For the record, I’m with David Bowie not with Alex Salmond. It wasn’t as hard a choice as it would have been if Billy Connolly (or the Proclaimers) were making the case for independence. I’d find it easier to listen to their arguments. As it is, the Scottish First Minister … Let’s leave it there.
But I was in Scotland a week ago. And it gets my vote. By happy coincidence , it was the day after we won the Calcutta Cup. I didn’t mention it once. Or more than once. I didn’t mention it at all. We were back in Scotland for the annual Co-Mission Senior Staff Focus. And, once again, it was terrific. In marked contrast to previous years, when I’ve been sinking under the weight of pastoral ministry hassle, I was actually looking forward to it. I think that’s a reflection on how more sustainable ministry feels at the moment, which is a good thing.
For the last five years we’ve stayed in a beautiful house on the Findhorn estuary on the south side of the Moray Firth. It’s lent to us by a generous Christian man who is delighted to support our gospel ministry. The front drive of the house is about a mile long. And if I tell you that there were fourteen of us and we nearly all had beds to sleep in, you get some idea of the size of the place. We were well served by the Housekeeper and Cook, Evelyn.
There were elements of relaxation about the trip, I won’t lie. What’s not to enjoy about an open log fire and walks along the beach in crisp temperatures and bright blue skies? But we worked hard as well. Over the years, the emphasis on our time away has shifted. In the early days we’d spend lots of sessions (yes, there’s a timetable) talking about the direction and organisation of our small network of churches. But this year we only gave one session to that discussion. We looked at the doctrine of the Trinity as it has been articulated in a recent popular level book, because one or two questions had been raised about it. As you might imagine, with some gifted theological thinkers in the room, the discussion was fairly high level. I was struggling to keep up at times. But it’s reminded me that chief amongst my pastoral responsibilities is to protect the flock over which I’m a shepherd from false teaching. And to do that, I need to keep reading and thinking. And ministry life all too quickly becomes doing. Carving out time to feed myself with nourishing doctrine is a challenge. But one worth fighting for.
The highlight for me, however, was the time we spent in the company of John Newton. I often struggle with dead guys. They tend not to speak and write like I do. It’s English, apparently. But not as I know it. And that makes them hard to understand. And so, my historical travels back in time usually stop at JC Ryle in the nineteenth century. His stuff does at least make the seventeenth century Puritans accessible because he read them and they shaped his thought. But, for the sake of the team I was willing to go back to the eighteenth century to look at John Newton. And I can’t tell you how happy I was that we did. His letters were so helpful that I’ve already purchased them and have dipped in to them since we got back. I’m going to introduce them to our staff time together. We were helpfully teed up for our time with Newton by John Piper who’s given a biographical sketch available here. And I’m ploughing my way through a hugely enjoyable biography by Jonathan Aitken.
It’s physically restorative. We sleep well. And rest. And eat way too much. And apart from the new phenomenon of everyone answering their phones and chasing up emails now that there’s 3G coverage, we’re relatively free from the immediate ‘responsibilities’ of what’s happening at home and church. We go for walks along the beach in the clear blue skies; accompanied by the suspicious seals who watch from the security of the water.
It’s theologically stimulating. We set time aside to read something significant. It’s usually stretching and often it’s current. But we want to make sure that we’re maintaining and gaining some depth to our thinking.
It’s spiritually refreshing. Reading a handful of John Newton’s pastoral letters was pure gold. He wrote with such a combination of theological depth and pastoral warmth it was as though he’d already completed ‘The Dynamics of Biblical Change’ module from CCEF! I had a good time each morning in the Psalms, which has been so enriching for my faith in God.
It’s relationally valuable. We competed against one another; shooting clay pigeons. I was useless. But at least I beat the Director of Co-Mission! We mock one another and exchange banter. We tell stories at each other’s expense. We seek each other’s counsel. We sit by an open fire and catch up. We argue and disagree and get annoyed and then forgive. We prayed for one another, especially one or two of the guys who are really under the cosh with sustained and serious issues in their family. Co-Mission is so much more than a collection of mates who like doing church planting together. But it’s not less than that. Nor should it ever be.
It was a great time away. I’m very grateful to my church family who permit me to go, my wife and kids who cope without me and ultimtaely to God because it’s become an annual time of real refreshment. Scotland. It gets my vote.