A Journal of the American Banner of Truth Conference
FRIDAY, MAY 26, 2017
I slept fitfully, but was up before five and my oldest daughter Eleri took me to a Finchley station where I got the Heathrow Express for £6. There were no queues to the check-in and brief lines through the security X-rays. I walked to a pleasant restaurant for a full English breakfast and then went on to the gate to the Dublin plane where my seat was in the back row.
A beautiful sunny sky enabled me to gaze down on north Wales, Snowdon, the Anglesey straits, and Llun. There were the customary long lines getting into the Dublin airport and then through immigration for entry to the USA. I am always just a little tense on these occasions but I was prepared to answer all the anticipated questions, remembering to have written out the address of Grace Baptist Church, Carlisle, PA.
I had my photograph and my fingerprints taken twice. The former was a work of art. That old man was looking flustered and crouching down to look into the camera, more round-shouldered than ever. The sad thing was that the plane’s departure to Philadelphia was delayed for at least two hours.
It turned out to be three.
A deacon from the Carlisle church would have to wait around in the airport for me. I was sorry to inconvenience this old friend. So I sat around and read, snoozed, and had a cup of tea.
After a couple of hours there was an announcement asking six people to go to the counter. My name was among them and so I went along, but because I had registered in Heathrow, they had no record of me.
I gave them my boarding pass and they gave me another in its place – the same window seat. Then another younger man came to me for some interrogation.
Where was I staying in the USA?. What did I do . . . In . . . My . . . Spare . . . Time? Can you believe it? Please!
I told them I looked after myself. Then they asked me if I was interested in soccer. I told them rugby. What was my favourite team? The only one I could remember was the Ospreys. Then they asked me who was my favourite player. My mind went blank. Could I remember a single Welsh rugby star? Then the unforgettable name of Leigh Halfpenny came to mind.
They let me fly to America. Thank you Leigh!
The ride across the Atlantic was fine. I had one of the few empty seats on the plane right next to me. The large woman sitting in it had moved before take off to sit near her friend which meant that I could spread out. I watched a film of the American evangelical soldier who would not shoot a rifle during the Second World War, suffered for his convictions, and then as a non-combatant stretcher bearer rescued forty of his injured companions. I was touched seeing Hacksaw Ridge.
My deacon friend was waiting patiently for me in the airport when I arrived. I first came to Philadelphia 56 years ago and lived there for three years. It is a two hour drive to Carlisle but we talked non-stop, especially of the Marrow Controversy and of Sinclair Ferguson’s new book.
It was cooler than I expected and I wished I had brought a light-weight sweater. I did not see blue sky for three days, and certainly no glimpse of the sun since leaving London. The weather was mild enough but totally grey and overcast – one morning it was drizzling. I seemed to have brought Welsh rain with me to Tom Richwine’s lovely home. Tom is a trustee of the Banner of Truth and an elder in the Grace Church.
On Saturday hundreds of people parked and walked up and down this road of lovely detached houses for the annual Memorial Day garage sales. Many of the drives of the houses had tables covered in the paraphernalia of any home, clothes, toys, books, games, electrical equipment, vases, sofas, armchairs, and keep fit machines, all for a few dollars.
I was over-dressed and self conscious wandering around three or four of these driveways watched by the women, before my nerve cracked. I tried to walk in behind a family group hoping they would think I was their old-fashioned grandfather chauffeur, but that wasn’t always possible and after a while enough was enough, and I went back to Tom’s with no bargains.
In the evening John Rawlinson, the managing editor of the Banner of Truth Edinburgh, came by for supper and we fellowshipped for a few hours. He would be returning home to Scotland in a few weeks but his wife and son were joining him at the end of this week to go to Hawaii for a Free Grace Conference in Honolulu, followed by a brief holiday.
320 men from all over North America are attending the Banner of Truth Conference here in Pennsylvania. The two other British speakers have had to drop out due to family health problems, Ian Hamilton with ill health and a family bereavement, and Mark Johnstone’s daughter being quite unwell. It seems that I am going to ‘step up to the plate’, as the Americans say, and preach a fourth message, the final going away sermon to wrap everything up and send men home singing!
I am on my way to becoming the grand old man of the conference. I wish I had a grand old brain and a grand old spirit and a grand old maturity too. It is much easier just to keep alive until you are in sight of your 80th birthday. That is God’s providence to me and millions in the world that we achieve that. No grace needed for longevity.
