Monday, 31 December 2018

Steering Wheels, Spare Tyres and the Secret Place

I received a lovely email this morning from a dear friend who I only met a few short months ago.  His friendship and fellowship over the last few months have been such an encouragement as I have passed through some of the darkest valleys I have ever journeyed through.  I hope his words are as much an encouragement and challenge to you as they were to me:

As we come to a New Year and reflect on the one that has just passed, I pray we can see The Lord’s goodness and His hand of mercy and compassion.

In 2018 God has shown His kindness to us and His companionship even in the deepest of trials. Not everything has been good, but God has been good in everything. There have been times to celebrate but there have also been very sad moments. Even in the toughest of these storms the Captain of Salvation has steered us through our rough water and for some of us is still steering us through. I would rather hold onto Jesus in the most terrible storm, than find myself lost on quietest of seas without him. What joy is ours to be able to access such love and grace at our time of need. 

Corrie ten Boom asks the question, “Is prayer your steering wheel or is it your spare tyre?”  I am going to have to work on my spare tyre, in more ways than one!!  This year I am setting my course to understand prayer more than in any other year of my life. It has been something I do, but not so fervently and consistently so as to think of myself as a prayer warrior.  I don’t understand it well enough, it so often appears hit or miss. I know the problem isn’t God, it lies in my understanding of God and my unwillingness to press in. 

“Beware in your prayers, above everything else, of limiting God, not only by unbelief, but by fancying that you know what He can do. Expect unexpected things, ‘above all that we ask or think’. Each time, before you Intercede, be quiet first, and worship God in His glory. Think of what He can do, and how He delights to hear the prayers of His redeemed people. Think of your place and privilege in Christ, and expect great things!”
Andrew Murray

Why did Jesus so often in the most critical of times, go to a quiet place and pray? Why did the Healer of the World, the Miracle Maker, find it necessary to pray and gave time to prayer, especially at critical moments? John 5:19 So Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, 'the son can do nothing of his won accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.  For whatever the father does, that the Son does likewise.” 

Imagine such an open door to The Secret Place (Ps 91) to know through prayer what The Father is doing, and what He would have us all to do. Imagine an engine room where such faith could be built that we could believe that we are capable of doing the will of God, through the power and authority that is ours in Christ. 

I think it was Oswald Smith who said, “when we work, we work, when we pray, God works.” Interesting also to see that his disciples didn’t ask him to teach them to do the great miracles, but instead they asked him, “teach us to pray.” They had observed The Master in action as he worked out his ministry here on earth, a ministry founded in prayer.  Acts 2:22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know.” 

These followers of Jesus who walked with him daily watched as he got up in morning early to converse with The Father. Jesus would settle down in the close of the day and pray. It was a lifestyle. Throughout the day he would pray. The miracles were testimonies of who Jesus was. The feeding of the thousands and raising of Lazarus from the dead, before any of these, he publicly prays. Neither one of these acts could be done in the physical realm by physical power. No amount of work could have made the fish and bread to multiply when there was no bakery or water in close proximity. Baking bread takes time and so does fishing. Great preparation would be required for such a banquet. Christ had prepared the table in prayer. No amount of medical science could breathe life back into a body dead after four days, but Jesus had breathed such life, it was his atmosphere through prayer. These acts are not just physical acts they are spiritual, miraculous acts of God. We all want to see the physical manifestation of God’s Supernatural Power, but such things are wrought through prayer. 

God can supply that which we cannot in our own strength produce, but He does it in the incubator of prayer and in the one He trusts to faithfully carry out what He says for us to do, calling out for the impossible knowing that with our God, “all things are possible!!”

My prayer is that this year we all might know Him more intimately, serve Him more fervently and trust Him more faithfully to see His Will flourish in our lives and that we can be the Salt of the earth and the Light of the world.  Samuel Chadwick reminds us that, “The one concern of the devil is to keep Christians from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, and prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.”

As we go about doing good, desiring to see God more in our communities. In our fellowships, I pray we do so in the humility of prayer. We need to stop trying to make the Church more acceptable to the unsaved and realize that we are the opposite of what the world offers. We do not offer a shadow, we offer light. And this light hurts the one who sits in darkness when first we look at it, it is counter cultural, but in time we welcome the transformation it gives us, so we never want to sit in darkness again. If we attempt to offer a similar darkness, where is the light? 

I understand people wanting to make it easy with music and lyrics that could just as easily be in the charts. With smoke machines for effect and teachings on positive topics that could just as easily be made for the corporate world. I honestly can see why people would want to do it, to “build the house,” but the reality is that to follow Jesus there is a price, a cost. 

To build anything you need a blueprint and having built it no matter how good it looks to us, if it is not built on The Rock, it is going to sink. True faith costs, in time, energy and commitment. True Faith is built on him, has him running through the core and stands because he the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Our strategy for reaching the lost and the least and the last may change but the core must remain. True faith costs, it cost Jesus everything!!  As Leonard Ravenhill says:

“The true man of God is heartsick, grieved at the worldliness of the Church…grieved at the toleration of sin in the Church, grieved at the prayerlessness in the Church. He is disturbed that the corporate prayer of the Church no longer pulls down the strongholds of the devil.”

May this be our year of asking. May this be our year of knocking on bended knee, to see more and to do more that His Will be done here on earth even as it is in Heaven. 

Thursday, 27 December 2018

John J Murray: An Enduring Legacy

At the service to mark my fathers 40 years in the ministry (see blog article here) I said that I thought my father had left me six enduring legacies.  These are personal reflections and much more could be written.  I will leave that to others but these are my own reflections.  

1.  The Legacy of a Big God.  When I came back from university in 1995 and launched out into the choppy seas of social work I was so thankful to be under my Dad's preaching.  As I saw the horror of abuse, trauma, violence and brokenness in my career, Dad directed me towards a God who was sovereign, in control and who had a purpose.  He preached God in all his fullness, majesty and glory.  It was impossible to sit under Dad's ministry and not hear the Westminster Confession and Catechisms coming through in his preaching.  His theology was God centred.  He cared little for fads and trends in Christian theology.

I have recently been reading 'Lloyd Jones - Messenger of Grace'  by Iain H Murray.  Under a section 'Christianity is God-centred Religion' he quotes Lloyd Jones as saying:

The Bible is the record of the activity of God. God is the actor.  God is the centre.  Everything is of God and comes from God, and turns to God.  It is God who speaks.  It is God who acts.  It is God who intervenes.  It is God who originates, who plans everything everywhere.

This has been my Dad's emphasis.  The gospel brings us back to God.  If God is who He says He is then He must be at the centre of our worship, our preaching our family life and our nation.  

2.  The Legacy of an Attractive Saviour.  It is only as I have been reading and re-reading Sinclair Ferguson's book 'The Whole Christ' that I have come to realise some of the issues that my Dad has been contending with over the last 40 (and particularly the last 18) years.  Dad is a 'Marrow man' to the core (the Marrow of Modern Divinity).  He has strongly resisted the emphasis that has come in over the last few years (sometimes unconsciously) that teaches a conditional grace like the Pharisees taught.  This tincture has infected some ministries and has resulted in a harshness in pastoral care and a strong emphasis on non essentials.  Being seen to do the right thing is often more important than doing the right thing.  Unfortunately I hear all too often from the victims of these ministries.

Christ must never be separated from his benefits and must always be offered fully and freely to every sinner as 'deed of gift and grant, or authentic gospel offer' (Fisher, Marrow of Modern Divinity).  I don't doubt that God is dealing in judgement with our nation but the Free Church I grew up in has been guilty of often preaching a very unattractive gospel and unappealing Saviour.  So many of my contemporaries have been driven from church by a rigidity and coldness that is not Christ-like.  Wherever grace is preached there should be warmth, love and hope.  Too many ministries have lacked these characteristics and instead preached a cold orthodoxy.  Perfect love casts out fear and wherever there is fear there is painfulness (I John 4 v 18 - Geneva Bible).

I am thankful my father preached free grace.  He loves Thomas Boston and the Erskine brothers and their emphasis on the 'free offer.'  Grace originates from the heart of God the father in an eternity past therefore our salvation is secure.  The father does not love us reluctantly and is persuaded to save us by Christ.  God's love for sinners flows from this eternal will and when this pervades a ministry it makes all the difference.  As John Owen says:

How few of the saints are experimentally acquainted with this privilege of holding immediate communion with the Father in love!  With what anxious, doubtful thoughts do they look upon Him!  What fears, what questionings are there of His good will and kindness!  At the best, many think that there is no sweetness at all in God towards us, but what is purchased at the high price of the blood of Jesus.  It is true, that that alone is the way of communication: but the free fountain and spring of all is in the bosom of the father (1 John 1 v 2).

The gospel is not only true but in Jesus it must also be beautiful.  Grace makes a person kind, loving, patient and beautiful.  Too often Christians we can be harsh, twisted and 'sanctified be vinegar.'  I am thankful that my father always presented a beautiful Jesus through his preaching and example.  This lead him to love everyone who loved the same Saviour.  My Dad is largely free of a partisan and sectarian spirit and was grieved at younger men who in their zeal for the truth seemed to confuse what were primary and secondary issues.

3.  A Legacy of Love for the Truth - My Dad has always highly esteemed the word of God.  I don't think I've ever heard my Dad preach without being well prepared.  The Bible is important to him both for his life and for his preaching. The Authorised (King James) version has become one of the great points of orthodoxy over the last 20 years yet we were brought up on the NIV which my Dad enthusiastically read at family worship to help us understand the scriptures.  I have a deep love for the King James version (and an even greater love for the Geneva Bible) but this has never been a defining issue for my Dad.  How many of my own generation were brought up with the Scriptures being read and preached who had little or no understanding?  I am so thankful that Dad taught me the Bible with understanding and love. 

Dad and I have often discussed the essence of preaching.  Dad would often say to me that preaching is very different from lecturing.  With the former you are aiming primarily at the will, with the latter you are primarily aiming at the head.  He often spoke about preaching being like a hammer striking a nail into the heart.  You strike it again and again throughout a sermon to drive it in to the heart as you seek (by the Spirit) to move the will.  A great love for truth means that it must be preached with passion and understanding.

4.  A Legacy of Family Religion - Only now as a father of 5 boys do I understand how difficult parenting is.  During these last few months my Dad has spoken of regrets that he didn't spend more time with us growing up.  Life in the manse was busy, Dad was always needed somewhere.  But Dad always prioritised family worship.  It was a time to catch up as a family.  The Bible and prayer were at the centre of our family life and it is something I have continued with my own family.  Watching my father get down on his knees to pray every night has left an enduring legacy of the need for daily prayer.  Our home was also a place of hospitality and many generations of students remember our manse with great fondness as a second home.

It is easy to be critical of our parents but when you become a parent you realise how complex parenting is.  As a father, work demands our time, church can demand endless responsibilities, we must balance the books and we must spend time with our wife.  To maintain this over 40, 50 or 60 or years is a huge challenge.  My Dad would be the first to admit his regrets but he is an example of patient consistency both as a husband and a father. I wish my father had invested in a hobby, embraced music and wider culture.  Like so many of his generation her found theatre, the cinema and public sporting events to be places incompatible with a consistent Christian walk.  He may have a point but how we have wished as a family in this last year that our father had a hobby or interest to distract him during a time of great stress.  

Perhaps the greatest compliment is that the faith my Dad has preached so faithfully has now been handed on to his grandchildren which is perhaps the greatest legacy any father and grandfather can have.

5.  A Legacy of Good Books - Growing up in Oban I used to go in to my Dad's study and look at all his books and feel so sorry for him.  I used to hate books and wondered who Dad would give them all to when he was older.  All this changed when I was around 19 and Dad gave me the Memoirs and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne before I went to university.  Over the next few years I came to love many of the books my Dad has been so involved in republishing since the 1960's.  I came to see that the doctrines of grace were in fact Biblical Christianity. Books (and particularly old books) are now a huge part of my life.  I don't have any empirical evidence but I suspect I have the largest selection of Dr Thomas Guthrie first edition books in the country!  This is down to my Dad's legacy and love for for books.

6.  A Legacy of Endurance and Consistency - Dad believes the same truths at the end of his ministry as he did when he set out all those decades ago.  He has resisted the ebb and flow of different theological fads, contemporary man centred worship, evangelistic gimmicks and the slide towards ecumenical compromise.  He embodies 2 Timothy 4 v 7 - he has finished his course, he has run the race and kept the faith.  Dad is his own harshest critic.  He would be the first to recount his weaknesses and inconsistencies. Dad has tried to point people to a glorious God, to invite people to a wonderful Saviour and to call a church back to the truths that once made it great.

Knightswood FCC were incredibly generous to my mother and father and we want to say a huge thank you to everyone who contributed.  For all the greetings that were sent to Dad we want to say how hugely grateful we are as a family.  This last year has been difficult for us and we value your prayers.  We give thanks for my Dad's rich legacy to us as a family and to the wider church.  Dad is acutely aware that we are all unprofitable servants but we serve a God who is able to use earthen vessels to draw sinners to Himself and bring glory to His name.  

When I visited my Dad just prior to coming to receive his presentation I asked if he wanted me to share a verse.  He asked me to share Psalm 16 v 8 'I have set the Lord always before me: for he is at my right hand therefore I shall not slide' (Geneva Bible).  My father can testify to the goodness of God upholding and blessing his ministry and keeping him from slipping.  For those of us who follow him we hope we can be worthy of his legacy which he handed down to us.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

A Milestone in the Ministry

On the 7th of December 2018 around 60 folks gathered in Knightswood FCC, Glasgow on a dreadful night to mark my father's (Rev John J Murray) 40 years in the ministry.  The star attraction of the night unfortunately couldn't be there but wasn't far away.  He was about 3 miles away in Gartnavel Hospital having suffered a stroke and a fall the day before.  The event could have been rescheduled but it was decided to go ahead and the family received the presentation on behalf of my Dad.  This blog is a slightly expanded version of what I said after I received a very generous presentation on behalf of my father.  

As I write Dad is back home but is looking all of his 84 years.  He is being lovingly cared for by my Mum who has been a rock over many years.  Her cheerfulness and generosity are an inspiration to all of us.  As I said in my speech on the night sometimes the Lord first melts down those who he wants to mould and that has certainly been the experience for us as a family over the last 40 or so years.  

A Crofting Life
My father was born in Lonemore, a little village outside Dornoch on 11th September 1934. The middle son of three boys, my father grew up in a very traditional Highland home where church and family religion would have been very central. His brother Willie still lives in the family home which has hardly changed since my father was a boy.  It was a working croft until about 10 years ago and a place where we regularly holidayed as a family over the years.  It is a place of books piled high and deep!  My father and his brother have always kept a very close relationship and have spent a lifetime distributing Christian booklets around the world.  I often have a wry smile when I think of people in some far flung location who receive a few booklets from the 'distribution centre' in Lonemore.  Thankfully Willie has his own system and seems to be able to find even the most obscure booklet or magazine at a moments notice.  

Like many Christians of his generation my Dad doesn't talk much about himself but I have probably learned more about my Dad in the last few months than I have in the last 46 years.  During months of bedside discussions with my Dad in hospital in Edinburgh and Glasgow he has spoken about various events in his life including his conversion.  He talks vividly of an experience in an out house on the croft when he was a teenager where he had an 'overwhelming experience of Christ crucified.'  He has often gone back to this event during a severe bout of depression over the last 8-9 months.  

