Two Hymns for Epiphany

The celebration of Epiphany has always been important to me. In the Nativity narratives, the arrival at Bethlehem of the Kings – also known as The Three Wise Men or The Magi – with their gifts, gets all mixed up with the Christmas story. But, traditionally, their involvement has been marked at the conclusion of the Christmas Season – the 12th day of Christmas – on 6th January. This is the Christian festival commemorating, as the Church tells us, ‘the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi’. In more recent times, ‘epiphany’ has come to mean an appearance of a deity, or a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something.

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Our Epiphany

Suggested tune: “Rhuddlan”

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God incarnate, living presence

of the Lord that dwells above;

come to us in human weakness,

not your power or might to prove,

but to show, in Christ among us,

what it means to live in Love.

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God, Emmanuel, kings and scholars

travelled far to worship you,

bringing gifts, their precious treasures,

offering all that you were due,

finding in a humble stable

God was making all things new.

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Here we gather, faithful people,

seeking God in human form;

some with purpose and direction;

some unsure, afraid, or worn;

now to join these ancient travellers,

come to see God’s Love reborn.

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See! We come to lay before you

costly gifts of love and care,

different kinds of faithful service,

precious lives we’re called to share …

God among us, here we give you

all we have and all we are.

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God incarnate, living Wonder,

heaven and earth in harmony …

God, Emmanuel, promised presence,

Word made flesh in Christ we see …

glory, praise and prayer we bring you!

This is our Epiphany!

***

The Day of Our Epiphany

Suggested tune: “Mary Morrison” (or any DLM melody)

This hymn is in a ‘question and answer’ format, the first half of each verse being the question, the second half the response. It can be sung with a solo or small group singing the first part of each verse and the whole congregation singing the second – as suggested below. The final verse lends itself to being sung by everyone. If no soloists are available, the congregation can be split into two parts. And, of course, the hymn can be sung by everyone from start to finish.

Solo 1

What time did your new star appear?

What day, what week, what month, what year?

How did you know when you should start?

 When were you ready to depart?

All 

This was our time; this was our day;

This was our call; this was our way;

This was our life, our everything  –

To travel far to find our King.

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Solo 2

Where did your journeying begin?

Where was your home? Who were your kin?

Did you wait long once you’d prepared?

Were you excited, bold, or scared?

All

This was our faith; this was our now;

This was our trust; this was our vow;

This mattered more than anything –

To travel on to meet our King.

*

Solo 3

Did you know where you’d find the babe –

In palace, mansion, byre or cave?

Did you believe your star would stay

Above the place where Jesus lay?

All

This was our truth; this was so right;

This was our purpose, this our light,

With precious gifts our lives to bring,

To travel long to greet our King.

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Trio

Can we come too when you bow low,

And understand what you now know?

Though we’ve no gifts when we appear,

Are we allowed to enter here?

All

This is our joy; this is our worth,

To share with you the Saviour’s birth.

This is the hope to which we cling –

You too can worship Christ the King.

*

All

We come, the greatest and the least,

To join the ancients from the East.

We bring the gifts of what we are –

Christ’s pilgrims come from near and far,

Our God Incarnate now to see

This day of our Epiphany,

And with the ancient sages sing –

“Give glory to the King of kings.”

***

Two original hymns by © Tom Gordon, The Feast of Epiphany 2021

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

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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”

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

Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night

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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! 

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A prayer for today

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

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An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

Simple – 3rd January 2021

Port Seton Harbour – simple and beautiful. What’s not to like?

Resolution 2 – Keep it simple

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“Let people hold to these:

manifest plainness, embrace simplicity,

reduce selfishness, have few desires.”

Lao Tzu, Tao-te Ching (c. 600 BC)

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The Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, who lived six centuries before Christ, had it right. Manifesting plainness, embracing simplicity, reducing selfishness and having few desires is a maxim for life that we would all do well to live by. I’ll chose simplicity for now …

When I decided to train for the ministry, my old granny was delighted. A profoundly Christian woman, a convert at the Billy Graham crusades in Glasgow in the 1950s and having a lasting influence on me, she was never one to cast praise around willy-nilly. But she was a woman of wisdom, and would drop the occasional geminto a conversation, which, if you were rightly attuned to hear it, would do you the world of good. Reminiscing about ministers she’d known, she said to me once, “Ah like the yins that keep it simple, son. Keep it simple. Aye, that’s whit a’ ministers should dae.” It’s advice which still resonates with me. And I do wish sometimes it might be heeded by other ministers too …

When I was small, a new minister came to our church. He regularly preached for a good half-an-hour – pretty standard for the time – and his sermons weren’t always the easiest to follow. Not at all happy with this, my mum took to writing down all the words in the sermon she didn’t understand. Then she would phone the minister on Monday morning and ask him to explain each of these words in simpler terms. I can’t recall whether this improved the minister’s preaching, but it certainly improved my mother’s understanding – and  her peace of mind.

No one has ever phoned me with a litany of words they didn’t understand. They don’t have to. I know well enough myself when I make things too wordy or complicated. After all, I still have my granny whispering in my ear, “Keep it simple, son. Keep it simple.”

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A prayer for today

That voice in my ear … My granny’s or God’s? It should be simple to work out.

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An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

Resolutions – 2nd January 2021

May you heard words of love today as clearly as you hear birdsong in the morning. (Photograph by Mary Gordon)

Resolution 1 – “Tell someone I love them”

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“Perhaps those, who, trembling most,

maintain a dignity in their fate, are the bravest:

resolution on reflection is real courage.”

Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George II

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I’m not a courageous person, but I am given to reflection, and I’ve had plenty time for that recently. So I’m encouraged to read Horace Walpole’s words again today. Even though, to be honest, I do tremble from time to time, I hope I’ve maintained my dignity and can, therefore, be numbered among the bravest. Especially when reflection leads to resolution …

The beginning of a year is often a time for making resolutions. They might be the “Firm Resolve” about which Robert Burns wrote To Dr Blacklock to encourage his friend to be bolder in his amorous pursuits: “And let us mind, faint heart ne’er wan fair lady.” Or they could be the “great and mighty resolutions” Samuel Butler spoke of in Hudibras in the 17th century. Such resolutions may be life-changing or they may not. But, if we give ourselves time to reflect, such reflection should always lead to resolution. And that’s the courageous part. So, to resolution Number 1 …

Early in my time as a hospice chaplain I attended a conference on end-of-life care at which distinguished and eloquent specialists shared their insights into the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of caring for people who are dying. For a Q&A session at the end, the speakers were brought together as a panel. One of the questions was: “How would you suggest each of us could be more ready to face our own mortality?” Quick as a flash, one of the panellists responded, “Go home today and tell someone you love them.” Such a response to a searching question must have arisen from much reflection – in both professional and private life. But, twenty-five years later the strength of that response has stayed with me. I’ve not always been good at following it through. So I come back to it again and again, and, in reflection, try to do it better.

Today I resolve to tell someone I love them. And I hope it’s a resolution I can keep well into a new year and not just at the start!

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A prayer for today

Loving God, let love me on my lips today as much as it is in my heart. Amen.

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An original reflection © Tom Gordon     

A Hymn for the New Year

The beginning of a year is a special marker in our journey of life. We know it’s “just another day”, or the “click of a clock”, and New Year’s Day is with us. But it’s more significant than that, for it marks our progress and our measurement of time, and allows us to review the past and be hopeful for the future. In the myths of ancient Rome, Janus – after whom many believe the month of January is named – is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, doorways, passages, and such like things. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks backwards to the past and forward to the future at the same time. So, as we do likewise at the turn of the year, perhaps we might do well to pause, look around us and give thanks.

New Year Dawning 

(based on Psalm 39:5)

Suggested tune: “Rhuddlan”

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New Year dawning … what a morning!

giving January its birth;

happy people, joyful revellers

celebrating, full of mirth;

parties starting; fireworks flashing,

east to west, o’er all the earth.

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New Year turning … looking backwards

o’er the span of days gone by;

places seen and people greeted;

schemes that worked or went awry;

lessons learned; events remembered;

lots to teach or mystify.

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New Year starting … reaching forward

into all that’s yet unknown;

resolutions; big decisions;

times to share or be alone;

plans to make; routines to follow;

sins for which we must atone.

