Dear Brothers and Sisters,
It’s one year since we moved to Australia. It seems as though we have been here for years, on the other, as though it were five minutes. There are many things to reflect on – but if I were to give a report for the year, I think it would revolve around the words, ‘failure’ and ‘success’. McCheyne said that he would ‘rather beg bread than want success”. I know that there are ministers who dislike that attitude and who prefer to talk about ‘faithfulness’ rather than ‘success’. But I think McCheyne is correct. We are called to do a particular job and if we do not do it, or it does not work out, then that should deeply concern us, and we should not hide behind the psychological defence of ‘faithfulness’.
Of course, it all depends on what one means by ‘failure’ and ‘success’, and how we judge it. In its ultimate sense only ‘the day’ will tell. But we are rational, sentient, spiritual beings and we are to some degree able to discern – as when the carpenter looks at his handiwork and says, with a sense of satisfaction, ‘it is finished’.
I have been reflecting not only on the past year, but on the past 34 years of ministry. I became a minister aged 24 in 1986 and served for six years in Brora. It was a blessed and difficult time. There was a period of 18 months where almost every month someone was converted in that small church – I think it made a real impact on that small community. There was often a sense of God’s presence and I had the impression that whilst ministry was not easy – it was also fruitful and normal to see people becoming Christians. But there was failure as well. When we left for Dundee in 1992, I had this fanciful notion that I would often return and that the church would continue to flourish. But I also remember leaving in the back of a carpet van driven by one of the elders and feeling an overwhelming sense of failure and foreboding. I have only been back once and for a variety of reasons, the church declined fairly quickly. There was some lasting fruit but overall it has been a disappointment. Not so much for me personally – but because I loved the people and the place and longed for it to flourish. There was fruit, but there was failure and frustration, and I don’t think it finished well.
We were in Dundee for 27 years. I often reflect and even dream about it. It’s hard to let go and I’m not sure that in one sense I ever should. When you have ministered in a place for almost three decades it is in your heart and becomes part of you. And again, like Brora it was a blessed and difficult time. There are stories that if I wrote them down, you would think I was making it up! But every time I listen to the services from St Peters or Charleston online I am reminded of the precious times. For me again it is the people, the sense of God’s presence in the public worship on the Lord’s Day and just the sheer joy of seeing people becoming Christians, backsliders restored, and the Lord’s people being built up. So many of the students were like our children, and the children like our grandchildren.
We praise God for what He did. The Sunday school, the vast improvement in the public praise; the church plants in St Andrews and Charleston; co-operation with other churches; the evangelism; Solas; the growth in numbers (in the whole Tayside area we saw growth from 50 to over 750 attending Free churches). But again I left with a sense of frustration and failure. The Lord had done great things for us and we were glad (Psalm 126), but there were the little foxes that spoil the vineyard – and I could entirely empathise with Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Birthing or building up a church is not easy. Indeed, Paul tells the Galatians it is like the pain of childbirth (Galatians 4:19). I felt that deeply not only for St Peters but for the wider church in Scotland. It seems to me that far too many in church leadership are not prepared to go through that pain. I saw things that I did not want to see. But most of all I am aware of personal failings and what I got wrong. There was failure, there was frustration and there was fruit. I think that this time the finishing was better, but only time and eternity will tell.
Which brings us to Australia and Sydney. We were convinced that God called us here for a reason – although in human terms it was somewhat risky. I have described it like jumping off a cliff and not knowing quite where we would land. There was no great pre-conceived plan (at least in my mind). People asked why Australia? The answer is simple – because they were the only ones who asked! I had ideas about evangelism and outreach which were not accepted in my own country and I was tired of fighting for them on so many different fronts. I knew that coming here was not a way of getting out of the battle – but just an opportunity to reengage in a fresh way. How has it gone? Have we landed yet?
The honest answer is ‘no’. Not yet. Indeed, it has followed the pattern of been a year of failure, frustration and fruit. Where it will finish, I haven’t a clue. There have been some wonderful opportunities: City Legal (speaking to lawyers in a café and online); St Thomas’s Café Online; Belgrave Heights Convention in Melbourne; Norwest Anglican outreach; The Kitchen Table, Life in Wartime Podcast, several school meetings; and individuals who have shown interest in Christ or have become believers. All of this has been good but after one year we are nowhere near where I thought we should be. There are numerous reasons for that, but for me it is the personal failures that bother me most. I can’t do anything about other reasons (from the macro – bushfires, drought and plague – to the micro), but I can examine my own heart and actions. Unlike Frank Sinatra I can’t sing that my regrets are too few to mention!
Which is not to say that this has been wasted or even a joyless year. We are deeply privileged to be here and there is a sense of real joy in the Lord’s work. Plus I feel that I have grown in understanding in several ways. This morning I read Sibbes’s second sermon on Isaiah 25:6 about the feast of the Lord. There are several points he makes in that, which express better what I am trying to say.
“A man can do no service to God but by grace; and grace must feed the soul with fruitful knowledge in the power of faith”. God has been teaching me many hard things – and beautiful things. We can only give out what we receive in. In all the talk of strategies, metrics, skills, culture, church, methodologies it still all boils down to this – without the Holy Spirit we won’t see any spiritual fruit.
“Again, if we would have a desire and appetite to heavenly things, we must labour to get acquaintance, and constantly converse with those that are good”. The Lord has provided us with friends and a level of fellowship which we longed for. For me this is especially true. Ministry is lonely. Especially if you are on the edge of both church and society. Here I have found some remarkable like-minded brothers and sisters for whom the phrase ‘iron sharpens iron’ was made! Although I am thankful for deep friendships back home – they were few and far between – and I suspect I am not the only minister who has had that experience. Or maybe it is just me?! Be that as it may I feel deeply thankful for the spiritual, intellectual and emotional stimulus I am receiving here.
“The next thing that may stir up our desires to get an appetite to the best things, is seriously to consider, that we cannot tell how long we have to live, or may enjoy the benefit of the means of grace” I think that in my life I have, from the day of conversion, almost always had this sense of urgency. But it became more urgent after my illness in 2011. Before that I knew in my head that life was short and that we were just ‘a passing through’, but after that I felt it in my heart. That sense of urgency and awareness of the brevity of life can be both a blessing and a curse – unless it is sanctified. I think both Annabel and I have that even more here in Sydney – we are pilgrims in a strange land. Our visa is 50% gone. We haven’t time to muck around with church or office politics. There is a work to be done. We must work whilst it is day, because the night comes when no man can work.
Again, if we have fed upon spiritual things for our souls, we shall be thankful…..the true character of a Christian is to be cheerful, and none else can be truly cheerful and joyful”
It is so easy to complain. So easy to be overcome by anxiety. So easy to be self-absorbed. Because these are natural to all of us. To be content in any and every situation, to do all things without complaining, not to fear – these are supernatural qualities. We learn them. It seems a paradox, but I believe that the Lord shows the spiritual Christian more of the cup of suffering and the pain of evil, than the non-Christian – and yet none but Zion’s children can know lasting joy and treasure. We have so much to be thankful for – I would list the blessings that we have received here but this is already way too long! Would that I remember that when the accuser, complainer and most miserable of all beings seeks to enrol me in his diabolical purposes!
“But what shall they do, that as yet apprehend no interest in Jesus Christ? Why? Let them not be discouraged, for all are compelled to come into this feast, both blind and lame. The servants are sent to bring them in. The most wretched people of all, God, doth invite them.”
This is the key. We are here to evangelise. To invite people to the feast. To issue the ultimate wedding invitation. We are sons who are servants whose task is to invite more into the family. Even the most wretched of all. My fear is that as a Christian sometimes I am more concerned for my own reputation and well-being, than I am for the eternal welfare of others. Is this the mind of Christ? I also wonder whether Christian organisations and churches, often starting off in a blaze of zeal and love for Christ, far too often end up being about maintaining themselves, rather than the mission of Christ.
It is for that reason that we are ‘rebooting’ Third Space. We believe that the culture is simultaneously ‘never more hostile, never more open’ and we want to take the opportunities that this unique moment in time offers. Steve and I are going to operate in a slimmed down version of Third Space to work with media, churches and education. It is my hope and prayer that the original purpose I came out here for will be fulfilled.
Yes, I have failed. Yes, there has been frustration. Yes, there has been fruit. And in one sense none of that really matters. Because the Lord never fails (and therefore his people cannot lose); his purpose is never frustrated and there will be a harvest so vast that no one could count it. We cling on to his coat tails!
I want to finish well. Over the years I have come across those Christians who in their latter days have not finished well. But so many who have. At the recent memorial for Derek Prime the phrase that struck me is ‘here am I and the children God has given me’. Derek was able to live to see the fruit of his work and the growth of his family – both natural and spiritual. That is all I long for. That my children (natural and spiritual) and grandchildren love the Lord and walk in his ways. And I can only ‘amen’ to the prayer of Paul “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites (Scots, Brits, Australians) is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1).
There is a wonderful spider here called the St Andrews Cross spider – which weaves its web like a St Andrews Cross. It reminds me of the legend of Robert the Bruce and the spider. After failing yet another time he was on the run from the English and hid in a cave – dejected. He observed a spider trying to make a web and noted how that, although it kept on falling, it just kept climbing up and starting over again. This inspired him to continue his fight. It’s not so much the legend of the spider that motivates me – rather it is the truth of the cross. We have a wonderful message about a beautiful Saviour – who is the Saviour of the world. We have the Holy Spirit, and the blessing of the Father. Thousands upon thousands of angels are with us in joyful Assembly. The Church, past, present and future, is the glorious bride of Christ. How can we fail? It is no more possible that God’s word could return to him empty, than it is that God could lie. The battle belongs to the Lord.