Alfred Place Baptist Church

Ulster 2008

I have been home from the USA for 6 weeks, and prepared and preached thirteen sermons, almost completed the series of 20 messages on the Holy Spirit that are going to be a lecture series in the new year at the Welsh Evangelical School of Theology in south Wales, over two hours from here. I was invited there in Bryntirion on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. I spoke twice to the students; there were over 40 on Tuesday night and 60 Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. The first purpose of going there was to orient me to understand the relationship of the School with the supervising agency at the overwhelmingly liberal Lampeter University in mid-Wales. The academic emphasis seems to me at this stage to be inordinate, but I have not begun to lecture yet, or to get feedback from being with the students, or to set papers and exams and to mark them. My fears may be unjustified. The Principal and staff assure me that there is no intrusion into the content of our courses. Lampeter wants to know that the students are asked to be acquainted with standard modern liberal textbooks on the subject, but I’m afraid that I don’t know them myself. It is enough for me these days to keep up with material being produced by those who believe in historic Christianity.

The second reason for me to be invited there was that I, with a few other external lecturers, should become acquainted with the techniques and demands of Distance Learning. Most of these non-residential students are living in the U.K. They are older men, involved in local churches, married and at the present continuing their own careers. They may come in for exams, but generally that is all. A few others live anywhere in the world. There is one Distance Learner in Mongolia. Getting core books for a course is difficult there, and what of the cost? Today a British published text book can be up to $100. What if the books are out of print? Amazon may have them. Publishers will allow 10% of the book or one chapter to be photocopied for a student. No request has been refused. I was urged to remember to inform the few Distance Learners all that I would tell my students in class, especially about the exams. I also attended a session on assessments and marking. I am the new kid on the block in this world, and compared to what this college was like 50 years ago when I first knew it in Barry (we lived half a mile away from it) there have been many changes, and the most noticeable is the academic upgrading. I wonder how I will get on with this course, and how the students will get on with me.

Iola came down with me and we stayed with Fflur, Glyn and the children. Iola spent her time with Fflur though Glyn so graciously came to hear me on Tuesday night. We brought the girls some Chinese food at the end of the evening. On Wednesday the two ladies went to the big department stores in Cardiff and did some serious shopping getting Christmas presents and things for themselves, and often collapsing into fits of giggles. They had a happy time. I also went shopping visiting Des Roberts who is breaking up his library. I bought from him the classic 19th century 8 volume edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Very rare. I also got some Scottish Highland biographies. Very fragrant.

I can thank God for our elders, and do so repeatedly. Our 63 year old missionary who has planted and served a church in Nairobi for 35 years has been accused by some of the members and a couple of British missionaries of lording it over the flock. The American churches have pulled the plug on his support. I have been in the midst of this, advising, calling and letter writing many letters. It has by no means ended. It has eaten up emotional energy especially of myself. I am glad of the wisdom and sympathy of these three men. We are frustrated about all that has happened. I am amazed that Keith, with all the pressures he has been under, has survived and is still preaching to the 150 people who have remained loyal to him and who would be heart-broken if he resigned.

Then at the end of this week 2390 first year students return to the University, the largest ever. They will be joined by another 6,000 at the ned of next week. The town itself has just 15,000 people, and then there are these 8,000 to 9,000 students. I know we will have some increase in the size of the congregation over the next eight months with some new fresh-faced disciples. But if we have ten first years that leaves 2,380 not coming to us. I met a lecturer in south Wales whose son a professing Christian is coming here, but he had taken a year out – as they do – and had traveled the world, and has come back telling them that he has been ‘thinking’ about the Christian faith since he has been away. That is the danger of going off untended from the structures that have shaped you, with no one to talk to for a year. People like that get lost in the big Anglican congregation in the town still unsettled with their ‘thinking.’ Always seeking but never coming to a knowledge of the truth . . .I don’t expect to see him. I hope my distrust is put to shame.

Still here the normal pastoral work goes on. One of our members died and was cremated last Thursday, 79 year-old Margaret Bennnet. She came to Christ in middle age through the testimony of her earnest sister Barbara. She loved her NKJV Bible and read it constantly. When she was unable to come to church she read the Bible throughout Sunday morning. I took her own Bible with me into the pulpit and read from it to her family and friends. I especially read out the verses she had marked with her pen. “Why did she read the Bible?” I asked them and gave the gospel answer in the Lord’s incarnation and redemption. Her husband shows no interest in the gospel, and has stopped coming for years. He is a simple retired farmer, but I think he has been touched. I am visiting him again this week and he promises to come to church next Sunday.

