We Remove Blasphemy Laws, but Woe Betide if You Dare to Blaspheme Our Secular Sensitivities!

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News has broken today that Israel Folau, the Australian full back, has been sacked by Rugby Australia. His offence was to post on Instagram that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators”. Let’s leave aside the fact that professional sport includes many more drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators than it does gay players or officials. The allegation of homophobia is what caused offence and media uproar.

Let me state straight off that I get thoroughly depressed when Christians use Twitter, Facebook or Instagram in this way. Do we really think that people are going to rush to a church and get saved because they read on social media that someone thinks they’re going to hell? Of course not! This kind of doctrinal chest-beating is designed to get a cheap cheer from our own community. I hate it when preachers go off on a rant to get cheap applause rather than presenting the Gospel in a thoughtful or compelling way – and it comes over even worse in social media than it does in sermons.

In tweeting as he did, Folau displayed an apparent ignorance of why the doctrine of hell is included in Christian theology. Hell is not a reactionary stick to be waved at those outside our faith who choose not to live by Christian standards of morality. It is rather a reminder to those within the faith, that we should live lives that are demonstrably different from how we lived before we came to Christ. It is also a motivation for us to share our faith in an attractive way with others, because our love for others means we don’t want anyone to go to hell. If I was Israel Folau’s pastor (which I’m not), I would advise him to use his fame and influence to draw other people towards Christianity, rather than turning them away with rants on Instagram. He acted like a jerk – and that rarely ends well irrespective of our religious affiliations or convictions.

However, it is disturbing that Folau should lose his employment because he expressed his sincerely held religious beliefs – even if others find his beliefs offensive. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees each person (including Israel Folau) not only the freedom to hold whatever religious beliefs he chooses, but also “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” So, apparently, Folau has been sacked for exercising a human right, one guaranteed to him under international law by a treaty that most countries, including Australia, have signed up to.

Believing that someone will go to hell, or stating that belief, is not hate speech. Genuine hate speech, such as advocating that people should be killed, or inciting hatred against them, is dangerous and can cost lives. For that reason, I recently supported the decision by the Irish government to deny entry to antiSemitic ‘pastor’ Steven Anderson because of his support for terrorist violence.

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But, for most Bible believing Christians, our belief that people are going to hell is a sorrowful recognition of a biblical doctrine – one that motivates us to reach out in love to others. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words.”

While the original Instagram post was by Israel Folau, it was liked by Billy Vunipola of Saracens, which made him a target of abuse for Munster fans at a European match the following weekend. Irish sports journalists moved into hysterical overdrive, defending the constant booing of Vunipola by Munster fans, accusing him of ‘bringing hate to rugby’, and even demanding that he be banned from the Champions Cup Final. (Given his match-winning against Leinster, a lot of their fans probably wish he had been banned!)

I have been told by some Catholics that I, as an Evangelical Christian, am going to hell because salvation is only to be found in the Church of Rome. I’ve received a similar message from Muslims who see me as an infidel. Obviously I disagree with them, but I would be appalled if they were to lose their jobs for holding such views. I would also be appalled if they were targeted for abuse or bullied by crowds at a sporting event.

How would we feel if a Catholic sportsman or woman was continually booed by a crowd in Northern Ireland who felt offended by their religious beliefs? There are a number of Muslim players in the English Premier League. Would it be permissible for them to be booed every time they touched the ball because of their faith? Or are we going to split hairs by supporting their human right to hold a religious belief, but deny them the equal human right to speak about their faith?

Ireland recently voted to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution. I think that was, on balance, a good move. Gospel truth is strong enough to stand on its own two feet without needing the law to stop our feelings getting hurt, and totalitarian regimes use blasphemy laws as an excuse to persecute minorities, including Christians. But there is a glaring hypocrisy from those who want the freedom to make statements that religious people might find offensive, but want to deny a similar freedom to Israel Folau.

Yes, we’ve taken blasphemy off the statute books – but woe betide those who dare to commit blasphemy against our new secular sensitivities.

