Letter from Roger Tarbuck, February-March 2018

The church pulpit

The principal of a theological college once asked his students: “What is the most important thing to remember when preaching?” The answers came: peace, love, and so on. “No,” said the, principal, “the most important thing is to inspire, because, if you don’t inspire, no matter what you say, none of it will reach your congregation. None of it; you’ll just bore them to death.

Who, or what, can inspire us, apart from famous people, family members, etc? Pretty well anything. If it’s good and fine it’s easy to see how it can work. And if it’s bad, say a person or object, or a set of circumstances, e.g. rudeness or crime or any other foul thing, well, it can inspire us to be the opposite of what we witness.

A possible example of inspiration comes from my grammar schooldays. It was a boy called Powell, or “Perp”. At the end of term, we were all listed from the brainiest downwards. At a stratospheric level came Perp. Nobody could reach him – and he wasn’t a swot. He was just brilliant. Then came nearly all the girls, with a few stragglers mingling with the cleverest boys; then the main body of the boys fell in, and, last of all a jolly girl called Beryl and I struggled for the penultimate place. For the first two years at that school, I had been “middling”, but good enough to be shovelled, with all the brainy kids from three forms, into a remove form to take the School Certificate in one year less than the rest of the school. (Bad idea! All those clever kids. Hence my abysmal position at term-end.)

Conkers

You might think that Perp could have inspired me to work harder. He was a nice lad; everybody liked him, but no: whenever somebody compared me with a “better” boy I heeded not. I only mention Perp for this negative reason. Now, a boy who really did inspire me was called Roy, in our little village school. He was three years older than I, and cruel people had been known to call him a dunce, but he had the most wonderful contents in his pockets: some absolutely splendid conkers, a square horseshoe-nail to make holes in them, lots of string, a fantastic old pocket knife, a red hanky, a rabbit’s tail, a few coins, a blade from a hay-mowing-machine, shaped like a shark’s tooth! – and best of all, a fistful of .22 rounds –real bullets, forsooth – somehow obtained from his carefree elder brother.

Roy would give us a few cartridges and show us how to free the lead bullets with our teeth, then bite (yes, bite) the end of the metal case to shut the powder in. Next, he would put the shell on a large stone and whack it hard with another one. The result was most inspiring. But Roy’s capacity to inspire lay in more than the superb contents of his pockets. It was his friendly, good-natured seriousness.

All the kids liked him, and he was at an age – about thirteen – when most boys ignored younger children and spent their time spitting and aping the swaggering characteristics of certain men they knew. Roy was different. In a field next to the school, there was a huge hollow tree, which you could climb and gingerly lower yourself into through a hole in the top. A bit dangerous: you could get stuck inside for hours if you were alone – or die there! One day, most of us younger children – boys and girls – lined up and took turns in climbing the tree and squeezing into the hole – first time for most of us – to find Roy already standing inside holding his fantastic pocket knife, with which he’d slice a piece off a big swede and give it to us with a smile, before gently helping us back out of the hole. He inspired me with his kindness, his patience, his strength and constant good humour. He was a mature spirit.

As I’ve said, anything may inspire us. A good speaker may cause us to speak well, but a bad one may do likewise, because they make us realise how important it is to speak clearly. A cruel person may teach us the value of kindness. A thief may help us to sympathise with victims of crime. A lazy person may inspire us to get going and do something. In a more direct way, I have often been asked by a sick, elderly person (haven’t you?): “Of what use am I in my condition?” Well, the memory of the way we bravely lie in bed may inspire a person in their dark hour, perhaps half a lifetime from now. In other words, we may never know the inspiration that we give to other people.