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.


  1. Great reflections Andy. I have the fond memory of visiting your family in the manse at Oban many years ago. The little booklet 'Behind a Frowning Providence' has been and continues to be a favorite of mine and a go to with folks. It had a deep and significant impact on my own heart when it was first published. There were two reasons, I noted it was in memory of your sister who was born the same year I was, and the pastoral way your father wrote, indeed out of the crucible of experience. In this far flung part of the world, the West Coast of the USA there is one exiled Scot who is and ever shall be thankful for the ministry of John J Murray.

    1. Thank you for your kind words Robert. I will pass them on to Dad. Please let me know if you are ever over in Scotland - I would love to meet up with you again.

  2. Thank you for that bio, Andy. Words fail to express my appreciation for your Dad as a friend, brother and Minister. My greetings to him, please.

  3. Andy, you have painted such a beautiful picture of your dad and his ministry that although I don't know him... You made me feel like I do! Such a warm and touching reflection