Sunday Sermon – 24 November 2019

Freedom to Worship

There is an established tradition of having special days, weeks, or even years, devoted to a subject of concern. There is No-Smoking day, Sheffield and other cities have had bus-only days. Recently there was a “No Car Day”. I heard of a “Take your Dog to Work Day”. Annual weeks such as National Heart Week are promoted, A year or two ago there was the Year of the Disabled and one could find many, many more similar examples. The purpose of such occasions is to draw our attention to an issue, often social or environmental, about which we are urged to show concern, and address in more practical ways. In our denomination a Sunday is set apart, usually in February, to think of the International Association for Religious Freedom, the IARF.

As well as the multitude of such special occasions devoted to worthy causes affecting us in our own country, are those, like Christian Aid Week, or One World Week, which remind us, that though we live on an island, in what is often said to be a class-ridden society, we cannot be isolated from the needs of other citizens, or indeed from residents of the world as a whole. As the cliche expresses it, we are all part of one another, we are one family in God. A recognition of the needs of others, as well as our own desires, is an essential component of freedom.

One facet of freedom which has been emphasised in recent years, is that which surrounds environmental issues. The squandering of resources, the pollution of land, sea and air, disregard for the lands and of the life it supports, are not matters which rebound solely on the individual culprit. They affect the human family at large, and will burden human families yet unborn. Selfishness today denies freedom to others tomorrow.

After decades of indifference to, and ignorance of, the threat, at last “green issues” as they have been nick-named, have become matters which more and more of us are taking seriously. If the next generation of children, we are rapidly realising, are to sing

“All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small..”

as a peon of praise and not as a component of a remembrance service for days gone by, we have to all take the threat seriously, and start paring away our selfish instincts.

But, important as these considerations are, I would like to direct my few words this morning to another aspect of freedom implicit in the belief that we are all part of one large, human family.

We are all part of one body, which consists of several members, says Paul in one of those illuminating metaphors which encapsulate an eternal truth. The whole body is the sum of the parts. The parts are inter-dependant, each separate, each unique, but functioning incompletely without the complementary contribution from the other constituents.

Of course the analogy is imperfect, as are most analogies. People can and do live full, productive lives even though one sense be absent or failing, but the comparison is sufficiently accurate to illustrate the point more than adequately. People are not self-sufficient. A community, be it large or small, is dependent upon the contribution of all its members if it is to flourish, to flower, and not to disintegrate.

But Paul’s analogy was not merely about the component parts of the body, and the way one depends upon the other. It went further than that. The equal value of all the parts was stressed. The eye is not of greater value than the ear, nor is the tongue held in greater esteem than either of them. All the parts are vital; all are esteemed.

When I was a boy, as when many of you were boys and girls, we were directed to look with pride at the map of the world, large parts of which were coloured red. We had described to us the glory of a British Empire on which the sun never set. The peoples in those lands coloured crimson in our atlases, all owned allegiance to the King. The pictures in our geography books, the stories in our history books, underlined the philosophy of dependency within this Empire. Our spices came from India, our tea from Ceylon, lamb from New Zealand, sugar from the West Indies, and so on. In return, it was said, Britain defended their peoples and gave them good government.

But what was not apparent, for it could not be said with truthfulness, was that neither dependency nor inter-dependency was accompanied by an equality of value accorded to each citizen. To be described as being from the colonies was to be placed in category which Orwell’s pigs would have identified. “All are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Now the British Empire has gone, replaced in part by the Commonwealth. Some former colonies chose independence outside the Commonwealth. The residual dependencies are to be named more sympathetically as Overseas Territories. Other Empires have crumbled or are crumbling. For all nations, states, empires, commonwealths, communities or whatsoever, contain the seeds of their own destruction, unless inter-dependence is accompanied by equality of value for their citizens. Neither authoritarianism nor paternalism is a substitute for equity of treatment, of the dignity of being on equal terms with one’s fellows.

We are all of equal value in the eyes of God, glibly we proclaim. A religious faith, be it Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Jewish or whatever, that does not have that precept at its core is, to my mind, flawed. But men and women when proclaiming the equality of all in the sight of God must go beyond mouthing glib words; they must match behaviour to pronouncement. International Associations proclaiming Religious Freedom will remind us that equality of regard is the close companion of freedom of expression.

