New Assistant

Alastair, Judith and baby Philippa

With moderatorial responsibilities getting near, the Presbytery of Armagh inducted a new assistant in our congregation on Wednesday 1 April. Alastair J. Dunlop is a graduate of St Andrews University and Regent College, Vancouver. He has served as assistant minister in First Presbyterian Church, Antrim, and then as assistant in Harryville, Ballymena during Dr John Finlay’s moderatorial year. At his induction service, my two chaplains, Rev Philip McConnell of Waringstown and Rev Nigel McCullough of Hill Street, Lurgan, took part, along with the Moderator and Clerk of the Armagh presbytery, Rev Donald Byers and Rev Colin Harris.

At the reception following the service, all kinds of connections were made, indicating what a small and closely related denomination we belong to. I was an assistant in Harryville in 1981, the year our eldest daughter, Sara, was born, and the great summer when England won the Ashes series against Australia. Will we ever forget the performances of Botham and Willis? The big question is: Can England do it again in 2009?

It was great to see all the friends from Harryville in Portadown, not least their minister, Dr John Finlay, whose father, Bert, was a much loved lay assistant in First Portadown during Dr Craig’s ministry, and whose son, John Junior, is the youngest elder on the First Portadown Session and serves alongside his uncle, Rea.

I have known Alastair all his life. His father , Alastair Senior, was Patricia’s minister in First Portglenone, and has been one of my best friends since those days. Alastair Junior was born in 1977, the same year that Patricia and I were married. Incredible as it may seem now, he was a sick baby, and his mother, Anne, left him for the first time when he was six months old in order to attend our wedding.

There is also the St Andrews University connection and that whole network of friends that includes our daughter, Sara, Alastair and Judith, Jonny and Laura McGreevy, Stuart and Julianne Noble, etc. Are you one of them? Am I just imagining it, but was that Ulster Christian mafia at St Andrews in the 1990s and early 2000s a particularly gifted generation? Or did they just inherit it all from the previous generation that never made it across the North Channel?

The connections theme was well and truly underscored by Dr Craig, our Minister Emeritus, in his remarks, as he recalled his friendship with Alastair’s great-grandfather, Hugh Dunlop, an elder in Wellington Street, Ballymena, and Alastair’s two grandfathers, Rev Dr James Dunlop of Oldpark,and Mr William J. Morgan, a Member of the old Stormont parliament and a cabinet minister in the government there. Dr Craig described Dr James Dunlop as providing the model of ministry that he had sought to follow in his 36 years in First Portadown.

What impressed me was not only the connections, but also how, in the providence of God, the baton of Christian ministry is passed from one generation to the next and the kingdom of God continues to advance. As Alastair assumes responsibilities in First Portadown, we pray that God will grant him a fruitful ministry.

Mayoral hospitality

img_00461This week, Patricia and I, along with members of the pastoral team in First Portadown, were invited to the Civic Centre in Craigavon to have lunch with the mayor, Alderman Sydney Anderson, and his wife, Brenda. It was an absolutely delightful occasion. The mayor received us very warmly and entertained us to a beautiful lunch. Patricia said it was one of the nicest pavlovas she had ever tasted, and that was high recommendation as she is a bit of a connoisseur in that department. I opted for the apple tart, but only after filling up on some absolutely wonderful potato wedges. Margaret, the in-house chef at the Civic Centre, certainly knows her job and does it well.

We were all impressed how well Mr Mayor had done his homework on the work and ministry of our congregation. He was most generous in his praise, as he offered sincere congratulations on the moderatorial nomination. We counted ourselves greatly honoured to be received so royally. A tour of the refurbished Civic Centre gave us an insight into the work of our local council and a greater appreciation for the commitment of our local representatives. The council faces many difficult decisions and it needs our support and prayers as it seeks to serve the needs of everyone in our community. The Review of Public Administration will bring many changes to local government, and we trust that the excellent facilities of our Civic Centre will be well used in any new arrangements.

Our vertically-challenged caretaker, Cecil, was with us. Is there anybody in Craigavon or Portadown that he doesn’t know? Everywhere we went at the Civic Centre he greeted people as long-lost friends, and brought laughter and fun to all the proceedings. It was a most enjoyable visit. Thank you, Mr Mayor!

To blog or not to blog

I read this piece on the Desiring God website, written by Abraham Piper, and it got me thinking. There are advantages to blogging which may enhance pastoral ministry, but is revealing the details of my life one of them? I don’t think so. I don’t think that I am all that interesting. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones advised preachers not to talk about themselves in the pulpit. He pointed out that congregations often encourage preachers to talk about themselves, but he believed that this temptation should be resisted. In his own ministry, even though he was well qualified as a physician, he refused to comment on medical matters from the pulpit lest it drew attention to himself and distracted people from his main task.

While the advice offered here is generally useful, a highly personal blog may actually be detrimental. As one famous contemporary Reformed preacher is known to say to his congregation, “If you knew all the details of my sinful heart, you wouldn’t want to listen to me preach!” To which he quickly added, “And if I knew all the details of your sinful hearts, I wouldn’t want to enter the building to preach to you!”

With that understanding, I am going to attempt to blog.

Pastors should blog…

For most of you, anything you post online will only be a small piece in the grand scheme of your pastoral leadership. But if you can maintain a blog that is both compelling and personal, it can be an important small piece.

It will give you access to your people’s minds and hearts in a unique way by giving them a chance to know you as a well-rounded person. You will no longer be only a preacher and a teacher, but also a guy who had a hard time putting together a swing-set for his kids last weekend. People will open up for you as you open up like this for them. Letting people catch an honest glimpse of your life will add authenticity to your teaching and depth to your ministry.

1. …to write.

If you’re a pastor, you probably already know the value writing has for thinking. Through writing, you delve into new ideas and new insights. If you strive to write well, you will at the same time be striving to think well.

Then when you share new ideas and new insights, readers can come along with you wherever your good writing and good thinking bring you.

There is no better way to simply and quickly share your writing than by maintaining a blog. And if you’re serious about your blog, it will help you not only in your thinking, but in your discipline as well, as people begin to regularly expect quality insight from you.

2. …to teach.

Most pastors I’ve run into love to talk. Many of them laugh at themselves about how long-winded they’re sometimes tempted to be.

Enter Blog.

Here is where a pastor has an outlet for whatever he didn’t get to say on Sunday. Your blog is where you can pass on that perfect analogy you only just thought of; that hilarious yet meaningful story you couldn’t connect to your text no matter how hard you tried; that last point you skipped over even though you needed it to complete your 8-point acrostic sermon that almost spelled HUMILITY.

And more than just a catch-all for sermon spill-over, a blog is a perfect place for those 30-second nuggets of truth that come in your devotions or while you’re reading the newspaper. You may never write a full-fledged article about these brief insights or preach a whole sermon, but via your blog, your people can still learn from them just like you did.

3. …to recommend.

With every counseling session or after-service conversation, a pastor is recommending something. Sometimes it’s a book or a charity. Maybe it’s a bed-and-breakfast for that couple he can tell really needs to get away. And sometimes it’s simply Jesus.

With a blog, you can recommend something to hundreds of people instead of just a few. Some recommendations may be specific to certain people, but that seems like it would be rare. It’s more likely to be the case that if one man asks you whether you know of any good help for a pornography addiction, then dozens of other men out there also need to know, but aren’t asking.

Blog it.

Recommendation, however, is more than pointing people to helpful things. It’s a tone of voice, an overall aura that good blogs cultivate.

Blogs are not generally good places to be didactic. Rather, they’re ideal for suggesting and commending. I’ve learned, after I write, to go back and cut those lines that sound like commands or even overbearing suggestions, no matter how right they may be. Because if it’s true for my audience, it’s true for me, so why not word it in such a way that I’m the weak one, rather than them?

People want to know that their pastor knows he is an ordinary, imperfect human being. They want to know that you’re recommending things that have helped you in your own weakness. If you say, “When I struggled with weight-loss, I did such-and-such,” it will come across very differently than if you say, “Do such-and-such if you’re over-weight…”

If you use your blog to encourage people through suggesting and commending everything from local restaurants to Jesus Christ, it will complement the biblical authority that you rightly assume when you stand behind the pulpit.

4. …to interact.

There are a lot of ways for a pastor to keep his finger on the pulse of his people. A blog is by no means necessary in this regard. However, it does add a helpful new way to stay abreast of people’s opinions and questions.

Who knows what sermon series might arise after a pastor hears some surprising feedback about one of his 30-second-nuggets-of-truth?

5. …to develop an eye for what is meaningful.

For good or ill, most committed bloggers live with the constant question in their mind: Is this bloggable? This could become a neurosis, but I’ll put a positive spin on it: It nurtures a habit of looking for insight and wisdom and value in every situation, no matter how mundane.

If you live life looking for what is worthwhile in every little thing, you will see more of what God has to teach you. And the more he teaches you, the more you can teach others. As you begin to be inspired and to collect ideas, you will find that the new things you’ve seen and learned enrich far more of your life than just your blog.

6. …to be known.

This is where I see the greatest advantage for blogging pastors.

Your people hear you teach a lot; it’s probably the main way that most of them know you. You preach on Sundays, teach on Wednesdays, give messages at weddings, funerals, youth events, retreats, etc.

This is good—it’s your job. But it’s not all you are. Not that you need to be told this, but you are far more than your ideas. Ideas are a crucial part of your identity, but still just a part.

You’re a husband and a father. You’re some people’s friend and other people’s enemy. Maybe you love the Nittany Lions. Maybe you hate fruity salad. Maybe you struggle to pray. Maybe listening to the kids’ choir last weekend was—to your surprise—the most moving worship experience you’ve ever had.

These are the things that make you the man that leads your church. They’re the windows into your personality that perhaps stay shuttered when you’re teaching the Bible. Sometimes your people need to look in—not all the way in, and not into every room—but your people need some access to you as a person. A blog is one way to help them.

You can’t be everybody’s friend, and keeping a blog is not a way of pretending that you can. It’s simply a way for your people to know you as a human being, even if you can’t know them back. This is valuable, not because you’re so extraordinary, but because leadership is more than the words you say. If you practice the kind of holiness that your people expect of you, then your life itself opened before them is good leadership—even when you fail.

The game with a punch

As the capable coach of Wales, Warren Gatland has begun the psychological battle for the Wales-Ireland encounter in the Six Nations next Saturday by announcing that the Irish and Welsh rugby players don’t like each other, some seasoned observers are wondering, “So what’s new?” The 1914 showdown in Belfast was often referred to as the toughest game ever in which several members of the Irish and Welsh packs exchanged punches off the ball and out of sight of the referee. The Welsh pack that year was led by the Rev Alban Davies!

In 1969 Wales entertained Ireland at Cardiff when the visitors, like this year, were seeking the Grand Slam and the Triple Crown. Some of us still remember the Welsh captain, Brian Price, flattening Ireland’s pack leader, Noel Murphy with a perfect right upper-cut which was seen by the television audience but seemed to be strangely invisible to the referee. Three Irish forwards, Noel Murphy, Ken Kennedy and Jimmy Davidson needed attention during the game and each finished the match suffering from concussion. At one stage Tom Kiernan, Ireland’s captain, threatened to take his team off the field. Wales eventually won 24-11 after having trailed for much of the first half.

So if Gavin Henson and Brian O’Driscoll don’t like each other, we are not surprised. I think the animosity Gatland describes is not as real as he suggests and is just part of his Antipodean way of increasing the tension. I hope that Ireland will be up to the challenge and will, if necessary, “get their retaliation in first”. Could this be Ireland’s year? Our hearts scream “Yes” but our heads tell us that it will be incredibly tough. C’mon Ireland!

Wearing Purple

Everything seemed to be fine with the message from the church leaders about wearing purple ribbons or clothing. But clearly they didn’t anticipate the quizzical response from the people of Ulster! And so the follow-up explanation was issued….

“The Leaders thought it a good idea that people would have some tangible sign of their opposition to what has happened over the last days. Many ideas were considered but in order that something could be done quickly the idea of wearing purple was proposed with the thinking that people could do this for themselves. They could source some purple ribbon or a purple item of clothing, perhaps a tie or a scarf, without the need for it to be purchased and supplied centrally with all the time and expense that would be incurred.We would encourage people or congregations to make their own ribbons. The ones the Church Leaders were wearing yesterday were simply a piece of 1cm wide ribbon, 12-15 cm long, made into a loop and secured with a small safety pin. Even a straight piece of ribbon simply pinned at the top would do. As such there is no ‘wear purple’ day but simply an encouragement for it to be worn for as long as people feel they want to.”

Everything in this part of the world has significance. And particularly colours! If purple is “a Lenten colour” then us reformed, non-liturgical types need to be educated. It seems like the simple proposal has fallen at the first hurdle. It is Cheltenham week after all.