Dear Brothers and Sisters,
On Saturday morning I forewent my normal lie in and got up early to watch the induction of Andy Pearson to St Peters.
We left Dundee 21 months ago and, as I expected, it has taken some time to get a new minister. If I had had my way, we would have started looking in the last six months of my time there but apparently that is not ‘the Free Church’ way – so we went through the usual routine – with the added complication of Covid.
Watching this service was bittersweet. It brought a flood of different emotions – on the one sad there is the sorrow of missing people and knowing what I had left behind. When you are a pastor of a church (at least if you are a biblical pastor), it’s not just a job – you throw yourself heart and soul into it. You love, care for, rejoice with and weep with the people. There is not a single person in St Peters who was there when we arrived in 1986. When you leave you don’t just walk away and never think about the people again. I still remember Brora with great fondness and pray for the people there – even though we were only there for six years and left more than 29 years ago. We were in St Peters for 27 years. St Peters and the city of Dundee will always be part of our lives. Unless I am Moses, who began his career aged 80, I will not serve for such a long period in any other place.
But there is more than that. St Peters was in its death throes in 1992. And there was no instant solution – no amalgamation with another church, no Free Church (or indeed other) students eager to come in and help, no families moving in. Just a handful of discouraged and dispirited people. I will never forget our six-year-old son standing up on one of the old pews and shouting in a broad Highland accent – “mum, there’s no people! Where’s all the people!”. I also remember a dear saint, Jean Graham, laughing when I said that we would meet in the main church (rather than the dingy hall) and that we would not use the balcony until we had over 100 people (at that time we were in single figures). My response was simple. “I’m not saying that I can get 100 people – I know I can’t. I’m not saying that God will bring 100 people – I’m not a prophet. But if you don’t believe that He can – then let’s all walk out, close the door and never come back.” It seemed impossible and I hadn’t a clue what to do – so I just preached the Word and saw what happened! Now if there were ‘only’ 100 people in the church they would be disappointed. There is so much to be grateful for – now only a growing and developing church but also sister churches now in St Andrews, Brought Ferry, Montrose and now Charleston in Dundee. That six-year-old boy is now the 34-year-old young minister of that latter church. Jean Graham has now gone home – but this lady ‘of little means’ left a legacy which enabled us to start redoing our building. The Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes. It is a privilege just to be part of what God is doing.
“When Zion’s fortunes God restored,
It was a dream come true.
Our mouths were then with laughter filled,
Our tongues with songs anew.” (Ps 126:1-2 Sing Psalms).
There were of course things that were wrong in St Peters – many of them my fault. But I prefer to look back on what was, and is, good. I would summarise it in this way.
The Praise –
developed into something wonderful. From the days of Bill Henry and then Alaister Macleod (and his son) precenting the psalms, all the way through to Dave Henderson, Crawford Mackenzie, Colin Mackay, John Cooper and others leading very different praise bands – our sung worship developed into something that was almost always special. It seems invidious to mention particular people as I appreciated them all – but there were times when Dave Henderson was leading, Simon Kennedy on the guitar, Max on violin, Colin on bass, Davie Macleod on drums that I thought it just couldn’t get better! I remember the battle fought in the Free Church Assembly to permit hymns and songs and musical accompaniment, as well as psalms. It was a fight I thought was worth fighting but I did not expect to win. Over the years there were other developments – the introduction of a confession of sin, the systematic reading of Old and NT scriptures, monthly communions amongst others. I used to spend as much time on preparing the services as preparing the sermon. It was worth it. I still miss the St Pete’s praise – especially the psalms! One ex St Pete’s lady said to me “I still miss the only Presbyterian/Anglican/Baptist/Charismatic church I have ever been in!”.
I always loved singing this with a full band…
What a messy bunch the people of God are! I won’t start mentioning people by name – but I do still remember most before the throne of God. There were constant joys, pains, sorrows, encouragements and discouragements. We wept, laughed, mourned and rejoiced together. From death and suicide, to birth and weddings; from backsliding and division, to new birth and deep unity – we experienced it all. For me always – it was particularly the lambs of the flock, the wounded and the old who were particularly special. The growth of the Sunday school, and seeing children I had baptised coming to faith, will forever remain a joy.
