Amazing! – 12th August 2020

We live in an amazing world. This beautiful photograph is of the Corpach Basin, at the south west end of the Caledonian Canal., close to where I was brought up. Our world is full of beauty and wonder – thank God! (Photograph by Sandria MacKintosh and used with permission.)

Non equidem invideo, mirror magis.

“Indeed, I am not envious, rather I am amazed!”

Virgil, Eclogues No. 1

***

My first role as a minister was in Easterhouse in Glasgow. A post-war housing scheme, Easterhouse had a notorious reputation, but the Christian community was always a beacon of light. The church had been built in the 1950s, and in 1973 had a leaking roof. The increasing number of leaks had become too much for temporary repairs, and we’d run out of buckets to catch the drips. So a decision was made to replace the roof.

I was with the architect and builder in the church for the final inspection of the new roof, when the builder turned to me and said, “What we need, minister, is a heavy downpour of rain to test the roof.” To which I replied, “OK guys. Just give me a minute till I have a word with the Big Man upstairs and I’ll see what I can do …” I went through the foyer and stepped outside … and the heavens opened with a massive thunderstorm Turning on my heel I went back inside and shouted down the aisle, “OK chaps? Will that do?” leaving an architect and builder open-mouthed. Amazing! A bit of fun, of course, and maybe they were envious of my direct-line to the Almighty. But they certainly looked as though, if they’d known Virgil, they would have said, “Rather, I am amazed.”!

John Newton wrote Amazing Grace in 1772. In an American Shapenote version, to the beautiful tune, Jewett, there is the addition of this chorus:

 Shout, shout for glory, shout, shout aloud for glory.

Brother, sister, mourner, all shout glory hallelujah.

In our present circumstances, when old things are being replaced by new ways of working which have to be tested against the storms of life, let’s spend more time being amazed than being fearful, shouting aloud for glory rather than being apprehensive. There are still plenty of examples of “amazing grace” which call for hallelujahs from us all.

 ***

A prayer for today

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound …”

“The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures …”

“Shout, shout aloud for glory.”

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Fringes – 11th August 2020

On the street and in the theatre, in the centre and on the fringes, everyone matters in the festival of life.

“Foolish fanatics … the men who form the lunatic fringe

in all reform movements.”

Theodore Roosevelt, Autobiography, 1913

***

Though he didn’t coin the term, Theodore Roosevelt did much to bring the label of “the lunatic fringe” into common usage. It’s a description that usually relates to politics. Those who take up an extreme position, on the right or the left, who don’t carry the majority of the people with them (and don’t give a hoot) are labelled “extremists”, “fanatics”, “radicals”,  “revolutionaries”, and the like, on the fringes – and lunatics to boot!

In the midst of a crowd one day, Jesus stopped and asked, “Who touched me?” A strange question, as a jostling mob of people made its way through the narrow streets of a city. But a woman who had been unwell for many years was holding onto the hem of his cloak. This was no lunatic, no foolish fanatic, but someone for whom the fringe of a garment was as close as she could get. But her faith was enough for Jesus, who gave her the fullness of life she sought.

As I reflected yesterday on the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh, I began to think of all the people who live on the fringes of our society: the fringes of reason, of acceptance, of coping, of attainment, of functioning. We should be more aware, just as Jesus was, and more understanding too, of those who live on the fringes, as much as we’re aware of the people in the centre of things – and perhaps, even more so.

Through the month of August, Edinburgh would normally be teeming with people, here for the Edinburgh International Festival. But around the “official” Festival, there is also The Fringe, hundreds of shows, plays, comedy, street-theatre – in the Grassmarket and every nook and cranny of this great city. The Festival and The Fringe, hand in hand, engaging with all facets of society, allowing everyone to feel included, those in the centre and those on the fringes, celebrating life in all its vibrant fullness.   

The people on the fringes of things really matter. And when they are recognised and accepted, everyone has a festival to celebrate.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, help me be aware of the people on the fringes of my festival of life.

And, if I’m on the fringes, please can I be included? Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Changed – 10th August 2020

Staff, volunteers and participants, the Grassmarket Community Project [GCP], Edinburgh. (Photograph © GCP, used with permission.)

“Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump …”

Bible, 1 Corinthians 15:51

***

The Grassmarket is a historic marketplace in the Old Town of Edinburgh, located beneath Edinburgh Castle. Originally a market where grass was sold – hence the name – over the years it has housed a horse-market; been the site of Edinburgh’s executions; the locality of the notorious body-snatchers, Burke and Hare; an area of many taverns, cheap lodging-houses and squalid housing for itinerant labourers; and, in my time in University in the city, a no-go area, a hang-out for many disreputable characters. In the 1970s, however, the Grassmarket began to lose its association with poverty and underwent several decades of “gentrification”. It is now a delightful part of the city and a magnet for visitors, especially during the Edinburgh Festival. And in today’s Grassmarket, lives are being changed.

The Grassmarket Community Project (http://grassmarket.org/), a partnership between Greyfriars Church of Scotland and the Grassmarket Mission (founded in 1890), provides sanctuary and support to some of Edinburgh’s most vulnerable people. The Project helps participants develop their full potential and move away from cycles of failure, through a community café; woodwork and tartan social enterprises; cookery and baking classes; art, drama and IT; reading and writing; sewing and photography; a drop-in free meal service on a Monday evening …  

You can gentrify buildings, but when lives need to be changed, and there are people committed to the support and nurture of those in most need, then a whole city and all of its people are changed as a result.

St Paul said, “We shall all be changed, in a moment.” Of course, this was about the “end times”, when God’s heavenly Kingdom would come. But if lives are changed now, not in the twinkling of an eye, but through the dedication of the people like those in the Grassmarket Community Project, is that not a glimpse of the Kingdom of God here in our city?

***

A prayer for today

“Mould me and make me, after thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still.”

Loving God, change me, renew me, use me, for your Kingdom here and now. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Cushioning – 9th August 2020

Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

“Grant me protection, merciful Lord,

prostrate here at your door;

Guard me and keep me, Friend of the humble,

weary from wandering far.

You love the devout and recover the sinful;

to you alone I address this prayer:

Take me and hold me, merciful Lord,

carry me safely to joy.”

Sikh Scriptures, Adi Granth ‘Var Jaitasari’

***

When I moaned about being overweight, I was often met with the response, “I wouldn’t worry. If you fall over, you won’t hurt yourself. You’ve got too much cushioning for that!” Thank you very much! I’m trying to deal with a weight problem and you’re saying I should keep my cushioning to protect me from serious injury if I fall. Who needs such advice?

The Book of Job in the Old Testament is full of advice like that, from people known as “Job’s Comforters”. Job is having a terrifying and distressing time, and he has people trying to help him find a purpose for it all. There’s too much in the Book of Job to go into here, but there’s a theme from the Comforters that’s something like: if you had more faith and been a better man, you would have had enough cushioning to protect you from this. You wouldn’t have hurt yourself so badly when you fell.

Bad things happening because we don’t have enough faith? If we had enough faith we’d be cushioned from bad things? That’s not the faith I have, and it’s not the comfort Job needed. Faith is not, and never has been, an antidote to suffering, nor a cushioning from sorrow and tragedy. Bad things happen, no matter what. The deal for Job was not to curse God for taking his cushioning away, but to find God in the midst of the tragedy.  

The Sikh Scriptures have it right. I have a God who takes me, holds me and carries me safely – especially when I fall over, and when I have no cushioning to protect me from life’s inevitable tragedies.

***

A prayer for today

Steady me when I stumble; hold me when I fall;

restore me with hope when I get up and begin again. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Spirituality – 8th August 2020

A cross in marble from Iona; Rosary Beads from Italy, made by orphaned children in Rwanda … countries across the world, people across the generations, prayers across the centuries, all of us, all of the time, linked together, seeking to deepen our spiritual lives.

