The tide is coming - are you building on sand?

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The opening episode of the new Grand Designs season was eagerly awaited in this part of the world as it featured a house being built on the cliffs of Portpatrick. Andy and Jeanette, a couple from Yorkshire, fell in love with the area after coming on holiday. They spent £120,000 to buy the old military listening station, so that they could knock it down and build their dream house in its place. The unique design of the house means it appears to be part of the cliff itself, with the reinforced walls and concrete roof covered in grass – deliberately designed to be hidden from passers-by.

The house took longer and cost more than planned, partly due to having to contend with the elements. It turns out it’s not easy to put windows in place with gale force winds threatening to catch hold of them! The finished house cost a cool £420k but is certainly stunning, with magnificent views of the sea, and a glimpse of Ireland away in the distance.

While the rugged beauty of Galloway was certainly on display for all to see, some were disappointed that the surrounding area didn’t really get a mention – apart from the repeated references to its ‘remoteness’! Others pointed out that the focus of the programme is meant to be the house, not the surrounding area, though even a glimpse of the town itself – or a mention of its name – would have been welcome.

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It’s not the first time this year a house taking advantage of the local beauty has featured on our screens. In May, ‘The White House’ in Kirkcudbright was unanimously crowned Scotland’s Home of the Year. It too makes the most of a spectacular setting next to the water, and offers magnificent 360 degree views.

Its story has a touch of tragedy about it however. Little more than twelve months after the couple moved in, the husband died of a heart attack following complex surgery. So while it’s hard not to be envious of some of these grand designs, it’s a reminder that even those living in the most beautifully designed houses and enjoying the most idyllic views aren’t exempt from the worries and heartaches of life. A house can be carefully constructed to withstand the elements, but it can’t protect us from the tempestuous seas of life.

None of us are exempt from life’s stresses and strains – physical and mental illness, bereavement, job loss, relationship break-up, family problems, and ultimately death itself. The question isn’t whether we’ll escape these things, but whether we have anything to hold onto when they come.

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The old Boys’ Brigade anthem asks the question: ‘Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?’ If the storms haven’t yet come, they will. So how can we be ready for them?

Some would say that ultimately, trying to resist is futile – in the end we must simply surrender to the waves. Buddhist writer Pema Chödrön, author of When things fall apart, suggests that as we go through life ‘We are like children building a sandcastle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of coloured glass…We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea’.

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The New Testament offers a different perspective. While there’s no doubt the tide is coming in, Jesus speaks of building something which will withstand it. He told a parable about two housebuilders (Luke 6:46-49). One dug deep and laid the foundations on a rock. As a result, when the flood came, his house didn’t fall. The other man built on the sand, and when the floods came, his house collapsed. Doubtless the house built on the sand looked better as the builder didn’t need to spend time or money worrying about foundations; it was only when the storm came that its lack of ballast was exposed.

What is the parable meant to illustrate? Jesus explained it as the difference between those who come to him and hear his words and do them – and those who hear his words and don’t do them. Following him won’t exempt us from the storms of life – yet in a world where many are investing their lives in things that won’t ultimately last, he offers us the chance to be part of something that will endure.

Published in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 19th September 2019

Boys' and Girls' Camps 2019

A number of Scottish young people attended RP camps during July and August, including Hannah and Daniel from Stranraer. They both answered a number of questions about their time for the RPCS website:

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What was something you learned or that stood out for you from the talks?
Hannah (Stranraer) & Katherine (North Edinburgh) – That Jesus can save anybody no matter what you’ve done.
Daniel – When God comes back to the world, He’ll judge us and then make the world perfect and put us in it.

What was your favourite activity?
Katherine & Hannah – The Edge (water sports park)
Daniel – Let’s Go Hydro (water park)

What was your favourite thing about Camp overall?
Daniel – Learning about Jesus.

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You can read the others’ answers here and here. You can also read about Senior Camp, which Stephen helped organise up until last year. Six young people from Scotland attended, all of whom were either on our go team last week, or had been on last year’s team. The speaker this year was Robert McCollum, who will be coming over to baptise Poppy on 21st September.

Can justice be done?

Last week’s newspaper article - with thanks to Jonny McCollum

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Earlier this month, the wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his cell in a New York City jail while awaiting trial for sex trafficking and the sexual abuse of minors.

Anyone who has kept track of this murky story will have many unanswered questions: Why wasn’t a man with the ability to incriminate rich and powerful co-conspirators more closely watched? How could an inmate who apparently tried and failed to commit suicide just weeks earlier be allowed to evade scrutiny and succeed where he had failed before?

The lack of answers simply prompts more questions: Was foul play involved? Were procedures followed? Some are even asking: was it suicide at all?

Yet, those are not the only questions that are raised by Epstein’s death. A case like this prompts us to move beyond political intrigue and security failings and to ask something more fundamental. The question that has plagued so many over the last couple of weeks is simple but profound: Can justice ever be done?

Let’s start with Epstein himself. In 2008 he was convicted of sexual offences involving a minor. While he technically served a prison sentence, his money and influence ensured he was able to maintain his opulent lifestyle throughout and live his life with seeming impunity. Federal investigations were carried out into his alleged sex trafficking of underage girls, but were inexplicably dropped. It certainly didn’t seem that justice had been done.

Things looked like they were about to change on 6th July when Epstein was arrested by the FBI. Finally, it seemed that justice would be done. That is, until news broke of his death. The cold reality is that Epstein will not stand before a jury and be called to give an account.

Things get even murkier when we consider those who could potentially have been implicated by Epstein’s testimony. Prince Andrew is just one man to have been publicly accused, but rumours abound about many others. Whatever the truth of those rumours, there are undoubtedly many people with much to fear if Epstein was to have testified in court. With his apparent suicide, it seems they may have wriggled off the hook. The tragic reality is that some exceptionally wicked men will never see the inside of a courtroom, let alone a prison cell.

If this life is all that there is, many people will escape justice. But what if this life isn’t all that there is? That’s a question we’ll be thinking about as we host a series of three special meetings in church from 28th-30th August. In the first of these talks, I will argue that this in-built longing we have to see justice done is one of the evidences that as human beings we are made in the image of God. As such, we are created to look beyond imperfect human justice to the perfect justice that endures beyond this life. The Bible teaches that God’s day of perfect judgement is coming and that no amount of power, influence, or expensive legal teams will allow perpetrators to wriggle off the hook.

But while we might be reassured at the thought that those who seem to have escaped justice on earth won’t escape God’s justice (Epstein, Shipman, Hitler etc) – where does that leave us? Is the certainty of God’s justice good news for us? After all, we’ve all said, done and thought things which we wouldn’t like projected up on a screen for everyone to see.  

One of the questions the biblical writers wrestle with is how can God be both just and forgiving at the same time? Because while we like the idea of forgiveness, we don’t like the idea of a judge who will turn a blind eye to breaches of the law.

The amazing news of the Bible is that there is a way that God can be both ‘just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26). At the cross, Jesus took on himself the sins of his people, and God won’t punish the same sin twice. As the New York Times bestselling author Tim Keller puts it, ‘God judged sin in Jesus Christ, so that at the end of time he can end evil without ending us’.

So the reality of God’s justice saves us from despair when we think of men like Epstein who cheat justice on earth. But it also forces us to ask questions about ourselves that we’d rather not – and yet offers a forgiveness for which we might never have dared hope.

Published in the Stranraer & Wigtownshire Free Press, 29th August 2019

2019 GO Team

As there was no American mission team in Scotland this year, we had a week-long GO team from 24th - 31st August. The team was made up of 5 people from Scotland and 6 people from Ireland, with another 3 able to join us for the bank holiday weekend.

The team arrived on the Saturday evening, spent time with some of the congregation and watched ‘Logic on Fire’, a recent documentary about God’s work through Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

On the Lord's Day there was a further opportunity for the team and congregation to get to know each other over a church lunch. In the afternoon we went into Thorney Croft care home, which one of the members of the church recently moved into. We held a brief time of worship with the residents, singing some familiar psalms.

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On Monday the team made the most of the glorious bank holiday weather to give out leaflets inviting people along to five upcoming special services. A number of good conversations were had. Following a BBQ tea, the team spent time doing some practical work around the manse. We finished the night off with a discussion of the opportunities and challenges small churches have.

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The Tuesday morning and afternoon were spent finishing off leaflets in Stranraer itself and doing some of the surrounding villages. In the evening the team went to the Halls’ home for dinner and some games - and a chance to spend time with some of the young people in the congregation.

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On the Wednesday morning the team finished off the surrounding villages (Stoneykirk, Sandhead, The Lochans, Leswalt, Kirkcolm, Castle Kennedy, Glenluce, Dunragit and most of Newton Stewart). In the afternoon we opened up the hall and invited people in for tea and coffee. We were encouraged to have people coming in and opportunities to share the gospel.

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On Wednesday evening one of the congregation very generously took the team out to the Sun Kai restaurant, before we returned to the church for the first of the mission services, where Stephen spoke on the question ‘Is this really all there is’?

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On the Thursday, following a time of prayer in the morning, the team went on trip to see Covenanter sites at Anwoth (where Samuel Rutherford was minister) and Wigtown (where the Two Margarets were martyred). In the evening the team were at the houses of various people in the congregation for tea, before the second night of the mission, where the topic was ‘Are we all going to a better place?’. We finished the night off with a discussion about some of the encouragements of being part of a small church.

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On Friday morning, after a time of prayer, Stephen did a seminar for the team on the theme ‘How to listen to a sermon?’ The team then did some more practical work, including some painting in the balcony of the church. In the afternoon, we again opened up the hall and invited people in. Despite the wet weather, we were glad to have more opportunities to share the gospel.

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A few of the team also went to Stair Park (home of Stranraer FC) to do some practical work. The team then split up for tea in two separate homes before coming together for the last of our special talks, entitled: Are they looking down on us?

The team departed early on Saturday morning. We are very grateful for their help and fellowship this week, and look forward to seeing many of them again soon!