Sunday Sermon – 8 September 2019

Pillar of Society?

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

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

But not yet. For two reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.J. Rosling 10 January 2003

Hucklow 19 January 2003

Sunday Sermon – 1 September 2019

Mirror, Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.J. Rosling 13 February 1994

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

Sunday Sermon – 25 August 2019

What does The Lord require of Thee?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.J. Rosling 22 February 1997

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

Sunday Sermon – 18 August 2019

What Is Truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.J. Rosling 8 December 2006

Hucklow December 2006

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

Sunday Sermon – 11 August 2019

Let’s have a Tidy Up Session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.J. Rosling January 2004

Hucklow 1 February 2004
Stannington 2 May 2004

Sunday Sermon – 4 August 2019

Keep in Touch, Give me a Ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sunday Sermon – 28 July 2019

Chesterfield Anniversary

An anniversary, be it a personal one, or a community one as today, is, among other things, an occasion for reminiscence and historical musing.

The Church I attended as a child in Stalybridge, close by Manchester, was built in 1870, the Sunday school pre-dating this by some five years. I recall thinking as the anniversaries approached and then passed 70 years, that perhaps one day I would see the hundredth anniversary. Well I have. That has come and gone.

And now in this ancient chapel today, perhaps the thought crosses ones mind that on this, the two hundred and ninety sixth anniversary of the building, one would like to be present at the three hundredth.

Though an anniversary is simply a date. Like a birthday, nothing is dramatically different from the day before, for change and aging are continuous, imperceptible from one day to the next. But there is nevertheless a sense of occasion in celebrating an anniversary, and to look to entering a fourth century of development is an exciting prospect. I should like to be part of those celebrations.

Of course, the founding of this dissenting chapel has already entered its fourth century. It goes back over three hundred years, to 1662, when secrecy had to be observed in worship to avoid persecution. John Billingsley and James Ford, vicar and curate respectively, dissenters of conscience, chose the hard path of putting honest belief before material security. and preached accordingly.

It is hard for us to grasp that in Chesterfield as in other places throughout our land men and women, and their families, risked imprisonment and persecution in order to worship God in their own way. To be told what one ought to believe is one thing. To be compelled under threat of criminal indictment to encompass and proclaim those beliefs is a monstrous act of tyranny.

Some of course took the extremely hazardous step of sailing in small ships, enduring unbelievable discomfort, to start new lives across the Atlantic Ocean, where they might worship as they chose. The fortitude, determination and strength of character of those early non-conformists, whether emigrants or not, and amongst the latter were those who built this Chapel, is a source of wonderment to us today, a humbling memory for us to cherish.

Our times today are seen as troublesome and anxious – threats of war, inflation, violence, poverty and the rest. But perhaps we ought to think back to the times when our forefathers were meeting and founding this Chapel. It was by no means a time of quietness.

Animosity between Catholic and Protestant was intense. The land had seen Civil War with neighbour fighting neighbour. A King had been tried and beheaded. Law-breakers were cruelly put to death, or imprisoned in vile jails. Life was hard for most people, with disease, malnutrition, hunger and poverty common experiences.

But our dissenting fore-fathers risked further hardship in order to worship in a manner of their choice, and according to their conscience. Their courage, which at the time some no doubt referred to as obstinacy, mulish stupidity or in similar terms, is something which we must not forget today as we worship in freedom, and with no fear of prosecution for our beliefs.

What a lot of history has been encompassed in the years this Chapel has stood. When it was erected this area was largely agricultural. The industrial revolution, as it was to be called had not yet started. The building of the railways was decades ahead, as was the building of the canals which preceded them. As the first worshippers came to this building, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were a hundred years into the future. The battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo would not be fought for more than a century.

Not for nearly a hundred and fifty years would Charles Dickens publish his novels. There were no daily papers. Indeed, even if there had been, few people could have read them. Universal state education was not to start for close on two hundred years. The transmission of voice and music through radio would not come until half a dozen generations had been born and passed away. The cinema likewise was far into the future, and even more distant the now ever-present television.

Neither electricity nor gas was available to light the chapel for most of the first two hundred years of its life, and it would be nearly two hundred and fifty years from its founding before a motor car would be used to convey congregational members to and from worship.

It is doubtful that even in their most fantastic flights of imagination, those early worshippers, or indeed many who followed them, could have envisaged the terrible slaughter on the fields of France and Belgium that were the first World War battles of the Somme, Amiens, Ypres and the rest.

Certainly they would have thought the idea preposterous that men and women should fly through the air to distant parts of the continent to lie on beaches in the sun. A holy day had not then extended in to a fortnight or more holiday. One day of rest was the most many ever took at one time unless ill-health prevented labour.

The everyday lives of those who founded this Chapel were far removed from ours not only in time, but in the manner. Work and survival played a large part. No formal education for the majority, an expectation of life, at most, of barely 50 years, little in the way of entertainment, a monotonous diet, long days of toil.

And yet they built this chapel in faith. They worshipped here and thanked God for what they had. In order to worship they had to endure, if not persecution, then certainly derision. They came, not because they had to, quite the reverse pressures were upon them, but because they believed and trusted in a God of mercy. Truth was more important than physical discomfort, conscience than the opinion of others.

Yet though the lives of those original worshippers and of those who for decades followed them, were worlds away from our own, in essential respects they were the same.

In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, you will recall that Shylock, the Jew, makes the point to his tormentors that though his race and religion are different, his feelings and emotions are the same as theirs. “If you prick us, do we not bleed”

Though the life-style and generation of our founding fathers were different from ours, without doubt, their feelings, fears and hopes were fundamentally the same. They desired peace, they wanted a secure future for their children, they sought shelter and food, they feared disease, they found love and tranquillity within the family and community.

But these are largely material desires. We should find much more in common with those who bequeathed us a legacy. They built this Chapel not merely that they might find joy within a community of like minded neighbours. They built a spiritual home.

The peace they sought and found was not merely an absence of aggressive attack, but an inner peace – “that peace which the world can neither give nor take away”. The security for their children was bound up in a desire that the children’s feet should tread a path of righteousness all the days of their lives. The food and shelter they sought was not only to sustain a physical life, but to feed and nurture a spiritual existence. If they feared disease which decimated their physical bodies, much more were they anxious about a malignancy which could destroy the soul of man. Love was found within the family, but its expression relied upon the sure conviction of the love of God.

I am sure all of us here today have the hope that worshippers will gather here for the coming three centuries as they have done for the same period in the past. Perhaps our optimism is clouded by the fear that it might not be so. It would be sad if pessimism prevailed. But much sadder would be our failure, and the failure of future generations to lose sight of those central fortresses of faith held by those brave families or individuals who founded and built this place

And what were those strongholds? Not to sacrifice truth to expediency. Not to fear man, but rather to love God. That worship is the nourishment upon which faith feeds and by which it is sustained. That love of God and love of neighbour are not separate, but indivisible parts of a whole. That our duty, our obligation, is not merely to the present, but to bequeath to the future the wisdom of the past, modified by the experiences of the present.

These and other tenets were the bricks of faith with which those long dead built this Chapel, both in a physical sense but also in a metaphorical sense. That this building as a symbol of the devotion of brave men and women should continue is important. That the unseen temple built from bricks of truth shall be safe-guarded is imperative. In both may God preserve our coming in and our going out.

C.J. Rosling

Chesterfield 4 November 1990

Sunday Sermon – 21 July 2019

On the Other Hand

I know I exasperate people but I just can’t help it. I must have been created that way in the beginning. Having been like I am for what I suppose I have to admit is over three-quarters of a century, I fear I am not going to change now. “What is it?” you ask, “which irritates others.” I just cannot stop myself from throwing into the conversation where a proposal is being made, “…but, on the other hand”. Take that occasion a couple of weeks ago. Wearing my hat, as the saying goes, as a school governor, I was in discussion with the head of the school. An excellent head-teacher who is clear about her aims and objectives, and who is resolute by nature, purposeful in seeking the best for staff and pupil alike; and having given due thought to what she ought to do, makes up her mind and is not easily deflected. My opposite in every particular.

She explained what she was proposing, and why, but before I could stop myself I was ‘but on other-handing’. She patiently demolished my arguments, then added, “and stop being so reasonable”. Expressed differently, from time to time similar statements are made in my domestic surroundings.

Again, I can’t help making excuses for other people. I think of it as an attempt to be fair-minded; others call it being argumentative. Perhaps spending too much time doing crosswords has conditioned me not to see the world in a straight-forward way. There always has to be an alternative way of interpreting events, some other reading of what appears to be the straight-forward clue presented. I have I’m afraid, this compelling urge to make the smooth places rough.

Strange to harbour this quirk of behaviour, this defect of character. After all I was brought up, like I can believe all us here, within a framework of rules, taught to respect the law, defer to authority. In scripture lessons I learnt the ten commandments which certainly didn’t permit any shilly-shallying. No “on the other hand” in those tablets of stone. Rules are about absolutes; black is black and white is white, and ne’er the twain shall meet, to misquote Kipling. Silk purses and sows’ ears are incompatible. The boundary between right and wrong is sharp and clear. Or so I learnt; later to so preach to the children in my care when I became a school-teacher.

Except I know now that life is much more complicated than simple rules lead us to believe. Questions rise to lips.

Take the apparently uncontroversial sixth commandment, for example, Thou shalt not kill. Accepting this is to be applied to the human race rather than the animal kingdom in general – otherwise mouse traps and fly sprays would be banned, and the diet of a large part of the population would alter drastically – there are still many opportunities to argue for and against. The pro and anti abortion argument, euthanasia, use of life-support machines, with-held medical treatment, stem cell research, are all issues round life and death with strong, sincere opinions offered and then challenged.

“Thou shalt not kill, but need not strive, Officiously to keep alive”

wrote Arthur Dean Clough in his alternative Decalogue. Ethical dilemmas around what is officious and what is compassion are the source of fierce argument. And contradictory interpretations on the right to life are not a recent phenomena; wasn’t the woman taken in adultery to be stoned to death? By order of the religious leaders who were guardians of the holy laws. The sixth commandment brings a sackful of ‘on the other hands’ to keep one going for months.

Thou shalt not steal seems plain enough, but what is and is not theft? I shall leave aside the well-worn excuse, “I didn’t take it, I only borrowed it.” Clough’s Decalogue contains the couplet,

Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat
When it’s so lucrative to cheat.

But are theft and cheating of the same order? Does one encompass the other? A definition of cheating includes deception, says Chambers dictionary. Then is all deception wrong? Which one of us would unwaveringly argue that is so, when compassion dictates that the truth will cause needless distress to some-one we love? Is enjoying the fruits of the labour of the peasant working in a sweat-shop for poverty wages a form of theft? Should we therefore abstain from buying and deny the labourer his meagre income? Oh dear, I’m already muddled and confused.

It is sometimes said, or at least implied, that as one grows in maturity and begin to stockpile experience, decisions, life choices and the ability to make sense of the world around becomes easier. But as far as I am concerned, that is at best only partially true. In many respects, life becomes much more problematical. The boundaries become blurred, the grey area lying between the black and white wider, more prominent.

To covet is a verb not in general use these days. To wish, or to long for, my dictionary gives as its meaning. One can appreciate that longing can lead to desire to own a neighbour’s possessions; a desire which may become obsessive, leading to foul deeds. There is a line surely between wishing to acquire similar goods to those owned by ‘her next door’, and actually laying false claims to her possessions. The urge to replicate another’s material goods is sometimes referred to as keeping up with the Jones’.

To quote Clough’s ironic verse once more, “Thou shalt not covet; but tradition approves all forms of competition”. However, Quentin Crisp warns us, “Never keep up with the Jones’, drag them down to your level, it’s cheaper”. Somewhere in all that mixture there must be one or two ‘on the other hands’. But don’t worry, I will resist exploring them today.

Our fore-bears were part of a movement described as non-conformist. They were men and women proud of a tag which labelled them as independent in thought. Collectively, they rejected the demands to subscribe to a doctrine laid down by others. Yet the title is only a partly true description, for in one respect they were strongly conformist. Their reference book was the bible, both old testament and new. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, the Mosaic tablets enjoined, so they did; disapproving of and reprimanding those who failed to conform to those standards. Failure to conform, it was abundantly clear, was sinful, as was hanging out the washing on a Sunday, which I doubt my mother would ever have done, even under the threat of death.

We today, descendants of non-conformists, spend much of our time conforming, rightly so, for too much revolution leads on to anarchy.

Yes, as I have grown in knowledge and experience, but perhaps not in wisdom, some certainties have grown weaker; doubt and confusion increased. Wandering along the road, stumbling from time to time, I am never too sure that the sign-post is absolutely accurate, to be trusted with complete confidence.

But where is all this journey through what one of our old hymns pictured as “the night of doubt and sorrow” leading to.

My head-teacher friend is right. You mustn’t spend your life being so reasonable that you never decide on any course of action. Endless debate at the crossroads means going nowhere. Rooted to the spot and forever dithering. One recalls another oft-quoted passage which refers to the “on the other hand” debate. The passage begins, “To everything there is a season, a time to every purpose under heaven”.

We do need the framework of rules, sometimes even rigid and unchallenged rules, if we are to journey through life not circling round aimlessly, or stuck for ever in the same place. But everything has its season, and occasions have to be found to explore alternative options.

I watched a mother with a toddler in the super-market car park the other day. The child wanted to race across to the car some distance away. The mother insisted that the little girl held her hand and walked, thus restrained, across the intervening space. No argument. No perhaps there might be a case to be heard. The unbending rule was imposed. Quite rightly too, for danger lurked as vehicles came and went. Freedom to run joyfully was not apposite. The season was not ripe, though it might be so at another at another time in another place.

Our expanding bank of experience, together with the maturity which hopefully the passing years bring, expands the range of choices. At the core the laws of life embody absolute values which must remain unchallenged, or we become as amoral beasts of the field, self-centred, lacking compassion, indifferent to any needs except those of our own. And rules for living are not only about ‘shalt not’, there is also a hefty section on ‘must do’. It is significant that Jesus is quoted as signalling that the great commandments fell into that latter category, positive rather than negative.

Some of our hymns and prayers mention not wishing that our lives should be made easy. Well, growth in experience certainly doesn’t do that, as the number of choices to be made grows. Opportunities for examining ‘on the other hand’ multiply. Some of the old certainties move into the ‘almost certain’ column, or the ‘yes, with qualification’ section, even into the ‘well, maybe’ or the ‘open to doubt’ category.

Come to think about it, perhaps I needn’t be so apologetic about being an ‘other hander’. At the right time, and in the right place, it is surely not the worst defect in my character. Provided there are those who keep reminding me not to be too reasonable, maybe I shall come to no harm. Possibly even do a bit of good. But, on the other hand…..

C.J. Rosling
Hucklow 15th January 2005

Sunday Sermon – 14 July 2019

I can do it when it isn’t There!

Over forty years ago, I was a class teacher in a City elementary school in what was one of the more deprived areas of Sheffield. The class was one of fifty-five eight and nine year olds, whose ability ranged from the very bright to, how shall I put it, those who found that new knowledge was gained rather slowly.

Among the latter group was John. I am afraid I have forgotten his surname, and even if I remembered it, I should respect his privacy and keep it to myself. John, who must now be in middle age, probably a father himself, possibly a grand-father, was a cheerful, happy, pleasant child by nature. But, to put it gently, had not yet reached the top flight of intellectual achievers.

When it came to reading and writing, he struggled. In arithmetic he was still at the stage of using material aids for the simplest of calculations. All primary teachers meet many Johns and their sister equivalents in the course of a career. But John remains in my memory after others have faded from it, because of something he said one morning over four decades ago. No doubt he has long forgotten the incident, but my memory is fresh.

This particular morning – it must have been morning because arithmetic was always done in the first part of the day, when allegedly minds were still fresh, and ready to tackle mathematical problems with vigour – John, that morning, for the umpteenth time, was trying to master subtraction. He had his pencil, well chewed at the end, notebook, rather dog-eared, and box of counters, like tiddley wink tokens, on his desk in front of him.

Faced with deciding what remained when five was taken from eight, he would count out eight tiddley winks from his box. Then he picked out and removed five of them; reckoned one by one those that were left, and then carefully wrote the figure 3 in his book, hopefully the right way round, but more commonly facing back to front.

That morning, after completing several of these sums, he told me he could now do them without using counters. I was sceptical, but decided to test him. I put the box of counters under his desk and asked him to take three from nine.

He carefully counted eight fingers and a thumb, sticking them in the air as he called out the numbers from one to nine. Then, as he called, one, two, three, three digits went down. A careful count showed that six appendages remained upright. Pleasure lit up his face as I confirmed that he had the right answer. He had done as he promised, and completed the calculation without counters.

Mischievously, I then asked him to take four from twelve. He counted up to ten on fingers and thumbs, discovered that he had run out with some way still to go, so, nodded his head twice saying eleven, twelve as he did so. Two more nods as he intoned, one, two; the right thumb and forefinger went down on three, four respectively; it was a simple matter then to count the remaining digits and come up with the right answer of eight. All done again without counters and with two fingers short. It was a proud moment for him.

But that isn’t the whole story of why I remember John. I remember him for what happened next. For suddenly, his face wreathed in smiles and with joy shining from his eyes, he said “Eh, Sir” (teachers still were referred to as Miss or Sir in those days), “Eh Sir, I did it when they weren’t there.” Or perhaps being Sheffield, “…when they wasn’t there!”

Though his observation was perhaps not strictly accurate, we both knew what he meant, and recognised what had happened. John had glimpsed for a moment a great mathematical truth. Those who are mathematicians, know that mathematics frequently deals with the abstract, with what is “not there”.

For example, mathematicians often speak of infinity, which is that place where you can no longer add one to a number to make it still greater, for an infinite number is one that has already reached its maximum size; it is the place where tram-lines come together and meet, or so my physics teacher once told me; it is where recurring decimals stop repeating themselves. It is a place of wonder and miracles. In John’s language, infinity “isn’t there”, but nevertheless has a reality. Whole books are written about infinity, science and mathematics depend upon it, and, not least, the love of God is infinite.

But John’s vocabulary didn’t include infinity. He was experiencing that moment of joy that comes with a sudden insight. Archimedes, as every school-child is taught, jumped out of his bath crying “Eureka” as he discovered the truth about the displacement of water, a phenomena upon which all ships depend if they are to float; John, knowing no Greek didn’t shout, “Eureka”, but cried, “I can do it when it isn’t there”, as he stumbled upon abstract thought.

To be present at a moment of discovery is a joyous and humbling thing. To observe a child experiencing the ecstasy of knowledge revealed, is to see heaven. To subtract numbers that aren’t there maybe little enough in itself. To have it suddenly revealed for the first time that it can be done, is to become a Columbus discovering a new land.

Traditionally, both wise men and shepherds went to see a lowly born child. To see a new-born child is to also experience joy, wonder and peace, which is probably why they flocked to see the babe in a manger. They saw, as all see as they look upon a child, what isn’t apparent, but what hope and faith leads them to believe is there, a seed called potential waiting to germinate. One sees the future; one has a glimpse of an infinity of time and power that we call eternity.

That is why Simeon said as he viewed the new-born Jesus brought to the Temple, “Now let thy servant depart in peace”. Simeon felt complete and secure for he had seen what John might have said, “wasn’t there”; he glimpsed a hope for the future that lay in the presence of a new-born child.

Much that gives meaning to life, in John’s phrase, “isn’t there”. One cannot put truth, righteousness, compassion, tolerance, wisdom, love and a multiplicity of other qualities in a tin box on the desk, as with plastic counters. These qualities are intangible, abstract, but though “not there”, are the building blocks on which a whole and complete life is built.

Those abstract nouns cover qualities which may be hard to define, elusive to categorise. But we know what we mean by them, we are aware when they are present. Without them life is the poorer, like a Christmas pudding without the fruit; a stringy turkey without the trimmings.

John used that which “wasn’t there” to face up to a problem and arrive at a satisfying ending. The imaginary counters that John saw in his mind’s eye were useless in themselves, but were essential props to be taken up and manipulated in order to reach a joyful conclusion. They might not be visibly there, but paradoxically, their presence was essential.

Job asked, “What is wisdom; where is the place of understanding?” Qualities that were real enough, but they “weren’t there”. And yet, unless they are present, the peace and goodwill we mouth at Christmas-tide, and crave for throughout the year, is not achievable. Understanding is the key, a box of counters if you like, that enables peace to be achieved. Wisdom it is that consolidates the answer, and writes it in the book.

Two thousand years ago was born one who grew up to announce, “A little child shall lead them”. He knew, as we know, that it is a child who questions interminably. It is a child who from time to time stumbles against a door of understanding and pushes it ajar. Sometimes we are privileged to be present at that moment and share in the deep joy, as a new vista unfolds before the discover’s eyes.

Perhaps John thought of the Creator of all Things as the being that “isn’t there”. For his definition of “isn’t there” was that which is not concrete and material, but yet enabling, and real. “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings ….”

Our children are brought to be christened in the presence of the invisible but real, seen not with the physical eye, but with inner vision. That which “isn’t there” enables us to perform minor miracles, whether it is John manipulating numbers that only he could see, or the adult facing the burdens that threaten to overwhelm.

In a few minutes a young child will come to be dedicated here. We trust that she may be, as all children should be, taught to see and understand that which “isn’t there”, but by which all life is given meaning. May we all dwell under the protection of the infinite, whom, unless we become as children ourselves, we may not know is there. Invisible, though all pervasive, it is the power that gives life.

C.J. Rosling

Fulwood 29 December 1996
Fulwood 9 Dec. 1990
Upper 16 December 1990
Mexborough 20 January 1991

Sunday Sermon – 7 July 2019

I know the Price, but what is the Value?

From time to time I am asked, as others who lead occasional services are asked, “How do you decide upon the subject for the address, or sermon?” I can’t say how others respond, but I don’t find it an easy question to answer. That is because there are so many answers. Sometimes a thought seems to arrive out of the blue; sometimes I have read a book or a passage from a book and want to share my thoughts about it; sometimes the idea arrives out of an occasion – anniversary, Christmas, a birth or a death, for example; sometimes thoughts have been rumbling round for quite a while before bursting forth; sometimes…. but I could go on for ever, so I will come to the point. Though a general answer may be difficult, I know exactly what started me off this time. It was a newspaper cutting, yellowed and crumpled, which I unearthed at the back of my desk drawer. I must have cut it out from a paper or magazine ages ago and stuffed it in the drawer. Then forgotten about it. I can’t remember doing it, and I have no idea what prompted the action. I don’t even know which paper it came from, or on what date.

But there it was. I empathised with the sentiments expressed on the discoloured scrap of newsprint. So I typed my sermon title carefully at the top of the page “I Know the Price, but what is the value?” Now I will share the contents of the cutting with you – but not quite yet. If I read it out now you might all stop paying attention, so I will hang on to it for a little while. But I will tell you what is written up it……. eventually.

Arguably the most familiar quotation on the topic of price and value is Oscar Wilde’s description of a cynic: a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. An obsession with price isn’t reserved to the cynic. We have all come across the bore of either sex who insists on informing you of the high price of each of his or her highly expensive possessions. For them, price determines value. Such a person often seeks to be admired, envied even, because their goods have high figure price labels. “I paid – quoting a substantial figure – for this”, they say, implying that value can only be obtained at a price, and they are willing and able to pay it.

That might be dismissed as a pretty harmless conceit. So it is if it remains as a piece of self-indulgence which doesn’t hurt others, and may indeed give the rest of us private amusement. But more often than not, a further step is taken, whereby it is assumed that perceived value of possessions is equated with moral superiority. Wealth and goodness are thereby depicted as being hand in hand, really one and the same. That is why Jesus used the analogy of a camel squeezing though the eye of a needle, maybe a little exaggeratedly, when assessing the chances of a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven. It is why Jesus spoke warmly of the widow donating her mite, but coolly of the rich man ostentatiously flaunting his wealth. And, I trust, why the verse from the Victorian hymn “All things bright and beautiful” has been quietly dropped. The one which ordains that the “…rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate” with each group understanding they should accept the judgement God has made about their status in life. Failure to separate price and value may lead to difficulty if self-regard overlooks the importance of humility.

There are plenty of examples where a very high price-tag is reflective of very high value in every sense. For instance, art galleries and museums are full of fine examples. A painting, a sculpture, a piece of exquisite craftsmanship may command huge sums. This may be in part because of rarity, or uniqueness, as well as for beauty and design. The work of art may be said to be priceless. Priceless, because it contains something of the soul and the vision of its creator; if lost it could not be replaced. It may be copied, reproduced by others, but it cannot be created again as a unique work. Its value lies in that originality of thought which produced something unique, an exquisite thought or design, that made others gasp with joy, and behold with wonder. Though cost may determine the barter price, value is much more than that.

In front of me, on the wall of my room as I write these words, is a water-colour. It was painted by a local artist and depicts a scene on the moors at the edge of Sheffield, not far from where I live. I value the picture and enjoy looking at the lonely landscape and the cloud formation. If it went into a shop for sale it might fetch just a few pounds, or quite possibly not. Equally possibly, it would be passed by for months. Pleasant and pleasing though it is, it is by no means a work of genius, a masterpiece. Yet it has great value, to me at least. It is irreplaceable. It was a surprise present given to me several years ago by colleagues with whom I had worked as chair of a committee over a decade or more. It was a kindly, unexpected gesture by kindly companions. Hence its value. It represents companionship, love and affection. I look at it and recall faces, some no longer living, with whom I had laughed, sometimes argued, who had been as loyal to me as I hope I was to them. More valuable than gold, yea than much fine gold.

Frequently value, as distinct from cost, has, amongst its components, the best of human character. Love, affection, dedication, sacrifice, blood, sweat, tears, joy, exhilaration.

These are qualities without price, for they are not for sale. They have a value greater than expensive consumer items lining the shelves of the super-market or department store.

You remember the Old Testament story I read earlier in the service, of David and his longing to drink from the water from the well of Bethlehem? In the end David adjudged the value of the water when it was brought to him too great for him, and could not drink it. It became a sacrifice to be made to the Lord. The value lay in the fact the men had risked their very lives to bring it, simply to please him.

Earlier this week I took a coach journey. On the way back, a summer day, we paused for a short time at the head of Monsall Dale, looking at the valley spread out below. I am sure you are all familiar with that splendid view. How would you cost it? To pose the question evokes bewilderment or hilarity. Then, how would you value it? As a priceless jewel, elixir for a jaded spirit, a place in which to think upon eternity? What ever the personal response, it is surely to think of value in a different way than in monetary terms. Peace, serenity and beauty defy pricing.

Not least to be valued is freedom. We worship free from constraint, though that was not ever the case. Laws protect us, our rulers are elected, our judges are independent as is our press. The value of freedom is much unappreciated, unless or until it is denied.

There is a familiar line in a prayer, couched in archaic English construction, which goes, “Teach me to love what Thou dost love” I construe that to mean, “Let me learn what to value, what may not be costed”.

All right, I’ll tell you about this cutting now. It refers to a statement by the late Robert Kennedy, a member of the American Kennedy clan, whose brother was President, assassinated in Dallas in November 1963 when evil darkened a sunny day. Robert himself was to meet an equally tragic, violent end. Here, in this quote, Robert is responding to economists who saw human achievement in purely material terms.

He said,

“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes our life worthwhile”.

Of course that passage is not a comprehensive list of what makes life worthwhile, we might all add a bit here and a section there, but it makes, elegantly and movingly in my opinion, the central point; that to know the price is not a guide to true value.

Now you know what spurred me to talk about this today.

C. J. Rosling 21 May 2004

Hucklow 23 May 2004