The Church in the Square at the Heart of the Community
Ken's December Pastoral Letter
I want to share with you an advent reflection written by a very dear friend of mine, now gone to her reward these last three years and more, whom I was privileged to know for just under thirty seven years, and whom I met more or less forty years ago. I was a student at Napier College in Edinburgh and only just come to faith through a close friend and the College Christian Union.
My close friend and I were coming out of the Church of Scotland Bookshop one lunchtime on George Street, affectionately known as ‘121’ by most Edinburgh folk, after its address, and owing to the fact that it was, and indeed still is, the Church of Scotland’s main administrative offices or headquarters in the city. Margaret was on her way with a friend to lunchtime prayers in the chapel at 121, this being her regular practice. She worked as PA to the Air Vice-Marshall then at the head of the RAF Benevolent Fund, whose offices were in nearby Queen Street. Spotting my armful of books just purchased – you see I began collecting my now 3000 + volume library quite some time ago – she engaged my friend and I in conversation. I was twenty years old at the time and Margaret was fifty five. Perhaps not the most promising basis for a friendship spanning almost four decades, but until that day I’d never met anyone with such a zest for life that was rooted in such an open expression of love for the Lord, so naturally and comfortably expressed as though she were casually, and yet with great reverence, simply referring to a friend walking alongside her. Quickly ascertaining that my friend and I were new converts, and without a church as yet, she invited us to a fellowship evening in her home, together with other young people, that same evening. We went along, and I later attended Holyrood Abbey Church of Scotland to hear Mr Philip whose systematic expository sermons were captivating (no sermon under 35 minutes – ever! Two such on Sundays and a one hour Bible Study midweek with a two hour prayer meeting on Saturday evening. Hundreds attended these services every week) and there began a long association for me with that church.
What marked Margaret out was her genuine concern for anyone she met: that they should understand that God was actively seeking them out, through all of the circumstances of their lives, for a relationship with Himself. She was a natural evangelist, literally ‘gossiping the gospel’ (Acts 8:4, Colossians 4:6) wherever she went. I introduced a number of my friends to her over the years and always the effect was both challenging and moving for them.
Margaret died in 2017 at the age of 92 and over one hundred and twenty people attended her double slot funeral at the crematorium. The service was filled with friends from all around the country and even from abroad, having flown in especially to attend and to mark the passing of this saint of God whose life simply shone with testimony. So many of those present had met her quite by chance, just as I had done, and had kept up long friendships with her. Her minister, Mr Hare, still the new boy even after fourteen years following Mr Philips’s tenure of thirty nine years at Holyrood, recounted a story of one such chance encounter with Margaret by a Catholic priest of his acquaintance who when asked how he came to know Margaret said: “Well I was on a bus going along Princes Street when an old woman got on and came and sat beside me!” The congregation erupted in laughter since this sounded exactly like the beginning of most people present’s relationship with her.
What made Margaret so attractive to a young man like myself in 1980 and to all of those people present at her funeral? It was the closeness of her walk with the Lord and her obvious priorities in life: Jesus first, others second, and herself, or ‘yourself’ last, as the old Sunday School lesson of yesteryear had it -J. O. Y. This is what marked her out as extraordinary, and yet she would have said that this was every Christian’s calling and privilege. She saw every circumstance in her life, and there were many hard and challenging, even heart-rending ones, as opportunities for faithful loving service to her Lord. Her Bible was old and worn and marked with many a marginal note and she passed away in a care home near Edinburgh ‘a burning and a shining light’ (John 5:35) – a phrase she would have instantly recognised as having been borrowed from Scripture for comedic purposes by Robert Burns in his poem ‘Holy Willy’s Prayer’: a sarcastic treatment by Burns of hypocritical Calvinistic Presbyterianism as he experienced it in his day; in short, of everything that Margaret was not! And a fan of Robert Burns she certainly was – a part of her zest for life and all things artistic and creative. Margaret’s life and witness could be summed up in the words of the Psalmist:
‘My soul followeth hard after thee: Thy right hand upholdeth me.’ (Psalm 63:8).
We are passing through challenging times as we approach this Advent season but challenges afford us opportunities for growth and we know that all things work together for good to those who love the Lord (Romans 8:28) and that ‘according to the counsel of his will our lives are predestined according to His purpose’ (Ephesians 1:11) This can give us great comfort and courage if we embrace it as truth through thick and thin. He is faithful and will not allow us to be tried beyond what we are able to endure. (1 Corinthians 10:13) And as Samuel Rutherford (1600 – 1661) another favourite of Margaret’s and of mine, said:
‘Our little inch of time, suffering, is not worthy of our first night’s welcome home to heaven.’
I am proud to have this opportunity at Advent to speak so highly of my friend who made church an exciting place for young people and others of all ages, but especially for people decades her junior. Let no one assume therefore that young people will not gather in our churches today because we are no longer young. It is Christ in us the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27b) that is the attraction. Are you so attractive? As your minister I’m convinced that you are! Let your light shine and let my friend speak for herself from one of her many writings:
Saviour God, foretold by prophets
Incarnate God, born to live as man
Redeemer God, buying us at Calvary
Creator God, contracted to a span.
Had I been there and heard the choir of angels
Had I been there and heard the news first hand
My heart ablaze at heavenly splendour
Announcing Christ, the King of Glory, had been born
I should have run with shepherds to the stable
And worshipped at His feet that Christmas morn.
(Margaret Rushton, 2003)
Rest in peace Margaret, and rise in glory!
Have a very blessed Christmas season all - as you ponder the wonder of the incarnate God.