Truth – 6th October 2021

Searching for truth … still searching … still searching. Sorry! I missed you there. I was searching for truth … (Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com)

“Still closing up truth to truth as we find it.”

John Milton, Areopagitica

***

Gotthold Ephrahim Lessing was an 18th century German writer, philosopher and dramatist and a key figure in the “age of the enlightenment”. Towards the end of his life, his main focus was theology and religion, and in his research, he discovered an unpublished manuscript that attacked the historicity of the Christian religion.  Against much advice, he published sections of the manuscript in order to stimulate discussion. However, his honourable and scholarly motives led to him being rounded on by other writers, and a fierce public debate ensued.

In time, the government intervened, and a law was enacted which effectively amounted to the censorship of Lessing’s writing. He wasn’t finished, however,and using his skills as a playwright, he continued to air his enlightened ideas, particularly through his most famous play, Nathan the Wise, the first example of German “literature of humanity”. In the play, Lessing has a character debate “truth” with Nathan the prophet, in an attempt to find which religion, life-stance or philosophical position was the only one to follow. The core of the debate is summed up in another piece of Lessing’s writing, Ein Duplik, which includes this:

If God were to hold out enclosed in His right hand all Truth, and in His left hand just the active search for Truth … and He should say to me: Choose! I should humbly take His left hand and say: Father! Give me this one; absolute Truth belongs to Thee alone.

Lessing is right. The search for truth will, and should always be, just that – a search. Religion, life-stance, a philosophical position, a belief-system will always be a product of influence, study, reason, intellect and faith. It is not, and should never be, an endpoint, an attainment, a conclusion, but always a process of discovery. Which of us, even if we are committed to our Christian position, could ever say “we have all truth” when there is so much more to know, reason with and understand? Absolute Truth? Not yet. An active search for truth? “Give me this one …”

***

A prayer for today

Lord, today I take both your hands,

knowing that my search and your Truth

will always be better being held together. Amen

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Home – 5th October 2021

A “But and Ben” – with some extras! All the more to allow hospitality to be offered. (Photograph by Tom Gordon)

“Home sweet home.”

J H Payne, Title of a song from “Clari” or “The Maid of Milan”, an opera from 1823

***

As far as I’m aware, the term “But and Ben” is peculiar to Scotland. A “But and Ben” is a basic two-roomed cottage common over many centuries. From its beginnings in the older “Blackhouse” with its compacted earth floor, peat walls and bracken-thatched roof, to the more modern stone-built croft dwellings, a “But and Ben” had an “outer room” which usually housed the animals, and an “inner room” in which the family lived. As configurations and needs changed, the outer room (the “But”) would be a working area such as a kitchen, and the inner room (the “Ben”) would be the part in which people ate, slept and shared family life.  

Clever people tell me But comes from Early Scots or Middle English and means “bouten” or “outside”, while Ben is derived from “binnen” or “inside”. Neither bouten nor binnen has survived into common usage. However …

When I was young and stayed often with my granny, I heard words that I never heard my parents use. I don’t mean sweary words. Heaven forbid! But I do mean old Scots words. One of these was ben. I knew a “ben” was a mountain – like Ben Nevis. But ben was used by my granny in a different way. She would invite any visitor “ben the hoose”. “Come in,” she was saying, “to my house. Welcome! Don’t stay here in the outside part. But come into the inside, the living area, the family part. Come ‘ben the hoose’, into the warmth and welcome of my home.” It was honest hospitality. There was no “but”, no exclusion, no keeping people in the “outer” part. Instead, there was openness, welcome, hospitality for all who needed it. “Ben the hoose” mattered if people were to feel at home.

Are there ways in which we can invite people “ben the hoose” today? Locally? Nationally? Churches? Refugees? Strangers? Those who feel alienated? People who’ve made mistakes? Anyone who needs to be loved? There’s a “but” and there’s a “ben” in the lives of all of us. So in unconditional hospitality and welcome, let’s put aside the “buts”, when more and more people need to be “ben the hoose” with you and me.

