Every week Sedberghians put their talents and reputation on the line. Our sportsmen and women test their teamwork, skills and fitness against the best in the country, our musicians perform in front of audiences of 600 and our artists present their work for comment and criticism. Debaters argue in public and academics present their ideas to societies of their peers. As they step out of their comfort zone our pupils risk criticism and failure. Yet every week, they do it all over again. Only by taking risks and stretching themselves can our pupils excel and become the very best versions of themselves.
I am immensely proud of their character as well as their talent.
In my role, the equivalent exposure comes through writing and speaking in public. It is a privilege to share my ideas and values with young people and so, in solidarity with my pupils, here is my first sermon of term. The readings were Psalm 15 and Philippians 2:5-11
A young man walks into a shop, he seems nervous,
“I’d like a pair of shoes please.”
“Of course, Sir, what sort you would like?”
“I’m getting married – something for my wedding.”
“Something formal, Sir?” and so the fitting began.
As he measured his client’s foot and they discussed the different types of leather which would be made into the shoes to be crafted for his particular feet, the shoemaker asked how much the young man knew about shoes. Only a little it seemed.
“Let me explain,” he said. “Your relationship with your shoes is as close as a marriage and very similar. You will depend upon your shoes just as you will depend on your wife, and your relationship with them will be as intimate. Cheap, fashionable shoes soon fall out of favour and are discarded, much like a fashionable wedding or one forged in the frenzy of the dance-floor. Solid, workmanlike shoes are reliable and effective but they lack excitement and may be replaced when newer models arrive.”
He paused to look the young man in the eye….and continued.
“Leather shoes are different,” he explained. “At first, they will pinch and rub because they have their own character. But despite the discomfort, you have invested thoughtfully in your partnership and you will persist in the relationship. Over time, both you and your shoe will change shape and mould to each other. One day, you will suddenly realise that you are working in perfect harmony. That will continue unless you allow wear and tear to damage the fabric of your footwear. Some people are careless and their shoes fall apart - it is always a shame to see good workmanship go to waste. But if you stay interested in your shoes and care for them, your relationship will endure for many decades.
Inevitably, with time, everything becomes worn and so it will be with your shoes. They won’t look good forever, they will lose their fine shape and fashions will change but that doesn’t mean they are no use, far from it. Your relationship with them will change again, they become the good friends who will nurture your feet, misshapen with age; flattened arches, splayed toes and emerging arthritis. And you will mend their worn soles and frayed stitching. Now the two of you look after each other and remember the miles you have journeyed together.”
This time the shoemaker held the young man’s gaze for a little longer,
“Do you understand me?”
In August, I celebrated 30 years of marriage. Every year, my wife and I celebrate our anniversary; in many ways we value it more highly than our birthdays because it is a shared achievement – you don’t earn your birthdays.
You may wonder why I start the term speaking of marriage? That ceremony, whether a civil or religious ceremony, is simply the act of formalising a relationship in public. The advice offered in that shoe-shop refers to all our life-long relationships.
As our new school year gets underway, you are about to forge new relationships, and rekindle or develop established ones:
Relationships with your peers, as you make new friends and develop existing friendships
Relationships with your teachers
Relationships with the School
These are important relationships – for now, for our future together and for the rest of our lives. The advice given in that shoe shop holds true for every relationship you will ever have whether it is with another person, an organisation and even yourself. Invest carefully, nurture your relationships well, and understand that they will change as you too will change. Be gentle and kind.
There is one more relationship that we may start, develop and nurture throughout our lives. Our relationship with God.
Right now, your relationship with God may be that of a passing acquaintance borne out of necessity because you have to come to Chapel. But as time passes you will recognise elements of the service that you enjoy, perhaps a certain hymn, maybe an anthem with which you become familiar or a prayer to which you connect. And so your relationship with God may progress to interest, enquiry, engagement and commitment. This relationship will follow the same pattern as that described a moment ago; it needs careful thought, it needs maintenance and your relationship with God will change as you grow older.
“Do you keep a diary?”
the elderly shoemaker asked, turning the shoes that he had once made over and over in calloused hands.
“No,” said the man, surprised at the question.
“I can tell the story of a man’s life by looking at his shoes,” said the old man. “Their style tells me how he perceives his place in the world and their treatment tells me if he is careful with his money or a spendthrift. The wear on the soles tells me more: does he walk upright and tall, or does he slouch; is he confident; are his knees bandy and wide; is he overweight - so the heel-blocks are compressed? Is he careless, treading the backs down; or dirty so that the linings are soiled and torn?
I can tell how he lives by the marks on the soles – smooth polished soles speak of a cautious man who rarely strays from his house, scuffed soles belong to the city dweller ground down by the daily walk to work. Scraped and damaged soles tell me a man is an adventurer who travels different roads, who is in a hurry to explore what is over the horizon.
I can tell if a man values and nurtures his friendships, whether he invests in them or is merely a passenger. They tell me if he is reliable or flighty, whether he is honest in business and whether he provides for his family, or if he is too quick to follow a new interest.”
The shoemaker turned to the woman accompanying his customer, and embraced her warmly, “Happy anniversary, my darling,”