Sunday Sermon – 29 September 2019

Water

One has to be careful, or lucky, if one chooses to preach on the topic of water, especially if one announces the subject in advance. Who knows whether or not one will be speaking against a background of parched countryside or addressing a congregation who have been drenched to the skin as they travelled to church.

Over the last few months, floods have devastated many parts of the land, and the earth, apart from hard-core surfaces, oozes moisture around the feet that tread it. Yet only a few years ago we experienced a summer drought, and stand-pipes were seen in the streets in some areas of the north. The Prince of Wales speaking in the south west of the country, pointed out the disasters caused by drought, only to have his speech drowned out by sound created by a sudden unexpected storm as torrential rain beat upon the marquee in which he stood. The press and television news enjoyed it immensely. “Long may he reign”, commented one newspaper.

There are many reasons why one might wish to talk on the subject of water on a Sunday morning in Hucklow Old Chapel, not least because religion is deeply concerned, amongst other things, with matters of life and death. Water, its presence or absence, is the crucial determinant of whether life shall exist or not. Life on our planet appeared only after water had condensed out of the poisonous gases which surrounded the young sphere. Life, when it arrived, appeared first within the seas and oceans, later to spread over the land, and into the skies above. Life is ever threatened, and ultimately extinguished, in the absence of water.

Space probes, even as I speak, are travelling to Mars, with sensitive, sophisticated instruments on board to ascertain whether water is present below the surface. If there is water, the chances are increased that there is also, or was once, some form of life on the barren planet.

A central role is played by water in determining the quality of life, or indeed, whether life exists at all. Literally, water resolves matters of life and death. And this is reflected in the work of many Christian and other religious charities, who use funds for furnishing and maintaining water supplies as a priority in those lands smitten by famine and drought. When disasters such as earth-quakes strike, ensuring supplies of clean water for the survivors is a priority.

In our own country, it was the provision of clean water and the building of sewage systems during the nineteenth century which dramatically improved the length and the quality of life, probably more fundamentally than any other action. Not without cause did our Victorian forebears preach, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. The secret of, if not ever-lasting life, then certainly of prolonged life, depended heavily upon building reservoirs and the construction of sewage farms

One could make out a strong case that pollution of water supplies, the wasteful consumption of water, the greed of directors of water companies as they award themselves large salary increases, the denial of clean water to communities, are profoundly irreligious acts. However, I will leave that to another day, for I would follow this morning other trains of thought.

It is because water is central to the existence of all living creatures that it has long had a place in the language of religious imagery. There are innumerable examples in the Bible, both Old and New Testament. There is the story of David the King, for example, hiding in the cave of Adullam thirsting for water and dreaming of pure contents of the well at Bethlehem, which was located upon the other side of the enemy lines.

You will remember that three brave men risked their lives to fetch David a drink of water from the well. He then couldn’t drink it because it was too precious, representing, as it did, a sacrifice that others were prepared to make for him. The water here was a symbol for the bravery of men prepared to sacrifice their own lives for the comfort of friends.

The waters of Babylon were a symbol of the pain of captivity. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”, asked the exiles, longing for freedom in the land of their ancestors. In the New Testament there are a number of references to the “water of everlasting life”, a token of hope and promise.

Sometimes part of our devotions involve a service for naming of a child. In such a service, water plays a central part. Here again it is a symbol, though the symbolism of the water will mean different things to different people.

A traditional belief centres round the cleansing properties of water. By using water in a service of baptism, one is washing away the contamination of sin that rests upon the child, some would say. I’m afraid that is not how I see it. To me the naming of the child, the christening service, is primarily a service of four aspects; those of joy, of hope, of celebration, and of welcome.

A new life brought among us is a joyful yet humbling experience, for who can see new life emerge without being astounded – awe-struck at the miracle that is life. And no matter how often it is witnessed, the miracle is new and fresh. Those of us who hold, however tenuously, to a belief in God, who speak of God the Creator, are strengthened in our faith by this supreme illustration of creation, the presence of new life. A birth reinforces faith. So the service is one of joy.

Such a service is one of hope, for new life is a promise. It is a start of the journey that is life; a lengthy one we trust. Long or short we cannot know, for we cannot see forward into the unknown. “All hidden lies the future ways.” starts a well-loved christening hymn. But we surround the child with hope, love and good wishes, praying that he may do better than us, may explore the world, spreading love and hope to others as he journeys on. So the service is one of hope.

It one of celebration. I looked up celebration in a Thesaurus, a book which suggests words of a similar meaning. One word given under celebration was coronation. What can be more suitable as, for the day at any rate, the child is king or queen. In one of the most well-known passages in the New Testament, Jesus places the child in the centre, and quite rightly so. So the service is one of celebration. We salute the king.

And it is a service of welcome.

The artefact around which such services are conducted is the font. Water symbolising the beginning of life, and its continuity. John the Baptist baptising in the Sea of Galilee, we name our children in our churches and chapels with the water of life.

Another powerful metaphor of life frequently employed with the theme of water, is to compare a human span of existence to a river or stream. The source is a small spring, the end of the journey is the entry to the great sea whose horizon disappears into the eternal distance.

So back to water, the true elixir of life. Water is essential to life. But life is more than mere vegetable or animal existence. We may have difficulty in finding the language to describe exactly what consists of a good and full life, but we know it has components of love, of sacrifice, of understanding, of worship, of creativity and much more beside. So in naming a child and anointing his head with water, in speaking of the river of life or the ocean of eternity, we are symbolically recognising not existence alone, but true life.

One last thought. Life is not only found in water; water is found within life. You remember that couplet from the Ancient Mariner

“Water, water, everywhere
Yet ne’er a drop to drink”

The mariner was at sea, surrounded by water, yet unable to drink it because it was salt, so his life was at risk. Most of our bodies are composed of water, some eighty percent or more, I am told. Physical life requires a renewal of water to the body, or we shrivel and die.

If water is symbolic of life in its true fullness, then the individual requires constant supply of this nourishment, just as the physical body needs its liquid supply. Feeding love, care, compassion and understanding is not a task like giving one injection that will last a life-time. Just as we need constant liquid intake throughout our lives, so we need constant spiritual renewal, if we are not to become dried up husks.

Throughout our lives we need to drink of the waters, both literally and symbolically. As we give love, so we need to be surrounded and immersed in love. Words with which we sometimes commence our services come to mind.

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

They that wait upon the Lord drink deeply of the waters. They renew their life, not merely physically by drinking water on which we all depend, but by the transfusion of liquid spiritual renewal.

In my view the “water of spiritual life” is as it were a solution with the ingredients of love, of compassion, of understanding, of a belief in service to others and in the inter-dependency of the human race. The renewal of faith is essential if these ideals, these vital constituents of a complete life, are not, as it were to dry up leaving a seared and dried body behind.

The parched body of mankind is revived by water, not only from the kitchen tap, but from the fountain of faith which dances in our places of worship.

C.J. Rosling

Fulwood 21 June 1992
Mexborough 21 February 1993
Hucklow February 2001

Sunday Sermon – 22 September 2019

Welsh Sunday

I am pleased and honoured to be invited to conduct this Welsh Sunday service, if a trifled puzzled. Let me tell you why.

My father was born in Belfast, the family moving to Oban, in Scotland when he was a few weeks old. A few years later, they were to settle in Bradford, from whence, as a young man, father went to London where he married my mother.

Mother’s family lived in Birkenhead, where mother was born. When she was what would now be described as a teenager, her father and mother took a shop in London. She moved with them, and it was in London that my parents met.

Though I was born in London, from the age of two I have lived, first in the Manchester area on one side of the Pennines, and then, for the last forty five years in Sheffield, on the east of that range of hills. My wife, our children and grandchildren are Sheffield born and bred.

So, though I might claim some connection with three of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom, I am unable to establish any Welsh connection, other than some holidays spent in the Principality. So to be invited to give the address on this day bespeaks a touching mark of trust, not to say of tolerance.

The question of seeking identity and membership of a group is important for us. It is deeply ingrained in our make-up. The initial group membership of which we become aware is the family. The parents, the brothers and sisters, perhaps grand-parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are the society in which we first find comfort, security and a sense of belonging.

As time passes we extend and vary our group membership. Our school and college, clubs and societies, work-places, supporters’ groups, neighbourhood gatherings, churches or chapels, and a multitude of other social collectives, extend, and maybe partly replace, the family as the set in which we identify ourselves as members.

This group identity is an important part of existence. It is in the group that we meet fellow beings with whom we share our interests, develop our understandings, treasure our history, preserve the skills, literature and folk-lore created by our ancestors, and explore ideas which become in their time the wisdom of future generations.

Though we voluntarily identify with many groups, we early become aware that through birth or residence, we are classified into tribal, regional or national sets. We are Cockneys, Glaswegians, Dubliners or claim Swansea as our birth-place; we are Celts, Scots, Irish, Cornish or Cumbrians; we are Welsh and proud of it; we are British, and, less certainly and more reservedly, Europeans.

And what does membership of the group mean? What does it entail?

For the insider, the membership bestows pride and privilege. To the outsider, so often unwarranted exclusiveness. To be born a Yorkshireman means, given the requisite skills, entitlement to play cricket for the County. Similarly for the Welshman, it is perhaps to don the red vest and play Rugby Union for country at Cardiff Arms Park.

One or two of my friends Welsh friends describe themselves describe themselves as Rugby fanatics. They tell me that in South Wales, at least, Rugby is akin to a religion. (Story of St. David).

But deeper and more seriously than that, and embracing all ages and sexes, to identify with a nationality or place of birth is to have an affinity with, and a conceit in, what is, in abstract terms, referred to as a culture. In the case of Wales, it is an ancient language of which its guardians are rightly jealous; a love of poetry and music, with a particular well-merited reputation for choral singing; a history of defiance to the invader allied to a fierce determination not to allow national identity to be submerged.

It is to be part of a nation who has produced some magical orators – Aneurin Bevan, Lloyd George, Michael Foot amongst many others. Welsh actors, play-wrights, poets, musicians, teachers, and preachers have and do excite and inspire. All is a part of the heritage of Wales.

I forget who coined the phrase, and of whom he was speaking, but it applies aptly to the Welsh – “.. they sing like angels, they fight like devils”. As a nation they have absorbed their tragedies, not least those connected with coal mining and the spoil heaps above Aberfan. They have experienced and endured hardship. Yes, to be Welsh is to inherit all this and much more, and the non-Welshman cannot be expected to comprehend the extent of it.

This, and in similar ways, is how the insider, the member of any society sees it. As part of the collective, any collective, be it a tribal, national or religious group, one has a perspective, no doubt the true perspective. But then the outsider so often has a meaner, prejudiced view.

The Jew loves his religious heritage, and points to the achievements of his race in religion and the arts; but the anti-semitic outside speaks of Jews as untrustworthy, unscrupulous money-lenders, or avaricious wealth grabbers; the Afro-Caribbean, the Pakistani, the Indian have in their varying cultures and national characteristics, a treasure house which enriches us all. Yet to the ignorant, racist, non-member they are perceived as an alien threat, responsible for most crime, a barely civilised subservient people.

There is a dichotomy here. The strength of the national, tribal if you like, groupings is that they seek to preserve the cultural wealth of the past, adding to it by current experience.

This preserving, creative force is truly civilising. Whatever we mean by God and religion, and we will have individual convictions or beliefs, surely in common is the theme that God encompasses creativity, beauty, art and literature. So preservation and cultivation of a living cultural heritage is surely a religious undertaking.

National pride is in itself admirable in as much as it sets itself to honour the achievements of the past, to enrich the present by preserving the best of that tradition, and so to live that future generations will recall with gratitude our contributions and our stewardship.

Yet those very national groupings themselves create enmities, jealousies and strife. As we admire our own cultures and, through ignorance, fear or failure to live up to the precepts we profess, we so frequently denigrate the members of communities other than our own. There is a trap into which we so often fall, that by glorying in our own culture we devalue that of others.

The most widely known, most frequently quoted, of all the parables of Jesus, is the parable of the good Samaritan. The parable, you recall, was told in order to illustrate graphically the answer to a question, “Who is my neighbour?” Remember, the story was told in Judea, not Samaria. The hearers, not of the tribal grouping of the Samaritans, no doubt felt some enmity towards this alien tribe. Hence the added impact to the vivid tale. Many hearers, in rejoicing in their own faith and culture had no doubt scorned that of the Samaritans.

Jesus, the Jew, was proud of his heritage. But the preservation of his culture was not exclusive of love of all humanity. Exactly the reverse was true. The human story is enlightened by the amalgamation of cultures. The story becomes a tragedy if and when we, in our anxiety to safeguard our own culture, seek to denigrate, or even destroy, the heritage of others.

National rivalries are often the result of being so blinded by the sparkling of our own jewels, that we fail to recognise the treasures others hold. Or even worse, seek to destroy those other riches in the mistaken belief that thereby our own wealth will be enhanced.

It is good that we from time to time have what are essentially nationalistic occasions – our Welsh Sundays and the like. We should remember our roots, our national heroes, the achievements secured, the countless unsung men and women who have in their time contributed to a Welsh character that knows warmth, resilience, generosity, christian integrity, not to mention a love of language and its delivery in accents akin to music.

The non-conformist traditions and the glorious hymn tunes which stir the souls of more than welsh men and women should and must be preserved.

But just as nations are composed of families, so the whole kingdom of God embraces all peoples and nations. We rejoice today in acknowledgement of what one section has contributed to the society of mankind as a whole. In doing so, we are mindful that many peoples, of different colours, creeds and nationalities make valued contributions in the house of the Lord. He values them all from the widow’s mite to the king’s ransom.

It is not for us value one contribution, whether that of the individual or of the nation, more than the other. All are welcome in the Kingdom of God.

Our final hymn, set to a fine Welsh hymn tune, reminds us that humanity is as one in the love of God. Pride in our heritage bestows upon us the responsibility to glory in and preserve the wider inheritance of mankind as a whole.

We glory in not merely our own cultural treasure, but in the treasures held by all. For all are the treasures of the Kingdom.

C.J. Rosling

Chesterfield 24 February 1991

Sunday Sermon – 15 September 2019

We Plough the fields and Scatter

Each of the traditional church festivals – Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide and the rest – has a special aura. But surely harvest has a unique atmosphere all of its own. The hymns are full bodied and robust, like a mature red wine. The prayers are vigorous, full of gratitude seasoned with a mixture of hope and wonder. The air within the building is full of evocative smells, like a well-stocked green-grocer’s shop. The perfume of flowers mingles with scent of ripened fruit. The eye is greeted by glorious autumn colours. A spirit of joy, mixed with a fair dollop of self-satisfaction, pervades the service. None of this is said in criticism, for I greatly enjoy harvest. It certainly ranks near the top of the chart of most agreeable church occasions.

After marriage, following a short period of flat-dwelling, our first house was a newly built, semi-detached home. It was blessed, or cursed according to your point of view, with a back-garden of about a fifth of an acre of virgin field, redundant with waist-high nettles, couch grass, willow-herb and buttercup. Brambles grew unchecked, convolvulus flourished.

I tackled the ground with the enthusiasm of youth, cased in a shell of ignorance barely breached by avid reading of library books on gardening. Yet, lo and behold, in due course we ate potatoes and cabbage, peas and beans, produced by our own labours from the previously unproductive earth. Home-grown flowers decked our window-sills, even cucumbers grew in a cold-frame. None were prize specimens, merely “… poor things yet mine own”. Nevertheless, I shared the smugness of the apocryphal countryman in the old joke, who replied dryly when the vicar commented that he and God had done a good job with the garden, “Ay, but you should have seen it when God had it to himself”.

But in reality, harvest festival is an acceptance that partnership is an essential pre-condition for successful harvesting. We may till and sow, but whether there is a crop to reap depends on a mysterious force of life within the seed, and this is not in our power to give. On the other hand, the efforts of mankind are an essential part of the process. The full fruits are not obtained when God has it to himself. Through man’s intervention, the increase in productivity of land has been tenfold, fifty-fold and even a hundredfold.

Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, so say the words of an old popular song. Be that as it may, God the life-force and men and women together produce the harvest. It must be a true, even if not equal, partnership. The song went on to say, “You can’t have one without the other”. I’m not going to argue about love and marriage, but I do contend that God and the people in partnership are fundamental to the successful harvest. You can’t have one without the other.

We plough the fields and scatter
The good seed on the land.
Yet, it is feed and watered
By God’s almighty hand.

Do you recall Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”? Or did you see the subsequent film? The book describes the trials and the exploitation of American mid-western agricultural labouring families, driven eastwards from previously highly productive lands. That land had been rendered barren by ignorance and greed. The earth had become a dust-bowl. The fertile soil literally blown away because greed had led men to take all, and put nothing back. No doubt God murmured as he viewed the desert where once lush crops flourished, “You should have seen it before men had it to themselves”.

There must be a partnership. If nations ignore that fact, and in their arrogance, ignorance or through a false sense of superiority, try to dissolve the union, then disaster strikes. Far from the desert blossoming as the rose, the green field is transformed into arid wasteland. Life and fertility are ever precariously balanced, with death and barrenness on either side of the tight-rope. The true farmer and his wife, the gardener, the plantation owner, are all too well aware that their labours can only succeed if they are in tune with, and not antagonistic towards, what are often referred to as the laws of nature. Nature is another word for that spiritual, creative power we call God. So harvest is a reminder of partnership, the need to work in harmony.

Long ago, early man evolved from being simply a hunter who gathered wild fruits and berries, to become a cultivator of land. The earth was tilled, crops were gathered and herds of domestic cattle reared. The lesson was quickly learned that to be successful it was necessary to co-operate with others. A partnership with fellow beings was a pre-condition for productive agriculture. Also discovered was the truth that, to achieve lasting success, the farmer must respect the land, work with the rhythm of the seasons, and save the seed-corn for future sowing. A teaching that is no less true today than it was in early times.

So surely harvest time reminds us not only of our debt to, but our duty towards, God. But further, that if all is to be safely gathered in, we must share the burden with others and work in harmony with them. As the variety of our crops has increased, so has the need for, and the extent of, the partnership grown. Our partner may be in the antipodes, in Africa, in the islands to the westwards or on the continents of the east. Our reliance on the neighbour is now not merely to the inhabitant of the same village, or to the resident in the same country, but stretches to include an unknown toiler in a field thousands of miles distant.

Harvest festival encompasses not a single aspect of living, but a whole range of attitudes and experiences. It may once have been a pagan celebration of a successful gathering in of the necessary food which would enable life to be sustained throughout the winter, but within a christian setting it is something beyond that narrow concept.

I spoke a few minutes ago of the American novel, the Grapes of Wrath. The Americans call their harvest festival, Thanksgiving. And thanksgiving is also a part of our celebration. “All good gifts around us..” we sing. And indeed, God’s contribution to the partnership are gifts. Centrally the gift of life with its power of continual renewal. And the appropriate reaction by a recipient of a gift is to voice gratitude – to say “Thank you”. So as well as a recognition of our association with God as labourers in the field, we come to express thankfulness. Our debt acknowledged in words and in song, in prayer and meditation.

Coupled with gratitude is wonder. Wonder at the infinite variety of life; wonder at the inter-dependency of one form of life upon other species; wonder at the miracle of life itself. Wonder and worship not only begin with the same letter, but the concepts are woven inextricably together. Worship without wonder is salt that has lost its savour.

And yet another component of the Harvest Festival is that of hope. We hope that our future hunger shall be satisfied. The words of the old covenant, that there shall be for ever, “seed-time and harvest” gave comfort in ancient times, and may give comfort today.

But we now recognise that there is a qualification to the promise. Poisoned land may not produce, contaminated soil will give tainted crops. There are sheep grazing on British soil whose flesh is unfit for consumption because of radio-active fall-out. Excessive nitrates spread on land are washed into rivers affecting the lives of those who drink of its waters. The hope for the future is dependent upon acting responsibly in the present. Caring for and respecting the environment in which we dwell.