Eternal Truth 
Around the age of 18/19 Dad headed off to Edinburgh where he worked in insurance for 5 years.  Towards the end of this time he started publishing a little magazine called 'Eternal Truth'.  While it was only published for around 3 years it had a remarkable reach and all sorts of people I meet remember it with fondness.  It was full of short and pithy articles and quotes from the Reformers, the Puritans and the Covenanters.  It was pointing people back to a Christianity of substance and grandeur from a former time.  It was both doctrinal and experiential.  Many of the key themes in this little magazine became the foundation blocks of Dad's ministry: the sovereignty of God, the centrality of God's grace, the need for holiness in the Christian life and a deep reverence for the sufficiency and finality of the Bible. Even by the 1960's Dad was standing against the modern tide of mass evangelism, weakening doctrinal standards and ecumenicalism.  My father believed even in those early that the issue was not how to 'woo the world' but how to reform the church and call it back to the simplicity and spirituality of New Testament times.  As Iain Murray says in Lloyd Jones Messenger of Grace: 'From the New Testament onwards, a vibrant, praying, witnessing church has always been the strongest authentication of the gospel...The biblical order is 'God shall bless us; and all ends of the earth shall fear him' (Psalm 67 v 7).'  This was the purpose of Eternal Truth - to call the church back to the truths that had made it great.  The magazines have been bound into two volumes which I hope to reprint when funds allow.

The Bright Lights
Eventually Dad was asked to join the Banner of Truth in London in 1960 and became the Associate Editor from 1960 - 1973.  He became very involved in London Free Church and was an elder from 1962 - 1973.  It was during this time that my Dad regularly sat under the ministry of Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones which led to a life time love for his preaching and theology.  I have never quite appreciated Lloyd Jones in the way my father has but I think he was primarily a preacher and powerful preaching can't be conveyed through books and commentaries in the same way.  Lloyd Jones himself was not enthusiastic for his sermons to be reproduced outwith the context of a worship service and was concerned that they might be misused.  As I will go on to say in my second article on my Dad's legacy I do think that Lloyd Jones gave my Dad a life long emphasis on the centrality of God in the gospel and in the Christian life.  It also gave Dad a life long love of hymns which he regularly quoted in his sermons.

While he was in London Dad met and married my Mum in 1966 (originally from Lochaber but working as a nanny in London) and in 1967 my sister Lynda was born, in 1968 my sister Anna was born and then in March 1972 a cheeky wee red headed boy was born in Kingsbury Maternity Hospital, Honey Pot Lane, Wembley.  [If I had only realised my early footballing potential I could have played for Scotland or England at football!]  Dad has never lost his love for London.  When we would occasionally go down to the Westminster Conference in December Dad would almost revert back to his younger self darting in and out of underground trains and dashing down busy streets with me trailing behind him!  Dad often spoke about these exciting days in London and the genuine belief that God would send revival.  He said many believed they were on the cusp of a renewed awakening of Christianity.  Many of the relationships that Dad forged at the Banner in the 1960's have lasted for many decades.

The Ministry and a Busy Manse
In 1973 Dad and Mum moved North with the Banner of Truth and relocated to Baberton in Edinburgh.  In the same year Dad started at university and was accepted to the Free Church ministry.  These were my earliest memories: attending Juniper Green Primary School, going down to the newly opened Wester Hailes Shopping Centre and attending St Columba's Free Church under the wonderful Rev Donald Lamont.  A minister's demeanour and tone are so important and I remember Rev Lamont as a lovely, warm hearted pastor.  I remember sitting in the balcony with my Dad feeling like a big boy because I had attended the evening service without fidgeting my parents into embarrassment.  Pandrops were consumed at an industrial rate sometimes supplemented by some fluffy fruit drops from the jacket pocket of several octogenarians.  They were happy days.  The Free Church in the 1970's had changed little in 70 years.  There was a sense of gravity, reverence and grandeur in the worship.  I still can't understand how people come in to church and laugh and gossip as if they are attending a football match.  I guess we are all products of our upbringing.  

After study at the Free Church College my father was called to Oban in 1978.  The Rev James Beaton sent greetings from the Oban congregation to Dad's commemoration and attached a picture of a very fresh faced Dad with Principle Macintosh opening Oban Free High Church Hall which was being completed as we arrived.  Little did we realise in those happy days filled with expectancy and hope that tragedy lay just around the corner.  In the summer of 1980 the family toured Europe with the Scottish Reformation Society in a William Hunter coach with another 50 or so folks.  I have vague memories of the trip but vividly remember the reformers wall in Geneva.   When we came back my sister Lynda became very ill during the summer of 1980 and eventually died of a brain tumour.  She died at home in the manse in Oban on 4th Dec.  It is hard to understate the effect this had on my parents and my father's ministry.  I have no doubt that at least part of his frenetic energy which has continued almost unabated until early 2018 was to avoid dwelling on my sisters death.  He should have sought help in his grief but like so many of his generation his grief remained private and I fear largely unresolved.

Oban was far from a quiet, rural outpost.  The manse was a busy staging post for ministers and visitors passing through.  As a popular tourist destination we were constantly hosting visitors from far and near.  I have vivid memories of the Missionaries from Mull staying with us when the ferry was delayed or cancelled.  Men like Iain Macleay had a big impact on me with is brand of very down to earth, practical Christianity.  My father, contrary to his caricature in later years, was passionate about mission.  There were numerous Highways and Byways Missions in Oban with a long running 'Good News Club' for children.  People often came to the manse door looking for help and my Mum would prepare them a little doggy bag for fear that money might go on drink.  My Mum was an Auxiliary Nurse in the West Highland Hospital so the family were well known in the community.  

The communion season was often a poignant time in our lives.  Men such as Kenny Macdonald, Hugh Cartwright and Douglas Macmillan had a huge impact on me as a young lad.  They were warm, approachable men who made time for me and (in Kenny's case) even played football with me.  These were the heady days of Free Church Camps with 20 boys on wafer thin mattresses on Primary School floors and the same pair of shorts for a week.  One particular camp in Arran and an exposition of Ecclesiastes 12 had a powerful effect on me.  Many of the dots were joining up and I eventually became a member in 1986.

A Difficult Decade
In 1989 Dad moved to St Columba's in Edinburgh.  I was at university in the early 1990's but came back to Edinburgh in 1995 and sat under Dad's ministry as I started work, bought my first flat and married a beautiful girl from Lewis who was based in East Kilbride but at university in Edinburgh at the time.  My own experience of St Columba's in the 1990's couldn't have been better.  In many ways it has been some of the happiest times in my own spiritual development with large youth fellowships, amazing hopsitality and good relationships with many local evangelical ministers.  Some of the weekends away were real milestones in my own Christian walk and were wonderful times of fellowship.  It was at one of these weekends that a young lady from East Kilbride sat beside me on the minibus and well, the rest is history.

The 1990's were a difficult time for the Free Church and Dad (for better or for worse) was at the centre of much of the controversy.  History will have much more to say about the events that took place but suffice to say that Dad wasn't and isn't comfortable with conflict.  I believe that there were fundamental issues at stake during these years but the way people handled them was far from Christ-like.  Even before the split during assembly week groups were meeting separately to discuss strategy.  It didn't take a genius to realise that the situation couldn't continue but when the split actually came I was genuinely taken aback.  Dad always talked as if it could have been avoided and I never heard him speak negatively of anyone in the house.  It was a challenging time given that our family went in two different directions and were it not for a lot of grace and determination things could have been very different.

It is the mark of the man that almost nobody who found themselves on the opposite side of the divide in 2000 speak negatively of my Dad.  Many were and are grieved that  they are separated from men like my Dad by a denominational divide. I was sorry that many of these relationships didn't continue (at least in the same way) after the split.  True friendships endure despite differences of opinion and we are so thankful that Mum and Dad maintain a wide circle of friends from various periods in their life.

A Fruitful Retirement
Legacy is allusive.  It is for others to judge what our legacy is.  Often we labour in difficult and dark times and yet we are vindicated by history.  My Dad's great hero Prof John Murray never ministered to vast numbers when he came back to Scotland but his godly witness and writings have been blessed to countless thousands around the world.  In many ways I wonder if my Dad's most fruitful years have been in retirement.  He was Interim Moderator of numerous congregations and was out at endless Kirk Sessions, Deacons Courts and Presbyteries.  He seemed to be a wise and restraining influence on some of the younger men who seem to make everything a principle and struggle to embrace those who are slightly less reformed than themselves.  Their view of the ministry seemed to have more in common with the Aaronic priesthood than the foot washing of Jesus.  Dad has always remained very humble and has eschewed the trappings of clerical dress. While Dad loved the old writers he has greatly benefited from men such as Alistair Begg and John Piper and other modern preachers and writers.  Dad was Moderator in 2003 and wrote books such as Catch the Vision (EP),  a book on his great friend John Marshall (Banner of Truth), John Knox (EP) and much earlier he wrote Behind a Frowning Providence which has blessed thousands in reprint after reprint.  The book was forged out of the white heat of grief and continues to do great good.

The Final Lap
When I told my parents of my sister Anna's diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in March 2018 my father took it stoically but it gradually hit him over the next few months.  He entered a deep depression and had a spell in hospital in June, July and August.  These were difficult days but there were many precious moments which rightly remain with us as family. Despite always looking 20 years younger it felt like over the last few months age has caught up with my Dad.  He has fought a good fight and like any soldier deserves his rest.  His active ministry is at an end.  We don't know what is ahead of us as family but as Spurgeon once once said 'when I think of my own weakness it makes me shrink, but when I think on the promises of God it makes me brave.'  We are incredibly proud of what my Dad has achieved over 40 years and we hope that many people have been blessed through his ministry.  As always Dad would want to focus everything on the Lord and these words would seem appropriate to end with.

Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truths sake Psalm 115 v 1.

In my next blog which you can view here, I will look at my fathers six legacies.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Be Still and Know

I get the chance to visit a lot of churches.  It is great to how God is working in many different churches and I have learned so much from other Christians.  I love the church and I am not arrogant enough to think that the one to which I belong has got it all right.  But one thing I feel is missing from many churches is a sense of transcendency.  

Now I accept that I am on the more traditional wing of the church (although hopefully not a traditionalist).  I'm all for vibrant joyful worship but I like my hands very firmly in my pockets rather than in the air.  I like worship that feeds my mind and moves my heart towards the transcendent God of the Bible, not some sentimental figure dreamed up by a few 20 somethings in a church in California.  I need worship that covers all the bases so I like to sing though all the themes of the Bible not just ones that make me feel better about myself.  I like to sing about the glory of God, faith in crisis, sin being an ever present reality and life being really tough so I gravitate to the best hymn book: the book of Psalms.

As a reformed Christian, I believe that the word of God expounded through the sermon needs to have central place in the public worship of God.  I like to come out of sermons feeling like I have met with God, that the preacher has helped me to see the force of God's word and how each part of the Bible brings me back to the glorious story of redemption.  I want to feel humbled, moved and, in the midst of all my sin and failure, loved by the only Saviour of the world.  I also need to be convinced that a preacher has first been moved by what he is preaching himself.  As Tim Keller's book 'Preaching' says in his chapter on 'Preaching Christ to the Heart' he says this;

If you want to preach to the heart, you need to preach from the heart,  It's got to be clear that your own heart has been reached by the truth of the text.  This takes a non-deliberate transparency.  Heart-moving preachers (in contrast to heart manipulating ones) reveal their own affections without really trying to. What is required is that as you speak it becomes evident in all sorts of ways that you yourself have been humbled, wounded, healed, comforted, and exalted by the truths you are presenting, and that they have genuine power in your life.

Preaching isn't about 'information takeaways' its about meeting with God as the Holy Spirit applies the word of God to our hearts.  It is different from lecturing.  It is 'logic on fire' not a well crafted essay read out word for word. This is why the prayer life of a preacher is so important.  As Keller says: If your heart isn't regularly engaged in prayer and repentance, if you aren't constantly astonished as God's grace in your solitude, there's no way it can happen in public.  You won't touch hearts because your own heart isn't touched.  This is why the spiritual walk of the preacher is just as important as the content of the sermonA sermon needs to touch and move the hearers to change, a process traditionally called application. As Keller says earlier in the book, A good sermon is not like a club that beats upon the will but like a sword that cuts to the heart. (Acts 2:37). At its best it pierces to our very foundations, analysing and revealing us to ourselves (Hebrews 4 v 12).

But its not all down to the preacher.  Listeners play a huge part.  In out rush to be 'missional' and 'contextual' (things I feel we passionately need), we have jettisoned the transcendency of worship.  We as listeners need to prayerfully prepare for worship.  This stuck me powerfully recently when I got the new Banner of Truth edition of The Westminster Confession of Faith, (which also contains the Larger and Shorter Catechism, the Sum of Saving Knowledge, the National Covenant, the Directory for Public Worship and the Directory for Family Worship).  You can order a copy here.  If you have never read these documents I would encourage you to do so.  I particularly find the Larger Catechism a huge help in in understanding the Bible.

The Directory for Public Worship was an attempt to bring some Biblical order to a time when the church had become very confused over worship.  It was after the reformation where the church had sought to reform after centuries of corruption and idolatry.  Worship had become sensual and man centred, a process that we are once again descending into in the 21st century church. 

Image result for congregational worship free church 

What is interesting is the plea for solemnity in the public worship of God which reads so strangely to our modern minds.  Listen to this paragraph on the 'Assembling of the Congregation, and their Behaviour in the Public Worship of God.'

When the congregation is to meet for public worship, the people (having before prepared their hearts thereunto) ought to come and join therein; not absenting themselves from the public ordinance through negligence, or upon the pretence of private meetings.  Let all enter the assembly, not irreverently, but in a grave and seemly manner, taking their seats or places without adoration, or bowing themselves towards one place or another.  

Surely it is no coincidence that stillness and knowing God are inextricably linked.  Psalm 46 says 'Be still, and know that I am God,  I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.'  It is when we still ourselves and come aside from the concerns of this word that we are better able to worship and listen to what God wants to say to us. Also check out Job 37 v 14, Psalm 4 v 4, 

I don't think church should be like a funeral.  I think there should be hearty welcome, especially for visitors.  I'm not against hospitality as people arrive.  But at some point, there needs to be silence, there need to be an acknowledgement that we are not at a football match, or a coffee morning, we are not at church primarily to catch up with our friends (nice as that is), we are here for something serious, life changing and transcendent.  That doesn't mean we need to create a hostile or austere environment but it does mean that there should be a stillness before the service and a reverence and seriousness throughout.  

Monday, 4 June 2018

The Slog of Despond

Its been a while since I've hosted a Guest Blog but I'm delighted that Dayspring Macleod, a freelance writer with a growing reputation was willing to pen some very honest thoughts about parenting.  If you want to read more of Daysprings writings check out her blog 'The Reliable Narrator' here.  Over to Dayspring:

I write for a Christian magazine, and each month the editor sends me an email asking for my column. Well, sometimes I’m ready for him and sometimes I’m still percolating an idea, but last month when I got his email I looked back in my mental files and thought: I’ve got nothing.

          Oh, it’s not that God hadn’t been speaking to me throughout the past few weeks. It had been a month of realising my weakness. Repeatedly.

          Like when the three-year-old was going through a period of particular defiance, coinciding with my own period of particular impatience, and the baby’s period of learning how to hit really hard. That was when I realised I need God’s strength to be a parent, and I need the humility of asking for help and advice and even criticism. There were days when my primary ‘thanksgiving’ was ‘thank you the day is over’.

          And when I realised that the renovations on our house are not going to take place as soon as I had hoped, meaning that I also won’t be going home to America as soon as I had hoped. That was when I realised that I need to submit to God’s plans, not try to push mine through.

          Incumbent on this was realising that I will only see my parents for four full days this year. My parents are getting older. So are my kids. The separation hurts, if possible, more every time we say goodbye. So I made a conscious decision to give thanks for the brief period we would have together rather than mourning the time we didn’t have. A resolution that went out the window the second they left for the airport.

          And then there were the long interruptions in the night when the baby was waking up for an hour each night with eczema. There was the almost complete lack of freelance work for weeks at a time. There was the discouragement and anxiety and feelings of helplessness when I saw people I’ve been praying for for years taking backward steps.

          There were the unanswered emails, the writer’s block, the lack of time and sleep, the repetition of housework, the conviction of sin and scariness of repentance, the worry, the failure.
          But enough about me…

          Just as I was writing out my litany of woes, I read an article pointing out that, in a testimony, Jesus should always be the subject of the story.

          Do you know what kind of story sees ME as the subject? A story with a God-shaped hole. One where ME is relying on her own strength to get through the parenting crisis, the worries, the exhaustion, the goodbyes, even the repentance. And since mine is not even a particularly hard life, just an ordinary life, I’m sure many of you have been to this place too. I wouldn’t say it’s as bad as a Slough of Despond. More a Slog of Despond. We’re just slogging along some months. We’re reading, we’re praying. We’re just not relying. We have faith that he’s there, just not faith that he’ll help.

          What if there was abundance? What if some miracle-worker came along one day and said ‘Excuse me, dear, that’s too heavy for you. Give it here – I’ll carry it. No, ALL of it – all or nothing!

‘Yes, goodbyes are hard…I’ll tell you what, would it help if you knew a day was coming when you wouldn’t have to do that again? And I know it’s scary not having work; but you’re a full-time mum. If you’re working all the time, when would you get to rest? I’ll take care of the shortfall, don’t worry about that.

          ‘It certainly is hard to see people you love struggling in life – but you’re not their provider, and you’re not their Holy Spirit. I Am. You keep talking to me about them, and if I want to use you in their lives, I’ll go with you, and I’ll give you the words. 

          ‘Too heavy for me? You want to take it back? No, this yoke is mine. Just remember one thing. Look for Me. If this is my burden, this is my story.’

Jeremiah 33:6  ‘I will…heal them, and reveal to them the abundance of peace.’

Thursday, 26 April 2018

The Red Sea Road

There are some days you will remember for the rest of your life.  The 27th February 2018 was a day that will live long in my memory.  Battling through the snow on the M8, after a long day at work, my phone went off.  I remember looking at the dashboard and seeing my sisters name and thinking 'Anna never phones my mobile'.  I should have known it was important.  When she broke the news that she had a tumour on her pancreas there was a sense of unreality.  Its almost like life suddenly stops.  Everything that seemed so important suddenly becomes really insignificant.  The future suddenly becomes a very uncertain and even frightening place.  That feeling hasn't really changed over the last few weeks.  Its hard to get very excited about a whole range of things that used to take up a lot of my time and energy.

There were plenty of tears as we came to terms with the news, not least from me.  This is not the first time we have dealt with the trauma of cancer as a family and in many ways it makes it so much harder.  Trying to be a supportive brother, son, husband and father to 5 boys while coming to terms with an uncertain future is a whole new challenge but it has been an interesting journey over the last few weeks.  Friends and family have rallied round.  The best have grasped the difference between sympathy and empathy.  We don't need silver linings we just need authenticity.

A crisis of this magnitude helps you understand who you can turn to.  Amongst a few awkward moments there have been many remarkable moments of kindness, warmth and love.  My sister's church and Pastor have been everything a Christ centred fellowship should be, and while cancer is a lonely valley, she is surrounded my many loving friends and family.  After all, that is what empathy is, walking with somebody through the pain.  People keep saying to me 'I don't know what to say.'  That's OK - we don't need words at the moment as a family, we just need to know you care, that you are praying and that you are with us wherever we go over the next few months.  
Anna's 50th birthday party last week was a real tonic and Kirsteen did us all proud with the organising.  Having over 100 friends and family there was just wonderful.  It was a celebration of all that Anna loves: good food, the Scottish countryside, good friends and family.  There were a few talented musicians (and me).  We played all Anna's favourites like The Dark Island, Calum's Road and, of course, Wild Mountain Thyme.  Anna's pastor Phil Hair spoke very movingly of the congregations love for Anna and prayed beautifully before everyone sung Anna's favourite Psalm, Psalm 121.  Anna was genuinely overwhelmed with all the cards and presents and would like to say a huge thank you to all of you.  James has written a special piece of music for Anna's 50th entitled 'Anna' - you can enjoy it here.

I'm not a huge fan of contemporary Christian music but I recently listened to Ellie Holcomb's album Red Sea Road. The first track is about finding God in the most unlikely places and is entitled 'Find You Here'.  I guess it sums up the last few weeks pretty well.

We won't bury our hope
Where He leads us to go
There's a red sea road
When we can't see the way
He will part the waves
And we'll never walk alone
Down a red sea road

The last 8 weeks have brought many high and lows.  Initially there was hope that the tumour might be small and removable but sitting in a really bare and stark consultants office in the Royal Infirmary on 13th March we were told that it wasn't.  I guess I wasn't really prepared to hear the stark reality of the diagnosis.  I remember walking out and thinking how brutal it is to receive such life changing news with no support on hand.  Thankfully Anna's treatment has switched to the Western General and the staff at The Maggie's Centre have been amazing.  A friendly face in a non medical environment has been a massive help as we come to terms with the diagnosis.  If you want to do something at the moment please think of donating to a cancer charity but particularity Maggie's.

Just after Anna's diagnosis was confirmed I was preparing to preach on Ruth chapter 2.  For some reason the enormity of the situation hit me while listening to some Christian music and 'emotion flowed'.  I had been preaching a few weeks earlier on Ruth 1 and how Ruth was most likely converted through the quiet dignity of Naomi and how she dealt with the loss of her husband and two sons.  I thought I was very clever in calling my series 'Three Funerals and a Wedding - God's Faithfulness in Testing Times'.  It suddenly struck me like a train that God knew I would be preaching through Ruth when Anna received her diagnosis.  Little did I know that my preaching on God's faithfulness would be tested in real life circumstances.

It's not the news that any of us hoped that we would hear
It's not the road we would have chosen, no

The only thing that we can see is darkness up ahead

But You're asking us to lay our worry down and sing a song instead

And I didn't know I'd find You here

In the middle of my deepest fear, but

You are drawing near

You are overwhelming me, with peace

So I'll lift my voice and sing

You're gonna carry us through everything
You are drawing near
You're overwhelming all my fears, with peace

You say that I should come to You with everything I need
You're asking me to thank You even when the pain is deep
You promise that You'll come and meet us on the road ahead
And no matter what the fear says, You give me a reason to be glad

Sometimes it is in our deepest need and fear that we find God.  Don't we see that so clearly in the book of Ruth?  As Naomi and Ruth dealt with trauma and tragedy we see the theme of God's loving kindness coming through so clearly.  In such a beautiful story of ordinary, country folk, God was weaving an incredible story of redemption.  As Sinclair Ferguson says about the story of Ruth, God was 'quarrying for diamonds' in the midst of trauma and tragedy.  

It's times like this that really test your theology.  As Christians we believe that God not only knows the future but he also foreordains all that comes to pass.  We believe that God is good and that in the middle of our pain, He is working out His purposes for His glory and our good.  We also believe that whatever is ahead of us over the next few months God is faithful and steadfast.  Anna knows that great truth from 2 Corinthians 4 v 16 'So we do not loose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.'  This is the great hope of the Christian, this life is not the end but the beginning of an eternity with Jesus who died to that we might live for ever.

What we need more than anything at the moment as a family is your prayers, your love and some really practical stuff which people have very freely offered.  I guess Anna has supported lots of people over the years and now, to a great or lesser extent, we need to carry her through this experience.  As you probably know with pancreatic cancer, eating is not easy which makes social occasions a challenge.  Please don't bring or send food at the moment.  She also gets tired easily so please understand if she can't respond to all the lovely cards, texts and messages you have sent.  She is incredibly appreciative of them all but simply can't respond to them all.

The road ahead feels daunting.  I am so thankful I/we are not walking along it on our own.  We have a Saviour who has promised to be with us and never forsake us.  In many ways it feels like a 'Red Sea Road'.  God's people have crossed many red sea roads over the last few thousand years and as Elle Holcomb has put it:

We will sing to our souls
We won't bury our hope
Where He leads us to go
There's a red sea road
When we can't see the way
He will part the waves
And we'll never walk alone
Down a red sea road

We are thankful that God's grace helps us to walk roads we thought we could never walk.  He has promised grace for each day.  

Much as I love music I always come back to the Psalms with have been the strength and comfort of God's people through many tragedies and crisis.  Psalm 143 v 6-8 has been a particular comfort at this time.

 6  Lo, I do stretch my hands
       To thee, my help alone;
    For thou well understands
       All my complaint and moan:
    My thirsting soul desires,
       And longeth after thee,
    As thirsty ground requires
       With rain refreshed to be.

 7  Lord, let my pray'r prevail,
       To answer it make speed;
    For, lo, my sp'rit doth fail:
       Hide not thy face in need;
    Lest I be like to those
       That do in darkness sit,
    Or him that downward goes
       Into the dreadful pit.

 8  Because I trust in thee,
       O Lord, cause me to hear
    Thy loving-kindness free,
       When morning doth appear:
    Cause me to know the way
       Wherein my path should be;
    For why, my soul on high
       I do lift up to thee.

Please continue to remember us as a family as we walk through this valley over the next few months.  Anna has started her chomo this week and we are so grateful that everyone has rallied round with lifts.  We are so thankful that as we walk through this particular valley we have the Good Shepherd with us and that goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.