Where is God?

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We live in a world of terrorist attacks, injustice, deceit, cancer, mental illness and death. Why doesn’t God do something about it? Many conclude that either he isn’t powerful enough to intervene, or he isn’t loving enough to care.

That was the conclusion that people came to as they witnessed the most evil event in human history. It’s striking that as we read through the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Bible, it seems as if God is doing nothing. Those standing around the cross mocked Jesus because it seemed God didn’t love him enough to come to his rescue: ‘He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him’.

Yet although it seems at first glance that God isn’t doing anything, every detail of what’s happening is a fulfilment of his plan. In a series of seemingly random events, Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh to try and dull the pain, the soldiers who are crucifying him have the bright idea of casting lots for his clothes, and he’s crucified between two robbers. As these things happen, God doesn’t even get mentioned. It seems that he isn’t paying attention. And yet each of these acts is the fulfilment of centuries-old prophecies about how the Messiah would die. Although they have no thought of God, and their motives are very different from his, evil men are merely fulfilling his plan.

So just because it seems that God isn’t at work in your life, don’t conclude that he is absent. God’s activity is often hidden, but he is still very much at work.

If you’re not yet a believer in Jesus Christ, he is bringing events into your life to show you your need of him. In your disappointments, pain and bereavement he is showing you the emptiness and futility of living only for this life.

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, then God’s great goal for you in all that happens is to make you more like Jesus. Often, the process is not one we would choose. Just like refining gold, applying heat to something so precious seems destructive. But just as the goldsmith heats the gold until he can see his face in it, so God applies the heat to our lives that we might reflect him more clearly to a lost and dying world.

Published in Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 17th August 2017

Church Family Weekend

From the 25th - 27th August we'll be having a church family week.

On the Friday night, we'll be having a screening of new Luther documentary, which has been released to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

On the Saturday morning Ken Nelson will share his experience of trusting God in suffering. Ken is a church elder who suffered a brain aneurysm a couple of years ago. 

In the afternoon there will be a kids' fun afternoon and then we'll close with a BBQ for everyone. The full timings for the Saturday are as follows:

On the Sunday we'll have lunch together after the morning service, and then in the evening Stephen will start a new sermon series on the book of Galatians, one of the key books in the Reformation's rediscovery of the gospel message.

We have invited some of the local churches and we do hope you'll join us if you're in the area!

We'll have a GO Team with us to help organise some of the activities, and while they're here they'll also be doing visits to encourage the elderly folk in Belmont Care Home and Dalrymple Court.

Summer camps take place this week

Each summer, the Reformed Presbyterian Church organises five summer camps, held in Ireland. On Saturday, eight young people from the RP Church in Scotland, including one from Stranraer, got the ferry from Cairnryan to head off to the four different Junior Camps taking place this week.

Please do remember to pray for the Boys' and Girls' Discovery (10-12 years) and Adventure (13-15 years) camps this week. BDC have been praying for us!

Earlier in the summer, another five from Scotland attended Senior Camp (16+) - three as campers and two as leaders. You can read their thoughts on the week on the RPCS website.

Here's Stephen's take on the week.

The Leader’s Highlights
“Singing psalms with 100+ people is always a highlight – at camp we sing at breakfast, at supper, and plenty of times in between! I always enjoy meeting new people – those at camp for the first time as well as those from other countries and denominations. Now I’m a minister, being able to sit under preaching is a rare privilege, and I especially enjoyed hearing Marty Cowan from Union Theological College preach on the Lord’s Day evening. And a sunny week filled with football and volleyball is hard to beat!”

What the Leaders Enjoy
“I’ve benefitted hugely from camp over the years, so I’m glad to be able to give something back. I enjoy being involved in the planning of camp, and especially having a say in who the speaker is – because that sets the tone for the whole week. I love leading a discussion group of the oldest guys each evening, and seeing their faith growing and gifts developing.”

You can listen to Marty Cowan's sermon (mentioned above) here:

'A Special Relationship'

Earlier this year the BBC screened a 3-part documentary entitled A Special Relationship, exploring the connections between Scotland and Northern Ireland. They were originally planning to do some filming in Stranraer, both at the RP church and the Football Club, but had to pull out a few weeks before due to scheduling conflicts.

However a recent book, Preachers of the Covenants, does highlight many of the connections between the RP Churches in the two countries - including quite a few links to Stranraer in particular.

Scottish Connections

David Houston, who 'firmly established the cause of Reformed Presbyterianism in Ulster', was born in Paisley in 1633 and educated at Glasgow University. William Martin, an Irish minister who emigrated with 460 families to America in 1772 was also a Glasgow University graduate, who completed his theological training in Dumfries. At this time Covenanters in Ireland were under the oversight of the Scottish Presbytery, who ordained Martin in 1757 - the first minister of the RP Church to be ordained in Ireland.

Stewart Bates, the son-in-law and biographer of John Paul, who is quoted frequently in the chapter on his father-in-law, was born in Co. Londonderry, received a doctorate from Glasgow university, and served congregations in Kelso and Glasgow. Alexander McLeod Stavely was born near Cloughmills, graduated from Edinburgh university, and as was required of all ministry students at the time, studied for three terms at the Scottish Theological Hall in Paisley under Dr Andrew Symington (brother of Stranraer's most famous minister). J. A. Chancellor also studied under Symington in Paisley.

Torrens Boyd was born in Ireland and ordained to Penpont near Dumfries. Some of his members walked 17 miles to get to church. He resisted calls for unity with other denominations which had begun to embrace liberalism, warning that such a union would be like chaining two ships together - when the waves begin to roll 'they will rasp each other's sides off, tear open each other's hearts and go down together'. The subsequent history of the churches in question would prove him right.

Penpont communion token in use during Boyd's time - on display at Dumfries Museum

Penpont communion token in use during Boyd's time - on display at Dumfries Museum

A. C. Gregg was a Donegal man who served congregations in Loanhead (south of Edinburgh) and Greenock. He served the church through writing as well as preaching: editing the church's magazine, the Reformed Presbyterian Witness, and helping put together the biography of the famous J. P. Struthers of Whithorn and Greenock.

F. S. Leahy, another Donegal man, studied at the Free Church College in Edinburgh and initialled ministered in the Irish Evangelical Church before his increasingly Presbyterian convictions led to him joining the RPCI.

Stranraer Connections

Part of the sermon A. C. Gregg preached at the ordination of Moffett Blair (twice minister of Stranraer, 1932-44 and 1969-78) is quoted. There is also a whole chapter devoted to Moffett's brother Hugh Blair, who began his ministry in Loanhead and served as edited of the R. P. Witness. He spent the majority of his ministry in Ballymoney and wrote the commentary on the book of Joshua in the New Bible Commentary.

Willie Young (pictured below) who was minister of Stranraer from 1946-56 also gets a mention for the role he played in organising a convention of the Reformed Presbyterian Churches of Scotland, Ireland and North America, which was held in Scotland in 1938.

There are also connections to Stranraer in the authors of some of the chapters. Tim Donachie (who contributed the chapter on David Houston) was the moderator of the RPCS when our current minister Stephen Steele was ordained, and preached the ordination sermon. Samuel Ferguson, whose biography of William Stavely is republished in the book, was minister of Stephen's home congregation of Faughan for 47 years. Sam Cromie baptised Stephen's wife Carla. Then Stephen himself has a chapter on Thomas Houston of Knockbracken.

Preachers of the Covenants is available to buy from James Dickson Books in Kilsyth, or the Covenanter Bookshop in Belfast.

Related articles: New book traces history of RP churches in Galloway
Related audio: Sermons on Psalm 23 by Dr Hugh J. Blair.

Who's shirt are you wearing? (Newspaper article)

As of Saturday I’m now the proud owner of a Stranraer FC shirt with ‘Malcom 9’ on the back – the name and number of the second top scorer in the club’s history. The first game of the season was an opportunity to pick up the shirt of the player that I’d sponsored last season, which turned out to be Craig Malcolm’s last with the club.

Sadly however putting on his shirt won’t improve my football ability. If it was that easy I would go straight out and buy one that said ‘Ronaldo’ on the back! It will still be the old me inside it. Putting on a shirt with someone else’s name on it doesn’t give you their skills, identity, achievements or medals.

But amazingly, what isn’t true of a football shirt, is true of a Christian’s relationship with God. The Bible talks about ‘putting on Christ’. That means trusting in him to make us acceptable in God’s sight. The astounding truth of the Bible is that when we ‘put on Christ’ then immediately, in God’s sight, all Jesus’ achievements become ours.

As a minister I’ve found that the biggest misconception about Heaven is that people think they can earn the right to go there – by church attendance, living a good life, giving to charity etc. That leaves ‘good’ people feeling proud because they think they’ve done enough, and ‘bad’ people feeling hopeless because they know they haven’t. But the Bible makes it clear that earning a place in Heaven is way beyond out ability – it’s impossible. The only person who has ever deserved Heaven is Jesus Christ. And so when we stand before God, the question won’t be, ‘did your good deeds outweigh your bad ones?’ but ‘who’s shirt are you wearing?’. There is nothing to earn. Jesus has done it all. He has met God’s standards. All we have to ‘do’ is accept his free gift.

I was handed Malky’s shirt on Saturday because a year ago I’d paid a fee. But for us to be handed the achievements of Jesus, there is nothing to pay. The Bible describes Heaven as a wedding feast. Jesus warns that those who turn up without the right ‘clothes’ on will be thrown out. If we are hoping for our own efforts to cover us before God, they’ll let us down. We will only get in if we are clothed with the achievements of Jesus.

Published in Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 29th June 2017