A Spaniard turned up in church on Sunday night. He had seen the Christian Book Shop next door to the church and took that as an indication of what he might hear. He came up the church steps and asked the deacon giving out the hymn books whether this were a ‘born-again’ church because that is what he was looking for. He was assured it was; he was the only stranger present. I was preaching through I Corinthians 13 and 14 in this series on the Holy Spirit, dealing with tongues and prophesying. He hung around for ages afterwards before donning his leathers and crash helmet and riding off on his motorbike. He has started work in a high class hotel 15 miles north of us as an under chef. He is under culinary probation knowing on Saturday whether he has passed muster. I hope he does a good job and also keeps his word of returning to us. He has lived in this country for ten years, is in his early 30s, and has hardly a trace of a Spanish accent. He said he appreciated the Bible being taught; he found my slant on tongues inoffensive. I had tried to back everything I said with Scripture. On Monday I was visiting a person in that area and so I popped into the hotel and met him in the kitchen in his white buttoned up chef’s coat. He never returned.

The skies have been grey since we returned from the USA on the first day of August. We have had sunshine, but not a day without much cloud, and many days of rain. Oh for some days of global warming. The poor disappointed people on vacation have spent much of their time off the beaches and hills and wandering around picturesque Aberystwyth and its many coffee shops. The annual month’s vacation of the thousand Orthodox Jews to Aberystwyth has finally ended. What a colourful spectacle they make each year. I love seeing them wandering around and going into the sea to swim. They are large family groups and the hatted, tailored men in the black long coats, with their ringlets and beards pushing prams and carrying books are particularly attractive. They do things in families. The women are
not at all striking in appearance as the men, rather dowdy in fact. They look as if they got all their clothes in a charity shop. The men ask for advice of how to get to different places, but only of other men; they won’t ask women. They swim in their underwear. Stripping down on the beach and submerging themselves in the cold sea and then coming out and pulling their clothes on over their wet pants, dressing and walking home in wet underclothing. Oooh! That must be uncomfortable, and not good for your health, so my mother would say, who was terrified of an unaired bed or an unaired vest. She would hold a garment against the mirror to see if it left any damp mark on the glass.

Steven Curry planted a church in Ballymoney in Northern Ireland 22 years ago and saw it through to erecting its own building in which today a congregation of over 100 meet on Sunday mornings. A few friends who shared his theological vision started it with him and the existence of this church and its love for the whole counsel of God has been a grand achievement as well as an encouragement to all of us to whom Steven has given his generous affection for years. But at the beginning of this year he accepted a call to the church in which he had grown up, fifty miles away, much bigger and broader and not reflecting all his convictions. It is a difficult move for him on all sorts of levels. When he booked me for the anniversary services in Ballymoney he thought that he would be still there, as I did too. It can’t be easy to pastor a church that another has pastured. I have a dream that I am standing in the pulpit of a church in Barry town (the church does not exist), and I am its pastor and I am looking out on a sea of strange faces, and I’m feeling cold and distressed. I could not love another congregation like this one.

I went down to Aberystwyth railway station on Saturday at 8.30 to dodge the later queue and booked my ticket to Birmingham station on the 9.30 train. “The 9.30 train has been cancelled,” the clerk told me. “How am I to discover that?” I asked her. “You must make inquiries every week-end because on Saturdays and Sundays they generally repair the lines,” she said kindly enough. I like her; she knows her stuff. So the train I caught was two hours late getting to Birmingham, which gave me a mere thirty minutes to get out of the train, catch the little unmanned train from the station to the airport, check in, go through security and get to my gate. The railway track being out of action we even had to leave the train and get a bus for a 40 minute interval and then get on another train. The interval was grand as we looked down on the beautiful Welsh countryside from high up on the bus. At one part there were lines of cars on the grass verge before the ditch. What was going on? A shoot? A funeral? They were there for a ploughing competition, about a hundred ploughs and tractors filling a large field, with judges walking along and assessing the lines, their straightness and depth, all kinds of ploughs were being used.

I hurried through the airport, quiet on a Saturday afternoon, and everything went smoothly. I just had my carry-on luggage, and the plane was also delayed. I even had time to spare. I collapsed in sleep on the 45 minutes’ flight to Belfast. Then I had to hire a car and drive through the Ulster fields north to Portrush. I chose a Land Rover for the 40 miles, sitting high, but unfamiliar with the starting mechanism, lights and windscreen wipers, unable to switch off the rear windscreen wiper or the interior light. I don’t suppose I will ever drive one again. I had supper with an old acquaintance who has been going to Banner of Truth conferences with me for decades. He spoke to me of his memories of meetings and speakers . . . ‘74, ‘83, ‘91, and what had happened this year and that one. What strikes one man has passed unnoticed by another. Some of his memories rang no bells with me though I’d been there at them all. His wife had cooked salmon and cauliflower sauce which we downed during the animated conversation.

I drove to the guest house where I had stayed twice before, one of the most splendid B&Bs in Northern Ireland, and again I had happy chatter with those old friends until 11. Last time I stayed here I sat at breakfast with an Ulsterman who had gone to Canada to work and he was visiting family members. When I asked him what he did he told me he was a plywood manufacturer. Plywood? After that breakfast had ended I had become an expert in plywood. He told me that chipboard (which he said with a curl of his lip) was used to hold up walls of cement in bridge building. So there. I have never mixed up the two since. They are like creation and evolution. He came to the service – he had planned to. It was not that he felt he should listen to me after I had listened to him . . . Where a man’s heart is there is also his treasure.

The congregation listened intently to the sermon and the extra feature in both services was the reading from the church minute books of extracts from 22 years ago and the hopes of the people, the covenant they signed and so on. How God has honoured that. I had lunch with an English teacher and her husband and teenage daughters. That was a happy home and after the evening service I answered 10 questions sitting in front of the church after tea and biscuits. They were great questions on such varied subjects as what they should be looking for in a new preacher, the importance of the marriage of two Christians, advice to young believers, my own pilgrimage, favourite authors, books, hymns and verses. I cannot remember the others. I tried not to be Mr. Talkative. I guess I failed.

I was up at 5 and drove to Belfast airport finding it easily even on the dark roads. Then there was a place to park the Hertz Land Rover and a place discovered to leave the key pushed through the security screen in their office – far too early for any staff to be there. I did bump into Rev. David Silversides on his way to a Trinitarian Bible Society committee meeting in south London, but then he discovered his flight had been cancelled and he went off to see what was happening and we never met again. He is preaching through Hebrews and Isaiah. We had to cut short our discussion on Owen on Hebrews. Both of us have vowed when beginning Hebrews that we would read what Owen had said, but both of us found there was not enough time. All my flights and trains were on time and I got to Aberystwyth station at 1.15 walking home and sleeping for an hour. I picked up Iola from the Book Shop at 5 – her usual Monday afternoon slot (though I had often talked with her during the 48 hours apart). They were happy with good Presbyterian preaching from Richard Holst on Sunday.

I learned we had a stranger in church on Sunday, sitting in the front row many pews away from everyone else. I was told about him by one of the deacons; “I parked outside my work on Sunday night and was getting little Gwennan out of the car when I saw a young man. He asked me where the pub ‘Kanes’ was. I told him that he was going in the wrong direction and pointed out where it was. I was surprised when I got to church to see him sitting in the front pew. I regret not being able to speak to him having my hands full with a sleeping baby. He was well dressed in dark blue jeans, black trainers and a navy polo shirt with a false white t-shirt sewn underneath.”

Then one of the elders wrote; “When I first saw him I thought it might be our Spanish friend, but it wasn’t. I got a good glimpse when I came up from the vestry at the beginning of the service. He was probably in his early twenties, or later. That is all I observed, and he had left very quickly and I forgot all about him until I was leaving myself when Glen buttonholed me and asked if I had spoken to the young man with the suitcase. No I hadn’t. Glen had, as is his wont, lain in wait and w
hen the lad came out, ran after him and engaged him in conversation. It seems that he is homeless, presumably hence the suitcase, and was hurrying off to see if the ‘Shelter for the Homeless’ was open. I have to say that he was very clean and tidy in appearance for someone claiming to be homeless. Glen said that Barry had spoken to him and had suggested some means of getting in touch with Colin for advice about what homeless people can do in Aber. The lad had seen the bookshop and was thus caused to attend the adjacent church. He asked about midweek meetings and told Glen that he intended to come to the meeting on Tuesday evening. So; he may well be in the schoolroom on Tuesday. I told Michael about what Glen had said, and Michael added the info that he saw Chris Iliff speaking to the lad after the service.” But we never saw him again. But I feel so thankful to God that I am a member of such a church where four different men talk to this man and try to help.

GEOFF THOMAS