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Salvation Army closes but legacy of Christian compassion must live on

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So far it has been a summer of good news for Stranraer. The announcement of £16million of funding from the Borderlands Growth Deal to address the derelict East Pier was followed by the hugely successful Skiffie World Championships, with thousands of people and 57 different clubs from around the world descending on Stranraer. Agnew Park was a hive of activity for all the family on some of the sunniest days of summer so far.

One item of sadder news, is the closure of the Salvation Army church (separate from the charity shop). It is the latest closure of a church in the town following that of the Free Presbyterian Church on Bridge Street at the end of last year, and St Ninian’s in 2013.

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The Salvation Army had been worshipping in Stranraer since 1884, when they acquired the building of the now-defunct Sheuchan Free Church in Park Lane. In 1967, Stranraer Town Council purchased the building and demolished it to make way for housing, with the Salvation Army moving to new headquarters at the corner of Charlotte Street and Harbour Street, which for many years was the popular Kiosk Café owned by Mr Adami. Following a farewell service, the building will now be sold once more.

Originally founded by William Booth in 1865 and called ‘The Christian Mission’, the change of name and adoption of military titles and uniforms set it apart from other Victorian charities. Booth was a fascinating man, with a deep and genuine compassion for the poor. One modern academic biography writes ‘what distinguished him as a social reformer was a willingness to cope from day to day with an awesome level of endemic disease, unemployment, and other social ills, which were then less well understood’. 

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The sight of suffering children literally brought tears to his eyes, and it was this extreme sensitivity to suffering which made him so effective in unveiling society’s darker corners. ‘He saw clearly what others scarcely noticed at all, and he felt as an outrage what others considered to be natural’. The entry for him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography concludes that he ‘probably changed as many lives for the better as any philanthropist of his day’.

One of my fellow ministers recently gave three talks entitled ‘The Compassionate Christian’ – focusing on the abolitionist William Wilberforce, orphanage founder George Müller, and William Booth. For those of us who are Christians, it is challenging to consider whether ‘compassion’ is one of the first words that comes to mind when people think of us. Yet it should be if we follow a Saviour who was marked by compassion, both for crowds and for individuals.

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True Christian compassion should always be in two directions – practical and spiritual. It wouldn’t do justice to Booth to think of him merely as a social reformer. He believed that you cannot make a man clean by washing his shirt – in other words, the human problem is so deep that simply improving our outward circumstances won’t fix the root issue. Booth cared about all suffering – especially eternal suffering. His biographer says: ‘he genuinely believed that eternal punishment was the fate of all those who died without conversion’. 

I don’t agree with Booth on everything. For one thing he condemned football as sharply as card-playing and horse-racing! He also tried to do his work outside the biblical structures and oversight of the church, as well as rejecting baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

And yet his legacy of caring for the whole person should not be forgotten. It’s easy to focus so much on the practical that we forget the spiritual – or vice versa.

Jesus said: ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God, for I was sent for this purpose’. And although ‘faith without works is dead’, the Bible is equally clear that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ, not acts of charity or compassion.

And yet Jesus’ brother James writes: ‘If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”.

Booth’s legacy must live on. Our churches must be places where hurting people can come and experience the compassion of Jesus as his word is both preached and lived out. And for those who have lost a spiritual home in the recent – or not so recent – past, by God’s grace our doors are open and a welcome awaits.

 Published in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 25th July 2019

Football and Mental Health

Being a football chaplain is great. One of the few downsides is the close season – not just because there’s no football on, but because there is often a large turnover of players. That means players you’ve just started getting to know moving on, fresh faces coming in, and the whole process starting again. However, that pales into insignificance compared to the uncertainty the close season can bring for many players. Many play the final game on the season on a Saturday, knowing that on the following Tuesday they might be told their services are no longer required. For some, football is their main or only source of income. Many of us would think of that as a great position to be in – but it can be a mixed blessing. One ‘journeyman’ who knows all too well the pain of being let go is former Stranraer striker Christian Nadé. In an interview last month he said that when a club don’t want you anymore, ‘You won’t show it, you’ll pretend that it’s alright, but trust me that when you close the door in your home, you cry’. Then if a player does find a new club, they have to start from the beginning again.

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Unsurprisingly a life filled with uncertainty, but where you cannot afford to be seen as weak, can have a negative impact on mental health. This can particularly be the case when someone’s career ends – through injury, retirement or failure to earn a new contract. If football is everything, take it away and you have nothing. If your life has been based around football for as long as you can remember, if all your friends are involved in football, it can be very difficult to find yourself on the outside. Those who speak out about their difficulties don’t always find a lot of sympathy. Last year, Cowdenbeath striker David Cox revealed that after speaking out about his mental health struggles, he had been taunted by fans and fellow players, who mocked him about slitting his wrists.

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Thankfully though, things are starting to change. In 2016, Chris Mitchell, a former Scotland Under-21 international who quit football after a series of injuries, took his own life at the age of 27. As a result, his family set up the Chris Mitchell Foundation, which they hope will ‘dispel the stigma’ in the game. Last year I had the opportunity to attend a 2-day NHS Mental Health First Aid Course at Hampden Park, tailored towards football and funded by Chris’s Foundation. Last month, the BBC screened a documentary about men’s mental health featuring Prince William and five current or former Premier League footballers: Gareth Southgate, Peter Crouch, Thierry Henry, Danny Rose and Jermaine Jenas. Southgate played over 700 games, but is remembered for only one. Crouch was booed when he came on for his England debut, with his mum and dad in the crowd. Rose became depressed when he suffered his first serious injury, and his team were doing well without him.

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Many of the same pressures are shared by those outside of football. Not so long ago, it was normal for people to be with one company the whole of their working life. Today that sort of job security is a rarity. Nor is football the only environment where people, particularly men, aren’t always encouraged to talk about mental health. However, it is important for them to know that you are not alone, and there are people they can talk to.

If people do unburden themselves to us, we need to avoid simplistic or even damaging advice – ‘cheer up’, ‘what do you have to be depressed about?’. As a minister and a chaplain, I believe that mental health can have both a physical and a spiritual component, but even then one of the first things I would tell someone to do is talk to their GP. However it was encouraging to hear Christian Nadé telling the BBC about how talking to a pastor helped him after attempting suicide.

While mental health struggles aren’t always connected to our life circumstances, and can hit someone when everything seems to be going well, the stories of many footballers show that we are particularly at risk if we find our meaning and identity in things that can be taken from us. Our jobs, health and families are all gifts from God – but they may not always be there for us.

Don’t focus so much on the gifts, that you forget the Giver. Only the Creator is strong enough to sustain us when created things are taken from us.

Published in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 4th July 2019

From South Korea to Stranraer!

Stephen has a new ‘Pause for Thought’ page in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press. Here’s his first article for the new format, published in this week’s paper (30th May)

I was at a ministers’ conference in England last month, and was told that a South Korean man was very keen to meet me. It turned out he was bringing a group of people to a World Missionary Conference that was being held in Stranraer, and wanted to know of some local Covenanter sites that he could take them to.

Two weeks ago, over 100 of these Korean visitors arrived for their conference, impossible to miss with their bright yellow jackets bringing colour to the town. Many witnessed them singing in the town centre, with one video of it quickly gathering 15,000 views on facebook.

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In fact, one of my favourite things about being a minister is the opportunity to meet fellow believers from around the world. In my three years in Stranraer, our small church has had visitors from South Korea, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Australia, the United States and Canada – as well as from many parts of the UK and Ireland. Some of these have been fellow Reformed Presbyterians; others have just been looking for somewhere to worship when passing through, and searched online for a Bible-believing church.

There are others in countries such as India, South Africa and France who’ve never visited, but have signed up to receive news and prayer updates from our church in Stranraer.

As a family, we’ve also had the opportunity to travel to International RP Conferences, in North America, Scotland and Ireland, with fellow-attendees from too many countries to count. This time last year we spent some time with the RP Church in Los Angeles, whose assistant pastor is South Korean. He has his own version of the ‘Blue Banner’, flown by the Covenanters in Scotland in the late-1600s, emblazoned with a Korean translation of the slogan ‘For Christ’s Crown and Covenant’. Another friend, a Japanese pastor, has one adorning his motorcycle.

Indeed, despite the differences in language, culture, food etc, the overwhelming impression when talking to these brothers and sisters is not what divides us, but what we have in common.

One of my theology Professors recently returned from teaching in South Korea. He commented that having been privileged over many years to visit some far-flung parts of the world and experience church life in different forms, what has generally struck him is not how different things are, but how similar. It reminded me of a conversation with a couple of medical missionaries in Uganda – two of the biggest issues they face among young men are alcohol abuse and suicide. People are people, wherever you go.

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Returning to Stranraer’s recent visitors, the fact that our town has a church sent out from South Korea is a local example of a trend academics describe as ‘reverse missionaries’. It is becoming more and more common for countries which we traditionally think of as missionary ‘targets’ to instead be sending missionaries here. So people from Africa come to start churches in England, and South Korean Presbyterians are sent to the mission field of South-West Scotland. Reverse missionaries come either because they think there aren’t enough churches in an area – or they perceive that existing churches are no longer proclaiming the message that once enthused traditional missionaries to travel the globe.

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In 1950 an estimated 80% of the world’s Christians were in Western countries. By 2025 it’s estimated that at least half of them will be in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia.

While some may feel threatened by this trend, I actually find it refreshing. As the UK moves further and further away from being a Christian country, those who follow Jesus find themselves in a similar position to that of the Apostles in the first century. The Apostles were regarded as ‘atheists’ (as they didn’t believe in the pantheon of Roman gods). They were outsiders whose views were misrepresented (the Lord’s Supper sounded a bit too much like cannibalism). They faced persecution, increasingly by the state itself (once it became clear that Christianity wasn’t just a Jewish sect). But all this combined to mean it was fairly clear where people stood. When people rejected the Apostles’ teaching, it wasn’t because they had been brought up in the church, and thought they knew it all already. And as people heard their message about Jesus with fresh ears, many found in strangely compelling. 

Perhaps some will hear South Koreans singing on the streets of Stranraer as an invitation to listen to an old message with new understanding.

"I'm clean enough"

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One thing that all hotels have in common are those little door hangers, which tell the cleaners whether they should come in and make up your room or not. I came across one recently where the usual two options were put in a slightly different way. One side read: ‘I’m clean enough: please don’t disturb’. The other said: ‘I’m a right mess: come on in’.

And as someone who’s passionate about getting the Bible’s message across in everyday language, I thought they were brilliant. Because they perfectly sum up the only two possible responses to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the misconceptions about Christianity that I try and combat as a minister is that it’s only for good people. That it’s for those who have it all together. But that leads only to pride (for those who think they are good enough) or despair (for those who know they are not). In actual fact, the Bible tells us that there has only be one truly good person who has ever lived – Jesus Christ. The reason he came to earth was not (mainly) to set an example for us – since we could never live up to it. Instead, he came to live the perfect life that we fail to live, and then die in the place of his people.

As a result, being a Christian isn’t so much about ‘doing’ but about ‘receiving’ – receiving the free gift of cleansing that he offers. There are many (not least among those who sit in churches) who say, ‘thanks but no thanks’ – ‘I’m clean enough: please don’t disturb’. But by God’s grace there are others who gratefully say, ‘I’m a right mess: come on in’. It all boils down to how you see yourself.

Jesus himself says ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’ (Revelation 3:20). What will your response be? ‘I’m clean enough: please do not disturb’? Or ‘I’m a right mess: come on in’?

The above article was scheduled to be in today’s Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, but wasn’t printed - the ‘Thought for the Week’ column hasn’t featured in the paper for a number of weeks.

"Adam poisoned me"

The BBC recently featured an interview with Toronto artist Gillian Genser, headlined: ‘How a sculptor’s artwork slowly poisoned her’. Genser was experiencing headaches, vomiting, hearing loss, confusion and suicidal thoughts. But she never suspected it was coming from the sculpture, which was made only of natural materials. 

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For years, doctors were baffled by what was afflicting her. They asked if she was working with anything toxic, and she assured them she wasn’t. They prescribed antipsychotics and antidepressants, but nothing seemed to help. Finally, she saw a specialist who tested her blood for heavy metals and found high levels of arsenic and lead in her system. She was shocked, but still confused — how had she ingested those dangerous compounds? Finally, she talked to one doctor who was horrified to hear that she had been grinding up mussel shells for the past fifteen years. She had no idea that mussels can accumulate toxins over years of feeding in polluted waters. 

And the most fascinating thing about the story is who the sculpture was meant to be. It was Adam, the first man. Genser recognised the irony herself. She said: ‘It’s very interesting and ironic that Adam, as the first man, was so toxic. He poisoned me. Doesn’t that make sense?’

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And it makes perfect sense, because that is what Adam, the first man, did to all of us. He poisoned us. He rebelled against God – and we are contaminated by that rebellion.

For a long time Genser didn’t suspect that her poisoning came from the sculpture of Adam. And we too don’t suspect that our sin comes built in. We blame society, education, our up-bringing. We believe the myth that people are basically good. And because of that misdiagnosis, we prescribe ourselves the wrong cure.

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One of those wrong cures is the outward forms of religion. Going to church, taking communion, giving money, doing good works. They’re all good things – but are helpless to cure the underlying problem.

The message of the Bible however is that a second Adam – Jesus Christ – has come to cleanse us from this in-built corruption, as well as all the other poisonous thoughts, words and deeds we add to it during our lives. It doesn’t mean those who trust him will be perfect. Like Gesner, we will suffer the effects of Adam’s poison for the rest of our lives – but it will no longer define us forever.

Published in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 14th February 2019