White Christmas 2009

dsc02351We don’t always have the phenomenon of a white Christmas in this part of the world, but the weather has been very seasonal in the last few days. It all adds to the atmosphere of the Christmas and New Year holidays that we find so appealing and heart-warming.


Unfortunately the snow and ice made travelling a bit uncertain and hazardous in other parts of the UK, and many people struggled to get back home for the holidays. When I returned from Belfast yesterday, in spite of my best efforts, I was unable to get my car up our driveway. Thankfully that problem has been resolved, and the driveway is now more easily negotiated.

I managed to get a few pictures of the scenes around our manse this morning which will serve as a reminder of Christmas 2009. With these pictures comes our best wishes to you and yours for a happy Christmas. May you know the blessing and joy of Christ’s presence and peace at this season.dsc023591dsc02370dsc023571dsc02365

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”


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.

Journeying Mercies

These past few days I have been travelling quite a bit and experiencing what I used to hear older Christians pray for: “journeying mercies”. On Friday night, I had the privilege of joining with the congregation of Drumkeeran in Co Cavan as they celebrated the 175th anniversary of their congregation and the 25 years of ministry of Rev Jean Mackarel in the group of congregations that includes Killeshandra, Cavan and Bellasis along with Drumkeeran.

Thankfully my sat nav device worked well and it got me to my destination on time, but not without a few de-tours to avoid flooded roads. Outside Clones I drove into what I though was a large puddle, but after a few seconds I thought I was in Lough Erne! I was relieved to make it through to the other side. There were a few other troubling moments as I came upon sections of flooded roads without any warning, but by God’s grace I managed to negotiate the hazards successfully.

It was a great evening, planned and led by Jean in her own inimitable style, and no one was in any rush home. The tea, sandwiches and cake were served around 10.30pm and I eventually got on the road again. The road near Clones with the big puddle was now closed, so I was diverted to Newbliss. But diversions were also in place along that road due to the floods, and I ended up on a single track road with grass growing up the middle, and my sat nav registering a blank. I eventually made it to Monaghan and on to Portadown for around 1am.

I arrived in Lisburn on Saturday morning for a Taking Care Trainers conference with the rain teeming down. It was then a quick run into Belfast in difficult driving conditions on the M1 to the Assembly Hall for the SPUD youth assembly. Then off to the north coast to be close to Bushmills for the morning service in Dunluce. It was good to share in a Full Attendance Day with Rev Stephen Carson, former assistant in First Portadown, and his family. The new hall facilities in Dunluce are excellent.

Then to a rain-swept Ahoghill, and to Trinity congregation, where Rev Dr Harry Uprichard has ministered for 39 years, for their united evening service with First Ahoghill and Brookside. It was an excellent evening congregation, with good sausage rolls and tray bakes afterwards.

I don’t drive particularly slowly (I think) but on the way back to Portadown there were some other cars that were seriously over the speed limit and were not driving wisely in difficult road conditions. One eejit was weaving in and out the lanes of traffic at great speed and putting us all at risk.

Yes, the Lord is good and we are thankful for “journeying mercies”, but that doesn’t relieve us from the responsibility of driving with caution and respect for other road-users. In the dark and damp days between now and Christmas, we pray that our roads will be safe and that no families will have to face tragedy and loss through speed or stupidity on our roads.

Bloom where you’re planted

My friend, Carl Trueman, is not one for beating about the bush. And in a recent blogpost, he is critical of those of us who blog a bit and spend too much time in front of computer screens. His main point is one which I have been reflecting a bit on recently: however imperfect our present situation, God desires that we bloom where we’re planted. That applies particularly to our local church situation. As Carl puts it, “welcome to wherever you are”.

This realization that the Lord has called me – and I am guessing, most of us – to serve first and foremost wherever we actually are – our families, our congregations, our denominations, and our workplaces — is surely a sobering one. It lacks so much ambition, and shows such a limited vision, after all.  Yet in this regard, I think the church is best served by those with such limited ambitions and myopia. I am not much of a web-wanderer but on the odd occasion I do a bit of websurfing, I am struck by how many Christians, pastors, professors, and laity, have blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitters going.  How many millions of Christian hours are wasted writing this stuff, engaging in mindless blogthreads, and telling the world about personal trivia? And what does it tell us about the expansive visions and ambitions out there?  Apparently the world is now everyone’s birthright.

Now, I find myself very uncomfortable with this. I do believe that some professors, pastors, and laypeople are called to have regular ministries outside their immediate geographical locations; but I also believe that there are precious few thus called.  Certainly, mere possession of hi-speed internet is not a divinely given sign of such a worldwide calling.  When I see Christians blogging so much, I wonder how many sermons are being prepared on the fly because of lack of time, how many parishioners go unvisited, how many prayers remain unprayed, how many words of love and affection to spouses and children are never said, how many books – let alone the Bible – are left unread, and how many fellowships atrophy through lack of any real, meaningful social and spiritual intercourse.  Indeed, to summarize: how many online `communities’ (sic) prosper to the detriment of the real, physical communities into which the Lord has placed each and every one of us?  How many complain of insufficient time to do the boring routines of the Christian life – worship services, Sunday School, visiting the sick and the aged, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer – and yet always somehow manage to fit in a quick twitter or blog or podcast or change to their Facebook status?

I am increasingly convicted of my own failures in this regard.  The internet has never been my particular temptation; to me the web has been – and, indeed, remains – basically a quick means to shop.  Beyond that, it is simply an ironic-to-absurd medium in the way in which it allows everybody, regardless of sanity, IQ, or qualifications, to have their fifteen seconds of fame. Frankly, 95% of it is utterly ridiculous as far as I can judge, the denizens of webworld being akin to the institution described in Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether.  Yet, if the web has not consumed my time, then travelling has perhaps been my particular weakness, combined with a general inability to say `no’ to any request to help with preaching or lecturing. The net result is that I have probably ministered all over the place, but not so much in the church congregation where the Lord has actually placed me, that part of the Body of Christ which I am particularly obliged to love and encourage and to which I am accountable.  Of course, being there of all places will never make me a superstar or a guru or earn me a fortune or get me a cool conference gig or land me on the cover of Christianity Today; but it is nonetheless the place where I am meant to be.

The command to love the Body of Christ is indeed a command, not a sentiment.  It comes with specific demands on time and on place.  I pray that I will learn more and more about what these demands truly mean.  And I pray too that more and more Christians will come to realize that real life is lived in the real world in the real church where they really attend on a Sunday.  Time to get out of the system of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether and join the real world.  Welcome to wherever you are.