A covenant is not simply an unconditional promise, it implies an agreement, a commitment, a bargain if you like. It is based on trust, nurtured in commitment. Harvest will follow seed-time provided we do our part, and do not subvert or sabotage the golden cycle; disregard the fragile balance that allows the earth to be fruitful.

Dust-bowls, polluted land and rivers, impure air, sullied lakes and oceans are not God given, but man made. Harvest celebration should surely include time to reflect on our responsibility towards generations yet to come. If hope is to move from being merely pious to the certainty of faith, then we need to accept that the covenant is not an unconditional guarantee. It is, if you like, a treaty.

Finally, harvest ought to be an occasion of which we reflect about how the fruits of the earth are distributed. An old political slogan spoke of, “To each according to need, from each according to ability.” The world has still the capacity to produce enough to feed all its peoples, yet one third of the world goes hungry. To each according to need is a part of the equation yet to be solved.

We have spoken of partnership. A partnership between us and our maker, and a partnership between fellow beings. A partnership that is implicit in our responsibility to generations yet unborn. And there is a partnership to be forged with those go hungry whilst others feast.

Harvest can be purely a smug self-congratulatory orgy, but there is no real, lasting joy or satisfaction in that. The joy of harvest surely is a recognition of, and a renewal of faith in, our inter-dependency upon one another. It is an opportunity to bask awhile in the warmth of the love of God who is the source of all life, the creator of all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. It allows us the space to stand in awe.

Traditionally, part of the harvest celebration has been in feasting together, in the harvest supper. No accident that it is celebrated in company, for the essence of harvest is that it emphasises “we” and “us”, rather than “I”, “me” and “my”.

“Man shall not live by bread alone”, preached Jesus. Harvest is not simply gratitude and pleasure the fruit of the earth will sustain our physical existence. It is a time of re-affirmation in the faith in values which sustain true life. We consider again a relationship with God, and debt to, as well as a responsibility for, others with whom we share this earth. The harvest succeeds when true partnership, with God and with other fellows, is strong.

So may we go forth, glad that we have shared our joy, lifted in the company of one another, and determined to maintain and strengthen partnership, co-operation, and equality in the service of the creator of us all. Having come as thankful people, may we depart to labour on.

C.J. Rosling 7 October 1994

Mexborough 9 October 1994
Hucklow 24 September 1995

Sunday Sermon – 8 September 2019

Pillar of Society?

It is a well established fact, with many examples which might be quoted to prove the point, that from distant times right up to the present, the pulpit has been used as a sounding post from which personal opinions may be broadcast under the guise of expressing holy writ.

Further, it is not unknown that, those holding contrary views to the preacher are named, maybe shamed, but certainly left in no doubt that their views are perverse, possible heretical, and not to be left unchallenged. Aggressive confrontation is not in my nature, but with sadness in my heart, and possibly with tongue straying towards the inner lining of the cheek, I have based the words I wish to speak this morning as directly contradicting those of a very good friend. I cannot remain silent, although what was written was without any doubt done so in good faith. Nevertheless, Roy Wain, uncharacteristically, has got it wrong when in the latest edition of the always interesting, readable Hucklow calendar he linked my name to a pillar. In due course I shall explain why.

But not yet. For two reasons.

First, as is my wont, I feel the urge to digress. The digression is important for it provides background support for my, I was going to say views, but they are more than opinions, rather convictions. Secondly, as writers of murder mysteries will confirm, explanations are for the last page, otherwise readers lose interest, and listeners allow their attention to wander. I don’t want anyone dozing off before I’ve finished. No sermon ought to be accompanied by what is euphemistically referred to as deep breathing, as the eyes are rested.

On my shelves at home in what I have grandly named my study, are several books of biography and autobiography. One of my many defects, a weakness which I share with a large proportion of the population, is to enjoy gossip about other people’s secrets. Biographies are a rich quarry from which scandal may be mined. “Well, who would have thought?,” “Or fancy such goings on!” are phrases to set the pulses racing. But more seriously, admiration for the courage and determination which such non-fiction frequently reveals, is a source of inspiration in one’s own life.

One of the autobiographical books on my shelves is that of Leah Manning, a name which I suspect means nothing to most, if not, all present this morning. Yet Leah Manning was a remarkable lady; firm of purpose, with a passion for justice and a champion of the under-privileged. She was an intelligent, talented woman born in an age when clever, strong-willed women were not generally applauded, or welcomed. Society gave greater credence even to stupid men than to clever and articulate women.

It is not my intention this morning to go into many biographical details – possibly some other time – but a brief sketch may give a flavour of her life. Leah was born in the east end of London, brought up in the 1890’s in a middle-class, staunchly Methodist family. Her ancestors, silk merchants, were Huguenot émigrés who had fled to London from Lyon. Following her birth, her parents emigrated to Canada, leaving her to be brought up by grand-parents in a caring, loving environment. She trained as a teacher in Cambridge, and was still doing some teaching in a girls’ independent school in her eighties. Most of her teaching life though was spent in poor, downtown schools. She did voluntary nursing in the evenings after a day in school during the First World War, tending casualties from the dreadful battlefields of France and Flanders.

She became a radical left-wing socialist, persuaded to join the Fabian Society by a life-long friend, Hugh Dalton, who was destined to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1945. Leah was a member of Parliament for just a year in 1930, and again from 1945-1950. Before the second World War she became President of the National Union of Teachers. Ever active in local politics, she opened and ran family planning clinics in the nineteen twenties and thirties, was something of a hell-raiser when fighting for the poor, particularly when women and children were the oppressed. A thorn in the side of bumbling bureaucrats, a practical helper to many a struggling family, her out-spoken left-wing views didn’t endear her to every-one, but her practical compassion made her many friends.

But what sticks in the memory after reading her autobiography is the final chapter. It is only one page long, so I will read it to you.

“It’s the system I hate,” shouted the young student at the demonstration. I had every sympathy with him. I had said the same when I was a student and had thought I could do something about it. Now, when I look back over a long life, I find I have been able to achieve nothing of what I had in mind, that things are worse in the world today than when I was eighteen.

It is true that under the Welfare State there are no children dying of malnutrition. But in other parts of the world they daily die from hunger. It is true that thousands of council houses have been built, but thousands still live in slums. I was a pacifist and shouted, “No more war.” Since I was eighteen there have been two world wars; there is war today in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the great powers constantly build weapons that are more and more horrific, with which to destroy civilisation. I do not know how I can still be an optimist, but when I feel a little depressed by this confrontation of my failures, I turn again to my favourite prayer from Michael Quoist’s Prayers of Life:

The bricklayer laid a brick on the bed of cement.
Then with a precise stroke of his trowel spread
another layer.
And without a by-your-leave laid on another brick.
The foundations grew visibly.
The building rose tall and strong to shelter men.
I thought, Lord, of that brick buried in the darkness
at the base of the big building.
No one sees it, but it accomplishes its task and the
other bricks need it.

Lord, what difference if I am on the roof top or in the foundation of your building, so long as I stand faithfully in my place.

Leah Manning wrote that final chapter more than thirty years ago. (my copy of her book is priced both in £.s.d. and at £2.20) but it could have been written yesterday with no less accuracy.

I remember reading, a long time ago, that when Sir Christopher Wren designed St. Paul’s Cathedral with its great dome he planned no pillars to support the roof, believing, rightly, that it would remain firmly in place by virtue of the fact that the stresses were balanced, that his calculations established that the structure would stand secure without columns to hold it up. Others insisted that there be pillars, so they were built. But Wren told the builders to stop short of the roof, leaving a gap of a couple of feet at the top of each column. The gap could not be detected from ground level Thus was honour satisfied. Wren’s deception confirmed his own judgement without humiliating his opponents

I don’t know whether this story is true, but it sounds credible and I believe in it. In a great cathedral there may be many columns, those great pillars of stone which soar heavenwards and catch the eye are few in number, and maybe not all are needed. They are imposing, eye-catching but sometimes not strictly necessary.

