Monday, 31 December 2012

Four lessons from John MacDonald's Life

First, we should pray to the God of providence to raise up men like him who have a national rather than a parish or congregational ministry. It seems obvious from church history that is how God usually works. Macdonald was in the same mould as men like Whitefield, Wesley and John Knox. His work was so large that it is almost impossible to assess it. While most of his ministry was confined to the Highlands he also preached further south and also in Ireland. We need men that can move the nation and be used by God to bring many to him.

Second, it is clear providence covers every area of life. We see this in Macdonald’s father being prevented from emigrating, in how Macdonald lived with the aged Christian woman for a few years as a boy, in his schooling, in the way he developed into a great preacher, in his domestic affairs, in his natural strength, in his ability to interact with all kinds of people. The same principle is true of us. We are continually under God’s providence. The knowledge of this should lead us to trust him.

And he has made us who we are and who we can be. Providence works in our lives so that we will influence people. That is a basic fact and we do it every day. Whatever else can be said about each day, it can be said that in one way or another we have been influenced by other people, and in turn we are influencing other people. That is the story of life. The important matter is in what ways are we influencing them.

The third lesson from his life and providence is that we can face adversity. Macdonald knew very sad experiences, especially the deaths of his first wife and of his son in Calcutta. He had other problems as well, some caused by ministers who did not appreciate his desire to preach the gospel. Yet throughout it all he retained his trust in the loving wisdom of God.

Fourth, we see in the Macdonald family how generations of it can serve the Lord. The illiterate catechist did not imagine that his son would become the most prominent evangelist in Scotland or that his grandson would become a pioneer missionary in India. I don’t know what happened afterwards to the family. But we should aim for spiritual legacies that would continue the spread of the gospel.

What kind of man was John MacDonald

What kind of man was John Macdonald? First, he was an organised man. When at home divided his day into three sets of eight hours. Eight were spent in bed, eight were spent in study and prayer, and eight were spent in other matters connected to the church and home. Providence does not mean disorganisation.

Second, he was a physically strong man. In his early days he travelled through regions without roads and had either to walk or ride, often through cold and stormy weather, crossing swollen rivers to preach to crowds who had gathered to hear him. Eventually such exertions caught up with him. But he refused to let tiredness or even illness prevent him preaching. On one occasion, he was seriously ill and was unable to perspire, which the doctors wanted him to do in order to get rid of the cause of his illness (I have no idea if that is good medical practice today). A local elder heard about the problem and arranged for a cure. He gathered people to the manse in order to hear an address from the minister, who knew nothing about his elder’s plans. After the people had gathered, he persuaded Macdonald to say a few words to them. The minister became increasingly animated as he went on, began to perspire, and by the time he was finished he was soaking with sweat. After preaching he fell asleep and woke up recovered from his illness. Providence has ways of helping us.

Third, he was a busy man. During the years when his ministry was in full flow and he was taking the gospel to many parts of the country, he would spend three months each year in this practice. He preached on average two sermons each day during that three months (about 180 sermons), which meant that he preached more sermons in that period than most ministers do in a year. The rest of the year he would be in his own pulpit or in one near home (he preached in Inverness and Dingwall monthly at special meetings). In the remaining nine months of each year he preached about 100 sermons in his own congregation and roundabout, which is about three a week. So it is calculated that he preached 10,000 sermons after he began his ministry in Ferintosh. An average Free Church minister who preaches for forty years will preach about 5,000 sermons. So we can see that Macdonald was very busy. Yet although he preached on those numerous occasions, he never preached an unstudied sermon. He never took providence for granted. Providence never justifies laziness.

Fourth, he was a man with an interest in the progress of the gospel. ‘His ministry was richly blessed of God. Perhaps no minister of modern times was more owned as the means of converting souls. While in Edinburgh, he took a deep and active interest in the great revival at Muthil, under the ministry of the Rev. Mr Russell. Soon after his removal to Ferintosh, a deeply interesting movement took place among his own people. After that the Word was much blessed on both sides of Loch Tay, and in Glenlyon; and he frequently visited the district and preached with great power and success. The fruits of the revival of religion there are visible to this day. There were great spiritual movements in Ross-shire, the revivals in Kilsyth and Dundee took place, and in all these Dr Macdonald took his share of the work with warm interest. Wherever he heard of the Lord’s cause prospering, he made a point of being present to help it forward.’ We interpret providence by how it helps the gospel progress.

Fifth, he knew great gospel blessing. Says the biographer of his son about the father: ‘The revival in religion which had been commenced or promoted by the efforts of Whitefield, Dr Erskine, and others, was carried forward by his zeal and energy, after his translation from Edinburgh to the parish of Urquhart, in Ross-shire. Indeed, to perhaps none of her living sons does Scotland owe more than to him who has been appropriately styled the Apostle of the North. Not merely has soul after soul been born of the Spirit through his instrumentality, but revival after revival – those harvests of ministerial labour – have been produced, or promoted, by a blessing from on high on his devoted labours; and the day when the secrets of all hearts shall be laid bare alone can tell how many shall rise up to call him blessed.’

Robert Buchanan, in his Ten Years’ Conflict, summed up Macdonald’s ministry: ‘it is enough to say that he was the Whitefield of the Highlands of Scotland. The proudest and most powerful chieftains of the Celtic race never possessed such a mastery over the clans, which the fiery cross or the wild pibroch summoned into the field in the fierce days of feudal strife, as belonged, in these more peaceful modern times, to this humble minister of Christ. From Tarbatness to the outer Hebrides – from the Spey to the Pentland Firth – the fact needed but to be known that John Macdonald had come, and was about to preach the Word, in order that the country for twenty miles around should gather at his call. Ten thousand people have often been swayed as one man – stirred into enthusiasm, or melted into sadness, by this mighty and faithful preacher’s voice.’

What did this amazing man think of his labours? He once wrote, ‘I never enter the pulpit without fear and I never leave it without shame.’

John Macdonald died in 1849. He lived and moved in a world different from ours. He had no concept of motor cars, aeroplanes, telephones, or the internet. Yet he touched more people with the gospel than we do as a denomination with our temporal benefits.

Providence in the life of John MacDonald

John Macdonald was born on November 12th, 1779, in the parish of Reay in the north of Scotland. His father, James Macdonald, was the local catechist and lay-preacher, despite being unable to read or write. Yet he knew the Bible by heart, it was said.

Life was hard in those days and James resolved to emigrate to America with his wife and then family. They were prevented from doing so by a fierce storm in the Pentland Firth. John had not then been born, but providence prevented him going there. After all, if he had, John would not have been born.

You may ask, Would he not have been born in America? The answer to that question is no because the then wife of James would not be the mother of John. Sadly, James’ first wife died shortly after the aborted trip to America. In 1775, James remarried, this time to the daughter of a Christian man who lived near him, and to them was born John four years later (he was their second child). Divine providence arranged for John Macdonald to be born in Reay.

John was born when his father was away from home. His mother was cared for by a neighbouring widow and she developed a very strong attachment to the baby that she asked the parents if he could live with her once he was able to do so. Perhaps surprisingly to us, they agreed to this proposal, maybe because there were a lot of other children in the home, and it may not have been that big. In any case, he lived with her for five years. During that time, she dedicated herself to caring for him in a spiritual as well as physical manner. Although he was so young, he testified at the end of his life that he could still recall some of her earnest prayers for his spiritual welfare. Whatever we think of the arrangement, we cannot doubt that God in his providence arranged for a prayer warrior to intercede for him. Providentially, he was the child of much special prayer (no doubt his parents prayed for him as well).

When John went to school, it soon became obvious that he was brighter intellectually than the other pupils. The problem was that two pupils were the children of the gentry, and the teacher was reluctant to let John get too far ahead of them. It looked as if providence was preventing him from obtaining suitable education. But to come to that conclusion would be believe in presumption rather than in providence. Despite the teacher’s fears, the mother of the boys heard about what was happening, instructed the teacher not to be so concerned, and arranged for John to teach her two children every evening about the lessons for the following day, for which John received a financial reward. In providence, God arranged for possible barriers to be removed and even added monetary help which would have been valuable for John.

His ability at arithmetic opened doors for him to look after the annual accounts of several wealthy farmers and estate owners, and it was clear that he should proceed to a university. Before he could do so, when he was eighteen, he was sent to Thurso by one of the estate owners with a letter. It so happened that the army recruiters were there that day and young John, being very interested in music and dancing, participated eagerly in the festivities. The outcome was that he enlisted, and that usually meant he would be in the army for many years. It looked as if his future was in the armed services. Fortunately a neighbouring minister was in town and when he heard what happened he immediately tried to get John released, but it was only with great difficulty that he managed to do so. If he had become a soldier, he would not have become the apostle of the north. Again, divine providence over-ruled what seemed to be the path he was on.

Although he had been brought up in a very devout environment, John did not show much interest in spiritual things until his second year in university that he began to take seriously the state of his soul.

In 1813, John Macdonald was inducted to the charge of Ferintosh. A year later, his wife died while he was away on a preaching tour in Caithness. The annual communion had been arranged for the week after his return, which coincided with the funeral of his wife. This communion was his first as minister of Ferintosh and yet, in providence, what would have been a spiritual highlight was obviously affected by his bereavement. His elders suggested that he postpone his communion because he had a major part to play in the preaching (in those days, those who came to assist the local minister only assisted – they did not replace him). He refused to postpone the communion, so on the Sabbath he preached to about 10,000 people on the text, ‘I will betroth thee unto me forever.’ The relationship between his own loss and the theme of his sermon was obvious, and many were affected by his words that day. His response to a difficult providence was owned by the Lord.

Macdonald had several children, the best known being his son called by the same name. He became a minister, first in Elgin and then in London. Then he became a missionary in Calcutta. In 1847, the father went to preach in Perthshire. He received a letter which he put in his pocket, intending to read it after his preaching was over. He did not get an opportunity to do so until the following day and when he opened it he discovered that it contained information about his son’s death. We could say that providentially he was kept from reading the letter until his preaching duties were over. Obviously, as he travelled home, his mind was on his son. When he preached in Ferintosh after getting home, his text was the words, ‘It is well.’ Such a response tells us what he thought of divine providence.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

The ends of 2012

In a couple of days 2012 will come to an end. Of course we are not surprised at this fact because we have known that this would happen. Perhaps we will be glad to know that it is over because we have experienced difficulties during it. Or we may be sad that it will have gone because many interesting, even exciting things happened to us during it. Perhaps it has flown by very quickly or perhaps it has seemed very long. Whatever our experience, we know that 2012 will conclude tomorrow evening.
Yet we also know that the word ‘end’ has another meaning in addition to ‘conclusion’. The alternative meaning is ‘purpose’ and we are familiar with this usage of the word in the first question of the Shorter Catechism, ‘What is man’s chief end?’ When we consider it from the point of view of purpose, we can think of two different ones – God’s purpose for 2012 and our purpose for 2012.
I’m sure most of us had purposes for 2012 back at the end of December 2011. Some of them may only have been possibilities, like where we would go on holiday. These purposes may not have happened and we can forget about them. Yet other of our purposes might have been more serious, especially if they were connected to our spiritual lives. We may have decided back then that in 2012 we would pray more regularly, read the Bible more frequently, witness for Jesus when opportunities came our way, etc. We may have failed to do them, despite having plenty time (twelve months). In that regard, the end of 2012 was not achieved. How should we respond to our failure? The answer is that we should go to God and repent, and he will forgive us. And we should ask for grace to help us achieve our spiritual goals in 2013.
Of course, a lot of us may have managed to implement some of our spiritual ‘ends’ in 2012. If that is the case, such should give thanks to God. Yet even when that progress has been achieved, we cannot assume that we have reached a spiritual plateau from which we cannot descend, and descend quickly, in 2013. God will expect us to maintain, with his help, the ‘ends’ we have for the coming year.
Some of us may have intended to be converted in 2012. Yet the year has passed and the change has not happened. You are aware that time is passing, and very rapidly. The reason that you are not converted is not God’s fault. On any of the moments of every day in 2012 you could have gone to him and asked for pardon for your sins. You could have received his mercy. Yet you can still do so in 2012, because today and tomorrow remain. But you should not delay because none of us knows when our personal opportunities will be gone forever.
The other Person who had ‘ends’ in 2012 is God. We come to the close of the year aware that we have failed, even when we have made some progress. Yet the Lord has accomplished everything he planned for 2012. He has not failed to any extent in anything that he purposed to do. His purpose is so large that we cannot comprehend a fraction of it. But he always knows all of it, and he never fails. At the end of one year and at the beginning of another, it is good for us to know that the Lord is capable in all he does and remains sovereign over all.