Sunday Sermon – 25 August 2019

What does The Lord require of Thee?

Among the programmes most frequently seen or heard on radio and television, are those which come under the general heading of quiz shows. In one form or another they have lasted for a number of decades. Sometimes the questions are banal, trite, where it seems very difficult indeed to get the answer wrong. “What was the garden called where Adam and Eve lived?”, might be a typical example., or, slightly more difficult, “If the days of the week are placed in alphabetical order, which will come first?”

In other programmes the contestants are required to have specialist knowledge of say sport, or music, or literature. Mastermind and Brain of Britain contestants should have wide general knowledge allied to a retentive memory. Some shows expect the contestant to demonstrate deep if rather narrow learning in a specialised area. Where prizes are given they range from expensive holidays or consumer goods, to baubles of little value. On other occasions the reward comes simply from the satisfaction of getting the answer right.

Why this type of entertainment remains so popular is difficult to say. In the Mastermind or Brain of Britain type of contest perhaps it is admiration that so much information can be packed into one mind. As Oliver Goldsmith wrote of the village school-master

” …….. and still the wonder grew
That one small head could harbour all he knew!”

Or perhaps we enjoy the thrill of a contest, with a winner rewarded and a loser humiliated. Envy or admiration, excitement or relaxation, partisanship or the enjoyment of the kill; whatever the attraction, for the entertainment of the watchers, hundreds of questions are asked, most are answered, though not always correctly. The successful enjoy transitory fame, the losers disappear without trace.

But whatever the reason for their popularity, one needs to bear in mind that an ability to retain information and to quickly regurgitate it on demand, is not in itself a sign of wisdom or even of superior intelligence.

In the world outside the confines of the television or radio studio, asking questions and giving answers is but a first step in tackling the real problems in life. Important step it may be, but it is not in itself a resolution of a difficulty. Nor does the reply suddenly make the world a better place.

There is a well- known, off-quoted story in the Gospels which describes a young man putting a question to Jesus. “What should I do to inherit eternal life?” the young man asks. Jesus’s response was to give a list of religious obligations he should fulfil, and to speak of responsibilities owed to the community. The young man responded that these he knew and accepted, but something still was lacking. “Then sell up, and come with me and join my disciples,” Jesus added.

The young man went away sorrowfully, for he was required to do more than learn an answer. Implementing the response presented the obstacle. It was one thing to hear the words, quite another to translate them into deeds.

Doctors’ surgeries resound with the sound of questions being asked and answered. “I don’t feel as well as I ought”, we say. We are given a list of reasons. We over-indulge on chocolates and cream cakes; we smoke too much; we drink too much; we exercise too little, riding when we should walk; and so on, and so on. The answers are given, but the problem remains, unless or until we incorporate the rejoinders into our life style. Knowing the answer is only the start of the journey.

A question appears in one of the prayers we use sometimes in our worship. “What does the Lord require of thee?” it goes. The three part answer which follows is, as you will recall, “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly”. The language maybe old-fashioned but the answer is clear. If this were a quiz show, we might feel a warm glow as the quiz-master (they are usually male) confirms the answer is correct.

But the purpose of the prayer is not to test knowledge, it is rather to prompt action on our part. As always, finding the answer is the easy part, whereas applying the remedy is the difficult, but crucial, bit. Let us consider that three part reply.

To do justly. In more modern language this might be expressed as acting fairly, in an even-handed way. (ensuring others are “tret reight” as they say in Sheffield). That seems straight-forward enough, but then prejudice has a habit of getting in the way of good intentions. Discrimination by one group against others is not unknown in the land. Though we know that we ourselves are free from prejudice, we begin to prevaricate and qualify. “I’m open-minded myself, but there are limits,” we think. “I know one shouldn’t be too critical, but ……,” we add. “We need to look after our own people first,” one emphasises. We carefully rehearse the arguments, and convince ourselves that no-one could be fairer than us. We do “do justly” on the whole, and when we don’t it is for good reason. Or if really up against it we point out that it is not really our fault, and in any case, none of us is perfect.

You remember George Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farm, who recognised that though all animals are equal, some are more equal than others. On the whole they were acting justly, they argued, but then, there are limits.

To love mercy is to temper justice with compassion. But mercy has to be against a background of justice. If justice is uneven, skewed or biased, then mercy can’t be applied as a sort of emergency prop to even matters up. Mercy under these conditions is not mercy at all, but a salve to a throbbing conscience. If justice, whether formal under the law or more informally in our relationships with others, is contaminated, then mercy itself is devalued.

We often hear mercy talked of in terms of “making allowances”, a description which is close to condescension. True mercy is surely rather different from making allowances. To be merciful is to have appreciation of the human condition; sympathy with the weaknesses of others because we ourselves are fallible. Making allowances is a mechanical process, whereas exercising mercy arouses emotions which come from understanding, and solicitude.

Then thirdly, how difficult it is consistently to walk humbly. Occasional, or selective humbleness calls for no great effort. In the presence of those we admire or respect, whose gifts are great, whose responsibilities are wide, whose intelligence is formidable, humbleness is imposed upon us. An imposition we may accept gladly. On other occasions we may substitute modesty for humility, and this isn’t the same thing at all.

But humility to all peoples, humility on all occasions, humility in the face of praise, this is indeed a challenge. To be truly humble is to acknowledge that we are no more important, no grander than any-one else. That we ought not to have privileges which give us precedence over the rights of others.

The trilogy which forms the answer to what our God requires of us – justice, mercy and humility – is in fact one whole, of which each component is an essential ingredient. Justice and mercy are dependent upon humility. It is the arrogant who tamper with justice, the proud who are contemptuous of mercy.

To refer once more to Animal Farm. We recall that it was not the hard-working and ever-willing Boxer the Horse who proclaimed that some were more equal than others, but Napoleon the Pig, whose love of power crowded out any humble thoughts he may have had once.

The greater the responsibility, the harder it is, albeit the more necessary it is, to look out upon the world, as Jesus so memorably said, with the innocent eyes of a little child.

Unless there is humility, how can one accept that all peoples are equal in the sight of God? And unless all are accepted as equal, how does one do justly, that is act fairly? Rich or poor, black or white, male or female, educated or illiterate, young or old, Jew or Gentile, all equal; all entitled to impartial justice.

And mercy? Mercy coexists with justice, dependent upon it and, at the same time, adding strength to its host.

From early times, a triangle has been recognised as a shape of great strength. Not easily distorted, retaining its integrity as forces are applied to it. Our troika of Justice, Mercy and Humility form the sides of a triangle. Take away any one side and the whole collapses.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Destroy our triangle, and what value has the earth? Who in their right mind would wish to inherit such a place?

And so one returns to the original point. Knowing answers is only a start. Willingness to apply the knowledge is the real criterion by which we shall be judged. There is a glow of satisfaction which comes from knowing an answer. It is as if we have achieved something. We are perhaps surprised at our own cleverness, and just a little scornful of those who didn’t know the answer when we did.

But it is the old, old problem. Knowledge that remains as in a book on the library shelf leaves the world untouched. Or to use another analogy. One may learn the names of all the plants and trees, and what kind of conditions suit them best, but something more is needed to make the wilderness into a garden. The knowledge only becomes of real benefit when the land is tilled, the seed planted, and the subsequent growth tended.

Quiz programmes enable answers to be given, but the exercise is merely entertainment. The world becomes a better place through the labourers who apply the knowledge, not by acquiring information merely to impress others with our achievements.

There is a litany in the prayer book which calls for responses from the congregation with the words, “Write these words in our hearts, Lord we beseech Thee”. If the precept “to do, justly, love mercy and walk humbly” is written in the hearts of mankind, that would be a pretty good start to making a better world. Always provided that the words were not only written, but also put into practice.

C.J. Rosling 22 February 1997

Fulwood 23 February 1997
Hucklow 25 May 1997; 11 September 2005
Mexborough 17 August 1997

Sunday Sermon – 18 August 2019

What Is Truth?

When I was a boy, our daily newspaper was the Manchester Guardian, a title subsequently changed to its current title, The Guardian. From childhood onwards I have been fond of reading. In boyhood, I read our daily paper, not so much for the general news, but turned to the sports pages. In particular, I devoured the cricket match descriptions of the writer, Neville Cardus.

His articles were much more than a record of a sporting occasion. They brought to life the atmosphere in the ground, the drama of the contest, the various idiosyncrasies of the participants, the humorous comments made by the crowd. The match itself was almost incidental; the character of the players took precedence.

He wrote, particularly of Lancashire Cricket Club, in beautiful descriptive prose. His accounts of play were interspersed with amusing anecdotes about the players, of their quirks and their conversations on the field. Some years later, I listened to Neville Cardus being interviewed on the radio, or wireless as it then was. He was challenged about whether some of the incidents and conversations concerning cricketers had actually happened, for he had described in great detail conversations on the field of play taking place some distance from where he sat. He replied to the effect that regardless of whether they had happened or not, all were truthful to both the men and the occasion.

What is truth? As a child I was shocked to be told that Robinson Crusoe was not an account of the day-to-day life of an actual person, but a work of fiction. I believed as I read it that every word was true. Everything had actually happened as the narrative portrayed. Yet I now understand that, like all good novels, it was a truthful unfolding of human emotions and behaviour. All great literature, whether drama, poetry, descriptive prose or storytelling, is surely truthful, even though it be concerned with fictional events.

The scriptwriters of soap operas strive for realism in character and plot. At their most successful, an audience grieves or rejoices as a character succeeds or suffers, many forgetting that they watch a work of fiction. Is truth only to be found in fact, and not in fiction?

“It’s written in the Bible. It must be true”, I overheard some-one say the other day. There are those, perhaps a minority, who would affirm that every word in the Bible is factual and accurate. I must confess that I am not of that school of thought. But it is not the case that factual accuracy and truth is one and the same thing.

In a wider context, factual accuracy is surely less important than accounts where the truth unfolds through the lives of men and women. Joseph’s multi-coloured coat, his exile, his elevation to high rank makes an enthralling story. But whether or not it is an accurate, detailed account of historical fact is not of first importance. What is important is that, as one reads it, the story has the ring of truth. Jealousy, anger, vengeance, forgiveness and reconciliation are human attributes to which we relate. We recognise anger and jealousy can lead men and women to commit dreadful deeds. We have witnessed in our own time the ability of men and women, some famous, some ordinary humble folk, to forgive and to seek reconciliation.

To quote Francis Bacon “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”

Is there a time and date that can be attached to the occasion when a man on the road to Jericho was set upon by thieves? Did a priest pass by and ignore the victim some time later, and what was his name? Is it just a story with no historical basis in fact?

None of that matters when one is seeking to ascertain the truth encapsulated in the story of the Good Samaritan. It is authentic because it accurately portrays human behaviour both at its best and at its worst. The actual characters are incidental; the story is a true picture of different ways that human beings behave. We would wish to be a Samaritan but know we are capable of crossing over to the other side of the road. Sometimes we judge and jump to hasty conclusions; sometimes we show kindness and compassion, on other occasions we don’t want to get involved. A work of fiction may be uncomfortably a true reflection of the reader himself.

Does it matter, other than to scholars, whether or not David was the author of the psalms? Is not the message, the meaning, the inspiration that flows from them, and the comfort derived from them, of infinitely more moment than the authorship? Are they less valid because a hand other than David the Shepherd Boy’s originally transcribed them? The twenty-third psalm has brought comfort to many because it speaks in simple language of spiritual support on the journey through life. It is a message to which many can relate. It is insight into life that is significant, more so than the author’s name.

Like so many of the words in the English language, “true” and “truth” have more than one meaning. True may mean accurate, alternatively it can be used in the sense of a faithful account.

Philosophers have speculated upon, argued about, the nature of truth, over years numbered in thousands. They speak of relative truth as opposed to absolute truth, the nature of truth and even question if truth exists at all. Theologians speak of the search for truth as a religious journey. Even definitions of truth are uncertain. Francis Bacon once more, “What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

A two-minute search turned up the following statements on truth.

It is the opposite of lies; it differs from person to person; what is truth is what we believe to be true; I don’t believe there is one truth for there are so many different people, and there are so many ways you can look at things that I don’t see how there could be only one truth.

These are just a few of many, many different thoughts spoken by ordinary folk, a small sample from a huge range of opinions about the nature of truth.

From time to time I have pondered another question, “What is the purpose of the sermon in a service of worship?” In mediaeval times it was often a means by which the learned informed the ignorant; the speaker seeking to impress the congregation with his own intellectual superiority perhaps. Some preachers seek to terrify the wayward into joining the ranks of the repentant, others to contrast their own saintliness with the wickedness of the unbeliever, or the superiority of the particular sect to which they belong over the adherents to an alternative faith.

Today the occupant of the pulpit will more often place the events and experiences of everyday life into the framework of religious teachings of the faith to which he or she subscribes. For my own part I find listening to a sermon that poses questions more satisfying than one that purports to provide answers, or one that challenges rather than cushions.

So this morning I come with no suggestions to offer to the question “What is truth” I have just some quotations from other people’s opinions, along with my own somewhat rambling thoughts. But the question of truth is one with which all who claim a religious faith have to wrestle.

Worship is frequently defined as a search for truth. The creative being is seen as a metaphor for absolute, all encompassing truth. There are, of course, those who claim to have access to that truth, whatever it may be; but for many of us the journey is one of searching for the truth, catching glimpses of a part of it, and trying to interpret and understand.

Gandhi once said, “God is, though the whole world deny him. Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self-sustained. I worship God as Truth only. I have not yet found Him, but am seeking after Him. I am prepared to sacrifice the things dearest to me in pursuit of this quest. Even if the sacrifice demanded my very life, I hope I may be prepared to give it.”

My own belief, for what it is worth, is that we frequently yearn to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, even though experience teaches us that the whole truth is as elusive as a rainbow. We know it is there but as we approach it moves on. The pot of gold at its foot escapes our grasp.

So I come today with no answers, only questions. Not really a very satisfactory sermon at all, I confess, more like a child exasperating everyone with what Rudyard Kipling said the Elephant Child suffered from, “’satiable curiosity”.“If only we knew the truth”, we moan. But we don’t. Perhaps one day we will. Meantime, it is there to be found. A religious faith involves an endless search for an elusive treasure

As Elvis Presley said, “Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away”. So we keep going back in hope of uncovering it, even though we may not be sure what it is for which we search.

C.J. Rosling 8 December 2006

Hucklow December 2006

Footnote:  69 years ago today, Chris and Marie got married at Crookesmoor Unity Church in Sheffield.

Sunday Sermon – 11 August 2019

Let’s have a Tidy Up Session

Didn’t there used to be a saying linking, by implication, orderliness with near sainthood? Something like “A tidy room reveals a tidy mind.” Or was it expressed from the opposite viewpoint? “An untidy dwelling reveals a disorderly mind”. I think I have heard it said that a good cook washes up as they go along, implying that piling everything in the sink until later raises doubts about the quality of the final dish. The pronouncement that you can learn much about a person from the state of the kitchen cupboard shelves, clearly tells us that the house-wife, or, in these days when equal opportunities is a subject regulated by legislation, the male acting chef for the day, who keeps the tea-bags next to soap-powder in a canister labelled “Self-raising Flour” is a very dubious character.

Yes, the virtuous imply, there is a clear link between consistent cataloguing and character. If, these saintly persons are wont to suggest, disorderly habits are not listed among the seven deadly sins, then they ought to have been.

Thank goodness, I thought as I wrote those words, the congregation can’t see the top of my desk with its resemblance to a Bank holiday picnic site on the next day, neither are you, my friends, in a position to open the drawers beneath. Not that there isn’t order within the chaos. Of course there is a system under-pining the apparent haphazard placement of papers. Documents, though they might appear to have been piled with careless abandon, are placed to a plan; unfortunately few others are able to comprehend my scheme’s subtleties. In any case I mean to sort the papers out tomorrow, or failing that, certainly the day after. Always provided I am not too busy.

