Smile – 19th April 2021

Teddies, teddies and yet more teddies … and all smiling! Remarkable, don’t you think? (Photograph with permission from Margaret Antonios)

What’s the use of worrying?

It never was worthwhile,

So, pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,

And smile, smile, smile.”

George Asaf (George Henry Powell), Pack Up Your Troubles (1915)

***

My sister is an inveterate knitter! Squares for blankets, baby-clothes, scarves, Christmas stars, stuffed-dolls … you name it. Give her a couple of balls of wool and a pair of knitting needles, and she’s off.

For long periods during the lockdown, she’s been knitting teddies in a whole variety of colours. I swear there’s a danger of knitted teddies taking over her house! “Breeding like rabbits!” someone remarked. Windowsills, baskets, coffee-tables … everywhere you look, it seems, another teddy has appeared. All different! All colourful! All great fun!

And, the remarkable thing is … every single teddy has a smile on its face. Amazing, isn’t it? How does each teddy know that it’s role in life is to smile and make people happy? Remarkable, quite remarkable!

The song, “Pack Up Your Troubles”, from the Great War is an injunction to all of us to smile. We know well enough, of course, that putting a smile on your face doesn’t magically chase away all your worries. Indeed, a smile may continue to mask some deep-seated trouble or concern. Anxieties, fears and troubles can’t be easily dismissed. But, nonetheless, there are times when we have to smile in the face of tragedy, as a reminder to ourselves and others that we will not be defeated by the world’s woes. And there are also times when a simple smile can lighten up the dark places in which someone finds themselves.

In The Old Vicarage, Granchester, the poet, Rupert Brooke says this:

For Cambridge people rarely smile,

Being urban, squat, and packed with guile.

I don’t know what evidence Brooke had for such a calumny or what he had against people from Cambridge. But I do know the point he’s making. Wherever you come from, what a shame it is if you rarely smile.

Come on! If my sister’s knitted teddies can do it, so can you!

***

A prayer for today

Just as you smile upon me, Lord,

help me to smile for you today. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon  

Bad – 18th April 2021

Surely it’s not a “thumbs down” for me all the time … (Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com)

There was a little girl

Who had a little curl

Right in the middle of her forehead,

When she was good

She was very, very good,

But when she was bad she was horrid.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,

As quoted by B R Tucker-Macchetta in ‘The home life of Henry W Longfellow’ (1882)

***

The Longfellow verse above was reputedly composed for his second daughter, and we’re told that he would sing it to her while she was a babe in arms. What tune he used remains unknown, but his words, and the sentiment they contain, are an accurate appraisal of the human condition – even evident in a little child. It’s what theologians call “original sin”, what St Paul was wrestling with in his Epistle to the Romans when he wrote:

For I do not do the good I want to do,

but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.

The cartoonists of D C Thompson have it right when they depict the legendary “Oor Wullie” sitting on his up-turned bucket with a little devil on one shoulder and a little angel on the other. Which influence will win?

In every act of worship I’ve attended there has been, in one form or another, a prayer of confession. The mid-17th century proverb suggests that “Confession is good for the soul”. Whatever effects my confessions have on my soul’s eternal welfare, I know that confession is good for me. Before I turn to the nature of forgiveness and work out its significance for me, I need to make an honest appraisal of my own life. I can be “very, very good”. But I also know that I can be bad, very bad, horribly  bad, too.

We all struggle with the bad side of our character. So, let’s give ourselves to confession, take time to make an honest appraisal of who we are and how we live our lives. Let’s recognise the little devil on our shoulder that can made us horrid! And we might even find we have a little angel on the other side cheering us on to be “very, very good” once again. 

***

A prayer for today

Loving God, when I look at my life,

I’m genuinely sorry for the bad things I’ve done.

Keep me aware enough to acknowledge this part of me,

and then to let it go. Amen.

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Funerals – 17th April 2021

Facing our mortality … We’ll all have to do it one day. (Photo from http://www.pexels.com)

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Psalm of Life

***

Given that the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh is planned for today, I felt, with no little trepidation, drawn to this important topic.

Funerals have been vastly different this past year because of Covid restrictions, and we don’t yet know how the effects of these changes will impinge on the grieving processes. The funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh may be different from what mourners might wish or expect. But our prayer for all who mourn is that the funeral will serve its purpose as a solid bridge into an unknown future, and thus allow loved ones to take their leave of a significant figure in their lives in a dignified, helpful and honest way.

It’s clear that selflessness was a part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s character. “Don’t talk about me,” he is reported to have said. “Talk about what matters to me.” And, in that sense, the comparative simplicity of his funeral is likely to be what he would have wished. Indeed, many have said that he had already expressed his thoughts about this in his later years green Landrover hearse, and all ….

Might we offer our loved ones some ideas about our funeral? How often families flounder in planning a funeral because they look for pointers and find none. So, why not make your wishes known? If you can’t verbalise them, write them down and put them in an obvious place. Whether or not those who are bereaved follow them to the letter, your thoughts will be important gifts as they prepare a funeral that works for them.

As Longfellow reminds us, we are all marching to the grave. We may be “stout and brave” as we do, but the “muffled drums” of every heart are beating their own funeral march. Mortality is a given. So give thought to those who will, one day, mourn your passing. Say what you need to say. Write what you need to write. Leave guidance as a help to those who want to do their best for you. And do it now, for we know that “Time is fleeing”.

***

A prayer for today

Loving God, stout and brave as I seem to be …

help me to make the best use of the fleeting time I’ve been given,

and face my mortality, openly and honestly. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Example – 16th April 2021

“Example is better than precept.”

Proverb, Early 15th Century

***

Tomorrow sees the funeral of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who died last week, a few weeks short of his one hundredth birthday. Much has been said about this remarkable figure in our modern history that doesn’t need to be repeated here. But such is the significance of this death that I cannot let it go past without a personal comment.

Two things have impacted on me. The first is from Gyles Brandreth, a biographer of the Duke of Edinburgh, who spoke movingly of the Queen’s faith and Prince Philip’s spiritual life. “She will be sustained,” he said, “as she has been in so much of her life, by her faith in God and her belief that she and her husband will be reunited one day.” Today I pray that this widow, after more than seventy years of marriage, will find peace in her loss, holding to the promise of Jesus in the Beatitudes:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

And the second comes from Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal. Among tributes from many family members, Princess Anne, the second of Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth’s children, wrote this last weekend:

My father has been my teacher, my supporter and my critic,

but mostly it is his example of a life well lived and service freely given

 that I most wanted to emulate.

A wonderful tribute! The Princess Royal clearly knows the rightness of the 15th century proverb quoted above. Example is always better than precept. If someone sets us a standard we want to emulate, how much more meaningful is that than any set of instructions or behavioural constraints?  

An “example of a life well lived.” What comfort that also gives those who mourn the loss of a loved one – someone who has made the best of their life and whose service has been freely given.

Requiescat in Pace.  

***

A prayer of commendation

Encircle us with your power, encompass us with your grace, embrace your dying ones, support your weary ones, calm your frightened ones – and as the sun scatters the mist on the hills, bring us to new dawn, when we shall sit at a table in your kingdom, rejoicing in a God who saves his people. Amen

From “A New Dawn” in The Green Heart of the Snowdrop by Kate McIlhagga

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon 

Applications – 15th April 2021

Are there Apps for everything? (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

“Applications for situations.”

W H Auden, Night Mail

***

When W H Auden wrote Night Mail in 1936, communication was almost entirely by letter. There was the Telegram for contact on some urgent matter, or the telephone for instant, verbal conversation. But letters were the standard mode of interaction among people. His poem centred on the Night Train that took our mail over long distances so that letters could conclude their forward transmission as early as possible the following day.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,

Letters of joy from girl and boy,

Receipted bill and invitations

To inspect new stocks or visit relations,

And applications for situations,

And timid lovers’ declarations,

And gossip, gossip from all the nations.

What would Auden make of today’s communication? Take the shortening of “applications” to “Apps”, those devices on smart phones for instant access to everything. Which of you hasn’t been in a conversation during which someone has been checking a fact, background, or contact, so that, in a nano-second, you have an answer? No longer do we have to hear “I’ll look that up and get back to you,” or even, “It’s in the post.” We expect communication, knowledge, details and responses to be instant.

Of course, things have changed since 1936. But can I make a plea for the Night Train and the continued use of hand-written letters? I still experience a frisson of excitement when I get a personal letter in the post, and I hope that never leaves me. Whoever has sent this to me has touched the paper, or card, or envelope; thought about me when it’s been written, sealed and posted; given time to compose what needs to be said, with, I hope, a picture of the recipient lingering in their minds.

Don’t let our focus on Apps threaten the thorough, or the personal, or the careful. There may be lots of “applications for situations”, but there will always be letters that matter too.

***

A prayer for today

Dear Lord, here’s what I want to say [fill in the blank]. Much love. Tom

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon  

Tranquillity – 14th April 2021

Lewis Sunset – by Anthony J Barber (www.abarber.co.uk)

Il faut qu’il y ait des moments tranquilles dans les grands ouvrages.”

“There ought to be moments of tranquillity in great works.”

Voltaire, The Piccini Notebooks

***

The Harbour View Gallery is a small, working studio and gallery in the picturesque village of Port of Ness, on the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. A 45-minute drive north from Stornoway, the main population centre on Lewis, the gallery and studio have been the base for many years of the artist Anthony Barber (see www.abarber.co.uk). Because of the way he captures the light and colour of the islands of Scotland, he’s always been one of my favourite Scottish artists.

Among the aspects of the beauty of the Islands of Scotland Barber depicts, there is the nebulous concept of tranquillity. I have one of his paintings in my lounge. It shows a white house with a red roof reflected in a mirror-calm sea. A few yards from the shore sits a red boat, secured to a float, perfectly still on the calm water. And the whole scene is embraced by the blues and golds of a Lewis sunset. It is the epitome of tranquillity. Looking at Barber’s painting takes me back to that shoreline, where I could sit for hours, watching, waiting and just enjoying the tranquillity.

The French writer and philosopher, Voltaire, was right when he said that

There ought to be moments of tranquillity in great works.

It’s what Tennyson described in his poem Lucretius as

Divine Tranquillity, yearned after by the wisest of the wise …

The question for us, therefore, is this: Whatever great works we put our mind to, are we to be numbered among the wisest of the wise and yearn after such tranquillity? Prayer? Meditation? Mindfulness? Maybe … But for me, it’s often just about being still, like a boat on a calm sea, or a house perfectly reflected by a still shore. When we find it and give ourselves to it, tranquillity is enough of itself …

The Chinese philosopher, Confucius, wrote:

The man of humanity is tranquil …

the man of humanity enjoys long life.

Finding moments of tranquillity is good for our health and well-being, in body, mind and spirit. Can we do that? Anthony Barber, Lewis-based artist, clearly thinks we can.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, if I was to speak to you now,

it would disturb the beauty of this time with you.

So, I’ll just sit still, and wait,

and let the tranquillity speak for me. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Soup – 13th April 2021

Soup! The Soup of Christ? Mmmmm… (Photo by Navada Ra on Pexels.com)

Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

***

My granny wasn’t Jesus, though often the comparison would be worth exploring. But she was a great storyteller, and so she could communicate important truths in the style of Jesus’ parables. If, for example, she was to retell the Parable of the Good Samaritan, she would instance her care for the elderly man in her stair whom others ignored, while she sustained him with stews and pots of soup. After she was widowed, she continued to make meals for two, half going to her neighbour because he was in need.

My granny wasn’t St Paul either, though in this case the comparisons might be harder to find. But I suspect that her wisdom could well have been drawn upon to communicate the importance of what Paul sought to highlight. Take the metaphor of the way our body functions, each part connected to the other for the good of all. If one part is damaged, the whole body suffers. If one part rejoices, everyone benefits. It’s the nature of the Christian community, the body of Christ. And my granny? She would have turned to her soup-making prowess to make exactly the same point.

My granny’s soup-making was legendary. There were no measurements – it was all out of her head. Every soup was different – she just used what she had. Some pots were large, and others were small – it depended on who was to be served. But every soup was delicious. Every soup had the right balance. Every soup did a lot of good for a lot of people. Every soup was, in Lewis Carroll’s description, a “Beautiful Soup”.

And the meaning she would draw from this? Every ingredient of every soup was important. None was better or worse than another. The proportions worked together. The lentils, barley, vegetables, stock, seasoning … you can take the metaphor further yourself.

Thanks Granny! You’ve now got me thinking of your soup again, as a symbol of your “Good Samaritan” role with a needy neighbour. And you’ve pointed me to something even St Paul didn’t say – we are all important ingredients in the beautiful soup of Christ.

***

A prayer for today

Use me, Lord, with the flavouring of others,

to create something beautiful for you. Amen.

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon  

Aloud – 12th April 2021

Prayer, loud or silent. You choose. God’s happy either way. (Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com)

“She was, when a child, much against the Bishops,

and prayed to God to take them to him,

but afterwards was reconciled to them.

Prayed aloud, as the hypocritical fashion was then,

and was overheard.”

John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ‘Katherine Philips’

***

I know nothing of the Katherine Philips to whom the 17th century’s John Aubrey refers or why she might have a dislike of Bishops. But I do know that while her praying aloud might have been seen as the “hypocritical fashion” of the day, I see no reason why it might not be encouraged now.

One of the people to whom I’ve been sending my “Thought for the Day” told me recently that she likes the little prayer at the end. “It’s short,” she said. “I make it my prayer at the start of each day. And what’s more, I say it out loud.” Someone else told me a while ago that these little prayers are as much as they can manage at the moment. A little prayer, easily managed, and, at least in one case, spoken out loud. I like that!

Some things are meant to be read aloud. The poems and stories of A A Milne are like that for me, as is the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. And have you ever tried reading aloud the words of a favourite hymn rather than just singing it on a Sunday? It’s amazing what’s in the meaning of a piece when you hear the words spoken – even just speaking to yourself.

When I was young and saying my prayers before bedtime, they were said for me, then with me, and always aloud. As I got older, I was encouraged to say my prayers “into myself”, keeping them unspoken. To be honest, that’s never really worked for me. My mind is inclined to wander hither and thither, so that I’m not sure whether I’m praying, or thinking, or just being. I know, of course, that in devotion, our time with God is all  praying. It’s being fully in communion with my God that matters.

But … there are still times when praying aloud is important for me. So, I’ll take myself down to the harbour, and in the face of a howling gale or in a tranquil spot, sitting still or walking along, I will speak aloud with God. Perhaps a few words, or a prayer I know by heart, or a simple “thank you”, and even occasionally overheard … But aloud, sometimes very loud, prayers are just different – and there’s nothing hypocritical in that!

***

A prayer for today

“Sing aloud!” the hymn tells us. “Pray aloud” might also be God’s prompting. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon  

Low – 11th April 2021

How long will I feel so low? (Photo by burak kostak on Pexels.com)

Low Sunday 2021

O mighty Ceasar! dost thou lie so low?

Art all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,

Shrunk to this little measure. Fare thee well!”

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

***

The conspirators have murdered Caesar. After the assassination, Mark Anthony appears, turns to the fallen Caesar and addresses him with the words above: “O mighty Caesar! dost thou lie so low?” It is, it appears, a moment of regret that it has come to this. But more than that, it is an identification of the horror this death has created for them all. For, indeed, they are all  brought low by what has happened.

Today is Low Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter. It’s sometimes known as “Thomas Sunday”, recalling the story of “Doubting Thomas”, a disciple who had been brought low by all that had happened. He had said his, “Fare thee well!” to his Lord – and forever. “Dost thou lie so low?” could have been his cry of anguish as addressed his crucified Christ, out on his own, leaving his friends to their conversations, trying to come to terms with things, remembering the death, and the tomb, and the mourning. Even Easter talk had failed to lift his spirits.

         In that time of utter lowness, with the doubts, fear, scepticism and devastation that went with it, the Risen Christ met with Thomas. In our times of lowness, might we believe that the same is possible?

*

Why do I feel like Thomas now that Easter Day is past?

I thought the joy of Eastertide was really meant to last,

And offer me a pilgrimage of faith, and love, and praise.

Why do I feel like Thomas now, on these, my lowest days?

*

The reason I’m like Thomas is because there’s part of me

That’s doubting still, and sceptical, and finds it hard to be

Accepting without questioning, and always strong and true.

The reason I’m like Thomas is because I’m human too.

*

But Christ accepted Thomas! And this Christ has come again

To promise me that Easter is as much for now as then.

His presence is still meaningful; His call can’t be ignored.

So I can say with Thomas: “You’re my Christ, and you’re my Lord!”

***

A prayer for today

Lord, meet me in my lowness, for it’s there that I’ll need you most. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Giving – 10th April 2021

Giving … and everyone benefits! (Photo by Suraphat Nuea-on on Pexels.com)

“I am in the giving vein today.”

Shakespeare, Richard III

***

In conversation with a friend recently, we were musing on the drop in income for our National Church because of this year of lockdown. To counter that, we shared two instances from our personal knowledge of churches in which charitable giving had risen because of the way the church engaged with its community during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Yes,” my friend remarked, “it’s an example of the Church giving out and not giving in!” I liked that! And, indeed, I suggested that the phrase might appear in a “Thought for the Day” sometime soon. So here it is …

Giving out and not giving in.

When any enterprise, the Church included, faces a period of crisis, there is a natural tendency to look inwards, to safeguard what’s known and considered precious and necessary for survival. Two things may suffer as a result. The first is expansion: if the building blocks of development aren’t kept in place, no enterprise will be ready for the next stage of growth when the crisis is over. And the second is listening to those beyond the organisation’s boundaries: if there’s no awareness of what’s out there, then the enterprise will concentrate exclusively on itself, and lines of dialogue and engagement may be severed forever.  

When I worked with the Church of the Saviour in Washington DC in the late 1980s, the founder, Gordon Cosby, said repeatedly: “The task of the Church is to gives itself away.” This gives the lie to self-preservation, facing inwards and thus turning our backs on those most in need. This is “giving in”, giving our energies to internal issues while neglecting what’s beyond our walls – and “giving in” to what the Church should be about.

“The task of the Church is to gives itself away”, to focus on “giving out”, dispensing with safety, carefulness and security, and fully serving the world in which it is set. Can we find ways to continue to create a Church that is in Shakespeare’s “giving vein today” – crisis or not?

***

A prayer for today

Lord, turn me outwards when I want to turn inwards.

Turn me to service when I want to turn to self. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon