Rev. Christopher MacRae
Kilmallie Free Church Manse
Phone: 01397 704434
Registered Scottish Charity SC038140
This project is being part-financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Highland Leader 2007 - 2013 programme
Rev Iain D. Campbell
I decided to include a photograph of Alistair at his desk in Dumisani, just to show that he is (literally) entombed by books in his little corner of South Africa. Even the photo does not to justice to the fact that he and his books are vying for space, but, as always, he was happy to oblige.
This morning Dumisani hosted a small ministers' fraternal which meets regularly around different churches in the district. I spoke on Preaching through Exodus, and very much enjoyed both the fellowship and the coffee and cake afterwards.
After a short break I was on duty for four hours of lectures and preaching, beginning with a College devotional on Luke 24, and then three talks on Preaching Christ from the Old Testament.
It was a heavy schedule, but one which I enjoyed being involved in. The level of interest and support from other churches was also very encouraging.
uMfundisi is the Xhosa for 'teacher' and is regularly used for a minister - so that was very much my role today.
I now look forward to the journey home, and reversing the role, so that I shall speak to others about my time here.
Perhaps I shall have time to blog about impressions and conclusions at some other time, but for now I hope these short blogs have given some sense of the wonder of the place that is South Africa, and some idea of the role our church has to play in this part of the world.
More than that, I hope it will sharpen out view of mission; for, as the sign on the exit gate of Bethany Emmanuel church says, 'You are now entering the mission field. Are you prepared with the Gospel?'
Indeed. May we all be missionaries, wherever we are.
And other animals
Alistair Wilson kindly drove us to Mpongo Game Reserve today, where we had a good morning scouting for African animals. The zebra were breathtaking, as were the giraffe, rhino and buck deer which we saw roaming freely in their natural environment.
The hungry hippo by the coffee shop was ready to entertain us and to appear for a loaf of bread. What some animals will not do for attention!
What a wonderful panorama of nature there is all around us here - creation resplendent in its native beauty. And what marvellous lessons it has to teach us. I took a photo of warthogs grazing - moving forward all the time on their knees. Guess that's the way Christians should graze too.
But I've also been doing a little reading on the politics of South Africa, and the remarkable and tragic violence of the apartheid regime. Isn't it amazing how, out of all of animate creation, man should have so found a propensity for violence, disorder and social chaos?
The move towards democracy has been one of the great social changes in the South Africa of my generation. How we ought to pray that the young people growing up in today's South Africa will be shaped by higher ideals than in the past, and that the churches will serve them well.
I look forward to a day of ministry in Dumisani tomorrow.
With the Mamas on Mothers Day
Yesterday morning Anne and I attended the graduation and awards ceremony of Dumisani Bible Institute. It was held in Bethany Emmanuel Baptist Church, and started at 10am, except that the congregation kept arriving during the course of the service - standard practice I'm told! By the time we finished the place was quite full!
There were thirteen students receiving awards, though not all were able to be present for the ceremony. Many of these had been studying for their degree part-time over several years. Their dedication was admirable, and the ceremony marked a remarkable achievement.
It was an honour to be associated with the Dumisani staff for the occasion, and I spoke from 2 Corinthians 4 on the work of the ministry, and on the three dimensions of the gospel: what God has done for us, what he does in us, and what he does for us. The evening offered a bit of relaxation, which we appreciated as we prepared for the Sunday services.
This morning I preached at one of the congregations of the Free Church of Southern Africa, with with our own denomination at home has had a long association. This FCSA is in King William's Town, and is known as Club View. The building is fairly new, and is often used for large convention meetings.
It was a real joy to meet first with the Kirk Session, and then to preach to the congregation. The singing was uplifting, and the warmth of the people was such an encouragement. They had provided snacks for us after the service, as a special treat. It was a real joy to speak to them as they spoke of their affection for some of the missionaries who had served in South Africa.
I look forward to preaching this evening in Bethel Emmanuel Baptist Church, where we had the graduation yesterday.
In the FCSA congregation the women sit apart from the men, and Anne enjoyed being looked after by the ladies. With it being Mothering Sunday back home, I think she was missing the family a bit; but in God's Providence she was singing Psalm 23 with the Mamas of Club View. How better to spend Mothers' Day than to join with people we had never met, in a place we had never seen, and to sing of a common faith in the goodness and mercy of God that follow all of his people all their days?
