Ears – 16th September 2021

Open your ears and listen. Open your eyes and see. Open your mind and understand. Open your life and accept. (Photo from https://pixaby.com, used with permission.)

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

***

I have a deficit in my hearing. I’ve worn hearing-aids for some time, but I’ve recently had to have them adjusted because of a further deterioration. To be honest, when I struggle with my hearing, I’d be happy to have anyone lend me their ears, whatever friends, Romans or countrymen they might be. A loss of hearing can be really debilitating.

When Jesus shared his parables with his followers, he often concluded by saying, “If you have ears to hear, then hear.” But this wasn’t just about hearing the words. It was about meaning, truth, insight, all those important things that needed to be “heard” beyond the spoken word.

My recent book, Whispers of Wisdom, (see https://www.ionabooks.com) explores several aspects of grief, loss and bereavement. It contains a chapter entitled “Is anybody listening?” which looks at listening “beyond words” to what a person really feels in their loss. For the conclusion of the chapter, I wrote this reflection. I offer it to you here without further explanation. If you have ears to hear, you’ll hear well enough …

I listened with my ears; it’s what you do with ears;

it’s what they were made for, and someone was speaking.

So, I listened with my ears, in case there was something important to hear.

*

I listened with my eyes; you can do that with eyes;

they can see things people say, when words aren’t enough.

So, I listened with my eyes, in case there was something important to heed.

*

I listened with my mind; you can think when you’re listening,

about “Whys” and “Hows”, as you try to understand.

So, I listened with my mind, in case there was something important to grasp.

*

I listened with my experience; “empathy” the say it’s called.

I tried hard to find a way to get behind what was being shared.

So, I listened with my experience, in case there was something important to feel.

*

I listened with my ears, and my eyes, and my mind, and my experience,

and I began to hear, and heed, and grasp, and feel an unfolding story.

I listened … and I heard … and I hadn’t said anything yet.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, help me to listen to you with all that I am. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon         

Deeper – 15th September 2021

Turmoil on the surface? Calmer the deeper we go? You decide. (Photograph from https://pixaby.com, used with permission.)

“One deep calleth another, because of the noise of the water-pipes:

all thy waves and storms are gone over me.”

Bible, Psalm 42:9

***

Following my use yesterday of a Buddhist Text and my reflection on finding enlightenment closer to home than we expect, I thought I’d share with you an insight on this theme which I’ve been pondering recently.

There is no doubt that the past eighteen months have taken us, corporately and individually, through some searching times. None of us could have foreseen this, and, indeed, for many it’s been quite disturbing. I’m no different, and I confess to having had some dark times during this pandemic. I’m OK now, though I know I’ll not be immune from tough times in the future. But I now realise what the Psalmist felt like when he said that the “waves and storms are gone over me”.

But these times in stormy waters, battling with the waves of doubt and uncertainty, questions and instability, have forced me – yes, I think that’s the right word – to look for enlightenment. To do so, I’ve had to “come home”, to look at myself, where and who I am, and not to expect to find meaning, purpose and fulfilment “out there”. And to do that, I’ve had to search deeper than I’ve allowed myself to do for many years.

Pali Triptaka, the earliest collection of Buddhist sacred texts from the 2nd century BC, in a section called “Woven Cadences”, offers us this insight:

There are no waves in the depth of the sea: it is still, unbroken.

It is the same with the monk.

He is still, without any quiver of desire,

without a remnant on which to build pride and desire.

“There are no waves in the depth of the sea.” The waves are on the surface. Go deeper, deeper than you might ever have expected to, deeper than you might want to, even to the dark, unexplored places, and there you may find the still, unbroken peace you crave.

Am I there yet? Not completely. But there is no doubt about this: going deeper, beneath the storms and waves, has brought me to places where enlightenment can be found, and where bring still, “without a quiver”, can be the most precious of discoveries. 

***

A prayer for today

Loving God, when I go deep, thank you for offering me your peace. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon          

Enlightenment – 14th Sept 2021

Where will I find my enlightenment? Closer to home than I think? (Photograph from Iona Abbey by David Coleman, used with many thanks.)

“The Tathagata has realised the Middle Path:

it gives vision, it gives knowledge,

and it leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment …”

Pali Tripitaka, the earliest collection of Buddhist Texts,

First Sermon of the Buddha, ‘Kindred Sayings’

***

On a daytime TV programme from a UK Safari Park, I watched the unfolding story of Spud, a tree-climbing Brazilian porcupine, who’d escaped from its enclosure. He disappeared for ten days, and despite the use of CCTV cameras, drones and expensive searches, he was nowhere to be found. The Park Keepers were in despair. Then, on the eleventh morning, they checked Spud’s enclosure and found him back in his bed. His adventure was over. He’d decided to come home. 

In his 1989 book, The Heart of the Enlightenment, the spiritual writer, Anthony de Mello, recounts a Hasidic tale of Rabbi Isaac who had a similar adventure. He’d been told in a dream to dig for treasure under a bridge that led to the palace of the king. So, he went on a search. The bridge was heavily guarded, so he waited and watched for several days. Eventually, he was spotted, and the Captain of the Guard asked him what on earth he was doing coming to the bridge day after day. Embarrassed, the Rabbi told the captain about his dream, and the man roared with laughter. “You, a Rabbi, take dreams seriously? Goodness! If I did that, I would be all over the country. Indeed, I have a recurrent dream that tells me that if I ever come across a Rabbi called Isaac, I’ve to follow him home, and dig for treasure in the corner of his kitchen.” The Rabbi thanked the captain for his story, hurried home, and dug up the corner of his very own kitchen. And there he found treasure sufficient for his needs till the day he died.

An anonymous 7th century poem offers us this:

Pilgrim remember

For all your pain

The Master you seek abroad

You will find at home –

Or walk in vain.

Whether it’s the Buddha’s “the middle path” or not, you might find enlightenment closer to home than you ever expected.

***

A prayer for today

The adventure is to find enlightenment right where I am – thank God! Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon     

Rest – 13th September 2021

Surely the busiest of looms needs a rest at some point. So, what about you and me? (Photograph from https://pixaby.com, used with permission.)

Man is the shuttle, to whose winding quest

And passage through these looms

God ordered motion, but ordained no rest.”

Henry Vaughan, Silex Scintillans ‘Man’

***

Henry Vaughan was a 17th century Welsh metaphysical poet. In his collection of poetry, Silex Scintillans, he explores many aspects of the human condition, including the one devoted to “Man” from which the quote above is taken. As you know, I am a lover of metaphor. So, Vaughan’s image of the shuttle in the loom, making its passage hither and thither, always on a “winding quest”, appeals to me. He is right when he says, “God ordered motion”. And if you don’t like “ordered” or the “God” part, isn’t it still true that we’re designed to be active, to “do” things on our “passage through these looms” of time and purpose?

However, I want to take issue with Vaughan’s assertion that God “ordained no rest”. Again, I don’t mind if you choose to abandon the words “ordained” or “God”. But surely, we can’t do without rest in our busyness? If we are to be so much in motion, we must have times of rest. The loom in which our shuttle of activity passes on its “winding quest” is not, and should not be, a 24/7 production line. Regularly, the loom needs to be shut down and the shuttle laid aside, for the good of the production process and the lasting benefit of the loom and the shuttle.

John Henry Newman, in an oft-quoted sermon from 1843, said:

May He support us all the day long,

till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes,

and the busy world is hushed,

and the fever of life is over,

and our work is done!

Then in His mercy may he give us safe lodging,

and a holy rest, and peace at the last.

The promise of “eternal rest” when life is over? Maybe. But I see Newman’s words as being more pragmatic, immediate and relevant to my day-to-day life. When the fever of each day is over, and “our work is done”, should we not seek, and value, and benefit from the holy rest we need right now?

So tonight, shut down the clatter of the loom. Lay aside the passage of the shuttle and give yourself to the rest and peace you need.    