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New Year promise … God is constant;

as He has been in the past,

so His timeless presence gives us

hope and strength for which we ask.

For His love, from start to finish,

is a Love that’s made to last.

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New Year with us … so your people

gather now to bring our praise,

and to pray to You, whose handbreadth

is the measure of our days:

‘God be with us; bless us; keep us;

Hold us close to You always.’

***

An original hymn by © Tom Gordon, January 2021

Future – 1st January 2021

Welcome to 2021! (Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com)

“Ah, fill the cup: what boots it to repeat

How time is slipping underneath our feet:

Unborn tomorrow, and dead yesterday,

Why fret about them if today is sweet.

Edward Fitzgerald, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

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Happy New Year, everyone. May God’s blessing be real for you all in 2021. May this year bring you the joy, peace and love you hope for.  

The month of January is named after Janus, who, in Roman mythology, is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions and endings. Janus is depicted with two faces, one looking to the past and the other to the future. And Janus is a metaphor of where we are all likely to be as 2021 dawns for us. As one year gives way to the next, we too will look both ways. But there’s no portrayal of Janus that finds him looking back in tears or joy. And, as he looks forward, there is no emotion portrayed. He just looks – stoically, impassively, thoughtfully, perhaps. But it’s as though he’s simply prepared to make the best of what comes along.

L P Hartley wrote in The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But isn’t the future also an unknown, unexplored foreign country? They may do things differently there too, but we don’t know that yet. And we’ll never know, until we take our first tentative steps on our journey of exploration. The past 12 months have taught us we need to be ready for the unexpected. So, like Janus, it’s enough just to look and be prepared for whatever comes along.

At the inauguration of the Faculty of Science in the University of Lille in 1854, Louis Pasteur said: “Where observation is concerned, chance favours only the prepared mind.” So, let your minds be prepared to turn 2021 into a year of hopefulness. You have a chance to do that.

So, as Edward Fitzgerald suggests, don’t let time slip under your feet. Yesterday is dead! Tomorrow is unborn! But today – the first day of the rest of your life – might just bring you all the sweetness you’ll ever need.

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A prayer for today

God of my past, thank you for taking me to this place.

God of my future, thank you for your promise of lasting companionship.

God of today, thank you for being with me as I start again. Amen. 

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An original reflection © Tom Gordon

Past – 31st December 2020

Will the light of past days be our future guide? (Photo of Iona Abbey by David Coleman; used with permission.)

You can never plan the future by the past.”

Edmund Burke, Letter to a member of the National Assembly, 1791

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“Hogmanay”, the last day of the year, has been celebrated in a distinctive Scottish fashion for many generations. Our traditional gatherings, “first footing” and partying will be severely curtailed this year because of the Covid-19 restrictions. But the letting go of the past and preparing for the future is fundamental to our thinking as one year clicks over into the next.

When I was young, we brought in the New Year at my Granny’s with much revelry and an over-abundance of food and drink. And there was always the ritual of “The Bells”. Invariably, when it turned midnight, tears were commonplace! Some said, “It’s been a bad year and I’m glad to see the back of it.” Others said, “It’s been a great year, and I’m sorry to see it go!” Every New Year was the same. It was always welcomed with tears!

It occurs to me now, that this emphasis on looking to the past shouldn’t be the sole focus of our thoughts on Hogmanay. It’s inevitable that with such a traumatic year as this behind us, such thinking about the past might be overwhelming. But would Edmund Burke not say now what he said in the dying years of the 18th century? “You can never plan the future by the past.” Take note of the past, but don’t let it predominate.

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Kim Darroch, the former UK ambassador in Washington. In the age of President Trump and as Brexit unfolded, he offers insights into one of the most turbulent periods in UK and US history. Following his resignation in 2019, Darroch recalled the words from Lady Macbeth in “The Scottish Play”: “Things without all remedy should be without regard; what’s done is done.”

What is done is done! Let the past go. Cry if you must, when the bells ring, out of sorrow or wistfulness. But whatever 2020 has been, it can’t be changed. Look back if you must. But look forward in hopefulness too. There’s a bright tomorrow out there, when the New Year bells chime, waiting to welcome you into the newness that’s to come.

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A prayer for today

Lord, where were you when I was struggling,

fearful, lonely and sad?

Where were you in past days?

“I was by your side, my child, holding your hand,

steadying you, as we stepped into the future.

Come now! Let’s be hopeful together.”

***

An original reflection © Tom Gordon

Between – 30th December 2020

Waiting … (Photo by Alessio Cesario on Pexels.com)

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the shadow.”

T S Elliot, The Hollow Men

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I feel I’m in an “in-between” place: between Christmas and the New Year; between the arrival of a Covid-19 vaccine and the widespread use of it; between the awfulness of this past year and the hope and promise of a new one; between knowing and not-knowing; between now and then.

I’ve heard this described as a “limbo” time. In Roman Catholic Theology, the “Limbo of the Fathers” (from the Latin limbus for an edge or boundary) is deemed to be the place where those who die in “original sin” are condemned to wait until their fate is ultimately decided. One of the most beautiful poems by the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, is Limbo in which he uses the exquisite metaphor, “Now limbo will be a cold glitter of souls”.

But perhaps the quote which truly describes where I am at the moment comes from John Milton, who wrote in Paradise Lost:

Into a limbo, large and broad, since called

The Paradise of Fools, to few unknown.

Am I one of the “paradise of fools” to be in this “in-between” place, this limbo time? Has T S Elliot’s shadow fallen on me as I wait between “the idea and the reality” or “the motion and the act”?

No! I am no fool, for I have to learn to be in that place of “not-knowing” and not to be stressed about things over which I have no control. This “large and broad” place may extend way beyond my horizon, deep into next year, until things are clearer. But I’ve decided this is no shadow that heralds a darkness, but simply a temporary respite, a moment of shade, which will be of benefit to me before I launch into the next unknown stage of my journey of discovery. And, yes, I can indeed see hope for my very soul, glittering in the coldness of my limbo time.

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A prayer for today

Patient God, please wait with me between my knowing and not-knowing. Amen .

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An original reflection © Tom Gordon

Late – 29th December 2020

Don’t be late, don’t be late, DON’T BE LATE!

Five minutes! Zounds! I have been five minutes too late all my lifetime!”

Hannah Cowley, The Belle’s Stratagem (1780)

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Now that the Postal Service is up-and-running again after Christmas, it’s the time when late Christmas cards are delivered. You know the kind of things I mean: the card from someone you know is always disorganised; the one from the person who’s felt obliged to send you one after they’ve got yours, but they’ve been too late in posting it for a pre-Christmas collection; or a card that’s been stuck in the post. “Better late than never” is a mantra that works well with late-delivery Christmas cards.

I hate being late. I’ve always been a stickler for timekeeping. I sent some work to a publisher earlier this year well before the deadline, and got a message saying, “You’re a publishers dream!” I liked that.

It’s the same with appointments. I’d rather be early, even sitting in my car waiting for the exact  time for my engagement, than run the risk of being late. I hate being late – even though it irritates my wife big-time!

When I was small, and, like all children, I dawdled when we were going somewhere, my mother would constantly say, “Hurry up!” There was good reason, of course, for we had no car in those days, and travelling by public transport meant you had to be ready at the right time or else you missed your connection. But it was drummed into me. So, even now  I can hear my mother’s voice, “Hurry up! Hurry up!” and I’m terrified I’ll be late..

I’m better at this than I used to be – at least I think so, though I suspect my ever-patient wife wouldn’t agree. Perhaps I’m getting more “chilled out” in my later years, even though the insistent voice of my mother still appears to be a determining factor in the way I live my life.

In The Belle’s Stratagem, an 18th century romantic comedy by the dramatist Hannah Cowley, the harassed servant of Saville, one of the principal characters, confesses to being “five minutes too late all my lifetime”. Perhaps my mother might have a word with him. Zounds! But then, maybe she’s got enough to do to keep me running to time!

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A prayer for today

Lord, am I too late to come to you in prayer?

Are you as stressed in your waiting as I’ve been getting here?

“Worry not, my child. I’m just delighted you’ve turned up at all!”

***

An original reflection © Tom Gordon