I recently spent three days in Ulster . Any visit to the Province is designed to cheer up the Christian, the spirituality, modesty, wit, appreciation and kindness of the believers cannot but lift you up. On this visit I was speaking at the annual ministers’ conference of the Reformed Presbyterians. My last visit to them had been in 1984. Then there was a generation of old men present who, after years of faithfulness, had been wonderfully encouraged to witness the rise of men conquered by free grace whom God gave to the churches in the 1960s. I think that this phenomenon began in the 1950s in Wales and Scotland , and then in Ireland and America in the 1960s and 1970s. We haven’t had the same abundance of men in the 1990s in Wales , Scotland and Ireland . There is less of a flow, but it hasn’t dried up by any means. The older ministers these 21 years later were represented by two retired pastors in their eighties – such sparkling men, full of encouragement, interested in everything. The flow of men entering their ministry has somewhat dried up. There have never been full time teachers in their seminary. They are all pastors who also go down to the college a day or two each week and teach. It was not the best use of gifts to be teaching two men a year – it’s the same time and effort as teaching 20. So they closed the college for a couple of years waiting for a new intake, and then every three years they will open it for a larger intake. Next week is one such new opening and there are eight men beginning the theological course.
There are almost 40 churches in their denomination and about 7 without pastors just now. There are a good number of church planting initiatives going on, with growing numbers. I sat in on the chatter and fun and serious talk at the end of the evening in one of the lounges. Happy hours. Ted Donnelly is their most well-known man still – the only one, and he teaches Greek and New Testament in the college. He is speaking at Leicester at the Banner of Truth conference near Easter.
This Conference was held in a splendid old Victorian mansion, the Castle of Castlewellan in County Down, a ‘noble pile’ set in a magnificent park with a lake, a maze, forests and gardens, high ceilings, wide staircases, a moose head on the wall, wooden panelled rooms, rambling additions making it all a bit of a rabbit warren. A school party of sixty children arrived as we were leaving. They were going canoeing on the lake. There were dormitory bedrooms, which were exciting for the kids having a sleepover but a bit of a strain on us good ole boys. The organisers have a secret list of the snorers and try to put them all together. There are other ways of getting around this – the non-snorers go to bed and off to sleep first and then the snorers slink in, but it doesn’t work. The snorers still wake up the others. “Can’t we have a better conference centre next year?” some asked, and so they look around. I had a room to myself being a speaker. Whoopee! There is a wealth of conference centres in Ulster .
The people of the house cooked the fine food and we served ourselves. We also helped ourselves to coffee and Mars bars between sessions and so there were no tea ladies with chinking clinking tea trolleys anxiously waiting to serve us. The meetings started and ended when it suited us, nicely flexible. We were a few dozen men and I was the sole speaker. I gave four addresses on the Transfiguration and its aftermath. I thought the prayer times and discussions were grand. We had a question session and there were four men; big questions were dealt with in humility and wisdom. I appreciated all that they said to us. None of us is a top dog today. The Lord has made us a hedge around his church and trimmed us all to the same size, and that suits me fine. I don’t think there is anyone who ‘wants to be a leader.’ I got the plane out of Belfast at 4.15 and then caught a few trains and was home in Aberystwyth at 9.30 pm. As I travelled I finished reading Peter Oborne’s salutary paperback from the Free Press, “The Rise of Political Lying,” and John Mackay’s “The Moral Law” both of which gave me great pleasure and understanding.
Sunday I was expecting much, and some of those expectations were not realised, but other blessings were vaster. Again I was helped in both services, preaching in the morning on our Saviour refusing to take the wine mixed with myrrh, and preaching on Christ loving the church and giving himself up for her. A student wrote last week and said that a number of students do not listen without tears. I wish I felt the truths I preached with more pathos.
We had a welcome meeting for the students at the beginning of this Christmas semester and I had asked Dan Owens of Newtown to give his testimony. He is head of the Religious Education department of the school there. His is a remarkable story of a sovereign and miraculous work of God. He was a P.P.E. graduate of Oxford , inhabiting the drugs scene, and once he completed his studies there set off to see the world heading first for Goa ’s hedonism. In a ‘rave’ in the forest a Holy Presence came down and brought him into deep conviction. Others were aware of it, but none as much as himself. The ‘rave’ ended.
David Owens spent days of conviction feeling more and more the wretchedness and guilt of his life. A Christian doing a questionnaire bumped into him in a museum and asked him a few questions – his first contact with one of us – but that man went away quickly. A day or two later, across the other side of Delhi , he was in a small café and the same man walked in, spotting and recognising him. “God has sent me here to find you. Come with me,” he said. He took Dan to a Christian conference and the contrast of meeting believers who loved one another and loved the poor of India was profound. In a day or two he knew the mercy of God in Christ.
He longed for a Bible and sought out bookshops that might sell one but found none. He was walking along a road when a man approached him on a bicycle. “Do you have a Bible?” he asked. “The man said, “Yes. Come with me.” He sat on the back of the bike for a few miles so cramped that when he got off the bike he fell to the ground. The man took him into his home and gave him a Bible. Dan thought that before returning home he would go back-packing in the Himalayas for six weeks, which he did, devouring the Bible. The change in his inner life was so amazing he would glance down at time to see whether his leaping heart had not burst right out of his body. He returned home to England and discovered that all churches do not preach the gospel, Then he studied in college in Carmarthen for a year where he met his wife to be who helped him much, and he sat with gaping mouth under the ministry of Dafydd Protheroe Morris through that time. It was a profoundly moving tale listened to with keen interest by the 70 in this after-church meeting.
A woman was present who was a graduate of the university here who in her six years in Aberystwyth worked as a barmaid, never darkening the doors of any church. She often walked past our church and Book Shop and thought the church was closed. Then going to Lancashire and Scotland the Lord met with her and regenerated her profoundly. Now she is personal assistant to the
head of the Christian Institute in Newcastle . She returned for a week’s holiday and was visiting the university to see her old lecturers and tell them of the great change that the Lord has wrought. After Dan Owens had finished his testimony she made a bee-line for him and talked at length with him. The whole day gave me a sense of anticipation that the Lord would do a work here in our church. Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God, but I don’t attempt much
On Tuesday night I was hoping for 40 in our Prayer Meeting. We got 39. Jyoti Chakravarty spoke of his work in India ; Iain Murray exhorted us briefly and the woman explained how she had been converted and the way she is witnessing to her old lecturers about her new life in Christ. On Wednesday Jyoti and I visited the Indian restaurants and discovered where there was a longing for a Bengali Bible.