Thought – 26th October 2020

“Through two doors at once”, which is exactly what happened to Schrödinger’s cat! This is best book I know to help me understand Quantum Physics … or at least I thought so.

“Thought once awakened does not again slumber.”

Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero Worship

***

Schrödinger’s Cat  is a thought experiment, a paradox, devised in 1935 by Austrian-Irish physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, in discussions with Albert Einstein. It illustrates what he saw as the problem of some of the original formulations of quantum mechanics applied to everyday objects. The scenario presents a hypothetical cat that may be simultaneously both alive and dead – known as “a quantum superposition” – as determined by a random subatomic event that may or may not occur. Follow me so far? No, I thought not, and I apologise for inflicting this on you. But …

I’ve just finished a book on Quantum Physics – Through Both Doors at Once, by Anil Ananthaswamy – and, though I was fascinated by it, I hardly understood a word it contained. I don’t blame intelligent people like Erwin Schrödinger or Albert Einstein for that, or the writer of the book. So it must be me. But it got me thinking …

When I studied physics in university, I loved experiments. But these tests of theories, formulae and suppositions were all practical. We used stuff  for our experiments. We tested feasibilities on our science benches. We measured things with scales and rulers and thermometers. We could see what was happening, discuss what we observed and compare our findings with similar experiments elsewhere. It was all practical. But Schrödinger and others, as theoretical physicists, were also engaged in thought experiments, theorising about possibilities, working through scenarios before lifting a practical finger. Hence Schrödinger’s Cat

The truth is, we need both theorists and practical people, those who work with their minds and  with their hands, people who muse and cogitate while others deal with stuff. We need the thinkers as well as the do-ers. Without the thinkers, there would be no new possibilities to explore; without the do-ers, there would be no outworking of the creativity of fertile minds. So let the theorists theorise and let the practical people be practical. But let’s respect one another and work together for the good of all. Now, that’s worth a thought, isn’t it?

***

A prayer for today

Lord, make me a thinker when I do too much;

make me a doer when my thinking’s done.

Amen

***

 An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Call – 25th October 2020

Photo by Faris Subrium on Pexels.com

“’You would not have called to me

unless I had been calling to you,’ said the Lion.”

C S Lewis, The Silver Chair

***

On a recent holiday in the country I was wakened just after dawn by the incessant calling of a woodpigeon. “Coo-coo; coo-coo … Coo-coo; coo-coo … Coo-coo; coo-coo; coo …”, this 4-4-5 call being repeated over and over again with a short pause between each section. I don’t know how long the woodpigeon sounded its call, how often it was repeated or how many people it woke up. But after a while an answer came, at a higher pitch and with a different rhythm. And, at that point, the calling of the first woodpigeon stopped. The response, it appeared, had been enough.

Now, I’m not an ornithologist, but I suspect it’s what a woodpigeon does. It sounds a call, and keeps sounding a call, until it gets a response. I’ve no idea what happens next. But the response to the call seems to be sufficient.

In 1 Samuel 3 we read the story of the young Samuel hearing an incessant call. This call wakens him too, but he has no idea what it means. Over and over again it sounds, till the young man acknowledges it, and says, in effect, “OK! I get it! I hear you. I’m here!” And that is enough.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve wrestled with the concept of call. Where does it come from? What does it mean? What do I do with it? How do I respond? Is this God’s call or my imagination? When will it stop? After fifty years of trying to interpret what call means, and having heard calls many times, I have to say I am none the wiser.

So what do I do when I am wakened by an incessant call? I do what Samuel did and simply say, “OK! I hear you!” and take things forward from there. My acknowledging response has to be enough. It’s as much as I can manage. And then I have to work at it, continue to wrestle, God and me doing our best together.  

There is no definitive direction or absolute clarity. Simply to acknowledge the call is usually all I can do, and to say, “I’m here!”, like a responsive woodpigeon does naturally, just after dawn.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, it’s your job to call. It’s my job to listen and say, “OK!”.

And it’s our job to work out together what happens next – whatever that might be.

Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Money – 24th October 2020

What is money? (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

“Papa! What’s money?”

Charles Dickens, Dombey and son

***

Charles Dickens allows Paul Dombey to voice an important question. What is money? Fred Ebb suggested in the song “Money, Money” from Cabaret in 1966 that money makes the world go round, implying that it’s the single most important feature of a modern society. Discuss! – especially in the light of Paul’s guidance in his first letter to his young friend, Timothy: “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

But I want to suggest today that we ponder two other reflections on money to help us. In The Compleat Angler  from 1653, Izaak Walton offers this:

Look to your health; and if you have it, praise God, and value it next to a good conscience; for health is the second blessing that we mortals are capable of; a blessing that money cannot buy.

