Messages all Around Us
I am just about old enough to remember the crystal set – that early form of radio, or rather wireless as it was then called, which required the contact between a thin wire known as the cat’s whisker, and the surface of a small crystalline substance. How it worked I know not, but that a crackling sound, which with some difficulty could be recognised as a human voice, came from it I do recollect, and we marvelled at it as well we might.
I remember, though, more clearly the wireless sets in wooden cases with the cut-out fretwork fronts, the long pointer which moved over a semi-circular dial to call up Droitwich and Daventry, the silver coated valves inside and the accumulator batteries which had to be regularly re-charged, in our case at the local cobbler’s shop. But what I recall also, and what remains with me to the present day, is an emotion, partly of puzzlement but mainly of awe, that a small piece of wire waving in the air – the aerial – could capture sounds of speech and music produced tens, hundreds or even thousands of miles away, and conduct these sounds through the set into our own houses.
“It is perfectly simple”, no doubt the scientist will tell us, but the magic of that seemingly miraculous trick is not tarnished by explanation. That words spoken in Stranraer or San Sebastian fill the air around us in Sheffield or in San Francisco, waiting to be captured on small pieces of metal sticking up and connected to a box of electrical parts, is breathtakingly wonderful, and so shall I always view it.
Of course, if the air was full of words and music waiting to be captured in my youth, how much more is that true now. And not only words and music, but pictures and what the computer buff calls data or information. The air around us is a veritable Tower of Babel, as television stations, satellites, mobile telephones, national radio stations, local radio stations, radar installations, aircraft, ships, space-craft and goodness knows who else scatter their messages and images into the air, to fall to earth God knows where.
We may sit quietly, conscious of no disturbance, as all is silence and peace, and yet, with the right boxes of tricks, we could pluck out from that silence conversations, music, images of folk far away, cries for help, reports of battles in distant lands, happy laughter from Birmingham or screams of terror from Burundi. I find it awe inspiring. The apparent silence around us is in reality a cacophony of sound, a portfolio of views, an encyclopaedia of information. All we need to access it is a magic box of tricks, a piece of equipment which will translate the unseen to the seen, the unheard into recognisable sound.
These sounds are generated by humans. Broadcast and scattered by the ingenuity of men and women through the machines they have built. Collected on other electronic gadgets around the world, and even in the skies above. But they are not the only sounds around us, which are unheard in the normal course of events.
Many will have seen on the edge of the Cheshire plain, not far from Manchester, the huge metal dish-shaped structures at Jodrell Bank. These dishes are one a number of installations built to collect and map the source of origin of sounds coming from far into space. Some of these sounds come from objects so far away that their journeys commenced shortly after the beginning of time itself. Their sources of origin are so distant that the length of journey is hardly comprehensible to our minds. If one were able to travel at eleven million miles a minute, roughly the speed at which light travels, it would take not millions, but thousands of millions of years to reach the source from whence some of these sounds originated. Their journey commenced before the earth itself had been formed. They will be travelling long after the earth has disappeared.
Until fairly recently, certainly within the life time of many of us here, no-one knew of this noise which moves through the air around us. The vibrations were there, but the means of hearing them had not been discovered. Now astronomers are not only enabled to hear, but are beginning to interpret. The weird discord which is an essential piece of evidence to enable better understanding of the universe and its origins.
If say, two centuries ago, it had been said that one day men and women would watch pictures, hear music and listen to news readers in their homes, their places of work and even when travelling around the countryside, and that all this information was in motion soundlessly and invisibly through the air and over the oceans, most would have found it difficult to accept.
If it was further said that there would be hand-held instruments which ordinary people would own, and which would enable them to speak to friends on the other side of the world, then this would have been thought a fairy tale. In earlier centuries men and women have gone to the stake for lesser so-called heresies.
In the same way, if it had been suggested that there were sounds inaudible to the human ear all around us which had travelled over millions of years from far distant space, and that it would one day be possible to hear these sounds, to map where they had come from, and to determine from them some of the deep secrets of the beginnings of the universe, I think that many folk would have treated such statements with a certain amount of scepticism. Doubting Thomas subscribed to the view that seeing was believing, and doubting Thomas’s are plentiful.
This leads me to a number of thoughts. First, because concepts and ideas are difficult to understand does not mean that they cannot possibly to be true. The concept of a force, a creative power, for which we use the shorthand “God” is not to be dismissed on the grounds that, with our present powers of understanding, it seems improbable. I find it beyond me to fully comprehend just how sounds, pictures, information and the like can travel through the ether, then be plucked from the air and translated into sounds and images on television sets, mobile telephones, radio sets, computers and so on. But though I may not understand it, I know it happens, for the evidence confronts me.
Which leads to the second point. I may know no more about the nature of God than I understand of the nature of the mysterious sounds which inhabit space, and which are gathered by astronomers at Jodrell Bank and elsewhere. But, just as I am convinced that pictures travel invisibly through the air by the evidence on my television screen, so I am convinced of the existence of God by the creation which is revealed on the earth, under the oceans and throughout the vast universe.
If light and sounds are permeating throughout the vast realms of space which are the universe, why should it be in any way remarkable that the creative spirit which we call God should not also be a force within this same universe. invisible yet omni-present, universal yet accessible, full of mystery, awe inspiring.
Thirdly, the sounds which are around us are accessed with the right techniques and equipment. Here in this Chapel this morning the air is full of these sounds, but we don’t hear them. Bring in and activate a television set, a radio, a mobile telephone and those sounds would be heard, those sights would be seen. Switch off and they would fade as far as ear and eye are concerned.
The presence of God is also here around us in this Chapel as indeed it is in the countryside, the town, in our homes, our work-places, our sports arenas and within our vehicles. But as we need to switch on our television set to get a picture, or to dial a number on our telephone to speak to a friend, to tune to a station to hear our radio, so we take the right action to attune ourselves to God.
In the infinite space of the universe there are massive objects which give off no light and which are invisible even to the huge astronomical telescopes, so how did we know that they were there? We didn’t until the radio telescopes were devised which mapped the sounds which came from them. We needed to tune in the right way to find out.
Is there not a parallel here? The fact that we are not tuned in, that our sets are turned off, our aerials dismantled does not negate God’s presence. If I turn my radio off, or disconnect my television set, the BBC transmitters are not destroyed, nor does Radio Sheffield or BBC 2 cease to exist. Nor if I choose to deny the presence of God does that affect the power and might of God.
Life is the poorer cut off from communication with others. Though some of the television and radio programmes may be of dubious worth, without doubt our lives have been enriched and our knowledge has grown with the advent of this miracle of communication. So it is that, to use the familiar religious phrase, communion with God enriches our lives, increases our understanding, bringing ease, pleasure and peace.
Tuning in is easier in some places than others. There are good and less good reception areas. Places of worship perhaps are good reception areas. The atmosphere is, or should be, conducive to peace and contemplation, other distractions are minimised. The fact that we worship in the presence of others also seeking this contact with God helps build as it were a bigger aerial, or a larger dish to gather and concentrate the messages.
But contact with God is not confined to the Chapel or Church. God is as we say, omnipresent – that is present everywhere. We carry our mobile sets with us, for we are all so equipped. All we need is to extend our aerials, switch on and listen. The sound will be heard, and the sight will be seen.
The analogy may be poor, but the message is clear. God is seen and unheard, though not absent if the switch is not activated. Activating the switch may be a small and simple action, but it puts us in immediate touch with an immense force, it enriches our lives, it broadens our perceptions, it enables communion to begin.
C.J. Rosling 17 October 1993
Fulwood 17 October 1993
Mexborough 20 February 1994; 28 September 1997
Hucklow 7 January 1996; 30 June 2002
Upper Chapel 4 August 2002