RETURNING TO THE PARISH
On my return to the pastoral responsibilities of Railway Street congregation I soon found myself heavily involved in the Church and in the Lisburn community.
Government policy was pushing for a rationalising of medical services throughout the Province and one of the hospitals targeted for closure was the Lagan Valley Hospital in Lisburn. This seemed a very retrograde path to be following since Lisburn had a fast growing population and was by then the largest urban area outside of Belfast. An Action Committee was formed to oppose the closure and I was appointed chairman. This proved to be a very time-consuming and demanding position, leading deputations to the Health Board and the Government Department as well as mobilising public support. It was a matter of great satisfaction to us all when the authorities `backed off' from the idea of closure and the full facilities of the Hospital were saved for the benefit of the greater Lisburn community. Long may it so remain!
For several years concern was expressed about the deteriorating condition of many of the Church windows. Apart from six stained-glass windows all the rest were plain. Rather than simply repair the lead in these windows I thought it an opportune time to enhance the beauty of the Church with more stained-glass. The
P. W. A. led the way by offering a lovely Missionary window, which was gladly accepted. The Committee agreed to launch an appeal and
I was given freedom to seek for donations from families. This required careful diplomatic handling but the result was that all the plain glass was replaced with beautiful picture windows in stained-glass. The generosity
of people was most touching and I appreciated their co-operation and trust.
The contract bad been given to the firm of Caldermac and through it I came to know the Managing Director, Mr Jack Calderwood, a fine artist in stained glass.
I enjoyed working very closely with him in the choice of themes for the windows, and the finished product gave great satisfaction to the whole congregation. Jack became a highly valued member of the Church. Sadly his recent sudden death has been a great loss.
In 1990 I issued a call to all our members for renewed and whole-hearted commitment of body, mind and spirit to our Lord Jesus Christ. Throughout the years I had sought to maintain a balanced, positive evangelical ministry which I believe is the essence of Presbyterianism. To mark the commencement of a new decade we had a special Mission to the congregation led by my
friend the Very Rev Dr Godfrey Brown, Minister of Ballycastle. This was accompanied by an exhibition in the Minor Hall depicting all the organisations and activities of the congregation. The Mission was a great success, summing up what was the main thrust of my ministry.
Throughout the years I was fortunate in having some excellent Church Leaders. One of the most important things a Minister can do is to encourage the appointment of worthy people to office. If the leadership is wrong it can have a very negative and destructive effect on the work of the Church and can lead to untold misery especially for the Minister
I think of the excellent team spirit of my three senior officer bearers, Brian Menown, Clerk of Session, Norman McClelland, Secretary and Kenneth Kyle, Treasurer. Their wisdom, grace and helpfulness meant more to me than I can ever say.
I was fortunate also to have the help of a fine succession of Assistants all of whom have gone on to be very effective in the pastoral ministry. The Very Rev Dr David McGaughey, Minister of Mourne and recently Moderator of the General Assembly; the Rev James Briggs, Minister of my home congregation of Scarva Street, Banbridge; the Rev William Campbell, Superintendent of the Shankill Road Mission; the Rev Ivan Hull, Minister of Ulsterville, Belfast; the Rev Kenneth McBride, Minister of Orangefield, Belfast; the Rev David Latimer, Minister of First Derry; the Rev John Carlisle, Minister of Downshire Road, Newry; and the Rev Mark Gowdy, Minister of Macosquin.
The last major project I undertook before retirement was the election of twelve new Elders and a similar number of new members of the Church Committee. These elections prepared the way for my successor, so that he had no need to worry about sucb matters for his first few years and he was assured of a reliable body of people to support him in the work.
My student days in Edinburgh brought me into contact with fellow students from many parts of the world and whetted my appetite for a greater understanding of life in other countries and particularly Church life.
One of my first inter-church experiences as a young minister was to lead a small group of representatives from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to the British Council of Churches Youth Conference in Bristol in 1956. There I met for the first time a young Church of Ireland Curate named Sam Poyntz who was later to become Bishop of Connor and on his retirement to reside in Lisburn. Edward Paley, Dean of Liverpool, a genial, gracious man had a great influence on the delegates. I still remember his emphasis on our unity in Christ so that though we belonged to different denominations we should see one another as
'Brothers in the Lord', thus doing away with the 'us and them' mentality.
"So", he said, "as you walk to Church on Sunday morning and hear the Salvation Army Band you will say
'that is our band!"
Once our children were old enough to travel we enjoyed frequent holidays touring in Scotland. Two of our best experiences were when we occupied the Church of Scotland Manse in Tain, Rosshire, where
I preached in the Church each Sunday. It was a wonderful means of getting to know the people and
appreciating their warmth and kindness. Over the years we visited every county in Scotland.
On other occasions we holidayed in the Lake District, Yorkshire, Lincoln, Cambridge, Oxford, Norfolk, London, Torquay and Barnstable in England. What a rich and varied cultural heritage is summed up in the word `England'.
We also enjoyed visiting mainland Europe, travelling through France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Austria, Switzerland, Spain and Yugoslavia. Our family benefited greatly from the educational value of such visits.
In 1986 I had the opportunity of representing our Church at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Wales which was in Llanhrust in North Wales. This was an interesting experience finding all the business transacted in the Welsh language. Fortunately we were able to follow the business by listening to an English translation on earphones. When I addressed them
I told how one of my predecessors, Dr Alfred Martin, had asked why they used the Welsh Gaelic language, only to be told,
"because Gaelic is the language of Heaven ". To which Dr Martin replied,
"I would prefer you waited till you got there before you use it"
The Holy Land
On two occasions I had the opportunity of leading pilgrimages to the Holy Land. These were most moving and enriching experiences. Both times I went at Easter because I believe it to be the most meaningful. There are so many pilgrims present from other cultures and traditions yet all united in celebrating the Life, Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I shall never forget
preaching at the Easter Dawn Service held in the open air at St Andrew's Church of Scotland in Jerusalem, or conducting communion at the Garden Tomb or in the Chapel by the sea of Galilee.
It was my practice when we visited a site of significance to the Scriptures to read the appropriate passage from the New Testament. In the Garden of Gethsemane I asked one of our party to read the passage. That evening the lady who had read the Scripture came to me to say that she had come on the pilgrimage searching for something and in the Garden that day she found the peace for which she
had been looking. I think also of two English Anglo Catholics who asked me to hold a Communion Service for them at the Garden Tomb. Afterwards they came and explained to me why they had asked for the little service. They had recently lost their little boy, their only son, and had come to the Holy Land seeking the comfort of God's Spirit. With joy on their faces they told me they had found the assurance and peace of Christ in that service, there in the Garden.
American Preaching Tour
Our first visit to America was in 1969. We landed at Kennedy Airport on 3rd July - the eve of Independence Day. It seemed as if all Americans were going or coming on holiday that day. The place was so crowded and noisy it was like Bedlam. Dr John Cromie, formerly of The Valley,
Ballyroney, had arranged to meet us but be was unable to get into the airport because of the throng of people. How pleased we were when through all the babble of languages I heard my name being called on the intercom. This was to give us a message from John with directions as to how to reach the spot where he was waiting for us. We were delighted to meet up with him and enjoyed the hospitality of his
home for our first weekend in the U.S.A.
The purpose of this American visit was a Preaching Tour organised by the British-American Preachers Exchange Scheme sponsored by the American Council of Churches.
My first engagement was in Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn where Henry Ward Beecher was once minister. When I arrived at the Church the minister said
"This will be an L.O.L. Service today. " He saw a look of surprise on my face so he asked
"Dont you know what an LO.L. Service is?" I replied "I know what it means in Northern Ireland - Loyal Orange Lodge -but what does it mean here? " to which he responded
"Here it means 'Little Old Ladies' Service because this is a vacation Sunday and most of our people are
away!" In fact to his surprise we had a very good attendance and they were not all little old ladies by any means.
In Pittsburgh I preached in the First Lutheran Church - a beautiful building though unfortunately overshadowed by enormous skyscrapers. I preached at two morning services and after the second one I met the Rev Dr Richard M Cromie who at that stage was minister of the new Presbyterian Church in Parkwood. Richard's grandfather was born near Rathfriland and we found that our families were related. This marked the beginning of an enduring friendship.
While we were in America the whole country was agog with the Apollo II Astronauts' flight to the moon. I happened to be preaching in the First Christian Church in Waukegan on Sunday
20th July when the moon landing was expected to take place. I wondered if the people would stay at home to watch it on television, but I need not have worried. The Elders had brought a large television screen into the Church so that the people could watch it there. As it happened, our service had just finished a few minutes before we saw Neil Armstrong, Commander of Apollo
II, stepping out onto the moon's surface and heard him say, "One small step for
man, one giant leap for mankind". The atmosphere among the American congregation was electrifying as together we gave thanks to the sovereign God for making such an experience possible.
The euphoria, which gripped America over the moon landing, was soon eclipsed by the news of Mary Jo Kopechine's drowning. Her body was found in Senator Edward Kennedy's car, which lay submerged in water alongside a bridge in Chapaquiddick island near Martha's Vineyard. Deep mystery surrounded the eight hours between the time of the accident and Senator Kennedy's appearance at Martha's Vineyard police station to report it. Soon afterwards we were staying with our friends, the Harris family, in Brookline, Massachusetts. As a family they had grown up around the comer from the Kennedy's and knew them, so their insights on the power of the Kennedy money were quite significant. For days on end reports, rumours and speculation dominated the media.
It was a strange feeling being in America at that time and personally witnessing a nation swinging from euphoria over the moon landing to total disillusionment over the Chapaqueddick drowning.
It was also while we were in Brookline that we saw pictures on the TV news of burnings, bombings and shootings in the streets of Belfast and Londonderry, followed on
16th August with the deployment of British troops in the ghetto areas of both cities. My wife and I both had a terrible sense of sadness and helplessness as we watched such pictures while we were so far away. We hoped against hope that the story was being exaggerated. Alas it was a story that would continue to
run for the next 30 years.
Other churches in which I had the privilege of preaching were Gurnee Community Church in Illinois where we met and established a life-long friendship with Dr and Mrs Bill Brownell; Westfield Methodist Church, New Jersey; Matthewson Street Methodist Church, Providence, Rhode Island and the Presbyterian Church Brookline, Boston.
We had a most interesting visit to Devonport in Iowa where Kathleen's cousin, Mary Moore and her elderly mother gave us a wonderful welcome. Mary took us on a wide-ranging tour of Iowa and Ohio.
Another delightful experience was ourt stay for a few days with my cousin Winnie and her husband, Merlyn Wulff at Iron Ridge, Wisconsin. Winnie, formerly from Springmount, Ballygowan, and a warm-hearted cheery person, had emigrated to the USA and married Merlyn who was a dairy farmer. Staying with them and their lovely family gave us a welcome respite for a few days in the midst of a very busy programme.
In our journeys from Washington to New Hampshire and from New York to Ohio, my wife and I had nine internal flights as well as our trans-Atlantic flights from Dublin to Shannon and Shannon to New York. This was quite an undertaking particularly for Kathleen who for many years had a real dread of flying.
Before we left Dublin on our outward flight we had a long delay of three hours because of engine trouble. Knowing Kathleen was feeling nervous about the prospect of flying I bought her a magazine to pass the time on the flight.
'Life' looked the most attractive magazine I could find, so after take-off I handed it to her but when she opened it the first thing she saw was an article headed,
'A split second in Eternity'. If that weren't enough she turned over a few pages and read `I see death coming up the hill!' She decided to give up reading
Space does not permit me to write in detail about the American trip. Let it suffice to say it did both of us a world of
good. We met so many interesting people some of whom remained firm friends for many years afterwards, like Mrs Wetton who sent us hand-made Christmas Tree decorations every year for the next twenty years until her sight failed her. The visit helped us to overcome our innate shyness and to be more outgoing in meeting people. I was involved in so many broadcast interviews, which helped to build up my confidence in coping with the media. Exposure to so many widely different forms of Church Services in quick succession gave me an openness to appreciate and experiment with new and varied forms as well as a better understanding of the traditions to which I was accustomed.
Bi-Centenary of U.S.A.
My first visit to America stirred afresh my interest in the Ulster contribution to the early settlement of the American colonies. This led me to write my book
'Ulster Settlers in America'. The publication was well received, so when 1974, the Bi-Centennial of the American Declaration of independence came along, I was invited to be Convener of the Historical Society's Bicentennial Committee. I derived much satisfaction from preparing preaching material on the subject for ministers throughout our Church who wished to observe the Anniversary.
My wife and I appreciated the invitation to attend the Bi-Centennial Celebrations in the U.S.A. that summer. We enjoyed being in Philadelphia on
4th July for the ringing of the Liberty Bell. That day I preached in Abingdon Presbyterian Church through the good offices of Dr John Magill who with his wife and family entertained us
`royally'. In the evening we attended a Bi-Centennial Communion Service in Neshamimy Presbyterian church founded by William Tennant.
It was a wonderful experience to be involved witty a great Nation celebrating its Bi-Centenary.
Toronto and Pittsburgh 1978
Two years later we headed west once more. This time we took with us three of our family. David, Gillian and Fiona. My father's cousin Harry Cromie and his wife Wilda had issued a pressing invitation to visit them, so we flew to Toronto. There we were met by another friend, the Rev Fred Cromey, and were driven to Woodstock, Ontario, on the Dundas Highway about 70 miles from Toronto. When we reached our destination we were given a rapturous welcome by both Harry and Wilda. We were the first
Cromies from Ireland to cross their threshold and come to stay with them. Wilda had prepared a virtual banquet for us using her complete set of Beleek china! What a risk she took.
On the Sunday I preached in the Presbyterian Church in Paris, Ontario. It was a lovely Church and was at that time without a minister. Dr Ken McAlpine the local G.P. had been at Trinity College, Dublin, the same time as I was there and his wife Maudie, formerly English, was also my contemporary at Banbridge Academy! It is a very small world! We enjoyed meeting them and they showed us great kindness.
My visit to the Church in Paris however, led quickly to an embarrassing situation whereby I received a most pressing call to be the Minister of the Congregation. Naturally I had to give the matter very serious and prayerful thought, but in the end I declined, much to the disappointment of the Paris congregation.
After a most enjoyable stay with Harry and Wilda we proceeded via Niagara Falls to Natrona Heights near Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. The Minister, the Rev
Al Deemer and I had arranged a direct exchange of Church, manse, car and salary for the month of July.
This arrangement worked well. It was a very hot, humid summer and with no air conditioning we were often uncomfortably hot and sticky, especially at night. One day I dropped on egg on the pavement and it immediately fried! We had access to the local country Club and enjoyed the facilities of the swimming pool, etc.
On the first morning after we arrived the telephone rang. It was Robert Peters, the local funeral undertaker, ringing to ask me to conduct a funeral. Knowing how customs vary from one country to another I arranged to call at the Funeral Home later that morning. On arriving by car with the family
I went in to make the arrangements. David and Gillian asked if they could come with me but Fiona decided to stay in the car with Kathleen. After a while, however, Fiona decided she should not be left out, so she said she wanted to come in to the Funeral Home. Her mother tried to dissuade her knowing that she might see a corpse and be frightened.
Finally Kathleen agreed and Fiona came in. Ten minutes later she came running back to the car calling,
'Mummy, come in quickly till you see the loveliest old man sitting up in his coin with his glasses
on!' Maybe there is something to be said for 'the American way of Death!'. Certainly it was not a frightening experience for Fiona or for any of our young ones. Kathleen remained in the car!
Preaching in the Church each Sunday and being responsible for the pastoral work gave us the opportunity of getting to know many of the people and making many friends. It was a great experience for our family, for they were welcomed into the activities of the Church Youth Group.
We were sorry to leave Natrona Heights, but having said our 'Good-byes' and after a delightful early-morning, poolside breakfast with Dr and Mrs Ray Khan, Prof Dick Barnhart, a very
kind and generous man and the Vice President of Carnegie Melon University drove us back to Niagara Falls. Harry and Wilda Cromie met us at Niagara and drove us back to their home. After spending a few more days with them we flew back from Toronto to Prestwick and then to Belfast.
My friend the Rev Dr Richard M Cromie whom I first met in Pittsburgh in 1969 moved in 1983 to First Presbyterian Church Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The following year he invited me when I was Moderator to visit his Church and preach on Advent Sunday in December 1984. This was a very happy occasion and became the first of three visits. to Fort Lauderdale.
The next was in 1993 following my retirement as Minister of Railway Street. I preached on Worldwide Communion Sunday. Kathleen and I were treated right royally, staying for part of the time in the Lago Mar Hotel - a truly beautiful suite was at our disposal. We had taken the opportunity of flying to Orlando and when there we
'saw the sights' of Disney World - quite an experience! Having hired a car we enjoyed driving down by the Gulf of Mexico and appreciating the wonderful scenery. The Hampton
Inns became our favourite places in which to stay.
Our third visit was in January/February 1995 when I was invited to preach at the
Ort Mission in Richard's Church. On this occasion we stayed in the Imperial Suites. - again splendid accommodation. As on the previous occasion we hired a car in Orlando and enjoyed a sightseeing drive down by the Mexican Gulf. It was our delight on this occasion to meet and have meals with Dr and
Mrs Bill Brownell who had been our hosts in Gurnee on our first preaching tour in 1969 and Dr & Mrs John Magill who had organised our visit to Philadelphia in 1976. It did our
hearts good to see these great people again.
We paid a further visit to Florida four years later in February 1999. Again we hired a car in Orlando and drove to Clearwater and St Petersburg -a lovely area, then on to Sarasota where Billy and Verna Nolan gave us a wonderful welcome. Verna was formerly from Rathfriland and had lived for a time in Newcastle, so we had no shortage of conversation! After four delightful days we drove across the peninsula to Palm Beach. My friend Richard had been called as Minister of the Royal Poinciana Chapel in Palm Beach. This was a prestigious and demanding charge ministering to many of the rich and famous, but all in need of the redeeming Grace of the Gospel. The Church Board, no doubt at Richard's suggestion, invited me to preach at special services, which I readily agreed to do.
The first Sunday in February was observed as Scottish Sunday. The services that day were very colourful and I was welcomed as a Scots Irishman. Proclaiming the message of God's Love in Jesus Christ was a heart-warming experience especially as the church was packed to the doors with every available chair in the aisles. An overflow congregation heard the service relayed to them in the adjoining hall. We were very conscious of the Spirit of God at work in our midst. Unfortunately over one hundred people had to be turned away due to total lack of accommodation.
The Church very generously arranged for us to stay for the weekend in the famous Breakers Hotel - regarded as one of the finest hotels in America - a truly delightful experience, though we equally enjoyed relaxing with Richard and Peggy in their lovely home. That visit also gave us the opportunity of renewing contact with friends like Dr and Mrs Richard Barnhart and Dr and Mrs Ray Kahn, whom we have met on previous occasions in America.
THE PRIMACY OF PREACHING
A LECTURE PREPARED FOR A MINISTERS' SEMINAR IN AMERICA
It is over 50 years since I preached my first sermon as a student in a little country church in Stranorlar, County Donegal. I can still remember the shiver that went down my spine when I stood up before that congregation of ruddy-faced farmers to lead them in worship and to preach. My sermon was on
'Jesus Christ, the Fountain of Life'. Whether anybody drank from the Fountain or not that day I will never know this side of time.
I still remember, however, the strange feeling that came over me as I realised that at that moment I was meant to be an instrument in the hand of God in offering those people the most precious of gifts - The Water of Life.
After the service an old man going off in his pony and trap called me over and said-
"Thank you, 'son, that sermon did me good". I can assure you the words
of the old farmer did me good as well. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. For over 40 years I have maintained a regular pulpit ministry, for 32 of those years in the same pulpit. I am more convinced now than ever of the relevance, the validity and the primacy of preaching as the principle means, chosen by God, for communicating the Christian message.
Reactions to the Message will vary
True preaching always calls for a verdict. Over the years I have seen many different reactions to sermons -just like the response Paul experienced after preaching to the Athenians
on Mars Hill as recorded in The Acts of the Apostles, Ch.17 v 22-34.
"Some mocked, others said, we will hear you again, while some believed". These are reactions experienced in varying degree by every preacher of The Word. Don't be put off either by the fact that some will say -
"We will hear you again on this matter". Undoubtedly, when they say that, it may be a brush-off by people who, for one reason or another, do not wish to face up to the challenge of what you have been saying to them. On the other hand it may mean you have touched something deep within them, which has started them thinking, but before they can come to a decision they feel they need to hear you again and to probe it further. It's always best to give people the benefit of the doubt. You never know how the Spirit may be working in their minds and hearts.
Thank God there were also some for whom Paul's message clicked. It met their deepest need. They recognised it as the
Truth for which they had been seeking and so, in a whole-hearted way, they responded, they believed and they became identified as His followers. There were not many of them -just a small number and only two of them are named - Dionysius, the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris. Obviously they stayed the course and their names were well remembered by the time Luke came to write his account of this incident. And so the nucleus
of the Church in Athens was formed.
Don't be swayed by numbers
God works in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. Often Recollections of Life and Ministry in the 20th Century we concern ourselves too much with numbers. God was able to take that tiny handful of believers on Mars Hill and out of them to produce a mighty Church. The believers may have been a tiny minority that day while those who mocked and those who tamed away may have appeared to be the vast majority. Yet God in His good time changed radically the proportions as He said He would in the parable of the sower.
The apparently meagre response of Paul's hearers on Mars Hill did not discourage him as a preacher or cause him to move on to Corinth disgruntled and muttering to himself that he ought to give up preaching and try some other means of communicating the Gospel. He did not judge his calling as a preacher by those who failed to respond but by those who did respond. He was willing, wisely, to leave the ultimate results to God Those who mocked him undoubtedly regarded his preaching as foolishness. But Paul had lived long enough to realise that often the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and so he writes to the Corinthians -
'It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believed'. (1 Car.
1 v 21).
Preaching must be Earthed
I would love to have heard Paul preaching that day on Mars Hill. He started where the people were. Using an inscription on a wayside shrine that would have been well known to them to launch his message. That inscription to
'The Unknown God' became his means of introducing the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. So he led them by familiar avenues of thought, quoting to them even from their own poets, until he brought them to the central figure of his message - Jesus and His Resurrection. To be sure speaking of the Resurrection was more than many of them could take, but Paul did not shy off from declaring it. While there were many who turned away there were also some that believed.
One of the finest preachers in the British Isles this Century was Professor James S Stewart of New College, Edinburgh. It was my privilege to have him as one of my teachers. He had a delightful Scottish accent and a tremendous command of the English language, a man with a great mind and a deeply devotional spirit. Yet he was by nature very shy and one of the humblest men I have ever known. When people knew he was preaching in one of the Edinburgh pulpits they would have flocked in their hundreds to hear him. Often, when he was speaking to us about preaching he would say,
'Gentlemen, start where the people are, speak to them about the things with which they are familiar, but do not stay there -strike across country and bring them to Jesus
Christ'. That was Paul's method as well as we have seen him in action on Mars Hill.
Striking across country to Jesus Christ is, however, a figure of speech, which is not meant to be a convenient
`cop-out' from facing up to the harsh realities of life with which people have to contend. It's not just a simple,
'Come to Jesus and all is well' kind of message, which is so often a complete caricature of the Gospel. Instead it means coming to grips with the claims of Jesus Christ on all the issues of life with which we have to do. Once we start to take the Christ of the New Testament seriously we begin to discover how multifaceted is the gem of the Gospel we are called on to declare. If in our preaching we bear in mind that we are called to declare the whole counsel of God we will not
be just strumming on the one note all the time. Instead we will be using every note on the Gospel keyboard and bringing the whole orchestra into play.
Ministering 'Where the Action is'
I was talking to a young assistant minister some time ago and I
asked him what he intended to do after his assistantship ended.
He said he hoped to go into some specialised form of ministry because be said he wanted to be
'where the action is'. I said - 'If you realty want to be where the action is, you ought to consider going into the pastoral ministry, for that is where you will be meeting action all the
time'. In parish work you never know what crisis is going to hit you next, be it good or bad.
It is as you wrestle with the real issues of life and seek to interpret and proclaim the message of Jesus Christ against that backcloth that you discover the relevance and the importance of preaching. I personally am very aware of this having maintained my pulpit ministry against a background of continuous violence and frequent human tragedies especially during the last thirty years. Virtually every week I was conscious of the unspoken question of the congregation -
'Is there any Word,from the Lord?' That is what sharpens a pulpit ministry.
Now that I am retired I am still preaching most Sundays but in a variety of churches. While, in a sense, it is good to know that once the service is over I now have no further responsibilities in that congregation, at the same time
I miss the interaction between the pulpit and the pew. The people before me are mostly strangers. I have not shared their joys or sorrows during the week and so I sometimes feel as if I am preaching in a vacuum. Yet, having said that, it's amazing how often the Holy Spirit takes the spoken word and applies it directly to some situation of which
I have been totally unaware.
The Power of the Prophetic Word
This really should not be surprising for the Power of the Prophetic Word is what makes preaching a living and life-giving experience. It is because, in Paul's words, "It pleased God, through the foolishness of preaching, to save them that believe. " Preaching is a divine priority. Our calling is to be the mouthpiece
of God. 'Heralds of God', was James S Stewart's favourite title for the preachers of The Word.
The Old Testament prophets knew the truth of this when they declared -"The
Word of the Lord came unto me saying "
Jesus also stood in the prophetic tradition. Mark tells us that He began His active ministry by coming
"into Galilee preaching the Gospel of God', .(Mark 1 v 14). After His Resurrection, when
He committed His ministry of reconciliation to His disciples, Jesus made clear to them how that ministry was to be exercised
-"Go Ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. "
The Holy Spirit brought the Church into being through the preaching of the apostles when, on the Day of Pentecost, three thousand souls became believers (Acts 2 v 4)1. From there the story went on. It can be safely said that
all the high points in the Church's history were reached through the preaching of such men as Augustine, St Francis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley and a host of others.
The Greatest Need of Today
Faithful, authentic, biblical preaching never was more urgently needed than here and now. Despite the critics of the pulpit it's true to say that the power
of the spoken Word never was recognised to have so much potency as at the present time. The volume of words from all the pulpits in Christendom is actually very small compared with the volume of words communicated seven days a week by radio and television into every home in the land. Some of it is good and wholesome, some of it is amusing, some of it is downright blasphemous and some of it is plainly stupid.
All the time people are crying out for some sense of direction for their lives in the midst of so much confusion. We have a duty, therefore, to buy up every opportunity of telling people the truth about God and the Good News of what He has done for
them in Jesus Chist.
The big question is -"How are they to hear without a preacher?" Let nobody distract you from your God-given task
of "proclaiming the unsearchabable riches of Christ". Thomas Carlyle once said:-
`no one who is called to be a preacher should stoop to be a king'. There is no higher calling than to be a Herald
of God. God's word to Paul in an hour of deep discouragement is a word to us all -
"Have no fear; go on with your preaching and do nod be silenced for I am with you ....and there are many in this
city who are my people-". (Acts 18 v 9 & 10 N.E.B)
In the mystery of God's Providence He has chosen us to Proclaim the Good News of His Salvation
to a needy world. We must let on one deflect us from it. Rather would we take to ourselves the: truth expressed in George Osborne Gregory's lines:
Go ye;. said Jesus, and preach the Word
All through the world let its voice be heard'
Publish the tidings o'er land and sea,
Tell men the truth that shall make them free
And carry the Gospel on!
Saviour, obeying Thy great command,
Safe in the grasp of Thy guiding hand,
Strong in the faith of Thy Holy Word,
Gladly we answer our risen Lord
And carry the Gospel on!
Retirement was never a subject that loomed large in my thinking. I was generally absorbed with whatever was the work in hand whether in the congregation or on the broader scene. I have seen some people lose their enthusiasm for their work, as they grow older. Thankfully I never felt that way, instead my one concern was that I was not able to do more. I always counted it a privilege to have been called of God to serve Him in the ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ. Though I fell far short of what 1 ought to be, nevertheless it was always my aim to offer my best for Him.
The more I observed of others the more it became my firm belief that when a person reached retirement age, and particularly if carrying a heavy responsibility, he or she ought to retire gracefully. Many members of my congregation expressed regret at my decision and would have sought to persuade me to stay longer, but I believed it was best to hand over to my successor when the congregation was in good heart. It is better to retire while people are asking,
'Why are you retiring?', rather than wait until they start asking, 'When are you going to
Accordingly I preached my retirement sermon on Sunday 9th May 1993. I took as my text the words of St Paul to the Philippians, Chapter 1 verse 27 -
'Whatever happens conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Then
whether l come and see you, or only hear about you in my absence I will know that you stand firm in one Spirit, contending as one man for
the faith of the Gospel'. It was a highly emotional service. The Church was packed with over a thousand people present. The vast majority of them had become members of tire congregation during my ministry; many of them I had baptised, later married and in turn baptised their children. I had shared their joys and their sorrows, their triumphs and their tragedies so that they had become in a sense my extended family. The result was that by the end of that service there was hardly a dry eye in the church.
Kathleen and I were back in Lisburn again on Thursday 20th May for a congregational reception. This proved to be a wonderful evening to which many of my personal friends had been invited. The programme was jolly and light-hearted My friend from college days, the Rev David Alderdice made a very witty speech, stringing together a series of funny stories, which brought gales of laughter from the assembled gathering. Canon Cunningham, the local Parish Priest, laughed till the tears ran down his cheeks. His face became so red that some people thought he was going to have a heart attack! Before the evening ended we received generous gifts from the congregation. Edith McConnell presented Kathleen with a beautiful gold, pearl and sapphire pendant and Norman McClelland gave me a handsome cheque. Prior to that evening the various organisations had already given us gifts which we will always cherish.
To mark the occasion Rita Thompson, one of our members, wrote this poem which she read. Regrettably Rita has since died.
HISTORY OF A SHIP
In the year eighteen hundred and sixty three
At the town of Lisburn, by the lovely Lagan side,
A keel was laid by a band of faithful folk
Upon which they built with fervour and with pride.
They worked as those inspired, and with much prayer,
And in the following year, the work complete,
Their ship was launched to sail the sea of time,
And named -'Congregation of Railway Street'.
That ship has bravely forged ahead since then
Through storms of strife and days of peaceful calm.
God blessed her, and all who sailed in her.
Within her bulwarks many found their Gilead 's Balm.
Several worthy Captains have come and gone,
Each one carrying out his work of love.
Refitted and refurbished our ship sailed on,
The Standard of the Cross still flew above.
1962 saw another Skipper at the helm -
Rev Howard Cromie was appointed to this post.
His hands have held our good .ship well on course
And made her exploits known from coast to coast.
He ever sought to keep a happy ship,
His crew he saw as one big family.
But that, as we all know, reflected well
A happy home, on that he could rely.
His genuine concern was plain to see
When trouble came to any of his crew.
His sympathy and counsel are well known
In sickness or in sorrow, problems too.
Encouragement was given to new recruits,
He smiled to see the children come on board,
And ever gave instructions to ensure
That within their minds God's Word was firmly stored.
He left us for a year in '84,
And though sad to be without him on our ship
We were proud to lend him in a wider cause
In which he nobly served in the Moderatorship.
But, back on board, together we sailed on,
And thirty-one his years with us have spanned.
We know his strength has come from One above,
His orders always came from High Command.
Your crew would now salute you, Sir, tonight,
For you have served us well, you we shall miss,
And in that we include your faithful wife,
She too has played her part in all of this.
And we assure you, Dr Cromie, we will try
To keep this ship well trimmed and shining bright.
Until another chapter opens in our log
We'll keep the standard flying at full height.
Our prayer for both of you is now
That in a quieter lagoon you'll find
Blue skies and gentle breezes day by day,
And the peace of God to fill your heart and mind.
You are still in Senior Service, and no doubt
Our routes will oft converge where'er we rove,
So we'll hail each other warmly, that's for sure,
For the banner over all of us is LOVE.
By Rita Thompson
Railway Street Congregation
20 May, 1993
Moving house after 32 years was not an easy experience though in many ways it was a good exercise in getting rid of much non-essential clutter! Once the move was over we settled quickly into our new home at 17 Marguerite Park, Newcastle. It is a
'homely' house with a pleasant view of Slieve Donard, reminding us of the Psalmist when he says -
"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord who made heaven and earth
". We have a reasonable sized garden around three sides of the house. Laying it out and working in it has given us a great deal
of pleasure. Our friendly robin that had laid claim to the garden always appears to inspect any digging we might do in it.
The Mourne Country is undoubtedly 'an area of outstanding natural beauty'. So we enjoy our walks through Tollymore and Castlewellan Forest Parks as well as along the beaches at Murlough Bay and Newcastle.
Making friends in a new place is not so easy in retirement. We are all the more aware of the importance of real fellowship within the Church. We have valued this in Newcastle Church where we have been made most welcome, but we are conscious
of how much it is lacking in some congregations. I am reminded of the man who arrived in a new area and attended the local church for several Sundays, but no one ever spoke to him. Finally he came in one Sunday and sat down in his pew with his hat on. After a while one of the Elders tapped him on the shoulder and said "You shouldn't be wearing your hat in Church ".The visitor replied, "l know that, but it was the only way l could get
someone to speak to me!"
In Newcastle we are fortunate to have an active Probus Club for retired professional and business people. This has provided a good opportunity for getting to know a wide circle of people with a great variety of interests and experiences. As well we meet regularly with our retired ministers and their wives in the Newcastle Clerical Club - a great fraternity.
I have been very fortunate in that since I retired I have been invited to preach in quite a variety of Churches either doing holiday duty or
'filling in' during vacancies. Mostly Kathleen travels with me and I enjoy her company, it also gives us the opportunity of meeting and making new friends. Leading a congregation in worship and proclaiming to them the Good News of Jesus Christ is one of the greatest privileges that can be given to any person. In doing that however, the one thing that I miss is the interaction with my own congregation whom I knew personally and of whose
problems, concerns and needs I would have been conscious in many instances. I was always aware of a strong rapport between the pulpit and the pew. Effective preaching and pastoral care belong together. Yet having said that, I have been amazed so often at the number of times when I have felt
I was preaching in a vacuum to a congregation of total strangers, yet the Holy Spirit has taken my words and brought them home to certain individuals who have said to me afterwards,
"You were speaking directly to me", or "How did you know my situation, what
I am coping with right now? " The fact is, I did not know, but God knew and He was able by His Spirit to apply the needed word.
On the fortieth anniversary of my ordination, Kathleen, who has considerable poetic talent, gave me an Anniversary card with these lines that she had penned:
As you stand at the gate of the future,
Be thankful for all that is past-
Your work - God's people to nurture,
In this role you were perfectly cast.
For forty years now you're ordained
To the preaching of God's Holy Word,
For this task you were perfectly trained
And long may your preaching be heard.
Whether churches were big or were small,
It made no difference to you.
You preached the Good News to them all,
Should the people be many or few
I wish you God's Blessing, good health,
And many more years to come,
These things are more precious than wealth,
And the future has only begun.
Now that we are about to enter a new millennium I am very conscious that 'the future has only begun'. I hope and pray that as the new millennium dawns Jesus Christ, whose birth it ought to celebrate, will be so lifted up that He will
'draw all men unto Him'. What a thrilling opportunity to declare to the world that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God the Father'.
One of the great pleasures retirement has brought has been the opportunity of seeing more of our family and particularly our grandchildren. I often regretted the fact that when our own children were growing up I was so busily engaged with Church work
that I was not able to give them as much time as I would have liked. Retirement has helped me to redress the balance.
We are fortunate that most of our family live within easy reach by car so we can enjoy visiting with them and baby-sitting frequently - though some of them are getting beyond that stage. They rather reckon they are keeping us company!
One of our great delights is to return from time to time to worship in Railway Street Church. I am very thankful that my successor, the Rev Brian Gibson and his wife are both very welcoming towards us and are always anxious to include us in special events in the life of the congregation. Brian frequently invites me, as Senior Minister, to preach at various services giving us the opportunity of meeting with the congregation. Having a warm and friendly relationship with one's successor and seeing the congregation continuing to prosper under his leadership are major factors in having a happy and contented retirement.
When I reflect on my life I am thankful to God for His guidance and blessing every step of the way. I can honestly say I believe I have had a very fulfilling and happy life. I could not have shared it with a
kinder or better natured person than Kathleen. She is not only my loving wife but also my best companion. God in His goodness called me into the ministry of His church and I could not have wished for more satisfying spheres of service. The Presbyterian Church is `an anvil that has worn out many
hammers'. I am proud of its work and its witness and I am grateful for the kindness the church has shown me and the friendships I have found within it. In my final letter to the congregation at the time of my retirement I concluded with these lines
Heavenly Father, Thou has brought us
Safely to the present day.
Gently leading all our footsteps,
Watching oer us all the way.
Friend and Guide through life's long journey,
Grateful hearts to Thee we bring;
But for love so true and changeless
How shall we fit praises sing?
To God be the Glory.