Rev Alastair Ross – Some Personal Reflections
Others will write far better than yours truly about Rev. Alaister Ross’s life, gifts, qualities, family and service to the Lord. I offer these simply as my own memorial to a man who helped me enormously and who was, in the providence of God, largely responsible for my being in the Free Church ministry.
In 1981 I was a third year history student at the University of Edinburgh. I visited Buccluech and Greyfriars Free Church, beside the University, with a Pentecostal friend. We both loved the service – the singing of the psalms was beautiful four-part harmony and the preaching of Mr Ross (I still can’t bring myself, despite his protestations to call him Alaister!) was direct, simple, biblical and succinct. The word ‘waffle’ was not in his vocabulary!
A few months later I decided, primarily for theological reasons to move from Morningside Baptist to Buccleuch. I remember my first youth fellowship in the Manse, where over 30 young people were discussing the effect of unemployment on Christians. I loved it. It was real, practical, sane and balanced Christianity – not the dour stern fanatical image of the Free Church so beloved by the media. Mr and Mrs Ross were very much at the centre of that, with their hospitality and wise counsel.
When I became a member I told Mr Ross that I wanted to join Buccleuch but I could not accept infant baptism as it was heretical (I blush to recall my arrogance). He laughed and said, ‘that’s fine David, I don’t care if you are an Arminian, Charismatic Baptist, if you love the Lord you can be a member of his Church….mind you, you will never be an office bearer”. I recalled those words a couple of years later when I visited the manse to ask him about going into the Free Church College.
I will never forget that afternoon. He and Mrs Ross invited me for tea. But beforehand he asked me into the study and direct as ever asked, “what do you want to see me for David?”. No sooner had I uttered the words, ‘I was thinking about the Free Church College’, than he jumped up, picked up the phone to the then clerk of the Training of the Ministry Committee (his to be successor Alex MacDonald) and stated ‘ Alex, I have a young man here going in for the ministry, please send me a form’. I protested that I was only considering, to which his reply was ‘nonsense, what is your problem?’ ‘I’m too young’ (I was 21 at the time). And then he said these words which still resonate with me, because I regarded them almost as prophetic, “yes, there are great dangers in one so young going into the ministry, but I have been watching you and I think you should go in. If you waited until you were 40, then did theological training, by the time you were 50 you would have five years experience in the ministry. But if you go in just now and are ordained at 24, by the time you are 50 you will have over 25 years experience in the ministry. Providing you keep your zeal and love for the Lord, that experience will be like gold dust”. He was so wise and right. As I enter into my 28th year in ministry I thank the Lord for encouraging me through Mr Ross and I ask that He will grant me the wisdom and zeal prophesied!
Incidentally at the prayer meeting that night I received what was for me the final ‘token’ from the Lord in my decision to apply for the ministry. Mrs Ross came up to me and gave me a big hug and said how delighted she was and that she had been praying for me. I learned from the Ross’s that if a minister is married, ministry is done by the couple, not just by the man.
I loved Mr Ross’s way of preaching. He taught the bible from the text. He did not engage in flights of fancy, nor was he lengthy. It was always wonderfully practical Christ centred teaching. He did have what some people considered a weakness (but one I loved and use) – alliteration. I once heard at the Free Church youth conference a young student called Derek Lamont (I wonder what became of him?!) mimicking Mr Ross giving a row to his daughter Fiona ‘Now remember Fiona, the cleaning of the toes, the wearing of the clothes and the blowing of the nose’!
His gift of brevity and succinctness was not just shown in the pulpit. At one Presbytery meeting held in his house he was the clerk. After the meeting as the brethren were standing chatting outside the manse, he passed them dressed in hat and coat, heading for the post box to post the minutes he had already written up! He did not waste time.
He also demonstrated practical wisdom, in the best tradition of the Easter Ross ‘men’. I was then very zealous (something he encouraged rather than discouraged) but needed to learn wisdom. One time we had arranged that the children’s club we led, would perform a nativity play on a Saturday evening as a kind of outreach. We had put a lot of work into it and were in the final dress rehearsal on the Saturday morning, when trouble arrived. First of all one of the elders came and said we were probably going to have to call the whole thing off, because there had been a complaint from a family in the congregation. Then I received a letter from that family warning me that I was new to the Free Church (ironically so were they!) and that my name would be mud if I went ahead with this and I would find it difficult in the future. I was reluctant to call it off, not least for the sake of the children and parents, so I was a little bit afraid when I was asked to go to the Manse. Mr Ross asked me about what was happening. After I told him, he told us to go ahead and that although he and Mrs Ross had not been intending to go, now they would attend. We had a great night – at one point in the play one of the children declared ‘does no-one ever listen to the minister in this church?” To which Mr Ross shouted ‘Amen’…. cue lots of laughter. Pastoral, direct, warm and firm. That is how I remember him.
Another time his directness and boldness was demonstrated when he stopped us singing during one service. “We are supposed to be worshipping God, lets do it with more enthusiasm..now lets start again”. It was effective!
I also learnt a great deal about the Free Church from him. At a time when the perception (even within the Church) was that the Free Church was just an ethnic Gaelic speaking West Highland group, (someone even advised me that if I wanted to get on in the Church I should marry a Lewis woman – the fact that I did was nothing to do with that advice, and everything to do with the woman!), he pointed me, without decrying the strong West Highland Gaelic tradition, in the direction of the East Highland Free Church, the Fife Free Church and Lowland Free Church traditions. When I applied for the Free Church ministry I was asked by the Buccluech Kirk Session why the Free Church (given that we were so small). I stated that I believed that God could use the Free Church as part of the re-evangelisation of Scotland. In discussing this with me afterwards Mr Ross remarked that he thought if the Church had not rescinded permission to sing hymns and use musical instruments at the beginning of the 20th Century (and retained its confessional theology), by the end of the Century he believed it would have been the biggest Presbyterian denomination in Scotland. I believed him.
He did not want me to get too disillusioned if my dreams of the re-evangelisation of Scotland at least partially through the Free Church did not work out. We talked about many of the obstacles. In the 1980’s it seemed as though those dreams just might be fulfilled, in the 1990’s they rapidly faded into the distance, but in the 21st Century they have been revived. Mr Ross knew that the day of his generation had passed. Rather than lament that fact, he rejoiced in it and looked for God to do a new thing.
I owe him one other favour. Whilst still an undergraduate I was looking for a flat. He introduced me to a young Free Church divinity student, David Meredith, who was looking for someone to share the rent. Thus began a friendship that is still to this day fruitful, encouraging and blessed. To me that is such a parable of the wisdom and graciousness of Alastair Ross’s life – he was not flashy nor pushy, yet what he did had lasting impact and I’m sure will be seen in eternity. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, their deeds follow after them.