Sunday Sermon – 27 October 2019

I’m Starving

Three-quarters of a century ago, in my primary school, as I suspect in every other primary school in the land, the day’s lessons began with scripture. Later the time-table named the scripture period, religious instruction, later still religious education; but at that time it was scripture. Psalms and the Beatitudes to be learnt by heart, stories read and studied from both Old and New Testament, starting with the wanderings of Abraham through to the journeys of Paul.

Not the least gripping of the stories we read was one from the Book of Genesis, the story of Joseph and his brothers. The narrative has a variety of themes which may be found in many a novel – jealousy, attempted murder, sex, revenge, violence, compassion, forgiveness, a rags to riches tale with a happy ending.

Like many others, in later years I enjoyed the rock musical based on the story, “Joseph and his Multi-coloured Dreamcoat”. But it is the original story which, to coin a phrase, holds the stage.

The story came to mind the other day after watching a news item on the television. During it, there had been displayed horrifying pictures from the African continent of men, women and, most distressingly of all, children, dying of starvation as famine swept their lands.

Joseph, as you will recall, possessed, among other talents, the ability to foretell the future by interpreting dreams. As he slept, Pharaoh had seen seven fat kine (I prefer to use the old word, sounds more regal than mere cows) devoured by seven lean and hungry animals. Joseph warned that this was a signal of famine to come. Preparations for the coming catastrophe were then put in hand.

The word “famine” entered my vocabulary a life-time ago, but it is, I confess, only in recent years that I have come anywhere near understanding its truly awful meaning. Until these and similar television pictures came into the home over the last decade or so, famine was a rather old-fashioned biblical term for something that happened in stories of long ago. “I’m starving” we say when an hour or two has elapsed since the last meal. Starving used as a synonym for feeling hungry. The literal meaning is far starker.

In the lands smitten by famine, we see far more than mild hunger pangs felt an hour or two after a wholesome meal. Famine induced starvation is unimaginable misery, suffering, sickness leading to a lingering, painful death. Babies too weak to cry, fall apathetically into the sleep from which there is no awakening.

The Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the sub-Sahara region have for centuries suffered periodic famine. The story of Joseph, though no doubt part fable, part synthesis of the experiences of many people, is surely not complete fantasy. The peoples of Old and New Testament times alike knew only too well of the ravages of famine. The biblical phrase “to hunger and thirst” grew out of painful experience.

When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, and included in the prayer the phrase “…give us this day our daily bread” it was not an empty set of words. The disciples knew full well how life depended precariously upon the vagaries of weather, on an absence of pests, as well as relying on a successful harvest.

To solicit for bread was a commonplace in lands where begging was endemic. For how else did the sick, the disabled, the elderly and the homeless exist where no welfare state provided for their sustenance? Charity from others was their means of survival.

Food for the next meal was, and still is, a first priority for a great number of the populace throughout the world. To secure another meal is life; fail, and death becomes a stark reality. No wonder that food and drink provide so many religious metaphors. Food succours and strengthens. It is the means of sustaining life. It gives the body strength. Its absence removes both the will and the ability to live.

Parallels with the importance of nourishing the spirit are obvious. Moving from the reality of real hunger to recognising that spiritual life, as well as physical existence, is sustained by feeding, is not a large step. So a prayer for daily bread is about more than bodily need. To adapt a well-known advertising slogan, there is a need to reach those parts ordinary foods cannot reach.

“Bread of Heaven”, we sing, “feed me ‘til I want no more”. Not a peon in praise of gluttony, but a prayer for spiritual sustenance. Recognition that there are needs over and beyond mere physical survival.

The human body needs continual feeding at regular intervals. Food is provided by other living organisms be they plant or animal. Our life depends upon the lives of others. Adequate and appropriate food and drink is prerequisite for a healthy physical life.

However we have needs additional to that if we are to truly live. Spiritual needs have got to be satisfied. And, as with physical needs, the occasional top-up at irregular and long intervals is not the answer. The infrequent special service, the christening, the funeral, grief at time of crisis and little else, does not sustain the spirit in a healthy state. “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Without faith, hope and love, life is but a stunted existence. To become a whole person, we have to go beyond satisfying physical need.

The unique spirit of humankind, the soul, the essential humanity, call it what you will, withers and distorts, sickens and malfunctions when it is starved of sustenance, just as does the body when denied its regular intake of food.

Famines past and present are, unhappily, facts of life. Sometimes they are described in that most unfortunate phrase, as being Acts of God. I find it difficult to accept that God from time to time, as it were, loses his temper, and sends plagues of pests, torrential rains, droughts or other disasters upon the land which this phrase implies. That surely cannot be so. However, that apart, the role of the wise person is, like Joseph of old, to make preparations beforehand, giving relief to the distressed, and sharing bounty with those who starve.

Many famines are of man’s making. War, pillage, greed, exploitation, theft, ignorant arrogance, all play their part in bringing misery to others. That sometimes this occurs under the cloak of religious wars is uniquely revolting. Religious war is itself a contradiction in terms. Religious ethics are surely about mutual respect, sharing and supporting the weak. To destroy or abstract from our neighbour the bread he needs to live, is a negation of religion.

Similarly, there may be famines curtailing the nourishment needed to satisfy spiritual hunger, and thus enable growth and development. Sometimes, as bracken grows on the uplands choking all other growth and producing inedible forage in its place, so materialism, stifles the production of spiritual victuals. Great effort is needed to root out the enveloping weed to enable life-supporting shoots to flourish.

But more frequently, the food is available; it is self-imposed fasting or unwise choice of repast which is starving spiritual growth. Enjoying that which is outside material wealth, selfish greed and love of personal possessions, and exercising love and charity towards one’s fellow beings, enables healthy spiritual growth to take place.

The story of Joseph is not simply about relieving the effects of famine. It was right to build barns in time of plenty to store supplies against harsh times to come. It was proper to feed the hungry that they should not starve. But beyond that there was a spiritual famine which had hardened hearts enabling hatred and jealousy to grow like a cancer. In the climax of the story Joseph forgave his brothers, showing generosity to them and to his family. That spiritual feed enabled love to expand as unworthy passions atrophied.

There is much that humans share with the rest of the animal kingdom. This is the physical part of them. The physical body of all in the animal kingdom has to be maintained with food and drink, exercise and repose. We are born, we reproduce, we die. All this and more we share with the rest of animal life. But it does not end there. For we who are privileged to be part of the human race have skills which others animals do not share. The ability to think, to plan, to prepare for example. A sense of the past, and a vision of the future is ours. But most importantly, we have something which is somewhat vaguely referred to as a soul.

We can feel compassion. We can exercise tolerance. We can make self-sacrifices in order others might benefit. We can feel moved by thoughts and experiences outside of ourselves. We may feel awe and wonder. We have a perception of good and evil. We can aspire to be saints; or we can degenerate into devils.

But this aspect of our lives needs sustaining with wholesome fare, not left to perish, or, even worse, become grossly mutated through the poison produced by, what Joseph might have called, false gods.

Some of the vilest crimes of humanity, for example the burning of heretics, genocide against those of (in inverted commas) “inferior race or intelligence”, or the so named ethnic cleansing, have been committed by those whose spiritual and moral values have been distorted thus.

We in our time and land are strangers to the famines ravishing many parts of Africa and Asia. We are better fed then ever in our history. By and large, with a few exceptions, we are healthier then the generations which went before us.

Our expectation of life has expanded enormously throughout this century, particularly in the latter half of it. We worry about over-weight rather than under-nourishment. We are the privileged. We are more anxious about calorie intake than concerned about the state of the harvest. As the hymnist puts it

“We have enough, yet not too much
To long for more”

But are there not some signs of a famine in spiritual succour? Does our spiritual being grow large on over-eating as does our physical waist-line? To enable us to live a complete life, physical well-being is important. A healthy body requires sustaining with a healthy diet. Spiritual well-being is crucial to a full, complete life. Manna from heaven is important.

