It’s been one of my favourite places for many years. Patricia and I were members of the CSSM team there in the 1970s, and friendships formed back then have lasted a lifetime. This Easter the weather was really quite good and we enjoyed the mixture of sunshine and breeze. The wee train was running from the Giant’s Causeway to Bushmills and the path above the beach was well-populated. It seems that every time we went out for a walk we met some friends we hadn’t seen in a while. It was altogether invigorating and refreshing.
There is something about this stretch of coast that makes it relaxing and enjoyable. As one of our friends said when we met her on Easter Monday, “I seem to relax the moment I arrive here.” I don’t believe in “holy ground”, but I do acknowledge that there are geographical locations which have a place in our memories, experiences and affections which makes them special. Portballintrae has to be near the top of my list.
The big change this year is that the new Village Hall is nearing completion. Now there will be a facility which should help to foster a sense of community spirit. This new space offers a hall, a meeting room, a kitchen and even the possibility of a shop. It is, by all accounts, a “green” building, with what seemed to me to be sods of earth on top of the roof. Will some local resident risk taking their lawnmower up there to cut the grass? I’m sure someone will tell us the environmental value of such a construction.
In the meantime, the sod-covered roof may provide a talking-point for those who often sit in the car park in Portballintrae, but only when they get bored with the majestic view of sea, sky and sand across to Runkerry.
I was settling down to watch Match of the Day last Saturday night (as I normally do) when John Motson caught my attention. In introducing the Liverpool versus Blackburn Rovers match, he said that this week Anfield would become “a place of worship”. He was referring to the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy when 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives. While orthodox Christians might express concern at how football stadia have become the new cathedrals and worship centres of our secular society, it seems highly appropriate that the Liverpool supporters commemorate their sad anniversary by meeting together for a corporate act of remembrance, they did today.
In the post-match analysis, Ray Stubbs asked Alan Hansen, who had been the Liverpool captain at the time of the Hillsborough tragedy, to reflect on the atmosphere at that dreadful day and weeks that followed. Hansen had been deeply affected by the tragedy in 1989, and his questioner sought to be sensitive. “Football seems so unimportant, Alan.” commented Ray. “It’s not important at all,” said Alan. In spite of all the hype, all the money, all the devotion of those of us who follow “the beautiful game”, there are times when football is not important at all. When we are faced with the most bitter experiences of life, we need to know what is, and what isn’t, important.
One thing that is important is being with others who share our sense of loss. To bear the burden of grief alone simply multiplies its weight, to the extent that we risk being totally crushed. Pastoral care is about assuring people that they are not isolated or abandoned in their time of trouble or bereavement. That’s why the practice of many churches to offer a cup of tea and some refreshments following a funeral service can be so beneficial. It provides the opportunity to be together, to know that you are not bearing the burden alone, and to be affirmed by the sympathy and love of others. That’s why Anfield needs to be a place of remembrance for those who still carry the burden of bereavement twenty years on. In the words of the Liverpool anthem, we all need to know that “You’ll never walk alone”.
For Christians, that song takes on added meaning when we remember the words of the psalmist, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” The only reason we can “walk on” is because Jesus Christ, the Risen Saviour, is with us.
It’s some years now since the seeker-sensitive approach to worship in particular, and to church life in general, gained a following in the UK. Even though many pastors and churches claim to have benefited from re-thinking their approach along seeker-sensitive lines, it continues to attract criticism. Witness this classic piece from R.C. Sproul who could never be accused of sitting on the fence. He is ably supported by Albert Mohler.
The bigger question for mainstream denominations like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is how to re-connect with both the un-churched and the de-churched. It’s easy for ministers and elders who see their congregations declining to attempt a quick fix. It’s worth remembering that there is both a vertical and a horizontal dimension to worship, and that in the planning of worship, as well as being God-centred, we must seek to be intelligible to those who attend. There is no excuse for music and preaching that are meaningless and dull. But it may be that, as one of my former colleagues used to say, being seeker-sensitive is simply trying to arrange a coffee party for people who don’t like coffee.
It really is great news that we celebrate on the First Day of every week, but which becomes specially meaningful this weekend. Jesus Christ rose again from the dead. Death is not omnipotent. It will not have the final word. Because of Jesus, “death has been swallowed up in victory”.
I reckon that the greatest fear we all have is the fear of death. And it used to destructive effect by the forces of evil in our world. Terrorism exercises its power by threatening indiscriminate death. But in face of such evil, we affirm the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and sing the words of the Townend and Getty hymn with energy and gusto, “death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered”.
Not everyone receives this message with joy or enthusiasm. Some doubt that the resurrection is scientifically possible or historically accurate. But without it, we have no hope, no message and no confidence for the future. That’s Paul’s point in I Corinthians 15. That is why he affirms the resurrection so clearly, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead”.
Nobody states it more clearly than Bishop Tom Wright:
No wonder the Herods, the Caesars, and the Sadducees of this world, ancient and modern, were and are eager to rule out all possibility of actual resurrection. They are, after all, staking a counter-claim on the real world. It is the real world that the tyrants and the bullies (including intellectual and cultural tyrants and bullies) try to rule by force, only to discover that in order to do so they have to quash all rumours of resurrection, rumours that would imply that their greatest weapons, death and deconstruction, are not after all omnipotent…..It is the real world that, in the earliest stories of Jesus’ resurrection, was decisively and for ever reclaimed by an event, an event which demanded to be understood, not as a bizarre miracle, but as the beginning of the new creation. And however dangerous this may turn out to be, it is the real world in and for which Christians are committed to living and, where necessary, dying. Nothing less is demanded by the God of creation, the God of justice, the God revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth.
N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003, Minneapolis, Fortress) p 737
Two years ago, just after Easter, I had the privilege of visiting Nepal. It was an absolutely wonderful trip. This Easter, a group of 15 people from First Portadown Presbyterian Church, are spending Easter in Nepal. They are under the direction and guidance of the energetic Rosie, whose knowledge of Nepal can only be described as encyclopaedic. Rosie spent almost 8 years in Nepal working as a speech therapist and she has inspired many people to develop an interest in the development of that country.
During our time in Pokhara, we were able to visit the church where Rosie worshipped, and that is where our friends will be this weekend. At that service, they were receiving 15 new members. Among the group received as members was a man and his two wives! Prior to his conversion, this man had taken a younger wife because his first wife was childless. But all three of them had been converted to Christ, and the leadership of the church welcomed them together as a family into their membership. I remember thinking: How long would it take an Irish Presbyterian Session to work their way through that kind of pastoral situation?
The growth of Christianity in Nepal in recent years has been amazing. Over 30 years ago I heard Pastor Robert Karthak speak at the Bangor Worldwide Missionary Convention, and at that time he was, I think, the only Christian minister in Kathmandu. Today it is estimated that out of a total population of 29 million there are in excess of 800,000 Christians in Nepal.
It is a most beautiful country, tucked away between India and China, with spectacular views of the Himalayas. It is also incredibly poor. In recent weeks there has been little rain and that has obvious and serious implications for the crops. There are also many problems caused by electricity only being available for 8 hours a day. And yet in these difficult and trying circumstances the kingdom of God advances.
This Easter Day we will use the words of a well-known hymn:
“Let the Church with gladness hymns of triumph sing, For her Lord now liveth; death hath lost its sting.”
The Church that sings these hymns of triumph is a multi-ethnic people scattered across the globe from Portadown to Pokhara. Thank you, Rosie, for enlarging our vision.