Sunday Sermon – 4 November 2018

Building Dams

Robert Browning wrote those oft-quoted lines

“Grow old along with me
The best is yet to be
The last of life
For which the first was made.”

Whether age is really to be preferred to youth is one of those insoluble problems, like whether or not the football or cricket teams of yesteryear were better or worse than those of today. Or whether Charles Dickens was a better story-teller than Antony Trollope. There is no definite answer, only opinions to be held and points to argue. What cannot be gainsaid is that age has a greater store of memories than youth, and that we old people spend much time recounting, repeatedly recounting, these memories, thus entertaining ourselves and boring every-one else.

Usually among our more vivid memories are those from childhood, with the less pleasant passages conveniently forgotten, the hurts and buffets passed over. The long hot summers which always were, the winters when it always snowed at Christmas, glamorised, for time has softened all hard edges, and confused fact with imagination. So let me now use the privilege of the pulpit to recall a memory and bore you all for a moment.

My early boyhood was spent in a small town with fields, moors and open spaces literally over the garden wall. We roamed the fields playing football, cricket, rounders, and cowboys and Indians. We lit fires, climbed trees and searched, mostly unsuccessfully, for bird nests. We lay in the grass and watched the lark soar. Up on the nearby moors we heard the curlew call, though we failed to spot her. Then, when other games palled, we would build a dam in one of the streams which flowed down from the hills.

It is the dam building I remember most vividly. Choose the right spot, and, by judiciously placing stones, filling gaps with sods of grass, clay and pieces of wood, the three inch deep stream became a pool, a couple of feet or more in depth. There we looked upon the lake we had created, upon which makeshift boats of wood could be sailed. It was a sea with unplumbed depths. With rolled up trouser legs, the brave would seek to cross the wide ocean on foot. Constant attention was required to the dam wall, for leaks appeared as the pressure grew. The deeper the water, the greater the pressure.

In reality, it was a physics lesson on the storage of energy, of the power within nature; a practical exercise in engineering, even if it was to us but a game.

Thinking about it now, one can visualise the scene. That which had been a restless, scurrying brook, never still but always moving on to new fields, was transformed, behind the dam, to a stretch of still water, peaceful and calm; still waters running deep. The headlong rush checked, the waters were subdued, as contemplative calm was imposed.

Eventually we tired of the game, or perhaps hunger told us it was time to go home. A vital stone was removed from the wall, and we watched the tidal wave sweep downstream with a powerful surge, carrying stones and debris before it. The power of the water was awesome. Those peaceful depths contained a strength far greater than that of the puny stream which normally trickled down the valley.

Our game of dam building was thousands of years old, even if we did not know it. From similar childish games long ago, the techniques of irrigation had evolved; the method of harnessing power to drive, first water wheels and later electric generators, had developed. The provision of fresh water to whole communities had grown from such playful beginnings. Industrial processes requiring huge supplies of cooling or cleansing water were to spring up. Dams play a vital role in harnessing naturally occurring energy to the service of mankind. Their discovery ranks in importance alongside that of the wheel.

But there is much more to be learnt. The building of dams is a metaphor for the development of society structures, and, conversely, the bursting of a dam wall, illustrative of the breakdown of communal harmony.

We are born as individuals, each with his or her own store of energy, each descending through life’s hills and valleys on the journey to the eternal ocean from which we came, and to which we must return. Individually and independently we have but limited strength. We may move a grain of sand here, a stone is worn microscopically there. A reed sways, a twiglet moves as we pass; but little changes. Alone we are too ineffectual, too weak.

As a dam is built, the ceaseless rush is calmed and our strength is added to that of others. We are of a community, part of a powerful force, capable of driving great machines of change, able to transform the desert, that it may blossom as the rose. No longer merely part of a tiny stream idly passing by, we become a powerful pool of energy, whereby the world may be changed for good, or for ill.

But the dam must be maintained in good order. I have on my book-shelves a copy of a book which I am sure many of you will have read, “The Collapse of the Dale Dyke Dam, 1864”. This is the story of the great Sheffield flood, when the bursting of the Dale Dyke Dam caused great devastation and loss of life from Rivelin, Malin Bridge, through Hillsborough and down into the City centre. It is a riveting account of the uncontrolled fury of those unleashed waters.

Though dams are there to benefit a nation, if they are breached they bring misery and distress. So it is with societies which break down. The forces released are truly dreadful in their destructive powers. In Angola, in Sudan, in Somalia, in the Balkans, on the shores of the Black Sea, in Ethiopia and in central Africa, we have seen all too clearly and sickeningly the consequences of the bursting of the dams that hold societies together. Nearer home, for three decades the dam in the island of Ireland revealed ominous cracks, but still holds. Hopefully, slowly some of the worse cracks are slowly being repaired.

What are the stones, the cements, the clays, the binding materials of the structures that weld societies’ dams and give them strength, so creating powerful social units from individual souls?

They are the virtues of decency and respect, of tolerance and regard for others. They are tenets within a creed which says I must respect you and observe your dignity as a human companion, for I wish you to have regard to my privacy and right to be treated with respect. The materials which build our dams must have the strength and adhesive properties which come when our rights and freedoms are constrained, so that they may allow the rights and freedoms of others to co-exist.

The construction of the dam must allow for inter-twining and inter-mixing, so the pieces inter-lock as do the parts of a jig-saw puzzle. When the adhesion fails, when individuals are pushed apart rather than drawn together, then cracks appear. If two magnets are placed together with north pole to south and vice versa, then they stick like glue. Turn them round, so similar poles meet, and they fiercely repel one another. No power can bring them together. So with people: if the pole of hatred is faced by a similar pole of antagonism, then they are forced apart. Match apprehension with understanding, hatred with love, evil with goodness, and a bond may be formed.

But so far my metaphor is incomplete. A dam has its safety valves, its over-flows and sluice gates, so that when the pressure grows too great, when the waters are risen too high, relief can be given.

No matter how strong the dam wall, the strength is finite. It has its breaking point. So in all human communities, tensions arise and must be relieved if disaster is to be averted. What shall be our sluice gates, our pressure relieving valves, within society?

Partly, of course, they are secular. There must be a system of justice which is accessible, and in which people have confidence. There must be aesthetic pleasures – music, literature, libraries, theatres, sports and so on – which uplift the spirit, bringing peoples together in joy, as they share their exultation. Education for all, equality of opportunity, housing for all citizens, care for the sick, infirm and disadvantaged are obvious rights. But these attributes of a decent society, important, nay essential, as they are in themselves, are insufficient. Material comforts are supplements to, not substitutes for, a spiritual dimension.

When we are part of a family, however tenuous the links that sometimes bind us within the family, we are aware of something special. I spoke earlier of the virtues of decency and respect, of tolerance and regard for others. If we are to encompass these qualities, it is because we see ourselves as part of the same family, for we are all children of God. We are a part of his creation.

Great civilisations of the past have collapsed. The dam has burst. Those collapses have occurred partly, if not wholly, because of the inadequacy of the sluice gates, the safety valves. Where the belief in a spiritual power is extant, of a dimension that is outside material things, a faith which believes that within all people is a spark of the divine, then the nation may thrive. Where the people lose their souls, then to be sure, dams do burst.

We may see around us a world in disorder, where materialism is preached and practised. But we have a sacred trust to keep alive the beliefs that the world is held together by powers beyond our understanding, but upon which depends our survival. Our religious beliefs give meaning to life. They hold the dam together. They ensure that power is used to the benefit and not the ultimate destruction of mankind. Even in our blackest moments of despair, we must not forsake our trust. Our duty is to maintain our faith and to hand it on undamaged. The future of the dams must not be undermined with a time-bomb constructed out of a materialism purged of the spirituality which we profess and hold dear.

Francis Thompson once wrote,

“World invisible, we view thee,
World intangible, we touch thee,
World unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!”

Lose that faith, and we lose our spirituality. Our salvation is within our spirituality. To that we must hold if the dam is to remain intact.

C.J. Rosling 25 April 1993

Fulwood 25 April 1993; 1 8 June 2000
Mexborough 6 June 1993; 23 November 1997
Hucklow 20 June 1993; 25 January 1998; Doncaster 12 February 1995
Bradford 14 January 1996
Chesterfield 20 June 1993; 12 October 2003
Upper Chapel 31 October 1993
Stannington 6 November 2005

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