I attended the Reformed Presbyterian church on the other side of Carlisle. Decherd Stevens is on the staff there as an associate pastor and has been a friend and source of great encouragement for many years. He is from the south, Greenville, at the heart of the Bible Belt, and has not been here in this work for a whole year yet. He and his wife Sylvia are a dear couple. Their newly married daughter was also visiting from Massachusetts. She teaches English to Chinese students in China live on a TV link and because of the time difference she does this for three hours at 4 a.m. four or five nights a week.
The building on Westminster Road, like most American churches, is newly built with all the facilities a modern church needs; kitchens, toilets, storage, comfy seating, and lots of rooms for officers, young people, and children to gather. One would covet such buildings in the UK. Ulster alone has them.
The pastor has been there for five years and he studied under Douglas Kelly in yet another growing Presbyterian Seminary. There was the adult Sunday School class at 9.30 where the pastor took a lesson on the final summer examination of the Westminster Standards, this time on the Shorter Catechism. We were about sixty people and he was excellent. Then we had the morning service at 10:45 and it was one where I felt at home singing the old great hymns, followed by prayer, and then I preached.
We had lunch in Decherd’s home and were joined by the pastor and his family. I enjoyed being drawn into the dynamics of their lives.
In the afternoon I slept like a log due to my slight but persistent jet lag. Back to church we went for the evening service at 6pm, which was just like the morning in its structure, and I preached again, and there seems to have been appreciation.
Afterwards we returned to the home for curry and conversation with an additional presence of two of the elders. One of them had his wife with him and she was an apiarist (in other words she had three bee hives) and that was the theme of much of our conversation.
She interrogated us, one by one, as to how many bees lived in one hive. None of us were any way near the correct answer – 36,000. And how long did a bee live? I said three months but the answer was three weeks. We spoke of bee stings, and that once they sting they die. I told them of Christ receiving into himself the sting of death that we might not be stung by it. Oh death where is thy sting?
This was preparation day for the start of the Conference on Tuesday and I had lunch with another of the Banner of Truth Trustees, Jeff Kingswood, a Reformed Presbyterian minister from Canada, his brother, and Tom Richwine. Good fellowship again, and I learned about the work in Canada.
It was another quiet morning, grey skies and some rain. I wrote some bits and pieces and went over my first sermon a couple of times for the 3.30 start to the conference. I also packed my bags.
Tom and I made ourselves some fine USA sandwiches and I was ready to drive away by just after twelve. We picked up John Miller the newly called pastor of Grace Baptist church here in Carlisle. His mother is Vietnamese and his father American.
We chatted all the way to the Elizabethtown College, twenty miles away. What a beautiful campus, the size of Aberystwyth University’s but modern – and such fine architecture and gardens. Then we swiftly went through all the business of registration.
Five students from the college sat in a line all had something to give us, keys and maps and directions, one by one, cheerfully, as I moved from one to the other, and then I was driven again by Tom and taken to the hall of residence where I am to stay for the next few nights. I am sharing a large apartment with Joel Beeke. He just arrived at the college in time for my message, flying in from Illinois and flying back there tomorrow afternoon where he is giving eight messages on the Puritans to a hundred and thirty students. One of them is Irfon Hughes’s grand-daughter.
Most of the 330 men attending the conference had arrived by 3.30 and were sitting in the university’s Great Hall, a very similar in size to the one in Aberystwyth where the August conference is held, but a little more luxurious. Jeff from Canada chaired and welcomed Geoff publicly.
We sang a hymn and then I was up and preaching. In a few minutes my nervousness disappeared and I preached my theme on the plight of man. Isn’t it strange how a sermon describing the Bible’s awesomely pessimistic view of man can produce such a spirit of gratitude and appreciation in the hearers? I couldn’t walk down a path or a corridor or go for a meal without someone stopping me and wanting to talk about it.
One man said to me, “How can I weep and laugh at the same time?” A few hours later a friend in Ulster wrote to me to say that he had been watching the telecast in his parlour there in Northern Ireland. He had seen and heard me preach it live as it was streamed around the world. It had been a blessing to him. So in every part of the globe people could watch and hear me preach. My daughters in the UK could watch their father preaching in Pennsylvania. Isn’t that remarkable? What an age we live in! The Banner was even able to find out how many people had watched the meeting that day – three thousand!
After supper (which was as delicious as all the meals) Joel Beeke spoke on Puritan Preaching. He said lots of helpful things and he will complete this theme tomorrow morning at nine. Breakfast is at seven, the prayer meeting 8.15 and then he is to speak afterwards. There is another speaker at 10.30 and then another in the early evening before I preach tomorrow night at 7.
My old friend Irfon Hughes and I had a grand reunion and then another reunion with Andrew Davies. So there were in fact three Welsh speakers in the conference, but I went out with seven men from Texas led by Mack Tomlinson at 8.30 and we had delicious frozen custard and talked away until ten when I returned to my room. Soon Joel Beeke returned and we talked and finally prayed together until 11.45. What a happy day I’ve had. Joel was next door and I could hear him chatting away at midnight to Mary on his phone and I knew a hint of envy.
It was something to see the Great Hall this morning with over two hundred men all in prayer, one after another standing and leading the praying. The book shop is large and full of men examining, talking and lining up, their arms heavy with books, to pay their dues.
The display is awesome. It is on such occasions that it hits you just how many hundreds of books the Banner publishes and reprints, and the USA is buying them as if they were all going to be sold out next week.
One third of these men were there for the first time. One hundred young men – think of it. There were four Pentecostal men who had come down from Canada and they sat one row from the front and were glued to all the messages. By their presence they were showing their disillusionment with Pentecostalism and they came around me afterwards, hugging and smiling, asking me questions.
Another man asked me, “What do you do in praying for your members?”
If you want to humble a minister and cause him to become an evasive son of a gun then that’s the question to ask him. I asked another man where he was pastoring, and he told me adding, “It’s a Sort-of Baptist church . . . yes a Sort-of Baptist.” Yep. I know exactly what he means.
Joel Beeke spoke on what we can learn from the Puritans both positively and negatively, for example, Don’t have so many points and sub-points and sub-sub-points as they had. That was then, and it was part of their education to be taught in that way. It is not our way today. Positively, preach well rounded, expository sermons, full of the Bible with practical application. Preach the main doctrines of your text thoroughly. Preach the whole counsel of God over time. Preach in a style the people can understand, even the fourteen year olds. Preach with your life what you preach from the pulpit. Be diligent. Love God and love man.
Jonathan Master spoke on that fascinating incident in I Kings 13 which centres on the Word of God and the crucial importance of hearing and doing what it says. Carlton Wynne, an associate professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia opened up Ephesians 3.1-13. The glorious plan of God is fuelled by resurrection power; it is one of undeserved privilege; it is one of heavenly wonder and one of hopeful sufferings.
I preached on the sufficiency of Scripture in the evening, and then gave the football and ice-cream a miss and went with Irfon, his son, and son’s friend back to get more frozen custard. Plenty of discussion ensued.
I book-ended the day speaking first on the gospel that destroys the heresy of purgatory, and then closed with examining the uniqueness of our Lord’s preaching ministry, why it was said of him that no man spoke like him.
Jonathan Master spoke on ‘Sharper than a Two-edged Sword,’ and he opened up 2 Timothy 3, showing how Paul declared the inspiration of Scripture to the young man and then appealed to what an example to him were those who continued in their new Bible life, and the nature of what the Word of God can do because of what God is and what he can do. He is reliable. The Bible is reliable. He is holy and the Bible is holy. He is consistent and the Bible is consistent. Then finally the Bible is able to teach, reprove, correct and train in righteousness. So correctly handle the word of truth for we are not under-resourced.
We also had a survey of the life and teaching of the prophet Jeremiah by Dr.William VanDoodewaard of the Puritan Reformed Seminary, Grand Rapids. The prophet often experienced loneliness and suffering, but God’s grace was sufficient. He was at times broken with grief and wept over Jerusalem, but God sustained him. Jesus Christ is the perfect prophet inspired and strengthened by the example of Jeremiah and so should we be too.
The conference was very good for me, and friendships renewed and fellowship encouraged, and the many young men present were all hopeful and inspiring.
I thought mildly as one present in every session in the English Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference, and now also in the American, that the consistent level of the preaching in England was better than it had been in America. That was utterly unexpected to me given the fact that the American churches must be ten times stronger and more numerous than British congregations and our free grace pulpits.
I say that not to demean the American churches. Their authors and seminaries and Ph.Ds and missionary zeal and home piety are all quite outstanding. I mention the weakness in preaching, just in passing, to encourage a more thankful and hopeful spirit in the United Kingdom.
This visit to the USA did me the power of good, I believe. To stay on for a further four days of vacation and delight in the home fellowship of Jeff and Cindy Boatright, and to preach once again in the church they attend, Grace Baptist church, Carlisle, was another blessing God was pleased to give me.