One of the many advantages of having a computer and storing documents within it, is it enables one to search rapidly through masses of material and find the very thing one is looking for. At least, that is so, if you can remember the name of the wretched file in the first place. But not for the first time in this pulpit I wander. I am in danger of losing my way among the lost files and the piles of unanswered correspondence.

To come back to my point about tidiness. There is pleasure derived from being able to put one’s hand, whether in an actual or a metaphorical sense, on what one wants, when one needs it. It might be the reference book on the bookshelf, the packet of dried apricots in the larder, the letter from a friend, the date of birthday, the appropriate word of comfort to offer to a distraught child. Unless what we need is placed, to use the clumsy jargon of the bureaucrat, in retrievable form, then we are unable to live meaningfully. Food rots unused in the cupboard, our congratulation or condolence card is not posted, the words we speak don’t properly reflect our thoughts.

A filing system of sorts, plus at least one or two helpful sign-posts in the maze of everyday life, an index, or at the very least a list of contents, in our catalogue of papers, dates and chattels, is a necessity if we are to stay sane when all around the world appears to be rushing madly by.

I have so far talked, almost exclusively about material objects, “…shoes – and ships – and sealing wax, of cabbages…” as it were, but what about kings? That is to say, where do our fellow humans fit in? How to we decide under which heading, and into which folder, to put our neighbour, our colleague, or the stranger walking down the street?

It being so clearly the case that the attempt to put people into categories is a thousand times more difficult even than devising a filing system for personal bric-a-brac, isn’t it astonishing that so much of life revolves round the very task of categorising, putting our opinions of other people into neat boxes? Further, with what ease we do it!

Sometimes these are relatively minor decisions. Blondes, as all the world knows, are marked as being dumb, i.e. simpletons; red heads have fiery tempers; and baldness is equated with wisdom. This explains why I was born with head covered with fair curls, have an equitable temper, and still retain a full head of hair!

Much more serious is filing people according to race, nationality, creed, ethnic background and the like, into pre-determined groupings. This method of registering allows such statements to be made, or to go unchallenged, as “All Jews are by nature money grabbers, who through fraud and sharp practice take advantage of the gullibility of the rest of us”. “Most of the crime is committed by the blacks who, unlike us, are all inherently dishonest and violent.” “The poor, given bathrooms, will only use the bath to store coal”. “All foreigners, naturally along with Australians, cheat at games.”

One could go on at length, for the examples are legion. The odd, disturbing, fact is that these opinions are mouthed, or implicitly accepted, not only by some who declare themselves agnostic or atheist, but by many who profess themselves Christian. Surely near the core of Christian belief is the proposition that all men and women are equal in the sight of God. Prejudiced judgements imply that they are not.

There is a huge difference in life experience between an Anglo-Saxon living in England in the 21st century and an Old Testament Jew living in the Middle East three thousand years ago. Yet we read Old Testament stories and, whilst noting the life-style is different, readily identify with the fears and the emotions of the people of those times. Basically, they are the same as ours. Why then is it thought that the West Indian neighbour, or the Somali citizen, or the member of any other race, is fundamentally different from a white indigenous United Kingdom resident. Their hopes, fears and emotions are, we imply, different from ours. “If you prick me, do I not bleed?” Shylock asked.

But then judgement of others based on intolerance, fed by prejudice is not confined to racial bigotry. We too readily categorise by sex, by age, by social class, by income, by accent, to mention just a few of the boxes into which we place others.

How much more difficult it seems to be to accept that whereas most of us defy simply categorisation because we ourselves are such a mixture of good, bad and the doubtful, others can easily be slotted in the appropriate box in the filing cabinet. If he or she has a foreign-sounding name we cannot be surprised that he or she has not matched our own spotless character. Is it not an absolute fact that the English are fair-minded, the Irish hot-tempered and rather stupid, the Scots parsimonious, and the Welsh devious? Thank God human nature is more complex than that. Many of us are a pretty mixed concoction anyway, with the odd unidentified ingredient thrown into the mix.

