Affection – 15th January 2021

Another cat … But might it be possible that this one is dreaming of how much affection it can give someone today? (Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com)

“He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.”

Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories, ‘The Cat that Walked by Himself’

***

If the unpredictability of dogs was a trial of parish ministry, even more of a struggle was coping with the deviousness of cats. I should say that I have no aversion to cats as a species. But I do have an anthesis towards individual cats, especially the ones that skulk around unsuspecting visitors.

It’s been said that if you feed a dog, it thinks you’re a god. If you feed a cat, it knows it’s God. Cats rule! Any cat I’ve ever known – and this is not gender specific – not only “walked by himself” in Kipling’s terms, but owned everywhere he walked. “All places were alike to him” because all places were his – or her – kingdom, with supreme and unquestioned control. Have you even known a cat to respond to “Down, boy!”, or “Sit!”, or even “Walkies!” No? I thought not. “Cats rule!” is the absolute truth.

I visited a lady who had seven cats. I remember counting them so I knew where they all were, and what they were doing, and what they were likely to do next. “One, two, three, four, five, six …” Damn! Where’s the ginger one? Then I would know exactly where it was when it jumped off the back of the sofa onto my shoulder. “Seven!” Seven too many for me …

Why do people keep cats? Maybe they like unpredictability. But they tell me – and I believe them – that it’s about the affection cats offer. The cat that rubs itself round and round your legs when you come home because it’s so pleased to see you. The cat that purrs contentedly when it’s on your lap. The cat that’s the “de-stressor” when it lets you stroke it repeatedly. The cat that mews affectionately when you feed it. Affection! Yes, I get that, and cats are able to give that in abundance.

So, I can forgive the vagaries of feline behaviour because I know the value of the affection a cat can give. And I’m prepared to tolerate surprises because I know the difference this affection makes to many people. Kipling’s cat “walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.” And, in so doing, he taught people like me what a difference affection can make.

***

A prayer for today

St Paul said: “Set your affection on things above, and not on things on the earth.”

Lord, help me show that heavenly affection when and where it’s needed most. Amen

An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

Friendly – 14th February 2021

“Good boy” Good boy!” (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

“A friend is worth all hazards we can run.”

Edward Young, Night Thoughts

***

Among the trials of parish ministry was the unpredictability of dogs. I could be prepared for the behavioural quirks of canines with which I was familiar, but I was apprehensive of dogs I was meeting for the first time.

On one occasion, I was faced with a man in his hallway fighting to hold back a ferocious Alsatian on the end of a massive chain. “Oh, it’s yourself, minister,” he offered, while the Alsatian’s fearsome barking said otherwise: Get out of my territory. I slid deftly past the growling beast, located the front room and sat on the sofa, as far away from the dog as possible. Its owner, now sensitive to my apprehension, looped the dog’s chain securely round the leg of the sideboard. “Good boy, Caesar. Good boy!” he said, patting his panting hound. I decided not to debate the point.  

The man suggested a cup of tea might help and slipped into the kitchen. The dog, now dripping at the jowls, growled throatily at me. I grinned in response, secure in the knowledge that the recalcitrant animal was safely tied to the leg of the sideboard. But I relaxed too soon, for the Alsatian wasn’t finished with me yet. It instantly shot out from its “den” and headed straight for my thigh, stopping six inches from its lunch on the end of its quivering chain. But I was safe, safe … till the dog, still chained, started to drag the sideboard across the room, the rucks in the living-room carpet being the only thing slowing it down. Just then, the man reappeared, laughed loudly, hauled the dog and sideboard back to the wall, and said, “Och, never mind, son! Caesar is just trying to be friendly!”

Friendly?  Yet, I have to report that, despite this inauspicious start, the bold Caesar and I did  become the best of friends, and, over the years, he never needed to be chained to the leg of the sideboard again.  

Sometimes friendships happen naturally. Often, they have to be worked at. Occasionally, they take us by surprise. But friendships always matter and are surely worth “all hazards we can run”, as Edward Young suggests, just as I found with Caesar, and, I hope, he found with me.

***

A prayer for today

What a friend we have in you, loving God, despite the hazards we create. Amen.

***

An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

Approval – 13th January 2021

He approves! Do you? (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com)

“Fools admire, but [people] of sense approve.”

Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism

***

Now that three Coronavirus vaccines have been approved for use in the UK, the word “approval” is commonplace. There’s a system for the approval for all medicines, through which regulators rigorously examine the research data from clinical trials so that vaccines, and the like, are safe for us to use. It’s important to know that approval is properly granted.