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Why, as a Passionate Pro-Life Pastor, I Won’t be Endorsing or Supporting any Politicians or Political Parties

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It’s election time again in Ireland. Next week we’ll be voting for Councillors for local authorities, MEP’s for the European Parliament, and in a Referendum about making divorces easier to obtain.

I am not one of those people who says Christians should stay out of politics. Christians should care about righteousness and justice, and political issues affect people’s lives. I have already issued a statement about the divorce referendum: https://eaiseanchai.wordpress.com/2019/05/15/marriage-matters/

I have been involved in a number of single-issue political campaigns, including a heavy investment of my time into last year’s Referendum campaign where Ireland,tragically, voted to remove the right to life of unborn children. During the last General Election, I displayed a screen during church services that listed which candidates were pro-life in their statements and promises. I felt this was important, as I knew that the push for abortion legislation would be held in the next parliament.

Now, I see a number of Christians are committing to promote or canvass for any candidates who will take a pro-life stand. I have been approached by political candidates seeking my endorsement as a pastor, or looking for us to place their campaign literature in our church. A real problem with all of this is that candidates and parties have a wide range of policies and positions on issues other than that of abortion. Some candidates who claim to be ‘pro-life’ espouse a version of right-wing nationalist populism that I see as deeply unbiblical.

In 2 Kings 20:1-20 we read about King Hezekiah getting healed and his life being miraculously extended by God. Hezekiah was one of the good kings. He had been used by God to save Jerusalem from the attacks of the Assyrians. Now emissaries arrived from Babylon, offering congratulations on his healing. Hezekiah knew that the Babylonians were rivals to the Assyrians. On the principle that “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” he welcomed them into his palace and showed them his storehouse of treasures. This resulted in a stern rebuke from God, delivered by the prophet Isaiah. Hezekiah had opened the door to the enemy that would destroy Jerusalem, tear down the Temple, and carry the Israelites as slaves into captivity.

In recent years I have been disgusted at the duplicity of mainstream politicians and media. Politicians who got elected by parading their pro-life credentials became enthusiastic apologists for abortion. But, that does not justify allying the church of Jesus Christ with other politicians – some of whom, when it comes to trying to stir up populist prejudice against immigrants, are just as unprincipled and opportunistic. I can see no political party that offers a platform that is consistent with the truths and values of the Kingdom of God.

In the 1930s, many Christians were concerned, rightfully so, by the spread of Communism. (Remember, we are talking here about the cruelties perpetuated by Stalin.) So large numbers of Christians voted for a leader who promised to halt the Communists – and in doing so they enabled Adolf Hitler to commit the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. We like to remember the sacrifices of brave souls such as Corrie ten Boom or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood against the darkness – but we should also remember the Christian support for Hitler that is an enduring stain on the history of European Christianity.

I am a passionate pro-life pastor, and as such I could never vote for any politician that supports the killing of unborn children, but I will not be endorsing or supporting any politicians or political parties during this election season.

 

Marriage Matters

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On Friday 24 May, Ireland votes in a Referendum on Divorce. At present, a couple can get divorced if their marriage has irretrievably broken down, and the Constitutional criteria for recognising this is that a couple must have lived apart for at least four of the past five years. The referendum proposes to remove this four-year clause from the Constitution. The government has announced an intention to legislate a lesser time frame, but that will not be in the Constitution so will not form part of the Referendum question. Of course, any legislated time-frame can be amended or removed altogether by future governments.

Most Evangelical Christians, while seeing marriage as a lifelong commitment, recognise that occasionally marriages do break down irretrievably. Jesus Himself, in teaching against divorce, made an exception where adultery had occurred (Matt 5:32 & Matt 19:9). Also, no victim of domestic abuse should be expected to remain married to their abuser.

However, this is not to normalise or trivialise divorce. Jesus said that divorce existed because of the hardness in men’s hearts (Matt 19:8). So, even where provision for divorce exists, Christians should still see divorce as an abnormal collapse of something that should last for a lifetime. It takes hard work to make marriage a success, and divorce should never become an easy option for giving up and trying again. Entering into another lifelong covenant after divorce is a serious matter indeed, and should never be something that is entered into lightly or quickly.

Evangelical Christians have historically understood marriage to be a lifelong commitment and covenant where one man and one woman become one flesh in the sight of one God for the duration of one lifetime. Although civil marriage ignores the part about marriage being ‘in the sight of God’, Christians have generally understood that civil marriage is close enough to the Christian concept of marriage for us to assume that when society and churches speak about ‘marriage’ that we are talking about the same institution. So, for example, most churches readily accept a new couple into fellowship and treat them as married where their marriage was civil rather than religious.

Today we are in a process where authorities in many parts of the world, including the Irish government, are determined to redefine marriage into something very different from the Christian understanding. We understand that, in a secular society, civil marriage makes no reference to God. But now ‘marriage’ is deemed to be between any two individuals, regardless of gender. The proposed change to the Constitution removing any time-frame by which a marriage might be deemed as having irretrievably broken down is designed to further weaken the concept of marriage as a lifelong commitment. As a result, the only similarity between civil marriage in Ireland, and marriage as understood by most Christians, will be that (for now, at least) they are both ceremonies that involve two people.

It is particularly worrying that some of the debate around the proposed changes to the Constitution concerning divorce have included calls for legislation to permit prenuptial agreements. Such agreements, where a bride and groom have already decided who gets what when they get divorced, make a mockery of the ideal of marriage as a lifelong commitment,

In effect, the Irish government appears determined to reduce and redefine marriage to the status of a civil partnership. This poses serious questions for the future as to how churches act as agents of the State in solemnising marriages, and whether churches should continue to view civil marriage as ‘marriage’ in any meaningful sense of the word. Those are necessary discussions, but not ones that can be conducted in the short time frame before this imminent Referendum.

We should not deceive ourselves. Evangelical Christians have neither the numbers or influence to sway this Referendum one way or the other. So this should not be interpreted as a call to campaign against or to defeat the Referendum proposals. But we should all vote with our consciences in this Referendum, and in a way that supports the idea that marriage is wonderful, special, and much more than a legal contract or a civil partnership.

Nick Park, Executive Director, Evangelical Alliance Ireland

Call to Irish Government to Deny Hate Preacher Steven Anderson Entry to Ireland

PRESS RELEASE FROM EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE IRELAND

 

Executive Director: Nick Park

22/24 Foley Street, Dublin 1

nick@evangelical.ie

(087) 6597161

 

Thursday 9th May 2019

As Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, I have consistently stood for freedom of speech for Christians and non-Christians alike. Nevertheless, society needs to be protected from the words and actions of those who, rather than expressing legitimate differences of opinion or unpopular viewpoints, choose to deliberately incite hatred and violence. It does not matter if such hatemongers are non-religious, Islamist extremists, or claim to be Christians.

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Steven Anderson has a track record of vitriolic attacks against many individuals and minority groups. His frequent antisemitism, his denial of the historical fact of the Holocaust, his statements that he prays every day for individuals to die, his use of slurs and insults while preaching, and his characterisation of the terrorist murder of 50 victims at an Orlando nightclub as ‘good news’ are anti-Christian. His message is a blasphemous perversion of the Gospel, and has nothing to do with the genuine Good News proclaimed in the growing numbers of Evangelical churches across Ireland.

Evangelical Alliance Ireland is currently engaging with the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service to assist religious workers from overseas, many from the United States, who are in Ireland as peace-makers. These religious workers, who are doing their utmost to comply with immigration policies that are sometimes unclear and confusing, are motivated by love for all the people of Ireland, including those who do not share our faith or moral viewpoint. It would be a slap in the face for them if Ireland was to extend a welcome to a hate-preacher who has no other motives than self-publicity and a desire to troll the people of this nation.

This individual has already been denied entry to a number of nations including Canada, Jamaica, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and the Schengen group of European nations. I am joining the many individuals and groups calling on the Irish government to deny Steven Anderson entry to Ireland.

