Category Archives: Reflections

The Ancient Mariner

It is an ancient Mariner,  And he stoppeth one of three.  ‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,  Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?  So begins one of the greatest Christian poems in the English language. It deals with the huge themes of our faith – sin and its consequences; repentance; forgiveness; love; mercy and mission – and they don’t come much more momentous than that. It was written, as you all know, by young Sam Coleridge. I say young – he was 25/26 when he wrote it. He was supposed to be writing some lyrical ballads for a book he was publishing with Wordsworth but ‘The Ancient Mariner’ popped up instead and changed the course of English Literature! Coleridge was born in Ottery St Mary – a chocolate-box village of stone cottages with roses round the door, a village green and a magnificent parish church where his father was the vicar. Sam was the tenth child – I always wonder if, with ten children, his parents ran out of names, since at his baptism he was named after his Godfather- a man called Samuel Taylor – and Samuel Taylor Coleridge he’s been ever since!  He had an idyllic childhood until his father unexpectedly died when Coleridge was eight.  Almost overnight, the family lost their home and income and went from genteel to shabby genteel. Of course, the older sons helped out and it was decided that young Sam should go to Christ’s Hospital – a charity school in London. At first he hated it, but the school came to recognise his way-ward genius and he eventually did well. He didn’t do quite so well at Cambridge where he ran away to join the army and his brother only got him out of that by claiming he was mad!  I’ve always had a soft spot for Coleridge. In the first place, he was a prodigious walker – he and William and Dorothy Wordsworth thought nothing of walking 20 miles, coming home for tea and then going out for a walk! He was much-admired preacher – he would walk eight miles, take the morning service and then walk eight miles back! I’ve just drawn up the preaching rota for the next six months and I haven’t dared suggest that! And he was a great radical and a political activist – constantly arguing against slavery and poverty and for equality and democracy in his poems, lectures and articles for the newspapers  He did the wrong things for the right reasons. When he and his friends decided to turn their back on England and set up a pantisocracy in America where all would live together equally, it was decided it would be improper for single men and women to live together. So Coleridge agreed to marry Sara Fricker one of the group. The group never went, of course, but Coleridge still felt he was committed to Sara in what turned out to be a disastrous marriage.  And he suffered terribly from neuralgia down one side of his face. He was probably first given laudanum for the pain at school, but he came to be totally addicted to the opium on which it was based and it was to ruin the second part of his life.  But out of all this pain and blundering about and waste and self-centredness came a great Christian poem. So what’s it all about? Well it’s about a lusty young man, curly haired, freckled, sun-burned, loose limbed who loved to be out in the fresh air. Actually, I made all that up – we don’t know what he was like but that’s how I think of him! What we do know is that he lived in a port, he needed a job, he wanted cash in his pocket and naturally enough he signs on to go to sea. At first, he loves it. He likes being with the other young men, he soon makes friends, he enjoys the exercise, and at the end of the voyage he would have money enough to spend. What’s more, he begins to see sights he could hardly have imagined. The sailing ship makes for the Antarctic and soon they are traversing the great ice fields. He’d never seen anything like it! And through the drifts the snowy clifts  Did send a dismal sheen:  Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—  The ice was all between.  The ice was here, the ice was there,  The ice was all around.  And then one day, a great albatross came swooping down low over the ship. Of course, like the seagulls following the Rothesay boat, it came for the fish churned up in the wake. Then it began to make friends with the men. It swooped and soared, they fed it bits of food it had never tasted before, they laughed and joked with it and before long, when work was done, they looked forward to the coming of the albatross.  Then without any warning, and with no discussion with the other sailors, one day our young man took his bow and arrow and shot and killed the albatross. Why? He didn’t want to eat it! He didn’t want to wear it! It wasn’t doing him any harm – quite the contrary! And he wasn’t a bad lad, certainly not an evil one. He was just a blokey sort of bloke. But he was careless, insensitive; he was thoughtless – he just didn’t think about the consequences. And he had the bow and arrow – he had where-withal to execute power.  But what had he done? I love the new translation of the Genesis story – not that mankind has dominion over the earth – but that mankind has responsibility for the earth. And our young man has abdicated all responsibility. Towards the end of the poem are the famous lines which all of us know – maybe we had it on the wall of our bedroom, or as a bookmark, or we learned it in Sunday school – you’ll see a copy of the well-known illustration by Margaret Tarrant on the back page of your booklet. He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small;  For the dear God who loveth us,  He made and loveth all.  Long before we knew about climate change, long before Al Gore and the “convenient truth”; long before we realised we were running out of renewables; long before we found plastic at the bottom of the sea, Coleridge looks at the ravages caused by the beginning of the Industrial Revolution – tin mining, coal mining, mills, factories and mass production, – and he warns that we destroy the earth at our peril. As we saw in Roger’s play last week – Mother Earth is in dire straits; and as we were warned at harvest, if the bees go, so do we. Coleridge warned us 200 years ago! But it was more than that.With all due respect to the Rothesay seagulls, this was an albatross – magnificent, powerful, resplendent, blameless. An albatross has a wing span of up to eleven feet. It can live for up to 50 years.  It rides the ocean winds and glides for hours without rest or even a flap of its wings. Why would our young man want to destroy it? What is the impulse to deface, to vandalise, to despoil, to desecrate?  