Education, Education, Education
Today began with coffee at Dumisani, where Anne and I had the opportunity to meet the staff at their morning break. The school is closed on a Friday, so it becomes a day for administration and other duties. We saw the new computers for which the WFM have been raising money, and which will be of great benefit for the students.
Most of the morning was then spent at Teleios School, based at Emmanuel Bethany Baptist Church, and of which Jenny Wilson is Principal. What a great privilege it was to get a taste of the great work being done at the school.
When we arrived the children were enjoying making use of a cold water slide; I was very tempted to use it myself since the temperature has remained very high. The children enjoyed having their photographs taken as much as using the slide, and it was no problem to get them to pose for their Scottish audience!
Of course, taking a teacher to a school is like taking a minister to a theological institute, so Anne enjoyed meeting the staff and pupils, and getting involved in the lessons!
It was also very moving to be asked to speak at the school's end of week Assembly; the children were very enthusiastic singers! It was also very moving to have 'The Lord's my Shepherd (I will trust)' as the closing song; just a week ago Anne finished her week at her school singing the same song, so she found it very emotional to hear it sung now in a South African school!
So the morning was about the education of theological students, and the education of children and young people. The rest of the day was about our own continuing education as we toured some of the villages and settlements around KWT and were able to enjoy a meal with the Wilsons in the evening.
We are always learning, aren't we? And travel is certainly a unique medium of education.
Culture of Contrasts
The jet lag caught up with us a little bit this morning, so we rested for a good few hours before doing anything else. The temperature was a little cooler than yesterday, but still in the 20+º area.
The afternoon was a tour of King William's Town and surrounding areas, courtesy of Jenny Wilson; in spite of a full day at work she made time to act as tour guide, for which we were very grateful.
KWT itself is a bustling town, 'rich in ornate Victorian architecture' as one of the guide books puts it. Some of the church buildings are very impressive - the Presbyterian and Anglican buildings strikingly so. Its colonial houses and streets have a striking beauty, and some of the mansions in part of the town betray wealth and prestige.
But a stone's throw from the town - or at least a short drive - shows a different landscape of Xhosa settlements in villages of tiny two-roomed houses and evident poverty. The links the Wilsons have made here enabled us to visit the family of one of their friends, who kindly allowed us into their home. How easily we grumble at the least thing; how thankful we should be for all that God has given us.
And how thankful we should be as a church that our missionary families are doing far more than we expect of them, and becoming involved with people across a wide spectrum of social inequalities and of personal needs. They ought to command our deepest respect and our constant prayers.
King William's Town is also the birthplace of Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist of the 1970s, whose grave we also visited. Biko is regarded now as one of the great heroes of modern South Africa. How fortunate many of us are that we were spared involvement in such bitter and bloody controversies. It was certainly a day of learning, which was completed with a delightful meal at the home of Deon and Shelley Lombard, Vice-Principal and administrator of Dumisani respectively; and with whom the Whytocks are staying during their time at the Institute currently. Developing friendships in the cause of the gospel is a major part of a unique visit like this, and we look forward to the next few days.
Meeting the Dumisani community
Since Dumisani Theological Institute is our primary reason for visiting South Africa, it was good to share a meal with most of the faculty this evening, in the home of the Principal, Alistair Wilson, where we are staying.
We enjoyed food and fellowship with Deon and Shelley Lombard, Wayne and Megan Gretz, and Jack and Nancy Whytock from Prince Edward Island, who are helping at DTI for the next three months.
Already we have been amazed at the diversity of this rich culture - the diversity of cultures and languages, of landscapes and of views, of people and communities. English speakers, Afrikaans speakers and Xhosa speakers living together and working together, and, in this case, in the cause of Christ and his gospel.
Earlier we visited DTI itself, and saw buildings which had been familiar to us from Mission Board reports in church magazines as well as from reports of visiting missionaries. For me there is a rich Scottish legacy and heritage represented in the work of the Institute, but more and more I realise that this is only one strand of the background to the work going on to train pastors in the Institute today.
Others laboured, and still others enter into these labours, and the work goes on. None of us, and none of our traditions, has a monopoly on the Lord's work, but it is a joy to be in it together.
Hopefully I'll get to post some more photographs tomorrow, but meantime the combination of the South African heat, the early flight times and the supper around our fellowship table is making me drowsy and fit only to sleep.
South Africa visit
My wife and I have just arrived in King William's Town, South Africa, where we will be spending the next week with Rev Dr Alistair Wilson and his wife, Jenny. I'm here as part of my Moderatorial duties, to visit Dumisani Bible School as the guest at their graduation this Saturday, when I will bring the greetings of the Free Church of Scotland, who have always had a strong link to the School. We plan to meet up with some of the students and I will be doing some preaching and lecturing while I'm here.
Last night we had a lovely, if brief, stopover at Johannesburg where we stayed with Rev Thomas Dreyer and his wife Erna. Thomas is a minister in the Gereformeerde Kerk in Randburg, and will be visiting our General Assembly later this year as a representative of his denomination.
Today I should be attending Committee meetings in Edinburgh. Instead, I am getting used to the South African sun. Can't be everywhere, I'm afraid. More news later.
Parliament and marriage
Last week’s decision on marriage in the House of Commons was not our finest hour. As an institution, Parliament is noble, ancient and worthy of our highest esteem. But when it is used to trample God’s law underfoot, it is certainly not living up to its own ideals.
As an institution, marriage is also noble, ancient and worthy of our highest esteem. Our law currently recognises that there are degrees of relationship that make marriage with certain people illegal. Up until now, that included the possibility of marrying someone of the same gender.
So why should Christians make a fuss about this? Is this not simply a matter of equality, of fairness and equitability in an imbalanced society?
Not at all; if anything, it is the new decision that creates the imbalance, for now there is nothing to stop any definition of marriage. Who’s to say that a marriage cannot consist of three parties, or four? Or that degrees of consanguinity are old-fashioned and should not be a consideration?
Let’s be clear on at least one issue. Marriage is between a man and a woman. That is the biblical ethic, from Mount Sinai to the Sermon on the Mount, and is the ethic upon which churches and registry offices have proceeded to create a new covenant relationship of mutual dependence and intimacy between two people.
So at one level it just is not possible to redefine marriage. A quick glance at any dictionary will demonstrate this; one that I have close to hand defines marriage as ‘a legally accepted relationship between a woman and a man in which they live as husband and wife, or the official ceremony which results in this’. That is the definition.
Whatever the resultant union when two men, or two women, live together as husband and wife, it is not a marriage. Our parliamentarians may congratulate themselves on their new, all-inclusive policy, but they have only succeeded in compromising the one institution that serves as the foundation of all society. As the Church of England’s order of service puts it, ‘Marriage is a gift of God in creation..It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.’
Marriage does not require a religious service to make it legal, but it does require the commitment of two people, of opposite sexes, to form a new social unit, within which families may be raised, problems may be shared, and community may be built.
I know, as both a husband and a minister, that marriage is a demanding work, in which everything calls for the death of self and a complete commitment to another person. I know that it is as rewarding as it is demanding, and that it provides the anchor that a person needs amid the stormy waters of life .
I also know that some marriages do not work, for a variety of reasons, and that some people will never experience marriage. I know the devastation and hurt that come when marriage relationships are jeopardized and compromised.
But I can think of no biblical mandate why two men should be lawfully joined together in what the Bible calls marriage. Such a union makes a mockery of the imagery of Christ and His Church, destroys one of the fundamental ordinances of creation and building blocks of human society, and is a direct contravention of the teaching of Jesus.
Indeed, if there was anything more damning in the Parliamentary debate than the subject under consideration, it was to invoke the name and authority of Jesus as justification for allowing marriage between two people of the same sex. So some people asked: was he not the ultimate egalitarian? Did he not teach that there were no distinctions of class, race or gender in his kingdom? Was his ethic not supremely the ethic of love?
Yes - absolutely; but we must not take any of his teaching out of context. This same Jesus was the one who brought his detractors back to first principles when he said to them, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?’
For the unmarried rabbi of Nazareth that was the final say in the matter: God had created the species male and female, and had made provision for one man and one woman to commit to one another in an exclusive, life-long bond. Any attempt to justify same-sex marriage on the basis of Jesus’ teaching is an insult both to him and to the ordinance of marriage itself.
Having said all that, I realise that there are huge personal and pastoral issues in this whole debate; for some, Parliament’s vote has put them on an even footing with heterosexual couples, and given them recognition in the relationships they have chosen for themselves.
But while I respect the liberty of our human choices, I cannot agree that all our choices may justifiable, or that any lifestyle ought to be recognised by law. Does that mean that my human rights are at stake when Parliament will not legislate for what I may decide to do in any given situation?
If that were the case, we would have no speeding restrictions, no anti-crime laws, and no laws on rape. It is only when we recognise the important of boundaries to behaviour that we will be free to enjoy lawful behavour within them. Usually, straying outside boundaries results in accident, deprivation and loss.
And ultimately, the only boundaries that really matter are God’s. He set the original goalposts for human relationships. Parliament cannot shift them and at the same time expect his blessing.
Today, Parliament seems less noble an institution, and biblical marriage a much higher one, than they both did two weeks ago. I hope the Scottish Parliament will remember that in weeks to come.
Faith in Crisis
Maybe it’s just Winter blues, but I’ve been reflecting on how depressing the news has been lately.
The bloodbath in the Algerian desert has made us realise that Afghanistan is not the only troubled spot in the world. Lance Armstrong’s confession of doping has cast a shadow over every sport. The debate over Scottish independence has descended into a slanging match. The leader of Glasgow City Council has been caught out in a gay affair. Long-standing high street businesses are going into liquidation in quick succession.
Things haven’t been much better locally. Budget meetings have wakened us all to the realisation that Council services are set to contract, not expand. The potential closure of charity services seem set to threaten some of the most vulnerable groups in our communities. And, as always, the sad and tragic deaths of young and middle-aged people have reminded us of the vulnerability of our relationships and the fragility of our lives.
Then there is the church. What would we talk about if we didn’t have the bad things in the church to talk about? I passed by the Tron church building in Glasgow last week, and was saddened by how neglected it look in comparison with former days; it may yet rise from the ashes of its most recent debacle, but it will take a lot to restore it to its former evangelical splendour.
A recent blog posting by a fellow minister spelled out in great honesty the pressure under which ministers find themselves, seeing little tangible reward for the outpouring of much passion and energy in the work of the church. A conversation with another colleague touched on the unknown future for many ministers and churches - do we simply hold our ground, keep to our small corner and allow past divisions to continue crippling our collective witness? Do we abandon our congregations for the sake of what may be happening in our wider denominations? What are men to do?
Neither of these - the blog or the conversation - were from ministers in my own denomination, but I hear enough to know that the frustrations are everywhere. The Free Church is facing its own period of austerity, with financial cutbacks and pruning demanded in every area. The most immediate is the College; can we afford to appoint another full-time Professor? How can we, if the money is not there? And if we cannot, how shall we train our ministers?
It would be easy to forget that there are encouraging things happening in all our churches: there is a closer spirit of co-operation across denominational boundaries than before, and a genuine desire for mission and evangelism. There are new buildings being opened, and there are areas of growth and missional development. But.....
In all of this it would be very easy to lose a sense of perspective. In fact, it would be very easy to wonder whether anything is worth living for. Our leaders and heroes let us down. Our friends leave us. Our churches frustrate us. Then we turn to the religious column in the local newspaper for help, and find the writer is just as depressing as the news all around us.
Well, actually, that isn’t the case, and if I’ve left any of my readers more miserable now than they were when they began reading, I apologise. If there is anything in the storyline of the Bible, it is that there is a power to faith that transcends circumstances, and that can give meaning to the most dismal of situations.
I can’t imagine, for example, what Joseph must have been thinking in his Egyptian cell, imprisoned for a crime he did not committed, and abandoned by brothers who should have known better. Yet for him to stand before him at the end and say, ‘You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good’ is one of the most powerful and insightful moments of the biblical history.
Or what must Moses have been thinking, following his impetuous slaughter of an Egyptian, leading him to forced exile in the desert for a whole generation? It would have been a gift to be able to turn back the clock and undo the disastrous action; yet, unknown to Moses, these dark times were the best preparation he could have had for his future work.
And what about the cross itself, the central element of the Christian faith, symbol of atonement, redemption, love and salvation? It was the most cruel, most tragic, most culpable event in human history. At one level, it ought never to have happened. The guilt it incurred could not be dealt with in a thousand years.
Yet it was by ‘the deliberate counsel and foreknowledge of God’ that the cross occurred, according to the New Testament, with the effect that the greatest expression of wickedness was transformed into an abiding symbol of hope.
It would not be too much to suggest that one of the key elements to the Bible’s message is that present dark circumstances need not tyrannise us; there may be a greater purpose of good being worked out in the most difficult of events. It is not easy to recognise, or even remember, that when everything around us is so depressing. But that is the nature of faith: it does not allow the present darkness to disturb the present peace.
Published in Stornoway Gazette 24/1/13
A freeze on Wee Frees?
Last week’s gaffe in the Herald, which reported that the Free Church had had a meeting with a prominent MSP in which we had demanded the re-criminalisation of homosexuality was either a piece of sloppy journalism or a deliberate attempt at cheap thrills.
At any rate, it was a disappointing and unnecessary slur on a denomination which has consistently argued that the best morality is God’s, and that the reason we need a Saviour is because we keep messing up on God’s prescription for good living.
But hey, this is the Free Church we are talking about, so anything goes. It seems that once you put the label ‘Wee Free’ onto something, it can justifiably be the butt of any joke, and truth doesn’t come into it.
One of the problems is that I’m not sure who the Wee Frees are any more. The phrase seems to have originated over one hundred years ago, when the minority of the denomination then known as the Free Church of Scotland refused to enter a large church union, and it was a convenient slur on a church on which the nation was already looking down.
The problem was that a sizeable group had already broken away from the Free Church, and more splinter groups would follow in the course of the twentieth century, each of them wee-er than the previous lot of Wee Frees.
So here is my attempt to place an embargo on the use of a phrase whose only usage is to justify lame jokes against alleged fundamentalists. Herald journalists, please take note.
First, none of the men who led the Free Church in 1900 and refused to enter the dreaded Union is alive now. In fact, I’m not sure that any of the church members of 1900 is still alive. We belong to the denomination with the same name as they had, but I can’t see any sense in referring to us by the same nickname by which they were known 112 years ago.
Second, who are we being compared to? ‘Wee’ is a relative term; it needs ‘Big’ as a contrast if it is to have any meaning. So are we actually being laughed at because we are not as big as some other church? I mean, when the nickname was coined, there was a majority Free Church who entered a union. If we are still the ‘Wee Frees’, I’d like to know where the Big Frees are. Or is.
Third, too many groups have seceded, separated from or otherwise taken up a different label from the parent denomination of the early twentieth century. Each claims to be preserving the memory and resuming the work of the original group, although I’m not sure about that. The point is, when a nickname attaches to a group, which then splits into sub-groups, who inherits the nickname?
Fourth, I’m not so sure that ‘Wee’ is a suitable nickname for a denomination that is represented throughout Scotland, has its main offices in Scotland’s capital, maintains a consistent presence on the mission field, and organises camps for hundreds of children each year. Bigness is a matter of heart, not of physical size. Indeed, if it comes down to the number of communicant members that churches have, then it’s all relative. If the Free Church in Partick has more people attending than its nearest Church of Scotland neighbour, is it still the Wee Free?
Fifth, there is no Gaelic translation of ‘Wee Frees’. This may seem like a moot point, but I submit it as a key argument. If it cannot be put into Gaelic, it should not be used in English. This would put the Gaelic media at a distinct disadvantage when commenting on local church issues.
This last point is fundamentally important. There is, I have observed, the world of difference in the way in which the Free Church is reported from within its own culture to the way in which it is reported from outside. The major tabloids and spreadsheets have it easy - why should facts destroy a good story? Stick ‘Wee Free’ into the sentence and you have the makings of a funny, funny tale about religious lunatics who are to be positively disrespected.
But you cannot do that in Gaelic. So there is an empathy in the absence of the nickname which leads to more accurate reporting and more understanding coverage of the work of the local churches.
Which is a good thing, because I know a lot of good that is going on in the churches, and I know a lot of good people who hurt when they are miscalled and maligned on the whim of a journalistic soundbite. Sure, their affiliation might be to a denomination like the Free Church. But that’s ok.
After all, the church’s reputation is one thing; her faithfulness to her theological and doctrinal heritage is something different. Journalists may scoff at our ‘Wee-ness’ or whatever silly noises they think we are making. But that hardly matters when it comes to serving a needy and lost world with the most life-enhancing news of all.
It’s still a bit frustrating when the wider media churns out the most ridiculous and meaningless names for a church; I can’t imagine any other religious body receiving the kind of treatment with which the Free Church has had to put up for years. Sticks and stones break our bones, and names hurt us.
So be it; I’m still impressed with the role a small denomination like ours can play within the wider church in Scotland; and at the end of the day it is our relationship with Christ and with others that is going to make a difference. That will never be the stuff of headlines; it doesn’t make people laugh.
Anyway, this week’s top prize goes to the person who can correctly identify who the Wee Frees actually are in 2013.
Published in the Stornoway Gazette 17/1/13