The New Year is gaining momentum. It is February already and there have been some sweet encouragements. A woman had Alzheimer’s for ten years and I visited her and her husband Jim each month. He was wonderfully caring and patient with her. She couldn’t speak for the past four years and more recently would only occasionally look at me for a few seconds. I often sang to her, quoted Scriptures and prayed with her, then a good-bye kiss on her forehead and a wave to Jim who listened keenly to all I said. She died at the end of the year and I preached at the crematorium to fifty people. When I visited Jim the first words he said to me were, “I am coming to church,” and I continued the routine of praying before I left. What book do you give such a person, 77 years of age, never reads anything, and his only interest cricket? He is now settled in the congregation, and people are beginning talk to him. I shall begin to teach him more clearly the things of God.
I have been stirred by the new Banner of Truth paperback of John Owen’s Temptation. Brief chapters in a short book put into contemporary English, it is challenging and fresh. When you have read it you think, “Nothing else need ever be written on this subject.” You want every Christian to read it. I began Luke chapter four with sermons on the Temptations of Christ and found it full of understanding on that event. Owen makes the distinction between daily temptations and the occasional period of intense temptation when iniquities seem to prevail against us. It has been put on the church website and on sermonaudio.com. I have begun a series on Ruth that I first preached thirty years ago. A new book of mine has come out published by the Bryntirion Press and distributed by the Evangelical Press entitled The Sure Word of God.
The Plymouth Brethren in the town borrowed the church building for a funeral service. I knew the lady and attended the service, giving the benediction at the end. The old evangelist who preached was very earnest and interesting. It was all Biblical though aimed at the wills of the non-Christians present to encourage them to make a decision for Christ. Our aim would be to bring conviction of our hearers’ need by showing them what sin is – their sins in particular – and telling them of all that Christ has done as our Teacher, the Lamb of God, the protecting Shepherd and then tell them that this living Saviour is willing to receive them, pleading with them to turn from their unbelief and entrust themselves into the loving hands of this welcoming Saviour. Come! Isn’t that how we understand the New Testament gospel? This evangelist was grand in the latter part and his use of the Bible with references to the lives of Abraham, Enoch and Abel was unashamed. He goes round the villages of Wales putting up his tent and preaching to small congregations of twenty or thirty people. He has given out 5,000 calendars this Christmas time. One cannot help deeply admiring such zeal. I was glad they had the service in our church; there are less than half a dozen in the local PB Assembly without any true teacher, and it can’t continue much longer (though it is amazing what three people will accept), but how could they settle under my preaching? It has two students, a man and woman and they are loyal, but get their teaching from the university Christian Union and the fellowship there. The woman was with us recently, her hair reached to the seat she sits on. I would covet them both for our church. The man is Welsh speaking and is a godly fellow; he is the only student I’ve met who says ‘Thou’ and ‘Thee’ when he prays. I think he has gifts to become a preacher, but while he remains in the Brethren that door is closed. They have no concept of the Christian ministry and so the best he can hope for is constant itinerating like this evangelist who took the funeral service.
Our newest grandson, Osian, is doing well. He had his first injection at two months old. Safely asleep, lying back in Catrin’s arms and suddenly in goes the needle. “Ow! Why did you let that women do that to me? I thought you loved me,” came his bitter complaint, to be nursed by his mother for the next hour until he was back to sleep. Little does he know that in two weeks’ time he’s having another “Ouch!” His sleeping is getting longer. His father took him to see the TV rugby match of England and Wales and modesty forbids me to say what team wonderfully won (after playing as if they had two left feet in the first half). “Osian enjoyed it,” his father reported.
There were a host of little tasks to do at the beginning of the New Year, like completing the outline to the Pneumatology series, “The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit”, 16 lectures for the Welsh Evangelical School of Theology for a year’s time. It is also tied in to distant learners and so much must be prepared. I also had to write a foreword for Paul Brown’s new commentary on Deuteronomy. There has also been a congregational issue for the officers to scratch their heads about and advise one another, but we are hanging together in dealing with it. I think we know what must be done and how we should act, but this is a case of exactly when we should act. Things have a way of working out. The Lord send his light and truth to us and protect his people.
