Shorthand - a sermon given as part of "Cambridgshire Celebrates Age"

30 September 2007
You can also find this address on the Memorial Church (Unitarian) Webpage

When it comes to writing any sermon concerned with age and ageing it is very easy to slip into one of the million clichés on offer: for example - 'age brings greater wisdom.' Well although this is often the case, like many of you, I am sure that you have also met older people whose lack of wisdom has been astonishing to behold. We also know that ageing - even under the best of conditions - is not always a bundle of laughs. Platitudes then, especially from a relative youngster, are pointless and unwelcome.

So what am I going to say? Well, I'll begin in a moment with a skill whose regular practice certainly belongs to an older generation: shorthand. But, before that, I'd like to make an important and more general point concerning one of the things that makes being a human being, whether young or old, worth while: it is the discovery of meaning. Notice I use the word discovery and so by it I do not mean simply making meaning up but uncovering something real about human purposes and projects. This discovery of meaning is, as James Luther Adams (the great twentieth century Unitarian Christian theologian) properly the domain of theology and philosophy in its older forms and he noted:

"Theology deals with meaning, with the meaning of life, with its nature and its resources, its perversions, its possibilities. It aims to deal with ultimate issues, with perspectives in terms of which radical questions can be asked regarding life. Religious meaning is relatedness to the ultimate source and resource - to God" [NB. remember that by God I consistently mean God and Nature - Deus sive Natura] (Transforming Liberalism - The Theology of James Luther Adams by George Kimmich Beach, Skinner House, Boston 2005, p.15)

What Adams is saying is that theology is a practical discipline which tries to help us communicate to each other about how the One and the many relate together - to reveal how they cohere in a greater Divine Unity. Consequently theology is profoundly concerned with the ability to communicate. Communication is the point and to do that you need a language fit for the purpose.

Now we must note that all languages, to some degree or another, compress. They have to because language alone (whether verbal, musical or visual) cannot express all the meaning there is to express in all its forms. Of course, poetry is the obvious example of the compressive quality of language. Anyway, to say that language compresses is, in a rather abstract way, to say that all language is necessarily some kind of 'shorthand.' James Luther Adams, once "told a story about mastering the Gregg system of shorthand as a young assistant to a railroad superintendent. He commented that he was taught that you must not deviate from the system by creating your own private system of notations, because others will need to read what you have written" (ibid. p.16).

Quite naturally we might ask why would Adams remember this and relate it some sixty years after he had learnt it in the context of theology? Well he did it in order to illustrate that all language communicates in 'shorthand' ways and that language continues to communicate effectively only if the 'shorthand' does not become a purely personal language. George Kimmich Beach, Adams leading modern interpreter, points out that, although 'words may contain hidden or deeply personal meanings' if we are to 'enter into a world of SHARED meaning' they can only do this 'up to a point' or 'for the time being.' Beach points to a poetic example to help us understand this by the poet Robert Frost who, in his poem Revelation, uses the image of the children's game of hide-and-seek: 'Those who hide too well away Must speak and tell us where they are.'

The problem we face in our own age is that all of us are playing, not always consciously, very effective games of hide-and-seek with each other. Using private languages the young hide from the old, the old hide from the young - we all know the many reasons cited for this but they often boil down to: the old are reactionary, boring old codgers with nothing contemporary and relevant to say, and the young are all weapons, drink and drugs-crazed computer geeks. Some of them, perhaps, but if we are all hiding from each other how do we know? I mean really know?
Of course, the trouble with this game of cultural, political and religious hide-and-seek - fun though it is in the beginning, if after a while you cannot find the hider, eventually you give up and go in for tea. Eventually, on the basis of much experience, if you come to the conclusion that you won't find anyone when you do go looking you no longer even bother to play the game in the first place. In the end, no one looks for you and you don't look for anyone else. There is a wonderful Jewish story illustrating the very sad results of just such kinds of hiding and not being able to see or know whether anyone is looking or not:

"Rabbi Baruch's grandson Yechiel was once playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He hid himself well and waited for his playmate to find him. When, after a long wait, he came out of his hiding place, the other was nowhere to be seen. It seemed his friend had not looked for him at all. That made him cry and, crying, he ran to his grandfather and complained of his friend. Then tears brimmed in Rabbi Baruch's eyes, and said: God says the same thing: "I hide, but no one comes looking for Me" (quoted in Day by Day by Rabbi Chaim Stern, Beacon Press, Boston 1998 p. 28).