We applaud Jesus’ championship of the tax-collector, the poor fishermen, and the woman taken in adultery. We are delighted that it was the “foreigner”, the Samaritan, who rescued the Jewish victim of an assault. Over and over again Jesus pointed out that you can’t categorise and judge. Beams and motes abound irrespective of rank or nationality; the first are last, the last are first; the sinner anoints the feet of the saint whilst Jesus washes the feet of his disciples; the master is the servant; the widow is generous with the mite; the rich man mean with his gold. Everything is mixed up, and the filing cabinet is in a shambles.

The truth is that none of us fits into one pigeon-hole comfortably. Each one of us is selfish and generous in turn; we are both foolish and wise; we are spiteful and kindly; we can be broad-minded one minute, and hopelessly prejudiced the next. No nation’s people consist only of the good; no race has a monopoly of evil. Prejudice is at the top of a polished slope, descending through discrimination and victimisation and on ultimately to the camps of Belsen, atrocities in the Balkans and genocide in central Africa.

Filing cabinets have their uses provided that we don’t force things into the folders we have decided upon previously, rather than into the section that they merit. But as far as people are concerned, each person is a cabinet unto him or herself. They contain numerous separate files and folders, with labels like “Acts of Generosity”, “Selfish Decisions”, “Thoughtful Gestures”, “Mean-minded Thoughts”, “Prejudices” and “Ignorant Judgements”. Each one of us, if we are honest, must admit that we have entries in all these folders, fewer in some, many more in others.

The parable of sheep and goats has to my mind a fundamental flaw. It implies that there are two species of people. We are merely warned not be premature in dividing one from the other. But my interpretation of the Christian message goes further.

If the suggestion is that one animal is to be preferred to the other – that one represents the good – the other evil, then surely we are, as it were, a cross-breed of both sheep and goat. Recognising this, we must start with ourselves, and then extend outwards. “Unto thine own self be true” should lead to three thoughts.

First, after noting the muddle in the filing cabinet that contains our virtues and vices, we must charitably view any perceived lack of order in other peoples’ cupboards. A failure to find a simple system within a single box-file, is not a matter for which we should condemn others; the jumble reflects reality. Order too frequently reflects prejudice.

Secondly, we must accept that our own cabinet, like that of others, must contain many files, both good and bad. The little girl who, when good, was “very, very good”, but had another side when “she was horrid” is a one of us. We might wish it wasn’t so; most of us struggle continually to become uni-lateralists who are never horrid, but it is not a battle in which final victory is won. At least it isn’t in my case. Maybe others are more successful.

Thirdly, that the files on us reveal what we are truly, not what others might think we are. They ought to do so, for some are written by ourselves, then hidden at the back of the drawer. We know they are there, which ought to make us at least hesitate to show surprise, or to judge too harshly what might be in the files on others.

Filing cabinets come in a variety of styles and colours, but it is the contents that reveal the real truth.

Now I really must finish, and go and sort that desk top out. See what lies below. No gold, that’s for sure.

C.J. Rosling January 2004

Hucklow 1 February 2004
Stannington 2 May 2004

Sunday Sermon – 4 August 2019

Keep in Touch, Give me a Ring

Hard, near impossible, to imagine to-day a work-place, an office, a garage, a school, a shop, without at least one telephone. The great majority of ordinary households are “on the phone” as the phrase has it. Humble tradesmen as well as managing directors, not to mention an increasing number of private citizens, are seldom parted from their mobile telephone. The marketing and selling of these technical wonders without which, we are made to feel, no self-respecting citizen is fully dressed, is a mushrooming growth industry. And the stealing of the same a major crime statistic.

Yet in my life-time telephones were once a comparative rarity. The majority of schools contained no such instrument. Our local garage was not connected to the outside world through the apparatus. Few shops, other than large department stores, felt the need to install such a fancy contraption. Most ordinary folk never dreamt that they ought to spend good money on what they considered a mere gadget.

