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!