But there are many times as many bricks and dressed stones in a great cathedral as pillars, some clearly visible but most unnoticed. Indeed some are below the ground, and others in obscure and hidden places. The strength of the structure is far more dependent on bricks than on pillars, always providing that they hold firm.

There is a place for pillars, but the numbers are limited and only the best are worthy to hold up the roof. But bricks in the millions are required, and my ambition is to be amongst them, and to be regarded, if at all, as a brick that stands firm.

Additionally, I want to be where many good friends, including Roy Wain, and all my many other friends and colleagues, will be.

Cannot speak for others, but for myself, please don’t call me a pillar. Sorry to denounce you in public, Roy.

I trust you will bide your time and get your own back. There is plenty of scope for that.

C.J. Rosling 10 January 2003

Hucklow 19 January 2003

Sunday Sermon – 1 September 2019

Mirror, Mirror

One of the most well-known, enduring, and arguably best-loved of the films made by the late Walt Disney is surely “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. And from that film it is lines spoken by the Wicked Queen which are the most frequently quoted, or more often, parodied, “Mirror, mirror on the wall….” A true mirror reveals the unpalatable truth for good or for bad, bringing joy or despair to the viewer.

In a previous house, for a time there hung a full length mirror on a wall opposite the bedroom door. The result was that as one emerged in the morning, the first sight was of a strange, bleary figure staggering towards you. A frightening experience, for if there is a time when we all are to be seen at our worst it is surely first thing in the morning. The mirror has now been moved to a different location, I’m thankful to say.

Not that most of us would dispense with a mirror altogether – but we do wish to choose our moment when to glance at it. Coming upon our reflection unexpectedly can be a nasty shock to the system, not to mention serious damage done to the ego. I suppose there is a little of Narcissus in most of us. Narcissus you recall was the beautiful youth in Greek mythology who spend hours gazing at his reflection in the water, until he eventually became a flower growing at the water’s edge, so he could gaze at his reflection for ever. Few, I guess, can honestly say that they have never looked in the mirror, and like God surveying the world created over six days, “saw that it was good”.

But a mirror is not merely an apparatus to encourage self-admiration. It is a device whereby we may see ourselves as we are seen by others. Or at least, we have that opportunity, though often the interpretation of the reflection is not completely without bias.

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

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

Self-examination is an attempt to probe beneath the surface, allowing an evaluation of what is there to be discovered. We say of others, do we not, when you really get to know him, or her, you see a different picture. Really getting to know ourselves can be more difficult even than knowing someone else.

Was it not Rabbie Burns who wished that we could see ourselves as others see us? Though in this context, the self that others see refers not merely to the outward, but to the whole person.

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

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

We are all aware of these “artful dodges” even if we don’t quite understand them. The special pleadings, the evasions and the excuses are recognised more readily when employed by others, but curiously difficult to acknowledge when used by oneself.

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

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

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

“….the labyrinthine ways
Of our own mind;………”

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

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

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

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

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, show me who and what I am.”

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

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

I have left to last the question “Why am I?”. This is the most difficult and profound question of all, and perhaps incapable of being answered completely. Down the ages philosophers and divines have wrestled with the challenge, providing various theories, but no complete solution. Paul referred to this in that famous letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote of seeing in a glass darkly. The mirror is clouded, we have no sharp image.

Some would argue that the question is meaningless. There is no why. Life is accidental, mechanical, purposeless. As Macbeth groaned,

“Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps on this petty pace
From day to day.”

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

So we come the full circle. The Wicked Queen valued her mirror when it gave agreeable answers. Her wrath was aroused when the answer was truthful but unacceptable. This was the root of her evil, she could not bear the truth.

Used judiciously, mirrors are valuable, nay essential tools in our lives. A reliable mirror will report accurately and truthfully.

The extent to which we can accept this is a measure of our maturity.

The extent to which we employ, in Conrad’s words “artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge” measures the failure to live up to our beliefs.

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

C.J. Rosling 13 February 1994

Fulwood 13 February 1994
Mexborough 13 March 1994
Mexborough 25 May 1997
Hucklow 7 March 1999
Bradford 19 April 1999
Stannington 29 August 1999
Upper Chapel 3 November 2002