The Place –
When I went to Dundee, I remember thinking the building did not really matter, we could meet anywhere. But that somewhat idealistic view soon changed. St Peter’s building is in a great position, has a tremendous history (there is something ‘holy’ about being in that place which has so known the presence of the Lord), and when we finally got it modernised it became a unique venue – historical, modern, traditional and acoustically perfect! But the place also includes the city of Dundee. I loved it. Cycling along the Dighty, going down to the Ferry, walking up the Perth Road, cycling through the Balgay hill cemetery, cycling across the Tay bridge, Baxter Park, Stobbie, Morgan academy, the DCA, the Rep, Dundee Uni, the Law, the schemes, Dens park (and Tannadice) and so much more. I will not hear a bad word said against Dundee – the best city in Scotland to bring up a family!
The Preaching –
I loved preaching in St Peters. There were times when I could have seen it far enough, but they were few and far between. There were other times when I was really conscious of the presence of the Lord – some of the evening services preaching to a handful of people in those early years, were really special. The communions were outstanding – the series on Job, Ecclesiastes, Colossians and latterly Romans fed my soul. I can only pray that they did half as much good to those who were listening as they did for the preacher! And then in the latter years I was so grateful for the ministry and deep encouragement of Sinclair Ferguson. I loved preaching on a Sunday morning and going out to be fed from God’s word by Sinclair on a Sunday evening. For some people yours truly and Sinclair was a strange combination. After one evening service one man approached me and said, “I love the combination of you and Sinclair…he takes us up to heaven and you bring us back down to earth!” Maybe that combination worked!
like many congregations prayer was probably our weakest spot – but things developed. I loved the Wednesday prayer meetings – often I felt tired and could not be bothered going out – but I frequently came home refreshed by a spiritual shower. Again, I loved the variety – like the time one elderly traditional minister prayed, as he always did, with heartfelt, sincere warmth, in the ‘language of Zion’! O Lord, be thou our Ebenezer, come over the mountain of our provocation” and was immediately followed by one of our charismatic brethren crying “O Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”. The Saturday prayer meeting – the occasional days of prayer, the prayers in the services and in homes, and for Annabel especially the wee Sunday prayer meeting before the morning service (with Dr Anne), were the real powerhouse of the church.
A New Beginning…
I hope you can thus understand why I miss St Peters. To give it up was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. But the time was right. And St Peters will move on and in the providence and blessing of God we pray that the latter days will be better than the former. I look forward to visiting when there is a ‘generation that knew not Joseph’. One thing is for certain Andy and Catherine Pearson and their family will need our prayers and support as they take on this great task. I am delighted that Andy is my successor – (I recall visiting his manse in London several years ago and teasing his young son Colin about. amongst other things coming to Dundee!). Pray for them as a family – It is a family ministry. The battle belongs to the Lord.
And we have moved on. To a beautiful land at the other end of the world. One that also has its joys and sorrows. Since we have been here, we have experienced drought, bushfires, plague and floods. This week I even read of a plague of mice in an area I hope to preach at this coming weekend…apparently the hotel I am going to had 70 mice in some rooms! Annabel is not coming with me!
The last few years in Dundee were not the easiest years of my life, but we did not come here to escape – we came to do a new work and face new challenges. And it has not been easy. When we came here, I said to people that it was like jumping off a cliff and not knowing where we were going to land! A bit like moving from Brora to Dundee. After almost two years I still don’t know – but I do believe that the Lord is in it and that there is a work for us to do. It’s lovely for me to watch Annabel having an amazing ministry in the church and I see the potential for evangelism in this wonderful city and country. Please pray that the potential would be realised.
Speaking of prayer here are the latest weekly prayer notes that I produce for Christians United. Australia has fared well, comparatively speaking, in this dreadful pandemic (the big downside for us of course is that we have not been able to visit home since we arrived and don’t know when we will be able to). But pride goes before a fall – and things could change quickly. This weekend for example I am due to be speaking at the Darling Downs Easter convention in Queensland, but that is now in some doubt, due to a, so far small, outbreak in Brisbane. I leave you with a quote from CS Lewis that I used in these prayer notes.
“A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed.” (C S Lewis – The Problem of Pain).
How good it is that when we discover our sense of sin, it is only then that we discover the remedy – Christ Jesus who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief! (1 Timothy 1:15)… That’s the message that worked in Dundee and will work here….
See you next week….