience ought not to be repulsed with a slammed door. Mercy should stride in and out easily, not trying to squeeze through the keyhole or the letterbox. On the other hand, watch out for the big bad wolf talking smoothly but intent on evil. Take care to lock the door, shut the windows and keep a wary eye on the fireplace.

Care for the neighbour cannot effectively be done if one remains indoors. Loving one’s neighbour, serving one’s community, exercising compassion, rejoicing in the beauty of creation and much else is best done by opening the door and stepping outside, both literally and by opening the gateways of the mind. It may be necessary to place on the door of a building a notice saying, Private, Keep out, or, on the inside, No Way Out. But there is surely no place for such notices in the metaphorical doors of our minds and hearts.

Much of the Christian teaching draws on the imagery of gates and doors, of keys and pathways, of ways in and openings to let messengers enter. It behoves us to close doors with care and after careful thought, and then be anxious to throw them open them again as soon as possible.

C.J. Rosling 27th January 2007

Hucklow January 2007