Newspaper

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

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

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.