***

A prayer for today

Ordained? Ordered? God? Too much for now. I’ll just rest here awhile. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon          

Petitions – 12th September 2021

Petition or attitude? What matters most in our prayers? (Photograph from https://pixaby.com. Used with permission.)

Almighty God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise, that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests: Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as be most expedient to them.”

The Book of Common Prayer, Morning Prayer, ‘Prayer of St Chrysostom’

***

Far be it from me to argue with the compilers of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but I think they may have misinterpreted St Chrysostom’s morning prayer. If not, then St Chrysostom was a bit off the mark.

In the recent weeks I’ve signed several petitions, from exploitation of Amazonian rain forests, through protection of green space in the village of my upbringing, to a local petition about a planning application. Petitions allow us to focus on a common cause and present a voice to decision-makers that otherwise might not be heard. E-petitions allow us to place our concerns before our Government. You can ask your MP to present a petition to Parliament that asks for a change in the law or government policy. After 10,000 signatures, petitions get a response. After 100,000 signatures, they’re considered for Parliamentary debate.   

But is St Chrysostom right when he suggests that when “two or three” offer a petition, God “wilt grant their requests”? “Grace at this time with one accord”, I understand. Common cause, purpose and focus for our prayers, in families, prayer groups, public worship, national days of prayer and the like, I genuinely appreciate. But do we really believe in a God who will fulfil “our desires and petitions” because lots of people are praying for the same thing at the same time? Is a petition offered to God by 100,000 people more effective than my individual prayer?

The saving grace for me is the final phrase of St Chrysostom’s prayer: “as may be most expedient for them.” Prayer isn’t subscribing to a parliamentary petition. It’s an awareness of issues, an engagement with the purposes of God and an understanding of how God and humanity might go on together. I humbly suggest, therefore, that the tone of our prayers should not be the presenting of petitions but an attitude which says with our Lord, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

***

A prayer for today

No words or petitions today, Lord.

I’ll just wait till I get my attitude right. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon      

Wordless – 11th September 2021

I have no words, only silent prayers. (Photograph by https://pixaby.com, used with permission.)

Good words do not last long unless they amount to something.

Words do not pay for my dead people.”

Chief Joseph (Hinmaton-Yalaktit), Nez Percé chief

on a visit to Washington in 1979

***

Hinmaton-Yalaktit, “Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain”, succeeded his father as chief of the Nez Percé Native American tribe in north-eastern Oregon in 1871. Following a gold rush in the area, the federal government had repossessed some six million acres of tribal land. By 1877, times were hard for the Nez Percé. Hinmaton-Yalaktit at first agreed to take his people to a reservation in Idaho. However, a group of young Nez Percé warriors attacked white settlements and then came to hide among the tribe. Hinmaton-Yalaktit was forced to fight. Moving north through the mountains of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, he led the Nez Percé on one of the most brilliant retreats in American history. In time, however, the exhausted, starving Nez Percé were forced to surrender.

Hinmaton-Yalaktit had become famous as “The Red Napoleon”, and his elegant surrender speech is one of the most famous statements in American Indian history. And his words above have had an important effect on me.

On the night of 9/11, 2001, when I was Moderator of Edinburgh Presbytery, I had a sermon to present at a gathering of 300 people. It was an important occasion and I had worked hard on my text, choosing words carefully and revising it thoroughly. But I had watched the unfolding events of 9/11 throughout the afternoon, so by the evening, I was in pieces. I knew the sermon had to be abandoned. But what was I to put in its place? What memorable words? What healing phrases? When I rose to preach, I had nothing to say. So, I said just that, and invited people to sit quietly for five minutes and let our silence and tears be our reflection. 

Hinmaton-Yalaktit was my teacher on 9/11. His guidance encouraged me to preach a wordless sermon, perhaps the best sermon I’ve ever preached. “Good words do not last long unless they amount to something.” I pray to God that Hinmaton-Yalaktit will continue to teach me to say nothing when nothing needs to be said.

***

A prayer for today

On this anniversary of 9/11, I offer no words, Lord,

but sit in silent communion with you. It is enough. Amen

***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon      

Reflections – 10th September 2021

Reflections … Worth it, don’t you think? (Photograph from https://pixaby.com Used with permission.)

A soul without reflection, like a pile without inhabitant, to ruin runs.”

Edward Young, Night Thoughts (1742)

***

Thumbing through a poetry anthology of religious and spiritual writings, I was surprised how many poems in the section “Youth and Age” were written in the 20th century. Themes such as “In Touch with God”, “Nature and Landscape”, “Sickness and Suffering” and others had poems from medieval times through to the present day. Why, then, was there a preponderance in the “Youth and Age” grouping of modern poems?

Indeed, when I looked further, I discovered that subsections such as “Death and Beyond”, “Presences Unseen” and “Heaven” were mostly made up of recent poetry too. What is it about our present times that causes this to be the case? Does it come from a society which has become uncertain in itself? And what, one might ask, would be the balance if poems were added from the 21st century, especially those influenced by Covid?

Two thoughts to ponder … The first is that we are clearly more open and reflective than we have been for generations. Since the 1960s, we’ve largely been cushioned from mass pain and suffering, and, indeed, have lived more comfortable and secure lives than our forbearers have ever done. Added to that, we have a healthcare system which keeps us alive longer and protects us from many ailments which would have severely shortened life expectancy in days gone by. But does that offer us peace of mind? We’re beginning to realise that we need to think about that.

And the second thought is that we are becoming more spiritual, more engaged with what might be considered the important questions of life and death, meaning and purpose, hope and fulfilment. Perhaps for too long we have laid aside such explorations. But no longer. Spiritual things are, I believe, higher on society’s agenda than they have ever been. “A soul without reflection, like a pile without inhabitant, to ruin runs.”

And where will this take us? I have no idea. Perhaps to future anthologies of poetry further skewed to contributions from the spiritual and reflective culture of our present age? But would that be a bad thing?

***

A prayer for today

As I reflect, may I find more meaning in life and death than I have done before.

As I reflect, may my spiritual life bring me the hope and peace I crave. Amen

***

 An original reflection by © Tom Gordon          

Fans – 9th September 2021

We all need fans, don’t we? (Photo by Mark Angelo Sampan on Pexels.com)

“O lang, lang may the ladies sit

Wi’ their fans into their hand,

Before they see Sir Patrick Spens,

Come sailing to the strand.”

Traditional Ballad, Sir Patrick Spens

***

Some years ago, I spent three months with the Church of the Saviour in Washington DC. Space doesn’t permit a lengthy explanation of what that time meant to me, but suffice to say, there were many different opportunities for worship and fellowship with individuals and groups during my time there. As a visitor, I was invariably invited to introduce myself – name, study-leave, three months, from Scotland, and the like – and I was always warmly welcomed, usually with a round of applause.

After a few weeks, I was attending a gathering in a new venue, and had to introduce myself again. As I looked around, I was conscious that I knew pretty well everyone there. So I said so, and added, “I’m sure you’ll be bored hearing the same things again, because you’ve heard me speak   so often before.” To which the lady who was introducing me replied – in a strong, Southern-States drawl – “Aw, gee Tom. But we could listen to you again and again. After all, we just love hearing your Scottish accent.” There was loud applause, accompanied by whoops and whistles. Clearly, I was among adoring fans, and I loved it! My self-esteem went through the roof!

I share this story, not out of any sense of personal arrogance. (It was clearly being Scottish that really mattered!) But it still felt like an affirmation for me. The people in the Church of the Saviour didn’t wait for their Sir Patrick Spens with “fans into their hand”. But, in welcoming a stranger into their midst, they showed themselves to be the fans that a visitor from across the pond, and far from home, really needed.

What affirmation, gratitude and welcome can you express to someone today? Why don’t you tell someone that what they’ve done, why they matter, or what they offer makes you a fan of theirs. You may not do it with applause, whoops or whistles, but you can be sure you’ll leave them with a boost to their self-esteem they will never forget.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, if I have any fans, I thank them for their affirmation.

