Small – 9th January 2021

It’s not the smallness of the person that matters, it’s who they are. It’s not the smallness of the voice that matters, it’s what it says.

“And after the fire, a still small voice.”

Bible, I Kings 19:12

***

When you read a “Thought for the Day”, what picture do you have of the writer? You may have no starting point for your understanding of me, other than what you’re reading now. How, then, do you picture me? Am I still in my pyjamas? Am I at my desk in the wee small hours or on a bright,  sunny afternoon? You can read the words, but what about all the rest?

My minister offers a weekly worship podcast. I know Robin Allison well, but what does his voice tell me? Is he having a good day or a bad one? Is he wearing a onesie or a suit? Is he late for his tea because he has his podcast to do? I can hear his voice, but what about all the rest?

What about people on TV, like correspondents and newsreaders? Usually, especially in a studio, they’re behind a desk and all we see is from the waist up. But is that smart pundit wearing jeans and trainers as well as a jacket and tie? Does that well-dressed reporter have scuffed shoes and odd socks? I can see what’s there, but what about all the rest?

We read what’s written, hear what’s said, see what’s presented, never the whole story. But we can become so focussed on what we don’t know that we miss the effect of what’s right there. What a pity it is when we miss the value of that as we concentrate on what we may never know. 

The prophet Elijah was struggling to understand the nature of God. He felt abandoned, at very low ebb, and, in a cave, railed against God. And God said, “Wait a while …” And there was a mighty wind, but God wasn’t in the wind; a great earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; a raging fire, but God wasn’t in the fire. And then … a “still small voice”, enough of a revelation of God for Elijah to restore his faith and keep him on track.

Don’t get hung up on what you don’t know about God in your life. Read what you read. Hear what you hear. See what you see. And let that be enough. Be pleased, like Elijah, you’re given your “still small voice” from time to time, for that is all the revelation of God that you’ll need right now.

***

A prayer for today

Living God, thank you for your reassurance

that my small understanding of you will be enough for now.

Help me to keep listening for your little voice. Amen

***

An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

Gifts – 6th January 2021

The gifts of beauty, life and love … All given to me to enjoy, with nothing expected in return, except the occasional smile of gratitude. (Photo from Kathryn Gordon with many thanks.)

“By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation … He believed that it was for the man of letters to recover these epiphanies … seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and effervescent of moments.”

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

***

Today the Christian Church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany, recalling the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, to present their gifts to Jesus. For centuries in our country, it marked the end of the twelve days of Christmas.

“Epiphany” comes from epipháneia meaning manifestation or appearance. In classical Greek it was used for the appearance of the dawn or an enemy in war, but especially of a revelation of a deity to a worshiper. Epiphany doesn’t just signify the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the three Magi from the East, familiar to us from countless Nativity Plays. It is much more a marking of a gift to us.

William Chatterton Dix was a hymn-writer from Bristol who spent much of his life in Glasgow as manager of a marine insurance company. His best-known hymn, As With Gladness Men of Old, written on Epiphany in 1859 when he was 22, encourages us to think of the gifts we can offer.

As they offered gifts most rare at that manger rude and bare,
So may we with holy joy, pure, and free from sin’s alloy,
All our costliest treasures bring, Christ, to Thee, our heavenly King

Only seven years later, Dix was struck with a near fatal illness and became severely depressed. Yet he was to draw strength from a faith which had inspired him to include this verse in his great hymn:

In the heavenly country bright, need they no created light;
Thou its light, its joy, its crown, Thou its sun, which goes not down.
There for ever may we sing alleluias to our King.

On this Feast of the Epiphany, however much we think of the gifts of service we can offer, pause with Dix and reflect on the gift we are given, in “the most delicate and effervescent of moments”, as Joyce wrote, of the light and joy of the revelation of the blessing of God.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, in these trying times, help us to “recover these epiphanies”

for we need them perhaps more than ever before. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Hope – 23rd September 2020

Chalmers Memorial Church, Port Seton.
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1 – NIV)

“Hope springs exulting on triumphant wing.”

Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night

***

I reflected yesterday on the faith of Horatio Spafford which inspired him to write his great hymn, It is well with my soul. After a series of tragedies, culminating in the death of his four daughters, Spafford and his wife, Anna, went on to have three further children. However, the first of these, a young Horatio, was to die of scarlet fever aged three. This final tragedy, after a decade of financial loss and personal grief, alongside a lack of support from their church community, changed the course of the Spaffords’ life.

In 1881, the family went to Jerusalem with a party of thirteen adults to set up what they called “The American Colony”. Joined by Swedish Christians, and spurning a proselyting approach, they served people in most need without regard to religious affiliation, gaining the trust of Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities. Spafford could have reacted to his tragedies by becoming an embittered man. But instead, he let his brokenness inform his life choices, and continued with a life of faithful service. He died in 1888 and is buried in Jerusalem’s Mount Zion Cemetery.

Henri Nouwen’s thought-provoking book, The Wounded Healer, offers hope those who want to serve their church or community but struggle because of their brokenness or uncertainties. He has this insight:

When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains

but that we can mobilise them into a common search for life,

those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.

Horatio Spafford didn’t run away from the pain and tragedies of his life but sought to build on them and let them inform the rest of his life’s work and witness. Engaged in Nouwen’s “common search for life”, what could have been expressions of despair were wonderfully transformed into signs of hope. Like him, we can all be wounded healers. And with God’s grace, and a willingness to accept our pains, we believe we can see these wounds offering healing and signs of hope to those most in need.

***

A prayer for today

Lift me in hope, Lord, on your exultant wing, to bear me ever forwards. Amen

***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Sin – 16th September 2020

Which of us isn’t a sinner? (Photo by Maruxa Lomoljo Koren on Pexels.com)

“How shall I lose the sin, yet keep the sense,

And love th’ offender, yet detest th’ offence?”

Alexander Pope, Eloisa and Abelard

***

An Am Dram Company once received a bad crit from the local paper, the show’s cast being roundly condemned. The show’s director was outraged, and his defence of his Company appeared in the paper the following week, concluding with these words of advice to a heavy-handed critic –  

Let him who is without sin stone the cast first.

This clever riposte is, of course, a take on Jesus’ words to those who would have stoned an adulterous woman to death: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. But both the original and the parody contain a fundamental truth: it’s easy enough to condemn others for their sinful ways, but tolerance has to begin with a recognition of our own failings.

St Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans: “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” His starting point was an awareness of his own sin – before he began to judge anyone else.

St Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century famously defined sin using the Latin phrase, incurvatus in se – “being turned in on oneself”. Martin Luther further expounded on this in his Lectures on Romans:

Our nature [is] so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them …  or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake

The best of us, like St Paul, look at ourselves and, recognising our own sin, are better placed to understand, and to forgive, the sins of others. But when we are turned in on ourselves, curved towards our own selfish nature, putting ourselves at the centre of God’s creation and bending God to our own purposes, nobody benefits. For we’re all sinners, after all …

***

A prayer for today

God says: “Judge not, that ye be not judged!”

I say: “Forgive us our sins, as we might forgive those who sin against us.”

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Press – 10th September 2020

“And they couldn’t get nigh unto him for the press …” (Photo by brotiN biswaS on Pexels.com)

“[Jesus] entered into Capernaum … and it was noised that he was in the house. And straightway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them … And they come unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four. And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and … they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay.”

Bible, Mark 2:1-4 (King James, or Authorised, Version)

***

Jesus, in appeared, had the same problem as any modern celebrity – they couldn’t get near him for the press! Oh, I know it’s just the language of the early 17th century in the Authorized Version of the bible. But it allows me to ask the question: what do we do about The Press?

Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address as US President in 1801, listed freedom of the press – alongside freedom of religion and protection under the Law – to be a fundamental principle of a civilised society. Freedom of The Press is important. But with freedom comes responsibility, not just to shareholders, or market-share, or profit-margins of a company, but to society as a whole. The “phone hacking scandal” of recent memory and the subsequent Levison enquiry remind us of the responsibility of The Press – indeed, all forms of the media – to be aware of the welfare of a whole society and not just a limited section of it.

George Bernard Shaw wrote in Man and Superman in 1903, “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” And why? Because responsibility is hard to exercise. It takes thought, seeing beyond self, interpreting the good of all, exercising responsibility for the welfare of all, the Utilitarian principle of the “greatest good for the greatest number”.

If Jesus knew that the people couldn’t come nigh unto him for the press, perhaps as well as talking about forgiveness, and healing a paralysed man, he might have had a few words to say about freedom and responsibility, so we can know that we are forgiven for misusing our freedom, and be more committed to taking our responsibilities seriously.

***

Prayer for today

Living God, thank you for my freedoms. Help me to use them well.

Thank you for my responsibilities. Help me to carry them out responsibly. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Hymns – 6th September 2020

Photo by franpics on Pexels.com

It is singing to the praise of God … If you sing, and praise no God, you utter no hymn. If you praise anything which does not pertain to praise God, though in singing you praise, you utter no hymn.”

St Augustine of Hippo, Defining a Hymn

***

William Kethe’s name first appears in the records of the Marian Exiles in Frankfurt in the 1550s, though it’s believed he was born in Scotland. He helped translate the Geneva Bible in 1560 and contributed many Psalms to the Geneva Psalter of 1561. The best known of these remains his version of Psalm 100, All People That on Earth Do Dwell. Most often sung to the wonderful tune, The Old Hundredth, the first verse of Kethe’s Psalm reads:

All people that on earth do dwell,

Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice,

Him serve with fear, his praise forth tell,

Come ye before him and rejoice.

As churches begin to reopen for worship in Scotland, there are many procedures to be followed – social distancing; the wearing of masks; no Orders of Service. But perhaps the most difficult is the regulation that there is to be no singing. There are good scientific reasons for this, but, goodness, it’s hard to bear! Isn’t praising integral to our worship? How can we “sing to the Lord with cheerful voice” if there’s to be no singing? Can we “serve him with fear (or ‘mirth’, as it’s more often sung), his praise forth tell”, if we’re unable to sing our hymns, and psalms and modern songs?

For the beginning of an answer we go to St Augustine of Hippo from the 5th century, who suggests praise is much more than singing. We can sing, but if isn’t from the heart, is it praise? If we praise God sincerely without a hymn, does that diminish our worship?

So let’s sing with the cheerful voices of our hearts if not our mouths. Let’s praise God by the way we live as much as by the hymns we would sing. Let’s come before him, in church and street, in home and countryside, in public and private, and rejoice, by making sure we offer the depth and sincerity of our praise, even when regulations say we must “utter no hymn”.

***

A prayer for today

“Praise, laud and bless his name always, for it is seemly so to do.” Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Memory – 15th August 2020

A shaft of light … A memory of then, or a pleasure of now? Who knows? (Photo by Elias Tigiser on Pexels.com)

“A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrow’s dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer. So certainly there is nothing, nothing in spiritual things, perfect in this world.”
John Donne, LXXX Sermons

***

I’ve discovered something about myself during lockdown that I hadn’t been aware of. I thought it was a bad at first, but I’ve decided it’s a good thing. In recent months, I’ve realised I don’t have a great memory for detail. I don’t think I’m losing my memory, though the years could well be affecting it in some way or another. It’s just that I’ve realised that this lack of remembering detail has probably been with me for a long time.

Take, for example, the propensity for BBC and ITV to show old football matches in recent months – World Cups, Premier Leagues, Cup Finals, European Championships – most of which I’d seen already, and some I’d watched live. A Scotland match against Brazil. A Rangers game with Celtic. Spain versus Germany, or whatever, all memorable and significant games. But I couldn’t remember the outcome when the game kicked off. I could remember some things as the game unfolded – a great goal, a sending-off, a penalty shoot-out. But I couldn’t remember the result. My football-loving friends will laugh at me, I’m sure. “Surely, surely, you can remember that  game, Tom,” I hear them say. Well, clearly, not!

To be honest, it worried me for a while. Losing my memory? But then I realised it didn’t actually matter. Indeed, it was a good thing, for I could take pleasure in the moment and watch each match as if it were for the first time.

It’s the same with the rerun of the first series of Broadchurch. The final episode was riveting, because I couldn’t remember who’d done it!  It happens with old episodes of Vera or Midsomer Murders or Poirot too. I can’t remember …

But, I’ve stopped worrying about it, and I’m finding new enjoyments – just as good as the old ones. When “yesterday’s pleasures” are no longer in the memory, today’s pleasures will do just fine, thank you.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, let every moment of experiencing your love for me

feel like I’m discovering it for the very first time. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon

Honesty – 29th March 2020

Chalmers Memorial Church, Port Seton, East Lothian

***

“Princes and Lords are but the breath of kings,

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

Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night

***

The “Don Camillo” stories by Giovanni Guareschi have been life-long favourites of mine. First appearing in 1948, the fictional priest is one of two main protagonists in a series of short stories set in the “little world” of rural Italy after World War II, the other main character being Peppone, the communist mayor of the town. The stories are a powerful testimony to the struggles of a man of God to do what is right.

What I like most is Don Camillo’s honesty. He is honest about his hatred of communism; honest about his own abilities and inadequacies; and, above all, he is honest withst every story finds Don Camillo kneeling before his church’s altar in prayer. There, he argues with God, challenges God, and, regularly, is angry with God. His times of devotion – reviewing the events of the day and looking for guidance as Peppone has to be challenged once again – are always honest.

Some of us today will struggle with the honesty of our anger. For those who pray, it’s difficult when that anger is directed at God. We may feel it isn’t right to bring out our anger in our prayers. Or maybe the anger gets in the way, and we reject the very notion of God altogether.

But the God that Don Camillo believes in, and the God who is with me now, is the God who says “Come, kneel before my altar and let me have it – anger and all – and I will not turn you away. Indeed, if you just paused in your rant for a moment, you might even hear me answering back!”

***

A prayer for today

Welcoming God, you made me to be fully human,

and you bid me come to you as I am.

So, you’ll just have to take what I have to offer today,

and, for now, that’s all wrapped up in anger.

I have to be honest.

Please assure me that’s OK?

Amen

***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon