At our bedside we have a radio alarm. It must be at least thirty years old, but it works. I set it for, say, eight o’clock, Radio 4 news switches on and the day begins. Well not quite. A period of floating in a sea which lies between the shores of dreamland and the beaches of the stark land of hard reality is a prelude. A pleasant voyage on the Sea of Tranquillity. One drifts idly between two continents, the news-reader drones on, and I catch on phrases from what is being reported, remembering little of it. Finally the ocean current washes me ashore at the foot of the climb inland, marooned to experience the joys and pain of a new day.
A few mornings ago I was being told through a sleepy haze that some-one, some-where, was expressing alarm because addiction to shopping is apparently on the increase. There are those, it is said, who have a compulsion to shop and shop without stop. Or at any rate, until they drop. At that point I drifted off again for a few more minutes. I dreamt of shopping. It was not a pleasant reverie.
I consider that whatever addictions I might fall prey to, I am safe from compulsive shopping. Where there are those who live to shop, I am driven to enter store or emporium only when it is necessary to shop to live. As chauffeur and porter I have to accompany Marie, my wife, on regular shopping trips, most frequently to the super-market. She enjoys it. I, at best, tolerate it.
Though I have lately had to take responsibility, though only temporarily I hope, for shopping, this is not the norm. In the normal routine, Marie knows it is no use giving me the list in order to share the burden, or occupy my mind, for I invariably get the wrong thing, the wrong colour, the wrong brand, or the wrong size. So I amuse myself and try to be helpful by tidying the shelves, or pushing the trolley into places where it won’t be in every-one else’s way.
The other day I was trying to park the trolley away from the bustling crowd, without much success, when a lady, watching my efforts, said, “It’s no use, where-ever you go you will be in the way!” She was absolutely right. So I abandoned the trolley and went to the cafe for a cup of tea. Then sat on a chair near the check-out and read the paper.
Some weeks ago a shopping expedition took us to an establishment which boasted of no place of refreshment. I was instructed to wait by the entrance, and not to wander off. A couple of chairs are to be found near the door. One was occupied by an old man. Actually he was about my age, but then one naturally thinks of others being old, whereas I know that I am in the prime of life. Or, as I read recently, some-one described his own years as being in the springtime of one’s senility.
I sat down and immediately the old man struck up a conversation. Not really so much a conversation as a monologue. It was one long moan. The general theme was, day by day, things were getting steadily worse. Kids played outside his house, shouting and running about. I quote, “At our age we can do without that”. The boys played football in the road, and from time to time kicked the ball over his fence. They then opened his gate to retrieve it. When he told them to go away and play some-where else, they cheeked him before running off. Pointing out, I dare-say, that he didn’t own the road. Children nowadays were not the angels they were in his youth. At least, that was the general drift.
I thought it wise not to reveal I was a retired teacher, as that would have started off a new diatribe. I wondered silently to myself if, as a boy, he had ever played in the streets, and if he did, was it quietly, speaking in a low voice, walking on tip-toe and never running about? Did his ball never go over a garden hedge? But he had gone before I got round to asking him.
Later I thought of an old book which was used in my youth as a basis for Sunday School lessons. It was a book of short stories, each illustrating a moral. The volume was named, as often is the case, after the title of the first of the stories. This was, “The House with the Golden Windows”. Perhaps some of you remember the story. Let me briefly remind those who either are unfamiliar with it, or have forgotten it.
A house stood at the top of a hill. Below the hill was the valley with a further hill rising beyond. A second house occupied the crest of that far bank. In the first house, the back of which looked to the east, lived a boy with his family.
The boy would look across the valley at the second house, wondering about its inhabitants. He noticed that every morning, as the sun rose at the back of his own home, the rays glinted on the windows of the distant building. Those windows shone, and were quite clearly of gold. One day, he determined to visit this wonderful house with windows of gold.
Eventually he started off on the journey. Down the hill, fording the river in the valley, and up the other side. It was a long way, a day’s walk. It was evening when he reached the distant homestead. Disappointedly, he viewed the windows and saw that they were, not of gold, but of plain glass. The sun was setting and he looked back over the valley at his own home. The evening rays glinted on his windows and now they were revealed as shining like gold.
It is a simple story on a familiar theme. Sometimes it is expressed by saying the grass over the fence is greener. Did not Petula Clark once sing a popular song about this? Sometimes the same sentiment takes the form of believing that the apples on the neighbour’s tree taster sweeter than our own.
The old man who, for a few minutes, sat by my side near the door of a retailer thought of a golden age when everything was so much better. I know nothing of his life, but I suspect that much of it had been spent bewailing the present, and, as it were, looking across valleys seeing that others had golden windows, whilst resenting the fact that his were of plain glass.
Count your blessing one by one, the Victorians used to say. Physically and materially we have so much better living conditions than was true in the past. The drudgery which was house-work is so much easier than it was for our mothers and grand-parents. Many of the slums, which were barely more than hovels, have disappeared. Most people in this country are better fed, better housed, warmer and healthier than has ever been the case. This in spite of the fact that homelessness and poverty by no means have been eliminated. There is much more to do, but let us not pretend nothing has got better. That everything is now so much worse. These are improvements in the physical sense, material changes for the better. Less easy to measure progress in the sensory world, let alone the spiritual domain.
If we are not careful, we shall fall into the trap of believing real charity, selfless service and consideration for others has gone from the land. This is a falsehood. I know, and I am sure you know, many who give of their time, their money and their skills as they serve the community in a variety of voluntary organisations. And not all are of one age group. There are young people, middle-aged and older folk who are thoughtful of their neighbours’ needs. Loutishness and boorish behaviour make screaming headlines; daily courtesies seldom do.
The danger of ever looking across the valley at the golden windows of others, or looking backwards with nostalgic rose-coloured spectacles whilst decrying the present, is that we become morose, bitter and arguably even worse, self-centred. We ever bemoan our fate, we never offer our service. And that to my way of thinking is irreligious.
One of my favourite New Testament readings is from the Book of James. The passage about faith and works. You can’t have one without the other, to borrow a quotation from an old popular song concerned with love and marriage. If we think things only get worse, if we never cherish what we have. If we live unto ourselves with no regard for others, then we are denying one of those three pillars of Christian religion of which Paul wrote. For we are lacking in Faith, with Hope little more than an idle dream, devoid of expectation. The greatest may be Charity, but let us not devalue Faith and Hope.
Despair will never improve upon what we have now. The challenge is to make the world a better place. Our encouragement is seeing what has already been achieved. The coupling of faith with works is the mechanism by which our fore-bearers made progress to a better life.
There is a tendency to think, or imply, that making the world a better place is a task for the great and the good. It is true that a number of thinkers, philosophers, philanthropists, statesmen and women, scientists and inventors, whose names fill the history books, have made huge and lasting changes which have improved the lot of uncounted millions. None of us here will make such claims for ourselves. But all of us have the ability to couple faith with works.
Much of joy in life is given and received not from the few figures who adorn pages of history, but by the small actions of the anonymous many. Hope is not nurtured by envious eyes cast at the green pastures over on the other side, but by cherishing that which we have, and sharing our portion with others.
We too have golden windows. To do something about the rest of the structure which may need some attention, is the task to which we should commit ourselves.
The parable of the talents is one about which I’ve never felt too comfortable. Then I suppose it depends upon the interpretation. What I do feel comfortable with is the notion that, whatever talent, gift or skill one may possess, it should be used to the benefit of others. To pretend that one has nothing to offer, even though it is merely a smile or a word of encouragement, is sinful, is unchristian. To moan that things were once much better, but fail to contribute to efforts to improve matters, is deplorable.
I know it sounds condescending to say so, but I felt sorry for the man I met by chance whilst avoiding strolling around the shelves and racks of the store. I felt sorry, not out of a feeling of superiority, but because I know that his dismal view of the world harmed no-one more than himself. He sounded without hope; he appeared to be without faith; charity was absent from his discourse. Joy seemed to play no part in his life. The exhilaration which comes from service to others was missing.
To live a life gazing at the mirages of golden windows, whether they be conjured up by nostalgia for a past that never really was, or by a present where paradise is always over the distant ridge, is to live in a slough of despond, a morass created by oneself. How much more exhilarating it is to observe that one lives in a mansion whose windows glow like gold, if only one looks at them from the right angle.
C.J. Rosling 14 July 2004