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

 

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