What it was that persuaded my father to become hooked in to the outside world through the telephone exchange I’m not sure. Certainly it would not be the need to keep in touch with his congregation, very few of whom owned an instrument. A possible reason was because he undertook secretarial duties for the East Cheshire Union, the regional equivalent of our Sheffield and District Association. He was became a member of a number of similar committees. However, if I am ignorant of the reason for its arrival, I do recall the telephone number. It was number 6; Stalybridge 6. I seem to recall that Stalybridge 5 was the number of a local taxi driver who was also ran a business as an undertaker. His name, improbably, was De’Ath. Spelt Death but with the saving grace of an apostrophe inserted between the letters “e” and “a”.

One made a call on our home telephone by lifting the receiver, vigorously turning a handle on the side of a mahogany box, and waiting for the operator to respond. She then (it was always a “she” – men were only employed on the exchanges which dealt with long-distance calls, and undoubtedly were paid more) asked for the number required and made the connection manually. I have no doubt that when business was slack she listened in to the conversation, later to entertain her friends with the latest gossip.

later, we were connected to an automatic exchange, and given an instrument with a dial. Our number was at the same time up-rated, letters were added to the number, thus we went from Stalybridge 6 to STA 2506, and presumably the operator was then able, as the euphemism has it, “to spend more time with her family”. No longer was the intervention of the kindly lady needed, and her friends were denied a source of news about local illicit liaisons.

Dials, similar to ours, with both letters and numbers on them, have been superseded, first by all-number dials, and more recently by push buttons. And nowadays, instead of having a one figure number entry in the telephone directory, I have to remember, or more truthfully fail to remember, a seven digit figure. From a number in single figures to a number in the millions during one lifetime. Such is progress.

And such is progress that life without a telephone is thought to rank in inconvenience and discomfort with being deprived of the normal compliment of arms and legs, or of suddenly being struck deaf and dumb. Whereas in Jane Austin’s novels, or later with writers like Dickens and Trollope, characters begged their friends to be sure to write letters when they went away, today’s equivalents are more likely to speed the departing companion with the words “don’t forget to give me a ring”. Not a request for jewellery of course, but for a message sent along wires or through the air by courtesy of British Telecom, or some other rival telephonic communications provider. Or maybe the request is to e-mail me at abc/

I wonder why the telephone has become such an important adjunct to every day life. I suppose that, as with most of life’s minor mysteries, the answers are multiple and complicated. Life is much more complex than it used to be, we are told. We need to be able to give orders and receive instructions with greater and greater speed. The use of the telephone saves time, and time is money.

It is more efficient than writing countless letters to be able to pass messages by word of mouth. People like to hear the spoken word, rather than have to read the written paragraph, or so it is said. Much time is saved, though to what purpose is not always clear, by being able to contact some-one by telephone. Have you noticed that we have stopped meeting people, we now “contact them”.

No doubt all this, and much else, is true. But one does occasionally wonder if, rather than the telephone being the servant which enables us to deal with life’s complications, life has become much more complex because of such inventions as the telephone. Far from being the servant, it is the master, or mistress.

Maybe it can be argued fairly that people are in closer touch with one another than ever before. Distance is no bar to talking with friends and family, colleagues and business associates, sales people and customers. Even the double-glazing sales folk can, and do, interrupt meals in one’s own home to explain the advantages of their wares. “Coronation Street” is interrupted by enquiries as to whether we are in need of life insurance.

Mother and daughter, brother and sister, lover or spouse, can continue to exchange confidences even when circumstances have separated them by many miles. More seriously, it is possible for the lonely and despairing to find help and comfort by talking to a confidant at the other end of a telephone line.

But then there has always been a confidant at the end of a figurative telephone. Down the ages people have sought comfort, guidance, support, consolation, inspiration and much more along a spiritual cable, and no rental to pay for the instrument.

The thought has crossed my mind that as the use of the telephone has grown, the place of worship in our lives has declined. Sheer coincidence? Maybe. No connecting thread? Perhaps.