“Each day I bestowed too much time in the garden

and thereby was worse able to perform spiritual duties.”

Margaret Hoby, Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, 6 April 1605

***

Saint Ignatius of Loyola was a Basque Catholic priest and theologian, born in 1491. He co-founded the religious order, The Society of Jesus, better known as The Jesuits, and is remembered as a talented spiritual director, recording his method of spiritual discipline in a celebrated treatise called “Spiritual Exercises”. These were a simple set of meditations, prayers and other mental exercises, published in 1548, to guide Christians to a deeper spiritual life. He died in Rome in 1556 and was made a Saint in 1622.

It may seem remarkable that the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola from the 16th century have lost none of their effectiveness several centuries later in a society vastly different from his. Yet they are a framework for spiritual direction, clarification of service and purpose, and the discipline of a relationship with God, for many, many people I know. But is it so remarkable? Our need for a closeness to God, having a better understanding of the meaning of service and a discipline of prayer are not, and cannot be, defined by time and circumstance.

There is much of our lives which gets in the way of our spiritual growth, from “too much time in the garden” for Lady Margaret Hoby in 1605, to all that deflects us from thinking about deeper things in 2020. Saint Ignatius of Loyola still has much to teach us.

We could do well, therefore, to utilise the best known Ignatian prayer. For in these few lines we have all we need for our spiritual nurture and growth.

***

A prayer for today

Teach us, Good Lord, to serve Thee as Thou deservest;

To give and not to count the cost;

To fight and not to heed the wounds;

To toil and not to seek for rest;

To labour and not to ask for any reward

Save that of knowing that we do Thy will.

(Ignatius of Loyola, ‘Prayer for Generosity’, 1548)

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Theft – 7th August 2020

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

A clever theft was praiseworthy among the Spartans; and it is equally so among Christians, provided it be on a sufficiently large scale.”

Herbert Spencer, Social Statics (1850)

***

Now that the World Snooker Championship has started on BBC TV, I’m reminded of a theft from my church in the early 1970s. The Youth Club had a brand-new, six-foot-six, table-top snooker table for two weeks before it was stolen – and in board daylight too. I reported the theft at the police station. “Can you describe the snooker table, sir?” a bored Desk Sergeant enquired. “Green, six pockets, six-foot-six by three-foot-three, brown wooden surround … And the balls have gone too.” “Can you describe the balls, sir?” “Twenty-one reds, one yellow, one green, one brown, one blue, one pink , one black and one white,” all of which he dutifully wrote down. “And two cues as well.” “Can you describe …” At which point I lost the will to live and decided I wouldn’t mention the snooker chalk and the racking-triangle.

We got the snooker table back, along with the balls, cues, etc, etc –  due to a good piece of local intelligence, it has to be said, rather than the diligence of the local constabulary. But the theft was the talk of the parish for weeks. “How could someone steal a six-foot-six snooker table in broad daylight and now be seen?” kind of thing … It was a Cause Célèbre.

What is it about clever thefts that makes them noteworthy? I remember “The Great Train Robbery” of 1963, when £2.6 million was stolen from a Royal Mail Train, and I recall people saying how audacious the theft was, almost in admiration of the perpetrators. The later Brink’s-Mat and Hatton Garden heists have also elicited comments of awe and wonder. I worked in a factory once where things were stolen all the time, almost as if it was a rightful perk – a “one up for the workers” attitude.

But theft is theft, no matter how large the scale, clever the robbery or justifiable it appears. So let’s be careful of viewing a wrong through our lenses of admiration, wonder or justification. Theft, in any form, is never praiseworthy.

Both Spartans and Christians should know that well enough!

***

A prayer for today

Lord, forgive my mistakes; and forgive me for justifying the ones that I don’t believe matter that much. Help me to remember that everything matters to you. Amen.

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Blame – 6th August 2020

The Beatles – the “Fab Four.” (Image from The Clipart Library, used with permission.)

“It’s the same the whole world over,

It’s the poor wot gets the blame,

It’s the rich wot gets the gravy.

Ain’t it all a bleedin’ shame.”


British soldiers’ song from World War I, She was poor but she was honest

***

The Beatles were to blame. Well, it wasn’t my fault, nor could blame be laid at the door of my parents – though it could be argued they were in some fashion just as culpable. But I blame The Beatles for the whole affair.

I’m hazy on dates and details, but I remember the event well enough. It was mid-1960s. The Beatles had become a world-wide phenomenon and were my favourite band. They were to make an appearance on BBC TV (I know it was BBC, because we only had one channel back then) and I was all set to watch it. How did I  know there was to be a family event which I  would be obliged to go to? How did I  know that I wasn’t legally allowed to stay at home on my own to watch TV? How did I know I had to enjoy myself with family when I was going to miss The Beatles? So we had a row, me and my parents. Even the promise of a new sweater didn’t placate me. We had a screaming row. And The Beatles were to blame!

I’m saddened that, sixty years on, the culture of blaming someone, anyone, when something bad happens has become all pervasive. The medical profession gets blamed when someone has an illness that isn’t treatable; the weather forecasters get blamed when your barbeque is spoiled because they didn’t tell you it was going to rain; the Chinese get blamed because we have a world-wide Covid-19 pandemic; a university gets blamed when a student didn’t get a First because “they weren’t taught properly”; God gets blamed when … there’s no one else to blame. Where is personal responsibility; an understanding that not every “effect” has a “cause”; an acceptance that (sorry for the language) “shit happens”?

It’s not always someone’s fault when something happens you don’t like. You wouldn’t like to be blamed for something that was never your fault in the first place, so why point the finger of blame at someone else?

No, Tom, the truth of the matter is, it just wasn’t The Beatles to blame.

***

A prayer for today

Loving God, when I blame others, gave me the grace to pause, to think, and to be patient. When I get the blame, and I deserve it, help me to be gracious enough to learn from my mistakes. And when I get the blame and it wasn’t my fault, teach me to be patient with the whole world! Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Screaming – 5th August 2020

“The Scream” by Edvard Munch

“The place is very well and quiet,

and the children only scream in a low voice.”

Lord Byron, in a letter to Lady Melbourne in 1813

***

The 1st century BC Roman poet, Horace, in his Epistles, suggests “anger is a short madness”. We know this when we’re angry, when tensions rise, voices are raised and harsh things are said – and especially when we scream – because most of periods of “short madness” are, indeed, temporary and we regain our equilibrium soon enough. Yet, most of us know how it feels to lose control, when screaming is not “in a low voice” like the children with Byron. So what does this “short madness” say of us?

These issues come up regularly in my work with people dealing with loss. For many, loss brings with it periods of intense anger: anger at the medical profession for apparently missing a diagnosis; anger at a family member for saying or doing the wrong thing; anger at a person who has died for … well … dying; anger at God for “doing the dirty”. And there may be screaming in there too. Some will apologise, for they are uncomfortable with the intensity their emotions; some will try to suppress their feelings, hold onto control, or dismiss the anger of others, because they are confused by this “short madness” and how it manifests itself.

And me? I say, “Let it happen”, for anger is a deep, natural and honest expression of the rage we sometimes feel. Scream if you must. But also – and hold onto your hats here – it’s OK to be angry with God, and to scream too. If God made us fully human, then he gave us the emotion of anger along with everything else. So, if God wants us to be fully ourselves when we engage with him, he has to know what’s real and honest in our lives. Would God want us to hold anything back?

         But, we protest, surely it’s an offence to be angry with God, and for God to be complained about and screamed at. Should prayers not be “very well and quiet”, devotional, sweet, gentle? And I say, “No! Not all the time.” God is God and can take our screaming, even “in a low voice”. We are human, so should we not be showing God all that we are and all  that we feel?

***

A prayer for today

Lord, my anger is just me being honest. And I know you will understand. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Masks – 4th August 2020

Masks – which one would you wear, and why?

“I met Murder on the way –

He had a mask like Castlereagh –

Very smooth he looked, yet grim,

Seven bloodhounds followed him.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy

***

I’m trying to get used to wearing a mask. The one I first wore steamed up my glasses, till my wife and the church Crafters Group got on the case. Goodness! They can customise your mask – wearing glasses or not, to fit big noses and small, ties at the back or elastic over your ears, and any colour or design you like!  Amazing! Masks are a fashion item! What would the Gucci or the Giorgio Armani equivalent of my face-mask be, I wonder?

But then, I’ve been wearing masks all my adult life, masks called personae – the Latin plural of persona, the aspect of our character that’s presented to or perceived by others. In a stressful day, I wear the persona of being calm – the swan that glides serenely across a pond while underneath it’s paddling like billy-o to keep going. Or the persona of coping, when I’m falling apart; or giving the impression I know what’s going on when I haven’t a clue; even the persona of being good when I’m not.

Sometimes, I hide how I feel because it’s better that way. But often wearing a persona means I keep the truth from people, because I’m not happy with what I really am.

Personae – the variety of masks we all wear.

However, be careful about masks. Be sure you know what’s really behind them. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a “Masque” was a form of courtly entertainment throughout Europe, with music, dancing, singing and acting. Professional actors and musicians were hired for the speaking and singing parts. The “masquers”, who wore elaborate masks and didn’t speak or sing, were often members of the Royal Court, and there was much intrigue and plotting that went on behind those masks.

If all of life is a Masque, we can share entertainment and pleasure. But when the wearing of masks leads to intrigue and devious behaviour, nobody benefits.

***

Prayer for today

All knowing God,

I take my mask off with you, for I can hide nothing from your gaze.

See me, know me and love me.  

Help me to be “just as I am” with you.  

Amen.

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Checking – 3rd August 2020

Going bananas ?

“Measure twice, cut once.”

Anonymous

***

It’s always best to check things. “Measure twice, cut once” is not only an important axiom in DIY, it’s also a good motto for the whole of life. Take on-line shopping, for example. During this lockdown, my wife and I have become familiar with on-line grocery shopping. We were well used to on-line purchases and up-to-speed with our IT knowledge, but getting our heads round a weekly delivery from a Supermarket was taxing at first. But we got there, and, over the weeks, managed to secure the groceries we needed.

It works like this: the shopping-list is carefully entered in the Supermarket’s website the day before. For every item, there’s a counter for “how many?” For three tins of beans you make sure the counter reads “3”; one melon, it’s set at “1”, two cans of tuna, it’s “2”. Simple, eh? Until you come to bananas.

Now, I have permission to tell this story so I know I won’t get into trouble … but when my wife set the counter at “1” for bananas, she expected (well, wouldn’t you?) it meant one bunch of bananas. But what actually arrived with the grocery delivery? Yes, you’ve guessed it – one solitary banana, which was to last us a whole week.

I’m sure Mary’s not the first person to make a mistake with on-line shopping … four deliveries of the same thing arrive because you pressed the “order” button three more times as you didn’t believe the website had taken the order the first time around; I’ve had 500 envelopes delivered when I only wanted 50; and I’ve heard of someone getting 14 blouses when they thought they’d just ordered one in a size 14!

It’s better to check, and double-check, before you commit. “More hurry, less speed” is true in all of life. Check what you say before you say it. Check your angry email before you send it. Check your criticism to make sure you have the facts right. Check your ability before you take something on. Careful consideration – checking and double-checking – really matters.

***

A prayer for today

Does love still matter, Lord? Oh, it does.

Why am I asking? Oh, just checking.

I’ve done that before? Yes, I know.

But double-checking where love is concerned has got to be OK, doesn’t it?

Good!

Just checking …

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon