Thoughts on …

 

The Rock of Ages and the bedrock of love                             21/7/19

 

A short while ago I attended the annual Rock of Ages service held at the bottom of Burrington Combe in the Mendip Hills. It took place opposite the cleft in the rock where, whilst sheltering from a storm, the Reverend Angus Toplady is said to have written, or perhaps had the idea for, his well-known hymn.1 We sang hymns to the accompaniment of a local brass band and listened to the thoughts of the vicar on the themes of shelter and having faith in God.

 

It was a delightful, uplifting service made all the more pleasurable by my sitting on the grass as I hadn’t brought a seat with me. So my grateful thanks to the vicar, the band and those around me who sang the hymns sweetly while I mumbled them in my usual untuneful way.2

 

As a metaphor the Rock of Ages beautifully conveys the ideas referred to in the service. There are times when we all need shelter from the storms of life and we all need our lives to be based on strong, rock-like foundations. People with Christian beliefs, as well as people of other faiths, can find strength and shelter in the rock of their belief in God. As well as strength and shelter they can receive guidance on how to lead good lives and, very importantly, they can be given the hope of eternal life.

 

But what about the rapidly growing number of us who have no religious faith? Do we also need a rock of ages and if so what should it be?

For many, myself included, Christian principles rather than a belief in a divine being, form an essential part of the foundations on which we should try to base our lives.  There are many occasions when personally I fall well short of putting these principles fully into practice but my Methodist upbringing, and consequent familiarity with stories and texts from the Bible, at least allow me to remind myself of what the key precepts are.

 

The texts I find particularly useful are those which offer instruction on how to  live well with each other. For example, in the story of the widow’s mite we learn the meaning of true generosity. In the Sermon on the Mount we are told to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan we are simply but effectively told how we should show compassion and love to all our fellow humans.

 

Jesus taught that the two great commandments which should guide our lives were to love God and to love your neighbour. Those of us who, because of our beliefs, are unable to fulfil the first of these commandments can certainly strive to fulfil the second. And we can do so by building our lives on a rock that, in my view, is human rather than divine: the rock of love.

 

It is my belief that basic human instincts have bestowed on our species the essential emotional need to love and be loved.3 And because this is an instinctive biological need in every human being it is a universal attribute we all possess. Our rock of love is therefore bedrock that covers the whole of our planet.

 

But it is our individual piece of this bedrock which we must use to help us lead a good life. We must show love in every facet of our lives – in our families, with our friends and acquaintances, to strangers, to those who have done wrong to us and to those who are different from us in their ethnicity, religion, values or political opinions. We must show love to individuals, to communities and to nations.

 

And we should show our love as much as possible as this will be beneficial to others and also keep it in good shape – just as our bodies and minds are kept in good shape through constant use. We can use it in all our actions and deeds whether small or large, common or uncommon.

 

We will be putting it to use when we are caring, kind, thoughtful and sympathetic; when we look after someone who is unwell or has a disability; when we give up our time to help somebody and when we say some kind words.  When we give to a charity or take part in a sponsored event for a good cause; when we show love to those who have different lifestyles, or traditions or opinions; when we forgive those who have wronged or hurt us in any way. And when we remember to think about ordinary people in other parts of the world who may be suffering because of poverty, natural disasters, oppression or violence.

 

But we must constantly be aware that just above the bedrock that enables us to show our love in these different ways there are other rocky deposits of varying strength and depth which do not have the same benign effect. We need to be aware of them because these, too, cover the whole of the planet and can also be found in all of us. They include the rocky deposits of self-interest, self-image and self-indulgence which have been laid down within us during the long course of animal and human evolution. Sadly, also, amongst these deposits is behaviour that can be wholly undesirable and sometimes just plain evil.

 

We will probably never get rid of these deposits but the rock that matters, the bedrock, will always be stronger and deeper. It will provide us with the foundation on which we can base our guiding values. If we all love each other its outcrops will definitely provide us with shelter from the storms of life. And although it will not offer us eternal life its presence will be as solid and enduring as the Mendip rock in Burrington Combe.

 

It seems to me there should be no reason why those of us who believe in a human rock of ages and those who believe in the divine rock should not unite in a common endeavour to proclaim the values and behaviour that follow from a shared belief in the power of love.4 It should be our duty to tell people and, crucially, to show by example, that loving each other is by far the best way to live our lives. For the sake of those closest to us and for society as a whole we must strive unceasingly to ensure that love is the bedrock on which all our lives are built.5

 

 

 

Notes

 

1  It’s a great story which either belongs to local history or local legend depending on whether it is true or not. The plaque on the rock states Toplady was inspired to write the hymn there but it seems no one knows for certain whether he did. Rosie and Howard Smith’s book, Somerset’s Hills in watercolours, contains a fascinating account of what they call “The Rock of Ages” controversy. They also mention that 30,000 people attended the Rock of Ages service in 1931. For a picture of the rock click here and scroll down almost to the bottom. 

 

2  The six hymns included, of course, Rock of Ages, the first two lines of which are: Rock of ages, cleft for me/Let me hide myself in thee. Among the other hymns were: O God our help in ages past, and Guide me O thou great Redeemer. The readings were from Psalm 71: … for thou art my rock and my fortress … ; and from Isaiah 51: … look unto the rock whence ye are hewn …

 

3  I have this idea, which admittedly is far more intuitive than scientific, that our loving instinct may be wired into us so that we can find a partner in order to create new life, and also for the purpose of nurturing the young to ensure they survive. Moreover, the instincts to help each other and get along together may perhaps be traced back to a basic herd instinct common to many creatures which exists to help them survive.

 

4  Although I’m not able to share Bishop Michael Curry’s belief that God is the source of love I certainly agree with the message of his inspiring, memorable sermon on the power of love at the royal wedding in 2018. It should be read or listened to over and over again.

 

5  What is needed for the non-believers is a rule book with some basic precepts and commandments plus a collection of philosophical, religious or literary texts, some mantras, some hymns and songs, some regular gatherings, and a commitment to persuading people that staying on the right path will result in a better life than not doing so. Non-believers also need to find a way of dealing with the thorny issue of mortality – a challenge if ever there was one, bigger even than the challenge of Brexit!