Trees – 18th May 2021

From a Rowan tree in blossom to an Amelanchia in memory of loved ones – and everything in between – trees can, even now, be our teachers.

You will find something more in woods than in books.

Trees and stones will teach you that which

you can never learn from your masters.”

St Bernard of Clairvaux, Epistles No. 106

***

The folk in our local church have planted a new tree in the church garden, an Amelanchia, which has star-shaped flowers in the Spring and berries later in the year. It’s been planted as a memorial to all the people who have died in the past fifteen months, not just because of Covid, but those whose deaths have left us all with lasting grief and unfinished mourning.

Trees – and stones too, according to St Bernard of Clairvaux – can teach us things we can never learn from our masters. Walking on the Isle of Skye some years ago, I climbed from a beach to an uncultivated tract of land at the top of a cliff, uncultivated, that is, apart from several random Rowan trees. As I got closer, I could see the tops of ruined walls just rising above the peat and heather, but delineated clearly enough to show that this had once been the site of a little village, cleared, perhaps, as crofters moved south for work in the towns or as victims of “The Highland Clearances”. What looked like moorland had once been a living settlement.

And the trees? Centuries ago, a Rowan tree was planted by every house, for good fortune, to ward off evil spirits and protect a family from danger. Wherever there was a home there was a Rowan tree.

While the homes and people had gone, the trees remained as my teachers. There were so few trees on that clifftop they couldn’t be described as a wood, such as Bernard of Clairvaux would have had in mind. And yet they too spoke of something more than could be found in books – of memories, connections to the past, the sharing of community, hardship and love, life and history, birth and death, tears and laughter in an island settlement – even something profoundly spiritual. 

The Amelanchia in my church grounds will be our teacher too, for it will keep on telling the stories of people we’ve known and loved, more than any book ever could, for generations yet to come. Thanks be to God.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, when I listen to the lesson of the trees,

I hear about rootedness and spreading branches,

strength and watchfulness.

Thank you for their message. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon    

Morte – 17th May 2021

I am so deeply sorry … (Photo by Frank Cone on Pexels.com)

Look to this day,

For it is the very life of life.”

Kalidasa, 5th century classical Sanskrit poetry

***

A few days ago, I killed a pheasant on a country road. I wasn’t speeding, and the road was clear. But all of a sudden, a pheasant shot out from a thicket, right into my path. I had no time to take evasive action. As I looked in my rear-view mirror, the pheasant lay motionless on the grass-verge.

I had killed a pheasant on a country road. I didn’t mean to, of course. It came on me by surprise and there was nothing I could do. But the result was a dead pheasant, and a very shaken and emotional driver.

The purpose of my journey was to visit a friend to have a chat in her garden. I was grateful for a moment or two to gather my thoughts while she went indoors to rustle up the coffee. As I sat the sunshine, I pondered what had happened. And, as I did so, an old Gregorian Chant came to mind: Media vita in morte sumus. The full English translation in the Book of Common Prayer puts it poetically in this form::

In the midst of life, we are in death, of whom may we seek for succour …
O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty … deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.

I never got on to the “God” bit. I was stuck with my reality on that morning: in the midst of life, we are in death – pheasants and all.

Then I became conscious of a cacophony of birdsong around me. Which birds? I have no idea. But their songs spoke to me of life, so that, by the time my friend returned with the coffee, a balance had begun to return to my troubled soul. Birds were singing … Or the voice of God?

I don’t know if there‘s a Gregorian Chant which begins Medio mortis in vita sumus – “In the middle of death we are in life” – but that was God’s word to me that morning. Death is a given. But the gift of life embraces even death itself. It offers us “the very life of life” which the ancient Sanskrit promises – even to a driver on a country road who’d just killed a pheasant.

***

A prayer for today

Inevitable though it is, death can still take us by surprise.

But let us not be surprised when the gift of life embraces it

and offers us hope again. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Conducting – 16th May 2021

Conducting with the hands? Conducting by ear? Conducting from the heart? One way or another, let’s give praise to God. (Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com)

It is better to conduct with the ear instead of with the arm:

the rest follows automatically.”

Richard Strauss, On Conducting Classical Masterpieces

***

I was at the special Service to mark the union of the three parishes I wrote about recently. With Covid restrictions, numbers were restricted, with everyone socially distanced and bedecked in a variety of masks. It was very strange, but everyone approached the event in a positive frame of mind.

As part of the “official” party, I was in the church’s chancel area, facing the worshippers. It was an uplifting act of worship, and we sang three good hymns. Well, actually, we didn’t. You can’t, wearing a mask. And the Covid regulations don’t permit singing in churches anyway. But, with words on a sheet, we stood to “sing”. The organist played with all the usual dynamics, louds and softs, and with a descant on the final verse. But it was hard not having the “full-on” singing such an occasion deserved.

During the second hymn, my eye caught an elderly lady, probably singing behind her mask, with her head nodding rhythmically to the music – and she was gently conducting with her right hand. Every phrase, every line, every verse, conducted in 4/4 time, and, at the conclusion of the final verse, her invisible choir was brought off positively with a firm flourish. Was she conducting herself, me, those around her? As I watched, I decided she was conducting no more or less than a celestial choir. No singing? The whole place was filled  for her by a massed choir of thunderous praise.

We’re told we should “dance when no one is looking and sing when no one is listening”. But I’ve got a new one now. We should conduct when no one is singing! The lady wasn’t conducting by her hand, or even “with the ear” as Richard Strauss suggests. She was conducting from the heart. That’s what came automatically to her. Richard Strauss also wrote, “Conducting is, after all, a difficult business – one has to be seventy years of age to realise this fully!” But there again, as that lady taught me, when you’re over seventy and completely absorbed in praising God, even with no one else singing, conducting isn’t really such a difficult business at all.

***

A prayer for today

I praise you with my voice.

And when my voice falls silent, I praise you with my heart,

and join with countless others in thankful praise.

No one can silence that.  

Amen

***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon    

Gradations – 15th May 2021

Gradations of colour. Gradations of feelings. Gradations of attitude. But where are the absolutes? (Photo by aceofnet on Pexels.com)

It is not probable therefore that he wrote any thing: 

all was communicated orally, by such gradations,

 and with such discretion, as he might think fit to adopt and to exercise.”

William Godwin, The Lives of the Necromancers (of Pythagoras)

***

Recently on a cycle-ride I got wet. Not damp, showered on, or soaked, but absolutely drenched to the skin, or fair drookit, as we would say in Scots. It was an afternoon when the sun was shining and most of the sky was blue. But I should have noticed the clouds over Fife. I should have checked the weather forecast. But I didn’t! So, I got very wet indeed!

There are gradations of getting wet, and any number of words in the English language to describe them. There are gradations for being cold too, and being hot, and feeling ill, and being hungry, and feeling down – and lots of words to describe them as well. We live with gradations, so we find ways to express that. Different people will describe their place in each gradation in their own way. But usually, we understand what they mean.

Are there any absolutes, then, things we experience which have no gradations? I think there are. There may be any number of words available to us to describe these, but that only gives us a variety of ways of expressing the same thing. Let me suggest two such absolutes: love and justice. We can try to explain what love means to us, and how we feel about it. But love is an absolute. I love my three children differently. But my love for each of them is unconditional and complete of itself. It has no gradations. It’s different from the love I have for my wife, or a friend, or my sister. But each of these is equally absolute. I love them all completely.

It’s the same with justice. There might be any number of gradations for in-justice, but justice in every situation is absolute. From play-ground bullying to the Supreme Court, from family issues to LBGTQ rights, justice is absolute. There are no grey areas, no gradations.

Let’s be a Pythagoras and communicate with gradations – and discretion – when we need to, or have to. But when it comes to love and justice, let’s celebrate the absolute, and work towards ensuring that everyone knows what they mean and the benefits they bring.

***

A prayer for today

Thank you, loving God, that there are no gradations in your love for me. Amen.

***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Walls – 14th May 2021

A wall – taking shape …

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in and walling out,

And to whom I was likely to give offence.”

Robert Frost, Mending Wall

***

Our neighbours are having their garden wall rebuilt, and it’s being done by a proper, official, artisan builder-of-walls. He’s a local stonemason, well known for his sculptures around the area, including a carving of miners digging coal in a deep seam, as a monument to East Lothian’s mining history. For days now, I’ve been fascinated by the careful construction of the wall, and how he fits together stones of different sizes, shapes and colours. Sometimes he’ll take a stone, and it’ll fit right away. And at other times he has to chip pieces away to make sure it fits properly. 

In conversation with him, I recalled a story told by George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, about the rebuilding of the living quarters of Iona Abbey in the 1940s and 50s. As he watched the stonemasons haul huge stones onto the scaffold ready to be fitted into a wall, he would sometimes see them put a stone to one side. If it didn’t fit immediately, they wouldn’t throw it back down. They would keep it until a place emerged where they knew it would be a good fit. No stone was ever rejected. Each one, large or small, had its place.

I told my local stonemason that story. “I do that too,” he said, “though my stones don’t have to be hauled up a scaffold. So I just put them back in the pile to be used later.” And then he paused, and with a big grin said, “The trouble is, I can’t always remember where I put them. I know there’s a stone somewhere that’ll fit this space but blow me if I can find it when I want to. The trouble isn’t the stones. The trouble is me!”

 The trouble isn’t the stones! What George MacLeod saw was the truth of that. Each stone had its place. None of them needed to be thrown back. But the trouble is me – or you, indeed! There are any number of stones waiting to be used, but we can’t remember where they are, so we can’t play our part in making sure they fit where they’re needed.

When we’re “walling in and walling out”, stones can’t fit themselves into a wall by themselves. The trouble isn’t the stones. The trouble is me!

***

A prayer for today

Lord, might I give offence by excluding an important stone

from it’s place in the wall? Amen

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon  

Roses – 13th May 2021

“Handel” – a tribute to music, beauty and love. That’s what roses can do! (Photographs by Mary Gordon)

“The desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.”

Bible, Isaiah 35:1

***

Roses of Picardy is a song written by Frederick Weatherly with music by Haydn Wood. Published in London in 1916 at the height of the First World War, it became one of the most popular songs of its day. The melody came to Haydn as he was going home one night on a London bus. He jumped off and wrote the tune on the back of an old envelope under the light of a streetlamp. Weatherly wrote the song – along with Danny Boy – for the soprano, Elise Griffin, who became a leading performer with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. In his 1926 memoirs, Weatherly hinted that the lyrics concerned a love affair of one of his close friends. 

Picardy, a historic French province, covered the areas of the Somme and Aisne. Given the location of some of the bloodiest of battlefields, the symbolism of roses blossoming in such an awful place caught the public imagination, for it spoke to them of hope and the prospect of peace. The song quickly became popular, with soldiers singing as they enlisted for the Front in France and Flanders. Following the War, singing Roses of Picardy also helped soldiers suffering from shellshock recover their speech.

Roses are shining in Picardy, in the hush of the silver dew,

Roses are flowering in Picardy, but there’s never a rose like you!

And the roses will die with the summertime, and our roads may be far apart,

But there’s one rose that dies not in Picardy! ’tis the rose that I keep in my heart!

Roses were often planted in our hospice garden in memory of a loved one. The local crematorium has a Memorial Rose Garden for the same purpose. My wife has a rose named Handel at the front of our house as a symbol of thanks for the beauty of music. And which of us isn’t looking forward to summer displays of roses in our gardens and parks?

Might we see roses shining in our Picardy today – as we offer hope and the prospect of peace to those around us, beauty and love to replace horror and pain?  There are many deserts waiting to rejoice, many places, even now, expecting to “blossom as the rose”.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, wherever there is a desert, make from me a rose that blooms. Amen

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Actions – 12th May 2021

I hope that my actions can show that my words are true. (Photo by Soumil Kumar on Pexels.com)

“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.”

George Elliot, Adam Bede

***

Towards the end of “The Sermon on the Mount”, gathered for us in Matthew’s Gospel, the writer has Jesus warning against “false prophets”.

Ye shall know them by their fruits.

Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

It’s not enough for someone to say what their motives are, or how they feel, or what they think. Their actions will reveal the truth of who they are.

George Elliot had it right. We know that our inner being determines how we act. But it is equally true that how we act can reveal what we really live by. The full quote from Adam Bede takes this further.

Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds; and until we know what has been or will be the peculiar combination of outward with inward facts, which constitute a man’s critical actions, it will be better not to think ourselves wise about his character.

It’s only in understanding this balance between the “outward” and “inward”, and seeing it in action in a person’s life, that we can truly believe that a person is what they say they are.

In anticipation of the death of King Charles II, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, offered “The King’s Epitaph”:

Here lies a great and mighty king,

Whose promise none relies on;

He never said a foolish thing,

Nor every did a wise one.

and the king is reputed to have responded:

This is very true; for my words are my own, and my actions are my ministers.

Oh no! We cannot, and should not, create such a dichotomy between words and actions. The words will be mine, and the actions will be mine too. The inward and outward have each to show the truth of the other.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, change me from a thornbush to a vine,

from a thistle to a fruit-tree,

so I might offer the grapes and figs of love

and not the thorns and thistles of harm. Amen

***

 An original reflection by © Tom Gordon      

Please – 11th May 2021

Oh! That’s SO politely asked! (Photo by Ethan Wilkinson on Pexels.com)

The art of pleasing consists in being pleased.”

William Hazlitt, The Round Table (1817)

***

Writing about “thank you” yesterday brought to mind a well-rehearsed story. A little child, being taught to be mannerly, is offered a treat, grabs it and says nothing. Not happy at this behaviour, the mother remonstrates with the child: “I’ve told you over and over again that manners matter. Politeness is the sign of a well-brought-up child. So, when I give you a treat, what do you say in return?” The child doesn’t respond but looks suitably ashamed. “Come on,” says the mother, “I’ve told you about this before. What’s the magic word?” At which point the child breaks into a beaming smile and says, “Abracadabra!”

And, yes, something similar has happened to me when I’ve been trying to teach my children manners. The magic words? “Thank you” (though, technically, that’s two words and should never be written as one … but we’ll leave that there for now) and “please”. Please and thank you, thank you and please, marks of politeness in a mannerly society, and signs that little children are indeed brought up well.  

I like William Hazlitt’s take on “the art of pleasing”. At his Round Table – or anywhere else, for that matter – pleasing, being pleased, saying please, are all mixed up together. One gives birth to the others. Good manners breed good manners. Say “please” and you give pleasure – and you’re likely to be pleased by what you get in return.

The 17th century English poet, writer and dramatist, John Dryden, wrote in Absalom and Achitophel :

Whate’er he did was done with so much ease,

In him alone, ‘twas natural to please.

Would that it was in us all to be “natural to please”. Maybe using “please” as a magic word more than we do is a good place to start.

***

A prayer for today

Please love me, Lord. “I do that already.”

Please forgive me, Lord. “I do that already.”

Please help me to be grateful. “Ah. Now you’re onto something.

But that’s for you to get round to. So, get on with it – please!”

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Thank you – 10th May 2021

Two country churches – in the villages of Athelstaneford and Whitekirk in rural East Lothian. Much to be thankful for … much to be prayed about … much to be looked forward to … much to be remembered with gratitude.

We give thanks to God always for you all,

making mention of you in our prayers;

remembering without ceasing your work of faith and labour of love,

and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Bible, I Thessalonians 1:2

***

When St Paul begins his first letter to the Church in Thessalonica (in modern-day Greece) with the words above, the warmth of his “thanks to God” comes from the heart. The people’s “work of faith”, “labour of love” and “patience of hope” had obviously touched him deeply. For here was an exemplar of what the Church can and should be. The letter St Paul wrote, thought to be one of his earliest, is largely personal in nature, its purpose being to encourage and reassure the people of this fledgling Church to go on working quietly in respond to their faith in Christ.

This week sees the beginning of a new parish structure for the Church of Scotland in part of East Lothian, when three churches come together to form a larger unit, the Parish of Traprain, covering the town of East Linton and several surrounding villages. I’ve been involved with two of the churches which are part of this new union, in the villages of Athelstaneford and Whitekirk. I’ve worked with them for three years, through the ups and downs of parish life and the twists and turns of finding a new structure for the work and witness of the people of God.

I’m no St Paul, but the words quoted above say all I would want to say to the people of Athelstaneford and Whitekirk. Many of them will be reading this, so, in that sense, like St Paul, it is my personal letter of thanks. Today I give thanks to God for the ceaseless work of faith and countless labours of love I have seen, heard of and experienced personally. There has been patience, hope, belief, service, commitment, and, above all, there has been love. How can I not “give thanks to God for you all”?

Go on doing what you do, and do it well – working quietly in the service of Christ and His people. And be assured, I will always be “making mention of you in my prayers”. Thank you, and may God bless you all.

***

A prayer for today

Give thanks to God this day, for all that is good in life and love,

and all that is Godly in the Church and in our communities. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Spontaneous – 9th May 2021

Your time to pray … Be spontaneous! (Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com)

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap in my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart.”

W B Yeats, The Fascination of What’s Difficult

***

At a recent Church gathering, we’d completed one section of business and were about to move on, when the minister in charge announced, “Perhaps Tom can close this part with a prayer.” I’m not saying with Yeats that this request “dried the sap in my veins”, nor would I indicate that I don’t approach such issues with a sense – if not a fascination – of “what’s difficult”. But I have to say, that my heart was beating a bit faster as I called people to prayer.

Fortunately, spontaneous, extempore prayer is something I’m comfortable with. Having been brought up in an evangelical tradition, I’m familiar with prayer-meetings where “free prayer” is expected. In College I’d learned that unscripted prayers can – and perhaps should – have a structure.  Because of that, most of my public prayers are never written down in advance. Hopefully what I offer “in the moment” is helpful.

In the 1980s I worked for a short time in The Church of the Saviour in Washington DC. Regularly, especially in the African American community, free prayer was common, and at the close of most gatherings whoever was responsible would call on someone to end with prayer. Often the person chosen was Yolanda, whose prayers were simply wonderful. “Spontaneous joy and natural content” poured out of her heart to the benefit of everyone present – and, I’m sure, it was pleasing to God too.

It had to happen … One evening the Pastor said, “And now Tom will lead us in prayer,” and, my prayer, like the invitation, was spontaneous. As we were leaving, the Pastor thanked me and said, “I would have to say … you prayed like Yolanda.” It’s an accolade I’ll never forget. If what reached people’s ears and rose to the Throne of Grace contained even a fraction of the “spontaneous joy and natural content” of this woman’s amazing prayers, then my prayer had done its job. And I like to think that it pleased God too.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, when we hear Yolanda’s prayers,

give us the confidence to join in

and make them ours too. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon