A meditation for Reformation Day

martinluther-bigOctober 31st, 1517 is normally thought of as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and it is the date on which reformed Christians remember that great movement which transformed the ecclesiastical and spiritual landscape of Europe. The story we are familiar with is that, since everyone would be coming to church on All Saints Day, November 1st, Luther used the church door at Wittenberg as a public notice board to publish his theses which challenged the practices and beliefs of the religious establishment.

My friend and former colleague at Westminster Theological Seminary, Carl Trueman, is an expert on Luther and the Reformation. In the attached article, he offers a slightly different view of the traditional story of October 31st, 1517 and points us to the heart of Luther’s theology. Luther’s teaching remains as explosive today as it was in the 16th century, and it challenges so many of the accepted practices of modern Protestant church life, as well as Roman Catholicism.

No one could have expected that the Reformation would be launched by Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against Indulgences in October 1517. The document itself simply proposed the framework for a university debate. Luther was arguing only for a revision of the practice of indulgences, not its abolition. He was certainly not offering an agenda for widespread theological and ecclesiastical reform.

Indeed, he had already said much more controversial things in his Disputation against Scholastic Theology of September 4, 1517, in which he critiqued the whole way in which medieval theology had been done for centuries. That disputation, however, passed without a murmur. Indeed, humanly speaking, it was only the unique combination of external factors—social, economic, and political—that made the later disputation the spark that lit the Reformation fuse. Continue reading “A meditation for Reformation Day”

May Street

I conducted the lunchtime service in May Street, in this month which celebrates the 180th anniversary of the opening of the building. The famous first minister of May Street, Dr Henry Cooke, the champion of Presbyterian orthodoxy, was installed there in November 1829. He was a wonderful orator and debater who upheld orthodox reformed theology against Arianism.

Having been appointed Professor of Sacred Rhetoric and Catechetics and President of Assembly’s College in 1847, Dr Cooke resigned the pastorate of May Street in 1848, but at the request of the congregation he was appointed constant supplier of the pulpit until his retirement in 1867

Another famous minister of May Street was Rev Dr Wylie Blue. He was installed in May Street in 1916, and in 1918 he served with the YMCA in France. In 1919-20 he visited the United States and Canada as a member of the Ulster Delegation in opposition to Home Rule. By his eloquent preaching and genial personality he attracted crowds wherever he ministered.

May Street church is a magnificent building, although sadly the crowds that attended the church in Cooke’s or Blue’s day are no longer there.

The Presbyterian Moderator, Dr Stafford Carson, signs the visitors' book at May Street Presbyterian Church in Belfast under the watchful eye of David McAuley (left), chairman of the Urban Soul committee, and Arthur Acheson, Clerk of Session. Dr Carson spoke at the May Street Thursday lunchtime service.
Avril Gracey, manageress at the Urban Soul cafe in May Street Presbyterian Church in Belfast, serves up a cup of freshly brewed coffee for Presbyterian moderator Dr Stafford Carson, who was lunching in the cafe after addressing the May Street Thursday lunchtime service.
It was a gathering of family and friends when Dr Stafford Carson had refreshments at the Urban Soul cafe in May Street Presbyterian Church. Dining with the Moderator are (from left) Joan and Arnold Sleator from his home congregation of First Portadown, his wife Patricia and their daughter Ruth.

Today the May Street congregation is trying to develop a new style of ministry in Belfast city centre. The facilities of the Urban Soul Cafe are excellent, and the cafe is open from 9am to 3.30pm each day. There is an enthusiastic core of hard-working people who would love to see the ministry continuing in this location.

And be thankful

And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. Colossians 3:15-17

We are almost at the end of the harvest thanksgiving season. I have been asking myself, How thankful am I for all the good things in my life?

Nicholas Wolterstorff, long-time Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College and now at Yale Divinity School, suggests that it might be wrong to think that faithfully carrying out one’s obligations is basic to the Christian life and that joy and gratitude are things we are obligated to feel. Gratitude is basic, and obedience is the proper expression of gratitude, rather than the other way round. Continue reading “And be thankful”

The Gathering for Africa

Big Pat Jennings, a Northern Ireland legend
Big Pat Jennings, a Northern Ireland legend

This past weekend I was able to be with a couple of my sporting heroes at a fund-raising dinner in Armagh City Hotel. It was a remarkable event by any standards. Donnelly Brothers, the Dungannon-based motor company, have given fifty (yes, 50) 4×4 vehicles for the use of Irish missionaries serving in Africa.

Our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, is in line to receive ten of these vehicles for the use of our missionary personnel in Africa.

Rory Best shows off the spoils of victory from Ireland's rugby success last season
Rory Best shows off the spoils of victory from Ireland's rugby success last season

Last Friday’s event was organised by a group of resourceful Armagh businessmen whose common love of motorsport brought them together to form the Armagh Tigers Charitable Trust. They showed wonderful commitment and enterprise in bringing together so many people from all kinds of backgrounds in support of this project, which aims to raise an additional £200,000 so that the vehicles may be delivered to Africa complete with a box of spare parts.

One person who will benefit from this gift is Diane Cusick.
Diane is originally from the Bushvale congregation in North Antrim and is now based in Mzuzu in Northern Malawi, where, at the invitation of the Education Department of the Livingstonia Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), she’s been able to introduce the Montessori teaching method to an already established pre-school in Mzuzu; and has set up, and runs training programmes for care-givers in Early Childhood Development.

cusick-d-web1Diane’s service in Malawi began in late 1995, in the South of the country, teaching classes in the Women’s Ministry Department at Zomba Theological College (ZTC). Further responsibilities soon followed when she became Director of ZTC’s Crèche and Playgroup, where she was involved in preparing all the educational material used in the playgroup.

In 2004, Diane undertook a year’s study in Johannesburg (South Africa), completing a pre-school teaching course at the College of Modern Montessori. This laid the foundations for the work she is now doing in Mzuzu, which began in 2007. Her new vehicle will make her job so much easier and will greatly enhance her effectiveness.

Thank you, Terence and Raymond. And special thanks to the Armagh Tigers. You did a great job!

Ethiopian famine again

ethiopmain_237753cI have written quite a bit about this before, but I  have to say that I was moved again today by the BBC News report and pictures of the food crisis in Ethiopia. We saw this situation first-hand when we visited Ethiopia in August and the predictions at that time were that conditions were going to deteriorate further because of the lack of rain and the failure of the crops.

Now it seems as though there are millions of people who are in desperate need. The BBC reports that the Ethiopian government has asked the international community for emergency food aid for 6.2 million people. The UN’s World Food Programme says $285m (£173m) will be needed in the next six months.

dsc02108It’s interesting that the Ethiopian government is acknowledging its need of help. When we visited one food distribution centre in Boricha in August, the government official who accompanied us would not let us take any photos of the people who had gathered to receive food. Apparently there was a desire to play down the extent of the problem.

The Irish government has cut its aid budget, and it is biting deeply into the overseas programmes of both Tearfund and Christian Aid in the final quarter of this year. The distribution centre which was full of food in August was empty by the end of September, and those who benefited from it are without any other source of food. It really is a life and death situation.

dsc02040This week we launched this year’s World Development Appeal, as we reported previously on this blog. These poor and desperate people of Ethiopia need our help.

We can confirm that every penny given to organisations like Tearfund and Christian Aid is used strategically and effectively for the benefit of those who are in greatest need. It is part of our Christian discipleship that we give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty (Matthew 25:35-40).