Help me to be a fan of those who need that affirmation too. Amen

***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Interpretations – 8th Sept 2021

Interpreting what it’s really saying … That’s the deal, isn’t it? (Photo by Koshevaya_k on Pexels.com)

“There is more business in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things,

and more books on books than on any other subject.

Montaigne, Essais (1580)

***

Most of us will remember “interpretation exercises” from English classes in school. What is the writer seeking to say? What insights can be gained from this? What opinions do others have that I might agree or disagree with? “Don’t assume,” my English teacher always said. “Look behind the words. Keep asking questions. Think, boy, think!”

Montaigne, the 16th century French moralist, had a jaundiced view of “interpretating things”, fearful that if all we do is interpret interpretations, we go round in circles and come up with nothing original. While I appreciate such frustrations, I believe there is still a place for interpretations. What about the importance of our decision-makers gathering and interpreting the views of the people they represent?

Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, was a British Whig politician, and there is much in his work that I find distasteful. He played a major role in the introduction of English and western concepts to education in India, publishing his argument on the subject in the “Macaulay’s Minute” of 1835. This led to “Macaulayism” in India, and the systematic wiping out of traditional and ancient Indian education, vocational systems and sciences. I find little to admire in this man. However, I found an interesting quote in his 1835 paper, which runs:

We must at present do our best to form a class

who may be the interpreters of the millions whom we govern.

Macaulay never carried forward the approach he was espousing. He did, however, point to an important truth. We need our interpreters, those whom we can trust to listen to the people, and to communicate to the policymakers what those whom they govern actually think and believe.

And if those interpreters are to do their job well, then we, the people, have to be bold in making our voices heard, so that our decision-makers have appropriate things to interpret in the first place.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, if my role is to interpret your love and put it into action,

let me be the best interpreter I can be. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon     

Display – 7th September 2021

Too much of a display? (Photograph https://pixaby.com)

“Trust not to outward show.”

Juvenal, Satires (early 2nd century)

***

Setting up home in the 1950s, my parents furnished their lounge in typical post-War style. There was a “utility” sideboard, a chiming wall-clock, a gate-legged table, a nearly-in-tune piano and a leatherette suite. But pride of place went to my mother’s display cabinet, containing, among other artifacts: two Coronation mugs, a silver-plated teapot, my father’s War-service medals, and a plate, cup and saucer decorated with little roses and with gold-leaf round the edges, part of her “wedding china”. I once asked why it wasn’t used. The rest was in a cupboard somewhere, I was told, and, anyway, “Wedding china is too good for using. It’s only for display.”

On holiday recently in the fishing village of Findochty on the Morayshire coast, we spent a week in a cottage overlooking the harbour. The house had much sailing memorabilia on display: a ship’s bell from an old vessel; photographs of fishing boats from past years; a modern-looking “helm”, or ship’s steering-wheel; and a shiny anchor on a shelf in the lounge. A shiny anchor … no more than an ornament, a design-feature, lovely of itself, but nothing compared to the anchors I knew back home in Port Seton, the working anchors of the fishing boats. No anchors there for display purposes, but anchors designed to do a necessary job.

And what of faith? It, too, can make a home look lovely and be a much-admired design-feature in our lives, like a shiny anchor in a holiday cottage. It may be an attractive representation, but is this the purpose for which it’s designed? Or faith can simply be on display for all to see and marvel at, like wedding china in a display cabinet. But is that what it’s made for? Shouldn’t it be “used for ordinary” and not be only for show?

Our commitment may be decorated with roses and covered in gold leaf. Our beliefs may be shiny ornaments that look good on a shelf. Our faith may be marvelled at when it’s on display. But it’s not Juvenal’s “outward show” that’s to be trusted, when commitment, beliefs and faith were really designed to be put to good use.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, help me not to trust to “outward show”,

but to ensure that my service

is put to good use to glorify you

and benefit your people. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon