This is a four word sermon, carved on a pillar several hundred years ago in a small quiet church on the outskirts of Scarborough. It made me think. The person who first carved this message in St Laurence’s church, Scalby, and the people who first saw it had no doubt what it meant. It faces you as you enter the building, challenging you the minute you walk in through the door, before you turn to walk down the nave and reach the safety of your seat. It was designed to be a reminder of God’s power for each person who enters the building, a reminder which would have been understood as a double edged sword. God’s power could be seen to destroy all too easily in a society where early mortality, violence and uncertainty was an everyday reality. It was something to fear. It was also something to cling onto, the one thing that you could rely on in a world where there were no safety nets and nothing was certain. It interested me that the word used was remember, not revere or respect. Remember.
Aside from the regular worshippers, who would still understand the message in exactly the same way, I wondered whether it still had something to teach our mostly secular society which no longer subscribes to a belief in God, whether it is ready to openly admit it or not. Our culture as a whole “doesn’t do God”. Can a carving in a small church made several hundred years ago still have something to teach those who have no faith, or a very different one? I think perhaps it can.
Pra remember the power of those family and friends who have influence over you. Recognise it, value it, but question any acceptance of their values and opinions which comes too easily to you. Your family love you but they may not know what is best for you. Your joy in life may come from something that they know nothing about and they may never be able to lead you towards it or understand why it matters to you. Accept their experience and remember that it is hard won, listen and grow from it but never let it limit your own expectations. Your friends care about you, but they have their own agenda- you don’t have to share it. You are allowed to be different. You are allowed to find your own path with their support.
Pra remember the power of the tradition and culture that you grew from. You may need to fight against it but always value and respect it. Like it or not it made you who you are. Those older or younger than you will have developed their own values in a different world to the one which you grew up in. Understand that and forgive their differences. Talk to them and learn from them.
Pra remember the power given to those who are in authority over you. Understand what you can and can’t do to challenge it. Understanding where the power lies in any given situation can be the key to changing things where change is needed. Work out where to find assistance from those in authority when you need it. Never be too proud to admit that you are weak and ask for help. Those in power over you have a duty to look after your well being- that is why they are there. Expect their respect and if you don’t get it, challenge them- but always remember who is in charge. Tread carefully.
Pra remember the power of those who run our society. Understand that they will make mistakes but always, always, hold those in power to account for them. They are saying what they want you to believe- learn to recognise the truth which lies behind that as you listen to them.
Pra remember the power that you have over others. You influence those who you meet and care about every day whether you realise it or not. You can use this power to build or destroy the happiness of others- never take it lightly or imagine that what you say or do (however trivial) doesn’t matter. Someone will notice and their world will be made better or worse for it.
Pra remember the power and beauty of the natural world around you. Cherish its beauty and do what you can to protect it. You are part of an ecosystem, not a single organism and you rely on everything around you in order to survive and thrive. It will not sustain you without active and vigilant care for its well being. None of it should be taken for granted or misused.
Pra remember the power that you have inside yourself. You can’t do everything- nobody can- and you shouldn’t assume that you can do anything that you want to. Forget your weaknesses and forgive yourself for them, other people may well continue to point them out to you but the fact is they will probably always be your weaknesses, shrug your shoulders and work round them. Work out what the nature of your own power is, your own talents, interests, skills and passions. Use that knowledge to make a place for yourself in the world and do whatever it is that you are best at. Above all work out what makes you happy and do that, not what other people have told you will make you happy, not what you have watched other people find happiness from, not what you feel you ought to do, but what really makes your own heart sing.
If you can do that then whether you believe in God or not you won’t be so far away from him and if he doesn’t exist you’ll be too busy enjoying living to worry about it.
A serious house on serious earth it is, In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, Are recognized, and robed as destinies. And that much never can be obsolete, Since someone will forever be surprising A hunger in himself to be more serious, And gravitating with it to this ground, Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, If only that so many dead lie round.
from Church Going by Phillip Larkin.