No thoughtful person can deny the importance of intercourse between fellow humans. One of the severest deprivations which can be inflicted upon a human being, young or old, male or female, is isolation from others. So much so that an extreme form of punishment is solitary confinement.

Marconi, Bell, Edison and a host of others have without doubt immeasurably improved the lives of many house-bound folks, lonely souls or strangers in a far land. Some lives have been saved, other lives have been made more tolerable by the presence of the telephone. Alas though, sometimes the telephone has been made a substitute for visiting, meeting and talking face to face, rather than an additional aid or an emergency support.

Human intercourse is a necessity for life if it is to be lived and enjoyed fully. The telephone at best offers a poor substitute. Companionship requires more than a disembodied voice coming out of a plastic artefact, though this is better than no discussion at all.

I spoke earlier of the spiritual transmission lines that lead to that power we call God. The instrument we use is a direct line, and with practice we can get straight through. But, just as the old instrument needed the aid of an operator to make the connection, sometimes we may benefit from a little help. It may be the priest or the teacher, it may be the neighbour or the companion. The act of collective worship is a spur to make the call, perhaps a demonstration of the mechanics of doing so, and help in achieving the connection.

Unlike the real life telephone, numbers are never engaged. And thankfully we never get that infuriating experience which is the voice of the answering machine. The command to give your message after the tones is guaranteed to render most of us, at best inarticulate, or at worst temporarily speechless.

Again, the communication with God involves a technology far in advance of the earthly telephone. To use this latter, we have to translate our thoughts and feelings into words, and then speak them out loud. We have to listen to the messages and interpret them as they come to us out of the ear-piece. But though we can and do express our thoughts in words to God, this is not the only means of communication. In meditation, in silence, our innermost thoughts and feelings are transmitted. And through the ear-piece as it were, may come the peace of God, which passes all understanding, in a comforting, companionable stream.

The speaking tube may lie unused for long periods, but is never out of order. The dialling tone is ever at hand, the ringing tone guaranteed to provoke a response. The contraption is as portable as any mobile phone, and is thief proof. No one can remove it from us, vandalise it, or disable it. The terrestrial instrument is but a poor copy of this marvellous machine.

It does however differ in a significant way from most other telephones. It lacks a bell. We have to initiate the call. We have what is called as free-will. This means that we can say to God, don’t ring me, I’ll ring you. And we all know that phrase frequently used as what is colloquially known as the brush-off.

So for many the phone to God is an emergency line only, on which to make 999 calls. What a waste. If the ordinary telephones were restricted to such use how much we should lose. Though perhaps earlier I was rather negative about our telephones, in truth they have much positive benefit. Friends chat, advice is sought, help is given, problems are shared, and burdens are eased.

Yet the free heavenly line on which all this, and much more, is there for the asking, is under-used. The phone gathers dust and finger-prints are absent from the hand-set. In a world filled with the strident tones of ringing telephone bells, with stress levels rising and blood pressure increasing, the mobile phone we all carry is silent and under-used.

Calls on this line not only ease away the stress, but bring calmness to the storm and a salve to the wounds. No impatience is displayed at our complaints, or irritation at our inconsistencies. This telephone is never tapped or bugged. Our conversations are private, our revelations confidential.

Who knows what developments in electronic communications may take place in the future, as inventors produce more and more wonders. But the direct line to the Creator and the instrument to avail oneself of the facility is fully developed. It needs no further improvement. We merely need to acquire greater willingness to use it, and perhaps the increased skill in manipulating it, which comes from practice.

Should we revise our language in service books and elsewhere? Instead of “Let us Pray”, how about “Let’s call up God”. After all God’s message to us is “Keep in touch, give me a ring”.

C.J. Rosling 29 October 1994
Fulwood 30 October 1994; 1 September 1996
Hucklow 4 December 1994; 17 October 1999
Doncaster 15 January 1995
Mexborough 30 April 1995
Chesterfield 2 July 1995; Bradford 20 April 1997