Saturday, June 30, 2007

Summer Dryness

Just a quick update. As Andy has commented on the previous post, there are certainly ways and means of updating blogs if I am at home (although always late at night and then an early start to get back down to the venue!). So here goes.

Right now, the parties have started for night two of Summer Madness 2007 (SBSU). The worship on Friday night was led by Bluetree (I presume) and a few additions, and the whole Summer Madness event began with a powerful chorus of 'Our God reigns.' As well as some modern loud praise songs, I really appreciated their switch to acoustic and a couple of older hymns - 'Jesus paid it all' in particular struck a chord with me (although I couldn't remember where I knew it from).

The speaker last night was Bart Campolo. Prior to the event, he had raised a certain level of controversy (or is that too severe - we'll say discussion) for his views on universal salvation, but he was very good. Last night he spoke on the Good Samaritan, and how we need to be loving our neighbour - those who are the very least in society and the world.

So far I'm enjoying the opportunity of being involved in the prayer ministry, and being able to minister to the young people responding to the message, and to what God is doing.

Right... time to go to bed! More updates will follow in due time!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Summer Wetness

Tomorrow the 2007 Summer Madness festival begins, and it looks like it's going to be a wet one - Summer Wetness, rather than Summer Madness... I'm heading down later on to put up a tent for Bert and me to stay in, although I'm still favouring the option of commuting to the event - we're not a million miles away from it, and it means I'll get a decent sleep!

This year it's the 21st birthday of Summer Madness, having previously been running at CastleArchdale in County Fermanagh in the early years, then Gosford Forest Park at Markethill, and now at Balmoral Showgrounds (the King's Hall) in Belfast. My first year was 1999, and I've always enjoyed it.

I might have previously mentioned that it has always been a special place for me, and it was where I believe I felt the call to ordination - both in 1999 (when I fought it) and in 2002 (when I consented). So now I'm giving something back, by working on the prayer ministry team this year. Can't wait!

Not sure if I'll be updating much for the next few days, but watch this space - there may be ways and means of updating the blog!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Entrance to Narnia?

Entrance to Narnia?
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

On my travels today, I discovered this statue of CS Lewis in east Belfast, at the Holywood Arches. Fittingly, Lewis is opening a wardrobe - perhaps moving through to the land of Narnia (from 'The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe').

Westminster Tower

Westminster Tower
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

I've been going through some older photos and uploading them to Flickr too. This one seems to have been particularly liked by other members of Flickr, getting six 'Heart' awards from one group, which means it qualifies for a special award in the group.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Declining readership?

Why do we blog? Occasionally I come across this theme when reading other blogs. Is it a form of ego? Is it endless self-promotion? On thinking about the question myself, I find it good to have an outlet to write, and to share insights from the Scriptures. I also enjoy sharing what I've been up to, and showing some of my photos.

They say that confession is good for the soul. Maybe this blog is a form of a confessional for me - that could lead to interesting psychiatry or psychology... Whatever it is, you may have noticed that readership isn't a big concern to me - I think if no one was reading, I would still be blogging away, but it is certainly a bonus that people do read the blog.

I've noticed that over the past week, though, my readership has collapsed (and not from the shock of what I have written!). Normally the blog would get about 20 - 30 page views per day, but over this past week, it has fallen away to virtually nothing - just 3 on Friday and 1 on Saturday. I'm not sure why, but it's slowly climbing again. As I've said above, even should no one be reading, I'll still be here, blogging away!


Well, the injections have been completed - one in each arm. Thankfully I didn't really feel them going in - just a mild sense of something sticking in, and there's just been a mild stiffness in the arms since. But nothing to hold me back - went to Bangor and Donaghadee this afternoon with my camera, and even bumped into David Riddell in Bangor! (Pray for David and his wife Judith as they prepare to go to Africa with CMSI this summer)

We're now in the countdown to Summer Madness, which starts on Friday. Robert and me are helping in the Prayer Ministry team, and camping somewhere...

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Getting the point

building injection
Originally uploaded by freejay3.

As you probably know, I'm heading off to Romania in the summer to work with the Smiles Foundation. (18th -30th August) The downside of such experience is that tomorrow morning I will be getting a couple of injections. Ouch!

Those who know me well will know I'm not great around medical stuff, especially when it's happening to me (injections, tablets, you name it...) - yeah, and I'm marrying a doctor - ironic, isn't it?

So if you're in the Dromore area tomorrow and hear an almighty scream at 11am, you'll know what it is!