On the first Tuesday of the year I went off for two weeks’ writing sabbatical to London with Iola. The transcription of my series of sermons on the book of Job has been on our website for five years only half completed with an acknowledgment that it will be some time before it is all written out. There were 21 sermons in all and I guess that that would be the minimal kind of length of a sermons series on Job its length and structure merits. The middle section is hard-going for the preacher while the beginning is elevating and the last chapter reassuring and comforting. I think that there are about ten on the website leaving eleven on old fashioned cassettes. A year ago Dawn in our congregation transcribed seven sermons and gave them to me. She had read a letter I had got from a mother in the USA who is
home-schooling her daughter and they study Job with my sermons. “When will you finish the series?” she wrote, and Dawn kindly got on with the next step. I had to transform those seven to a more readable and literary form and had put it off for a year or two. So I set aside this break in London for that purpose.
We were offered a flat in Stamford Hill by a kind friend. This is one of the most densely populated Orthodox Jewish areas in Europe. There were splendid Jewish schools, segregated into boys and girls all around us. Many of the men wear the most striking fur hats, designed like a revolving restaurant, and long black coats, trousers that end at the calves and white socks. All the men and women are hatted. It is colourful walking down the street especially on Saturday Sabbaths. Some of their Jewish schools are brand new while others are for the poorer Jews, and next door to us is one such school. How sad that in all of London there is scarcely a single Reformed Evangelical School and few churches with any desire to see one established, or even children and their parents who would have such an ambition. There is one Baptist church which has a small Reformed Christian school loosely connected to it, with but one full time teacher. So in that fascinating neighbourhood we settled down. The few thrift and charity shops had a section of wigs for sale (“Real Human Hair!” announced the crudely drawn notice); the Orthodox women shave off their hair and wear wigs. I don’t know why.
The rewriting and transcription of the sermons on Job went OK, and by the final Saturday I had completed the task and done all seven sermons leaving just four more for Dawn to tackle in the next month. I hope that the following months the sermons will appear on the church website for the little girl and her mother in the USA to read and profit from.
On both Sundays in London I preached in a black congregation where I have often ministered over the years. Many of the members come to the Aberystywth conference each August and I get on with them well. We share the same heroes. It is the only black congregation in Europe that calls itself “Evangelical Reformed” and it meets in Lauriston Road and Rutland Road, Hackney, in a hundred year old former Congregational Church with a balcony going round the building, a pipe organ and plenty of school rooms at the back. The local school likes to borrow the building for their Christmas Carol service etc. There are about 100 in the morning and almost 80 in the night, families, teenagers, godly old women and men. They sing the great hymns from Christian Hymns and I led the whole service. There was a good hearing. Amongst the interesting families in the church is one where two of the four children are blind and also have kidney problems, in fact the two blind children have had kidney transplants, but one does not seem to have taken and they are looking at him now. Both sighted children have no problems. The 9-year-old blind girl is particularly intelligent. She has memorized chunks of the Bible, for example, all of Psalm 119. She also is able to tell you what day of the week is any date you give her from 1990 on to 2010. “January 30, 1998?” “Thursday,” she might say. The leading elder in the church, Easton Howes, went to see her during one of her stays in hospital. He happened to have an old diary with her and thought he could check up on her accuracy. But she heard him turning the pages of the diary. “Don’t you trust me, Mr. Howes? I thought we were friends . . . ” She has real insight into spiritual life and accepts her own condition with a peace in her heart. She goes to the ordinary local school and does well. Her parents are now both full time house parents looking after the four, and the government’s services does much to help them.
On Monday we went by train to Paris . . . as one does . . . I had booked up via a travel agency that had arranged other trips for us, and this was for two nights in the French capital. The newly restored St. Pancras railway station is spectacular and the boarding is simple with the minimum of security – we didn’t have to take off our shoes to be X-rayed, though our bags were. The train is smooth and is soon shooting along at 120 miles an hour. It took 2 hours and forty minutes to travel between the two capitals. A taxi took us to our hotel, and there we had the first and only shock of the vacation. The hotel had no record of the booking that we had paid for. Fortunately there was a room for us, and we paid again to stay there. Once we got back to Aberystwyth we wrote to the travel agency to return the money to us and they have acknowledged their mistake.
Our two weeks slipped by and we returned to Aberystwyth via Cardiff where I was speaking and leading a conference of 36 younger ministers for 36 hours. The younger ministers have more stamina than me, staying up until four or five in the morning, talking together. When midnight struck I was in bed asleep. Dick Lucas was also speaking; pretty good for 82 years of age, but getting repetitive. I spoke on ministerial anxiety and ministerial depression – ‘fainting fits’ as Spurgeon called them.
