There’s a gap at the commencement of the New Year in which I preach away from Aberystwyth; we usually see one of our girls and I attend the Carey Ministers’ Conference. This year had a new ingredient. I went a couple of times to visit a friend on remand in Swansea prison, taking his wife to see him. The prison is about two hours’ drive away. It is a stretched out process entering a prison, going through various form-fillings, sniffer dogs and mild interrogations in various rooms. Waiting in one room and then another, we had to put everything valuable or dangerous (my nail-clippers and a pen) in a locker. I talked to the dog as it wagged its tail and sniffed me thoroughly. “Don’t talk to the dog,” the warden told me. “It’s a working dog. If it sits down in front of you then you are in trouble.” The woman warden who did a clothes check then asked me if I were chewing gum. I told her my nervousness was making me suck my dentures . . . Dirty habit. She was thinking of visitors who smuggle drugs into prison in their mouths and kiss their sweethearts to transfer them. She took my word of explanation.
The man we were visiting knew only at 1 p.m. that we were coming to see him at 1.45. He was near to tears when we first arrived. I left them together at different times when I went to the Salvation Army hatch for tea and biscuits and an ice-cream etc. I could give him the greetings and prayers of a dozen friends and told him how much we missed him, that the place was emptier without him, and that we hoped it would not be long before we saw him out and about again. I offered to speak up for him with a character reference in his trial. He was touched as he thanked me.
It was not the time for me to say anything negative or press on him to close with Christ. He has heard that from me often enough. While he is on remand he can be visited three times a week for an hour, but once he is sentenced he will be allowed one visit a fortnight. I could not give him anything e.g. books, grapes, chocolate; I don’t know about CDs. I don’t think so, but there are ways of obtaining many things from different officials within the prison itself quite legally. Among the crowd of people waiting to go through the gates and behind the high walls were the teenage women with long straight yellow hair, body-piercing rings and tattoos. One or two carried babies; another was with a little girl. On my second visit to the jail there were 22 visitors; only three of us were men.
My friend cannot bear the thought of his grandson seeing him there. The inmates all looked well; the food is fine. There is a toilet and sink and a kettle in their rooms. He can purchase nail-clippers. He shares his cell with a man from near Bridgend who smokes a bit and puts on the TV as soon as he gets up in the morning. There is not a lot to do. He has started to correspond with me.
I was going to pray at the end but suddenly there was a shout and all the inmates had to stand up and leave the room one by one and we had to sit down until they had gone – waving them good-bye (that must be tough for them) – and after they left we could leave, all of us men had to put the back of a hand under an infra-red light and a stamp that had been put there as we entered lit up – making sure we had not changed places with one of the inmates. I hate to even think of him there, let alone see him behind bars. It is a terrible punishment. He has refused to profess faith in Christ (unlike his wife) but I felt it important to make a statement at the Lord’s Table on Sunday. I said the following (using some material from a friend who wrote of a similar fall):
“These past two weeks our hearts have been jolted and profoundly grieved through news of the calamitous moral plummet of our friend. By now the shock waves of this earthquake have made their way around the congregation. To most of us the slightest reflection upon this sad event (whether in the quietness of our own minds, or through a sober discussion with someone else) results in a kind of emotional aftershock – fearful and disconcerting. Surely, we have significant reason to plead with God, both corporately and privately, for many great mercies.
1]First and foremost, we must each (shepherds and sheep alike) beg the Lord for preserving and persevering grace for ourselves.
2] Second, we need to continue to intercede for the pastor and elders that they may have the wisdom, guidance and heart of God as they seek to deal faithfully with our friend.
3]Third, we need to beseech the Lord in a tender, untiring and redemptive way that he pour out upon our friend regenerating grace in a new heart. If our gracious God hears and answers these cries, the ‘success’ of Satan will be minimized and God’s greater glory will be secured – a glory which will wonderfully and significantly eclipse the evil – in spite of its magnitude.
“I have some fears and hopes. Fears – that there are those who have an ‘elder brother’ attitude toward a returned prodigal rather than that of the Father. The elder brother could not rejoice and delight in the signs of repentance even in his own brother. He was angry with his father for having initiated a celebration. He was disgruntled. He was self-absorbed. He didn’t know if his brother’s repentance was for real or not. Hence, he was unable to rejoice with hope. How different his Father. He so loved and longed and hoped for repentance that he daily looked for the slightest evidence that his son might appear trudging down the dusty road toward home. Why wasn’t the elder brother standing next to his dad looking and praying for the same return?
“What are my hopes? My hopes are that we will do what the Apostle Paul commanded us to do in Eph. 4:32 namely, Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. How has God forgiven us? Freely, unreservedly, graciously, lovingly, completely and forever. My hope is that we will take long, sobering looks into our own hearts and propensities and wonder in amazement why God has so graciously preserved us from such a fall. It surely is not because we are more godly, holy and mature than our friend ever was. My hope is that we will look upon his sin through the eyes of our own ‘10,000 talent debt forgiveness’ and find it not only possible to forgive him, but easy. My hope is that we will spend as much time praying for God’s immediate and ultimate triumph over Satan and for our friend’s salvation as we do talking about the tragic event.
“I know some of us could feel especially betrayed. But may I encourage each of us to remember this. Those who have been hurt the deepest are those who loved him the most. And those who have loved him the most also happen to be those whom he has loved the most. They are the ones he has poured his very life into. From that perspective, we should be the ones who find granting forgiveness the easiest. His wife, daughter and mother have offered forgiveness to him. Who has been wounded more severely than they? Yet, they have forgiven him. If they have begun to extend this healing token of love, who are we to withhold it?
“We need to remember something else. It’s easy to view sins and their heinousness like the rungs on a ladder. Our tendency is to put the physical sins up near the
top, and some of the spiritual sins near the bottom. May I suggest that we often invert God’s ladder? What really belong at the top are sins such as envy, pride, resentment and unforgiveness. On the Day of Judgment, those who in this life refused to forgive our friend from their hearts may sadly discover not only that their sin was worse than his, but even more fearfully, that their own sin remains unforgiven.
The day after the first prison visit I went to the Carey Conference in Swanwick, Derbyshire. 130 people were present. At every conference one hopes for one message above the ordinary that will lift up a group of men and kindle a flame of love in our cold hearts. The fire-bearer this year was Andrew King the missionary to Brazil . I suppose alongside Stephen Rees these are the two men who have most seriously and successfully blended experiential Calvinism, warm exhortative preaching with the exegetical insights of good exegesis, or, as it is referred to these days, with a history of redemption approach. This blend is magnificent. I think of Stephen Rees on the Servant Songs of Isaiah and in this conference we had Andrew King on the evangelistic preaching of the book of Acts, the first message on Peter’s sermon from Acts 2 and the second on Paul’s preaching at Lystra and Athens . If you’re imagining that its approach was the warped insistent banality of “becoming all things to all men that by all means he might win some” – misunderstanding that verse and defending all manner of superficial trendinesses being brought into preaching in order to ‘communicate with the world – then you would have guessed wrong. Very wrong. Allusions to that verse in its poor abused condition were not even made. Both sermons were splendid preaching lasting over an hour so that at the close I thought I had hardly begun to preach. I am putting a full outline of the two addresses on the Banner of Truth website. It was an honour to be there.
A nice emotional wallop during the conference period came just to me with the hot-from-the-press appearance of the new book of my son-in-law, Gary Brady. It is his Welwyn commentary on the Song of Songs, “Heavenly Love.” 256 pages in length it is another remarkable accomplishment of his following his tome on Proverbs. He dedicates this new book to our first daughter adding, “My wife, Eleri, is well aware how far short I fall of the ideals, both vertical and horizontal, which are set out here, but she is my Shulammite. Diolch yn fawr f’anwylyd, fy nghariad! [Thank you my dearest, my love] You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your perfume than any spice!” I had a lump in my throat and was close to tears reading that. I am a blessed man that the three men who married my daughters all love the Lord Christ more than their wives.
Then we spent 24 hours with second daughter Catrin and Ian near Bath , popping in to see third daughter Fflur on the way. I got ten records in the charity shops of Bath, 50p (80 cents) each and they are playing one by one as I write this, Beethoven, Brahms, Elgar, Delius, Dvorak and Kiri te Kenawa singing Gershwin. Friday night I preached at the sixty year old Corsham Bible Witness to ninety people. I have been preaching there once a year for 35 years; it is a weekly meeting and we have all grown older, but how they listen, and what observant comments and testimonies they shared with me afterwards. What a privilege to preach to older men and women. I have booked a Friday for next year.
Then on Saturday we went off to the Cotswolds in the snow, the yellowing-brownish sheep huddling together as it fell on the magnificent winter landscape. We had taken a talking book from the library, a kind of Jane Austin story of 19th century clergymen, and that sped the hours away. We arrived in Leicester that night and I preached in their church on Sunday. They are a splendid congregation and have known blessing in the past months though they have been five or more years without a pastor. Three men have turned their call down. They have their eyes on another man just now.
So now I am back to Aberystwyth for the rest of the winter; the reading period before the exams is on at the university. Students are a little more subdued and settled with us and new faces regularly appear. One problem I have is my indulgence in a minister’s soft skills, in other words, putting out the chairs and hymn-books for the mid-week meeting, and printing out the weekly letters I am sent in a kind of booklet and getting them ready for that meeting; sitting and talking with people, and scanning in articles for the Banner of Truth website, and correcting the sermons and sending them on to our web-manager for the website, and talking on the phone, and mailing out my letters to friends. I enjoy what I consider to be these softer leadership needs whereas I should be better at the tough skills needed to keep up with reading, praying and conflict management.
I am back to the final sermons on the burial of Christ and his resurrection as found in Mark’s gospel, and this is each Sunday morning, while in the evening I have begun the Christian in complete armour by speaking on the belt of truth from Ephesians. Around Easter I will finish those glorious books and have ordered new commentaries for the next series. It is still day; the night cometh. Let us do his work while we have the strength.