The Covid-19 crisis has raised matters have long since sought to avoid – that we are all mortal; that health is, or should be, our priority; that we should give thanks for life and not substance, living and not years. Socrates, as far back as 300 years BC, suggested:

Virtue does not come from money, but from virtue comes money and all other good things to man, both to the individual and the state.

So, if we value life and health, let us have virtue as our foundation – the virtue of living well, to everyone’s benefit, for “the individual and the state”. From such righteous living good things will come for us all.

In the first century, the emperor Vespasian imposed a tax on public lavatories. His son, Titus, objected on the grounds that this was beneath the dignity of the state. The emperor, we’re told, took a handful of coins and held them under his son’s nose, and asked if they smelt.

The answer is obvious, of course: Pecunia non olet – “Money doesn’t smell”. But, if it isn’t used well, it might create a stench in our society none of us can stand!

***

A prayer for today

God of all gifts, guide me to use my substance well.

Help me base my living on your righteousness.

Give me health to use your gifts to your glory. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Serious – 23rd October 2020

Seric the Serious, Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset, England. (Photo Tom Gordon)

“Seriousness is the Christian’s balance

which keeps him being overturned with vanity.”

Thomas Watson, The Christian Soldier, or ‘Heaven taken by storm’, 1669

***

On a recent visit to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, I was intrigued by a small, bronze statue outside St Patrick’s Chapel, close to the entrance of the Abbey precincts. It depicts Seric, a 10th century Glastonbury monk, who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Seric is on a small horse and he’s being stopped by a ragged child who’s holding out a begging bowl. It’s a tender and thought-provoking depiction of all that Seric and his brothers stood for. In a world where people were crying out for alms, he stopped to help a pleading child.

We’re told that Seric was labelled Seric the Serious, though no one really knows why. Perhaps it was because of his learning, or maybe it’s simply a transliteration of his Latin name, Serio. Either way, the bronze sculpture of Seric and the pleading child made me stop and have a serious think. And I came to the conclusion that Seric was serious because dealing with poverty and need is a very serious business indeed.

Official figures show that in 2018-19 there were 4.2 million children living below our current definition of the poverty line in the UK. In a class of 30 children, that means 9 would be living in poverty. 44% of children living in lone-parent families are in poverty, and lone parents face a higher risk due to the lack of an additional earner, low rates of maintenance payments, gender inequality in employment and pay, and childcare costs. Childcare and housing costs take the biggest toll on families’ budgets. And the Covid-19 crisis is making all of that much worse.  

Thomas Watson pointed out in the 17th century that being “overturned with vanity” is not the way to go. We need to be serious about the needs of others. That’s the Christian’s purpose, but it’s surely right for us all. Poverty, in any form, is a serious business for a civilised society. When, like Seric of old, are we really going to take that seriously?

***

A prayer for today

Loving God, help me to be aware of the needs of others

and to stop and think what I might do about them. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Ruined – 22nd October 2020

“Noli Me Tangere” by Graham Sutherland, Chichester Cathedral

“With ruin upon ruin, rout upon rout,

Confusion worse confounded.”

John Milton, Pardise Lost

***

When I found Milton’s words again – “ruin upon ruin”, and “confusion worse confounded” – one specific story came to mind.

Noli Me Tangere (Touch me not) is a painting by Graham Sutherland in the Mary Magdalene Chapel in Chichester Cathedral. Completed in 1961, it depicts the moment described in John’s Gospel when Mary Magdalene meets the risen Christ. Weeping outside his tomb, she mistakes Jesus for the gardener and asks him where they have put the body. But when Jesus speaks, she realises it is her Lord. “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus says, “because I have not yet gone up to the Father.” The first part of this in Latin, Noli me tangere, gave Sutherland the painting’s title. Jesus’ straw hat (also used by Rembrandt in his painting of the same subject) helps explain why Mary thinks he is the gardener. And Jesus is shown ascending a staircase, indicating he is already on the way to heaven.

The painting was controversial in its time, too graphic, colourful, “secular” and modern for some. So much so that in 1963 it was attacked and torn by a woman stabbing it with a ball-point pen. Confusion reigned! The picture was ruined. Or so many thought … But with careful restoration in skilled hands the damage was repaired. You have to look hard now to see where the tear is. Indeed, I wouldn’t have noticed it unless it had been pointed out to me and the pitiful story related.

Ruined? Not for me! For the painting, the beauty, the message, the purpose is still there. The damage only adds to its story – and meaning.

Your life and mine can be damaged by many things, including attacks by people who don’t like what we are, or say, or stand for. But are we ruined? Never! We may carry the marks of the harm, but we still have meaning to share and a message to portray in all its vibrancy. We may be confounded for a time, but we are never ruined. No misguided attack can destroy what we truly are. Indeed, it might even add to the story we tell …

***

A prayer for today

By the world’s ills, I carry many scars. By your grace, I’m restored to wholeness. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Background – 21st October 2020

Background or foreground? Young lady or island? Waves on an East Lothian beach or the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth? What matters? (Photograph by Tom Gordon)

“We have not to be ashamed of what we are …

[Our] backgrounds may not be particularly enlightened

or peaceful or intelligent.

