Sabbatical – February 2020

For three weeks in February 2020 I was on Sabbatical leave from normal church duties, enjoying a little extra time to rest, read and reflect.  During these weeks Sinn Fein made unprecedented gains in the Irish Election, Northern Ireland saw its first same sex wedding and celebrity TV presenter Caroline Flack ended her own life.

How are we to live in these changing times when familiar things are shaken or gone, when traditional values no longer seem to apply and kindness sadly doesn’t seem enough to stem the rising tide of despair?

We want to belong but lack commitment.  We are desperate for love but fail in long term relationship.  We are heroes in computer games but neglect our duty elsewhere.  We take drugs, prescription or otherwise, anything to ease the pain of lives that are highly qualified and relatively comfortable but frustratingly shallow in lasting purpose or meaning.

Our age has been described as ‘post-postmodern’.  Philosophically, ‘truth’ as an objective reality is long dead.  What have people left to cling onto?  Science can explain much of how the universe works but cannot begin to offer an explanation as to why we’re here in the first place.

We suggest no end of fresh ideals but these have limited success.  Banks, politicians, media corporations – who would you trust?  Even charities and churches have had to admit failure more times than we want to remember.

How then should we live, particularly those of us who are Christians, in these times?  This, broadly has been the subject of reflection during this Sabbatical.

There has been time for personal study.  The Gospel in a Pluralist Society  Lesslie Newbigin.  The Intolerance of Tolerance  D. A. Carson.  A Public Faith  Miroslav Volf.  Newbigin was interesting in mapping how Western culture has evolved through the ages to the present day.  Carson gives multiple examples of how current ‘political correctness’ is proving unjust, actually stifling democratic principles such as freedom of conscience and speech.  Volf is both deep and fresh in advocating Christian participation in society and culture not to coerce but influence for the common good in our Master’s name.

Additional inspiration was found in DVD material, Jesus the Game Changer and Towards Belief from Olive Tree Media and the first season of TV series The Chosen.  It’s good to be reminded how much the world and Western values in particular such as equality, education, healthcare owe to the influence of Jesus Christ!  How ironic that while Christianity continues to grow exponentially and bring benefit in many parts of the world today, Western societies seem determined to distance themselves from our Christian roots!

I attended a two day conference hosted by the Westminster Fellowship in Ballymena where the speaker was Professor, Pastor and Writer Bryan Chappell.  This was really helpful in discerning the changes within my own lifetime between the church and culture of then and now.  As always, good communication is aided by understanding where your audience has come/is coming from!  It was good also during the third week to meet in conference with other Home Mission personnel in HQ Assembly Buildings.

It’s clear that while our ‘lost’ generation has no shortage of heartbreak, many are still seizing opportunities to do far-reaching good, often quietly behind the scenes.  Slowly, patiently investing in unpromising people; honest and realistic but far from pessimistic, daring to hold to the faith that better things can be.

Isn’t that what our Master did with His original twelve, and still does with those who are willing to be His disciples today?  While we cannot nurse our traditions selfishly and thoughtlessly and call that faith, we can and should and must return repeatedly to source, to our Lord and Master and speak of Him as He reveals Himself in the Bible.  We cannot take for granted that people will understand our rituals or jargon.  Ethical points will certainly be questioned!  We may need to bring Jesus to the marketplace of ideas in common language before some people will be persuaded to visit a church service.  And as always we will have to live a life compelling enough to make our words credible.

But more than ever in this ‘fatherless’ 21st century we, our family and friends need the Son of God!  The One described in Psalm 23 as a dutiful and kind Shepherd, rescuing us from our lostness, correcting our proud wanderings, leading us in ways that are right and good, comforting us in our darkest valleys, bringing us home to a celebration feast with a loving heavenly Father.

And more than ever church needs to clearly be that grateful, welcoming fellowship of rescued lambs, ready to follow and recommend our Master to others.  We need to be that church together!

The Old Testament preacher Isaiah was granted a rare vision of God in His glory while attending worship in the Temple.  Isaiah was overwhelmed by a sense of his unworthiness but was assured by the Almighty of grace and forgiveness through a sacrifice made on his behalf.  He promptly answered the call to serve.

My call to ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was nowhere near as spectacular but it was real.  This Sabbatical has come 30 years after my ordination in West Kirk Belfast January 1990.  There have been many challenges and there will doubtless be many more but what a privilege to serve the Lord Who is my Shepherd!  Today I echo the prophet as I did 30 years ago.  When the Lord calls, ‘Whom shall I send?  And who will go for us?’  still I say, ‘Here am I.  Send me.’

Andrew Watson

Sunday 23rd February 2020

Church Service

at 10.30 am
During July and August, the service will begin at 10.15 am and tea/coffee will be served afterwards.