We as individuals, and society as a whole depends, not merely on physical strength and well-being, but on a sense, first of being not just a receptacle of physical needs into which fuel has to be pumped, but body capable of prayer as well as understanding. Secondly, we most always have in our minds that we are a part of a society which respects and cherishes all other members. Their needs are our needs; our requirements apply equally to them.
“….give us this day our daily bread” – but from the fount of all wisdom as well as from the bakery.

“Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven
Feed me ‘til I want no more”

May your appetite be insatiable.

C.J.Rosling 16 January 1999

Hucklow 17 January 1999; 23 October 2005
Fulwood 21 February 1999

Sunday Sermon – 20 October 2019

Worldly Religion

If you listen to people talking about religion and life, possibly sooner rather than later, you will hear the phrase “other-worldly” used. There is a perception, strongly held by some, that true religion is somehow set apart from the everyday affairs of life. Perhaps this view is most starkly displayed by those who permanently cut themselves off from the ordinary everyday affairs of the world and retreat into a monastic life devoted to religious observances and thoughts of so-called “higher things”. They may pray for the world, but they are not of the world.

This attitude is also revealed in less absolute terms. Going to church is regarded as special, in the sense that it is different from everyday life – divorced from it and placed, as it were, in a separate compartment of activity. Once the service is over and one has left the building, ordinary life can proceed once more.

This special, other-worldly existence is contrasted with a life steeped in worldly affairs. The latter is described as being practical and down-to-earth, not living in an airy, fairy atmosphere of spiritual dreamland, but getting on with real life. “Life is real, life is earnest” goes the line of the hymn.

Certainly I would not wish to appear to judge sincerely held beliefs of others, but for my part I would find a life shut away from daily toil, even with all its pressures and disappointments, profoundly unsatisfactory. Similarly, a life exclusively devoted to so-called worldly cares, and which was devoid of spiritual values, would be equally barren. For my part, religious convictions are a guide, a framework within which everyday life can be enjoyed.

For example, a belief is held by some, that religion and politics should be kept apart. It is not a view I hold. Let me qualify that by recalling a BBC programme of yesteryear called the Brains Trust, which older members will remember. One of the regular panellists, the late Professor Joad, was wont to say when asked a question, “It all depends on what you mean by the words you use.”

If you look for the definition of politics in the dictionary you will find that it deals with government and the making of laws. In other words, it is about community and shaping the society in which we live. To my way of thinking, it is entirely right to judge the society in which we live by comparing it against the religious standards we profess to encompass.

Of course, that is not to say that any favoured political party’s principles are holier than another party’s beliefs. However, I maintain it to be entirely right to say from the pulpit whether or not, in the preacher’s opinion, we live in a just, forgiving society, and whether the government of the day is acting in a tolerant and humane way to its citizens. Observations about whether or not the needs of the community are fairly balanced against the rights of the individual, whether or not the strong oppress the weak, and whether or not young and old, men and women, black and white, enjoy equal rights, is to my mind an entirely proper function of the church. Certainly this is so for any church which professes to accept the Christian standards of love of neighbour.

Not infrequently one faction or group, be it a political party, religious community or social gathering, believes it has a monopoly of right on its side. During the first World War, a poet noted that all participants in the conflict prayed that God would bring them victory, for their cause was self-evidently a right and just one. The poet wrote of God listening to these pleas coming from Germany, France, Britain, and elsewhere to grant their side victory over the enemy. Defeat should be inflicted upon the other side whose cause was self-evidently unjust. Our poet concluded his poem with the lines. “My God, said God, I’ve got my work cut out.” To bring religion and ethical standards into everyday life is not to contend that God supports one’s own side and is therefore antagonistic to those holding different views. It is to establish the importance of considering one’s actions and comparing them with one’s professed beliefs.

And it is not only into the field of politics that we should carry our religious principles. It applies to business and commence, to the factory and office, to the smaller and larger communities in which we move, into our public actions and even our private thoughts.

A novel I read many years ago, whose title I now forget, dealt, in part, with the setting up of a manufacturing process in an imaginary Middle Eastern country manned by an untrained and unsophisticated work-force. The venture was successful, primarily because the workers were a deeply religious people, who, when trained, performed their tasks conscientiously and thoroughly. To them, to do less was a betrayal of their faith and an insult to their god. Failure to properly tighten a bolt, to carelessly assemble a part, or to weld badly a joint, was an abomination. They took their faith from the church, temple or mosque (or whatever their place of worship might be) into the work-place and the market-place, and made everyday tasks a homage to their deity.

To return to the definition of words. “Other-worldly” is shown in my dictionary as having two meanings. One is to do with spiritual things, with an alternative, meaning given as advocating impractical ideas. It is far from uncommon for words to have more than one meaning. But what appears to be the case with “other-worldly” is that the two meanings have become entangled, if not amalgamated. To many, that which is described as spiritual is assumed to be also impractical. And being impractical, separated from day to day living.

True religion is overwhelmingly practical. There are countless individuals who have shown in their own lives that this is so. In every land from north to south, from east to west, from times long forgotten up to the present day, men and women, some famous throughout the world, others anonymous, have served and continue to serve their neighbours. As managers or menial workers, in hospital, in Town Hall, in small shop, in multinational company, in paid employment, in voluntary service, in high profile jobs or in humble ways, you find those whose service to their fellow men and women is powered by the engine within that embracing, comprehensive term, spiritual values.

These people give the lie, by their life and service, to the suggestion that spiritual and impractical are interchangeable terms. Their practical contribution grows from their spirituality. Their religious belief is tried, tested and honed by public duty every single day of their life, as well as in private worship.

The complaint heard too often, that the church gets involved in areas that should not be within its province, describes a situation which is far from the truth. It is in the absence of standards set by religious teaching from everyday life that injustice lives, misery is harboured, and intolerance breeds. The establishing of these standards, ensuring that they are maintained and monitored in their application, is done by men and women. I believe that in undertaking this duty, men and women are best guided by and sustained in the task through a sincerely held religious faith.

Worldly is said to be about the secular life, the life of every day. It is described as the life of work and of leisure, earning our daily bread, enjoying sport and pastimes, meeting others in pub or club, in theatre, on golf-course or bowling green. It is shopping in the supermarket, driving on the road, walking along the street, or playing in the park. Worldly is contrasted with the other-worldly spiritual life of worship, prayer and contemplation.

But my whole argument is that to separate the worldly and the other-worldly as distinct, and even contradictory, is to devalue both. Life without a spiritual dimension is bland, tasteless and unsatisfying, like fish without tartar sauce, or steak without mustard, or salt which has lost its savour. Conversely, a spirituality not tested in the everyday world is empty, if not meaningless. What James called faith without works is to proclaim with the mouth but not to reflect in the deed.

Both the epithets “worldly” and “other-worldly” are in their turn variously used derisively, as missiles to harm and to hurt. But both are honourable terms if used as two aspects of a partner-ship, a marriage, not of convenience, but, if you will, of necessity; of necessity because neither partner can flourish in the absence of the other.

One might ask how can religious values be brought into all aspects of life when there is a multiplicity of faiths, and, in the Christian religion alone, a wide variety of sects. But though beliefs may differ, modes of worship vary and practices contrast, all true religions have, or should have, common values. It is of the importance of bringing those values into the daily round, the common task, of which I speak. I suggest those values include compassion and mercy, tolerance and understanding, love and charity, sympathy and consideration, patience and peace of mind.

