Doing Summat for Nowt
It is not easy to avoid jargon words these days. Even Unitarians are prone to use them when discussing their beliefs, or describing church organisation. So no apologies for using a jargon phrase and describe myself as being moderately computer literate.
Actually though I sit in front of a computer screen during a part of most days, my skills in using the keyboard and the mouse (more jargon I’m afraid) are comparable to those I use when driving a car. I know how to start and stop, execute straightforward manoeuvres, but if something goes wrong under the bonnet I am stumped and have to call for assistance. Hiccups or punctures in the car and I turn to the AA for salvation. I rejoice at the coming of the yellow van with the orange flashing light on top. So if the computer “goes down”, I think is that is the correct term, I am quickly on the phone to those who know about these things – like my children and grandchildren.
But if the computer has become an everyday tool, a pearl beyond price akin to the washing machine or the food mixer, it remains nonetheless a source of wonder. Even more so the internet, which allows one to research in libraries around the world, to communicate easily, virtually instantaneously, with friends and relations whether they are in the same town or on the other side of the world, even to shop, to bank, to buy a ticket. We may use it to send photographic images or to watch news as it unfolds in Timbuktu or Tipperary.
One morning during last July I sat in my room in front of the screen and watched a degree ceremony as it took place in Exeter University. I saw the rich colours of the gowns, heard the music, watched the procession, listened to the speeches, and best of all saw a granddaughter mount the stage and smilingly receive her degree certificate. I will certainly have had a better view than most in the hall, and moreover could wipe away a tear of pride in the privacy of my own study. All this possible through the extraordinary, dare I say miraculous, power of the internet.
I enjoyed the speeches. Something the vice-Chancellor said stuck in my mind. He spoke of his pride in the academic achievements of the graduates, but added that his greater joy was the fact that his university topped the league for the quantity of voluntary service given by the students to the wider community during the past year. He spoke of a total of 100,000 hours of unpaid, voluntary work undertaken by the students; equivalent, he said, to the output of more than seventy, paid, full-time workers.
Giving freely of that most valuable of gifts, time, has long been something which I have strongly believed in. The strength of any community is measured by the willingness of folk to do, in a Yorkshire phrase, “summat for nowt”. Occasionally the statements “It’s not my job” or “I’m not paid to do that” may be justified, but not very often. Those phrases are generally associated with a reluctance to help, used as a get-out clause. “What can I do to help?” are musical words. Even more pleasing is the helping hand given before it was requested, the need anticipated, the gesture made freely and gladly.
Praise for voluntary service is not to decry paid work. In times past and in other places I have argued the case that the workman or woman, is worthy of the hire. If we don’t live by bread alone, we certainly are soon in desperate straits when we are unable to afford the staff of life.
Poverty wages, most notably those paid to workers in the third world who fill western shops and supermarkets with the goods to sustain our affluent life-style, are a disgraceful stain on our civilisation. But what illuminates a life is surely what that person did freely, generously and without thought of reward to give pleasure and joy to others.
There is an old prayer, attributed to St. Ignatius Loyola, in which the phrase “to give and not to count the cost” appears. Not all branches of the Christian faith embrace the canonisation of saints, but the saint’s prayer is intoned in many churches, chapels and meeting houses.
And the spirit of giving and not seeking reward is not exclusive to the Christian religion. People of all religions, or none, citizens of all nations are at their most saintly when labouring and asking for no reward, except the joy and satisfaction of giving freely.
Though, as I have said, generosity of mind, service to others, charity in its most comprehensive sense, is not confined to those who claim attachment to a religious faith, it is no accident that church adherents have been so prominent both collectively and individually in extending a helping hand to others. That second of the great commandments, love thy neighbour, is a firm rock, an essential foundation, on which faith is built.
One can mention just a handful of examples culled from an extensive list of Christian inspired organisations and enterprises based on charity in its widest meaning, Christian Aid, the work of the Salvation Army, Sisters of the Poor, Homelessness at Christmas, the community served by Margaret Barr in the Khasi hills. All these are but a tiny sample from a huge portfolio of service given not for financial reward. Liberal generosity offered freely is truly rewarding.
Both the Old and New Testaments are packed with examples of what might come under the umbrella of voluntary service. Ruth’s attachment to Naomi, the Good Samaritan, the disciples who followed Jesus around the countryside, Mary washing the feet of Jesus, are just a few examples of, as the saying goes, doing it for love and not for money.
This chapel in which we worship this morning, like hundreds of other places of worship, would quickly fold if a band of volunteers ceased to do “summat for nowt”.
Village enterprises, youth clubs, help for the aged, child-minding services, political parties, a multitude of support groups of all kinds, and many other activities which bring comfort, solace or joy into the lives of others depend upon giving and not submitting a bill afterwards. Who among us has not been cheered by a cup of tea in the hospital café manned (if that is the right word when the individual is invariably female) by a voluntary worker?
The volunteer at the end of a Samaritan telephone line has lifted the suicidal out of the pit of despair. The Rotary Club visitor to the children’s ward brought laughter so pain was temporarily forgotten.
But the voluntary task, done from a heart fuelled by love is not confined to organised volunteers. Of at least equal value are deeds done on an individual basis. They include shopping for the housebound neighbour, helping out by picking children up from school, small kindnesses in daily life which are of huge benefit to the recipient.
These too are part of the “summat for nowt” oil that lubricates, gives pleasure to the giver and receiver.
Worshipping may be about different things to different people, or vary for the same person at different times. The worshipper comes sometimes with sadness, sometimes with joy, mourning or celebrating, filled with wonder at the immenseness of the universe, marvelling at the perfection of the minute forms of life. Some will leave refreshed, others consoled. Bored, interested, puzzled, illuminated, the moods vary from day to day.
But a place should surely be found in our worship, at least occasionally, to give thanks for the ability of folk to serve others, to give without a reckoning up afterwards.
The spiritual replenishment that worshippers may seek in an act of worship is not diminished if we turn from time to time from contemplation of the mystery of life and its creation to rejoicing in the practical goodness of humankind. Rather it is enhanced.
A biblical passage familiar to many regular worshippers begins with the line, “Now let us praise famous men”. Someone more gifted with words than I, should pen a passage lauding the contribution of those who do so much to hold society together, to ease the burden carried by the neighbour, to fill hearts of the weary with thankfulness, and spread pleasure around.
The noble aim of love for neighbour is implemented though the volunteer who knows, or soon finds out, that doing summat for nowt is not without reward. The reward is finding that the joy and satisfaction felt by the recipient is contagious, and infects the giver too.
The widow’s mite and the rich man’s largess are both contributions to be welcomed. Mite or largess may have a cash value, or may be the unquantifiable sum of love and compassion, worth nowt to the banker but summat to the beneficiary, more precious than gold when it comes to evaluating human happiness.
C.J. Rosling 8th September 2007
Hucklow 9 September 2007