Good Friday Sermon Scandalizes Scottish Fishing Village

chapel1.jpg (420×280)That was not the actual headline in the local paper, but I expected it to be. I hadn’t intended to create a crisis that Friday evening, all I wanted to do was preach a sound Gospel sermon, but, boy howdy, did I get more than I bargained for. Grab a cup of coffee and I’ll give you the details.

For the record, Easter Sunday, 1981 fell on April 19, which means Good Friday was the 17th.  The week had been remarkably uneventful, but would certainly not end that way. It was my first Easter in Scotland. I had moved to Birmingham, England the July before, and found my way to the breathtaking Moray village of Buckie, in Northeast Scotland, October of the same year.

I fell in love with Buckie the moment I stepped foot in the town. Love at first sight, that’s the only way I can describe it. That first winter was long, dark, damp, and cold. I spent it getting to know the people, customs, thoughts and core values of this historic fishing community. I remember long afternoons, sitting in front of coal fires, sipping tea, munching on cakes of different kinds, and being regaled with stories of days gone by, as recalled by elderly Church members and other local citizens. I can still feel the radiant heat of the fires as they warded of the chill of the Scottish winter.  I can taste the tea, and If I try hard enough, I can almost smell the sooty, tangy aroma of the coal and occasional brick of peat as the low flames labored to lull me to sleep.

Shortly after arriving in Buckie, I was invited to join the local ministers’ fraternal, which I eagerly accepted. Despite being from south of the Mason Dixon, complete with Kentucky drawl, I was, in the eyes of local Scots, a Yank, and there was no point trying to explain American cultural differences.

As an American, I was a curiosity, and many of the local pastors and congregations wanted to know all about my background and why a Yankee (the title still rubs be the wrong way 😉 ) would come so far to serve a congregation that most in town thought had been closed for years. In my youthful exuberance, I explained my motivation and desire to build a vibrant, growing congregation that would ignite a revival that would sweep the entire country.  Many, including the elders at the Church I served, merely chuckled at my dream, a few discarded it as fantasy talk, and a handful considered it hubris.

The winter found me speaking most weeks at various youth clubs, women’s groups and local schools. After all, having an American in town was a genuine novelty.  I enjoyed every minute of it. The people were so welcoming, despite making it clear that I was an outsider. People listened to my message, but held me at arms length. It would be nearly 4 years before I felt genuinely embraced.

As spring approached, I learned that Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, was a grand week of Ecumenical celebration in Buckie. There would be community breakfasts and joint worship services held each night at various Church Buildings in the town. The congregation I served would not be hosting, which is just as well, because our facility was in a dire state of repair. I’ll describe more of that another day.

The week would reach a crescendo on Good Friday evening with the worship service being held at the local Scottish Episcopal Church. The ministers’ fraternal asked me to preach that service. I was honored and humbled beyond my ability to find words.

I spent hours and hours preparing my message. I would preach from Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, chapter 27, with special emphasis on verses 51 through 53, where the curtain in the temple was torn and graves were opened and many saints were raised from the dead.

It is such a powerful, hope filled passage that I couldn’t resist.  The day is called GOOD Friday, because Jesus death brings Life.

It’s hard to forget, even 35 years later, how nervous I was that evening. The other ministers in town would sit behind me, with all except the Salvation Army Officer wearing varying colors of robes and clerical collars. It was quite intimidating seeing them in all their pomp, while I mingled  among the congregants clad in my dress trousers, with a tie and cardigan. I didn’t even own a suit, much less a robe and collar. One of the more senior pastors offered me one of his robes, but like David of old, I refused, just as the boy who would be king, refused the armor Saul offered him before the great encounter with Goliath.

To this day, I have no idea how my lack of traditional clergy attire was received by the mixed congregants, but it paled in comparison to the reception my message garnered.  Of that, I am certain.

As I stood before the combined worshippers from many different denominational traditions, I felt confident in the fact that by preaching directly from Scripture, I was on solid ground; foolish boy. I was a bit disappointed to see only one member from the Church I served in attendance. To be fair, the members from the Buckie Church of Christ were elderly and most were in varying degrees of failing health. Only Richard Souter, one of our Elders, had braved the night chill to come in support. It would be another few months before attendances at our Church would begin to pick up and real growth emerge from the hard packed spiritual soil of the Moray Firth region.

God was truly with me that night as I preached my heart out.  I still recall many parts of the sermon and the fact that every eye was fixed on me as I described the agony of the cross, the victory of Resurrection and the hope available by turning to Christ. I even offered an invitation to receive Jesus. Apparently that was a no no.

After the service, the response was overwhelming. I was surrounded by crowds of people asking me questions about the Gospel. Several wanted me to help them find the passage I’d preached from. One person said, ‘I’ve been going to Church my whole life and I never heard this’. Another said, “I had to look the passage up for myself, because I thought this was something only in your Yank Bible.”

What a night. I stood among the fisher folk for what seemed ages, sharing the Scriptures and explaining the Gospel. I returned home filled with indescribable joy. God had been let loose from some invisible box, and He had used my Kentucky tongue to open the door.

By Wednesday, word reached me that several Churches in town were in an uproar, especially those from either a ‘High Church’ (Liturgical), or a theologically liberal, background. I guess there was even a hastily called Ministers’ meeting to which I was not invited.

It would seem that my Good Friday message really struck some tribal chords and the natives were getting restless.  Some of the more liberal Pastors were fit to be tied. This ‘Evangelical Preaching’ had no place in ecumenical gatherings. It was just ‘too controversial’.

The big news came from the Scottish Episcopal Church, where after learning of Friday night’s shenanigans, the Bishop made and announcement that I would never again be allowed to preach from their pulpit.

To be fair, I did have my backers. Two of the area Church of Scotland Pastors, the Baptist preacher, and my dear friend Ray, the Salvation Army Officer, defended the message as orthodox and appropriate. The majority, however, were, if not outraged, offended. My primary crime was not, preaching that the Biblical account was accurate, but that turning to Jesus in repentance and being ‘born again’ was simply not, as they say, Cricket.  My American Revivalism needed to be curbed.  And they curbed it.

From that day forward, I was never again invited to speak in a good portion of Churches, and I certainly was never again a preacher for a community event. I was denied the opportunity to meet the queen when she came to town a few years later (as were other Evangelical Pastors). There were other ‘punishments’ levied, but you get the point.

Frankly, I was glad that tar and feathering had not been a part of NE Scottish tradition. For a few weeks, the small town had something juicy to chew on. Then it vanished from talk nearly as suddenly as it had arrived. For that small mercy, I’m eternally grateful.

In all, I spent 7 glorious years ministering in Buckie. They were seven of the very best years of my life. We overcame that rocky start and saw God do many great things. I moved away in 1987 to plant a Church in Cumbernauld in the Scottish midlands, and have some great memories and friends from that time, too, but I would be less than honest if I didn’t confess that a large part of my heart still walks up and down West Church Street and occupies a seat in the back of the Buckie Church of Christ at the Corner of West Church and Pringle Streets. And, every single Good Friday, my mind goes back to that first Good Friday I spent in Buckie. Those were halcyon days. And, by the way, Jesus is still opening the grave and scandalizing the multitudes. Hallelujah! He is risen!



Scotland, St. Andrews Day, And Unfinished Business

scotroadmap1.jpg (1152×1279)Happy St. Andrew’s Day, Y’all.  Andrew is considered the Patron Saint of Scotland and Nov. 30 is his traditional feast day.

Thirty five years ago I spent my first St. Andrew’s Day in  Scotland. It was glorious. Hard, but glorious. I was living in a drafty two bedroom upstairs apartment above the home of one of the elders of the Church I’d gone to try and help turn around. (incidentally, he went into hospital the day I moved in and died about three days later.).

The apartment had a coin operated electric meter, so as long as I kept a stash of 50 pence pieces, there were lights and heat, but on more than one occasion, this poor missionary and his children were left in the cold and dark.

For an office, I set up a table and some bookshelves in a back corner of the worship center at the Church. I added a desk lamp and and a small oil filled space heater that I kept under the table I used as a desk. The heater more or less kept my toes from freezing, but not much more. Most days, I did my best Bob Cratchit impersonation, wearing my hat, coat, scarf and gloves as I prepared my sermons, wrote newsletters and letters to supporters and performed other sundry office tasks. The silver lining was, visiting the homes of local residents and Church members meant a hot cup of tea and sitting in front of a warm fire.

As a rookie missionary, I had very little financial support in those days, but I had big dreams and big faith. I KNEW God had called me and if He had called me, He would also sustain me. He did not disappoint.

I lived seven incredible years in a Northeast fishing village with the somewhat romantic name of Buckie. Some of my fondest memories were made there. Some of the dearest friendships I’ve ever known were forged there, along the shoreline of the Moray Firth. A piece of my heart remains and still beats for the people of my adopted home.

I wasn’t ready to go when the time came for me to leave. Pressure from my board of directors and some financial supporters led me to depart Buckie for the larger cities of the Scottish midlands. It would not be surprised if my DNA was discovered from the remnants of tear stains on the sidewalks in Buckie and Forres, where I prayed, preached and wept so hard for Revival.

After a scouting trip to Glasgow and it’s surrounds, I chose Cumbernauld as the next stop in my Scottish adventure. Unlike the pristine, postcard fishing village I was leaving behind, Cumbernauld was a manufactured, concrete jungle inhabited by mostly the underpaid and unemployed, ranging from  salt of the earth types to the dregs of society. And I loved them. Some of them I love still. And my heart grieves that I was torn from them by the very talons of Hell.

Twenty five years ago today, my life began to unravel as the Enemy of man’s soul unleashed upon me and my family all the fury of his infernal anger and treachery. The storm lasted not days or weeks, but years, until all that was left of my life were the ashes of the pieces of my shattered dreams.

I left my beloved Caledonia a broken shell, so different than the hopeful dreamer who once warmed himself with visions of revival in the land that gave us names like, John Knox, David Livingstone, and Eric Liddell, when so little warmth was available from his little oil filled radiator.

Today, as the conflicting anniversaries and memories collide inside my heart, I am keenly aware, in between memories of great joy and indescribable pain, that unfinished business remains.

The revival I so desperately sought during my days in Buckie has remained elusive and Cumbernauld is not yet freed from the death grip of the lord of darkness. If anything, he has tightened his hold.

But Scotland is not his to rule. Its soul was purchased more than two millennia ago, when a blood stained dead man stepped out of His grave into the breaking dawn of a Jerusalem morning. Thirty five years ago I reclaimed it in His name. And I have never renounced my claim.

Satan, the prince of the powers of the air, battered me to within an inch of my life; until I despaired of this world. But by Grace and Mercy I remain.

I am not the man I was 35 years ago, or even the one he smote 25 years ago. I no longer have the strength or innocence of youth. I bear scars on my soul that will remain until the day all things are made new. But two things remain, unbroken, and unbowed; my calling and my love.

Beginning today, on this 35th anniversary of my first St. Andrew’s Day in Scotland, and the 25th anniversary of the battle for my soul, I am renewing my cry to Heaven for Buckie, for Cumbernauld, for every inch of Scottish soil from the Shetland Islands to Hadrian’s wall, and for every soul who lives within her borders. By the Name and by His blood, Scotland belongs to Jesus.

I would love it if you would join me in weekly prayers for Scotland that works like this: Monday – Highlands and Islands, Tuesday – Grampian (which includes Buckie), Wednesday – Lothian, Thursday – Strathclyde (which includes, Cumbernauld), Friday – Borders, Saturday – Pastors and Evangelists, Sunday – Churches.

Please watch this space and Facebook for announcements of a group dedicated to praying for Scotland.

I guess I’ll finish by quoting John Knox, the great reformer, who was known to cry out this prayer from the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh, “Give me Scotland, or I die”.