***

A prayer for today

Loving God, when we put our “but” in the way of hospitality and welcome,

help us to think of what we would feel like if we were excluded. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon         

Choices – 4th October 2021

Bad choice, people! Bad choice! (Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com)

“The intellect of man is forced to choose.”
W B Yeats, The Choice

***

Whisper this … I used to be a heavy smoker. Excuses? I was young and didn’t know better; the medical knowledge about the links between smoking and life-limiting disease wasn’t as publicly known as it is now; smoking was the norm in all public places. But the truth is, I enjoyed smoking. It meant I was penniless at the end of every month (and there were two of us who smoked at home) because so much money was “going up in smoke”. But it was part of me, and something I liked. I was sponsored to stop smoking for 100 days by my congregation, the money raised going to Christian Aid. Thank God, I haven’t touched a cigarette since.

All of this is in the public domain. But … My wife had stopped smoking several months before me and we made a deal that I wouldn’t smoke at home. So I didn’t! I smoked in the parish. I smoked at meetings. I smoked when I went for a drink. I smoked in the Social Work office with colleagues. And here’s the hidden confession … I chose to make pastoral visits to homes of people I knew would be smoking too. My parish visiting was selective. If you smoked, you saw me. If you didn’t, well …

I’m ashamed! To be as selective as than is nothing short of discriminatory, selfish and thoroughly unprofessional. I choose smokers over others in need, just to satisfy my own cravings.

It does, however, leave me with a question. How selective, or discriminatory, or self-centred am I in other parts of my life? Perhaps subtly, maybe unconsciously, possibly not often. But are my choices, my selections, always governed by honourable principles, righteousness, fairness, justice? If I could make unfortunate choices when I was a smoker, might I still be inclined to make bad choices when I’m not?

I hope it won’t take a congregation to sponsor me for 100 days to work that one through, or to set me on a better path. I’ll just have to be more aware of it myself and work on a craving to make healthier choices in my life, attitudes and behaviour than I’ve done before.

***

A prayer for today

Jesus said: “You did not choose me, but I chose you …

so that you might go and bear fruit that will last.” (John 15:16)

Good choice, Lord! Good choice, I reckon! Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Harvest – 3rd October 2021

Things that grow are much, much more than things that grow … (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

“They joy before thee as with joy at the harvest.”

Bible, Isaiah 9:3

***

This is “Harvest Thanksgiving” or “Harvest Festival” time in many of our churches.

Some years ago, I was leading worship in a city church, covering for a colleague who was off sick. She’d informed me it was the “Harvest Service”, but not to worry, as all the arrangements were in hand. All that was required from me was a short sermon and an interactive time with the children. Harvest? No need to choose a theme, be concerned about visual aids, or be “over prepared”. I was an experienced practitioner. There was plenty of scope to “wing it”.

The children were suitably responsive, especially when I invited them to think about God’s gifts and asked what they would bring to a harvest table. “Apples”, said one. “Bananas,” said another, followed by a host of other fruit-related suggestions. “Coco-pops,” shouted a child, expanding the repertoire somewhat, which started “porridge”, “Rice Crispies” and “toast and peanut butter”. I was trying to get back onto a “things that grow” theme, when a girl called out, “sausages”, starting a cacophony of other voices: “pizza”, “turkey twizzlers”, “cheesy pasta” and “beans on toast”.

The congregation was in stitches, and I was losing control. “OK! OK!” I said, and, when silence was restored, asked, “Now what does all of that tell us about harvest?” A forest of hands shot up, and I moved closer to an animated little lad in the front row. “Yes?” I enquired. “What do you think all of this tells us about harvest?” To which he replied, “My mum better have a big cooker if she’s going to make all that stuff for our tea …”

Cue loud and lasting congregational laughter! I decided enough was enough and announced the next hymn. There was no need to say much more. The children had done the job for me that day. The prepared sermon was ditched to be replaced by a “cookers matter in harvests too” and “we give thanks for mums and others who make our tea” themes.

“The joy of the harvest”, was the message of the Psalmist. The children had got the point and had made the point! Harvest is wonderful, if only we can let our minds run to the amazing things we have around us every day – mums and cookers for tea-time included!

***

A prayer for today

Harvest!

Thank you, God, for things that grow,

and food to eat, and cookers to use,

and people who make our tea.

Your children taught me the joy that! Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon       

Legacy – 2nd October 2021

Composers do it through music. But what legacy might we leave? (Image from https://pixaby.com)

“The first requirement of a composer is to be dead.”

Arthur Honegger, Je suis compositeur

***

The renowned artist, Vincent Van Gough, lived with tragedy all his life. We’re familiar with Van Gough’s self-inflicted ear mutilation and his time in insane asylums. And although pieces such as The Starry Night  and The Potato Eaters are now rightly considered to be masterpieces, he only sold one painting in his lifetime.

Does Honegger’s assertion that “the first requirement of a composer is to be dead” stretch beyond music into other artistic fields? I hope not. Indeed, while there are many creative people whose work is only recognised after they’ve died, Honegger’s sweeping statement does not bear scrutiny for most composers, artists and other creative masters.

The recent First Night of the BBC Proms contained world premier of a new piece, When Soft Voices Die, by the Scottish composer, James McMillan. It was fresh, inspiring, joyful, uplifting, moving. And once the BBC Symphony Orchestra and their Principal Guest Conductor, Dalia Stasevska, had taken their bows, we saw James McMillan in the gallery accepting the applause of the audience. “Dead”, Mr Honegger? James McMillan looked very much alive to me – and thank God for it.

Do we have to wait till someone’s gone to receive their legacy? Do we have to wait till they’d died to recognise their worth? After the death of a good friend many years ago, I was reflecting on the funeral with a mutual friend. “Lovely eulogy,” I said. “Yes,” she replied. “But why do we wait till someone’d dead before we say nice things about them?” She paused, and then said, “Indeed, several years ago, I wrote a long letter to our friend with all the good things I needed to say to her and about her while she was alive.” A living eulogy? What a gift of love to a friend.

We may never be a James McMillan and take a bow before an admiring Albert Hall audience. But is what we offer of our worth and value right here, right now, not worthy of recognition? A living legacy, perhaps? And when that living legacy is recognised in someone else, might we offer a “living eulogy” in return? Think again, Mr Honegger, think again!

***

A prayer for today

Let my legacy be love, Lord,

and let the beneficiaries make good use of it. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

October – 1st October 2021

What we’re looking forward to as October unfolds … (Image from https://pixaby.com – used with permission.)

“I’ll sing you this October song;

oh, there is no song before it.

The words and tune are none of my own,

for my joys and sorrows bore it.”

Palmer and Williamson, The Incredible String Band, ‘The October Song’

***

The Incredible String Band were a UK psychedelic folk band founded in Edinburgh in 1966. In its original line-up of Clive Palmer, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, the band produced a series of albums which were to become cult classics – The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and Wee Tam and the Big Huge. The track I remember most comes from their first album, Incredible String Band. Like most of the songs on the album, October Song was penned by Palmer and Williamson. It seems appropriate to make reference to it now that the month of October is upon us – hence the opening verse quoted above.

October Song is one of these pieces from the genre in which you can find whatever meaning you choose. No one’s quite sure what significance the writers sought to point to in its lyrics. Like the classic Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum, the meaning of the lyrics of such songs will be forever open to interpretation. So I’ll give you my take on only a few words from October Song. In the middle, it has this verse:

The fallen leaves that jewel the ground
They know the art of dying
And leave with joy their glad gold hearts
In the scarlet shadows lying

October is the transition month that epitomises our autumn, the bridge between the end of summer and the beginning of winter. Leaves turn from green to reds, browns and yellows. There is beauty in that, of course, especially when the sun still shines. But eventually, the leaves will fall and “jewel the ground” to teach us “the art of dying” as they lead us into the darkness of winter. But will their “glad gold hearts” not give us hope for new life? Will the fallen leaves not regenerate our lives and offer us the prospect of new growth? Will winter not pass in time?

That’s October’s song for me. We must deal with death and give ourselves to grieving if need be. But we must also listen to the voices of hope and believe that the new life we are promised will come again. 

***

A prayer for today

Lord, in all the changes October brings,

let me be constant in my trust in you. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon    

Useful – 30th September 2021

A box of old postcards. From who and to whom? There’s something useful to find there … (Photo by Miray Bostancu0131 on Pexels.com)

Have nothing in your houses that you do now know to be useful,

or believe to be beautiful.”

William Morris, Hopes and fears for Art, ‘Making the Best of It.’

***

Towards the end of 2019, just before the first Covid-19 lockdown, Stu Prince, from Crewe in Cheshire, was diagnosed with leukaemia. Facing chemotherapy, Stu realised he needed a distraction, a focus to help him with his punishing treatment regime. He turned to collecting old postcards, from on-line sites and auctions, and became fascinated with what he was discovering. “They were like modern-day text-messages,” he says. “But there were also profound messages of love and affection.”

With his interest in genealogy, Stu took his “distraction” a step further and began tracing the recipients of some of the postcards. Working through Social Media platforms, he interested others in his research, and was able to track down some of the people to whom the postcards had originally been addressed. One postcard, a “birthday message”, had been sent to a one-year-old girl in 1946. One of Stu’s researchers found “the baby”, who was delighted, at the age of seventy-four, to be reunited with birthday greetings from her grandparents.

Stu Prince, a modest, ordinary man, has said this about his work with his postcards: “Out of adversity, comes something nice. It’s part of my recovery, really. It’s made me feel useful again.” And he adds this powerful message, “To feel useful is good. It’s massive.”

William Morris, the 19th century English writer and artist, suggests that we should have nothing in our houses that we don’t know to be useful. Stu Prince’s story goes beyond that. In the “house” that is our world, everyone can be useful, no matter what adversity they face or what they put their hand to. There is not one of us beyond useful. The trouble is, we don’t believe in, far less know, the usefulness that is in every individual.

So let’s give ourselves to encouraging people’s usefulness, so that no one feels left out. To follow the thought process of William Morris and the work of Stu Prince, when you can help someone know they’re  useful again, something beautiful emerges. Now, that is massive, isn’t it?

***

A prayer for today

Lord, even I’m created in your image.

That seems a pretty useful place to begin. Amen

***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon 

Angels – 29th September 2021

Oh, come on! Surely there are more angels around than the little ones on my mantlepiece!

“Do not forget to entertain strangers:

for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Bible, Hebrews 13:2

***

In a poem from his collection “Songs and Sonnets” entitled Air and Angels, John Donne writes in praise of his loved one:

Twice or thrice had I loved thee

Before I knew thy face or name;

So, in a voice, so in a shapeless flame,

Angels affect us oft, and worshipped be.

And when the English novelist, painter and art-critic, Wyndham Lewis, viewed figures in Stanley Spencer’s paintings with a somewhat jaundiced eye, he is reported to have described them as “angels in jumpers”.

Today, on the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels in the Christian tradition, I want to suggest with John Donne that “angels affect us oft”, if only we were to give our mind to it, and that’s because we have the opportunity to meet – or even to be – “angels in jumpers”.

An angel is a direct link to the mystery of the divine. The word “angel” has its root in the Latin word angelus, which is itself borrowed from the Greek angelos, which means “messenger”. Not surprisingly, therefore, angels are regularly placed in stories where a message from God is being delivered – an angel visiting Daniel, Mary’s Annunciation through an angel and the choir of angels over Bethlehem when Christ was born, for example.

But I find angels more “earthy” than that. Through their human ministrations to us, we have a glimpse of something beyond the human – dare I say mystical, divine or holy? A simple act of comfort; courage in the face of adversity; unconditional compassion; a self-sacrificial action; a word of meaning when it is most needed. These can lift us above the ordinary, to a place of mystery, beauty and wonder. And all of that – and much more besides – is in your hands and mine to offer.

Our world needs to heed the words of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews and recognise that we have all “entertained angels unawares”, even you and me as “angels in jumpers”. 

***

A prayer for today

Unawares?

I hope not, Lord,

for I don’t want to miss you

in the next angel I meet. Amen

***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon  

Doleful – 28th September 2021

“The Knight of the Doleful Countenance”, perhaps? So wouldn’t it be better if the Knight wore a smile? (Photo by Monstera on Pexels.com)

El Caballero de la Triste Figura.”

“The Knight of the Doleful Countenance.”

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

***

I was discussing with a minister friend a while ago how important it is to stay cheerful even when things are tough, and he remarked, “The trouble is, I know too many people – ministers included – who have the kind of doleful expression that could turn water into vinegar!” I smiled, because I knew the people to whom he was referring and recalled another comment from years before describing someone who had “the kind of face that would make milk curdle”. I could see in my mind’s eye every “Knight of the Doleful Countenance” I’d ever met. I smiled … and was the better for it.

We’ve been living through trying times. The “doleful countenance” has been much in evidence. My wife tells me I wear a frown on my face more often than I should. I tell her I’m concentrating. She tells me I’m frowning. We might both be right. But the truth is, for a moment at least, a “doleful countenance” has been too much in evidence.

 The 17th century English woman of letters, poet and dramatist, Elizabeth Tanfield Carey, penned these lines in The Tragedy of Mariam:

I know I could enchain him with a smile,

and lead him captive with a gentle word …

While I wouldn’t wish to “enchain” anyone with a smile, far less lead an unsuspecting hearer captive by any gentle word I might offer, perhaps if I smiled more, then more doleful countenances than mine might be chased away. I would never subscribe to the “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile” school of thought. Doleful countenances have their place, as tragedies befall us, and sadness feels overwhelming. But, nonetheless, a smile can work wonders when it is offered, and maybe it should be utilised more than it is.

Rather than Cervantes’ “Knight of the Doleful Countenance”, I might then be better described as someone who, in Walter Scott’s words, was known for offering

the tribute of a smile”.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, if you smile on me with your love,

shouldn’t I try a little harder

to pass that love on in a smile for other people?

Amen

***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon 

A Hymn for COP26

I’ve been giving some thought to the COP26 UN Climate Conference in Glasgow from 31st October to 12th November this year (see https://ukcop26.org) and I’ve written a hymn focussing on climate change issues and our responsibility to care for our fragile planet.

A wake-up-call

The world is made by your creative hand.

You made us stewards of sky, and sea, and land.

And yet with carelessness or cruel design

We’ve wrought so much destruction over time.

*

We’ve caused the trees to burn, the seas to rise,

Dispersed our carbon clouds throughout the skies,

Plundered the earth for all that we could gain,

And treated warning voices with disdain.

*

We took the greens, and blues, and vibrant reds,

And made them turn to black and greys instead.

We took the forests and abundant seas,

And then misused their riches as we pleased.

*

Forgive us now for every sin and shame.

For we should know we are the ones to blame.

Forgive us for the damage we have caused

By taking little heed of nature’s laws.

*

For earth was given in trust to everyone,

To pass to generations yet to come.

So call us once again to work with you,

To give this fragile earth the care it’s due.

*

And sound for us again a wake-up call –

That each of us should learn to give our all

To care for this, your world, in all we do,

And ever give abundant thanks to you. 

***

This hymn can be sung to the tunes

Sursum Corda by Alfred Morton Smith (1879-1971)

or

Chilton Foliat by George Clement Martin (1844-1916)

***

An original hymn © Tom Gordon, September 2021