Incidentally, looked at the way I am looking at it this story can also be read as a criticism of God's ability to hide too well. I leave that tantalising thought for another day. But, as our spiritual model and exemplar Jesus reminds us our faith is in fact about calling for an end of all secrets and enabling better and more creative communication of the truth that makes all people and all creation free: "For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light" (Mark4:22).

Yet we are today seriously hampered in our calling as our culture, for all kinds of reasons - some more understandable and excusable than others, has for at least a century been wilfully fiddling about with our cultural, religious and political shorthands. So now - if we ever bother - when we look at each other's shorthand notebooks we are stuffed. Lots of what is written looks familiar but all over the place extra personal symbols have appeared and we cannot read them.

Remember I suggested at the outset that one of the things that makes being a human being worth while - whether young or old - is the discovery of meaning and I also suggested that theology is a vital part of the process and that is dependent upon communication. It is here that good religious and spiritual groups can be of particular help. By good I mean any religious body that seeks to help people discover this meaning themselves and then provides a safe context in which to discover meaning together in community and conversation - not all religious groups do that and those I call bad. This is why, on every order of service I print Bronson Alcott's words: "Conversation as the natural organ communicating, mind with mind, . . . is the method of human culture. By it I come nearer to those whom I shall address than by any other means." These words are printed for a real practical theological reason and not merely for superficial show.

But true communication requires at least three things from us all. The first is that we do not hide ourselves away so well. We need to let ourselves be found. The second thing is to go looking for others ourselves. The third is sit down with those we find or who have found us and begin to try with them to create a new, shared shorthand - the tea, coffee and conversation here occurs, I hope, in this context. You may think you are just having tea, coffee and conversation but, in truth, if you really are talking with each other, then in this church you are engaging in a genuine liberal theology and the discovery of meaning. Lots of the old symbols and stories we will find still work - in fact we might find that new depths of meaning have been added to them over the years of hiding. But lots of the old symbols and stories no longer function so we are going to have to work very hard at creating a whole new lexicon of shared symbols and stories. We can only genuine reconnect with each other - young and old - and begin to have a deepened respect for each other, when we reconnect through a working shorthand with common interests and skills.

(In passing a word of serious warning needs to be given here - very serious. Some groups are now very adept at using the broken shorthand to make us think they are really communicating with each us when if fact they are still remaining very well hidden. I can cite afterwards - for those interested - meetings with various groups, from regional and national government and also religious groups (both liberal and conservative) where you are quietly led to believe you are talking about the same things when if fact you are being led up the garden path.

This is where age can be both a curse and a blessing. It is a curse because many of you will remember how the cultural, political and religious shorthands once worked and so may be ready to believe too soon that you are talking meaningfully with someone. Follow Jesus' advice here and remember to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Talk, yes - there may be real communication - but keep your wits about you. But age is also blessing because it gives you a powerful wild card to play. Because you are older you have a better perspective on this collapse of shorthand meanings. You are the ones that can see, if you keep your wits about you, that something is not right, that the shorthand is being misused. This is more easily seen by you than any youngster who has never experienced the shorthand really working.

To conclude, my basic point today is that without real communication, without real and functioning cultural, political and religious shorthands, we have a bleak future of isolation and a collapse of shared meaning ahead of us all and we will be crying tears much as Rabbi Baruch and his grandson Yechiel did. But it need not be that way if we recognise the time for playing hide and seek is over. We all need to go in for tea, sit round the table and talk. Really talk.

Please, as older people, realise that you are a key instrument, a barometer if you like, by which we can gauge whether we are really communicating with each other or not. It seems to me that, right now, this is the great and unique gift of older age. I know it to be so because some of you have come to me bearing such a gift. The weather report you bring may not be a good one right now, but because of you and your help, we who are younger will be prepared to weather the storm and come out of it stronger and better able to build a shared and open future.