Sunday Sermon – 3 June 2018

Pictures on the Wall

A few years ago, (I cannot be more accurate than that, for as one grows older time is telescoped and accurate recollection becomes more problematical) my wife and I visited an old friend. She had been widowed for some years, and lived alone in her bungalow, though her daughter and friends visited her almost daily. She died not very long ago, as biblical language would have it, “full of years”. But I am meandering, and in danger of losing the point of the story.

During the visit, a polite enquiry about a picture hanging on the wall which had attracted my attention, led to a tour of inspection of the numerous pictures which adorned the walls of her home. Each had a story. This one had been purchased early in her married life; another was a view of a landscape which had held particular attraction for her late husband; a colourful water painting was a constant reminder of the dear friend who painted it before presenting it as a gift. So the commentary went on. She enjoyed giving it, and I gained pleasure, not only from her obvious enjoyment in the telling, but from seeing the pictures themselves against the background of her explanation.

Our house, like most homes, contains numerous pictures, some on the walls, more in cupboards or on shelves waiting to be hung one of these fine days, when time permits. There are photographs, some framed and displayed, many more in albums or loose in drawers, waiting to be put into albums one of these fine days, when time permits. Some have been waiting rather a long time now! Retirement brings leisure, but palpably not time for all the jobs one has put off for years.

Our pictures are unlikely ever to arouse interest on “The Antique Road Show”. Sotheby’s will never want to auction them, and perhaps most would be passed over at a car boot sale. But they have a priceless quality, for, like our widow friend’s pictures, they are a trigger for memory, associated with happy occasions. There is a water-colour of a Sheffield view which was a surprise, spontaneous gift from a group of colleagues with whom I served for some years. I look at it and see kindness and friendship, in addition to the scene depicted.

A small oil painting given by a good friend hangs near my desk, valued just as much for what it represents in friendship as for the subject chosen, which happens to be Underbank Chapel. But I need not go on. All of us are to some degree collectors. Few are the homes that are furnished, not only with pictures, posters or photographs, but also with a multiplicity of articles which are reminders of times past, of people no longer physically close to us, of holidays spent, of childhood parties, of affections demonstrated.

The old lady speaks to her grand-daughter. “That vase was my grandmother’s; this brooch a twenty-first birthday present; my father always sat in that chair; see, here is the spoon your mother first used when she was a baby.” Such histories value common objects as irreplaceable treasures.

To be surrounded by, or at least to have within near reach, these material pleasures – these aids to memory – is, to use a phrase of an ex-Prime Minister, to be at ease with oneself. The material possessions take on an additional dimension. They become not objects, but icons. These symbols are more than mere inanimate articles, they represent our inmost sensibilities.

This need to have with us, or around us, a physical object to assuage our fears and comfort us in times of need, is present even in our earliest days. The young child will grab his or her cuddly teddy bear, soft blanket, or familiar toy when frightened or hurt, or to bring peace to mind and body so that sleep may descend.

We adults take into our territory, symbolic icons. The office or the work-space is adorned with photographs of our family, with trinkets donated by work-mates, with pictures that recall a life other than that of work. The soldier in his barracks or tent, softens the stark surroundings with personal possessions which mean something to him. The bedside locker in the public hospital ward invariably will contain personal trinkets so that the impersonal nature of the surroundings may be alleviated.

Material goods are acquired for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is a kind of one-up-man-ship; a wish to have something the neighbours have not got in order to feel superior to them. Or it may be greed, covetousness, to have for the sake of having. Ignoble reasons like these, leading to the worship of material things, has rightly been condemned down the ages. But the love of those things which enrich our lives, which bring peace and a feeling of security to which I was referring earlier, is of a different dimension. Our goods have gained a value which is not monetary, more than sentimentality, but akin to spiritual prop.

There is a school of thought which says that we should abandon all material possessions; that ownership gets in the way of true Christian living; that our goods become our gods, our possessions our prayer books, our valuables replace the verities. Of course it would be foolish to deny that such can be a danger, a temptation into which we too readily fall.

But material goods should never, can never, replace spiritual values. If the goods themselves become the objects of worship, if we worship and value our car, our television set, our new three-piece suite, or whatever, above all things, then we are diminished as persons. But if the picture reminds us of the joy of friendship, the photograph of happy occasions, the ring of vows made, the watch of a parent who loved and supported us, then the object is not one to be valued for itself alone, but to be cherished as a reminder that love, understanding, goodness and self-sacrifice still exist, even though the world seems dark and the future obscure.

When we go away, however enjoyable the visit or exciting the holiday, we seldom return without a sense of relief. “It’s nice to be home”, we say. This phrase, “Nice to be home”, is significant. We don’t say “It is nice to be back in the house”, for there is a subtle difference between house and home. The home is more than the house. “Home is the sailor, home from the sea”, wrote Stevenson. The evocative words portrayed a picture of much more than a simple statement that the journey had ended.

A home is full of warmth, not necessarily the warmth that comes from central heating – though that helps – but the warmth that comes from love and laughter, from sorrow and sympathy, from full hearts and friendship. Those things which help transform a house into a home are stored within the house. They are the photographs, the pictures and the knick-knacks that lie on shelves, adorn walls or hide in closets within the edifice.

But inanimate objects in themselves don’t create those qualities which make a building into a home. We can pack the structure from cellar to attic with the most exquisite goods, or with memorabilia, and yet it remains a house. The picture on the wall contains no store of love in itself. It is absorbed into it when it is given as a gift, or when it is purchased in company with another that it may give pleasure and joy to both. The china plate is valued because she who first owned it loved it, and some of that love reflects from it, as we handle it with care. Our fingers wrap round the knife and fork, and we feel the warmth retained from other hands that once held the same artefacts.

Our goods may be as idols to be worshipped, and if so they are as cold and impersonal as any other images. Stand and admire from afar but do not touch, is a chill attitude to life. But if we are warm and loving in our relationships, that warmth is captured by the things around us. That love may be reflected to others, re-absorbed and transmitted onward.

The centre of a home is a family, be it large or small. Essentially it is people and their love and understanding for one another which make a home. We use this concept of family when we speak of the family of God, of which we are all members. And as families gather in houses and thereby elevate them into homes, so we gather in our places of worship, our chapels, churches, cathedrals, temples, synagogues or mosques.

Sometimes the walls of these buildings are decorated with tablets or pictures, the windows may contain stained glass. These are visible reminders and obvious reminders of the devotions given by past members of the family. There are of course many others whose contribution was as great but who are not so marked.

Or the walls may be plain, and windows clear. However they may be, for the house of God to become a home of worship, then there must be warmth and love in the hearts of those who inhabit it. Just as the gewgaws and baubles in our homes absorb something of the character of the owner and the ambience of the occasion, so the walls and interiors of the buildings used for worship absorb the sense of occasion, the devoutness of the worshippers, the dedication of the congregation. There may not be visible signs but the atmosphere has been created.

Our houses of God become homes for the family of God when the place is full of memories of good people with noble aspirations. And a home need not be ancient to have memories, for memories can be recent. An ancient pile may still be a house after the passage of many years, whilst the newly build house rapidly becomes a home. The key is with those who dwell within, not through the mere passage of time.

We may look at the pictures on our walls, the photographs in our albums, or the china in our cabinet with fond memories, with happy thoughts, with appreciation for good friends, devoted parents and loving companions. But that is not enough. Our memories and our gratitude needs to be a spur to our so living that others in their turn will look on our lives with thankfulness.

Likewise in our homes of God, the warmth created by others past and present will dissipate unless it is constantly renewed. Todays artefacts may become the dust of tomorrow, but goodness and mercy must be eternal in the hearts of men and women. Let us cherish, but not worship, those material goods which are reminders of the world of goodness and mercy, and the warmth of human kindness and understanding.

And as we cherish them, let us imbibe them with our love, so that it overflows , enriching the lives of others as well as our own. That which is conceived, or received, or given in love, is more precious than jewels. more valued than gold. For without love, we are nothing.

C.J. Rosling 9 May 1993

Fulwood 9 May 1993 23 January 2000
Hucklow 26 Sep 1993 14 Sep 1997 12 Aug 2001
Mexborough 26 September 1993 1 November 1998

Sunday Sermon – 27 May 2018

Labour and Wait

As a child, no doubt like a number of others in the congregation, or so I suspect, I went to Sunday School regularly most Sunday afternoons.

In our Sunday School the men in overall charge – in those pre-war days I don’t think it was ever considered that such important posts could be held by a mere woman – as I was saying, the person in overall charge each Sunday was one of four men who officiated in rotation over a four week cycle. I believe the office in most Sunday Schools went under the title Superintendent. But ours was different. For reasons I know not, our leaders had a much grander, if more pompous, title – that of Director.

Each of the four Directors had his own idiosyncrasies. I won’t go through them all, but Mr. Harrison was nick-named the “shush man” (he had a boring, monotone delivery and as people became restless and chattered he punctuated his delivery by saying “shush please”), and then continued without a pause. At other times he was referred to as “old Labour on”. Let me explain. At the opening of Sunday School we all assembled, the Director for the day standing on the front of the platform, for a hymn and a prayer before dismissing us our classes. Similarly, the Director closed the school after the notices with a final hymn. Mr. Harrison’s closing hymn was invariably the same one, with the possible exception of Christmas time, when we might sing a carol. The hymn? “Come, Labour on”. (not in our hymn-books, quote the first verse) Hence his nickname. Easter, Whitsuntide, Autumn, Winter, February snows, Summer sunshine, Harvest festival, no matter the season or the weather, we still laboured on in the harvest field, the field which was wide and in which the labourers were few.

Why this hymn was such a favourite of his I don’t know. Was it the rousing tune, the sentiments expressed in the verses, or a feeling that we were a slack lot who needed to be exhorted to become more industrious? “Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain?” the hymn asked The reason for his choice remains a mystery. Whatever the explanation he obviously liked the hymn. And once a month we sang it. The fact that we sang in Sunday School in a cotton mill town during the depression of the 1930’s, when mills were closed, unemployment rife, labourers plentiful and work in short supply, only struck me as ironic some years later.

Whatever lay behind our Director’s choice, the sentiments in the hymn are and were widely shared. The true Christian is a worker. After all one of the seven deadly sins is sloth. The Victorians warned that the Devil finds work for idle hands. We noted as we sang that our hands would not be unoccupied, for there was “No time for rest ‘til glows the western sky.”

Like many others of our generation, I still find sitting idly induces a feeling of guilt. If we are busy and occupied, curiously we are at peace. Whether it be bustling around with household chores, weeding the garden, earning a living toiling for others or self-employed, undertaking voluntary tasks, or completing many other duties which fall our way, to have work to do is satisfaction. Work may be tiring, and sometimes boring, but idleness is sinful, or so we suspect.

In my boyhood my companions and I were surrounded with exhortations to toil. Latin mottoes abounded with labour as a central feature (I’m not describing a political party but referring to the sweat of the brow). “Work conquers all”, translated our school motto. “Without work, nothing” proclaimed the Latin text under the town’s coat of arms.

My grand-father’s dressing gown was passed on to me when he died. Too good to throw away for it was nearly new, thick and warm. Its quality was assured for it had been purchased from the London Co-operative Society, and their motto was displayed on a label inside it. Some years later my wife borrowed the gown when she went into hospital to deliver our first child. It caused some amusement on the ward for the motto read, “Labour and wait”. The labour went on for several hours, and the waiting became more and more tedious.

It comes then as a bit of a surprise to read in the New Testament those words of Jesus, “Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin, yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”.

Then again, Jesus defended Mary when Martha chided her for sitting idly talking when she, Martha, was up to her eyes in the kitchen preparing a meal for the guests. Or again, industrious fishermen are told by Jesus to stop working, drop everything and come with him wandering round the countryside.

Do we not feel sympathy for the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son, who complained that there seemed to be no justice in the world? He had, so to speak, flogged his guts out working the farm, whilst his younger brother had gone swanning off enjoying himself, spent all his money, then returned to be rewarded with a banquet in his honour. Honest work had been given no such reward.

Again, there are the oft-quoted lines of the tramp poet, W.H. Davies, who envying the cows in the field as they looked around doing nothing in particular, wrote

“What is this life, if, full of care
We have not time to stand and stare.”

Is then all the emphasis on work and labour right , or have I got it wrong?

A thought which occurs is that perhaps we need to ask, labouring for what? Possibly we need to differentiate between toil and service.

Years ago prisoners could be sentenced to hard labour. This would consist of physically exhausting, but purposeless tasks. They walked round the treadmill, they broke up large stones into smaller pieces, they dug holes and filled them in again and so on. It was as if work in itself, for whatever purpose, or for no purpose at all, could have some power to elevate a person, to make them better citizens.

Another of our Directors in that Sunday School had a favourite prayer. It was the one which contains the lines, “We come not to ask him to make our way easy for us, but rather that he would teach us to endure hardness.” I suppose that if hardness is inevitable, we ought to endure it with fortitude, but why should the way not be made easy where possible? Hard work, or suffering surely has no inherent value for its own sake. My mother felt no guilt, as far as I recall, when she ceased hanging the carpet on the clothes line after we finally bought a Hoover on the never-never.

In our Sunday School hymn the toil in the field was not work for the sake of it. The hymn was a metaphor. The farm labourers worked that their families and others might be fed. They toiled to a purpose; their harvest was life-giving and life-preserving. We too should labour doing what some describe as the work of the Lord. The metaphorical field in which we are called to labour is a call to service; service which eases, elevates and enhances the lives of the community. In real fields the sustenance required for life is produced. From the fields of the hymnist came the wherewithal to sustain a purposeful life of the soul.

A reason for working is to serve, to give a service to others. A third Director of our Sunday School would pray “Teach us …. to labour and ask for no reward, save that of knowing that we do thy will.”

Those Victorian forebears who spoke of the dangers inherent in idle hands would also remark that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.

It’s the balance that is all important. Labouring to better the lives of others, to serve the needy, to assist the helpless, to succour the weak, to harness the strong, is right and proper. Nay more, it is essential and an obligation we should fulfil.

But a Christian is asked not only to work to serve others. He or she must find time to reflect, to contemplate, to stare, to rest. It is in moments of so-called idleness that the spirit is renewed. This is a time of stillness, to renew strength prior to once more rising up as eagles and rejoicing as a strong man to run the race.

There is nothing valiant in working, however hard, if to no purpose. To love one’s fellows is to wish to serve them. That is true labour, a labour of love as a common phrase has it. There is no Christian virtue in working purely to satisfy a yearning for self esteem. Mere toil without an element of service is as barren and worthless as is self-indulgent sloth.

Nevertheless, he or she who labours without pause lives Davies’ “life … full of care”. There is no time for contemplation and spiritual refreshment. No time to stand and wonder. No time to reflect, no time for awe. No time to experience a feeling of smallness in a universe which is infinite. The fable which is the story of creation has God labouring hard to create the world throughout the week, but he took time to rest at the end of it. Time to look upon what he had achieved.

A Christian way of life includes becoming what is often described as a whole person. And what do we mean by that? Surely, in part, that is balancing work and rest. Ensuring that labour has within it that element of service to others. Toiling inspired only by acquisitive greed sours the person and warps the vision. The fruits of labour are to be shared with others.

Conversely, never taking time to see, as the poet Whittier says, “The stars shine through his cypress trees” is to stunt the growth of an essential component of the whole person. “Labour and Wait” counselled the worthies of the London Co-operative Society. The waiting is the resting, not in pure idleness, to wonder at the miracle of the seed which holds the secret of life, at the interdependency of life upon life, at the grandeur of the heavens canopying above the harvest field, and reflecting upon the mystery of creation and the creator.

Yes, the secret of the good life is getting the balance right. The story of Noah and the flood ends with the words of the covenant, the promise to keep the balance of seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, on which life depends. And so do we need to keep the balance between labouring in service to others, and standing and staring. “Labour and Wait” as the motto said.

And the reward? to quote finally from Mr. Harrison’s favourite hymn,

A glad sound comes with the setting sun –
Servants, well done!

C.J. Rosling 24 April 1999

Hucklow 25 April 1999 21 November 2004
Fulwood 20 June 1999
Stannington 26 June 2005

Sunday Sermon – 20 May 2018

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
presage,
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
sound,
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

Sunday Sermon – 13 May 2018

Asking Why?

It is no secret to many in the congregation that I spent most of my working life as a teacher, though I claim no more than as only a moderately successful one.

It came to me early in my teaching career, as it comes to all teachers, as well as to most men and women soon after they become parents, that we adults only truly start our education when we are brought into close contact with, and have responsibility for, children. And the tutors who guide us through that education process are the children we are supposed to be teaching.

Possibly that is a little exaggerated, but only marginally so.

My first experience of standing in front of a class of children came soon after discharge from the army at the end of the war. During my time away, I had applied to become a teacher, and had been accepted for training. But as the course did not start until September and I was released the previous Easter, I asked the local education authority in the small town where I then lived, if I could acquire some experience in a school during the intervening summer months.

I was sent to an old, church primary school where they were desperately short of staff. So much so, that I was placed immediately in front of a class of ten years olds and left largely to my own devices. That is when my education began in earnest. One incident from what might be termed a roller-coaster experience, sticks in my mind.

The class-room was heated by an open coal fire. On the mantel-piece, over the fireplace, was an old fashioned alarm clock, which busily and loudly ticked off the passing minutes.

I had discovered that one of the boys in this mixed class couldn’t tell the time. Ten years old and not able to tell the time, I thought! So I set about teaching him, using the clock as an aid. I would make progress where others had failed. Over several days I persevered, explaining the different functions of the large and small hand, and how these related to the figures on the circumference of the dial.

A week or two went by, and then towards the end of one morning I asked Billy – I think that was his name, and if not it will suffice – the time. He glanced at the clock and said confidently, “Ten to twelve”. It was! I felt a sense of pride and achievement. I must be one of those rare individuals, a born teacher. Unable to let well alone, I asked him how he knew, expecting him to refer to the position of the two hands on the clock face.

His reply was unexpected, and deflated my all too expanded ego. “Well, the dinner ladies have just arrived,” he explained patiently, surprised at the question.

Billy was more interested in the practicalities of life than in theories of time. Children have different thought processes from us, and who is to say that they are wrong and we are right. Maybe the arrival of dinner ladies is as good a way of telling the time as any other.

The never-ending curiosity of the child, and our desire to satisfy it, to increase our knowledge that we may slake their thirst, obliges us to educate ourselves. We need to know, so that we do not lose esteem in the sight of the child. We need to know so that the child may grow in knowledge and understanding. As we love the child, we want him or her to grow up wiser than us.

Though the child may be the spur, the goad, forcing us to discover more and more about the mechanics of the world, in order to satisfy what the elephant child in Kipling’s Just-so Stories possessed, “‘satiable curtiosity”, we adults have much more responsibility than merely answering “how” questions. There are “why” questions too. They are not only more difficult to respond to, they are crucially more important. Billy felt instinctively that how to tell the time was much less important than why tell the time.

It is the answer provided to the question “Why?”, or perhaps the search for a satisfactory answer, which influences the way we live our lives, and how we relate to others. The search and the reply determine the kind of people we become.

Appreciation of art, music, literature, drama, not to mention the spiritual search which is at the core of religious experience, are all quests for truth. A definition of truth might be, “It is the answer to the question ‘Why?'”.

Children seem to appreciate instinctively that “Why?” is the most important of questions, which could be the reason they reiterate it so persistently. It is a difficult question to answer. One which, expressed by a child, causes much irritation to we adults. We are apt to give a short, exasperated and unsatisfactory response. “Better go and ask your ….father, mother, teacher, grandad!” But searching for reasons is an attempt to make sense of the world. The need to do so is, I believe, a spark of the divine, of God if you like, within us.

Billy couldn’t make sense of the two black sticks moving round a white circular disk. But he understood the passage of time was important, and he had answered for himself the question “Why?”. Ten to twelve meant an imminent end to the drudgery of a morning’s school; the paradise of freedom was at hand, followed by Lancashire hot-pot, prunes and custard served by those dinner ladies. Possibly there might even be seconds.

There are those who say that life is aimless, meaningless. It is, they explain, simply the result of chance that we exist. There are no real answers to the question “Why?”, they assert. It is all purposeless. We are here and we should get out of existence what we can, enjoying ourselves whilst we can. If that means taking every advantage, regardless of others, then so be it.

We have heard, and still hear, that competition is the thing. That’s the way the world is … (occasionally “unfortunately” is added to ease the starkness of the proposition). It no use the weaker looking to the strong for sympathy, for the race is to the strong, and the devil takes the hindmost. There is no such thing as society, only individuals concerned with how, and never mind asking why.

If that is the spirit, if not the words, in which we respond to our children, then one can only say, with piety and despair, God help the future generations, for we can’t.

But it is not an answer we gathered here this morning should accept, nor want to give. Worshipping here implies the answers on our lips are in direct contrast to that rejoinder. For if christianity isn’t about tolerance, compassion, supporting the weak and comforting the sorrowful, it has become an empty sham.

I read somewhere that if a monkey was put in front of a type-writer keyboard and allowed to thump the keys long enough, the works of Shakespeare would eventually be produced. Even if that is accepted, and I must say I find it a difficult proposition to embrace, then it is certain that the monkey would have no appreciation of what he had achieved, or any understanding of it.

The whole aesthetic satisfaction in the works of Shakespeare is lost if we believe that it is only something a monkey could produce by chance. It is the creative mind at work that raises the spirit, and gives meaning to life. A creative mind is a curious mind, ever looking for the ‘why’.

“Pure chance” is a totally inadequate answer to a question “Why?” about the miracle of life; it belies all our experience. I believe in God, the creator. To create is an act of love, so the Creator is a God of love.

Though I started by saying that children taught their parents, that is of course only true in a limited field. The grown-up may lack knowledge to satisfy all a child’s questions, but the greater maturity of the adult enables him or her to dream, to have vision, to know of the joy which comes from creating, to possess knowledge which allows us to relish the world around us.

It is the mature adult who knows the deep satisfaction which may be found in serving another, in generosity of spirit, in sacrifice for a partner’s or friend’s benefit. Many will know the sense of contentment which comes, as a phrase we often use in our worship puts it, from “walking humbly with our God”.

If we have not learnt that the language of the market place, that which says: the strong survive at the expense of the weak; the race is to the fit and the devil take the hindmost; those who fail to win deserve to fail. If we have not learnt that such so-called ideals are the way to sterility and misery, then we have nothing of comfort to say to those who ask “Why?”

But if we know those things are false and omit to pass the truth on to our children, and to all who are bewildered or misguided, then we are ignoring their cries of “Why?”.

Though the main weight of care for children lies with parents, none of us, whether teacher or preacher, god-parent or grandparent, relative or neighbour, is immune from the childish question. The child asks “Why?”, we must respond by word and through example.

We can ignore the question, or treat it lightly by stone-walling or avoiding an answer. We can answer it, in fact and by example, by advocating a world that is based on greed, self-interest, avarice and jungle law. Or we can reply by showing the world we create around us is one of beauty, of caring, of love and understanding.

It only the latter response that will lead the child or the adult into joy and happiness. An answer to “Why?” is that only by the giving of love is contentment found. Other answers are a betrayal of trust.

That response is not only applicable to a child’s question. We must all be as little children searching ceaselessly, asking repeatedly, curiosity never slackening, if we are not to become self-satisfied puddings.

The community to which we aspire will encourage questions of “Why?”, and will answer, “We don’t know all the answers but we do know that love engenders love, and brings joy, as nothing else will or can”.

C.J. Rosling 18 October 1991, amended 12 April 1992

Fulwood 20 Oct. 1991 22 March 1998
Hucklow 23 Feb. 1992 22 June 1997
Upper 12 April 1992
Mexborough 8 August 1993

Sunday Sermon – 6 May 2018

Wishes, Dreams and Visions

It was Goethe, the German poet, writer, playwright, philosopher who said, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Judy Garland, less profoundly, and in less portentous language sang, “It doesn’t matter who you are, when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.”

Someone, I can’t recall who, opined, “A man has more fun wishing for the things he hasn’t got than enjoying the things he has got”.

Goethe got it absolutely right, Judy Garland was partly right, and my unknown cynic, in my opinion, merited the McEnroe rebuke, “You cannot be serious.”

We all do it. Whether it is dreaming of a white Christmas, idly imagining that the long forgotten relative has died leaving us a fortune in his will, or waking up to discover we haven’t scored the winning goal in the cup final, neither have we been feted by the cheering crowds for our brave, selfless deeds which saved the nation. It was all but a dream. I suppose there is a short-term pleasant feeling when one is in the “if only” mood, but that is an ephemeral delight. The awakening to reality bursts the bubble.

Housman writes of the drunkard rolling home from Ludlow fair.

And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,
Happy ‘til I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet’
Nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Yes, wishes, castles on cloud-cuckoo-mountain, all come with a health warning reading, Beware of the rude awakening. “If only” implies a further conclusion, “not a chance”. It is a fiction in a non-fiction world.

As with many of the everyday words we use, wishing can have a number of definitions, and within those definitions, subtleties of meaning. Wishing might be a forlorn desire for the impossible or unattainable, a sort of escapism from reality, or it may be a desire firmly grounded on determination. It was once pointed out to me by a wise man, in fact a bishop, that there are short-term wishes, which are often about the trivial, and also longer-term wishes linked to serious aims. The latter may be more properly described as dreams and visions. I will return to that thought in a minute.

A further peril connected with wishes is the paradox; the wish might come true and prove to be not what we wanted at all. Unforeseen, unpleasant consequences may follow from the realisation of our flight of fancy. A fair slice of literature uses this theme, in fairy tale, legend, novel or play. King Midas is just one example among a host of tales showing that the wish come true can turn from dream to nightmare. All he touched might turn to riches, but at the cost of destroying those things whose value is beyond gold. In real life, examples abound of a desire achieved turning into a disaster in the making. The lottery winner whose overnight fortune led to grief rather than contentment, the promotion at work that was a step too far, leading to despair, the new life in a new town or land that became a desert of loneliness and gave birth to a longing to turn back the clock.

Just as the words could, would, should, can, may, might are frequently used carelessly, as if they all more or less meant the same thing, so what I see as a clear distinction between wish, dream and a vision transmutes, blurs into a distorted image. At its most precise a dream, and particularly a vision, is an aim, an aspiration, and a goal to be achieved.

Wishing is a passive exercise, waiting for something to happen, a Mr. Micawber philosophy that something will turn up. Though Judy Garland was right to set her sights high, up in the stars, her song was mistaken in implying that simply wishing is sufficient. Apart from the risk of unexpected and unwanted results if wishes are granted, there are further difficulties about idle desires. It is a state of mind that ignores, even refutes, the need for effort on our own part. Fate, chance or someone else will bring about the change whilst we relax and hope for the best.

Wish fulfilment is the most likely when some action has been taken, when we, or someone else, has brought about a change. “God helps those who help themselves”, runs the well-worn cliché. In whatever area of life, results are dependent upon our contribution. To modify an old saw, wishes butter no parsnips. God may create the plants with the power of life within them, but we must till and weed, select and plant, if there is to be a garden.

To come back to dreams, or more grandly, visions, “I have a dream”, exclaimed Martin Luther King. “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” warned the prophet. But again, if visions degenerate into mere indolent wishes they become empty hopes rather than targets to be worked at, objectives to be attained, promised lands to be reached. Martin Luther King’s life was not solely one of introspective musing, but of action towards attaining his vision.

Among those who speak of the failure of religion, are individuals who think that praying is about mere wishing, worshipping solely devoted to the contemplation of pleasant dreams. The need for personal effort is over-looked; the prospect of active labour abhorrent; the need for personal contribution rejected.

Prayers are not an opportunity to set down a series of demands, like a letter to Father Christmas, with the obligatory postscript promising to be good. Nor is contemplation a rosy, comfortable daydream of how things might be if only someone would grant our entirely reasonable wishes. There is much more to it than that.

The cry goes up, “The churches have failed us”. There is lawlessness on our streets, intolerance in our communities, greed and selfishness throughout our society. But perhaps not to the extent that one might think from reading the popular press, or listening the daily news bulletins. However, none of these are qualities advocated by the churches, quite the opposite. The failures within societies and institutions are those of people. Simply wishing, even if it is on a star, will bring about no change. It is a sleeves rolled up, hands to the plough, noses to the grind-stone, shoulders to the wheel (choose your own metaphor) – it is that sort of a job to put things right.

It might be argued that this is not a particular religious philosophy, though I would disagree. The cloth of my dreams is woven within an ethical framework of a religious faith. The vision of a world at peace, of good neighbours, of tolerance, respect and of a land where human dignity is fostered, evolves from a belief in a creative God, of whom we are the children. The world in which I want to live is one in which, what one can loosely describe as Christian standards, though in truth they are the standards of most people of many differing faiths, speaking a variety of languages and living throughout the world, are upheld, and ethical values cherished.

Samaritans, who do more than rub their talismans and merely hope things will change for the better, help the casualty recover. The passer-by who just hopes somebody else will call an ambulance leaves the stricken one to perish. Faith might move mountains, but a pick and shovel doesn’t come amiss. If churches, or more to the point, church people, regard their devotions as merely a form of escapism, then little will change. Pleasant as it is to lie gently relaxing, contemplating life as it might be, there is a time to get out of bed and start work.

The message of personal responsibility for one’s share of the labour perhaps has not been given enough emphasis. Or if it has, it has not been effectively put over. Rightly or wrongly, many regard the church as simply a place of retreat where cares can be forgotten, and the everyday world shut out.

Use of the stars as a metaphor for higher things, for great aspiration has been long established. Of course sights need to be set high, visions held, dreams dreamt, and even wishes expressed. Set our sights on the stars by all means, but wishing on stars in a vain hope that things might change without effort – well those dreams just don’t come true.

So if this year, this century, this millennium, is to lead to a on to a better life for all; to a society where all are honoured, none despised; all are clothed with love, no-one goes naked and exploited: where the hungry are fed, and the fearful protected and comforted; then it will be not simply because we dream dreams, but because we perform deeds.

Let me come full circle and return to Goethe. “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

A verse from an old revivalist hymn that I have quoted previously, is appropriate to repeat, for it speaks of boldness and daring.

“Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone;
Dare to have a purpose
Dare to make it known.”

We must never cease to dream dreams, to have our vision of what might be. I am always a little sceptical when I come across yet another Chinese proverb. Not of their content but of whether the words truly are translated from the one of the many Chinese dialects or languages. I wonder if Westerners, who think that by adding the word Chinese it will make the words sound wiser, actually compose many of these sayings. However, I will quote one allegedly genuine saying, “Who is narrow of vision cannot be big of heart”.

So may our vision be wide, our resolution formidable, but our labour untiring, and service to others replace wishful thinking. As James centuries ago pointed out to his listeners, “…the man who looks closely into the perfect law, the law that makes us free, and who lives in its company, does not forget what he hears, but acts upon it; and that is the man who by acting will find happiness.”

C.J. Rosling 30 June 2007

 

Happy Birthday Ginny

I was the middle one of five children brought up in a happy home environment.

My earliest memory of my father was the day I started school. I was four years old. There were lots of children starting on that day and there was a long line of chairs down the corridor. Each child was sitting on a parent’s knee waiting their turn to go into the Head Teacher’s office to be welcomed into the school. My dad was talking constantly to me trying to put me at my ease. He was very good at making people feel comfortable. He always knew the right words to say in any situation.

Through my school years he was always there to help with homework or music lessons. He would always make time to work through difficult problems.

My father was an amazing storyteller. He could tell a story on any subject. His stories weren’t always in words. Every Christmas morning there were five sacks (pillowcases) of presents. To identify whose sack was whose we had to look at the pictures he had attached to the sack. The pictures told a story depicting each one of us in a familiar situation.

His stories were magical. Some were just funny, others taught a lesson but all were enjoyable. I hope his stories go on giving pleasure to people for many years to come.

Ginny x

June 2011

Hucklow June 2010

Sunday Sermon – 29 April 2018

If Music be the Food of Love…

I suppose it is inevitable that, during a service in which music is a predominant feature, sooner or later some-one will quote Shakespeare,

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

So I will start with the quotation, getting my quote in first, using it as a peg on which to hang my later comments.

Of course I accept the passage is not perfectly apt for a sermon in church on Sunday. A love-sick swain, feeling the anguish of being in love, unrequited love moreover, was hoping, or more likely, feigning to hope, that his love could be killed, and the pain eased. But today, we are enjoying the excitement which comes from music making and the pleasure which follows from hearing it performed. Far from advocating an excess of music, we quit the table, as the recipe for healthy living demands, with an appetite not completely satisfied, and a feeling that we would welcome a little more.

All down the ages, throughout the world, with all the main religions, and many minor ones, music has been an important constituent of church worship. In Psalm 150 for example we hear of the place of music in praising the Lord – cymbals and lutes, harps and trumpets are enlisted for the task. Tinkling bells are associated with Buddhist temples, Gregorian chants with the monasteries. The waves of sing-song rhythmical sound in the Jewish temple, the organs and choirs of the great cathedrals, the quiet evening hymn in the village church, are evocative tones conjuring up thoughts of piety and praise.

Growing old is frequently the excuse for harking back. So I make no excuse as I think back to my youth and the Unitarian church I attended in a small cotton town on the Lancashire Cheshire border. Many of my recollections are to do with music and singing. Whitsuntide with brass bands, behind which we processed to gather on the centrally placed market ground, there to sing hymns along with other congregations in joint acts of worship. Anniversary Sermons with children’s choirs on raised platforms. Harvest hymns in bedecked chapels and Christmas carols sung amid twinkling lights. All occasions clearly recalled.

Then there are Armistice Day services attended by personnel from the forces led by military bands. Boys brigade, scouts and guides marching on church parade to the accompaniment of bugle and drum, are all part of a tapestry with the thread of music running through it. Sometimes sad, sometimes triumphal, full throated roar or meditatively quiet, sentimental or robust, prayerful or platitudinous, the music and the hymns matched the mood and enhanced the occasion of which they were a central part.

Occasionally at the end of a service I have conducted, a member of the congregation will say, “I enjoyed that service”, before adding the explanation, that it was because I had chosen some good hymns, and we had all had a good sing. By good hymns invariably the criteria to be met is that the tunes are familiar, the pitch is right, with no impossibly high notes attainable only by angels or professional sopranos. A good sing is an essential ingredient of a satisfying service. For many it is the touchstone by which it is judged. And why not, what better marking script.

It wasn’t until adult life that I discovered the joy of playing instrumental music alongside others. In my early days of teaching, I was allocated a recorder group to tutor. The fact that musically I was totally ignorant was ignored. Hardly one step in front of the pupils, I learnt to play, with very moderate skill indeed, first a descant recorder, and later treble, tenor and bass. Emboldened, I later joined a small group of teachers who met weekly to play for a couple of hours. None of us were very expert, all of us were enthusiastic.