Bumper Ordination

Tonight I was over in Shankill Parish in Lurgan for the Down and Dromore diocesan ordination of Deacons. There were a (record?) 8 new deacons ordained - containing most of this year's final year students. The college will be a quieter place without them!

The service was excellent - a good range of music led by praise band, and others on the organ. At times, though, when the congregation broke into clapping during the choruses, you would have thought you were in a wee country mission hall rather than the largest parish church in the Church of Ireland! Even being the largest, the Church of Christ the Redeemer was bunged - completely packed!

The sermon was very good - thankfully not just addressed to the candidates, but to the whole congregation, and a careful exposition of the passage. Clive Atkinson, an Inter-Continental Church Society Chaplain in Switzerland was the preacher, and he spoke on Mark 10:35-45, on servant leadership.

Following the two-hour service (which didn't seem like two hours), and greetings outside the church, we moved down to the Jethro Centre for refreshments. Great to see that amazing centre being used to good effect.

For the record, the newly ordained deacons are - Clare Ashbridge (Donaghcloney), Carlton Baxter (Shankill), James Boyd (Magheralin), Stanley Gamble (Knockbreda), Edward Gorringe (Aghalee), Mervyn Jamison (Ballybeen), Adrian McLaughlin (Bangor Abbey), and Brian O'Reilly (Seagoe). May God bless and strengthen them for the work he has called them to. Amen.

(One year to go until I am ordained DV!)

A great witness with a great testimony about a great God - A Sermon preached at the Early Communion in Dromore Cathedral on 24th June 07. Luke 8:26-39

Have you ever noticed the bumper stickers people put on their cars? Maybe I should have checked the cars outside before I mention these, but here’s some that I have noticed with a message – ‘Don’t follow me, follow Jesus’; ‘God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts’; or what about this – ‘Carpenter from Nazareth wants joiners.’

Given that Jesus wants people to follow him, we might be surprised then to find in our gospel reading that Jesus doesn’t take this man with him. Rather, in verse 39, Jesus says: ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ Why was this? In our passage, we see a great testimony; a great witness; and a great God.

First, the great testimony. It is obvious to see the change in the man, because of his encounter with Jesus. Before, he was afflicted by demons. The spiritual affliction had led to physical affliction too –‘for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs’; kept under guard with chains and shackles. After, when Jesus had cast out the demons, he is sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. The demons are gone, he is clean and free, and wanting to serve Jesus.

What is your testimony? The change may not have been as dramatic as the demoniac, but if you’re a Christian, you will have some story of how you have been changed, and how you are being changed through your encounter with Jesus. Have you thought of it recently? Is it obvious to those around us that we have been changed?

Second, we see the great witness. The people of the region were afraid because of what Jesus had done. Was it the change in the man? Was it the loss of the pigs that made them afraid? Their fear led them to ask Jesus to leave the region. Can you imagine that? Jesus turns up, performs one miracle, and the people of the town ask him to leave!

Yet Jesus does not leave himself without a witness in the region. In not taking the man with him, Jesus commands him to return home and share with them what God has done for him. The man was a local, and would be accepted easier than Jesus, who was seen as a troublemaker from outside. The man knew these people; and the people would be able to see just what Jesus had done and changed in the man, long after Jesus had sailed away.

Now that we have thought of the man’s great witness, speaking in that region, we need to think of our own witness – have you recently told someone about your faith? Have you told anyone what God has done for you? Just as the man was in a unique position to witness about Jesus, so we too are in unique positions – in the places we live or work or socialise, in the friends we have and the people we meet. They may be people I will never meet or know, so you have that unique place of being a witness to them.

Third, we see the great God. Really, we have seen the great God from start to finish, as Jesus frees the man from the demon possession, and moves to advance his kingdom. But do you notice the subtle change in verse 39? Listen carefully – ‘”Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.’ Did you notice? Jesus tells the man to go and tell what God has done for him, and he goes away to tell what Jesus has done for him!

Here we have a subtle hint that Jesus is indeed God. It confirms the identity of Jesus from the lips of the demons in verse 28 – ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’; and also the work of God that was done on the hillside that day.

As I was preparing, I was drawn to the opening verses of Psalm 103, as they speak of remembering what the great God has done for us, and in telling others: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.’ (Psalm 103:1-5).

Jesus left the country of the Gerasenes in the boat that day. But he also left behind a great witness, with a great testimony of a great God. Will we also seek to share what God has done for us as we go from this place today?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Lived Once, Buried Twice

Margorie McCall - lived once, buried twice
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

I found this headstone in Shankill Cemetery in Lurgan. The poor woman was buried alive in about 1705, and managed to escape when grave robbers came to steal a ring from her finger on the night she was buried. Eventually, she died again and was buried under the stone which reads 'Margorie McCall: Lived once, buried twice.'

You can read the whole story at the BBC Your Place and Mine website.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Grace in the wilderness

For many people, the Bible reveals two different Gods. We have the likeable God of love in the New Testament, and the vindictive God of hate in the Old Testament, according to that opinion. Explore has been working through the early chapters of Deuteronomy recently, and the other day I was struck once again by the one true and living God, the gracious God, revealed in both Old and New Testament.

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharoah king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)

Why did God choose the people of Israel to be his people and the objects of his love? Well, surely (we would think) it was because they were the strongest nation; or the richest nation; or maybe even the most populous people. No, no, no. To all our reasons of deserving mercy, God says no.

So why did God choose the people of Israel? Just because, he loves them! They didn't deserve it, but God, out of his grace, chose them to be his people; the people by whom the rest of the peoples would be blessed.

Similarly, why do people get saved? Why am I a Christian? Well, it's not because of my good looks, or my moral sense, or my good deeds, or my deserving to be saved. No, I am saved simply and only because of God's grace - giving me what I do not deserve.

On thinking about the Deuteronomy passage above, it triggered another passage in my head. Can you see the similarities with what Paul says to the Corinthian church?

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the God of grace, and in this, we rejoice!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

True Prophecy

Recently I posted about the serious responsibilities of ministry. The other day I finished reading 'I am Jeremiah' by Alan Pain. He writes as if he is Jeremiah, a sort of autobiographical style, with lashings of humour and good insights into the life of a prophet.

How about these, on writing about the false prophets against the true prophets of God:

'True prophecy is a serious business. It needs a health warning: "Misuse can be fatal."' (on writing about the false prophecy of Hananiah - Jer 28)

Later, on writing of the marks of a true prophet, the third is this:

'A true prophet has been sent by the Lord - You'll know that this is the essential consciousness of the prophet of God. In his life a call burns whose flame he did not light. It was the work of the Lord.'

Which brought to mind one of my favourite hymns - 'O Thou who camest from above:'

O Thou Who camest from above,
The pure celestial fire to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
Upon the mean altar of my heart.

There let it for Thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze,
And trembling to its source return,
In humble prayer and fervent praise.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work and speak and think for Thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up Thy gift in me.

Ready for all Thy perfect will,
My acts of faith and love repeat,
Till death Thy endless mercies seal,
And make my sacrifice complete.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

And now the sports report

I've managed to survive the football match! Having not played football in ages, I wasn't sure how I would cope. The Cathedral team very generously gave me (and Nigel) to the Elim team as they didn't have enough players. So in the ecumenical gesture, I was playing with people I didn't know, and slotted into the left back position (no, not left back behind the line...). The odd time I managed to get a break up the field, and had my best chance near the end of the first half, but my angles weren't on target.

The final score was 8-2 to the Elim, so I ended up on the winning side! Now I'll have to recover and hope my legs aren't too sore in the morning...

Causeway Coast

Causeway Coast
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Remember back during the revision weeks I went off for a day up to the north coast? I have eventually got round to uploading some of the photos to my Flickr account. Have a look at the rest. This one was given an award!


Heading out shortly to watch and/or play football. The Cathedral are taking on the Elim Pentecostal Church. Ferris Park, Dromore at 9pm. More news later on...

One year engaged!

Hard to believe, but it's one year today since I asked Lynsey to marry me. Where has the time gone? We're now just under 13 months to our wedding. Thank you Lynsey for being a great fiancee and for making me a happy man!

Exciting news!

Regular readers of my blog may remember me mentioning the History book I was writing when I worked in West Tyrone Voice. There was funding available, and we were publishing it. Well, eventually, we will have the final draft copy for proof-reading by this weekend! I may soon be in print!

I'm not sure if we have an actual title for the work yet, but it's a stroll through Irish history, seeking to understand where we have come from. A main aim of the project is to explode the 'myths' of Irish history - those stories that have been passed down from generation to generation, but which are not accurate!

When the book is published there will be a limited number of copies available, and I'll let you know how to get your hands on one!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Feeding time

Feeding time
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

This is one of a series of photos from the Seaforde Tropical Butterfly House. Enjoy!

The best brownies

Today I went off on one of my random drives. Started off at Loughinisland Old Churches - the ruins of three churches which were once on an island in the middle of a lough - inspired name! Then from there I went on to Seaforde. There I visited the Tropical butterfly house - lots of them flying around me and landing on leaves and flowers. There are also peacocks and pea hens wandering about outside! Anyway, in the cafe there, I got the best brownies I have ever eaten. They were chocolate, and had Maltesers baked into them and pressed in on top. The girl heated the brownie up and served it with cream. Yum yum yum!!!

Taking a short cut in round by Ballydugan (to avoid Clough), I happened upon a place from my distant memory. Uncle Joe (who was married to granny's sister Rebecca) used to take us for drives in his car - probably where I got my love of driving from. And he always used to take us to a lakeside car park where there were ducks, and there was some sort of pub or inn beside it. I could never find where it was, until today! I was driving along, and suddenly, there was the car park and the lake! As I say, it's at Ballydugan, just down the road from Hollymount Parish Church.

From there, I went into Downpatrick, stopping briefly up at the cathedral for some photos of the exterior and Saint Patrick's grave. Then it was on to Struel Wells just outside the town. Amazing wee place with four separate bathing houses and running water passing through (which seemingly has healing properties). My exploring done, it was back home from there. photos coming shortly on Flickr!

Monday, June 18, 2007


Just heard that I got a P1 for this year. In Trinity, that's between 60 and 69. I'm well relieved.

The great responsibility and the greater grace

Last night I was over in Downpatrick at the Ordination of Presbyters service in Down Cathedral. Adrian Dorrian and Craig Cooney were ordained. Another great service, with praise led by the choir of St Mark's Newtownards and the praise group of Shankill Parish Lurgan. A good mix of traditional and contemporary. The last hymn was 'Trust and Obey', which was also the last hymn last Sunday night as I bade farewell to Magheralin, so I guess it will always mean a lot to me.

If you've never been to an ordination service before, then there is a key element in the service, when the Bishop reads the charge to the candidates. Just before they are ordained, they are reminded again of the tremendous weight of responsibility they are taking on in the service. I was going to provide illustrations here from the service, but the Church of Ireland website's BCP2004 section doesn't include the ordination services!

Let's just say that the weight is great, and the responsibility scary. But there is something which shines through again and again, even in the midst of reminding the candidates that they can't possibly do it on their own. And that is the grace of God! Hallelujah!

At the end of the charge, the Bishop invites the congregation to pray for the candidates precisely because none of us can bear that weight on our own. Further, we are constantly reminded of the power and grace of God which will equip us for the task.

If it was down to us, we would undoubtedly fail. With the grace of God, we are more likely to succeed, although we're still human. Praise be to God, who equips those whom he calls!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Should they be driving at all?

Should they be driving at all?
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Apologies for another awful joke through my photographs! I just couldn't resist it when I spotted it the other week in Portadown at the SELB Centre.

Death by ministry

Scary title, don't you think? Occasionally in our course, we're reminded about the dangers of ministry, and given some statistics about the number of people who are no longer in ministry after five years of curacy etc. And then recently I came across Mark Driscoll's blog, and in particular his couple of articles entitled 'Death by ministry.'

In the first part, he writes of his own experiences of ministry, resulting in stress and overtiredness. Scary reading. Then in the second part, he writes of some frightening statistics, possibly from the American situation, but still - how about some of these?

Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.

Eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.

Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.

Seventy percent said the only time they spend studying the Word is when they are preparing their sermons.


Will you continue in fervent prayer for me and the other students in college as we prepare for ministry, and also for your own minister or pastor, that he will continue in the strength and power of the Lord?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Mr and Mrs Edmondson

Mr and Mrs Edmondson
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Last night I was up in the Belmont in Banbridge at the wedding party of Colin and Lorna Edmondson (nee Burns). It was a great night, and a happy day (despite the rain). May God bless the happy couple in their new life together.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Today we had the Down and Dromore Diocesan Synod in Moira. Representatives from each parish gathered to discuss the mission of the church, as well as the business reports from our various committees.

One of the more encouraging items of business was something drawn from the Methodist tradition - a conversation on the work of God. Basically it was an open forum where members could share what God has been doing in parishes and people's lives recently. The stories that were told linked in to the theme of Bishop Harold's address as he reflected on the first ten years of his episcopacy. The tag line for the address was 'Stop talking about decline' - because the figures show that Down and Dromore diocese is not in decline! We are growing, under the blessing and grace of God.

[Speaking of the ten years Harold Miller has been Bishop of Down and Dromore reminds me of the night he was enthroned in Dromore Cathedral - it was my birthday, and Harold led the congregation in singing happy birthday to me in the hall after the speeches, due to the workings of Roderic West!]

We all live in a yellow submarine!

We all live in a yellow submarine!
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

All my Liverpool pictures are now online - click on the photo or the link to bring you to see them! This one was taken beside the Yellow Submarine that is situated just outside Liverpool John Lennon Airport, at the end of our trip to the city. We stopped a random pilot or security man or some guy in uniform to take the picture!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


And now a special report on our day away to Liverpool. I was up at 3.30am and Ruth arrived at 4am, so we set off to Banbridge to lift Robert. As we pulled into his drive, there was the ominous sign of no lights. No sign of life at all (although bizarrely, there were lights on in the house across the road...). Maybe the sound of the car would bring him out of the house. Nope. Maybe if we rung his phone, he would come out. Nope, phone was off. What to do?

I knocked on the front door. Nothing. Knocked again louder. Nothing. Knocked a third time. Nothing. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I rang the doorbell. Nothing. Doorbell again, more sustained ringing. Nothing. Doorbell again and again, and behold, the sound of stirring from inside - Robert had awakened! 'Gimme two minutes' was the hurried cry from inside the door. We retired to the car, laughing.

And then we were off, on the road to Dublin. Er, well, we got as far as Scarva Street before turning back so Robert could get his college room key and his band card. But you get the idea. Eventually we were on the road to Dublin; parked up at the Quickpark and into the airport.

Flight was smooth, once we got out onto the runway to take off - the queue at the airport was as bad as the Westlink. Into Liverpool John Lennon Airport, and onto the bus to the city centre.This was Ruth's first time in Liverpool, I had been there a couple of times, but Robert was the Liverpool guide supreme. From the bus station we walked to Paddy's Wigwam - the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral. (I almost wrote the Metropolitan Tabernacle there!) We had a look around it - such a huge structure, but well laid out liturgically. Everyone could see what was happening. Sadly the original crypts were out of bounds due to exams being held there, so we made our way out to the bus stop for the city sightseeing tour bus.

Even though it was a short distance to Liverpool Cathedral, we were able to have the ticket for the whole day to jump on and off as required. Liverpool Cathedral is massive - seemingly the biggest in the British Isles, with the highest and heaviest peal of bells in the world. Up we went to the top of the tower to enjoy the view of the city and further afield. Then back down to explore the cathedral, and get lunch in the cafe. One of the most refreshing things about both cathedrals in Liverpool was the fact that you aren't confronted with a till as soon as you arrive. Rather, visitors are asked to make a donation - much better than being forced to pay a set fee when you arrive at Christ Church Cathedral Dublin, or St Patrick's Cathedral Dublin, or Westminster Abbey. The respective Deans, take note!

We got back on the tour bus, and were taken right round the two cathedrals again, before going on through the city centre, and arriving at Albert Dock. Here we find the headquarters of Granada Television. This Morning used to be filmed here, but sadly the floating weather map has been removed. In the sunshine, we had a wander around the dock, calling into the Tate Liverpool, then the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the Customs and Excise Museum. Fun stuff, although I couldn't help but wonder if the displays could be used to help the forgers and smugglers get better at their trade...

Back onto the bus again, and surprise, surprise, back round by the two cathedrals for the third time, before back to the city centre, where we left the bus tour for the day. Speaking of the two cathedrals reminds me of a couple of problems with the bus tour commentary. The claim was made that Liverpool is unique in being the only city with two working cathedrals. I'm not sure where their catchment area is - possibly only England, because within Northern Ireland there are three cities with two working cathedrals in each - Londonderry, Belfast and Armagh. The other howler was when the commentary talks about the four bells in Paddy's Wigwam's bell tower. I quote - 'They are named after the four apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.' Hmm, slight problem in that they are four Evangelists, rather than apostles. Matthew and John were apostles, but Luke and Mark didn't have that role or function!

Having got off in the city centre, we wandered about, finding the essential commodity of water (in a roasting hot day). We then went into the Cavern Quarter to find the home of the Beatles - the Cavern Club in Mathew Street. From there, it was on to the World Museum Liverpool, which we explored in the last hour before it closed. This was a brilliant place - completely free (museums in Northern Ireland take note!) and packed with brilliant displays.

My favourite was the Wallace and Gromit exhibition. There you could see some of the models used in the 'Were-Rabbit' film, and there were interactive elements. One such element was where you could add your own sound effects to a clip from the film, then watch it back! In total there were five floors of stuff, with a bugs exhibition with tanks of tarantulas, beetles, scorpions, bees, stick insects and many others; and an aquarium feature with lots of colourful fish.

Then we sat in the gardens for a while, taking it easy, and marvelling at the lack of traffic in the city for rush hour. Had it been London, Dublin or Belfast (or even Lisburn) at the same time, traffic would be crazy, but in Liverpool, you could hardly notice any cars, and there were no queues!

We then went for dinner in a Chinese buffet restaurant, where there was a special offer of 10% off food for students. I have to admit, that partly swayed our decision, and in we went. We said we were students, and the waitress asked to see our cards. On seeing that we were students at Trinity College, Dublin, she refused us the student discount, because we weren't students at a British university. We were the victims of racism from Chinese people! The food was decent, although they were very prompt in coming to clear away plates almost as soon as you had finished eating, which I wasn't too fussed on.

From there, we went back out to the airport, getting photos taken beside the Yellow Submarine fixture outside the airport. Inside, it was virtually deserted as there were just two more flights going out that evening, so we grabbed the comfy chairs at the (closed) Starbucks and relaxed until the flight was called.

All in all, it was a great day. Just a pity Simon Genoe (to name and shame him) wasn't able to go with us as he was tired!

Photos will soon be available at the usual place - Flickr!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Hearing, Understanding and Doing: My last sermon preached in Magheralin on 10th June 2007. The Parable of the Sower - Mark 4:1-20

As we approach the bible passage tonight, we are in great danger of being over-familiar with it. You probably heard the opening words of the reading and though, ah, here we go again, the parable of the sower. We’ve heard it all before.

This evening we’re going to look at the passage in terms of hearing, understanding and doing, as we follow the structure of Mark’s account. This way, we’ll see how we move from being interested listeners, to disciples, to those who bear fruit.

As the passage opens, we find Jesus teaching by the lake. Galilee was the scene of so much of his early ministry, as he travelled about teaching and healing. On this particular occasion, the crowd is so big that there’s a possibility of Jesus being swamped. So he gets into a boat, going out a short distance from the land, and begins to teach.

Mark records many of the parables Jesus taught, and here we find the parable of the sower, or rather, the parable of the soilsp. You’ve heard it before, so let’s just recap. The farmer sows the seed, where it lands in various places – the path, the rocky places, the thorns and the good soil. The various places bring various responses to the seed – some seeing initial signs of growth which are ultimately disappointed; and only the good soil produces a crop.

And that’s it. The parable is complete. Jesus adds his tagline to the end – ‘he who has ears to hear, let him hear.’ Jesus calls the crowd’s attention to hear what he has just said. To go away and ponder it.

And yet, you can’t help feeling that he’s perhaps being a bit unfair. As the crowd break up and go back to their homes, you might be able to hear them discussing what he has said. Was it just a story about farming techniques? The story was accurate enough about how the farmer would sow seed freely, before it would be ploughed in. But was that what Jesus was teaching about?

Was Jesus just someone who told nice stories – maybe even humorous stories? Would the crowd have gone away that day having gained a tip about sowing? Maybe that is like us. Are we just like the members of the crowd, who are on the edge of things. We think Jesus might be important, and his teaching sounds good, but we don’t really grasp what he’s saying?

We can take heart tonight. On first hearing, the disciples didn’t grasp what Jesus was saying either. Think about how slow they were to understand when Jesus told them plainly he would have to die and rise again. So we find also here, that the disciples didn’t understand what they had heard. They had ears to hear, but weren’t understanding!

So later on, when the crowd has dispersed, when ‘Jesus was alone’ (10), the Twelve ask him about the parables. What is it he’s saying through them? Here the disciples move on from hearing (like the crowd), to the next level – understanding.

Hard as it may be for us to think about it, Jesus seems to be saying that the parables are a deliberate way of teaching. While we can remember the standard definition of a parable from Sunday School – an earthly story with a heavenly meaning; it appears that without being let into the secrets, they will only ever appear to be earthly stories to some people. They’ll never move beyond the hearing to the understanding.

Look at the end of verse 11. ‘But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”’

Jesus is here quoting the words of Isaiah 6, from the commission of Isaiah. You remember that occasion, when Isaiah was caught in fear by the sight of the Lord, holy, holy, holy? Normally when we read that passage, we finish with the words of Isaiah, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ But these words come from the start of the message Isaiah is tasked to take to his people.

The message is one of God’s judgement on the people – that even though they have the words of God, they don’t listen; and even though they have seen God’s actions, they refuse to turn. And, as Webb points out, ‘the very unresponsiveness of the people will be an aspect of God’s judgement on them.’

The fact that Jesus quotes these words here shows that a similar hardening is taking part in his hearers. Even though they’re hearing the words of God, and the message of the kingdom, they don’t realise it, and refuse to heed its message. Indeed, it is significant that this message of judgement linked to hearing God’s word is contained within the parable of the sower – in that parable we see the very process of hearing but not understanding the message. The seed is sown, but Satan takes it away, like the birds eat the seed on the path.

And yet, at the same time, the message is not complicated or difficult to understand. As Hewitt writes, ‘Jesus will always reveal enough of God’s truth for faith to make its response. Where there is a response then more faith truth can be given. A parable would sort out those who were keen to listen and to learn from those who were just casual in their interest.’

So what is the key for us to understand the parables? Look at verse 11. Jesus tells the disciples: ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.’

That word ‘secret’ is also that of ‘mystery’ – things hidden. Paul is fond of this word too, speaking often of the mystery of God’s will, or the mystery of the gospel. But it’s not like a mystery story where we have to work it all out. Rather, the mystery of the gospel is revealed in Jesus. The secret, the mystery has been given, to them – revealed to the disciples. In this way, they can understand what they have heard.

Jesus has to go on and explain the parable to them. There seems to be an element of rebuke as he does this. Do you see verse 13: ‘Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?’

The question arising here is if we are understanding Jesus’ words. Are you on the outside, or the inside? As we read the Bible, do we accept what it says, or do we search the scriptures? Is your Bible reading at a superficial level, or do you dig deeper to understand what the text is saying?

It’s so easy to read a passage in your quiet time and glance through it. But how often do you pause to think about it? If you were asked five minutes afterwards what it was about, could you remember?

So how can we ensure that we understand our Bibles more? Maybe by varying how we do the quiet time – not getting stuck in a rut. Or by using some Bible reading notes to help our reading. I have found ‘Explore’ by the Good Book Company very helpful, others may find Daily Bread or some other notes useful.

It’s important that we move from being on the outside, hearing, to being on the inside, and understanding. But it’s not enough! The reason that we are called to understand God’s word is to make us fruitful. In the parable, there is only one successful outcome, even though early signs seemed positive.

You could argue that the three groups of people who see some growth all had a measure of understanding. The ‘rocky places’ people received the word with joy; and the word was received by the ‘thorny places’ people. But the end result was that what understanding they had was crowded out or lost in the end.

The rocky people’s understanding was ruined for lack of roots. When persecution or trouble comes, they wither away. Their understanding is shallow, just on the surface.

The thorny people’s understanding was choked out by other concerns. Rather than developing their understanding, they concentrate on the other things of life – worrying about life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things. Their understanding gets choked out by other, more pressing things.

We’ve seen so far that Jesus calls us to hear, and to understand. Now we see that Jesus calls us to do. The group of people that are commended in the parable are those like the good soil. Having heard and understood (or accepted it, as we read in verse 20), they produce a crop. The word is powerful in the hearts and lives of these people.

As Gareth has said earlier, tonight is my last service with you in Magheralin. I’ve enjoyed my time here over the past year and a half, sharing in your lives as we share in God’s word together. The parable of the sower also reminds us that the word of God does the work of God – that God’s purposes are accomplished by the preaching of his word. That is certainly what I have found in this place – that you are a people committed to the Bible, and are gospel people. It has been a privilege to be involved here and I want to thank Gareth especially, and you all, for your encouragement, support and prayers over my time here.

God’s purpose is accomplished by God’s word. We’re reminded of this in Isaiah 55 – ‘As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

We find this emphasised in the parable of the sower. God’s word achieves the bumper crop – thirty, sixty, one hundred-fold in the good soil. Jesus calls us to hear, to understand, and to do. If you’ll allow me to mix parables for a moment, we see the same principles in the parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:

‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.’ (Matthew 7:24-25). Do you see the emphasis on hearing Jesus’ words and putting them into practice?

To return to our passage again, I want to ask you - are you that good soil tonight? Are you hearing, understanding and producing?

Jesus says: ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’

Here's my two cents!

Two cents isn't very much. I'm not sure you could buy anything with it. It's worth just over a penny in sterling. So we could buy a penny chew. And yet tomorrow, my two cents (above) is taking me to Liverpool and back with Ryanair!

A couple of weeks back, at the height of exam fever, we stumbled upon the Ryanair specials. On most routes, there were flights for 1 cent - including taxes! So tomorrow Robert, Simon, Ruth and myself are heading off to Liverpool for the day.

Robert has already been to Glasgow and Manchester - check out his blogs and photos on the two trips. Photos and blogs will follow from both of us in due course!

Friday, June 08, 2007

'Well' reflected!

'Well' reflected!
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

The title says it all! It's me, as seen reflected in the well in the grounds of the ruined cathedral in St. Andrew's, Scotland.

The Ant and the Ladybird

The Ant and the Ladybird
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Using the close up feature on my camera, I was able to catch this amazing shot. Look closely (or visit the larger version at Flickr) to find the ant on the edge of the leaf. This was taken between the castle and the cathedral in the city of St Andrew's in Scotland, where Prince William went to university. Lots more photos are available at my site too!

Usage and Abusage

Language is an interesting tool. Using language, we can communicate with each other, and generally can be understood. We can express hopes and joys, fears and sadness, and so many other emotions. However, it can also be used in a negative way, as we've seen in the recent Big Brother incident.

Even without having watched that programme, it is obvious that language is being used in a negative and offensive way. No one should be abused because of their race - or on any other grounds. Thankfully Channel Four has acted swiftly this time to prevent it all getting out of hand.

But what I am left asking is this - is there a hierarchy of offensive language? Is it more offensive to use inappropriate language against one group or section of society than against another? Racial slurs and abuses are wrong. No doubt about it. Yet within Big Brother and many other programmes on TV we see offensive language and nothing is done about it.

How many times have you heard someone take the name of the Lord Jesus in vain? Or exclaimed the name of God? Have such examples passed into common parlance and are ignored now? Such a step is to be pitied, because in seeking to not offend some religious or ethnic groups, others are offended wholesale.

'You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.' (Exodus 20:7)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Belfast Castle

I got back from Scotland last night. Sadness. Five weeks until I see Lynsey again (with her finals in between). Then it will be the weekend of the Kee-Wilkinson wedding. Good times to look forward to!

Today I headed off in the sun. I was nominally heading towards Templepatrick - to visit the Book Aid shop at the Haven Christian Centre, but didn't want to go on the Airport Road or Dundrod, having come home that way last night. So I ended up going through Belfast and up the Antrim Road. Saw a sign for Belfast Castle, which I had never been to before, so swung up round it.

There's a great wee antiques shop in the basement of the castle. Got some very nice prints by a local artist at a bargainous price. Then I had a wander in the grounds with my camera. I seem to be in a very photography mood recently. Maybe it's my creative side coming out (eventually!). Tried to get a picture of the Harland & Wolff gantries, but even standing on a park bench, they were just out of sight. So instead I took photos of some of the nice poppies in white, red and pink in the cat garden, and got the above angle on the castle.

As always, check out my Flickr account for lots more recent photos!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Substitute

Thanks to the wonders of Google Reader, I'm still able to keep up with my blog reading. As I've probably mentioned before, I subscribe to about thirty blogs of friends, other ordinands, and random ones I have stumbled upon on my journies through the internet!

Have a look at this post from SaintSimon. A useful illustration of penal substitution that will be used at some point in my future preaching! Well done Simon. Keep it coming!

Monday, June 04, 2007

No rest for the wicked

When it came to Thursday night, and the end of term Communion service and the later bash at the Principal's house, my holidays had started. You hear holiday and think - relaxation; unwinding; taking it easy. I laugh at such notions! The start to my summer holidays has been hectic, but I'm starting to relax now.

Friday was the appointed day for going to Tesco in Lisburn. With the parentals not driving, and me heading off for a few days, it was absolutely necessary for the groceries to be got in before I headed away. You can't have the family starving, now, can you? Then it was off to Lurgan to lift dad from work (and to get a hair cut), before running Neil to Sprucefield for urgent electrical supplies. Home again, got changed and out to Belfast (via Dromara), to a service in Richview Presbyterian Church on the Donegall Road. It was the Licensing service for Father David McCarthy, who is now a Preacher of the Gospel and a Probationer for the Ministry. An excellent service, with musical anthems from the King's Chorale (which David is in), and good congregational singing. He now begins to work full time in Abbot's Cross Presbyterian, in Newtownabbey. May the Lord bless you, David.

A late night led into an early morning, up at the scrake of dawn and off to Aldergrove for my flight to Scotland. I'm here in Dundee for a few days in the time between my exams finishing and before Lynsey's last few weeks of revision before her finals kick in. Yesterday morning we again went to Logie's both morning and evening, enjoying and being challenged by the preaching.

Today I went off to St Andrew's and explored the castle and ruined cathedral. Some photos will no doubt soon follow on Flickr, when I get back home and connect the camera up to the computer! Still two days before I go home again, so I will go and enjoy them!