Like you I was brought up on Paul’s letter to the Philippians ‘whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Sowhy do we fill our heads, and our children’s heads, with gratuitous cruelty, and pornography and materialism and covetousness? You’ve probably sat through the trailers at the cinema – with a 12 or 12A classification – but they’re nearly all fantasy violence. Men and women, animals and imaginary creatures from science fiction – all at war with each other, all bent on destruction. When did we allow words like ‘honest’ and ‘pure’ and ‘lovely’ become so naff and uncool? And it’s no coincidence that when our young man finally stares into the beauty of the ocean realisation dawns and repentance comes. He’s sitting on the sail mast, all alone, even God seems to have left him, staring at the sea creatures all around him and he’s suddenly aware of the beauty that surrounds him: Within the shadow of the ship  I watched their rich attire:  Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,  They coiled and swam; and every track  Was a flash of golden fire. O happy living things! no tongue  Their beauty might declare:  A spring of love gushed from my heart,  And I blessed them unaware. But it was more than that.The albatross was a friend, it came to play with the sailors, they sampled different things to eat, it showed them it’s tricks. They taught it their tricks. They fooled about together, they joked and teased and knocked the chips off each other’s shoulders. They went to places they’d never been before and tried out ideas and did things just to please the other. They were friends.  And it flew low over the ship in friendship – until our young man killed both it and the love it inspired.  ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God’ writes John the Evangelist at Ephesus. We don’t realise how important friendships are until a careless word, an email with the wrong tone, the failure to pick up the phone, just generally being too busy, and our friendships are bruised, damaged. Relationships with our neighbours, our communities, in our church, at work, and most of all within our families, can be delicate, and they need to be nurtured. We don’t mean it – but failure to thrive in our relationships with others can lead to dysfunctional families, bewildered children, loneliness, mental ill-health.  And broken relationships need to be put right not killed off. No doubt, like me, towards the evening, you ponder over the day’s events and wish this or that hadn’t been said or done – and it is one of the great rewards of trying to follow the guidance of Jesus that we try to put our mistakes right – we clarify what we really meant, we say we’re sorry, we make it up. And if someone has hurt us, we ponder whether it’s any big deal – is it worth losing a friendship – and we start afresh the next day. Paradoxically, its these ordinary, perhaps modest relationships which are so essential for our well-being and make for a rich, satisfying, rewarding life. And by the end of the poem at last the young man begins to understand what he has lost: O sweeter than the marriage-feast,  ‘Tis sweeter far to me,  To walk together to the kirk  With a goodly company!—  To walk together to the kirk,  And all together pray,  While each to his great Father bends,  Old men, and babes, and loving friends  And youths and maidens gay!  But it was more than that.At first, the young man is unaware of the consequences of what he has done, the ship sails on and the other sailors think he was right to have shot the albatross. But gradually when the sailors realise that the wind has dropped and the sails hang loose and the ship is scarcely moving – then they blame it all on the death of the albatross. And they take its body and hang it round the young man’s neck like a great cross.  There are consequences of sin – and there is a price to pay.  For the young man has drifted away from God. It is God who made the bounteous earth and gave us responsibility for it. It is God who is majestic and powerful and glorious. And it is God whose love underpins our relationships with each other. And as the young man drifts away from God, the wind drops. We all know what the wind is. It’s a metaphor, an image, a figure of speech for God. It was the wind which parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape from Egypt. It was the wind which caused the waters to subside around the Ark. And when the Holy Spirt comes at Pentecost it’s like the sound of a rushing wind.  And now the wind stops completely. The result is nothing less than catastrophic. The ship is becalmed: As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean. They are making no progress, their food runs out – and what is worse – the water runs out. Water, water all around And not a drop to drink. And one by one, our young man watches his friends, his ship-mates, die of starvation and thirst – even his nephew – his brother’s son. Their bodies shrink, they lie like skeletons and their tongues blacken. And watching them he has nightmares of the supernatural, his imagination plays tricks on him, his fear and guilt and loneliness overwhelm him.  And then he sees a ship on the horizon. Salvation! He can’t call out because his mouth is dry, his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth. So he bites his arm and whets his tongue with the blood. And the ship hears him, and changes course but as it draws near he sees two spectres playing with dice. He’s desperate – I’m dying and you play games. But the spectres call out – oh we’re not here to save you – we’re dicing for your soul. And the young man finally understands what he has done – he is in danger of losing the very essence of what he is and what he could be. And he’s so, so sorry. And in that moment he’s forgiven! The self-same moment I could pray;  And from my neck so free  The Albatross fell off, and sank  Like lead into the sea.  And the wind begins to blow! But soon there breathed a wind on me,  It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek  Like a meadow-gale of spring—  It mingled strangely with my fears,  Yet it felt like a welcoming.  He has found God again. And God surrounds him with mercy and love! The sails fill up, and the ship bowls along and soon he begins to recognise the sights and sounds of home:  Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed  The light-house top I see?  Is this the hill? is this the kirk?  Is this mine own countree?  Like the prodigal son, home is where he belongs. And when he finally reaches the shore he runs to the watching priest and begs to be reassured that he’s forgiven. Tell me your tale’, says the priest. And are you truly sorry? Then God forgives you – go your way in God’s mercy.  But that’s not the end of the story – if it was there would be no poem – and no point. The point is that the young man is left with a burning passion to tell others of his experiences – his stupid but terrible mistake, his realisation and acceptance of his sin; and his overwhelming insight that God never left him and loves him still.  And he knows he hasn’t had a lot of practice in public speaking. And he knows that not many people think as he does. And he knows that people look at him strangely and find his behaviour odd.  But he is on a mission. The ship is sailing towards disaster and someone must warn others, in God’s name, to change their ways. Which is why It was an ancient Mariner,  And he stoppeth one of three.  ‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,  Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?  I pass, like night, from land to land;  I have strange power of speech;  That moment that his face I see,  I know the man that must hear me:  To him my tale I teach.  Amen.


The Grand Perhaps

During the summer, I spent a few days with a friend in Keswick in the Lake District. Those of you who have visited the Lake District will know that it is aptly named – it tends to rain a lot – so we went to the theatre a lot!

One of the plays we saw opened with a fictional professor reporting on the outcome of a piece of fictional research. A number of eminent academics across a variety of disciplines had been asked to come together to debate and discuss and select one word which characterised – typified – all human knowledge and understanding.

I can’t now remember which disciplines were represented but no doubt there was a chemist or two, an astronomer, a lawyer, an economist, a couple of Vice Principals and I suspect all the ‘ologies’ – biology, geology anthropology – and I’d like to think maybe a couple of the arts. So they duly met, and over their cappuccinos they argued and debated and eventually came up with one word which characterised all human knowledge. By this time the audience was all agog! And the word they came up with was ‘perhaps’!

It’s an intriguing idea. I was sitting in my house earlier in the year, listening to a lecturer in physics from Glasgow University. Yet again we were discussing the apparent discrepancy between science and religion, reason and emotion, faith and belief? Unbelief? Disbelief? We had come through the big bang, the first few minutes, the Goldilocks theory, and skirted round black holes and multi-verses and here we were at the end of the evening about to plunge into Genesis!

The physics lecturer said that he was about to show us (through PowerPoint!!!) a diagram of what scientists currently believe about the origins of the universe, the theory of evolution within our world. ‘But before I do so’, he said, in a Eureka moment, ‘I should warn you that by next week all this might change. Even now someone might be writing a learned article for Scientific American which will at least amend if not transform all our ideas. Perhaps from NASA or the Hadron Collider in Switzerland or even Jodrell Bank.

And, of course, that’s right! Just when we think we’ve got things sorted along comes a Galileo or an Einstein or a Darwin or an Adam Smith or Martin Luther or Marie Stopes or Rosa Parks or even Jane Austen, Beethoven, a Michelangelo – and upsets all we thought was the right way of knowing – of doing things. Imagine sailing with Vasco da Gama on a round the world voyage when you know, you’re absolutely certain, that the world is flat! Self-evidently the world is flat. Perhaps!

Of course, the writer of the play was not the first to come up with the notion of ‘perhaps’. Robert Browning got there before her. Browning wrote a long poem called ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’ The word ‘apology is not used here in the sense of saying ‘sorry’ or asking forgiveness but in the sense of a ‘defence of’, an ‘argument for’ and being a bishop his ‘apology’ is a defence of, or an argument for the Christian faith.

The Bishop has the misfortune to be to be living in the 1850s. If he had been living 300 years before no one would have questioned his certainty. If he’d been living 100 years later no one would have questioned his doubts.
But here he is in the 1850s when the whole edifice of the Christian faith is crumbling at its foundations – and bringing down the Christian church in its wake.

Perhaps the most significant issue was the work of David Strauss, a German theologian, who applied the same principles of historical research – the use of internal and external evidence to verify primary source material – to the Biblical texts. He showed that, far from the Bible being the inspired Word of God (come down on Pickering and Inglis rice paper as we used to say) he was able to point to discrepancies and contradictions and to indicate that the Gospels, for example, had been written sometime after the death of Jesus and were at the very least, open to question. In particular he suggested that the miracles should be seen, not as having literally taken place, but as myths – embodiments of eternal truths.

The book was so revolutionary that the Earl of Salisbury said that it was ‘the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell’. If the very documents on which our faith is based are shown to be inaccurate and contradictory – we either have to question our faith – or find a new way of interpreting them.

Furthermore, scientific discoveries were throwing doubt on the Bible’s explanations of how the world and its life came into being. Interestingly, Christians could accept that the world wasn’t created in 4004 BC and they didn’t really have a problem with the idea that the world was not created as it is. Any old farmer could tell you that!

The problem lay in the driving force behind evolution – the survival of the fittest. That a loving God could create millions of …. whatever …. and only a few would make it. What a waste of life! And the few that made it were the strongest, the most intelligent, had the biggest brains, could fight better. That’s not what we thought God was about.

As Tennyson wrote

‘We trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law –
But Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine shriek’d against this creed.

I falter where I firmly trod,
And stretch lame hands of faith and grope…… ’

‘I falter where I firmly trod’. We’re still suffering from the after-shock of all this– we can hardly imagine how our fellow Christians were feeling, rooted in their certainty, – 30 years before this church was built! Not only was it the stuff of academic debate in our great universities it was discussed in every Bible Study, Lent study, Saturday Soirees, and over Sunday morning coffee. It also raged through newspapers and magazines. It was not a good time to be a bishop!

And one day the bishop reads an attack on himself in a magazine where a journalist – Gigadibs (which is a play on words meaning ‘a fishing expedition!) accuses him of gross hypocrisy. He despises him… the Bishop can’t possibly still believe in the Christian faith and yet he goes on drawing his salary and living in a magnificent palace. And so, the Bishop invites Gigadibs to dinner.

The poem is what we call in the trade ‘a dramatic monologue’. That is, we don’t hear what the other person is arguing, we only hear the Bishop’s defence but from his answers we can guess what Gigadibs is arguing.

• It’s 1900 hears since anything happened! Nineteen hundred years since the last divine revelation. And it clearly doesn’t work now. Not a lot of dead walking about!
• And you’ve heard all the arguments – from theologians for heaven’s sake. They’re supposed to be on your side.
• And then there’s the scientific arguments.
• But worst of all is your hypocrisy. You live in a magnificent palace: the beautiful architecture. the intricate tapestries, marble floors, and the sheer size of the Bishop’s living quarters. And look at the dining table – fine lace, crystal glasses, the finest of food and wine. You don’t exactly live the way Jesus of Nazareth taught us. You’re a hypocrite!

And the Bishop replies:
• Yes, it has been a long time – we thought Jesus was coming back. And the church hasn’t exactly covered herself in glory over the last 1900 years. And in that time we’ve done some terrible things – no wonder nobody trusts us.
• And yes, of course, we have to accept what theologians and scientists are telling us.
• And yes, worst of all, I don’t live as Jesus, standing on a hillside telling people that God loves them, taught us.
• I am a hypocrite.

And Gigadibs thinks Yes! Gotcha!

And then the bishop goes on, – just when we are most doubtful

………………… there’s a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one’s death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides,
And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring,
Round the ancient idol, on his base again, –
The grand Perhaps!

It’s interesting to unpack the Bishop’s arguments. We might choose something different but it’s not our poem!

A sunset touch: I don’t know what does it for you – maybe standing on top of a Munro and looking out across the landscape and a thousand cattle upon a thousand hills. Maybe it’s a walk in the woods in autumn; maybe the dew on a spider’s web. I was climbing the Conic Hill once with a friend and as we stood on the bridge across the Burn of Mar she said you see that stone, with the water tumbling over it and the sunshine glinting – that’s why I believe in God. Eh?! For me it’s the head of a dahlia. All the diversity of shape and texture and colour, and symmetry – and why do we respond to it all? Surely, it’s easier to believe in a creative force than blind chance? And, you know, in the theory of evolution, it’s a long way from a blade of grass to consciousness?

A sunset touch: A fancy from a flower-bell: That sudden sense of the presence of God, something other, something numinous. Perhaps we’re suffused with joy, or gratitude, or overwhelmed with guilt? Or we ask for help and it comes and we think ‘What was that all about?’
A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the pew listening to Alan playing the organ and thinking ‘I wonder if so-and-so would take part in this service’ and when the organ stopped so-and-so came over and said ‘I wonder if I could take part?’ Of course, it was coincidence! Perhaps! I call these spooky moments. The Bishop calls them fancies.

A fancy from a flower-bell: someone’s death: You could argue that our understanding of death is one of the most significant differences between those with faith and those without. It’s a harsh philosophy that argues that this is all there is. In my experience, it’s not so much the funeral, or even the moment of death, painful though these are. It’s the days, weeks, months waiting for the inevitable. Do we not linger over the old images and languages and hymns and promises? Don’t we grasp at hope. And is there nothing beyond, above, below, beside, no other? Then what does that make of this world? Do we just get up and go to bed for 60, 70, 80 years and then that’s it? Surely, we clutch at something more?

Someone’s death: a chorus ending from Euripides: or a Braham’s symphony or a painting, a sculpture, and embroidery. All that creativity and imagination and skill where does this come from? And notice it’s a chorus, – we do it together – relationship, community, fun, laughter. If you say ‘I can’t believe in God because of all the pain and suffering in the world’ then how do you explain all the love and laughter?

‘Surely’, says the Bishop, ‘in all this there’s room for a ‘Perhaps?’

Now you may be sitting there thinking ‘Perhaps’ is a wishy-washy sort of a word, a peally-wally sort of a word; a maybe sort of word! We’d like to absolutely certain!

But ‘Perhaps’ got us all up out of bed this morning and brought us to church; ‘perhaps’ sent someone yesterday in to a shop to buy flowers for the communion table; at the end of the service Priscilla will arrange for the flowers to be taken to someone to let them know we were are thinking of them. ‘Perhaps’ got the sound system organised, and the tea and coffee, and the order of service printed, ‘perhaps’ put the hymn numbers on the boards. And during the week, ‘perhaps’ will bring people back to the church for the Crypt café, and the Conversation Classes and the International Club and the host of other activities that the church offers.

And at the end of the service ‘perhaps’ will send us all home determined to try just that bit harder, to be more generous, more accepting, more forgiving, friendlier to passers-by.

And when we see pictures on our television of the needs of others ‘perhaps’ will get us all digging deep into our pockets. We will never meet these people, we may never know what happens to them, we’ll never see the toilets and the tents and the food parcels and the blankets. And it could be argued that they are nothing to do with us – unless – perhaps?
When you put it that way – there’s a lot riding on ‘perhaps”!

And thoughtful, intelligent men and women – as we all are the world over – need to make their minds up. It’s either ‘perhaps yes’ or ‘perhaps no’. And if it’s ‘perhaps no’ – what then? Something is driving our lives, something underpins our choices and decisions. What makes us tick? Perhaps Marxism, perhaps socialism, perhaps humanism, perhaps nihilism, perhaps humanitarianism, God forbid perhaps materialism or consumerism – there must be more to life than Marks and Spencer! When I was preparing all this I looked them up on Wikipedia – there were 485 to choose from – although I might have miscounted!

Christians, of course, can be any one of these – but they would always want to go further.

Christians would say – We’re not fools – of course we can’t be certain, of course we don’t have all the answers, of course there are times when we have doubts – but:
• Having looked at all the evidence
• And having considered the alternatives
• And having tested our faith against experience

We’ll take a punt – we’ll bet our lives on ‘Yes’.

And that has made all the difference. ‘Yes’ has influenced our moral choices and decisions; how we earn our money, how we spend our money, our friendships and our deepest relationships, how we use our leisure time, where we live and how we live and as Norman says in a lovely phrase – a thousand conversations over a thousand garden gates.

And over the years, as advent rolls into Christmas, Christmas to Lent and Easter, seed-time and harvest, saying ‘yes’ has become the bedrock of our lives. It has made us the people we are.

I didn’t finish the Bishop’s ‘argument’:

A sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one’s death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides,
And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,

If so, some way must be,
Why not, “The Way, the Truth, the Life?”

And so, at the beginning of another Christian year, we will go on trying to follow the way; we’ll go on searching for the truth; and on this day of all days, we gladly acknowledge that in our lives, Christ is King.