Born of the Virgin Mary

357px-madonna_col_bambino_palazzo_medici_riccardi_filippo_lippiThe doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is again criticised this Christmas, as it has been on many occasions before. This time it is receiving the attention of St Matthew in the City Anglican Church in Auckland, New Zealand. The billboard poster depicting Mary and Joseph in bed has received much criticism and the responses on the church’s website indicate that it has prompted a mixed response from many people all across the world.

The minister, Glynn Cardy, says he is seeking to remove the “supernatural obfuscations” of the belief in a literal virgin birth. He also seeks to draw a distinction between “progressive” and “fundamentalist” Christianity. The truth is that “progressive Christianity” as defined by Glynn Cardy is not authentic biblical Christianity at all.

I believe in the Virgin Birth, and so do all orthodox Christians. We believe that it is a truth which is not only clearly taught in the Bible, but that it is a fundamental plank of our faith. It is part of the Apostles’ Creed which we recite regularly. We say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary…” Continue reading “Born of the Virgin Mary”

The Man with the Golden Flute

jimmy5_web2Patricia and I used a day off in the moderatorial schedule to complete some Christmas shopping in Belfast. What a thrill it was as we walked into Waterstone’s at lunchtime to discover that Sir James Galway was there signing copies of his autobiography, The Man with the Golden Flute. Appropriately enough, Nelson McCausland, the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure was in the queue with me buying a copy of the book and getting it signed by the great man.

Having reached his three score years and ten, Sir James looks back on his early days in working-class Belfast and his remarkable journey that led him to become a leading orchestral musician and then an international soloist.

What makes the autobiography particularly appealing to me is the way the author describes his own Christian commitment. Sir James describes how, as a boy, he attended Sinclair Seaman’s Presbyterian Church, close to the docks in Belfast, “where they seemed to be normal sort of people” and where a boy with a Belfast street accent felt at home.

He also describes how a serious road accident in 1977 led to him spending four months in hospital, much of it in traction. It was this accident that brought him back to God. He writes:

“I had been quite religious as a boy, but during my Berlin years, I had somehow drifted away. Yet as I lay there in bed, I found myself thinking, “It’s a good thing that last concert I had was really great, because it would have been terrible if I’d died and people had said, “You know that last concert wasn’t any good anyway.” However I didn’t die, and that last concert was great, and that made me think “I’m here for a reason. And there’s got to be a higher power beyond this whole thing.” This led me back to believing in God and Jesus Christ. ….If you want to believe in something where a miracle really happened and was seen to happen by people at the time — well, that thought drew me back to the biblical Christianity of my youth. And that gave me a different outlook on everything.”

As well as being an outstanding classical flute player, Sir James is also a great entertainer whose appeal crosses all the musical boundaries. Some people with little knowledge of his classical accomplishments have fond memories of his recording of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” which was such a great hit. He is the most televised and recorded classical artist performing today and has to be counted as the world’s most popular classical musician.

Rugby and reconciliation

Andrew Trimble and B J Botha at the Ulster Rugby Carol Service
Andrew Trimble and B J Botha at the Ulster Rugby Carol Service

I had the honour of being the speaker at Ulster Rugby’s Carol Service. I was so delighted to have been asked, and I tried to reflect on the theme of how God, in sending Christ, was reconciling the world to himself. One of the most wonderful examples of reconciliation in recent years is directly linked with rugby.

In his book, Playing the Enemy, John Carlin describes how Nelson Mandela conquered the hearts of white South Africa by harnessing the power of the game of rugby. It really is a remarkable story of how rugby was a vehicle for reconciliation and for unity in South Africa. The film version of the book, entitled Invictus, is due to be released here in February and stars Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Peinaar. The movie was released in the US this past week, and a friend of mine who lives there emailed me to say that he had seen the movie and that it was inspirational. Continue reading “Rugby and reconciliation”

Nothing to “Mourne” about

Sunset over the Spelga Dam
Sunset over the Spelga Dam

In fact, our visit to the congregation of Mourne in Kilkeel gave us many reasons to rejoice. The journey itself was uplifting. It was a beautiful winter morning and the views of the mountains around the Spelga Dam were wonderful. On the way home later in the day, we paused to watch the sun set over the water.

We visited the Sunday School. There are 400 children and young people on the rolls of the Sunday School and Bible Classes, and it was an impressive sight to see so many young people being taught God’s Word in well-appointed and maintained church halls. The Sunday School is well-staffed and the children were fully engaged in all the activities. We rejoiced to see this work being undertaken so enthusiastically, and believe that the on-going work of Christ in the Kingdom of Mourne is in good hands as children and young people are valued in the life and work of the congregation.

A full meeting house is always an inspiration to a preacher, and the Mourne congregation did not disappoint. Even more impressive was a well-populated choir, with no less than 20 men. The “Songs of Ascent” at the very beginning were good preparation for worship and helped us to focus our minds on God and his glory.

Miss Orr, with Rev William Bingham and his wife, Janet.
Miss Orr, with Rev William Bingham and his wife, Janet.

As part of the service, we were able to recognise and celebrate the ministry of Janet Orr who served our church and the congregation of McQuiston Memorial in East Belfast for many years, firstly under the older designation of Church Sister, and then as a Deaconess. Miss Orr was commissioned for her work in 1957 and retired in 1985. At the time of her appointment, McQuiston Memorial had around 1700 families and she served under various ministries including Dr McIlroy, and the Reverends Eaton, Drysdale and Gray. She was devoted to her work in the congregation, especially among the elderly and housebound. She taught in the Bible Classes, the Sunday School, and established a Young Woman’s Group, as well as serving the PWA. Her home congregation of Mourne were delighted to be able to honour her long and faithful ministry as they presented her with an antique brooch.

Mourne Presbyterian Church is one of the strongest in our General Assembly, and is richly blessed with physical and human resources. Not every congregation has that level of support, and not every congregation can replicate their ministries. But the resources in Mourne  are being well-used to establish and extend the kingdom of Christ. That is always a reason to rejoice.


190px-george_frideric_handel_by_balthasar_dennerIt was a great performance of The Messiah by the Ulster Orchestra and the Belfast Philharmonic Choir at the Waterfront last night. My soul was lifted and my heart was warmed as I listened to the unadulterated words of Scripture put to music so majestically by G.F. Handel. Christ was honoured and magnified in the words and music, and I rejoiced.

The Waterfront Hall was full of fellow-Presbyterians. I spotted three ex-Moderators, a number of ministers, and numerous elders, plus ministerial brothers from the Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. There is something about The Messiah that appeals to us reformed types. Maybe it’s because it’s so biblical.

The wonderfully seasonal “For unto us a Child is born” and “Glory to God” put me in the mood for Christmas. But the rich Christ-centred biblical theology inspires worship, which is remarkable given that the oratario was written originally for performance in a theatre not a church. But that simply helps us to think more broadly about the nature of worship.

John Wesley attended a complete performance in Bristol Cathedral in 1758. “I went to the cathedral to hear Mr Handel’s Messiah. I doubt if that a congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance. In many places, especially several of the choruses, it exceeded my expectation.”

Handel wrote the music for Messiah in a mere 24 days. When he’d completed the Hallalujah Chorus, his servant reportedly found him in tears. “I thought I did see all heaven before me, and the great God himself!” said Handel. As we left the hall, our friends agreed that we had experienced a little appetiser of heaven as we stood together for that magnificent chorus. Hallelujah!

Note to self: Remember to book The Messiah earlier next year to get the really good seats.