The end of the beginning
The title of this letter may have for some of the older members of the congregation an echo of a speech by Sir Winston Churchill at the Lord Mayor’s Day Luncheon at the Mansion House, London, on 9th November 1942 – though the scale of reference here is much different! For younger members it may evoke a parodic song by a heavy metal band, or another by David Phelps, which celebrates the life of Jesus. The 8th June for members and friends of Sandyford who gathered to hear Rev Jonathan de Groot preach as sole nominee marked a defining moment in the history of the congregation. The unanimous vote in a secret ballot has been of great encouragement to Jonathan and his wife Sheona and to the Nominating Committee (which was discharged at the morning service on the 15th June).
The Induction will be arranged by the Presbyteries of Glasgow and Edinburgh once the timetable for the completion of the refurbishment of the manse has been set. The Presbytery Report found the manse generally in very good order but it has been decided to upgrade the kitchen and install a downstairs cloaks to make the manse accessible to an all-age church.
When Peter White retired on 30th April 2011 some wondered, as others had done some 15 years earlier when his predecessor George Philip retired, whether this was not the beginning of the end for Sandyford. Some had helpfully warned us of the risks of decline in terms of attendance, income and membership. With this in mind, and with the support of Peter and of Alex Green, our Interim Moderator, we felt that we could not stand still but that if we were to preserve (and seek to enhance) the rich legacy that Peter and George had left us we would need to go forward and be as ambitious for the Lord as we could possibly be in a vacant charge. The need to cultivate a total dependence on God was of paramount importance, whether the vacancy be short or long. To this end we adopted a dual epigraph. We looked back to how God had blessed the congregation in the previous two ministries, and set as a memorial in our hearts those words of Samuel:
Thus far has the Lord helped us (1 Samuel 7: 12)
The God who was with us in the past would not leave us in the vacancy. As Eric Alexander observed, in a letter characteristically full of encouragement, ‘the term vacancy is really a misnomer’.
And we took courage in the vacancy from the words of Jesus, which have prefaced every Wednesday prayer bulletin and prayers with those who have preached at our Sunday services:
apart from me you can do nothing (John 15: 5)
How much we owe to our God for his encouragement and enabling in ways so many of us could not have envisaged! It would be impossible in the confines of a letter to list the innumerable blessings poured out on us over what will be, by the time of the Induction, some 40 months. And I apologise for missing out in this selection some of the key aspects which readers may have particularly prized.
Ministry: through the agency of a cast of more than 40 preachers and local supply from within the congregation the Lord has encouraged and challenged us to sustain the momentum and to develop the ministry of strengthening the believers and reaching out to those without Christ in their lives. The focus on expository ministry has been maintained with series on Sundays in I Samuel, the life of Joseph in Genesis 37-47, Ruth, the life of Elijah and Elisha from 1 & 2 Kings, Esther, Job (selected chapters), Isaiah 40-66, Daniel, Jonah, Habakkuk, Haggai, Malachi, Mark’s and John’s Gospels, the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6, Ephesians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Jude, I John, and the warnings given to the 7 churches in the first three chapters of the book of Revelation. During the summer we hope, Lord willing, to be looking at Acts 8-10 in the morning and Joel in the evening. All of the sermons may be downloaded free of charge from the Sandyford website.
These series have been so well complemented at our Wednesday Bible Study/Prayer Meetings by studies in Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, the Psalms of Ascent, the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel, the Acts of the Apostles (ch 14 ff.), 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, I Timothy, Philemon, and I Peter.
Our gratitude to all who have spent so much time preparing these studies is immense.
Prayer: At the heart of the work has been the realisation of the need of prayer. The increased attendance at most of the Wednesday prayer meetings has been reflected in the commitment to pray from so many, not just within the congregation but outside it. How encouraging it has been when ministers have come with messages from their own people that we are remembered without fail at their meetings for prayer.
New members: Despite the uncertainty in the national church and in our own congregation, 86 people have been pleased to join us in membership. The age range (from over 80 to 18) reflects our desire to maintain an all-age church. One of the reasons given by those joining has been their desire to associate with a people who had welcomed and befriended them, and, in quite a few cases, pointed them to the Saviour. Particularly encouraging has been the statistic that the majority of new members have joined by profession of faith. Most of these came from the UK but it has also been encouraging to welcome many from all over the world. In many cases, we were reaping where others had planted. Lest we talk up our contribution Paul reminds us that the work is all of God’s grace:
So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is significant, but God, who keeps everything growing, is the one who matters (1 Corinthians 3:7).
Outreach: The input of our student workers, whose posts were created during the vacancy, and of Douglas Humphris (as Outreach Co-ordinator until last August), has been invaluable. Their work has not been restricted to bringing in those without any knowledge of the gospel but has involved building up Christians and supporting and envisioning them in friendship evangelism. Much of the outreach has also been undertaken by many older members who would not want their names to be mentioned in a letter but who have given themselves unstintingly in friendship and in hospitality to those who have come to us.
Unity: The harmony of the Session, and the support given to its decisions by the congregation, have made the vacancy so much easier than we could have expected. I would place on record my thanks to David Kennedy and Michael Grant, who have acted as minute-takers at Session meetings, in part to release me from the burden of the writing up, but also to allow me to take full part in the discussion.
At a recent Session meeting, Alex Green considered the vacancy almost like a new ministry. While we understand, and are grateful to Alex for such sentiments, the goal has been the guarding and developing of the legacy for the future of the work. The culminating point of the vacancy has been the appointment of a new minister. The vision of the basics of the true church, which Jonathan de Groot expounded in the sermon which he preached as sole nominee on Acts 2: 42-47, commended itself to all who heard it, as is evident from the unanimous vote and the signatories to the call. In the first week during which it has been made available the call has been supported by over 200 members and ‘concurrents’.
However, the support and willingness to undertake whatever tasks, which have helped enormously during the vacancy, cannot give way to thinking that the new minister will do everything himself. It is a major change for him and his family, with so many practical arrangements to be made, not least with regard to schooling and settling into a new neighbourhood and a new church situation. There will also be the linguistic and cultural challenge for a man from Turiff and Edinburgh coming to the West of Scotland!
As readers will appreciate, the biggest challenge will be the spiritual one, as Jonathan’s predecessors have found. The Anglican Communion, it has been recently reported, have reinstated ‘sin’ in the baptismal service. But they have taken out all reference to the devil. If the anticipated blessing on the congregation is going to be experienced under the new ministry the manse family will need our prayers for protection against what Paul has called the ‘the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Ephesians 6: 12).
The task ahead for us as a congregation is to continue to depend on God in the days ahead and to make ourselves available for Christ’s service, in whatever area this may be. The exhortation ‘to have faith in God’, which has echoed in the building since 1956, is as relevant as at any time in Sandyford’s history. Without engaging in Churchillian rhetoric, the encouragements we have known these last years may give us cause to believe that this is just the ending of the beginning of all that God is going to do in our congregation and beyond in the days to come.
On behalf of the congregation, I would like to express warmest thanks to all who have prayed and given so much support and encouragement, which have meant more than words can say.
Very best wishes
Noel Peacock, Session ClerkView All Letters