February began with a week of meetings in Northern Ireland. I flew across on the Monday and then spoke every day at various functions, a ministers’ fraternal, a centre city church’s evangelistic meeting, a lunchtime meeting for down-and-outs with a meal for them in the centre of the city in co-operation with the Belfast City Mission. What great challenges speaking without notes for 25 minutes to derelicts, street people, students and Christian workers as more people dribbled in and more chairs had to be put out. I preached in Donaghadee Baptist Church on “How to Find Peace and Joy,” from Romans 15:13. The next day it was there on Sermonaudio.com for the world to hear it. Incredible! I preached in Stranmillis Evangelical Presbyterian Church, having preached there forty years ago for W.J. Grier, and twenty years ago for Derek Thomas, and now for Gareth Burke. Then on the Friday I lectured at the Reformed Presbyterian Seminary to the RP ministers and students plus the Belfast City Mission men plus the Evangelical Presbyterian men – about 100. The main speaker was Stuart Olyott, and he gave us ten points on the making of a sermon. Brilliant. Enthralling. So very helpful. We spent hours together from Thursday to Saturday and heard one another preach, and became too much of a mutual congratulation society. The one snag we hit while speaking to the students at the Seminary was the lack of heating as we sat in the church gymnasium/fellowship room. The oil man had delivered the oil on Tuesday to the seminary rather than the church building on the other side of the car park. Fortunately it has been spring weather all over the UK and there was no frost and the sun was shining so that one felt warmer.
I had gone to Northern Ireland to speak at the fir
st Reformed Conference that was arranged directly and clearly as a kind of Banner of Truth ministers’ conference. Four young ministers, two of them beginning in their first charges this year, had got together and planned it. It was led by Paul Dowling, pastor of the Whiteabbey Congregational Church in whose building the Saturday conference was to be held. That itself was the wisest choice. If it had been held in a Baptist Church or a building of one of the four Presbyterian denominations then it would have been assumed to have been a denominational conference, and that would have kept others away. But for it to have been in this little evangelical denomination of twenty congregations, few of whom are Reformed, there was no statement being made by anyone, and so people were happy to come.
We met on the Saturday at 10; we got there early; the committee, their wives and the two of us had met for a meal and prayer on the Friday night and we drove there wondering how many would turn up. There were few there at 9.15 and Stuart and I were ensconced in the minister’s room doing our last minute preparation. We came out before ten and they were carrying chairs and putting them down the aisles and all the chairs at the side of the platform were also filled. The whole building was full with about 200 people almost a hundred of them being young men in their late twenties. We sang one metrical psalm unaccompanied to open each session. Fine singing. Stuart spoke first on what are the Puritans, and I gave the second address on the Puritans Handling Depression. In the afternoon I gave the life of John Bunyan and then Stuart closed with a stirring sermon on John ten, bringing out clearly and quite devastatingly such themes as unconditional election and limited atonement as only he can. It was quite terrific. The offering taken covered all the costs of the conference and put more than two hundred pounds in the coffers for next year’s conference in what is going to be an annual event. They have asked Al Martin to come, but he has refused for next year (though the first part of his DVD series of eight lectures on pastoring and preaching has appeared), and Eric Alexander has said no, but Ted Donnelly has agreed to speak. I had not expected to see so many men until I arrived in Ulster at the beginning of the week and felt the buzz about this conference everywhere I went. In our day of small things this was terrific. I flew back to Wales on the 7 p.m. flight to Birmingham, picked up my car and drove home to have Iola, Fflur and Glyn waiting for me. Glyn and Fflur live in Cardiff which is twenty times bigger than Aberystwyth, and Gary and Eleri live in London which is twenty times bigger than Cardiff. I haven’t worked out the comparative size of the town where Catrin, Ian and Osian live. I preached on the year of Jubilee from Luke four to a full congregation on Sunday morning, half-term weekend bring some vacationers and families visiting us to swell what seems to be a growing congregation, and on Ruth Sunday night to a smaller gathering. We are knowing some growth and the congregation are talking about it, but bragging will surely drive the tender Spirit away, and we have waxed and waned over forty years. Church growth is dynamic, with its own appointed peaks and its great deliverances. We have gone through that necessary shrinkage in order that we might grow. Who can predict the future? The blessing now is our unity in Christ, and that is a very kind gift of our Father.