Religious freedom has its roots in this tenet of equality. One world presumes an acceptance that the rights of one are no more or no less than the rights of a neighbour. That is a massive stride to take. Think for example, of a Jew and Palestinian, a Boer and a black African, a Sikh and a Hindu, a North Korean and a South Korean, a Serb and a Croat, and many, many more examples of where the one despises and denigrates the other. A loathing that is generously reciprocated. Not infrequently oppression of one group by another is linked, incredibly and ludicrously, with religion.

But all these are examples from distant places. The problems in the world are enormous, and our influence is small. Aren’t there examples nearer home? Could we not make a start in a small way? Could we look around and see if making a modest step towards equally valuing is possible on our own doorstep?

The easy step is, say, valuing equally the peasant on the Indian sub-continent, the cocoa picker in West Africa, the Chilean harvesting grapes or the Malaysian worker in the rice-field. We never see them personally and they live a long way away. Of course it is no great effort to say, with sincerity even, that God values them equally along with us.

But on our doorstep, in our own country, in our own town, it is more difficult. Are valued as equally the accountant and his cleaner, even though the former is a white male, and the latter a black female? If we are serious about one world, why in our own country do the school-leavers whose parents were born in Somalia, Bangladesh, Jamaica or Nigeria find many employers value them less than contemporaries who have white skins? Why are children whose roots are Asian, African or Caribbean so frequently taunted on their way to and from school? And why do their parents suffer from thoughtless racist jokes? Why have families been hounded from homes in what are regarded as white only areas?

Perhaps overt racism is the work of a minority within our nation. But that it exists, overt or covert, is a blot upon what is still described as a christian society. Our advocacy of the ideals of One World will ring the truer when the canker is excised. Freedom will sound more credible when religious freedom means not only freedom to worship in one’s own way, but freedom to live without overt or covert oppression.

And the divisions which we see are not only those related to colour and race. There are divisions of class, divisions by sex, divisions by residence and so it goes on.

One Christian sect attacks another, one Moslem mosque will bitterly oppose a rival faction, Jewish cemeteries are desecrated. Sikh, Hindu or Buddhist may find justification for conflict in their religion.

Our predecessors suffered privation and even death to establish the right to worship as they saw fit. Non-conformists as they are tagged should above all people cherish religious freedom. And in cherishing it, should strive for the rights of all people to have the same freedom they enjoy.

Yes, all people. That inclusive term, is not confined to the various strands of Christianity. Where religious intolerance exists, in whatever religious context, it is reprehensible. Moslem must not discriminate against Christian, any more than Christian should denigrate Jew.

We do have a One World Week, where the theme is of great issues. It is about saving the environment from destruction. It is about sharing out the resources equitably, so starvation, preventable disease, inadequate or non-existent housing, degrading poverty, violent conflict, obscene warfare, all become things of the past. These laudable aims must always be part of our prayers. That these evils continue to exist in a world which boasts mind-blowing technical skill is a disgrace.

We stand accused of hypocrisy if we demand, rightly, that the Somalian is fed, and the Calcutta beggar housed, but look with indifference at the homeless beggar in our own towns. To laugh at the offensive saloon bar joke that seeks to denigrate fellow citizens in our midst, or express our superiority to the citizen who lacks our education or so valued social status, is to shame ourselves.

Perhaps some think that these issues are separate from religious freedom. But to disparage another is to curtail the freedom of another. Freedom to worship, freedom of thought and expression, equality of regard and opportunity, are not discrete and entities, but part of one whole.

There is an old joke about the husband who boasted that his wife and he shared all decisions between them. “Yes”, said the wife, “he makes the important decisions about where the government is going wrong, about whether we should join the common market or not, and our views on monetary union in Europe, and I just decide the unimportant things, like when to pay the gas bill, what we need from the supermarket, what colour to paint the bathroom, and where to find a plumber to mend the leaking pipe”.

We need to make the important decisions about supporting efforts to end poverty and disease in large areas of the world; about doing our part to stop the desecration or destruction of the world in which we live. But there are other decisions, equally important, that should not be overlooked; like loving the neighbour who literally lives within our neighbourhood; or speaking up for the persecuted within our own communities.

A Buddhist temple is bombed, a Jewish synagogue, is daubed with swastikas, a Mosque is burnt down, a shrine is looted, a Sikh temple is closed. How shocking that people are denied the freedom to worship as they chose in peace.

In recent times, in a part of the United Kingdom police had to escort Catholics through a Protestant mob into their church to celebrate Mass. That Christian should seek to deny the right of Christian to worship in peace, is a mark of how far we have to go in order to become a society that values freedom in deed as well as in protestation.

Our brothers’ eyes are chock-a-bloc with beams. Let us attend to our motes so we can see what we are doing as we seek to remove them. Or have I got it the wrong way round? Is our mote really a beam? Religious freedom is not an idle concept. It is essential for civilised living.

C.J. Rosling 7 February 1998

Fulwood 13 September 1992; 8 February 1998
Mexborough 13 September 1992; 19 November 1995
Hucklow 14 January 2001

Sunday Sermon – 17 November 2019

Memorial Service for Mrs. Eleanor Rhodes

Mrs. Rhodes, a farmer’s daughter and one of three children, was born in Abney, not far from where we now assemble. The 20th century had not long opened when she entered this world. She left it just a year or two before its end. The century is one of great change. During it, on the roads the petrol engine largely displaced the horse; Mrs. Rhodes was born as the first flying machine was invented; she died as millions of people every day fly across the world. As a child she saw the Man in the Moon as a figment of the imagination. She died having seen television images of men actually walking over the moon’s surface.

To her family and those she grew up with she was known as Nellie – Nellie Redfern – though more recent acquaintances called her Eleanor. I met her only in the last of her life, but was struck by her warmth and friendship – an impression confirmed by the opinion of others. As Eleanor has a much colder sound than Nellie, it is as the familiar sounding, cosier Nellie that maybe we should think of her.

Because my acquaintance with her was slight, I have turned to others for help in building up a picture of her. I am indebted to Eva Brightmore’s reminiscences in this respect. Eva and Billy Bagshaw (now I understand to live in Scotland) are perhaps the only two survivors of an Infant class taught (as a pupil teacher) by Nellie Redfern back in the first World War. Nellie was only a girl herself at the time, but it was the start of a teaching career which was to end with her as head-mistress.

Nellie Redfern went to Sheffield to train, almost certainly to the Pupil Teacher Centre in Holly Street, situated in what is now a part of the Education Offices. When I came to Sheffield after the second World War where I taught for nearly forty years, I met many fine teachers who got their grounding in that institution. Miss Redfern, as perhaps we ought now to call her, taught for some time in Sheffield in either Firs Hill School or Pye Bank School (I forget which, though she did once tell me). This was in the days of Elementary Schools, teaching pupils from Infant age to leaving age at 14 years, as they progressed from standard to standard.

Miss Redfern lodged in Sheffield throughout the week, returning home at week-ends, travelling on the bus. The bus passed the bottom of the lane at Abney, a mile or more from the farm. I am told that more often than not, Nellie and her sister Dorothy covered the distance at a run. I picture them climbing breathless on to the bus, to be met with banter from the regular passengers and the driver, warning them that one of these days they would cut it too fine and be left behind!

But many in the village and around recall Eleanor (or Nellie) as head-mistress of the local school. Oliver Goldsmith in his oft-quoted poem of village life, wrote of villagers regarding the village school-master with awe.

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

Was the local head-mistress so regarded? Perhaps not. But that she rightly earned respect and affection is not in doubt.

Among the pleasures of village life in days gone by, were the dances here in Hucklow at Barleycrofts or in the village halls. Christmas and Easter were special occasions with dances at Ensor or the Maynard Arms. Buses of young men and woman, and some not quite so young, men in their best suits, ladies in long dresses, converged on the venue. The band played. No over-amplified groups thumping out raucous beats in those days, but piano and violin, drums and double bass, possibly a saxophone, provided tuneful melodies to which couples swayed in fox-trot and quickstep, Valletta and St. Bernard waltz, barn-dance and, for the fast and daring, the Tango.

Young men, sometimes shyly, occasionally brazenly, but always politely, requested of a lady the “pleasure of the next dance”. A ladies invitation dance evened up the score. The evening ended with the last waltz, where matches were made and cemented, or maybe hopes dashed, or suspicions confirmed as hearts were broken (but surely not beyond repair).

This was a part of Nellie’s social life. She loved music, not only for dancing but in singing. I am told she was a one-time member of the Teachers’ Choir in Sheffield. To make music in the company of others, or to dance to it, is to rest awhile in paradise.

During summer days, she played tennis, and taught others to play.