We played simply for our own pleasure. And the pleasure was not merely in the music with its inter-mingling parts, but in shared participation. All contributing, no-one dominant, each dependent upon the contribution of the others.

Later, I was lent a brass tenor horn and learnt to play it even less skilfully than the recorder. Joining a group of brass band players, I again experienced the delight of creating harmonious sounds in the company of others, even if my contribution was largely to the umph pah pah under-current.

Sadly, other things took over one’s time, and it is many, many years since I last played. The rudimentary skills, always precariously held, have now left me, but the memory of pleasures past remains. There is a close affinity between the joy of making music and “that peace which passes all understanding” which can be found in religious worship. So it is no surprise that music has such a central role in our services of devotion.

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

But let us return to our opening quotation, or at least to the beginning of it, which refers to music as the food of love. Central to the Christian philosophy is the concept of love. The two great commandments – love of God and love of neighbour – are foundations of Christian thought. We who profess the faith attempt to build the framework in which we live our daily lives upon that solid rock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seated one day at the organ
I was weary and ill at ease”

it began.

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

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

Music is yet the food of love
Surround me with its swell. That I
May glorify my God, in awe,
In humble reverence. My love
Of neighbour defined as one
Glorious harmony.

C.J. Rosling

Hucklow 22 October 1995

 

Sunday Sermon – 22 April 2018

Job’s Comforters

In that long running radio programme, Desert Island Discs, the guest is asked at the end of the programme to choose a book to take on to the desert island, being assured beforehand that they will also have a copy of the Bible and of the works of Shakespeare. The reason Shakespeare and the Bible are provided is because, when the programme was originally devised many decades ago, guests would plump for the bard or the holy book, and the choice of reading matter became predictable, if unconvincing.

Many folk commonly insist that they have always wanted to read the Bible but have not found the time to do so. Castaways, the theory goes, having all the time in the world, would relish the opportunity to fulfil their ambition. Maybe, perhaps, some might, one thinks, with a smidgeon of scepticism at the back of the mind. Certainly the Bible is not so much a book, rather an anthology. Some sections are more readable than others. One of the parts I like is from the Old Testament, the story of Job. The Book of Job was written probably two and a half thousand years ago, but it contains passages that are timeless, it provokes thoughts that resound with life today.

I’m sure you will be familiar with it, but let me give a brief resume of the story. I call it a story, believing it to be an apocryphal tale rather that a biographical account.

The story is about a prosperous, good living man suddenly smitten by illness and financial disaster. His three visitors, Job’s comforters, did nothing to relieve his anxiety and distress when they suggested that Job’s apparently saintly life must be a sham. His afflictions were by way of punishment from God for failings known to God, even if Job had concealed them from everybody else. That was the only explanation, the three advisors said, that made sense. Job rails against his fate, but recovers his faith, which we understand was being tested. As all good stories ought to end, the words “happy ever after” can be added to the conclusion.

The story is based on the problem of reconciling a belief in a loving God with injustice and suffering found within the world. God may be a loving god, but those who erred could expect to be punished. The observation is sometimes made that rain falls upon the just and unjust alike, but the just suffers the more because the unjust has borrowed, and not returned, the just man’s umbrella. But according to the theory of Job’s comforters, this is not the end of the story. The just man will be eventually compensated, whilst the unjust man will get his comeuppance. They implied that Job was a covert sinner.

Job cries out in complaint to God, who starts His response with the words, “Who is this that darkens counsel without knowledge?” Words that were echoed centuries later from a man dying by crucifixion, “…. they know not what they do.”

How much trouble in this world stems from counsel given without knowledge, or at best with only partial knowledge? There are numerous examples which spring to mind where misery and suffering, death and disaster, are the consequence of actions following counselling without knowledge. We knew not, and often cared not, what we did. And examples are by no means confined to the past.

The threat to our environment, to the planet on which we live and to the air enveloping it, provide a multitude of examples of accepting the truth of counsel, even though it rested upon a dubious foundation of knowledge.

To cite just a few examples: over-cropping has produced dust-bowls in North America, in Africa and elsewhere, creating deserts where the rose may no longer bloom; equatorial forests have been ravished and continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate; over-fishing has reduced fish-stocks until some species may well not recover; curbs and bans on whaling may be too little and too late to avoid extinction of some species of that great mammal; one might also include big game poaching and its effect on land-based creatures. Greenhouse gases causing climatic changes, nuclear weapons and power stations with waste products dangerous for tens of thousands of years are problems left to future generations to live with or to solve. The list of foolishness and greed is endless, breeding anxiety, threatening disaster. All substantially caused through accepting, blindly and foolishly, counsel without knowledge.

“Mad Cow Disease” was a direct consequence of counsel trusted without knowledge of the consequences. Today many worry, rightly, that growing crops from genetically engineered seed is a venture where advice and recommendation proceeds apace, whilst knowledge lags somewhere to the rear.

The enthusiasm to give counsel even when knowledge supporting it is questionable or unproven is not confined to scientists. In most fields of human activity – social, political, medical, national, religious, educational, and others – counsel is freely given when possible consequences are either not understood, not taken seriously, or recklessly disregarded. Unregulated competitiveness, expressed as the race is to the strong and the devil can harvest the weak, has done much to increase the burden of human suffering, poverty and misery throughout the world.

And what of the patriotism which goes beyond national pride into denigration and oppression, riding with indifference over the rights of others? Or religion which, whilst nominally about qualities which most religions share, but for short-hand convenience I might call Christian values of tolerance, compassion, brother and sisterhood, and mutual respect, encourages its adherents to terrorise those of other faiths. Holy wars (what a contradiction in terms) against the infidel are in our historical past, but counterparts can be found in news reports of today.

Even between members of one religious faith, antagonism flares into violence between Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and other Christian sects. Moslem fights Moslem, as well as Hindu, Jew and Christian. Religious rivalry degenerates into hatred and violence, though the religion professed is about peace with God and love of mankind. Knowledge is the basis of understanding. Counsel given without it is a road to disaster. Oppression, even terrorism, is justified by selective quotations from scripture writings.

The laws we enact, the examples we set for others, the messages we send out, the newspapers and magazines we produce, and commercial norms of behaviour displayed do have outcomes beyond the immediately apparent.

Much damage done, whether to the environment, to our social structure, to our relationships with others, is not the result of deliberate decision calculated by evil men or women, but through ignorance. Counsel given and accepted unquestioned, action undertaken without proper consideration, arrogance replacing forethought – these cause a high proportion of misery and suffering throughout the world.

It is true that the total of knowledge available to mankind is greater now than ever in the world’s history. Particularly in the last century knowledge in every field – archaeology, science, philosophy, engineering, medicine, the list is endless – has increased and continues to increase at an accelerating rate. Not only has the store of knowledge grown, but its availability and accessibility has grow also.

We perform in everyday living exercises that, only a few years ago, would have been thought miraculous. Men and women, almost as a matter of routine, travel through space. Oceans depths are plumbed for oil. We may travel to the other side of the world in the time taken for the sun to circle the globe. We watch events as they are happening thousands of miles away. We holiday in exotic climes, places not long ago only visited with great difficulty by explorers accompanied by native porters carrying supplies. In our hospitals, hundreds of operations are carried out each week to repair or replace organs within the human body. Through the Internet the world’s libraries can be accessed from the home.

But though we have so much knowledge and skill, and perhaps because of that, too often we act as if we possess complete knowledge. We are filled with self-congratulation, admiration for our achievements and our cleverness. That there is still so much to learn is forgotten. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we start processes that we cannot ultimately control or stop. Yet to question is to run the risk of being labelled a crank, a loner, an oddball, and an eccentric.

Many references may be found in pages of the Old Testament as to the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom rests upon knowledge, which is hedged about with humility, reservation and questioning uncertainty.

In the story of Job, health and fortune began to return to him when he was able to utter these words.

“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.”

My own belief is that suffering, hardship, poverty come not from God by way of punishment, but commonly from man by way of arrogance and indifference. Counsel without knowledge in the words of the Old Testament story.

Job’s relief from his woes followed recognition that his knowledge was limited, that he “…uttered what I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” Recognition of the limits of his knowledge put him on the road to acquiring wisdom.

It is a message of universal application. It is the secret passage leading to a fairer, more equitable and peaceful world.

This is not a plea to abandon a search for knowledge. Knowledge should be pursued and acquired. It is properly a part of human nature to learn, and to try to understand. And knowledge should be applied, but with humility. Doubt and caution, humility and the certainty that what we know is always partial, are signs of wisdom.

The world will be a far better place when all peoples, with a sense of humility, can echo the words of Job

Yea, I uttered what I understood not,
Things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.”

Counsel with care, and with thought for possible consequences. Only fools boast of their knowledge; the wise are certain only of how much they still don’t know.

C.J. Rosling 13 April 2007

Hucklow 15 April 2007

Sunday Sermon – 15 April 2018

Is Everything Filed in Order?

Some-one asked me the other day if I was an orderly sort of person. At first I thought they meant, was I a well-behaved citizen, or was I constantly in trouble for disorderly conduct. So, naturally, I felt a little hurt. However, I rapidly discovered that the inquirer was asking, did I arrange my goods and affairs in a tidy, systematic manner.

When I thought about it, I had some difficulty in answering, because, like many others, I lurch between the extremes of tidiness and disarray. I would like to think that I order my affairs in a business-like way, but admittedly often fail to do so. The drawers of my desk are a clutter, but the book-shelves are arranged to a plan. Mind you, it is a plan that few others can understand, but there is a system about it. My diary and address books are in order, but the top of the desk is normally covered with papers that I mean to sort out tomorrow, or failing that, certainly the day after. Always provided I am not too busy.

I keep my tools in a tool-box. But for some reason, when I need the screw-driver or the drill, it has mysteriously disappeared, having taken itself off to a different location entirely. I blame the rest of the family for that, for I always, well nearly always, put things back where I find them. Then I have a filing cabinet.

I expect that most folk try their hand at one time or another at creating a filing system, or similar, so the valuable bits of saved information are readily to hand. I confidently suggest that most of us have discovered that filing is not as simple as it first appears.

We decide that we will file our letters and bills or receipts. All starts off well; Mabel Smith’s letters are filed under “Smith, M.”, Horace Green letters go under “Green, H.”, the butchers bills and receipts are under “Butcher”, and bakers under “Baker”. Then Horace marries Mabel, so “Smith M.” becomes “Green M.”, which makes for confusion. The butcher starts selling bread, and the baker has a freezer from which frozen meat may be purchased.

So we are faced with a problem. Where do we file the receipt when we bought bread-cakes at the butchers whilst purchasing the pork chops. And the last time we bought a loaf at the bakers, we also bought a piece of frozen gammon. Or, we file newspaper cuttings and find that on the back of a recipe for Christmas pudding is an article on pruning roses which we need to keep. Is it filed under gardening or Christmas recipes?

The file for “Miscellaneous” grows ever larger, and the pile of “Awaiting filing” grows ever nearer the ceiling. And when we look for that interesting article on french polishing that we know we saved, it is nowhere to be found. That is until it’s accidentally unearthed months later under “Painting and Decorating”, because it was part of a long article on “Interior Design made Simple”.

Yes, if only things wouldn’t change, if only letters, papers, cuttings, books and the rest would fit neatly into the categories we devise, how much more straight-forward life would be. Of course we can create card indexes, and cross-references, but they become so time consuming to complete, and so complicated to follow, that ere long the whole task is given up.

And if that is true of material things, how much more so does it become when one deals with people. I have spent a deal of my life writing school reports on children, and supplying references for adults. What a task that is. No matter what care one takes, how inadequate is the invariable result. Words like “but” and “nevertheless”, phrases like “if only” and “on the whole” keep creeping in. Most children fall in the category of the girl in the nursery rhyme,

“When she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad, she was horrid”

And of course that pattern is not confined to children, it is true of most of us. People on the whole are an amalgam of good, bad and indifferent. And because this includes us, how we react at any moment to others is determined, not only by how they behave, but by how we feel at the time. Few there are who are not a incongruous mixture of the saint and sinner, capable of both generosity and meanness, compassion and indifference, tenderness and harshness. If these qualities are not in equal measure, then certainly there are substantial proportions of each.

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

Sometimes these are minor affairs. Blonds are marked down as being dumb, red heads have fiery tempers, and baldness is equated with wisdom. This explains why I have kept a full head of hair!

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

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

There is a huge difference in life experience between an Anglo-Saxon living in England in 1995 and an Old Testament Jew living in the Middle East three thousand years ago. Yet we read Old Testament stories and, whilst noting the life-style is different, readily identify with the fears and the emotions of the people. Basically, they are the same as ours. Why then is it thought that the West Indian neighbour, or the Somali citizen, or the member of any other race, is fundamentally different from a white indigenous United Kingdom resident. Their values, fears and emotions are, we imply, different from ours.

How much more difficult it seems to be to accept that whereas most of us defy categorisation because we are such a mixture of good, bad and indifferent, the foreigner is different, and can easily be slotted in the appropriate box in the filing cabinet. If he has an un-English name we cannot be surprised that he is a drug dealer, because they are all like that. Of course if she is black, she must be guilty. The English are fair-minded, the Irish hot-tempered, the Scots mean, and the Welsh devious. Thank God human nature is more complex than that.

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

One of the Psalms asks “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.” We can equally ask, “How are we able to sing the Lord’s song, when we inhabit a land that so often accepts stereotyping by prejudice? Where black is bad and white is good, where rich only err, but poor sin.”

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

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

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

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

First, after noting the muddle in the filing cabinet that contains our virtues and vices, we must charitably view any lack of order in other peoples’ cupboards.

Secondly, to accept that our own cabinet, like everyone else’s, contains many files, both good and bad.

Thirdly, that the files reveal what we are, not what others might think we are.

Cabinets come in a variety of styles and colours, but it is the contents that reveal the real truth. Christianity is about opening the drawers and looking inside.

C.J. Rosling. 2 June 1995

Fulwood 4 June 1995
Hucklow 11 January 1997

Sunday Sermon – 8 April 2018

My Conscience Is My Judge

Surely I can’t be the only person who, time and again, fails to see the obvious. I look at a crossword clue and fail to make sense of it. Then someone comes along and says, smugly, “I’m surprised you haven’t got 7 across. A pig that plants seeds is sow. Sow. Get it?” They give the answer and I wonder why I was so obtuse not to have got a simple solution that everyone else had seen. Then it might be the joke at which the whole room laughed whilst I struggle, as the saying goes, to get it. Once I knew a man whose given name was Harry. He was born and bred in Yorkshire, so I puzzled why every body called him Paddy. Paddy was the nickname for those who hailed from the emerald isle. It was quite a time before the penny dropped; his second name was Ireland. Get it?

It would be comforting to know that there are other sufferers from this embarrassing failure of intelligence, if that is what it is. To share blushes with others would ease the discomfort.

Sometimes I realise that the reverse of the coin applies. I am convinced that something is as plain as the proverbial pikestaff. The road ahead divides. I’ve missed the signpost but clearly the left fork is the correct road to take. Then it turns out I have made the wrong choice. Obstinately I refuse to believe that my sense of direction is wrong, so press on, compounding the initial error, like Harris in “Three men in a boat” negotiating the Hampton Court maze. Finally, I reluctantly admit to being lost, so have to ask for help, or drive back the way I have come and start again. Does anybody else experience the same odd trait of character, I wonder?
The other day I discovered that a word whose meaning I knew perfectly well, didn’t mean what I thought it meant at all. When I found out, by checking in my well-used dictionary, the real meaning, it was perfectly obvious. Again my old blind spot had got in the way of clear thinking.

The word in question was ‘conscience’. Though I’d never set it down in writing, I had regarded conscience as an absolute set of moral values. The dictionary tells me it is rather a personal sense of right or wrong. In other words a code, if not devised by, certainly accepted by the individual. This set me thinking. Yes, we build up our own moral benchmark, unique to us, by which we measure and moderate our conduct.

Take war for example. No sensible, right-thinking man or woman regards the use of armed force other than with at least distaste and more commonly with horror. Yet good people have divided opinions in any particular set of circumstances. My father, a lifetime pacifist, was a conscientious objector in the 1914-18 World War. Many thousands of others, good, honest men of principle, as was my father, saw it a matter of duty to fight for their country against, in the language of the time, the marauding Hun. Two decades later, a majority of men and women had clear consciences as they enlisted into armed forces to defeat the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Others, as in the First World War, and with equally strong convictions, believed it was morally unjustifiable to take up arms against fellow beings.

The difference between two opposite points of view is not the difference between right and wrong, but that between two opposing strongly held judgements. Each one of these contrary views could be justified as right in the view of the believer.

Differing perceptions about what is done, or not done, as choice faces the individual are not limited to war and peace, but crop up many times in the course of life for all of us. Sometimes the dilemma is about the fairly trivial, at other times the deeply profound. We measure what we do against our standards of what we think is right, that is morally justified.

If conscience is not about a personal sense of right and wrong, but becomes a purely external set of values, determined by others and to be imposed the rest of us, then we move to fundamentalism. “Why should I do this?” we ask. “Because I say so”, comes the answer.

Many early examples of fundamentalism are found in the first books of the Old Testament, with strict rules covering every aspect of life. Modern examples are not difficult to find in the United Kingdom, in America, in Africa, in fact throughout the world. Often prefaced with “Thou shalt not” the rules show little regard for ideas like tolerance, mercy, understanding, and compassion.

Our consciences are built up by ourselves; moderated, refined, expanded possibly, questioned certainly, as we grow up, mature and acquire different experiences, and meet fresh challenges.

The construction of our own set of values relies upon many sources and influences. In spite of what I said about fundamentalism, external rules formulated over time by society at large must help to form the structure. As Harris discovered, when in a maze, help from others is not to be scorned. To think arrogantly we are wiser than everyone else leads to humiliation. A starting point is the right of others to life, to freedom, to be able to fulfil their hopes and aspirations, as we would wish to fulfil ours. But that is a broad sweep and we gradually add conditions. Freedom, we may feel, has to be conditional on not denying it to others. The oppressor, whether operating on a national or a family scale, may have to be resisted, even lose his or her freedom. We have to face in reality a whole number of questions around such questions as self-defence, euthanasia, abortion, and medical intervention, amongst them.

The law of the land also impinges as we build up our own set of values. Do we, for example, pay our taxes in full, or do we put our money into tax havens abroad? Maybe not illegal, but folk will divide on the morality. That question might not arise for anyone here this morning, but breaking a traffic rule when late for an appointment might. Does the end justify the means is a question we may have to decide. Was the appointment at the hairdressers, or to conduct a funeral, or maybe to comfort a sick, distressed friend.

Decisions, judgements and reactions to particular circumstances are before us throughout each day. The decisions are often straightforward. I took but a moment in the super-market the other day to decide not to strangle the obnoxious child who was jarring everyone’s nerves. I went for a cup of tea in the café instead. This was partly from fear of the legal consequences, but I insist, mainly through the promptings of conscience. But not all decisions are as simple. Some are deeply divisive, and hotly debated. (Though I think silencing the screaming infant might have won some sympathetic approval).

Apart from Acts of Parliament and society’s rules for civilised behaviour, there are other influences on us as we compile a personal conscience volume that is our reference book for choosing what to do. There are our past experiences as one recalls one’s feelings when others made choices affecting us. We have regrets, we learn from the wisdom, occasionally from the foolishness, of others.

We absorb the thoughts of others; preachers and teachers, statesmen and saints, neighbours, parents, and youth leaders, all may help us to add to that personal code of conduct. The role of religion can be a crucial factor in guiding us to a live honourably, truthfully and mercifully.

But if we are compiling our own code of conduct is there not a system of checks? Teachers in schools, colleges or universities may mark their students exam papers, but, to use technical jargon, external assessors moderate the results to ensure consistency. So there are judgements about our own compilation of ethical standards. I have referred to some – the law, society’s expectations, adhering to the teachings of one’s faith for example. Also crucial is the challenge from those who hold sincere if contrary views.

We listen to the arguments that confront our beliefs, or perhaps they are prejudices. We make our responses, either upholding our view, or modifying it, and
sometimes changing it altogether. Maturity refines our ability to make right choices, but it does more. It increases understanding of human frailty, to judge when tolerance and mercy should guide our opinions.

Many Unitarians have followed a course of discussion and learning titled, Building your own Theology. In the same manner, though it may not be formally called so, we are all involved in building our own conscience.

This is a lifetime, open-ended course, with no end point. There may be, indeed there must be, fixed values within it, but details are ever being added, others dropped, many amended, as fresh problems face up on life’s journey. This process, in my view, is at its most effective when others challenge and compel us to defend our views. The challenges come for me in the framework of religious faith, and in the company of those who also try to lay a sound ethical foundation upon which to build a life of truth.

“I am surprised your conscience let you do that.” But why should I be? Maybe it was my conscience that is at fault.

C. J. Rosling May 2006

Hucklow 7 May 2006
Stannington 9 July 2006