Search – 16th October 2021

A search? For the lost piece? Might love be what you’re looking for? (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

“You have riches and freedom here,

but I feel no sense of faith or direction.

You have so many computers,

why don’t you use them in the search for love.”

Lech Walęsa, from a speech in Parish, as quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 1988

***

I know little of the faith of the former President of Poland, Lech Walęsa. Like many, I know of his influence in the 1970s and 80s on the welfare and future of his people. At the forefront of the pro-democracy movement, this electrician and trade-union activist from the shipyards of Gdańsk helped move Poland towards the end of Communist rule. He was the first democratically elected President in 1990 and has been the recipient of numerous prizes honours and awards. But I know little of the man, and next to nothing of his faith. I have more reading to do, I think.

I do know, however, that I have been inspired by his approach to issues of justice, democracy and freedom. And I value the sentiments he expresses in the quotation above. They come from a speech he made in Paris on his first journey outside the Soviet area. Which of us cannot find meaning in these words, applying them to ourselves and to the world in which we live? I reflected recently on a trend towards “hedonism” in our current society. We have our riches, freedoms, computers, possessions, welfare, all that’s needed to keep us in the comfort we feel we deserve. But where is the sense of faith or direction? Where is “the search for love”?

The Gospels tell a story of Jesus meeting with a rich young man, who asks him what he needs to do to live a good and worthwhile life. “Follow all the Commandments,” Jesus tells him. “I’ve done that,” the young man replies. “Then go,” said Jesus, “sell all you have and give it to the poor.” We’re told the man “went away sorrowing”, because he was very rich.

You have all you need, Jesus is saying, your riches, freedoms, computers, and all. But where is your compassion, your concern for justice, your self-sacrifice? You have all you need, and much more besides. “Why don’t you use them in your search for love?” Why, indeed! Why, indeed!

***

A prayer for today

Living God, let me always search with diligence and commitment,

remembering that finding your love is my ultimate goal. Amen

 ***

 An original reflection by © Tom Gordon  

Necessity – 15th October 2021

What else do I really need when I have all this? (Image, Tom Gordon)

Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Mid-16th century proverb

***

Reflecting on “inventions” yesterday, it’s no surprise than my mind went back to the proverb quoted above. It is a truism that necessity stimulates the intellect and creativity of clever people: the telephone, penicillin, the microchip, Covid vaccines, even the humble safety-pin … the list is endless. But what happens when inventions go beyond necessity?

The American writer, Joan Didion, in her 1968 book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, offers us a reflection on “Morality”:

When we start deceiving ourselves into thinking that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a “moral imperative” that we have it, it is then that we join the fashionable madmen … and then is when we are in bad trouble.

Are we not in really bad trouble when we believe we have a “right” to something which serves no other purpose than to gratify our own pleasure, or selfishness, or greed?

There is a “hedonistic” part of our current society which I find worrying. Take, for example, the recent so-called “Freedom Day” (in England) when many of the Covid-related social restriction were lifted. We saw the opening of nightclubs, crowds coming back to sporting events and the reinstatement of music festivals, among other things. Now, I have no problem with people enjoying themselves. Goodness, have we not all missed out on so many enjoyable things because of Covid? No wonder some grabbed “Freedom Day” with both hands to find the enjoyment they crave. But it was the comments of people at a nightclub, lifting its restrictions at one-minute-past-midnight at the start of “Freedom Day”, that interested me. “We deserve this,” one said. “We’ve got back what was taken away from us,” said another. “We need this, it’s a must-have,” said a third. “Taken away”, “need”, “deserve”, “must”? Is this not the dangerous, trouble-filled hedonism Joan Didion warns us against?

Inventions arise from necessity. I get that. But when necessities become imperatives, are we not deceiving ourselves?

***

A prayer for today

Lord, what do I really today that I don’t already have? Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Inventions – 14th October 2021

The humble safety-pin. The world’s most important invention? Discuss! (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

God hath made man upright;

but they have sought out many inventions.”

Bible, Ecclesiastes 8:8

***

Not being a Hebrew scholar, I don’t know whether the word “upright” in the verse above refers to walking upright or being upright by living in a God-fearing way. Either way, it might be the basis for a future two-part sermon. We shall see. But today I’m more interested in the second half of the verse, though it, too, raises questions. Is it the case that because we can walk upright we need to continually invent things to make our lives better – starting from the wheel and going on from there? Or is the word “but” the significant turning point of the verse? God has made us upright in our character but we still seek many inventions because we think we can improve on what God has given. Mmmm … Worth discussing, I think.

When I was eighteen, I was invited to be part of a “celebrity panel” (though what celebrity status I  had defeats me …). It was a kind of light-hearted equivalent of the BBC’s Question Time, and though some serious topics were touched on, we had a lot of fun too. One of the questions from the audience was: “What do you consider the most important invention we have?” The motorcar, someone suggested. Disposable nappies, said another. I think I might have suggested Association Football, though I don’t remember. But the final panellist floored us all by saying: “The most important thing ever invented is the SAFETY-PIN,” and went on to expound on the wonders of this invention. For the audience, it was clearly the highlight of the evening – and it’s certainly stuck in my mind!

What would your answer be now? The microchip? The internet? The skateboard? Zoom? Would the humble safety-pin have a place someone on your list? A new game for your next family gathering, perhaps …

But ponder this while you’re having fun. While inventions can and should make our lives more comfortable, are we not equipped with the “uprightness” that needs no new invention to make it better? The ability to love, to wonder, to learn, to grow, to build relationships, to enjoy and care for our world? Will any invention top that?

***

A prayer for today

Love? I don’t need to reinvent the wheel when what I have is the best there can be.

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon  

Discombobulated – 13th Oct 2021

No! Sorry! These glasses aren’t mine, because mine are still lost! (Photo by Alizee Marchand on Pexels.com)

The sage has sun and moon by his side.

He grasps the universe under his arm.

He blends everything into a harmonious whole,

casts aside whatever is confused or obscured,

and regards the humble as honourable.”

Chuang Tzu Zhuangzi, Chuang Tzu, ch 2 (286BC)

***

I lost my glasses. I don’t know where, or how, or when, but walking with my pals to a Scotland football match, I realised my glasses weren’t where they should have been – on my face. They weren’t on the ground. They weren’t left in the pub. They weren’t handed in after the game. They were well and truly lost. And me? I was completely discombobulated!

The word “discombobulated” is a made-up word which appeared in the US in the mid-19th century. It’s a rootless coinage of a word that looks as though it has some meaningful basis, but doesn’t. The Latin suffix “com” gives it some substance – as in “discomfit” or “discompose”. But it’s made-up, a fun word, that has no significant origin. But, made-up or not, it more than adequately described my state of mind after the disappearance of my glasses. I was confused, disorientated, troubled, ill-at-ease. My eyes were sore. I got a headache. I couldn’t read my mobile phone. I had to ask someone to read the display-board at the station to make sure I was on the right train. I didn’t know what time it was. I struggled to get my key in the front-door-lock when I got home. Yes, I was well and truly discombobulated.

I would like to have been Chuang Tzu’s sage, grasping things correctly, blending them into harmony and casting aside whatever is confused or obscured. But I wasn’t. I was very much discombobulated.

Eventually, I unearthed an old pair of glasses and some sense of normality returned, not quite a “harmonious whole”, but close. But being discombobulated was a learning point for me. I could certainly have handled it better. Perhaps if I’d read more of Chuang Tzu’s philosophical thinking, I’d have coped in a more sage-like fashion – provided, of course, I knew where my glasses were so I could read Chuang Tzu in the first place!

***

A prayer for today

Lord, bless me with wisdom when I am discombobulated,

and, inwardly, at least, help me to see you and know you better. Amen

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon        

Within – 12th October 2021

You think you know me. But do you really? (Photo by Liza Summer on Pexels.com)

But I have within what passeth show;

These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

***

When Hamlet’s mother asks him why he still seems so upset about his father’s death, he tells her that he doesn’t just “seem” to be in mourning, he has feelings within himself that are far greater than what people see. Hamlet always has more going on than outsiders can see or understand. Throughout the play, he and king Claudius go to great lengths to hide the truth of their actions and intentions, and so do many other characters.

We do this all the time. What people see and assume is never the complete picture. There’s always more going on inside a person than people ever know. It happens, for example, in bereavement, when we’re expected to return quickly to functioning “as normal”, and we give signals that this is so. People ask us how are, and we say, “I’m fine”, though that’s not how we really are. But are people interested in what’s on the inside? Do they give us the time and space to try to understand what’s going on?

It can happen the other way round too, when we make assumptions about people’s “character” and fail to see, understand, or even be interested in, what they’re really like. We stop at what’s presented to us – the outside of their “house”, to use yesterday’s metaphor, when there’s really a lot more going on inside those exterior walls.

 The culmination of the Zacchaeus story from yesterday, was that this Roman-paid tax collector became a changed man. St Luke tells us he “gave half of what he possessed to the poor” after his encounter with Jesus. Here was altruism, when many would still see evil. Here was good being recognised, developed and enhanced, when many would still be stuck with the tarnished, old, well-documented image.

Let’s go beyond the “trappings and the suits of woe”, whatever we think they tells us. Let’s reach to what’s “within that passeth show”, the pain and sorrow that still needs to be recognised, the possibility of change that even yet needs to be explored, the uniqueness of every individual that yearns for acceptance and understanding.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, when you see what’s within me, please love me for who I really am. Amen

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon    

Beyond – 11th October 2021

Yes, a house – with a number, and perhaps even a name. But what’s beyond that, do you think? A world? A heaven? If the door is opened and we’re invited in, wouldn’t it be interesting to find out? (Photo by Charles Parker on Pexels.com)

Every spirit builds itself a house;

and beyond its house a world;

and beyond its world, a heaven.

Know then, that the world exists for you.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

***

We had a patient in the hospice whose name, “Robert”, was boldly written on the sign above his bed. Conscious of not making assumptions of what name he wished to be known by, when I met him, I said, “I see your name is Robert. What name would you like us to use?” I was thinking, Rob, Bob, Bobby, Rab, Robbie, Bert, Bertie, or even Robert. I was surprised and delighted when he replied, “Actually, I’d like to be called Dr Cunningham.”

To use Ralph Waldo Emerson’s metaphor, what we saw of this man’s spirit was a house, and that house had a name. But right at the moment, he’d opened up the possibility that there was a world beyond that house, and maybe even a heaven beyond that, a vista of existence for him that we knew nothing about, and that would be fascinating to get to know.    

One day, Jesus was passing through the town of Jericho when he met a man called Zacchaeus who was a Tax Collector. But this was no HMRC official. This was a man in the pay of the Roman authorities, an agent of the occupying forces. This was the equivalent of a Mafia enforcer, making sure the protection money was paid on time. Zacchaeus was a social pariah, and a little man to boot, who, strange as it may seem, climbed a tree to get a better view of Jesus as he went through the town. And Jesus stopped below the tree and called Zacchaeus to come down. “Today, my friend, I will come to share food with you in your home.” Right at that moment, Jesus had seen beyond a name, beyond a hatred, beyond a label, beyond a “house” people thought they knew. Jesus saw the world beyond and understood possibilities no one else was prepared to see.

Every spirit builds a house, and we can make assumptions about that. But if we go further, we can find the world beyond, and maybe the heaven beyond that. Who knows then what we might discover?

***

A prayer for today

Lord, when I know I am called by name,

help me to see the world of new possibilities emerging. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon  

Silence – 10th October 2021

If we give ourselves to solitude and silence, and there commune truly with God and with the needs of the world, might there be shining in our wilderness too?

From politics, it was an easy step to silence.”

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

***

I don’t know what cynicism Jane Austen had about 19th century politics that made her give one of her characters the words quoted above. But I do know that from any clamour in our modern world it is equally “an easy step to silence” – if only we were prepared to take such a step.

Thomas Merton spent most of his life as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsamani in the USA. He was a prolific writer about the contemplative life as well as on contemporary issues. I have a slim volume in my bookcase entitled The Shining Wilderness, a gentle introduction to the thinking of one of the twentieth century’s spiritual giants.   

Throughout his life, Merton sought “the shining of God” in what he called “the wilderness of solitude and silence”. This did not mean, however, that he shut himself off from the needs of the world. Far from it, for he writes powerfully about how time in contemplative silence raised his awareness of the world’s needs and allowed him to focus more clearly on his concerns. He was never satisfied with an easy answer or a glib phrase, and his writingspeaks directly to the situations in which we find ourselves in the present day. We would all benefit from reflecting on his work.

So, I make these pleas today: that we give ourselves to silence more than we allow ourselves to do; that we chose solitude sometimes, not to hide from the needs of the world, but to give ourselves more time to focus on what really matters, shutting out the noise and clamour of what surrounds us all the time; that we see wordless contemplation not as failure or inadequacy, but as a true communion between God and self.

Let Thomas Merton’s words from Thoughts on Solitude, be for us …

A prayer for today

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And … I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always … I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Kiss – 9th October 2021

Oh yes! I remember it well! (Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com)

“When age chills the blood, when our pleasures are past –
For years fleet away with the wings of the dove –
The dearest remembrance will still be the last,
Our sweetest memorial the first kiss of love.”

Lord Byron, The First Kiss of Love

***

The village of Corpach lies a few miles from Fort William at the beginning of the “Road to the Isles”, north-west to Mallaig and beyond. The Canal Lock at the Corpach Basin is the western entrance to the Caledonian Canal. “Corpach” is thought by some scholars to be based on the Gaelic for “field of corpses”, as it was reputed to be a resting place when coffins of chieftains were taken to be buried on the Isle of Iona. There was a battle in Corpach in 1470, when the Camerons routed the MacLeans.

World War I saw a US naval base in Corpach as part of the laying of the “North Sea Mine Barrage”, with naval mines being shipped into Corpach from the US before being sent across country to Inverness via the Caledonian Canal. During World War II, Corpach was the engineering base of HMS St Christopher, a training base for Royal Navy Coastal Forces. There was a camp close by at Annat, which became a village of Prefab homes for families returning to the area after the war. That’s the village where I was born. I was baptised in Kilmallie church in Corpach. I had my first Saturday job as a petrol-pump-attendant at the Corpach Hotel.

But, important though all of this might be, it fades into insignificance against this fact about Corpach – I had my first serious kiss after a dance in the Corpach Village Hall. I won’t name the young lady, or the event, or the aftermath, in order to protect the innocent – mostly me! But I could take you to the spot, and I could recount every moment of the wonder and the joy of it. At the age of fifteen, that kiss changed my life. How? You work it out! You’ve been there! You know just what I mean! For, in a happy memory, you might be in your own special place – right now!

Byron’s words say it best. The memory of that kiss brings warmth to my heart today. It is “the sweetest memorial” to my dearest remembrance, in the village of Corpach, of “the first kiss of love.”

***

A prayer for today

Lord, as the “years fleet away”, I’m thankful that

the pleasures of your love will never fade.  Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon    

Sprites – 8th October 2021

Beware! The sprites are out! No … let’s not “beware”. Let’s join them for some fun!

“Ah! Gentle, fleeting, wav’ring sprite,

Friend and associate of this clay!”


Hadrian, Adrian’s Address to His Soul When Dying

***

Wandering in the gardens of Cockenzie House in my village, at the beginning of a walk after a coffee in their outdoor café, I came across an odd sight. Overlooking a small lily-pond in a quiet corner of the grounds was a life-sized representation of a water-sprite. Produced by a local artist, some folk have labelled it “The Tin Man”, given that it’s pieced together from odd bits of discarded metal and painted an aluminium grey. But it looked like a water-sprite to me, strange and alluring as it was.

A water-sprite is an elemental spirit associated with water. The ancient alchemist, Paracelsus, tells us they can breathe both water and air, and sometimes they can fly. The Greeks called them “Water Nymphs”. Slavic mythology knows them as “Vilas”. The Irish and other Celts have them as “Water Faeries”. They only exist in mythology, of course, and aren’t real at all – more’s the pity.

A little further on in my walk, along the John Muir Walkway to the north of my village, I came across several more water-sprites in a little cove known locally as The Boat Shore. For there I saw half-a-dozen mature women venturing into the sea in that bizarre practice known as “wild water swimming”. They weren’t flying, of course, and I suspect they couldn’t breathe water either. But they were certainly “spritely,” and their raised voices and squeals of glee were a fair indication that they were appreciating the opportunity to cavort in the waves – brave ladies indeed!

Mythology or not, shouldn’t there be a little bit of the sprite in all of us? It could be “gentle, fleeting or wav’ring”, as Hadrian would have it, or gleeful, cavorting and brave like the ladies at The Boat Shore, or static, watchful and amusing as was the Tin Man in the gardens of Cockenzie House. But however it comes about, in mind and in body, in caring and in swimming, in awareness and in watchfulness, let’s try to keep spritely, as much as we are able.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, I might be gentle; I could be fleeting; I may even be wav’ring.

But in my service, I’ll try to be as spritely as I can be, OK? Amen

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Language – 7th October 2021

Prayer! Not confined to time, or place, or language … thank God! (Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com)

When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache,

and repose is taboo’d by anxiety,

I conceive you may use any language you choose

to indulge in, without impropriety.”

W S Gilbert, Iolanthe

***

Question:

What language does God speak?

Answer:

My God hears what’s offered “beyond language” and listens to what comes from the heart.

*

When I ministered in my city-centre congregation, there was a long-standing tradition of “processing” the Communion elements into church during the singing of the final verses of Psalm 24, to the tune St George’s Edinburgh. It was impeccably organised and timed to the second, including a prayer from me before the procession began.

One Sunday, an elderly lady was in the vestibule with her daughter when I gathered with the elders. She was unwell, and they were waiting for a car to take them home. Wanting to offer comfort to the lady, I turned to a senior elder and asked him to say an appropriate prayer with the others. Comfort was given, a prayer said, the Communion elements processed and the Sacrament celebrated. But the elder confessed to me later: “I was in a panic! The prayer wasn’t up to the mark … not as good as yours.” But would God have minded if he’d stumbled over his words, said a prayer in Urdu, or prayed in silence? I don’t think so, not the God who hears beyond language and listens to what comes from the heart.

I mentioned recently one of my favourite teachers when I was training for the ministry, Rev Professor John Gibson, professor of Hebrew and Old Testament studies in Edinburgh’s New College. When he died in 2008, his obituary in The Herald contained the following story:

On one famous occasion he said grace at a New College meal in Hebrew. Later, a student complained to him that he did not understand the grace, to which Professor Gibson replied, “It was not addressed to you.”

So if, like my panicky elder, “repose is taboo’d by anxiety” in your prayers, you know you can choose any language – or none – “without impropriety”, remembering that God hears beyond words (including Hebrew, I reckon) and listens to what comes from your heart.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, hear me.

Lord, graciously hear me …

beyond any words I might use. Amen

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon