Newspaper

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

2019: What we can and can't know

The prospect of a new year brings many uncertainties. But what if it didn’t have to? What if we could find out what lies ahead? Many try, through fortune tellers, clairvoyants, mediums and so on. In general, we would be right to be sceptical. A couple of years ago, a tweet about a clairvoyant’s show being cancelled due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’ went viral. If the dictionary defines them as ‘someone who claims a supernatural ability to perceive events in the future’, then cancelling a show due to unforeseen events is a bit of a hint that such a claim is unfounded. And yet people continue to turn to them. In words attributed to the novelist G. K. Chesterton, ‘When a man stops believing in God he doesn't believe in nothing, he believes in anything’.

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And yet God does not forbid his people from consulting fortune-tellers and mediums because they do not work – the only extended description of a medium in the Bible features someone being successfully called up from the dead. Rather, the prohibition is because going down this route will stop us relying on God.

God wants his people to seek information about the future in a different way from those around them. God does tell us what lies ahead – but he does so in big picture terms. We don’t need to know the details, and we couldn’t cope if we did.

What we can be certain of is that God’s plans for his people are ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope’. That doesn’t mean this life will be easy. Many of God’s people around the world face persecution for their faith. Christians aren’t exempt from illness (physical and mental), tragedy, bereavement and family conflict. Jesus said ‘in this world you will have trouble’. But he also claimed that ‘everyone who believes in me will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day’. 

One of the great uncertainties for many is what comes after death. Even many who are devoutly religious hope they’ll be in Heaven, but are not sure they have done enough to get over the line. That is one thing we don’t need to be in darkness about, however. If we’re hoping that we’ll be good enough to make it, we’ll never get there – but if our faith is in Jesus, our future is secure.

Published in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 27th December 2018

Big Brother hasn't gone away

The final series of the TV show Big Brother may just have finished - but Big Brother hasn't gone away. Last week, Nicola Sturgeon described herself as the 'chief corporate parent', or as she prefers it, 'chief mammy'. While doubtless intended to be endearing, Sturgeon's admission highlights a growing trend of government interference in family life. Recent examples of this are the proposed Named Person scheme (ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 2016), government efforts to stand between parents and their young children on the issue of gender self-identification, and Scottish Government support for a bill by Green MSP John Finnie to ban smacking.

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This latest effort is despite the fact that 74% of Scots say that smacking should not be a criminal offence (though the Church of Scotland disagrees). While the Government claims a connection between smacking and aggressive behaviour in adolescence and adulthood, there is no evidential basis for such an assertion. In fact, the author of the bill admits to smacking his own children and says they turned out to be 'well-rounded'!

Not only does the proposed bill ignore both the public and the evidence, its supporters consistently misrepresent the current law by claiming that the new legislation is about protecting children from assault. In actual fact, any smack that leaves more than a temporary reddening of the skin is already illegal, as are smacks aimed at the head. The present law ensures that parents will not be prosecuted for using light, reasonable discipline. The new legislation would turn good parents into criminals for simply tapping their kids on the back of the hand or pulling them away from the side of the road. Meanwhile, police and social workers will be flooded with trivial cases, leaving them struggling to stop genuine child abuse.

The Government is also trying to rewrite history in an attempt to force through the bill, claiming to have 'long opposed the physical punishment of children', when as recently as 2017 Ministers said they did not believe a ban was 'appropriate', while similar legislation was opposed by the SNP in 2002.

Those who perhaps breathe a sigh of relief that Christianity doesn't dictate morals as it once did may just be starting to worry about what it's been replaced with. A God-sized vacuum has been left behind, which the Government is all too happy to try and fill.

Published in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 8th November 2018