STEVEN LAWSON; SCOTLAND; DALE RALPH DAVIES; WHITBY
Iola and I set off for Scotland on Thursday early in April, but after an hour, at Newtown we had a break. Iola went around the town while I attended our little fraternal and heard Steve Lawson the powerful preacher from Christ Fellowship, Mobile , Alabama , speaking on Nehemiah 8. He began by pointing out that every time of revival has gone hand in hand with a return to Biblical expository preaching, as is manifest in apostolic Christianity. It is a return to Sola Scriptura and the preaching of the Scripture. Calvin in Geneva transformed the city with his daily preaching. What characterised it in Nehemiahs day?
(1) A cry for Biblical preaching (v 1). There was a hunger for the word of God, people gathered together to cry out to the leaders to bring to them the word of God Ezra had been digging out the truth (Ezra 7: 10). The revival went back to Ezra studying the word of God alone for years. God gives his preachers an insatiable hunger for the word of God. Preachers must be walking Bibles. They must study it and practise it. They should not search for new truth because the truth already exists in the word. Just be an echo of it. Don’t just give people what they want. People generally don’t want Bible exposition.
(2) The five-fold character of Biblical preaching.
(a) Biblical reading (v 3). There was a crying out and a calling aloud. The public reading of the Scripture. Everything must originate from the Scripture.
(b) A lengthy treatment (v 3). From early morning to midday. Not sermonettes for Christianettes. A full treatment because people need enlarged hearts. And it must be connected to their lives.
(c) An authoritative posture (v 4). On a wooden podium, in order to be seen and heard. Ezra is not sitting on a stool sharing. He is not walking about gabbling. Ezra opened the book (v 5) standing above the people, because he was bringing a message from above. All the people stood up: a preachers love for the word is contagious. The preacher is teaching with authority. Luther: the pulpit is the throne of the word of God; the authoritative nature of the pulpit.
(d) A God-exalting thrust (v 6). Lowering men and elevating God. There must be a chasm. This magnifies the grace of God that spans the chasm.
(e) Explanation of the text (v 7-8). The precise explanation. The truth must be made to connect with the minds of the people. The people must understand.
(3) The consequence of preaching.
(a) Repentance (v 9). The convicting work of the Spirit. Leads to
(b) Rejoicing (v 10). The joy of the Lord is your strength.
That is an outline of the message he gave us for 70 minutes. Then I met up with Iola again and we travelled to Scotland with our customary anticipation and were not disappointed. The Highland mountains were particularly magnificent covered in snow, and there is always the Forth Rail Bridge to gaze at, one of the finest pieces of engineering in existence. You drive across the parallel Road Suspension Bridge and glance at it repeatedly. Even with its patches of repair materials the Rail Bridge is beautiful because you can take in its three central arches, its towers and its approaches all at one glance. It is the work of the great Sir Benjamin Baker (18401907), a Somerset man who received his early training in ironworks and acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of the powers and limitations of hard metals,
If Baker had built the rail bridge over the river Tay, Scotlands longest river, it would not have collapsed in a storm on 28 December 1879, carrying with it a train and 75 lives. When the Forth Rail Bridge was designed shortly after, he decided to reassure the public about rail safety by creating the maximum visual display of immense steel girders. In achieving this effect, he also created almost accidentally a bridge of immense power and beauty. It has those colossal lateral girders, 150 feet high, spread-eagling out, and the width of the base three times that of the summit, with a criss-cross pattern of sheer steel. There is no parallel to it in architecture. Its been called the perfect image of the majesty of steel. Painted ceaselessly, the new coats being applied as soon as the old ones are completed, the bridge has never been out of service in 116 years, except last summer when it was closed for three days for repairs. I believe it will still be in use on the day the Son of Man appears, for properly protected steel does not decay and the basic structure is designed to last for ever.
The cause of our visit north was the annual Free Church Study Conference in snowy Aviemore, not far from Inverness . Neil MacMillan from Fife was the other speaker, earnest and eloquent on the subject of Building the Kingdom of God from Ephesians 4.
I spoke on Serving God in the World. The Aviemore fellowship with such discerning, loving men and women was a benediction. To meet unexpectedly old friends we had not met for twenty years was an extra bonus. The praying is uniquely theocentric, warmly humble and reverent. All of us are properly saddened by the Scottish divisions in confessional Presbyterianism.
A number of the people at the conference were schoolteachers, battling with the prevailing militant humanism in their schools. We Welshmen travel to Scotland with the romantic notion the Scottish Schools are far superior to Welsh ones. Alas, state schools in Scotland are now an uninspiring comprehensive monopoly. Unlike England, there is not a single grammar school left in Scotland, no elite state schools like the school for boys I went to with other bright colliers sons, or even like the one the Prime Minister sent his children to in west London, no City Academies, no selection by ability of any kind just a uniform mediocrity. The official philosophy is pluralism, relativism, materialism and socialism, and it is pressed home. What pressures truly Christian teachers are under. Of course, bright kids from ordinary backgrounds still come through and do well. But they do so against the odds, unlike their grammar-school counterparts a generation or two ago.
Andrew Neil points out that that there were 7,000 assaults on Scottish teachers last year and 39,000 temporary exclusion orders of unruly pupils. The Borders region has just equipped teachers at all nine of its secondary schools with personal alarms. As Scotlands population declines and ages (faster than any other country in Europe, Scotland is becoming one big granny flat), there are also fewer Scottish pupils from which high-flyers might emerge: school rolls will decline by 11,200 this year; by 2014 there will be about 675,000 school pupils, compared with 770,000 this year. The pool from which future Scottish preachers may emerge is depleting.
However, there are free grace pulpits in all the university towns of Scotland , even now in St Andrews . Scotland
has many Bible preachers, but if there were ten times that number it would not be enough. There are hundreds of churches and communities chilled by modernistic unbelief and refusing anything else. Wherever you are in Europe today you are called to a fight for truth and righteousness.
Having returned to Wales , on Easter Saturday morning I joined a hundred men who had gathered to be taught about Old Testament preaching by Dr Dale Ralph Davies of Hattiesburg , Mississippi . He was in Wales for a second Easter visit having first come about four years ago. He is much appreciated in the Principality; it seems that most of the ministers possess his commentaries on the historical books of the Old Testament. They are invaluable. It is a personal encouragement to me that a former member of staff of Reformed Theological Seminary is happy to come to Wales and preach in some of our Reformed Baptist churches, that he is wanted here and that churches have enough money to bring him across and consider such a visit to be important – how encouraging that is. He was preaching on Good Friday in Hebron , Dowlais, a quarter of a mile away from the birthplace of my father and a mile from where I was born. Then he was also preaching on Easter Monday in Mount Pleasant, Maesycwmmer, a hundred yards away from where I lived with my family in my last year in grammar school. Through the faithful ministries of two men, Sulwyn Jones and Malcolm Jones, those churches have become centres for truth and godliness for almost fifty years.
Dale Ralph Davies was speaking at Sandfields, two hours away from Aberystwyth on that Easter Saturday morning, in Bethlehem , Aberavon, Dr. Lloyd-Jones first church, the scene of such blessing in the 20s and 30s. He said such helpful things to preachers, some of whom had attended theological colleges whose Old Testament departments were at the fag end of 200 years of arid European attitudes to Scripture. How delightful it was to meet this scholar-pastor again; he urged us not to consider the Old Testament passages and incidents as a series of episodes but to discover how and what God was doing during redemptive history. Preaching, in his estimation, is little more than filling out the doctrine of God, displaying the theological bones covered in narrative flesh. The examples Ralph gave of that made certain passages come alive. You fill your people with a vision of God Himself, he said, not with endless messages about coping in the Christian life. He urged us to avoid a phobia of doctrinal controversy, and also to shed a compulsive thoroughness when one tries to solve all the difficulties of a text before getting to the main teaching; That can take the edge off a God-centred narrative. So often, he added, a spiritual deficiency in the preacher, a heart problem, is the reason for our failures as pastors. Our exceeding joy is not in God. Our souls are not salivating for God. They were two splendid sessions with fine questions asked and answered afterwards.
On Monday I was preaching in north Yorkshire over 200 miles from Aberystwyth, so we looked in some magazines for a large holiday home for ourselves and our daughters and their families, Eleri and Gary Brady with their five sons, Rhodri, Dylan, Dewi, Gwion and Owain; Catrin and Ian Alsop; and Fflur and Glyn Ellis and their children, Iwan, Lydia and Tomos. Catrin found a series of cottages dated 1697 which had been tastefully linked and modernised with loads of bathrooms, kitchens and central heating. There was plenty of room for all 16 of us. These farm cottage were just outside Whitby , a new place for us all, a town on the North Sea whose pier is almost 400 years old. Until about 1830 it was a thriving whaling port with 55 ships plying the trade. In fact is was the seventh largest port in England, and from Whitby that Captain Cook first went to sea as an apprentice on a collier. From there he also set out on his great voyages of exploration of the South Seas from 1768 onwards. A fine statue of him stands on the harbour and a model of his boat HMS Endeavour, 40% the size of the original, takes holiday makers on half-hour trips out to sea. Captain Bligh of the Bounty was Cooks master of the Resolution on his third voyage. Cook circulated the world twice and he was killed in 1779 when exploring Hawaii . Yet in the town a local man Captain William Scoresby is as famous as Cook as the most single-minded of all the whalers, killing 533 whales and also inventing the crows nest, the lookout post on the top of the mast – known to every schoolboy. Greenpeace must make him their Number One Most Hated Man.
Whitby is dominated by a ruined 13th century Abbey. It was at a famous Synod there that the Celtic and Roman churches came to a conclusion about dating Easter. The Abbey is reached across the swing bridge at the harbour and then by trudging up 199 steps. You need to sit in the parish church at the top of the steps and get your wind after such a climb. St Marys Church is a hundred yards away from the Abbey. What a magnificent building it is, never having been rebuilt or stripped, full of boxed pews and special family pews carpeted and cushioned, a wooden gallery wraps around the building and the whole scene resembles the tween decks of a wooden ship, or even every other part of a ship from quarter-deck to focsle. It contains one of the most complete sets of pre-Victorian furnishings in England . At the front is a triple-decker pulpit erected in 1778, the psalm precentor standing underneath the preachers lectern. There are two ear-trumpets fixed behind this pulpit, a relic of one 19th-century ministers deaf wife. There were two tubes going from the trumpets into a nozzle which she thrust into her ears at the foot of the pulpit. What hunger for the Word. The church yard is crowded with graves and monuments to those lost at sea – fishermen, sailors, life boatmen. How few of their bodies were ever discovered.
Jet stone is dug out of the cliffs, carved and polished locally, but none of our girls fancy black jewellery. Others, though, consider it to be the only colour worth wearing . . . Goths – who wear black clothing and heavy mascara on their white faces – have adopted Whitby as their hometown, and we met hundreds of these exhibitionists wandering around theatrically during the last days of our week. Bram Stoker wove Whitby into his novel Dracula; the Counts landfall in England was described as being at the Gothic ruin of the Abbey, and so there are touristy shops and even Dracula Bed and Breakfasts; hotels and restaurants placard signs, Goths are Welcome. Goth began in the United Kingdom during the early 1980s in the gothic rock scene, an offshoot of post-punk music. The goth subculture runs and runs, influenced by nineteenth century Gothic literature, via horror movies (particularly cinematic depictions of vampires). Gothic music is the dark sound of rock. Walking around Whitby were hundreds of people completely dressed in black, and in long Victorian dresses, Renaissance style clothes in browns and patterns some of which looked straight out of Regency times – extras in a BBC classic serial of Jane Austin, and all the combinations of the above, with lots of serious makeup, exotic hairstyles and carrying walking canes. Some of the stuff was straight out of Charity Shops, but not the high soled boots which the men were wearing. There were whole families dressed like this, or, more bizarrely, parents like that but with children self-consciously dressed like any other young people who are having to walk about Whitby with their queerly attired mothers and fathers. Oh mother . . . Oh father . . . I hope there will be no one from school here this week. There were so many in Whitby t
his Easter week because the Goths were having a weekend convention with a rock concert. They had stalls laid out selling their black clothes and CDs in the towns Pavilion. I tried to engage in conversation with two couples but was sovereignly thwarted on both occasions.
Outside Whitby is a vast stretch of high moor land, the largest continuous tract of heather- covered moor in England and Wales , but at this time of year it is drab, pretty black, often giving way to dales with a scattering of fields and a hundred hamlets. Across the moors runs a steam train, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, and it was especially busy on Easter Holiday Monday with scores of men and boys perched on the pedestrian bridges crossing the line at each station sniffing the smoke and steam, gripping their videos and tape-recorders, as the train puffed into each beautifully restored period station. These steam buffs are dismissed as anoraks by those who disdain the age of steam. The stations looked just like the country stations with which I was familiar as a boy, Dad being the stationmaster of two or three. He would plant dahlias in the flower beds on the platforms.
On Monday I was preaching twice in Ripon a couple of hours or so away from Whitby at the Evangelical Church pastored by Roger Fay. Well over hundred people filled the new building for this Easter Convention and there was splendid singing. The whole day was encouraging. Our children had reached Whitby on Saturday and on the Sunday they had worshipped at Whitby Evangelical Church where Hywel Jones son-in-law David Magowan has become the pastor. He is an Ulsterman and a graduate of Westminster Seminary, Escondido . The building was once the town ballroom; then it had been turned into a warehouse. It was purchased by the church and tastefully decorated twenty-five years ago. There was a congregation again of over 100 people worshipping there. Both these churches have come out of the decay of Wesleyanism, and their Reformed piety is flavoured by that, rather as it has been in Wales by Calvinistic Methodism.
Being sixteen in number the teenage boys could easily organise a knock out table tennis tournament in which everyone had to play. It was hyped up as the 16 became 8 and the 8 become 4 and then 2 on the final morning. Glyn Ellis, the favourite, won the 2006 family championship. What a difference little video cameras have made to such occasions. There were three cameras in our family, taking stills and shots, and each night we gathered around the TV set and saw what these naughty boys had captured during the day. What fun, pausing, and then, with still shots, zooming in on faces frozen in agonizing poses. The little boys put on a drama based on a captain going off to sea, and lasting 2 or 3 minutes, and quite Wuthering Heights in its approach. Our chorus of laughter at some of their antics was not appreciated by the very youngest who disappeared from the room with wails of indignation theyre laughing at me. Family devotions is taken in turn by all the men, some of them use MCheynes reading, and the answers the children give show a growing awareness of the truth and grandeur of the Christian faith. Im moved by the way our sons-in-law humble themselves to speak simply to these 8 children.
When I was a boy going to school on a steam train each day I would sit in those eight-seater compartments with a fat leather strap holding up the window. There was a chain to be pulled in case of emergency – Penalty for improper use five pounds. There were two luggage racks of sagging netting and underneath them a handle which a passenger could turn to heat or cool the compartment, then three frames, the central one a mirror, and then two sepia tinted photographs of vacation centres in Britain on each side. Popular pictures would be Torquay with palm trees, Bournemouth beach and then my favourite of all English place names, Robin Hood Bay. It is the bay south of Whitby and we set off for it one afternoon, a twenty minute trip, my childhood desire fulfilled at last. The tide was out and so we could play soccer on the beach and look up at the little village of red-tiled 18th and 19th century cottages higgledy – piggledy supporting one another on the steep hillside. A striking place; I know nothing in Wales that can compare to it.
I actually found in one shop in a lane off a cobble stoned street a book for sale, The Old Helmet, written by Miss Wetherell the author of The Wide, Wide World. It is 434 pages in length and is in excellent condition, the gold leaf still around the edges, but the page has been torn out on which the ownership was once written, or the details of its presentation for good attendance at a Sunday School 120 or so years ago, and the year in which it was printed. On its last page are these concluding words,
Standing there at the back of Eleanors chair, Mr. Rhys began to talk on the joy of carrying Christs message, the honour of being His servants and co-workers, and the gladness of bringing the water of life to lips dry and failing in death. He told the instance of that evening, and leaving his station behind Eleanor, he walked up and down again, speaking as she had sometimes heard him speak till every head was raised and turned, and every eye followed him. With fire and tears, speaking of the need of more to do it, and of the carelessness people have of that glory which will make men shine as the stars for ever and ever. Ay, we shall know them, brother Balliol, when the great supper is served, and Christ shall gird Himself, and make His faithful servants sit down to meat, and he shall come forth and serve them – we shall know then what it means to have no want unsatisfied and no joy left out; when the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall feed them and shall lead them to living fountains of waters. That must be our living hope.
On Friday afternoon Rhodri Brady, my oldest grandson, set off for his first Banner of Truth Youth Conference, driven there by Catrin and Ian who had actually met in one of these conferences a dozen years ago. It was a happy week in Whitby with no accidents or arguments; everyone got home safely, and then we went to bed to get over the explosion of energy of those blessed days together . . .