 

Nick Park

Executive Director

Evangelical Alliance Ireland

Vanishing Opportunities to Hear Needed Voices

As a young boy, I remember my grandfather talking to me about serving as a soldier in World War I. Later in life, I often wished that I had listened more carefully, had asked him more questions. Today, no-one can hear such stories from a first-hand witness. The last World War I veteran died over 6 years ago.

Last night, along with a room full of other enthralled visitors, I had the opportunity to hear a voice from another vanishing generation share her personal experience of a significant time in history. And her voice is one that is needed more now than ever before. We live in an age when nationalism and populism are once again rearing their ugly heads. Fear of immigrants and foreigners is being used as a political tool to panic and influence referendums and elections. Acts of ethnic violence, and anti-semitism, are on the increase. And, most tragically, sections of the the church of Jesus Christ, instead of standing out as a voice of love and reason, seem to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

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So that’s why I felt that it was so important to take the opportunity to meet Judith Rosenzweig and hear her story. Judith is part of a generation that was betrayed by the Church. Growing up as a Jew in 1930s Czechoslovakia, the large numbers of Christians in neighbouring Germany should have been a source of love, protection and light. But we know that the Church, with a few heroic exceptions, failed Judith. Large numbers of professing Christians swallowed the national socialist lie that making Germany great again must involve military aggression, stoking hatred against other religions, and fearing those who were different.

After the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, Judith and her family were incarcerated in Theresienstadt concentration camp when she was 12 years old. Then, in 1944, they were transferred to Auschwitz, where she managed to avoid the gas chambers by being young and strong enough to work as a slave labourer.

In January 1945, as Russian forces advanced towards Auschwitz, Himmler ordered the SS to force 68,000 prisoners to march from Auschwitz to Germany. Judith was part of the notorious Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen Death March, where poorly nourished prisoners with no winter clothing were forced to walk 780km in the depths of winter. Hundreds collapsed on the way and were shot where they lay.

Later that year, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British troops who tried to save the lives of the starving inmates by sharing their rations with them. Judith’s mother was given some soup, but the shock to her system of eating food after so many months of starvation actually killed her. Judith and her sister survived. Eventually, despairing of Europe ever being a place where she could live in peace and security, she emigrated to Israel. Today Judith lives in a home for Holocaust survivors in Haifa, provided by a Christian ministry.

What struck me in Judith’s story was her lack of self-pity, and the total absence of any bitterness or anger towards others. At several points in her story, she paused to express her wish for peace and harmony among various nationalities and peoples. Judith is not a Christian, but we have much to learn from her attitude, particularly at a time when some professing Christians are quick to spread fear and anger, or to quickly jump to criticising and attacking those with whom we disagree.

I spoke with Judith, explained my role as Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, and assured her, in the light of the terrible recent hate attack against a synagogue in Pittsburg, that many evangelical Christians were praying for the Jewish people.

Judith is 88 years old. As time and age advances, the opportunities to hear first-hand voices such as hers will become less and less. But how we need to hear such voices!

Christianity – A Faith Founded on an Act of Blasphemy

In a few days Ireland will vote on whether to remove the offence of blasphemy from the country’s Constitution. Christians are on both sides of the argument on this issue. I recently spoke to some members of my own church who were sincerely and passionately concerned that God was being taken out of the Constitution.

On the other hand my friend David Turner, Director of Church in Chains, wrote an excellent letter in the Irish Times declaring his intention to vote ‘Yes’ in the Referendum because of the ways in which other countries use their blasphemy laws to persecute Christians:  https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/blasphemy-and-the-constitution-1.3669419

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My own opinion is very similar to David’s, even though I love and respect this who hold a different view. Actually, I won’t get to vote in this Referendum because I am in the Middle East this week. Ironically I’m meeting with people who have seen loved ones persecuted and killed because others interpreted their devotion to Jesus Christ and His Gospel as a blasphemy against the dominant faith in their region.

But it’s worth remembering that there’s one important difference between Christians and adherents of other religions who get outraged at blasphemy against their gods and want the sanction of the law against blasphemers. Our very faith is based on the greatest example of blasphemy in history.

The very foundation of Christianity – the crucifixion of Jesus – is in itself an act of blasphemy. What could be more blasphemous than stripping God naked, subjecting Him to a public flogging, and then nailing Him to a piece of wood? After that, any purported blasphemy is tame by comparison. And how did Jesus respond to this ultimate blasphemy? By demanding that the culprits be stoned to death? By calling upon the Romans to impose a €25,000 fine? No. He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Glimpsing the Church at its Best

Last week was a tough week in our local church. I’m not talking about the usual crises and conflicts that are part and parcel of daily life among any community. I’m not talking about the spiritual vandals who, rather than contributing to the well being of others, seem to delight in using Facebook and other social media as a battleground to tear others down with criticism and personal attacks on their families. I’m not even talking about the fact that our church offices were broken into and absolutely trashed with thousands of euros worth of damage. No, this was much more serious than that.

A family in our church experienced a devastating and sudden tragedy. Their son, Philip, a popular local musician, dead on the other side of Atlantic. The raw pain of unexpected heartbreak. The grim logistics of bringing his remains home and planning his funeral service. Last week we needed to see and feel the grace of God in a special way.

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And, thank God, we did experience the grace of God in a special way. One church member organised an online crowd funding initiative – ‘Bringing Philip Home’ – to cover the costs of repatriation and the funeral. Within four days over €20,000 was raised, revealing just how loved Philip was by so many people in Drogheda. Church and family members rallied round in an outpouring of love and practical concern. At the funeral Philip’s family, including his parents, Sean and Mary, impressed everyone with their courage and faith as they spoke about their love for Philip and their confidence in Jesus Christ. Philip was honoured and remembered with great affection and the Gospel was shared. For hundreds of mourners, it was their first ever experience of an Evangelical church. There was powerful praise and worship, and Philip’s many musician friends expressed themselves in song also, with a great sense of mutual respect and united grief.

But sometimes it is the little things that make for lasting memories. The church member who volunteered to be a carpark usher in pouring rain, getting soaked to such an extent that he had to go to a nearby store and buy fresh clothes before he could get into his own car afterwards. Or the two church members who asked me for a lift from the church to the cemetery, and then stayed behind in the same pouring rain to change my punctured tyre when I was involved in a minor accident en route.

Last week I caught a brief glimpse of the church at its best – and I have discovered that such moments carry a revelation that can sustain us through all kinds of disappointment and discouragement.

23 years ago, when our family also suffered the indescribable pain of the death of a child, I caught a similar glimpse of what the church can be. Fellow Christians helped in practical ways, bagging up clothes and toys at a time when we were totally unable to cope with such tasks. Over the intervening years that vision of what the church of Jesus Christ looks like when she gets her act together has been a continual inspiration for my life’s work.

It’s increasingly common to hear Christians, and even Christian leaders, speak disparagingly of the church. It can be so easy to become cynical, or to focus on the many times when the human side of church obscures the divine. And, make no mistake, those of us in leadership don’t live in a fool’s paradise. We see the church’s weaknesses and mistakes as much, and probably more so, than anyone else.

But every time I am tempted to join the chorus of negativity, I remember the beauty and majesty of what the church has the potential to be. Yes, I must be honest in facing and acknowledging our frequent foolishness and misguided efforts, but I can never stop loving and serving this Bride of Christ which, according to the New Testament, is God’s workmanship – the ultimate crowning glory of creation (Ephesians 2:10). One day we will see clearly what we currently only catch in passing glimpses, but those glimpses are precious indeed!

So last week was a tough week for our local church. But, for a moment in time, we became what we are becoming, and that will affect us positively for a long time to come.

How a €40 Cake Ended Up Costing Over €500,000

The UK’s Supreme Court has finally, and unanimously, ruled that Asher’s Bakery in Northern Ireland was not acting unfairly or practising discrimination when they refused to fulfil an order for a custom-baked cake featuring two Sesame Street characters and a slogan supporting gay marriage.

Taking the case through its various legal stages has cost over £450,000 (€510,000) in legal fees. Making the lawyers the real winners in this controversy.

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The Supreme Court judgement recognised what was glaringly obvious to most people, that the bakery were not discriminating against the customer on the basis of his sexual orientation, but were rather choosing not to produce a piece of propaganda for a message that went against their deeply held beliefs.

We should not expect a Palestinian baker to be compelled to produce a cake decorated with a Star of David to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. A printshop owned by a Northern Irish Catholic should not be forced to print election posters for the DUP. Nor should an LGBT publisher be forced to publish a book that argues that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. Whether we agree with the beliefs of the business owner, or indeed of the proposed customer, in each of these scenarios is not the issue. In each case both the business owner and the customer have the right to hold their individual beliefs. The issue is that we should not deliberately and provocatively place an order with a particular business, with the express intention of causing offence or creating controversy. Particularly, as in the Belfast bakery case, when there are plenty of other companies that would gladly accept the business.

I don’t think anyone genuinely believes that the customer in question just happened to choose a bakery which is well known as a business owned by evangelical Christians, and whose very name, ‘Asher’s’, is taken from the Bible. This was clearly a calculated attempt to provoke a response, and then to claim discrimination.

The ruling from the Supreme Court made clear that it is unacceptable for any business to discriminate against a customer on the basis of their race, religious beliefs, political views or sexual orientation. That is as it should be. But it has also made it clear that free speech and equality do not give us a mandate to behave like jerks. And that is a lesson that all of us, including Christians, need to take to heart.

The Promotion to Glory of an Authentic Christian

On Monday I travelled to Belfast for the funeral of an authentic Christian. Jackie Boyd, a life-long member of the Salvation Army, suffered from dementia in recent years and died last week. He was, in the Army’s terminology, “Promoted to Glory”. As is customary, the flags at his funeral were decorated with white (not black) ribbons, signifying the celebration of a life that has now transitioned into victory and homecoming.

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Sitting once again in a Salvation Army service, listening to the brass band, and seeing many familiar (if older) faces brought back a flood of memories.

In February 1981, I attended my first Salvation Army service. I was 18-years old, homeless and desperate. I genuinely believed that the downward trajectory my life had taken for the last few years – characterised by alcohol and drug abuse – was going to end in an early grave. Some of my drinking buddies had started placing bets with each other on how long I would live – and none of them gave me more than a year. I was experiencing increasing blackouts, and the cuts and scrapes you pick up from life on the street were all turning septic and refusing to heal, as if the poisons I kept pumping into my body had suffocated the body’s natural healing mechanisms.

I arrived early for the service, and felt as out of place as any human being could ever feel. I looked around and felt I had made a terrible mistake. I was getting ready to leave when a guy in Salvation Army uniform came up to me, gave me a huge smile, and pulverised my hand with a bone-crushing handshake. “It’s wonderful to see you,” he boomed, “I’m so glad you decided to come tonight.”

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out who this guy was, or why he was so glad to see me. He obviously knew me from somewhere, but I couldn’t remember ever meeting him before. Was he a friend of my family? Had I encountered him during one of the blackouts that were gaping holes in my memory? Was he a cop or a lawyer that knew me from one of my court appearances? I thought I’d better hang around and see if it came back to me.

So I stayed. And at the end of the night I responded to an offer to accept Jesus into my life. And my life was changed for ever. And after a long struggle I was free of my addictions. And I ended up going to Bible College. And I met a wonderful wife. And we had two beautiful daughters. And I served as a Salvation Army Officer, and then subsequently as a Pentecostal pastor. And I still have the incredible privilege of getting up every morning to do something I love doing – trying to help other people to have a similarly life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ.

It is no exaggeration to say that Jackie Boyd’s handshake saved my life on that cold February night in East Belfast back in 1981. And guess what? It turned out he didn’t know me from Adam! He welcomed every visitor to the Salvation Army in the same way. Sometimes the other musicians would be checking their instruments were in tune, and making sure they had their music in the right order. They would be looking down at Jackie, wondering if he would make it to his place in the band in time for the opening hymn – but Jackie still took his time in enthusiastically welcoming every visitor. And I, for one, am so, so grateful that he did!