It’s my 69th birthday today, or as I have been telling Iola, “I have entered my 70th year today,” or even, to spread it on thick, “Next year I shall enter my eighth decade.”
Last week I went to Northern Ireland for five days and preached five messages in Bethany, Bangor, County Down, on the healing of Naaman. I stayed with a former detective, Ben Forde, who has written three books about the war with the I.R.A. in Ulster over the last forty years, Hope in ‘Bomb City,’ Faith in ‘Bomb City,’ and Love in ‘Bomb City.’ He gave me his final book, The Long Victory. He is a fine singer with CD’s and cassettes, a well-known Christian figure in Northern Ireland. One of his arrests was of a armed robber called Archie whom he spotted and chased for a long time. Up and down terraced streets Archie ran with Ben in hot pursuit until finally he opened a door and went into someone’s homes. Ben soon dashed in after him to find Archie panting in the kitchen. They both looked at one another and then the little old lady said to them, “Would you like a wee cup of tea?” They sat down, drank tea and chatted until the police car turned up. Archie got five years. Ben had many stories like that. He had a death threat put on him and they were moved to the house where they now live under the cover of a Bed and Breakfast establishment. But people began stopping and asking for B&B and so now they run a splendid luxurious B&B when I was treated royally.
I got on with the folk in the Bethany congregation very well. It is a brand new building costing over 1,200,000 pounds (over two and a half million dollars). The seats are comfy, the kitchen, the wheelchair access and car-park is everything you can wish for. There is a vast basket-ball court where fellowship meals are also held. The technology of the main auditorium was impressive, a mixer board (is that what they call it?) run by three young men. All five messages were available at the end of the series on DVDs. There were no hymnbooks; two large screens high on the walls behind the pulpit were for the congregation. I had my own smaller screen to sing from on the back wall plus a little screen on the pulpit if I wished to use that. Of course, all this doesn’t improve the quality of praise at all, neither in volume nor in spirit. There were numbers of people in the congregation I noticed not singing, young and old, for whatever reasons, just as there are a few in hymn-singing congregations like ours in Aberystwyth. The customary group of singers stood in the front holding their mikes accompanied by the organ, flute and drums. They sang especially during the “Praise Time” the familiar contemporary worship songs. The old hymns can get set in a rhythmic strait-jacket by the beat of the drums. That is not my scene, of course, but there are pressures from teenagers to go down that route and threats to leave the church for more ‘with it’ congregations if such changes are not introduced. Rather sad.
After the singing is over they sat down and listened to me with eagerness, for five of the sermons of the story of Naaman’s deliverance, and they were appreciative. During the week-night meetings it was the older folk who came out. We had an opening and closing hymn, prayer and then all the time in the world for preaching. They love to hear the Bible preached, and that is my hope for our friend Stephen Curry who has just accepted a call to become the first pastor in this new building. It is his home church which he left over twenty-five years ago; he has done a great work in building up a congregation in Ballymoney over a 23 year period. What a new start it will be for him; they are longing for a pastor, being without one for years. I am sure he will do well there.
I finished the seventh message on Naaman back in Aberystwyth last night and I think it was a climax for the series. Many people were brought along by the Lord, and I believe that there was saving power in the meeting, even as I had that conviction when I preached the three messages on Imputation during the week-end in August. I came to such conclusions from the wonderful hearing, a gripped spirit of attention, time standing still and God dealing with people. I thought of one couple as I prepared the sermon who needed to hear Sunday night’s message, but they were not in church on Sunday morning. Then in the evening when I climbed into the pulpit and looked out, there they were. God is good. We have more students than for years.
Our sister congregation, the Welsh Evangelical Church, celebrated its 40 year anniversary last week in a Saturday meeting in our church. 150 came along in the afternoon, including old students. A fine booklet full of photographs was produced and a little exhibition of mementoes and photos were on one wall. The three pastors during these years are still members in that congregation and they were there. My cousin teaches the adult Sunday School class and Iola’s brother-in-law is the senior elder and we have the closest fellowship. I was always a supporter of the work from its start when I’d been here for two years, and we co-operate lovingly without any tensions ever.
So I have completed these shorter series on Achan, Naaman and the doctrine of imputation over the last four months, while preaching through Luke on Sunday mornings. Now I have decided to start next Sunday another short series and it will be on Habbakuk. I don’t have the same anticipation about this book as I did on the earlier series. I have been reading the little prophecy each day hoping to kindle an enthusiasm for it. There is splendid help in the books of Lloyd-Jones, Palmer Robertson, Walt Chantry, Tim Shenton, John Mackay, James Philip and John Calvin. What a list! It will be illustration and application that must mark it out. On Sunday night there were two illustrations at the end of these sermons on Naaman which drilled truth into the minds and affections of the congregations. I long for more like that and will search and pray for this during the week.