Nevertheless, we have soil good enough to cultivate;

we can plant anything in it.”

Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

***

A few weeks ago, along with two hundred other people, I participated in a “Zoom Webinar” which had a lengthy “Q&A” session at the end. When someone spoke, the Zoom system had their image filling everyone’s screen. One participant contributed several times, and each time she appeared on the screen she had a different background! She started off with a tropical beach, moved on to the Sydney Opera House, passed in front of the Taj Mahal and ended up with Buckingham Palace gloriously behind her. Another contributor had a Liverpool scarf hanging behind him. And the dog behind one lady was far too big for that armchair!

Those of you who use Zoom will know what I mean. We’ve become fascinated by what’s behind people, in studies, lounges, bedrooms, gardens. It’s no different with folk being interviewed on TV. We get to see the interior-décor of celebrities’ homes, the libraries of politicians, the kitchens of overseas correspondents. From curtains to bookshelves, from wallpaper to paintings, we are fascinated by people’s backgrounds.

I remember once sharing Communion with a small group of people whom I didn’t know particularly well. It was only afterwards I learned that one had spent time in prison for assault, another was a recovering alcoholic and a third a survivor of domestic abuse. They all had a background, of pain, sorrow or difficulties. But in community fellowship, these backgrounds, not “particularly enlightened or peaceful or intelligent”, weren’t at all important. The uniqueness of each person, accepted, welcomed and loved, was what mattered.

Don’t judge people by what’s behind them. And, as Chögyam Trungpa suggests, don’t be ashamed of what you are. You should be judged, not by your background but by what you are now. “You are accepted,” God says, no matter what your background might be.

***

A prayer for today

Help me to love others as I am loved,

and to accept them as I am accepted.

Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Dancing – 20th October 2020

Photo by Marlon Schmeiski on Pexels.com

“[Dancing is] a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.”

George Bernard Shaw, The New Statesman, 1962

***

Come Dancing was a ballroom dancing competition which ran for many years on BBC TV from the 1950s. It began as a series of broadcasts from regional ballroom studios, with professional dancers offering tuition to the viewers. Dancing at that time was, of course, a major part of socialising in the UK, and the broadcasts were a great success. The format quickly changed to become a competition, with later series seeing regional teams going head-to-head for the coveted end-of-series trophy.

I love dancing. My wife and I went to ballroom dancing classes some years ago which, to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed – though, I have to say that Scottish Ceilidh dancing is much more my forte! I don’t agree at all with Shaw that dancing is a “perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire”. It’s just a lot of fun and gives a lot of people a lot of pleasure.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that when the BBC launched a celebrity version of a dancing show in 2004, it immediately became popular. With the title of Strictly Come Dancing – a clever amalgamation of the old Come Dancing and the 1992 Australian movie, Strictly Ballroom – the show has been a major TV success ever since. Shortened to Strictly in common parlance, the 2020 version of the show has just begun, and the weekly broadcasts will run inexorably towards Christmas. The return of Strictly has clearly been much anticipated. “We need something to lift the spirits just now,” someone said to me a few days ago. Strictly will certainly do that, because, as it makes abundantly clear, dancing brings us a lot of fun!

I’m still no great shakes as a dancer, but I know that my spirits needs to be lifted too. So shows like Strictly are much needed at the moment. But why leave it to a TV programme? What are the Strictly moments you can bring into someone’s life right now, to lift their spirits, to bring a smile to their face? You don’t have to swing them round a dancefloor to do that, but you might just be able to being a little bit of much-needed “dancing” fun and pleasure into their ballrooms.

***

A prayer for today

You are the Lord of the Dance.

Help me to move to the rhythm of your music,

and to invite others to join in. Amen

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Challenge – 19th October 2020

Rob Burrow, who daily rises to the challenge.

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge

to test our courage and willingness to change;

at such a moment, there is no point in pretending

that nothing has happened

or in saying that we are not yet ready.

The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.”

Chinese Proverb

***

Today I pay tribute to a remarkable man, a former Rugby League player, Rob Burrow, who is living life with Motor Neuron Disease. Rob Burrow had an outstanding sixteen-year career with Leeds Rhinos in the English Super League. Capped for England and Great Britain, Burrow is 5 ft 5 in tall, and was often known as “the smallest player in Super League”. But, despite this, he became one of the most successful players in the competition’s history, winning a total of eight Super League Championships and two Challenge Cups. Since the news of Burrow’s MND diagnosis broke in 2019, I have been both moved and astonished at how this “little” man has risen to the challenge of facing his life-limiting disease.

This past weekend, the Coral Rugby League Challenge Cup Final was played at an empty Wembley Stadium. Burrow was to be the guest of honour, but was unable to attend because his MND had further debilitated him. On display were advertising banners encouraging the viewing public to donate to the MND charity as a tribute to this remarkable man. Rob Burrow may have been guest of honour in absentia, but his courage in dealing with the challenge of his disease was there for all to see.

Does Rob Burrow think he’s remarkable? A recent BBC documentary would indicate his answer would be “No!” When he least expected it, life set him a challenge, bigger than any Challenge Cup Final. There was no point in pretending nothing had happened. It would have been futile to say he wasn’t ready. But he has risen to the challenge that “will not wait”. And, in doing so, is an example to us all.

For Rob Burrow, life is still for the living. It’s not about looking back or wondering what lies ahead. It’s about dealing with the challenge of now. At five feet five inches, Rob Burrow has become a giant in my life.

***

A prayer for today

Let your prayer today be spoken silently as you make a donation, in honour of Rob Burrow, to https://www.mndassociation.org/get-involved/donations

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Bells – 18th October 2020

Chalmers Memorial Church, Port Seton. Let the people of God exult that the bells are ringing! A journey over. A journey beginning. A God to be praised!

“O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done.

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting.”

Walt Whitman, O Captain! My Captain!

***

Last Sunday morning the bells of my local church rang out to welcome people to worship – for the first time in seven months! While worship has taken place mid-week now for several weeks, this was the first time worship had been offered on a Sunday during the Covid-19 pandemic.

There will be some, therefore, who with Walt Whitman’s sailor to his Captain, will cry out that the final destination has been reached; the ship has survived; the prize has been achieved; the people are exulting; the bells can ring, and ring, and ring. I can understand that. But, the truth is, we haven’t reached the end of this Covid-19 business. Whatever port we’ve arrived at that allows us to worship in our church on a Sunday, this is no prize. We may have “weathered every rack” thus far, but there are still stormy waters to face as further journeys into the unknown lie before us.

So, why do the bells ring? Should we have kept them silent, because the ultimate destination – through this world-wide pandemic-storm – hasn’t yet been reached? Did we ring the bells too soon? No we did not! For as the bells ring out in recognition of this journey ended, the people of God have a right to exult and sing their praise – even behind masks. Let’s celebrate one journey completed before continuing to the next.

In his poem, The Bells, Edgar Allan Poe says this:

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells

From the bells, bells, bells.

Today I rejoice that the bells are sounding, thankful that we have come through a time of trail and tribulation. “The bells I hear” are from my church today. O Captain! My Captain! I exult at their ringing, with all the people of God, as I praise you again today.

***

A prayer for today

Loving God, my ship is small and the storms are great.

Keep me safe. Steer me carefully. Guide me home. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Sit – 17th October 2020

“Sometimes I just sits …” (Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com)

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground …”

William, Shakespeare, Richard II

***

There’s a word that’s been used in our family for many years, and I don’t know whether it’s a proper Scots word or something that was made up by a family member generations ago. It’s the word sitootery, describing a place where you can “sit oot”, or sit out, and enjoy the open air. It can be used to describe a patio area, or decking, or even a pavement café. Al fresco, the Italians would say, but I like sitootery much better.

Shakespeare called for people to sit on the ground and “tell sad stories of the death of kings”. I would call for people just to sit, anywhere, and not feel they have to tell stories about anything at all … Just sit!

Often attributed to Mark Twain, this appeared in the satirical magazine, Punch, in 1906:

Sometimes I sits and thinks, and then again I just sits.

Despite Covid-19 restrictions which mean I physically don’t run around as much as I used to, I’m still busy – things to do, plan, remember, write. But I’m learning just to sit, give myself some space, even for a few moments, not to read, pray, meditate, or think about anything in particular, but simply to sit and be still. I spent time in a small church recently in an hour set aside for private prayer, just sitting … Wonderful!

T S Elliot included these lines in his poem Ash Wednesday  in 1930:

Teach us to care and not to care; teach us to sit still.

Elliot’s words speak to me, not of giving up caring, but, instead, learning to care for ourselves by sitting still, resting and being calm.

One of the first things we train a dog to do is to sit – before “paw” or “lie down” or even “roll over” – because, to deal with the frantic jumping, running around excitedly and expending of energy, we need the dog to be under control, to wait, to be ready. Might we train ourselves to do likewise? Let’s find our sitootery, sit ourselves down and just be …

***

A prayer for today

Sometimes I sits; sometimes I thinks; sometimes I prays;

and sometimes, I might be aware of a deeper, holy presence. Amen.

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon