Rebooting – 7th December 2021

Might you try “rebooting” first? (Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com)

“Boot, saddle, to horse, and away!”

Robert Browning, Boot and Saddle

***

I have no idea how computers work. In truth, I don’t need to, as long as they work when I need them to. And there’s the rub … because sometimes they don’t, and I find myself in the realms of, “What do I do now?”

Of course, like any complicated machine, breakdowns sometimes require a “deep diagnostic test” and specialists who know how to put things right. But in computer-land, there is a simple piece of advice that comes before that: “Perhaps it needs a re-boot.” Now, I have no idea how the word “boot” became attached to computers. But you have to “boot up” your laptop, phone or tablet, and, therefore, you are advised to try a “re-boot” before panicking that the device is broken. And, lo and behold, often as not, re-booting works and no further action is required. Switch off … switch on again … and all is well – most of the time, anyway.

Boots? Footwear for wet weather, especially for hiking. Boots for Robert Browning? For riding, so that you can be “to horse, and away!” But boots for computers, and rebooting when things go awry? I’m lost! Perhaps someone can enlighten me …

How wonderful it would be if life were so simple. A problem that appears insolvable? Just unplug and reboot and everything should work OK. Oh, you wish! Life’s not like that, most of the time.

But, there again, might it not be useful to go back to first principles rather than just muddling along? Why should we be so reluctant to “take stock”, clear away the clutter in our minds, and in our faith, and start again? We could benefit from returning to more basic things, switching off and on again and seeing where it gets us. Might rebooting be a place to start?

My granny told me when I became a minister in 1973: “Keep it simple, son,” and “Tell people God loves them, and that’ll be enough.” That’s what she returned to every day. Before she tried anything else, she did a reboot, back to the moment when God’s love was enough. Might we need that kind of rebooting today?

***

A prayer for today

OK! I need to start again.

I’ll plug in, switch on, reboot, and wait …

Yes! I’m in! Thank you, God!

Now, we have messages for each other … Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon      

Variants – 6th December 2021

Another variant? (Photo by Edward Jenner on Pexels.com)

“As you are lovely, so be as various.”

Robert Graves, Pygmalion to Galatea

***

Another variant, Omicron, the newest manifestation of the Coronavirus … We’ve had Alpha, Beta, and Delta (the deadliest so far) and now we have Omicron. I’ve been wondering what happened to the letters of the Greek alphabet between Delta and Omicron. But then again, perhaps a new variant is enough to contend with. And indeed, that’s the point. Variants are hard to contend with. We’re just getting used to one thing – difficult though that is – and along comes a variant, a change, a new development, and we have to adjust all over again. Variants! Who needs them?

But some variants, even though they take us by surprise, are good things, offering new ways of working. In gymnastics, skateboarding, skiing, ice-dancing, to name but a few sports, there are always participants who push boundaries, performing in ways nobody’s seen before, more daring than anyone believed possible. It’s astounding! There are even moves that are named after the person who created the variant. And lots of other competitors will try to emulate them. Variants are a challenge. On the one hand, we’d rather do without them. On the other, they take us “out of our comfort zone” and make us do things in new ways.

Jesus was a variant and has a message similar to the way Robert Graves encouraged his loved one years later: “As you are lovely, so be as various.” You love? Here are new ways of loving. You follow the rules? Here are new ways of living. You’re close to God? Here are new ways of devotion. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul gives this advice (from The Message.)

When I was an infant … I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good. We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then … as clearly as God sees us …

We learn to deal with variants. It’s hard, and it may not be clear at the start. But it will come right, and we’ll be performing in new ways before we know it. “We’ll see it all then”, until a new variant comes along …

***

A prayer for today

I’m a variant, Lord, while you are a constant.

When that takes me down wrong paths, forgive me.

When it teaches me new moves,

I know you’ll be as astounded as I am. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon       

Prophets – 5th December 2021

What do the prophets have to say? Do we remain closed to them or are we open to receive their wisdom? (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT

“Leanabh an àigh mar dh’aithris na fàidhean.”

“Prophets foretold him, infant of wonder.”

Mary Macdonald, Child in a Manger

***

In his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, has one of his characters say this:

Man reject their prophets and slay them,

but they love their martyrs and honour those whom they have slain.

I don’t know the book well enough to analyse the state of mind which gives voice to this statement. But I do know that his words offer a troubling assessment of the human condition. Simply put, the world, through the ages of history, has not coped with prophets well, choosing, at best, to ignore them, or, at worse, to dispose of them altogether.

When I worked with The Church of the Saviour in Washington DC thirty years ago, I learned that all church enterprises were based on “Mission Groups”, small groups of people committed to the outworking of a common task. But before the “task” took shape, there were two stages of growth: the first was to embark on an “inward journey” of learning and prayerfulness, and the strengthening of relationships and trust; the second, a product of the first, was the “calling forth of gifts”, ascertaining which gifts the members of the Mission Group had through which their inward and outward journey could develop: “the teacher”, someone who could offer learning to others; “the pastor”, a member who identified as being the natural carer; and “the prophet”, an individual whose gift of wisdom and discernment, was recognised and valued.

In any enterprise of faith, we value teaching, and rightly so. And how vital is pastoral care? But even in the best of groups and congregations, how reluctant we can be to understand the prophet, or to try to silence the prophetic voice., or even to be rid of the prophet altogether.

On this Second Sunday of Advent, we remember that the Incarnation was preceded, over centuries, by the prophets who “foretold him”. Were they heeded as they should have been? And what are we doing to the prophets of now?

***

A prayer for today

Let the prophets speak.

Let the people listen.

Let God’s will be done.

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon      

Restoration – 4th December 2021

Restoration! And such a lot of work to do … (Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com)

“Not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy;

not revolution but restoration.”

Warren G Harding, Speech at Boston, 1920

***

I shared thoughts with you some months ago about a trip across Europe with a band of intrepid workers heading to a friend’s restoration project in Tuscany. There was much work to be done to make a ruined farmhouse habitable, As well as clearing the dense undergrowth round the property, where my friend wanted to plant new vines. Three things stay with me …

The first was the hard work. I was foreman of the “clearing squad”, and with chainsaws, axes and pruning tools we were tasked with getting the overgrown terraces back to some kind of “normalcy”. The second was the restoration of the pizza oven. Built into the back wall of the farmhouse, the pizza oven hadn’t been used for years. But by the end of the week, it was working. Friday was “pizza night”. It was magical! Two dozen of us on a warm Tuscan evening, enjoying a pizza of our choice – and much wine – and celebrating what we’d achieved. And the third was the “planting ceremony”, when our host gathered us together while the first vine was carefully placed in the ground. We’d done it! We’d invested so much in that little vine. It was a metaphor for our hopes and dreams.

As we come through this Covid pandemic – and, in recent days, having to cope with a “new variant” – in families, communities, churches, country, and globally, and seek to make Christmas what we wish it to be, this is a restoration project like no other. There has been much work to do, clearing and fixing, planning and restoring. We’ve invested time and toil to bring it to fruition. We’re doing it together, clearing the undergrowth, fixing the house, mending the oven, sharing the pizzas and wine, together enduring the pain and celebrating the successes. So now will plant new vines, fragile, gentle beginnings, in which we will see our purpose, our hopes and our dreams.

Restoration matters. “Not heroics, but healing”. But the hard work we’ve been committed to, and the togetherness we create, will bring us to the hope – even the fragile hope we need for a restored and better future.

***

A prayer for today

Restore me, Lord, that I might bring restoration and healing to others. Amen

***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon     

Returns – 3rd December 2021

When, indeed? (Photo by NOHK on Pexels.com)

“They say no one returns.

Catullus, Carmina

***

In his numerous writings under the title of Carmina, the first century Roman poet, Catullus, reflects on the meaning of life, and, in the quote above, points to the inevitability of death. “Now he goes along the darksome road,” he writes, “thither whence they say no one returns.” He is right, of course, for no one “returns”, comes back, from death.

But what about “returns” when it’s not something happening  to me, but an action  I take on something else? We can’t say that “no one returns” then. Think of an on-line purchase, or a store-bought item. It may be the wrong size, or damaged, or simply unsuitable. So, we return it “thither whence” and it becomes one of our “returns”. As I write this, there’s a parcel in my hall that has a “returns” label on it. I know exactly where it’s going! There might be a few more of these in the run-up to Christmas too – and maybe even more “returns” afterwards! And don’t we sometimes talk about buying things on a “sale or return” basis?

Has it been your birthday recently? It’s common for the words “many happy returns” to be included in a card or a verbal birthday greeting. May good days come back, return to you, again and again. In Italian, when someone is thanked – grazie – there will invariably be the response, “you’re welcome” – prego – as the gratitude and courtesy is returned.

My granny often said, “You gie wi’ ane haun’, and you get back wi’ the ither.” You give of your substance and compassion, and your goodness will, inevitably, be returned – in some fashion or by some person. You give love, creating a climate of caring and giving, and you will get your returns. It’s not that we expect such returns, but when community and togetherness work well, it’s surely about giving and receiving all the time.

“Do as you would be done by” we’re told. If we’re the ones who initiate the “returns”, then love should be returning again and again from person to person.  Catullus is right, there are no returns from the darksome road of death, but there are surely many returns we can value in life.

***

A prayer for today

Loving God, you give me your love freely, and without condition.

The least I can do is to give something back in return.

Will my love do? Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon      

Open – 2nd December 2021

May we be open enough to see every love in the rainbow of acceptance. (Photo by Marta Branco on Pexels.com)

Some attitudes may be named … which are central in effective intellectual ways of dealing with subject matter. Among the most important are directness, open-mindedness … whole-heartedness and responsibility.”

John Dewey, Democracy and Education, ‘The traits of individual method’

***

John Dewey was a US philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer in the Pragmatist school of American philosophy in the 20th century. I confess to knowing little of his work, but, inspired by the quote above, I’ll read some more. For his words chime exactly with my own sentiments.

Yesterday, I mentioned my late uncle John who owned a fish shop in Fort William. “Johnny Gordon’s Fish Shop” was a singular feature of Fort William’s High Street. It was an “old fashioned” fish shop, with a veritable cornucopia of fish on display on a white, marble slab, the whole emporium being entirely open to the street. Health and safety may not permit it now,  but the openness of my uncle’s fish shop was what made it distinctive.

Among Dewey’s list of attitudes worthy of being named, directness, whole-heartedness and responsibility have their central – and effective – place. But today, I want to give a shout-out for open-mindedness. For this is an attitude and attribute which we should all value and practice.

During October, November and December, the Church of Scotland is debating in its Presbyteries a piece of legislation which will permit ministers, if they choose, to “solemnise the marriage of a same-sex couple” – in other words, to officiate at their wedding. I’ll not rehearse here the history of this in my denomination, nor the passion I have for this permissive legislation to be passed. But I simply plead and pray for open-mindedness: openness to the needs and expressions of love in all people; openness and understanding of differing views; openness in the embrace of new things, societal changes, and even aspects that we may not yet fully understand; openness that leads to more acceptance and inclusiveness.

My uncle John’s shop was open to the world, and he stood proudly facing the street and its people  in a spirit of welcome. Pray God that we in our Church might be open, and face the world with welcome and pride.

***

A prayer for today

Your love, ever-present God, is open and evident.

Might the openness of my service to others be the same? Amen

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon    

Fish – 1st December 2021

Fishy? I hope not! (Photo by Alexander Zvir on Pexels.com)

“You’re teaching a fish to swim.”

Anonymous, Latin saying

***

When I attended “Selection School” – the assessment process in my student years for prospective candidates for the ministry – I was unspeakably nervous. My aunt, with whom I’d stayed overnight, hadn’t helped my tensions one bit. We were watching a football match on TV, and this mild-mannered woman was screaming at the players of the team she hated, as if this game was the most important thing in the world.

At the venue the following morning, I was directed into a room full of people, all in animated conversation. The gentleman who was chairing the event asked my name, and then – presumably to help put me at my ease – said: “Ah! Mr Gordon, from Fort William? Yes, you’re very welcome. And tell me, do you fish?” To which I hesitatingly replied: “No. But my uncle John has a fish shop.” What? For goodness’ sake, man! Where does that get you? My excuse is that I was unspeakably nervous, and just blurted out the first thing that came to mind. Fish? Uncle John … It makes sense now, but back then, it only compounded my nervousness.

Fortunately, I “passed” the selection process, and the rest, as they say, is history. I’ll return to my uncle John another time, but for now, this memory prompts me to think of the times in my ministry when I’ve been guilty of breaking the Latin maxim above by trying to teach fish to swim. Our modern warning might be: “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs”. Fish already know how to swim, and don’t need me to tell them what to do. There have been times I should have listened more to the wisdom and faith people already had, and not always expect to be the teacher. There was much I should have learned from those who were able to swim much better than I could, and had been doing so for a long time.

So now, if fish come up in conversation, I’ll not to blurt out anything about my uncle John’s fish shop, but possibly see it as the beginning of a conversation about important things – especially what I need to listen to, the lessons I need to learn from the wisdom of others.

***

A prayer for today

A prayer based on fish today?

Will it be enough to say I’m still fishing around

for good things I can take on board

from other people?

Did you catch that? Amen

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon    

Patrons – 30th November 2021

The ruins of the Cathedrals in St Andrews, named after St Andrew, Scotland’s Patron Saint. (Image from https://pixabay.com, used with permission.))

St Andrew’s Day

“There will never be great architects or great architecture

 without great patrons.

Edwin Lutyens, In ‘Country Life’ (1915)

***

Edwin Lutyens is right. When great things are created, there is invariably a great patron around, who puts their wherewithal behind a visionary purpose. In architecture, music, education, and much more, the role of the patron can be crucial. That patron may be an individual, or an organisation, or even the State. But we need great patrons all the time.

Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, Greece and Russia and was Christ’s first disciple. Today is St Andrew’s Day in Scotland. And there is much in this saint’s life that makes him a great “patron” for us.

The details of his life are scant but simple. He was born between 5 and 10AD in Bethsaida, the principal fishing port of Palestine. His parents were Jona and Joanna. Andrew, and his brother Simon, were fishermen, like their father before them. He would have gone to the synagogue school at the age of five to study scripture, then astronomy and arithmetic. And it was Andrew, the first disciple, who brought the boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus before the feeding of the five thousand.

According to the apocryphal book, “The Acts of Andrew”, he’s said to have travelled to Asia Minor, the Black Sea, as far as Hungary and Russia, and to the banks of the river Oder in Poland. Like many others, he was hunted and persecuted for his faith. In Patras in Greece, he was given the choice of being offered as a sacrifice to the gods or being scourged and crucified. By his own request he was crucified on a diagonal cross. Like his brother Simon Peter, he felt himself unworthy to be crucified on the upright cross of Christ. Legend has it that he hung for three days on his cross, tied by ropes, and even in his last agony, he continued to preach.

A patron behind an enterprise? A patron saint for a nation? With his zeal and commitment, steadfastness and faith, Andrew will do fine as a patron for me. And if Russia and Greece want to have a patron saint such as this, I’m happy with the Andrew’s worth and value being shared around.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, thank you for Andrew’s life and example.

Might I become a patron of good things too? Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon       

Feet – 29th November 2021

Feet! Shapley? Maybe … But they have much more importance than simply stopping the ends of your legs from fraying, don’t you think? (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

I love their feet – though you’ll find
That all of Russia scarcely numbers
Three pairs of shapely feet… .”

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin

***

I don’t know what research Alexander Pushkin had done on the state of the Russian population’s feet which prompted him to write his statement above. And for all I know, there may scarcely be three pairs of shapely feet in my own country, far less Russia. And I don’t know whether my own feet might be considered shapely or not. But I do know that feet are important.

The comedian Bernard Bresslaw suggested in his 1958 song, You Need Feet, that one of the purposes of feet is: “to stop your legs fraying at the ends”.  But anyone who’s had problems with their feet will know well enough that if your feet aren’t functioning, not much else will feel right. And, indeed, when folk have to face the tragedy of an amputation and cope with the rigours of an artificial limb, then we should, all the more, be acutely aware of the importance of feet.

When I worked in factories as a student, steel-toe-capped boots were essential to “safety in the workplace”. As I child, I was furnished with “tackitty boots”, muckle, lacing boots, with thick leather soles into which were driven rows of “tacks”. The tacks made them long-lasting – and you could make sparks if you scuffed them on the pavement – but the boots also protected your growing feet. And that, clearly, was an essential.   

But feet, above all else, are your foundation. Everything else is built on them. I like the expression: “feet-on-the-ground” about a person. What does that tell you? They’re down-to-earth, getting the basics right. The prophet Isaiah tells us this:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him that brings good tidings, that publishes peace … that proclaims to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’

This is our truth as we move towards Christmas, to the celebration of “God with us”, our living God planting his feet fair-square in this world of ours. “How beautiful are the feet” … Shapely? Perhaps. But they’re certainly the firm foundation on which much can, and should, be built.  

***

A prayer for today

Lord, help me to be a “feet on the ground” kind of person,

standing beside you. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon       

Mirror – 28th November 2021

The “hidden” picture of Bonnie Prince Charlie. (Image from the West Highland Museum, Fort William, and used with permission. See https://highlandobjects.wordpress.com/2020/05/13/may-2020-object-7/?like_comment=331 and http://www.westhighlandmuseum.org.uk )

First Sunday in Advent

“If you but know well how to compose your picture

it will also seem a natural thing seen in a great mirror.”

Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks, ‘The Precepts of a Painter’

***

The West Highland Museum in the centre of Fort William was founded in 1922 by a group of Lochaber folk who wanted to “create a museum of and for the West Highlands, second to none in the whole country”. The Museum’s collections tell the story of the region and its history, including the effects of political warfare, the economic impact of tourism and the coming of the industrial age. At the heart of the Museum there’s a collection which relates to Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause, including an artefact which has fascinated me since I first saw it as a small boy – a secret painting of the outlawed “Young Pretender”.

After the Battle of Culloden in 1746 at the end of “The ’45 Jacobite Rebellion”, it was treasonable to support the Stuart claim to the throne. So the Prince was lauded in absolute secret. At any gathering of Jacobite sympathisers, loyal friends of Prince Charles could place a tray on the table on which appeared to be a mess of mixed colours. But when a mirrored-glass cylinder was placed in the centre of the tray, an image of the Prince would appear. The Jacobites would then toast “The King over the water” round his likeness reflected in the cylinder. As there was always the danger of discovery, the device could quickly be dismantled, and the tray would again appear as a meaningless blur or be replaced by a similar decoy tray.

For me today, this remarkable exhibit is a metaphor for the beginning of Advent. So much of our lives can be a meaningless blur, a jumble that makes little sense. We look this way and that, squinting and turning, to try to get some clarity out of the confusion of colours before us, a picture of “God with us”. Occasionally we see something that’s clear, but it never seems to be complete. Then a mirror is placed right in the centre as the Incarnate Christ comes among us. And, lo and behold, a clear image appears before our eyes. Where once there was a jumbled mess, there is now a wonder to admire. Where once what we saw made little or no sense, there is now clarity, when the real picture is revealed.

***

A prayer for today

If Christ reveals what God is really like,

let me take time to stand and be amazed. Amen

***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon