normanhamiltonMy friend, and former fellow-presbyter in North Belfast, Norman Hamilton, will succeed me in the moderatorial chair on the first Monday night in June. I wish him God’s blessing and much wisdom as he undertakes that role. I am confident that he will bring his own unique style to the position and will be a blessing to the whole church.

I hope that I will be able to deliver to him a situation in the denomination in which the PMS crisis is a thing of the past. I had hoped that when I took over from Dr Donald Patton last June that the PMS crisis would be resolved by September with the promised report from the PM’s Working Group. How naive I was! This moderatorial year has been dominated by the crisis which I would love to see resolved before another meeting of the General Assembly is convened.  If that is achieved, then Norman will be able to concentrate on giving a lead with some more positive issues in the church and community, and will enable the church, under God, to move forward.

Norman will remember that he became convenor of the vacancy in the Carnmoney congregation after I resigned in August 2000, and so he has some experience already of mopping up after me.

Tommy Bowe

irelands-tommy-boweIt’s hard to believe that Ireland have beaten England in six of their last seven matches. But they have! From an Irish perspective, this season of rugby can be counted a success because of today’s 20-16 win over England. And with the last two matches of the Six Nations Championship at home in Dublin, who knows, but Ireland might have a very successful season once again.

Today’s win was secured by two great tries from former Ulster player, Tommy Bowe. It was Tommy’s clinical finishing that made the difference between the two teams, and he took his opportunities well. There was something particularly sweet about the way he drifted past Wilkinson for the final try.

Rory Best, restored to full fitness, had a good all-round game. He managed to play for the full 80 minutes, and was very busy all over the park. It was good to see Andrew Trimble make an important contribution in defence in the last quarter of the game when Brian O’Driscoll had to come off with concussion. Maybe Declan Kidney will restore Andrew to the starting line-up for one of the last two matches of this championship. With Keith Earls scoring such an excellent try, it would seem that his place is secure.

So, apart from any debate about the relative performances of the two teams, it was a case of Ireland winning by 3 tries to 1. Tonight we are celebrating a great win!

Faithful Admonisher

picture-of-seamus-heaneyA good friend of mine has been corresponding with Seamus Heaney. As a result of his engaging and entertaining epistles, the great man signed a copy of one his poems as a gift for me. The poem is entitled “A Drink of Water” and I have been thinking about the meaning and significance of this sonnet.

I have no formal training in English literature, although anyone who professes to exegete and apply the literature of the Bible, and especially the poetic literature of the Old Testament, clearly needs some expertise in literary analysis. Maybe someone can help me understand the point that Heaney is making in this poem.


She came every morning to draw water
Like an old bat staggering up the field:
The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter
And slow diminuendo as it filled,
Announced her. I recall
Her grey apron, the pocked white enamel
Of the brimming bucket, and the treble
Creak of her voice like the pump’s handle.
Nights when a full moon lifted past her gable
It fell back through her window and would lie
Into the water set out on the table.
Where I have dipped to drink again, to be
Faithful to the admonishment on her cup,
Remember the Giver fading off the lip.

Apparently, like many sonnets, “A Drink of Water” turns in the last six lines. Instead of describing a morning, it switches to evening. The profound meaning for the speaker of this individual woman and her daily routine has not yet been explained, and so the point is made at the end.

When the full moon is out, the speaker thinks of this particular woman. Something about her haunts him, and something about her makes him remember her. One commentator says this:

In the last three lines, the latent power of water as an image becomes obvious. Water carries religious overtones, with immersion rituals in particular, as the verb “dipped” suggests. Water is frequently associated with purification, and something about this woman’s water ritual offers the speaker both “admonishment” and purification. Something about her reminds him of sin and the need to erase it. However, the meaning of the old woman is still ambiguous.

In the last line, the power of this lone old woman getting her water is finally explained. Her cup had a phrase on it — “Remember the Giver.” Who the Giver is, of course, is the immediate question. Who gives water, who gives life? These questions might refer to God. However, in Heaney’s unique context of an Irish poet writing in English, it is possible that the “Giver” is England, the source of the words he uses as tools to create a self. Like a man dependent on God’s water for survival, for the gift of life, this is the tale of a poet dependent on a ruler for the

gift of language and the sustenance of words.

I must say that I appreciate, and can grasp, the spiritual and religious explanation. It is a well-known biblical metaphor. God is the Giver of water, and the Giver of life, and the water which Jesus gives satisfies our deepest thirst. That is a truth that many may be inclined to forget, and it is the task of all “faithful admonishers” to underscore it.

It is also true that “faithful admonishers” who enter the pulpit every Lord’s Day need to be experts in the use of language as they seek to bring comfort and challenge to their congregations. Clear, creative and careful use of words is the challenge facing every preacher.

Those “words of life” which they share with their congregation also find their origin in the One who is Himself “The Word”.  If the words of the preacher are to have any effect in the lives of his hearers, then it is because the message is delivered in dependence on the One who alone can give life. “Faithful admonishers” need to “remember the Giver”.

There’s a lot going on in this poem by Seamus Heaney. I think I may need more help in trying to exegete it. But, once framed, I will treasure it and it will find its place on my study wall.

Postscript: I wrote to Seamus Heaney to inquire if my exegesis of his poem might be legitimate, and I got a lovely reply from him.

I always took the Giver to be the Lord God – I’d presumed the old lady got the cup/mug on some excursion in her early days to Portrush or Portstewart.

Thanks, Seamus. It had to be an “excursion” and not just a day trip.


img_0093It’s called Snob-logs and it’s to be found on the main Belfast-Larne road close to Bruslee. The Garden Centre is Logwood Mill, and Snoblogs is the coffee shop and restaurant which is part of the garden centre, run by Jim and Amanda, and their business partner, who is also called Amanda.

I was there last Saturday morning for a men’s breakfast with members of First Ballyeaston congregation as well as a few visitors from other congregations in the East Antrim area. It was a great meal. I reckon that, for lots of reasons, one should only eat a full Ulster fry now and again. But it has to be one of the most tasty meals ever invented.

Even though I often travel that road from Belfast to Larne, I have never stopped at Logwood Mill. My experience last weekend has encouraged me to think again about calling in to see Jim and Amanda when I’m in that part of the world.

The gathering at Snoblogs gave me the opportunity to reflect on my days growing up in East Antrim, and especially to recall the influence which my father had on my life. My father, by his life, communicated what he really loved and what was most important to him, and significantly influenced my life. As fathers and grandfathers, we do the same to our sons.

Albert Schweitzer, the famous medical missionary, said, “Example is not the main thing in life — it is the only thing.” He might have overstated it a bit, but it is undoubtedly true that most of us have been influenced most by the actions of others than by their words. So, on reflection, calling in at Snoblogs regularly  for an Ulster fry may not be my best option. I wonder if they serve green tea and a wee salad?

One Fitness

img_0033As we enter the second week of the New Year, the shine begins to wear off some of the new year resolutions. Nobody knows this better than my friend, Jonny, who is the manager of the re-branded gym at Portadown Rugby Club. Under Jonny’s management, it will now be known as One Fitness, with the promise of a complete make-over of the facilities.

Many people join the gym in the new year with the intention of taking exercise more regularly as part of a weight reduction programme or the desire to move to a more healthy lifestyle. But every gym manager knows that maintaining the initial good intention is a huge challenge, with the average retention rate being as low as 30%.

The experts say that health clubs and gyms that focus on sales and neglect customer service may bring in waves of new members, but if their clients are sneaking out the back door as quickly as they came in the front door, their low retention rates may be chipping away at their bottom line. Case in point: it costs two-and-a-half times more to recruit a new member as it does to retain an existing member, says Bob Esquerre, president of Esquerre Fitness Group, a consulting company.

“You’re wasting money every time you lose a member, and no one is in this business to lose money,” he says. “If you do a great job of taking care of your members, they’ll refer their friends and coworkers and become your club’s business card, article in the newspaper or advertisement on the radio, and it won’t cost the club a penny.”

It seems to me that there are many parallels between the gym and Christianity. Firstly, some people start off well, but just don’t continue. Retention is a problem for the church as well as for gyms and health clubs. Churches may have an open front door in terms of evangelism, but discover that many people, for various reasons, are leaving through the back door. But then did Jesus, in the parable of the soils, not say that it would be like that? Only one of the four types of soil actually yielded a harvest.

Secondly, many people admit that exercise is something they ought to do regularly, but they don’t get round to doing it. Like reading the Bible or praying, we know we ought to do it, that it will benefit us, but we often falter and fail. Paul says that we may have the desire to do the right thing but just can’t carry it out because of our sinful nature (Romans 7:18-23). According to Paul, it’s a war.

But I think that there is another, perhaps more important lesson to be learned. When I make it to the gym regularly, I feel good, even self-righteous. When I don’t get there, I feel guilty. All performance-based religions have the same effects. Pharisaism produces either guilt or pride. Jerry Bridges puts it like this:

Pharisee-type believers unconsciously think they’ve earned God’s blessing through their behaviour. Guilt-laden believers are sure they’ve forfeited God’s blessing through disobedience or lack of discipline. Both have forgotten the meaning of grace – God’s unmerited favour to those who deserve only his wrath.

Most of us probably entertain either of these attitudes on different days. On a good day (as we perceive it) we tend towards self-righteous Pharisaism. On a not-so-good day we allow ourselves to wallow in a sense of failure and guilt. Either way we have moved away from the gospel of God’s grace, trying to relate to God directly on the basis of our performance rather than through Christ.

The Discipline of Grace

The fact is that we are never good enough to be acceptable to God, no matter how many resolutions we keep. The life, death and resurrection of Christ is meaningless and superfluous if we can be right with God by our own efforts. The only way we can relate to God is through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:19-21).

It is the riches of God’s grace that gives us the power and motivation to serve Him. So there’s no pride or guilt when we are focused on Christ. That’s the greatest resolution I need to make and keep: “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1,2 ESV)