Bread – 17th May 2022

Bread – enough to be shared. (Photo by Cats Coming on Pexels.com)

“Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,

Pilgrim through this barren land;

I am weak, but thou art mighty;

Hold me with thy powerful hand;

Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,

Feed me till I want no more,

Feed me till I want no more”

Peter Williams, Praying for Strength

***

My uncle John made bread. I don’t expect he’d have won at “bread week” in The Great British Bake Off. But he enjoyed making bread, and the little house in which he and my aunt lived was regularly filled with the aromas of freshly baked bread. It’s suggested that when we sell a house and open it for viewing, we should make sure it’s filled with the smell of freshly baked bread. I’ve never tried the ploy myself, but I can understand the idea. The smell of bread is welcoming, earthy, and creates an atmosphere where people feel at ease. In short, it helps folk feel at home.

Bread, therefore, is a basic, a staple, of life and home. Is it any wonder, therefore, that we are called in The Lord’s Prayer to be thankful for “our daily bread”? Actually, the phrase is “give us this day our daily bread”. (I don’t understand that. Are the basics not already there? Surely we don’t have to pray to be “given” the bread of life? I’ll come to that in a moment.) But for now, “bread” calls me to be grateful for all that it signifies: home and sustenance, life and love, health and relationships. Bread! All that’s good and wholesome. Bread! Giving thanks for life.

But what of those who have no bread, no home, no basics, none of the staples of life, nothing to be thankful for? What of those who are deprived of the bread taken from them by others who’re greedy? What of those in the cellars of a steel plant in Mariupol in Ukraine who have no food because of the invasion of Russian troops? What of those who would pray fervently “give us our daily bread” in a drought-stricken country?

Surely as we pray these words, we should heed their heartfelt cries. We shouldn’t just be grateful for what we have, but also turn outwards to the world and share our bread with the hungry, so that they have enough of the sustaining things of life to which they surely have an equal right.

***

A prayer for today

Bread of heaven, feed me,

and call me also to feed those who have no bread. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon 

Will – 16th May 2022

Choice! Thy way or my way, Lord? (Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com)

“Teach us, good Lord,

To serve Thee as Thou deserves:

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.”

St Ignatius Loyola, Prayer for Generosity

***

I’ve never believed in a directive God. If God was always in control, he could bend me to his will at a whim. I, therefore, would live a life devoid of choices, always under the direction of the God who was my controller. But it isn’t like that, as we know. We have free will, to do good and to make mistakes, to find fullness of life and to mess up. If God was to direct me to a Divine Will, it would be easier. But he doesn’t, and it isn’t.

What, then, are we to make of the phrase “Thy will be done” in the Lord’s prayer? It tells me that I have work to do, to determine what the will of God might be, for the world I live in, and for my own journey of life.

The first half of that should be easy enough. From ancient philosophers to contemporary opinion-formers, from the depth of meaning in world religions to what we learn from modern practices of “mindfulness”, and the like, we know that society is the better, richer, more fulfilling for everyone, if we live together in harmony. It is surely the will of God – if we are determined to use a divine concept – that the world should be a happy place, where peace and justice prevail, and where loving one another is our guiding principle. “Love the Lord your God with all your mind, and soul, and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.” Sorted!

The second half, however, is more difficult. What is the “will of God” for me? To live in harmony with others, of course. To do no one harm. To play my personal part in the creation of a harmonious society. But what about me, my own journey of life, my purpose, direction, future. How do I discern, and remain obedient to, the will of God in these things?

More work to do on that, I think, and Loyola’s reward of “knowing that we do Thy will” might come our way …

***

A prayer for today

Thy will or my will? Which to choose and which to use? Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon          

Kingdom – 15th May 2022

Kingdom … An earthly kingdom or a better one? You decide. (Photo by Dee Willi on Pexels.com)

“’Thy Kingdom come!’ – on bended knee

The passing ages pray;

And faithful souls have yearned to see

On earth that Kingdom’s day.”

Frederick Lucian Hosmer, Thy Kingdom Come

***

When I was beginning to be aware of the history of my country, I heard about “The Kingdom of the Picts”, an ancient, warrior-like people who refused to be conquered by the invading Roman army. The Picts painted their faces with “woad”, a blue dye, to frighten their enemies. (Mel Gibson in Braveheart comes to mind. A bit of historical licence, though …) Scotland was never subjugated by the Roman Empire. The Picts saw to that!

So “kingdom” was familiar to me early on: a people, defending what they believed in, with a name, a purpose, a history, a cohesiveness. Indeed, “kingdom”, whether ruled over by a member of a royal dynasty, or as a name defining an area and a people, is familiar to us all.

What, then, as we to make of the Kingdom of God, when we pray, “Thy Kingdom come” in the “Lord’s Prayer”? For a start, this “kingdom” begins with an upper-case K, an indication that it’s a Kingdom above all others, no earthly kingdom, subject to all the vagaries of the human condition. This is a “Heavenly Kingdom”, of divine origin.

Jesus used metaphors and similes for this Kingdom – a vineyard, being born again, a sower scattering seed, a treasure hidden in a field, for example. This was a call to see more than the earthly kingdom people knew and were subjugated by, a Roman kingdom, where power and might were the order of the day. No, says Jesus, there is a different way. I’m giving you a new image of Kingdom, but you have to look beyond what you know to find what is possible. Look beyond what you hate, to a Kingdom of love. Look beyond what oppresses you, to a Kingdom of mercy and peace. Look beyond the failures of humanity, to a Kingdom of forgiveness, and healing, and new purpose. Look beyond …

Do I understand completely what this Kingdom is about? No I don’t. But does “looking beyond” give me a glimpse of what might be possible? Yes it does, and that, surely, is worth praying for again and again.

***

A prayer for today

Where is your Kingdom?

I’m working on it, Lord, looking beyond what I know.

Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon 

Father – 14th May 2022

Too holy for a name? “Father” will do – for now! (Photo by Monstera on Pexels.com)

“Father-like He tends and spares us;

Well our feeble frame He knows;

In His hands He gently bears us,

Rescues us from all our foes;

Praise Him! Praise Him! Praise Him! Praise Him!

Widely as His mercy flows.”

Henry Francis Lyte, Praise my Soul, the King of Heaven

***

As a counter to the drop in familiarity of the Lord’s Prayer which I looked at yesterday, I’ll share some reflections on key words from this prayer over the next few days. And the first word that struck me was “Father”.

Some years ago, I led a time of prayerful reflection with a number of people, and one of the meditations I introduced was based on the love of a father for a child, using it as a metaphor for the love of God, our heavenly Father. Afterwards, I was faced with several people who had been disturbed by the meditation, because their relationship with their own fathers had been damaging ones. It was an important lesson for me.

In my early years in ministry there were fierce debates in the Church of Scotland around the concept of “The Motherhood of God”. To attribute the characteristics of a mother to God, and to place these alongside the attributes of fatherhood, far less replace them, was too unsettling for many for whom God as Father was the be all and end all. 

These two events do several things for me: they emphasise the limitations of metaphor, and how imagery will always carry connotations that get in the way of meaning for some people; they prompt those of us who lead worship and help people interpret issues of faith to be sensitive to their circumstances, for what comes out of our mouths may fall differently on the ears of others; and here’s a thought: any name for God, Father or anything else, is only a window through which we are invited to see much more than that label which might be fixed to the windowsill.

“Father-like he tends …” Calling God Father is a beginning and not an ending of our approach to God, who has much more to reveal to us than we will ever know.

***

A prayer for today

The ancients wouldn’t put the name of God on their lips,

for God was too holy.

Maybe I should do likewise … Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon 

Praying – 13th May 2022

Try praying. It’s a start … (Image from https://www.pexels.com)

“They never sought in vain

that sought the Lord aright.”

Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night

***

A few months ago, I was guest preacher in a church I didn’t know well. I sent them my “Order of Service” for the Service Sheets and PowerPoint system. When I got there, a lady said: “Thank you for giving us your Order of Service in good time. And thank you for including the Lord’s Prayer. Our current minister doesn’t do that.” I was surprised, to say the least.

I conducted a wedding recently, and, in preparation for the marriage service, the bride asked: “Where does the Lord’s Prayer come? We must have it included!” So, we did. But when we came to say the Lord’s Prayer, only the bride, along with a couple of others, joined in with my words.

The Lord’s Prayer, it would appear, has gone out of favour – which is a great shame. For when the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray”, this is the template they were given. And if you were to say now, “Teach me to pray”, the Lord’s Prayer has all the elements you’ll ever need.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name: reverence for the greatness of God. Thy kingdom come: awareness of a better way to live than we have now. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven: trust in a right way to live that’s greater than our own human efforts. Give us this day our daily bread: all that we have to live on is not created by our own efforts. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors: in seeking forgiveness for own faults, we are in a better state of mind to forgive others. And lead us not into temptation: oh, how we need to be aware of pitfalls. But deliver us from evil: we can see a way through the bad times. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever: while we change, God remains constant. Amen. Yes indeed!Yes indeed!

A prayer? Yes, that’s how it’s labelled. A hymn of faith? Certainly so. Do I understand it all and agree with it all? We shall see …

But don’t let’s ditch this great prayer. If you know it, say it over and over again, and that will be enough. And if you don’t know it yet? Give it a try, and your prayers will have a pretty good beginning.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, teach me to pray. Oh! You have! … Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Timings – 12th May 2022

Timings right for you? Timings right for others? Timings right with God? (Photo by Arina Krasnikova on Pexels.com)

“Observe due measure,

for right timing is in all things the most important factor.”

Hesiod, Works and Days (c 700BC)

***

In my early ministry, I presented several programmes on TV. Some were “to camera”, following a script and being the sole participant. Others were “interview packages” with film-clips being slotted in as appropriate. But all of these were recorded, sometimes “as live”, with the expectation that the recording would run without a break, while others were edited afterwards. Only once did I front a “live” broadcast – and it was very different.

It was an Easter Sunday service. Everything had to be scripted, timed and rehearsed in advance. But whatever happened in the worship, we had to “come out” of the broadcast bang on time or else we would crash into next programme. Equally, it was a no-no to run short. All went according to plan, until we came to the prayer before the final hymn. Carefully scripted as it was, I was a few sentences into the prayer when the Floor Manager literally crawled up the pulpit steps (carefully keeping out of camera-shot), tugged at the hem of my cassock and whispered, “We’re short! We need another 90 seconds. Keep going till I tell you to stop.” All this was happening, of course, while I was still praying, and conscious that the cameras were focussed on me all the time. I can relate that I managed the extra minute-and-a-half extempore and came out of the prayer to the second as the Floor Manager counted me down. We finished on time! Afterwards, the Floor Manager announced, “You’re a star, minister! If you didn’t have a beard, I would kiss you.” I took that as a complement.

In that wonderful litany of the seasons of our lives from the book of Ecclesiastes, there’s a couplet which runs: “[There’s] a time to speak, and a time to be silent.” I hope we manage to keep an eye on our timings when we’re with one another. If it’s a time to speak, make sure your timings are right, so the right thing is said, in the right way, at the right time. And if it’s a time to be silent, use that time to listen well, to take on board what’s being said, before it’s your time to speak again. You shouldn’t need a TV Floor Manager offering to kiss you to know the truth of that!

***

A prayer for today

My time with you, Lord? No timings needed!

Every moment is precious. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Suspicions – 11th May 2022

Is it me, or does that look a bit suspicious? No! It’s probably me … (Photo by Davner Toledo on Pexels.com)

“All seems infected that the infected spy,

As all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye.”

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

***

On a recent rail-journey my train was delayed. The announcement informed us: “There is a suspicious package on the line.” The slower trains in front were delayed too, which meant our “express” had to travel at the speed of the slowest, all because of the suspicious package. “Better safe than sorry”, I hear you say, and rightly so. Thank God for a sharp-eyed train-driver or rail-worker. But it got me thinking about being suspicious.

What makes us suspicious? The “too good to be true” offer of a cut-price deal? The phone-call about an Amazon payment that feels like a scam? The strange noise outside our home late at night? We are right to be “on our guard” against those who would trick us or cause us harm. Aren’t our TV screens full of warnings about scams and rip-offs?

But what about unfounded suspicions, caused by prejudice or judgement? Are the “bikers” in the carpark with their leathers and tattoos up to no good? Has that black kid been pulled over for a “stop and search” because of the neighbourhood or the colour of his skin? Is the politician who espouses different views from mine to be mistrusted in everything?

Alexander Pope had it right. Suspicions begin with us. If we are infected with prejudice and judgement, we will see infection and rottenness in others; and if we are jaundiced in our attitudes, we will have a jaundiced take on the lives, motives and behaviour of others.  

Tom Paxton in his 1972 album, Peace will Come, offers these lines:

Peace, peace will, peace will come, and let it begin with me.

We, we need, we need peace, and let it begin with me.

My own life is all I can hope to control.

Let my life be lived for the good, the good of my soul,

And let it bring peace, sweet peace.

Peace will come, and let it begin with me.

If it works with peace, so it can be in all areas of our lives. If we deal with our infections and jaundice, how much more readily might be find we’ve left behind our suspicious nature, and to everyone’s benefit?

***

A prayer for today

Let me be slow to judge, Lord, quick to understand,

and always ready to be tolerant. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Stamps – 10th May 2022

Stamps … often rare and beautiful, just like the messages they convey. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

Ernest Rutherford, in ‘Rutherford in Manchester’ by J B Birks

***

I’m not sure what point the New Zealand physicist, Ernest Rutherford, was making in the quotation above. More research needed, I think. But I know that stamp collecting still rates as an important pastime for many people. When my uncle died and I was disposing of his possessions, I came across a stamp album, meticulously laid out, which he’d obviously used extensively in his youth. I had no idea the significance or the value of the stamps in his collection. But a dealer suggested some of them might be quite rare. So the album was donated to the Edinburgh Christian Aid  Book Fair, in the hope that it might be purchased by a collector.

With the extensive use of emails, WhatsApp and texts these days, along with Facetime, Skype and Zoom calls, writing and sending letters that need stamps is less common than it used to be. The cost of a First Class stamp for an ordinary letter in the UK is now 95p, with Second Class post being 68p, with comparable prices in the USA, France and Germany. Is that why writing and posting letters has become less common?

Yet is there not something delightful about getting a letter, postcard, or parcel, with a stamp on it? No, not the printed stickers from the Post Office, or the pre-paid envelopes as part of a Company’s mass-mailing. I mean a letter with a proper stamp, a stamp that someone has paid for so that the letter can be sent officially and delivered safely; a stamp that’s been stuck on beside your address, by their own hand; a stamp that carries an important message where it’s supposed to go.

The first stamps were authorised for use in the UK in 1840. So, the next time you post a letter or receive one with a stamp on it, don’t just think of the cost, or how much easier it would have been to send an email; don’t dig out your mobile phone to reply with a text or a WhatsApp message. Why not give thanks for 180 years of letters with stamps, and be grateful for the time and care we take to communicate with each other.

Now, where’s that book of stamps I bought last week? I’ve got some letters to write, which will need these stamps to get them delivered safely.

***

A prayer for today

The stamp of your approval, Lord?

All I need is the smile of your acceptance. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Accountable – 9th May 2022

Accountable? Challenging, but well worth it! (Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com)

“What power have you got? Where did you get it from?

In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable?

How do we get rid of you?”

Tony Benn, Questions habitually asked by him of people in power,

as defined in his lecture, ‘The Independent Mind’, in Nottingham in 1993

***

There’s no documentary evidence that the legendary British Labour politician, Tony Benn, actually used the approach outlined above. But the point he makes is an important one. He saw accountability as vital in the sphere of politics and the exercising of power. I regularly appreciate and benefit from accountability in another sphere, my membership of the Iona Community.

I’ve been a member of the Iona Community since 1973. As such, I am committed to a Rule relating to my spiritual life, a commitment to social and environmental issues, the use of my resources, and sharing supportively with other members. Membership is reviewed round about this time every year. The process is called, “With Us”, defining the decision to be “with” the Community in all its aspects for another twelve months.

While ultimately in the hands of an individual for a final decision, that “With Us” process is explored and teased out in small groups – the “Family Group” of members who meet regularly in their locality, and often even in smaller units of two or three members. We are accountable to one another for the keeping of our Rule. And that accountability is crucial.

One facet is the use of our resources – time, talents and money. Each member accounts for the dispersal of 10% of their disposable income – to the Iona Community and other causes. But the accountability doesn’t stop there, for “10%” could easily become a paper-exercise, like any set of annual accounts. But what about the other 90%? How is that used, and to whose benefit? Through nearly 50 years of membership of the Iona Community, the Family Group is the only place where I have been consistently able to talk honestly and openly about money, and to be challenged, with no judgments or comparisons. Accountability works.

In the end, I have to be accountable to myself. But I am so grateful for the help I’ve been given over the years to do that. Can we all look at our lives, commitments and all we have, and say, “I can account for that!”?   

***  

A prayer for today

Accountable to myself, to others and to you, my God.

Challenge and growth in all three. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Value – 8th May 2022

Prayers – time to stop and think. (Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com+

Prayer never loses its value.”

Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 4:4

***

Following my reflections a while back on my struggles with prayer, I’ve greatly value the meaningful engagements with this issue my thoughts have generated. I feel reassured that I am not alone … 

One comment took me to a favourite hymn, Father, hear the prayer we offer. It first appeared in the 1860s in a hymnary published in Boston over the name Anonymous. But it was later attributed to Love Maria Whitcomb Willis. Little is known of the writer, and this hymn is the only one of hers still in common use. The text of the hymn bears inclusion here.

Father, hear the prayer we offer:
not for ease that prayer shall be,
but for strength that we may ever
live our lives courageously.

Not for ever in green pastures
do we ask our way to be;
but the steep and rugged pathway
may we tread rejoicingly.

Not for ever by still waters
would we idly rest and stay;
but would smite the living fountains
from the rocks along our way.

Be our strength in hours of weakness,
in our wanderings be our guide;
through endeavour, failure, danger,
Father, be thou at our side.

In my struggles with prayer, I take comfort from these words. Prayer isn’t easy, nor should I ever expect it to be. Prayer will take me to rugged places, which I neither wish nor expect. Prayer expects me to move on and not to play safe. Prayer is offered with the expectation that it will do me some good, give me some strength, offer me some guidance.

So, in my struggles today, tenuously holding on to the truth that “prayer never loses its value”, I’ll simply use Love Maria Whitcomb Willis’ words – with the expectation that they will say all that’s needed for now.

***

A prayer for today

I think I’ll just say the words above again and again –

and leave it at that. Amen

***

An original reflection ©Tom Gordon