But what of her other love – that of gardening. Like all true gardeners, she gardened not only for herself, but to share her joy with others. Plants and cuttings were exchanged, tips given and received, friends invited to view her garden as she was pleased to visit others. True gardeners are a sympathetic community, as quick to rejoice in the success of others, as they are to commiserate when pests or weather do their worst. Bounty is shared and the pleasure of one is the contentment of all.

I ought not to forget the Women’s League. It was through the Women’s League that Mrs. Rhodes was introduced to this ancient Chapel in Hucklow. Prior to that she had attended Bradwell Parish Church, then she became a worshipper here.

But we return to her contribution to that most frustrating, difficult, responsible yet gloriously satisfying of all professions – that of teaching. Living in the village in her lovely cottage with its beautiful garden, she saw her pupils grow up, and produce the next generation of scholars in their turn.

Did she occasionally chide a girl pupil by saying, “Your mother always sewed a straighter seam than that”? I expect so.
Did she praise a boy pupil by saying, “At least your writing’s neater than your father’s ever was”? Possibly so.

Did she feel pride in the way her boys and girls grew into manhood and womanhood? Undoubtedly.

Did she shed a tear when misfortune hit one of her ex-pupils? I believe that must be true.

Little Nellie Redfern – Derbyshire born, Derbyshire bred, Derbyshire dweller and Derbyshire lover, lived a full and rounded life. Friends and pupils, neighbours and family, acquaintances both casual and close, were beneficiaries of that full life.

There are memories galore, some public and shared, some secret and treasured, in this community. We come here to give thanks together for a rich life, which is the genesis of those memories.

Nellie Redfern, Eleanor Rhodes, was blest with many years. Perhaps her longevity was inherited in her genes, for her mother lived to be over 90 years of age.

Perhaps it was good farm food in her youth, coupled with healthy Derbyshire air throughout her life, which gave her so many years.

Perhaps it was the contentment which comes from living among friends and seeing young things, whether plants or people, grow to maturity which prolonged her life span.

Whatever the secret, the days were not merely long, but full. I am reminded of those lines from one of our hymns which go,

“She liveth longest who can tell
Of true things truly done each day.”

Many were the days, and true things done were bountiful. In the words of the New Testament, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”.

C.J. Rosling
Hucklow 14 April 1996

Sunday Sermon – 10 November 2019

We Shall Remember

Today is Remembrance Sunday. Today, acts of worship are taking place throughout the land, in churches and chapels, round Cenotaph and war memorial, in city and in village. Parades are being held, the silence for recollection and prayer descends. Formal, almost stylistic acts of grief and sorrow are enacted. The two so-called Great Wars – though in truth there is nothing great about war – are history rather than episodes in the lives of an increasing number of the population. We who grow old will remember them, but for many it is a handed down memory of deeds, valour, suffering and tragedy, rather than one of personal reminiscence.

The origin of Remembrance Sunday is with what was Armistice Day; the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month that saw the conclusion of the First World War. That war was optimistically, and as it proved, mistakenly, referred to as the war to end all wars.

There are now a minority of the population who recall the two wars from personal memory; even fewer from participation in those horrendous battles of 1914 to 1918. No one under seventy eight years of age was even born before the first world war ended. Any surviving combatants must be well over ninety. There are more of us who have memories and experiences of the conflict of 1939 to 1945. But the Second World War did not, no more than the first one, prove to be a war to end all wars.

Troops from our own country have since then been involved in Malaya, Korea, Belise, the Falklands and several other places, not to mention the so called “troubles” in Northern Ireland. Five years ago a short but bloody battle was fought in Iraq.

Soldiers and civilians from many lands continue to be victims of war. Merciless carnage, even as I speak, takes place in many parts of the world. During the last few days many of us have been shocked by terrible pictures on our television screens of slaughter in central Africa, unbelievable cruelty inflicted upon even the children. Peace has a hollow ring to many people throughout the world. Armistices and cease-fires are signed from time to time. But an armistice is but a step on the road to peace. True peace is as yet an elusive goal for the many who suffer.

I remember well the start of the Second World War. I sat in Church that September Sunday morning in 1939, my father taking the service which started at 10.30. Following the invasion of Poland, an ultimatum had been given to Germany which expired at 11.00. Soon after eleven, a member of the congregation who had slipped out to listen to the wireless, came back and signalled to my father that war had been declared, and he announced this from the pulpit.

It was a bitter blow to him, for he was a life-long pacifist, and had suffered as such in the First World War. Years were to pass, and many casualties among civilians as well as troops were to be sustained from that Sunday onwards, before peace was to reign again. Young men and women, as well as some not so young, in that congregation left over the months and years that followed to don uniforms. Some did not return.

Remembrance Sunday is an occasion when collective memory is built up from numerous personal memories. Mine are of young men, colleagues and play friends, who went to war after September 1939, and lost their lives. The young pilot who was shot down before the war had hardly begun dropping leaflets over Germany; the local solicitor’s only son who was lost, presumed drowned, from an aircraft carrier; the young rear-gunner with whom I shared air warden duties, who survived only two trips on raids over Europe before being killed; my mother’s cousin dying in a tank at Dunkirk; the school friend struck down in Normandy following D-Day; another friend who survived Arctic convoys to Russia but whose health was so damaged that he died soon after peace was declared.

Our memories naturally are personal, but grief and pain are universal. My memories, and your memories are replicated not only nation-wide, but world-wide. As a member of the forces I worked mostly in army hospitals. Not only British troops came into hospital beds. Young Germans and Italians came, sometimes to die. The grief of their families, our enemies as we had to regard them, was without doubt as acute as the grief experienced by allied families.

Once during an air-raid I saw a fiery ball falling from the sky. It was a German aircraft which had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. I thought of the crew probably trapped in the blazing plane falling to their death. Families in Germany would mourn, just as families I knew mourned our dead. It all seemed so desperately sad and futile. Young lives from many countries prematurely ended.

Remembrance Sunday, though it has special meaning for those whose memory includes their own experiences, is more comprehensive than that. Known relatives or friends who paid the price of war with their lives or their health, or through personal suffering may be in the thoughts of some of us. But it is also an opportunity for every-one, young and old, to reflect on the obscenity of war itself.

Some speak lightly of war, using terms like war games. Surely they can have no imagination, or no understanding of what war means. For war is no game. True, there is a comradeship in adversity which is remembered and cherished. Individuals show courage, and make sacrifices for others. But war itself breeds that which is in direct contradiction to what we call Christian values.

The values are not unique to Christianity; they are shared by other great religions. But these qualities are denied or suppressed in armed conflict. Instead of love, war preaches hatred; in place of the sanctity of life, war revels in the ability to kill; lies and deceit are justified; building and reclamation is overtaken by wanton destruction; accord becomes coercion; fear takes the place of tranquillity; what would be rightly labelled as a crime at any other time becomes lauded as a deed of valour. The good soldier is he who kills or maims the greatest number. And increasingly the largest casualties are not among the uniformed men and women, but of innocent civilians of all ages and both sexes.

I do not know whether war is avoidable in any circumstance, or is simply inevitable. If I have not been able to embrace pacifism it is because of other evils which exists in the world. Evils of oppression, massacres of minorities, and cruelty run rife as in the camps of Belsen. Those unspeakable acts since matched in other camps in other countries. But war is so horrific, that it must be a final, desperate last resort.

One consoling thought is that even bitter enmities nourished by war do not last for ever. A good friend of mine was able to entertain for two weeks a party of Japanese in her home for a fortnight a few years ago, and to pay a reciprocal visit to an ordinary Japanese home, living with the family and enjoying generous and kindly hospitality. Immediately after the end of 1945 such visits would have been unimaginable. Similarly, friendship and interchange between European citizens once sworn enemies are commonplace today. Bitter memories can be and are being put aside.

Scarring as are the experiences of war, one message becomes clear as time passes. It is that is hatred and destruction are transitory. As Paul reminds us, it is faith, hope and love which abide.

What stops most of us committing such crimes as murder, burglary, theft, rape, child molesting and the like is not fear of the law as such, but a sense of right and wrong, a respect for others. Laws in themselves are insufficient to protect and control, it is the goodness, contrasted with the wickedness, of individuals, which ultimately determines how peaceable is our existence.

Similarly war may deal with an immediate crisis. It may free a subject people, it may deter a tyrant: but true peace comes not because of deterrents or through imposition by armed force. It comes because nation wishes to live at peace with neighbour.

The bulk of people are, in spite of our sometime pessimistic anxieties, law-abiding, peace-loving folk, who would be so whether or not the laws were harsh or lenient. They have no wish to covet from neighbour, to steal or to murder. When the nations of the world and the men and women who rule them are similarly so minded, then perhaps war will cease.

But the goodness that lies within individuals and nations needs to be nurtured and fed. It is nurtured by worship, and it is fed by prayer. Nations will not be righteous unless people are righteous. Nations are made up of individuals like us. Unless we are ourselves peace-loving, neighbour-loving, God-loving, then we cannot expect the world to be so. The easy thing to say is that we are but one, and therefore give up. But that was not the answer the early Christians gave, and many more who followed them.

It is not the answer that many we remember today, from many lands and in many generations, would want us to give. Too many lives have ended prematurely through strife and war. Many more I fear will be lost in the future. But if this carnage is ever to end it can only be because goodness has finally triumphed through the constancy of men and women of, to use the old phrase, good faith.

A favourite hymn of mine is by Horatius Bonar, a Free Scottish minister in the last century – “They live the longest who live well..”. Two couplets from that hymn come to mind.

“Sow truth, if thou the true wouldst reap;
Who sows the false shall reap the vain;”


“Sow love, and taste its fruitage pure;
Sow peace and reap its harvest bright;”

Our thought for today and every day is in the two commandments of love. The sustaining of these is our best hope of peace.

It is the debt we ought to pay to those of all ages, from every land, whose lives have been curtailed by war. We repeat, “We Shall Remember Them”.

C.J. Rosling 12 November 1994

Hucklow 13 November 1994
Mexborough 13 November 1994
Mexborough 10 November 1996
Mexborough 9 November 1997

Sunday Sermon – 3 November 2019

Striving to Achieve

“Man’s reach should exceed his grasp
Or what’s a heaven for.”

Robert Browning was protesting impatience with easily attained targets, and urging that one should strive to achieve that which appears not to be immediately obtainable. As in the prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola – “fight and not to heed the wounds” – human dignity is enhanced when one is not content with the easily obtained, but endeavour to struggle towards more difficult targets.

Uniquely in the animal kingdom, the human race is able to consider, to plan, to learn from the experience of others, to recall over time and to reflect upon past achievements. But unless these skills are used, then this unique power wastes, and men and women become less distinguishable from the rest of the animal state.

It is this reaching for that which is beyond the grasp which is an essential component of much joy and much sorrow, of the comedy of life as well as its tragedy, the source of satisfaction and the bitterness of disappointment.

Recently two short stories came to mind which, on the face of it, are stories of failure. I cannot recollect the author of the first, except he was a Russian whose tale I read a long time ago in a book of short stories. Nor do I recall the exact details of the narrative, but the theme has stayed with me over the passage of years.

The story is of a poor Russian peasant who had the opportunity to gain wealth by acquiring land of his own. The task set was to plough a furrow between sunrise and sunset so as to enclose a piece of land on the wide steppes of the Russian plains. The furrow had to start and finish at the same spot, and then all the land within the ribbon of gouged earth would be his.

The story describes the day of the assignment. At sunrise the peasant sets off with his oxen dragging the plough. The sun rises to its zenith and beats down on the man as he presses on, determined to encompass the maximum amount of ground – just a little further and then further. The circumference grew. As the day passes, he realises that he must complete the circle before nightfall or his journey will have failed. He whips on his tiring oxen and drags his weary legs behind the plough, and, just as the sun is sinking behind the horizon, he reaches his starting point and completes the circle.

But the triumph is short-lived, for the task has exhausted him. His body has been pushed beyond its limit of endurance, and, in the moment of triumph, his heart fails and he dies. The land he has gained is thus limited to the plot in which he is buried.

One can interpret the story in a number of ways. Perhaps it is a story of greed for which a price is paid. Or is it a comedy, for comedy is so often dependent upon the fall, whether caused by the banana skin, or when the misfortunes of life snatch the carrot from the clutching hand. Or it could be an illustration that material gains are transitory and illusory. But I like to regard the story as an account of the triumph of human endeavour. The reach was beyond the grasp, but so it should be. True failure is not lack of success; it is lack of the will to strive towards success.

I am told that there is an Olympic oath which athletes are offered, and which reads:-

Let me win,
But if I cannot win
Let me be
Brave in the attempt.

Amen to that.

The other story which came to my mind was one which hovers between the long short story, and the short novel. It is Ernest Hemingway’s, “The Old Man and the Sea”. Many of you perhaps know the story, which is of an old fisherman, again, like the Russian peasant, living in poverty, in this case somewhere on the shores fringing the Caribbean Sea. For many days he has fished unsuccessfully, but decides to go out to sea once more. With the help of a boy the boat is launched, and once at sea he sets his line to catch the large fish, marlin I think they were, which inhabit the warm, tropical seas, and upon which his livelihood depends.

A fish takes the bait and the old man realises that he has hooked the largest fish of his life. So strong is it that it drags the boat far from the land. After long hours of struggle, which drains the strength of the old man, though he will not abandon the chase, the fish is brought alongside and killed with the gaff. So large is the fish that the old man is unable to bring it into the boat. He lashes it to the side, and starts the long, slow journey back to the land, by now two or three days sailing away.

During the journey, sharks attack the fish, in spite of the efforts of the fisherman to drive them off. By the time the boat reaches the shore his catch is destroyed, and the triumph is no more. The Old Man returns, exhausted, to his destitution.

Again, at one level this is a story of failure. But not a failure to reach, merely an inability to grasp, in spite of an herculean effort. But at another level, it is a story of success, in the words of the Olympic oath, a story of accepting the challenge and “being brave in the attempt”.

True living is a complex, complicated art. It is a drawing together of many things. It is about a relationship with an unseen force, the spiritual dimension which we call variously the life force, the creative power or simply God. It is about a relationship with others, of practising tolerance, understanding, forgiveness, compassion, and exercising judgement as how and when these are appropriate. What to tolerate and what to denounce, for instance; when to be condemnatory, and when to forgive.

Life is variously given to quiet reflection or frantic activity. As we mature, hopefully we become better at judging the appropriate moment for each. All these aspects of living, and more, make us greater than mere advanced members of an animal kingdom. They give us the unique status of membership of the human race. If we live as we should, we are constantly challenged, often uncertain, frequently wrong, but gloriously alive. But not the least importance component of a full life is the effort to achieve that which extends us to the limit, or even beyond the limit.

In the stories I have mentioned, those limits were physical, the goals referred to gaining material reward. And physical goals are not to be idly dismissed – they are real challenges. In exerting ourselves fully in a physical sense, we can and do develop a spiritual stature. But physical targets are not the only marks whose reach may be beyond the grasp, but for which we should strive. Targets there are, surely the most important targets, which are less tangible but real.

There are targets for the whole nation or large communities, like world peace, abolition of poverty, social justice, racial harmony, equality before the law, and so one can go on. There are lesser targets, though lesser only in the sense that they involve smaller groups, like tolerance in our own neighbourhood, or understanding in our immediate communities.

There are individual targets which deal with our relationship in a family, in the work-place, or with the next door neighbour. We should not despise a target simply because it is readily attainable. If reaching it improves the lot of fellow beings, then it is worth doing. We should seek always to do those things.

But if we, either as individuals or as a community, fail to try, for example, to bring about peace simply because we see no way of early success, then we demean ourselves. Dignified failure, bravery in the attempt, is infinitely to be preferred to defeatist effort.

There is a rather derogatory expression that is used about those who attempt and fail. It is “to bite off more than one can chew”. Of course there are occasions when this can legitimately be used, as when personal greed or avarice is the motivation for our behaviour. But if one is over-ambitious because the need is great and the cause is good, then the expression is surely at best ungenerous, and at worst malicious.

Many of the great social reforms ultimately came about because of the willingness of individuals and groups to bite off more than contemporaries thought was reasonable or wise. Slavery would be still a pattern of life, women wouldn’t vote, child labour would be tolerated, and a host of other injustices would remain, if brave men and women had not grasped beyond their reach. And if this is thought not to be a particularly religious matter, one need only to recall a myriad of people whose social conscience grew out of deeply held religious conviction.

There is a truism that states that education should be aimed at developing the whole person. Developing into a whole person, through education, through living, and through self-development, involves developing the spiritual side of life also. This will be stunted unless the growth of ambition to achieve beyond the immediately attainable is a part of that development.

I recently preached about wishing on stars. Wishing on stars, reaching beyond the grasp, striving to win, but being at least brave in the attempt, are all aspects of the same coin.

Like John Bunyan’s pilgrim, there must be

“……….no discouragement
That shall make us once relent
Our first avow’d intent…”

C.J. Rosling 23 April 1994

Fulwood 24 April 1994
Upper 24 July 1994
Mexborough 11 December 1994