'God and I have had words many times... watching people I love suffer, I think, if God loves them more than I do, why doesn't He do something?'
In conversation with former Presbyterian Moderator the Very Rev Dr Trevor Morrow, emeritus minister of Lucan congregation, Dublin
The Very Rev Dr Trevor Morrow (70) was for 31 years the minister of Lucan Presbyterian Church in Dublin.
He was Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland from 2000 to 2001. There has not been a Moderator from the Republic of Ireland since then.
The last Moderator before Dr Morrow from the Republic was the Very Rev Dr James Park (1965 to 1966).
Dr Morrow is married to Carys. They have a son and daughter and three grandchildren living in Co Fermanagh.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. I was raised in Lisburn, near the sound of Lambeg drums. My parents took my baptism vows seriously, so Jesus and having sausages and baked beans on a Thursday was all part of the package deal. I don't have any dramatic conversion story. As a teenager, through the influence of the God Squad (the Scripture Union at school and the Christian Union at university) and Moyallon Camp, which was run by the Quakers, my faith began to develop.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. I remember clearly the major moments of doubt when I was in Edinburgh studying theology. I was the British chairman of the Theological Student Fellowship and I thought I had God sussed. The issue that sparked my crisis was God's incomprehensibility. How could I use human language to speak of one who is unique and cannot be compared to anything we know?
The answer came in what was almost a conversion experience while listening to William Still, an eccentric Church of Scotland minister from Aberdeen, in public prayer. He led us into the presence of God with awe and childlike simplicity and this caused me to see that God was more wonderful than anything I could say.
It was life-changing and has affected my thinking ever since.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God?
A. Anger is too strong a word to describe how I have felt about what God is doing and my inability to see the wisdom of it. Moments of frustration, even confrontation, as a pastor might be more accurate, as I have watched the suffering of those whom I love while thinking, "If God loves them more than me, why doesn't he do something?". We have had words many times.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?
A. I am not ashamed of the Presbyterian Church, but I do get distressed and upset by our decisions, not least at what happened at last year's General Assembly. The severing of our formal ties with the Church of Scotland was deeply upsetting.
Sadly, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, by breaking our links with the church which birthed us, over decisions about human sexuality, has become separatist in its mindset.
I find this deeply upsetting, not least this year when the Scottish Kirk has elected the most evangelical of their leaders as their new Moderator, Colin Sinclair, a former director of the Scripture Union in Scotland, who will not be able to address our Assembly.
Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?
A. I have had to face the possibility of death on a few occasions. I nearly drowned, I have had a tumour removed and my carotid artery spontaneously dissected. All were scary.
Death is real and I am ready for it. But I am not looking forward to the process of dying. I want to die well, as the Puritans would have said.
I remember being in intensive care in Wimbledon, recovering from long surgery to get rid of the benign tumour in my brain. It was a critical time. A man next to me was dying because they could not stop the bleeding post-surgery. As I lay feeling anxious, something happened. I suddenly experienced an overwhelming sense of being loved by God. His love was poured into my heart by the Holy Spirit. I genuinely thought, "If I am dying, this is great." His perfect love removed all fear.
Q. And what about Hell? Do you worry about it?
A. After death, there is judgement. For those who have been pursuing justice since the Troubles, this will be great. The innocent will be vindicated and the guilty will be exposed.
The problem is that we who ask for justice will also be judged, and none of us will come out well as a result. I am not anxious about that, because I know that, through the death of Jesus, for me, everything is going to be all right. At the judgement, I may be embarrassed, but I will not be condemned.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection?
A. The resurrection of Jesus is the trailer for the big picture which will be released on the last day. I expect to have a resurrected body like His, which will be the same but different from what I have now because it will not be subject to decay, or weakness, or death. Then the big plan of God for the world He loves will be realised in a new Heaven and a new Earth in which men and women will equally share.
Q. What about people of other denominations and faiths?
A. As Reformed or Presbyterian Christians, we have always recognised the Holy Spirit at work in what we call common grace among those who have different faith views, including the secularists. It has resulted in them being able to produce things of beauty and knowledge, often in spite of their worldviews. They, therefore, will have things to teach us. And we need to recognise this and to use it as a bridge for our witness to the Gospel.
Q. Do you think that the churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. I am constantly humbled by people whom I have met who are the unsung heroes of the Church. Without fanfare, they live their lives by doing justice and preaching grace.
Q. Why are many people turning their back on organised religion?
A. There is no simple answer, but a sense of the absence of God when we meet for worship must be a factor. People long to encounter God when they meet together. God is present always, but there needs to be a longing for his revealed presence, which is awesome and irresistible. What we do and say in liturgy is important, but unless it is energised by the Spirit of God, it is empty and unfulfilling.
Q. Has religion helped or hindered in Northern Ireland?
A. The answer is both. Tragically, the main churches became another expression of the sectarian divide and provided a theological basis for not being reconciled to our neighbour. At the same time, the message of forgiveness, which is at the heart of the Gospel, provided a subcultural framework through which peacemaking was able to develop as people practiced grace.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?
A. My favourite film is It's a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart, which has an amazing redemptive message. Eugene Peterson's book, Christ Plays In Ten Thousand places, is my favourite book, and the favourite song, for both Carys and me, is The Island, sung by Paul Brady.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. While I have had amazing moments of transcendence during ski trips on glaciers, or sitting by the lake in Glendalough, I feel closest to God when I am together with His family in worship, whether in a home group, or on a Sunday.
Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
A. "He preached grace." This has been my theme and shall be until I die.
Q. And have you any major regrets?
A. My greatest regret is that I seem to prefer to be doing things for God, rather than simply taking time to enjoy being with Him. That seems to be a thing of hyperactivity, combined with a Protestant work ethic. When I am part of the new Jerusalem, there will be no temple there, which means I will always be enjoying God's immediate presence.