Which of us would deny the inclusion of any one of these in a litany of our belief, alongside other manifestations of a love and respect for fellow beings? These “other-worldly” spiritual values savour the worldly life, making it at the lowest estimate, tolerable, but more frequently positively enjoyable. Far from being impracticable, they are the essentials in our diet – the vitamins on which healthy life depends.

It used to be customary to start a sermon with a biblical text, but I will reverse the process and conclude with one from the epistle of James.
“You see then that a person is justified by deeds, and not by faith in itself.”

C.J. Rosling 25 June 1994
Fulwood 26 June 1994
Mexborough 19 February 1995
Hucklow 2 July 2000

Sunday Sermon – 13 October 2019

Equal Rights

It is possible to argue interminably about what have been the most significant changes during the 20th century, and indeed there is no simple answer, or even just a single answer.

Some will press the claims of a particular scientific invention or discovery, others look to advances in technology. Is the invention of the atom bomb and the associated work on nuclear fission and fusion the most notable achievement? Or is it the growth in knowledge about the origins of the universe in which we dwell? Others will look to the invention of the internal combustion engine, or the motor car, to be followed by the aeroplane. Again, what of communications, with telephone, radio and television bringing information to us all, even as events unfold on the far side of the world.

Another will turn to medical science, with the discovery of penicillin, followed by a plethora of miracle drugs; the surgeon who transplants organs almost routinely, or to the pathologist who, with his vaccines, has all but eliminated a number of life threatening diseases.

One will turn to the arts, another to philosophy. Explorers, innovators and sages will all have their supporters.

So one can go on and on detailing the differences that have occurred within the world since the birth of a friend of mine who was 97 years of age this summer. When she was born, in 1901, humans had not yet invented flying machines. The journey to America took at least a week, instead of today’s five or six hours, with a return journey possible within the day. A journey of several days faced the rich few who ventured on holiday in Spain or Italy. Ultimately men were to build rockets to carry them to the moon, a mere fantasy in a science fiction world throughout my friend’s working life, but to become a reality after only some years after her retirement.

My friend was born in a world where there were no radio sets carrying speech and music. She was a young woman before crystal sets received the human voice, and wireless sets and the BBC came into every home. Television broadcasts were hardly known until she reached her early fifties. Many common illnesses now treated by doctor’s prescription were killers throughout most of her working life. Horse drawn vehicles, steam trains and ships were virtually the sole means of transport during her childhood, though the electric tram operated in some urban areas.

But one can make a strong case that one of the greatest changes in our country during this woman’s life is not scientific, but social and political. It is the emancipation of women, an evolution not yet complete but one that has made remarkable progress.

At the beginning of this century, the role of women, the position of women in our society, was little different from what it had been for centuries. No woman sat in parliament, no woman had a vote, few professions allowed women entry. Those who advocated greater equality for women were derided, persecuted and sometimes imprisoned, there to be forcible fed.

Women voted for the first time less than five years before I was born. I was at school before women under thirty years of age were given the vote, and so achieved equality in this respect with men.

In my own profession of teaching, a woman’s salary has been the same as her equivalent man colleague for merely the last thirty-five years or so. Only in recent years has it become illegal to discriminate unfairly against women in employment recruitment, though sadly in practice much discrimination still persists.The quiet revolution in the position of women in British society, a revolution which is still proceeding, can surely rank among the most momentous events of the century.

But why do I refer to this today, in a church service?

I believe that there are two aspects to our worship. One is personal, perhaps inward looking and reflective. The other is communal, outwardly directed and practical.

The first part is important. We meditate and pray, we rest in tranquillity for a while, then, as the prophet wrote, “we renew our strength” that we may “mount up as eagles….”. But vital as that purpose of worship is, it is not, or it ought not to be, our sole purpose in gathering here.

The second part is to put that renewed strength to some purpose in our daily lives. To see how that which we profess to believe is turned to common purpose. And to do that we must recognise the world around us as it is, and as it is developing.

Some do regret change, and will continue to do so. Things aren’t quite how they were when we were young. If only the clock could go back, or the pendulum would swing, they complain. The ranks of those who regret the emancipation of women are not filled with men alone. Some women cry, “Would that the tide ebb.” But tides don’t even obey the commands of kings and queens, let alone the pleas of the commoner.

At the core of christian faith lies the obligation to others, succinctly expressed in the phrase, “… love your neighbour as yourself”. Over and over again in the gospels the criticism of what is implied by a master and servant relationship can be found: “Why call me master?”: “He who would be the master of all, shall be the servant of all”: “Except ye become as little children…” and so on. The story of the washing of the disciples feet also comes to mind.

If, as I believe, those who profess the ethics of Christianity – the master is also servant, the servant is also master – must accept that all members of the human race are valued equally. Categorising into males and females and valuing the groups as of different worth, is wrong. If you prefer the term, it is sinful. The movement for equality of opportunity for both men and women may be social and political in form, but it is surely powered by a religious engine and spiritual fuel.

Unitarianism is often referred to as having a liberal christian tradition. That refers not only to forms of worship, theological arguments and freedom from creeds and dogmas, but to the tradition of commitment of members to social reform. (Many examples are to be found of Unitarian reformers.)

Women have long been received in our pulpits on equal terms with men, a possibility which some other christians debate with anxiety and apprehension. It is for the members of those churches who consider the issues, to reach their own conclusions, but we should continue to value the contribution, and not pre-judge it by the sex of the contributor.

There are those who argue that it is inappropriate in a society moving to greater equality to have women’s groups and men’s groups, for this, they say, reinforces inequalities and differences. This is a viewpoint I do not accept. Equality does not imply sameness. Loving one’s neighbour is an acceptance of difference and variety.

The predominantly male view of society has lead until recent times to that very belief in exclusiveness and male superiority, a certitude which now is rightly crumbling. A view that one sex has a God-given position of superiority over the other is incompatible with a faith that puts love of neighbour at its heart. Largely due to a comparatively few courageous, tenacious women the century will close with a very much improved position for women in society than was the case when it opened.

What then for the future? What message should there be, what lessons have been learnt than can be applied elsewhere?

Within the world, and within our own country, much inequality still is prevalent. Many groups, because of their religion, their colour, their beliefs, their ethnic background, or for other reasons, are at best denied equal treatment, or are at worst persecuted. Love of neighbour has a limited acceptance or is applied selectively.

Women have personal experience of discrimination which should make them particularly sensitive to the needs of others. Because it is a woman who carries the new life and gives birth to it, she has a sympathy to the weak, the helpless and the oppressed. They will surely be in the van of their fight for a fairer world.

Men more frequently are the oppressors, or are those who are insensitive to the aspirations of others. They are the ones who have to be educated, cajoled, compelled to help change the world. Emancipation of women, even when complete, is not the end. It is a start on a long road to the removal of injustice, intolerance – an attitude which is fundamentally irreligious.

I started by speaking of a woman born at the beginning of the century into a world which, had it been able to see forward would have gazed with unbelief. That a new born babe would live to see men in space was incredible. That women too would go into space was ludicrous.

That a woman would become Prime Minister was cloud cuckoo land. That this baby should live to watch a report from a battlefield halfway across the world of events as they happened, was barely understandable; that the reporter would be a woman was taking things too far.

We have come a long way in a short time, and much is due to the determination of women. We have a long way still to go, and recent, past history shows the inconceivable is achievable. With the partnership of both men and women we can tramp the road ahead to the goal of a society truly based on christian ethics, where the contributions from all are sought, and respect to all is given.

A hundred years ago it was taken for granted that men alone would draw the plans of the new world we were seeking. Surely we now know better. May the child born today grow to see a world where equality is not a matter for comment, but represents the accepted norm.

C.J. Rosling 13 October 1991

Chesterfield 13 Oct. 1991
Fulwood 10 May 1992 (adapted as MAYQUEEN)
Hucklow 9 August 1992
Mexborough 9 August 1992

Sunday Sermon – 6 October 2019

Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom

Long ago, in the first half of the seventeenth century, a minor writer named Owen Felltham wrote his short essay on the value of acquiring knowledge in order to, and I paraphrase his words, give one something to think about in old age. I expect most of us would suggest that though that might be one reason for education, there are certainly many more compelling arguments to support a thirst for learning. But for whatever reason, like it or not, we all from a very early age fill our heads with facts. Then as we grow old we regurgitate them, thus boring younger people as we repeat experiences from our youth, over and over again.

Some facts might be regarded as more useful than others. I once knew a man whose boast it was that if you gave him any year in the last sixty or so he would name the winner in that year of the Grand National, the Derby and many other horse races as well. Quite a feat of memory without doubt; but to my mind, as one whose knowledge of horse-racing would rest comfortably on the head of a pin, of rather less practical use than say multiplication tables, or, since we went metric, and I shall come to recipes in a few moments, knowing how many millilitres in ¾ of a pint.

All of us, I admit, carry round a huge amount of what might be dubbed junk facts, of little value and even less interest. But it isn’t always easy to distinguish the rubbish from the gems. In any event, we frequently have little control over what sticks in the mind and what disappears without trace. I remember clearly the name of my first infant school teacher, who taught me to read seventy five years ago, but that couple’s name to whom I was introduced the other day already completely escapes me.

Mr. Gradgrind, in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ had no doubt about it. Education was about memorising facts. “Now you know what a horse is”, he said to the poor girl who had failed to answer his question. It had been subsequently described by a fellow pupil, the know-all Blitzer, as being a quadruped, a grazing animal, which shed its coat as the seasons changed, whose hooves required to be shod with iron, had forty teeth, an examination of which would enable the age of the animal to be determined. Gradgrind, Charles Dickens grotesque business man, knew the importance of knowledge. Knowledge gained through the assimilation of facts. Any facts, all facts, the drier the better.

Of course, Gradgrind had a point. From an early age, even before we learn to speak, we humans are acquiring facts, some of more significance than others. Trivial facts, important facts, some retained, many forgotten.

Do you remember the school-master in Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village”?

The village all declared how much he knew;
‘Twas certain he could write, and cipher too;
Lands he could measure, terms and tides
And even the story ran that he could gauge:
In arguing, too, the parson owned his skill,
For even though vanquished he could argue still;

While words of learned length, and thundering
Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew,

It is amazing how much can be crammed into one small head. Mind you, it does eventually get full. How else can it be explained that as we grow older things we were told only a few minutes ago are completely forgotten? Obviously, it is because our heads are full to busting. We have been stuffing them since infancy and there is no room for any more facts to be crammed into the skull.

But getting hold of facts is only the beginning. It is like the first stage in baking a cake, where you assemble the ingredients. Then comes the harder, if more interesting, bit. The printed recipe reveals, underneath the list of ingredients needed, the heading, ‘Method’. So the eggs, flour, fat and the rest have to go into the bowl to be stirred, mixed and blended; so the mind must relate facts to one another, and bring experience to bear. The facts are the ingredients of knowledge. Intelligence is the spoon which stirs the selected elements.

Gradgrind’s horse is truly a grazing quadruped, but more besides. No romance permitted, he failed to notice it also has beauty, motion, strength. It leaps fences, it drags carts, it carries burdens, it roams freely, it gallops with streaming mane. It once enabled man to till the land and gather the harvest. It pulled chariots into battle; black plumed, it drew the hearse to the cemetery. It competed in the sport of kings. It was the hero in Dick Turpin’s epic ride to York. The horse helped shape the history of mankind. To understand the horse needs the facts to be gathered, assessed, mixed with the spices and herbs garnered from gardens and fields where beauty dwells, and love blossoms.

Facts are cold, inert objects which, when assembled, ordered and weighed, enable us to become knowledgeable. A necessary stage on the road to understanding. Oh dear, I am now mixing metaphors as well as ingredients, but I hope you can follow my thinking.

A couple of examples, from my own experience, of how facts might lead, through knowledge, to greater understanding.

The boy, the senior teacher told the governors, had undoubtedly behaved in a violent, anti-social manner. The facts were not disputed. His rudeness was inexcusable; his out-burst threatened the safety of others. Why should any-one want to act in such an anti-social manner to others. He ought to be banished. Perhaps you should know, said the head-teacher, that the boy’s father died a couple of Christmas’s ago of a heroin overdose, and his mother’s new partner is suspected of abusing the lad. A couple more facts to stir into the mixture.

All I know about Hazel is that she wrote a poem which I found in a small anthology of verse written by children, and published by a teacher of English. I suspect that the adults who encountered her, saw Hazel as quiet, patient, maybe lacking in ambition. But she wrote what I take to be a cry from the heart.

I’m sitting in the classroom waiting.
I’m standing at the bus stop waiting.
The teacher says I’ll be with you in a minute,
but then I’m still waiting.
I’m standing outside the football ground waiting
to go into the kop.
I’m sitting in the Doctor’s surgery waiting in agony.
Waiting is my life, it’s all I ever do.
I would like to be the first one too.

As the facts are assembled, we sympathise and understand a little more.

Last Sunday, Roy Wain quoted from the Book of Job, and I too have a quotation from that story. Job railed against fate, which had brought great troubles upon him. His bitter words brought a reprimand God; “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”

Job ruefully and remorsefully, confessed.

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

One moves from facts, through knowledge, to understanding. Our understanding is built upon the knowledge we have. But for the few there is a further stage. That of wisdom. And what is wisdom?

When I am stuck for a definition I turn to my dictionary. Wisdom, it says, is making use of knowledge to judge rightly, to be skilful in applying learning.

The owl is said to be wise. Remember the nursery rhyme.

A wise old owl sat in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke.
The less he spoke the more he heard
Try to copy that wise old bird.

Whether owls deserve the reputation for wisdom or not I don’t know. I suspect not. However, the message that listening, thought, contemplation are essential steps to take before making judgement is valid. Wisdom is part of the postscript, not to be found in the introduction, or the preface.

But as well as facts to be learnt, knowledge followed by understanding, there is something in addition to be added to the pot before wisdom is achieved.

A story is told of a simple working lad, maybe he was a shepherd boy, could have been a carpenter, or perhaps he swept the streets. I cannot be sure, and it is not central to the tale. The young man gained a reputation for wisdom, giving advice to colleagues, who respected his judgement. The story goes on, because he was acknowledged to be wise he was elevated in the land and asked to sit in judgement in the higher courts of the country.

But there were those who envied his good fortune. “Have you noticed”, they whispered, “that box which goes everywhere with him as he travels about? Do you know, when folk ask what it contains, he always simply replies, ‘it’s my treasure’”.

“Ah yes, treasure. I believe it contains the bribes he dishonestly takes from those who seek a favourable judgement,” asserted another.

The rumours grew so persistent, that eventually the poor man was forced to open the box and reveal its contents. The box contained the working clothes he had kept from his original, menial employment. “They are with me to remind me that I am not a grand academic, but a humble workman. It wouldn’t do to think I am on a higher level than those I try to serve.”

I start with facts, go on to knowledge, hopefully to understand the better. But if I aspire to be wise, then I must learn to be humble, and that is the hardest part of all.

When Solomon became king, we are told, he said, “….I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or to come in”. Then went on to pray, “Give thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad”.

Centuries later didn’t Jesus charge his followers to become as little children?

C.J. Rosling April 2004

Hucklow 18th April 2004