We look for approval in other ways too. TripAdvisor, for example, encourages us to offer approval, for a café or entertainment venue, a visitor attraction or historic monument, even a view or natural feature. It’s a matter of opinion, of course, but we can rate things from one star to five and give a negative or positive review, so that others’ decisions can be based on a cumulative approval rating. It’s the same with Amazon purchases. No sooner have we bought something than we’re invited to review it, to give it our approval – or not, as the case may be. Buying and selling on eBay is the same. We look for “sellers” with high approval figures, or we’ll steer clear. And which of us hasn’t looked at “customer reviews” before booking a holiday or investing in a major purchase?

But how to we measure our approval of each other? And why should anyone have to wait, or ask, for our approval of this or that? There are societal “norms”, of course, to indicate which behaviour is acceptable and which isn’t. And there are laws when we step out of line. But shouldn’t we think about offering approval which doesn’t have a score, a rating, a star-system, a percentage, reviews, or a regulator?

We know what it feels like when someone says “thank you” or “well done” to us without condition. So why not give people the approval they deserve for something you like about them today. I’m certain they would approve of that.

***

A prayer for today

May God give us … 

For every storm a rainbow, for every tear a smile,

for every care a promise and a blessing in each trial;

for every problem life sends, a faithful friend to share;

for every sigh a sweet song and answer for each prayer.

An old Irish prayer.

***

An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

Health – 12th January 2021

The health of everyone needs to be taken seriously, especially the small and vulnerable, all the time and in every way. (Photograph by Eveyln Robertson, Bishopbriggs, Scotland, used with permission and my grateful thanks.)

“While we were discussing what could make one happy, I said to him:

Sanitas sanitatum et omnia sanitas.

[Health of healths and everything is health.]”

Gilles Ménage, from a conversation with Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac

***

It’s been distressing to see images in recent days of front-line healthcare staff nearly at breaking point as they try to hold back a tsunami of Coronavirus hospital cases. “On our knees”; “Unprecedented pressure”; “Close to being overwhelmed”; “A state of emergency”. These are the cries we’ve heard. We are blessed with an amazing Health Service. We are blessed with remarkable staff dedicated to our welfare. So today, and, I hope, every day, we thank God for all those who care for our health..

But health is more than our physical wellbeing. It’s about our state of mind, stable emotions, spiritual nurture. It’s about housing, safety, provision of food, education, opportunity, reaching our potential, faith and wholeness. To paraphrase Gilles Ménage, a French 17th century scholar, health is everything and everything is health. So today, and, I hope, every day, we thank God for all those who care for all aspects of our health.

But there’s more … Health isn’t just about the welfare of individuals. It’s about communities and nations, the environment we live in and the future of our planet. What do I gain when my wellbeing is secured and my community remains impoverished? What does my country gain when it is carefully safeguarded while oceans are being polluted and the natural environment is destroyed across the world? So today and, I hope, every day, we thank God for all those who build better communities, who are engaged in ecological conservation and who work for our planet’s health.

Sanitas sanitatum et omnia sanitas. If “everything is health”, I hope today you are healthy. And if you’re not, I hope you find people around you who are concerned for your health. And I hope that we can play our part in keeping everyone healthy – individuals, communities and our world – in whatever way, for the health of all.

***

A prayer for today

Spirit of the Living God, present with me now,

enter me, body, mind and spirit,

and heal me of all that harms me.

In Jesus’ name. Amen

***

An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

Burdens – 11th January 2021

Baggage Claim? Maybe later. But, for now, I’m more interested in how I can lay my burdens down. (Photo by Esther on Pexels.com)

“With aching hands and bleeding feet

We dig and heap, lay stone on stone;

We bear the burden, and the heat

Of the long day, and wish ‘twere done.

Not ‘til the hours of light return

All we have built we do discern.”

Matthew Arnold, Mortality

***

When I worked as a hospice chaplain, a common theme in our continued education was self-care, because there was always a danger of overload and burn-out. We all had our own methodologies. Here’s one of mine.

I attended a conference addressed by a drug and alcohol specialist on the theme of “Looking after yourself”. “We all have our ways,” she said. “One of mine is to take the case notes of the patients I’ve dealt with that day and slowly, one by one, put them back in the filing cabinet before I leave the office. I leave my cases there, ready to be picked up again the following day. It symbolises that I’m not taking my cases home.”

The word “cases” struck me. I didn’t keep case-notes. But in “the heat of a long day” I had many heavy burdens to carry. So, I developed my own symbolic way of dealing with them. And “cases” were involved too.

On my twenty-minute walk home, I imagined myself carrying lots of cases, one in each hand, and, on the worst of days, a rucksack on my back and bags over my shoulders. At various spots I would stop, wait, and let go of a case. One by one, case by case, burden by burden I left them behind. I have no idea what people thought of me as they walked by. It was enough for me to know that I was lightening my load. When I got home, hopefully I was in a place where “the hours of light” could return.

When you’ve had to “dig and heap, lay stone on stone”, I hope you can find ways of laying your cases down. For tomorrow you’ll be picking them up again, and you need to be in good shape to tackle that.

Matthew Arnold has it right. “All we have built we do discern”. Let’s make sure that, as part of our discernment, we care for ourselves, so that we can get on with more building of good and effective care.

***

A prayer for today

Jesus said: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

***

An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

Big – 10th January 2021

Big … something? I just can’t remember what! (Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com)

Joe Gillis: You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.

Norma Desmond: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

Sunset Boulevard (screenplay), Charles Bracket

***

I have to confess that I’m prone to envy sometimes when there are attributes in other people that I would like to have for myself. I would like to be able to play the piano, and, while I have a good musical ear and can tinkle the odd tune, I can’t play properly. I’d love to be able to recite chunks of Shakespeare or verses of poetry. And I wish I was six feet four.

Had my pattern of life and education been different, I could have done something about the first two of these. But as for the latter attribute, I can do nothing about that at all. I’ve always been small. But that doesn’t stop me wishing it was different. Stuck behind a phalanx of massive prop-forwards when I’m at a Rugby match, I want to be six feet four. When I feel claustrophobic in a crowd of people, I want to be six feet four. When I’m scanning a crowded room to find someone and have no idea where to turn first, I want to be six feet four. It’s not going happen, of course. Saving me carrying around a set of steps wherever I go, my “smallness” will just have to be lived with – which is what I’ve had to learn to do all my life.

Two things, however, offer me comfort. The first comes from the oft-quoted wisdom of my granny.

Guid gear gangs intae wee bulk.

In English? “Good things come in small packages.” Thanks, granny. But even more important are these words of Mother Teresa. In her lovely book, A Gift for God, written in 1975, she wrote:

We feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be less because of that missing drop. I do not agree with the big way of doing things.

So, I am big, if not in stature, then in the way I see myself and my contribution to the world. However small, it will always be big enough.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, are there good things in the small package that’s me? I hope so! Amen

***

An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

Beware – 8th January 2021

Have we tilted the balance towards unrest? Can we be hopeful enough to help tip it back again? (Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com)

“Pandora’s box, whence flew dispersed

All the dire mischiefs which mankind have cursed.”

James Bland Burges, The Dragon Knight

***

In the ancient mythology of the Greeks, there’s the story of how the gods came to create Pandora and why the gift given to her by Zeus, the king of the gods, ultimately ends the Golden Age of humanity. In today’s parlance, it’s come to symbolise any source of great and unexpected troubles.

When Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus took vengeance by presenting Pandora to Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus. Pandora was a nasty piece of work, described by one commentator as “a curse on humankind”. As a wedding present, Zeus gave Pandora a box (a jar, in some accounts) which she was warned never to open. But because of her greedy curiosity, she lifted the lid on it and out flew every horrible thing known to humanity – greed, envy, hatred, pain, disease, hunger, poverty, war and death. All of life’s miseries had been let out into the world.

We know that the modern idiom, “to open Pandora’s Box”, is to start something that will cause many unforeseen problems. So we have to beware. Beware of arrogant self-centredness. Beware of an uncaring disregard for others. Beware of ignorance or dismissing the consequences. Beware of an insatiable desire always to be the one in control. Beware of allowing all kinds of evil to escape to do untold damage because one person wants their own way. Beware of opening Pandora’s Box.

On Wednesday we witnessed unprecedented events in the Capitol in Washington DC, the home of democracy and good governance. What we saw was destructive of all we hold to be right and good. A Pandora’s Box had been opened and horrible things let loose. But, think on this …

When the horrors were released from her box, Pandora slammed the lid down. The only thing remaining inside the box was hope. Ever since, the Greek myths tell us, humans have been able to keep this hope safe in order to survive the wickedness that Pandora had let out. Let’s hold on to that hope today. For it looks like it’s needed more than ever before.

***

A prayer for today

When horror is let loose, let me hold on to the preciousness of hope. Amen

***

An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

Myself – 7th January 2021

Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com

Resolution 4 – “Try to keep resolutions 1, 2 and 3”

*

“Resolve to be thyself: and know that he

Who finds himself, loses his misery.”

Matthew Arnold, Self-Dependence

***

Having been distracted by changes in Government regulations and the arrival of Epiphany, I return, for the final time, to the subject of resolutions.

Hudibras is a satirical narrative poem from 17th century England, written by the poet, Samuel Butler, shortly after the English Civil War. It’s a mocking lampoon of the Roundheads, Puritans, Presbyterians and the cause of Parliamentarianism. The epic tells the story of Sir Hudibras, a knight who is described with such over-blown praise as to be quite absurd, showing up the conceit and arrogance of the man, with his religious fervour eliciting most derision. Butler says this of his flawed hero:

Great actions are not always true sons

Of great and mighty resolutions.

You and I could be Sir Hudibras. Consider our New Year Resolutions. We hear that mocking voice in our head criticising us for making our “great and mighty resolutions” with no “great actions” resulting from them. Expressing our love, keeping things simple, being honest … how many of us have made such resolutions which have lasted no time at all and, despite our sincere promises, have brought little or no change?

Edward Young, writing in the 18th century, in his poem Night Thoughts, suggests that each one of us

in all the magnanimity of thought resolves; and re-resolves …

Yes! That’s me, and maybe you too!

But rather than “re-resolving” all the time because we fail, would we not be better each day to decide … to be the best we can be right now? Why not “resolve to be thyself”, as Matthew Arnold suggests? A year? Far  too long to cope with. A daily resolution? More manageable. Maybe this could be your “re-resolution” from which great actions will result – and nobody can mock you for that.

***

A prayer for today

“Take, oh, take me as I am; summon out what I shall be.” (John L Bell)

***

An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

Disquieted – 5th January 2021

“Even though the rain hides the stars, even though the mist swirls the hills, even thought the dark clouds veil the sky, God is by my side.” From ‘The Cloud’s Veil’ by Liam Lawton. (Photograph from Kathryn Gordon, with many thanks.)

“Why art thou so full of heaviness, O my soul:

and why art thou so disquieted within me.”

The Book of Common Prayer, Psalm 42:6

***

One of the great set-piece occasions of the Church of Scotland is its annual General Assembly, when 800 ministers and elders gather to deliberate on Church busines. Integral to the Assembly is its daily worship, which always includes the singing of a Metrical Psalm, usually unaccompanied, echoing centuries of Presbyterian worship. Powerful words, strong tunes, sung with full-on commitment … the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when Psalms are sung like that.

Such an occasion has been the singing of Psalm 42, from the metrical version of the 1929 Scottish Psalter, to the wonderfully evocative tune Invocation by Robert Archibald Smith. It reduced me to tears …

Why art thou then cast down my soul?

What should discourage thee?

And why with vexing thoughts are thou

disquieted in me?

Still trust in God; for him to praise

good cause I yet shall have;

he of my countenance is the health,

my God, my God, my God that doth me save,

that doth me save.

In the light of our Government’s announcement yesterday of a further lockdown, and the news that all churches will be closed for the rest of January, I am cast down and disquieted with the Psalmist. It’s not directed at God. It’s just “in me”, part of who I am right at this moment.

So why sing such words in worship? Why give such credence to down-beat thoughts? Why am I close to tears as I write this? Because, if we can’t express our disquiet, we are less that human. If we deny our heavy-heartedness, we hide ourselves from our God. If we do not give ourselves to lamentation, how can we truly give ourselves to praise?

The hairs on my neck stand up not just because of the power of the singing, but because the honesty of the Psalmist gives me a voice. In the depth of my disquiet, and in the mystery of faith that I don’t really understand, I know again the saving closeness of my God.

***

A prayer for today

I trust what I still do not see. I have faith in what I do not yet understand.

***

An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

Honesty – 4th January 2020

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Resolution 3 – “Be honest”

*

“An honest man’s the noblest work of God.”

Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night

***

In 1973, after my theological training, I spent the summer on Iona for the Iona Community’s New Member’s programme, and, in September, took up my post as a Probationer Minister. The norm then was for an Iona Community minister-member to be placed with another Iona Community member for two years to complete their ministerial training, and I worked in Easterhouse in Glasgow with a wonderful man, Rev John Cook. I learned so much from John and the Easterhouse people that has stuck with me through the years – including the importance of honesty.

One Sunday I preached on the text: “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” It was, to my view, a wonderful sermon, the definitive exposition of a familiar text, delivered in a modern fashion, by a young minister fresh out of theological college. At the end of the service, one of the worshippers asked if she could “have a word”. We found a quiet corner. “It’s about your sermon, son,” she said. “Yes?” I replied in anticipation of a glowing complement. “Well,” she said, “it was rubbish!” I couldn’t hide my disappointment. But she continued, “And it would have been better if …” and proceeded to reconstruct the sermon, word by word, section by section, improving it as she went.

It was the best seminar in Homiletics I’ve ever had, and it was predicated on honesty. But this wasn’t the honesty of cruelty or vindictiveness, to prove a point or make me feel bad. This was honesty offered in love, to help a novice minister when help was clearly needed.

Honesty is about speaking the truth in love and offering constructive analysis and not hurtful put-downs. And it’s also about seeing the plank in your own eye and not just the speck in someone else’s.

Robert Burns is right. To be honest is to be noble, truly to be what God made us to be. So today, once again, that is my resolution – honestly! 

*** 

A prayer for today

All-knowing God, if I can’t be honest with myself, how can I be honest with you?

***

An original reflection © Tom Gordon