A SPIRITUALLY REFRESHING TOUR
DOWN-UNDER


In April 1998, I was in Wales, writing up my dissertation on the seeking (or preparationist) theology of Jonathan Edwards. As part of my studies, I came to the conclusion that Edwards did not believe that God has any desire for the salvation of the reprobate: which explains why he was constantly calling his hearers to seek salvation rather than to repent and believe in Christ. This somewhat startling realisation led me to a study of the Marrow Controversy that raged in Scotland between 1718 and 1723. My readings on the matter then led me to a little booklet written by Pastor Chris Connors of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia (EPC). As I did not have the booklet, I wrote to the author for a copy of it. We continue to correspond with one another. At that time, I thought that Ps Connors was a much older and experienced man, and so when I was going through some difficult trials, I shared with him my burdens and sought his opinion and counsel with regards to my dilemmas. Ps Connors offered many godly advices, which I found helpful. But in particular, two sayings, which were popular in his denomination, stuck in my mind (partly because of the strange Tasmanian spelling, or so I thought): “Tolleration without purpose embraces that which is tolerated”; and “Tolleration without purpose always leads to compromise.”


In a flurry of providential turns, including relocation, controversies and difficulties, shortly after that, we lost contact with each other. But a year and a half later, the Lord would bring us to renew contact though another remarkable turn of Providence. At that time, PCC had already been constituted and we were beginning to sing the Psalms exclusively. When my Californian Calvinist friend, Dave Landis, learned of that, he sent me a tape containing a selection of psalms. The PCC Session, impressed by the clarity and earnestness of the singing, immediately thought that it would be a good idea to have the tape reproduced on CD in order to promote Psalm-singing here. Well, as it turned out, the tape was produced by the EPC! I immediately wrote to Ps Connors to seek his permission to do as planned. With the tie renewed, we were able to see that we had much in common in terms of theology and philosophy of the Christian ministry. It was then that the PCC Session extended an invitation to Ps Connors to be our speaker in our June Conference in 2000 (it was around then that we discovered that Ps Connors was not a elderly man, though certainly experienced!). The EPC in turn invited me to speak at their Easter Camp in 2002.


That was how, by the providence of God, my wife, myself and our daughter landed up in Australia from 16 March to 4 April, 2002. This trip, though hectic at points, was spiritually refreshing. We made many friends and learned many precious lessons.


In this short report of our trip, I would not go into a journalistic description of what happened day by day, though it might also be quite edifying to do so, seeing the extraordinary circumstances that we were in. But in the interest of brevity, I hope to highlight some of the lessons and experiences, which the Lord granted us in those three weeks.


Brisbane,
Queensland, the Sunshine State


We arrived in Brisbane on 17 March (Saturday). Mrs Sue Higgs (wife of Pastor David Higgs) was there to receive us, together with her parents, Elder Noel and Mrs Anne Greatbatch, who would be our hosts. Pastor Higgs, though desiring very much to meet us, was indisposed on account of the tremendous load of ministerial work that he was under. We had the opportunity to meet up with Pastor Higgs over the next few days, but it was only for brief, though edifying, moments.


Elder and Mrs Greatbatch proved to be excellent hosts. We spent a lot of time discussing theology and found agreement in every area we touched on. Elder Greatbatch, 76, was a lay preacher in a Dispensational Baptist church. When the Lord turned him to Calvinism, through reading A.W. Pink’s Sovereignty of God, he was shunned by the leaders and members of his church, and given many pejorative labels. But he persisted on to reform his life through the renewing of his mind (Rom 12:2), and eventually joined the EPC some decades back.


We visited a number of families in the church, and noticed everywhere two things that brought cheer to the heart: First, in every family, Calvin’s Institutesand Commentaries feature prominently together with other Reformed books in the library. It is apparent that the heads of household (at least) are serious students of the Word and of theology. Secondly, family worship is always held at the dining table either after (usually) or before supper (i.e., our dinner). I well remember the days when my own family started having family worship some years ago, when we would have our worship just before our meals just so that we would not miss worship!


On the Sabbath, there was a congregation of about 80 to 100, ranging from newborns to those in the 80’s. Many showed appreciation for the sermon (though I wonder if not a few were surprised when I told them that our first language is English!). As the congregation dispersed after a sandwich lunch (prepared by the ladies), a number came to us to apologise that they would not be able to come in the evening for various reasons. We were struck by their sincerity and courtesy! Back home, I have sometimes wondered how someone can think that a visiting minister preached an excellent sermon in the morning and then make no attempt to turn up in the evening to hear the Word again. Is this not often the case with us? Oh, how I long for the day when the church will be hungering and thirsting to hear the Word so much that we would come for the second service even when the minister is unwell and the congregation has to listen to a taped message.


The congregation in the evening was only a little smaller than in the morning, and once again we experienced the same earnestness in the congregation that we experienced in the morning. This, despite the fact that the sermon was, I think, rather long and a little more difficult to follow than in the morning. But quite a few, including the teenagers, were openly appreciative for the Word preached, for which we were glad!


Cohuna,
Victoria, the Garden State


Cohuna is a small outback town three hours by car from Melbourne. Pastor Chris Coleborn met us at the airport. We were told to expect a more senior minister (perhaps because I had told the congregation that we had thought that Ps Connors was in his 60s!). Ps Coleborn is in his fifties, though he is still suffering from the effect of chronic fatigue due to overwork and a confluence of very stressful events several years ago.


The first thing that struck us about Pastor Coleborn is his kindliness and godly disposition. His gracious and humble speech betrays his years of experience and learning which included interactions with Prof. John Murray and Prof. J.G. Vos, two imminent Reformed theologians of a generation before.


Pastor Coleborn, together with his wife Christine, has six children. All except the youngest, who is severely handicapped, have been or are being home-schooled.


In this rural outback country of farms, fruits, flowers, and flies, it may be tempting to think that home-schooling is the only option for the children’s education. But this is not the case. Many of the EPC families see that their children’s education is part of their covenant responsibility, and therefore they would not allow the children to be shaped by secular state school education. In fact, it was because most of their children were home-schooled that a few families were able to relocate to Cohuna to help out when the church was started there several years ago.


The EPC congregation in Cohuna has about 40 to 50 in regular attendance. It is the largest single congregation in the community. Most other churches there have only a handful of members. Again, we found the congregation encouraging and appreciative, both in the morning and evening. And who says Reformed theology is only for the very learned? Here in this rural town, the congregation is made up of homemakers, dairy farmers, kangaroo shooters, and delivery servicemen, all keen on learning the Word of God and maintaining the Reformed Faith.


Launceston,
Tasmania, the Holiday Isle


Pastor Chris and Mrs Christine Connors received us at the airport. It was good to renew ties. The journey to their home was only 10 minutes, but we had such sweet fellowship. Ps Connors revealed how the sum, which the brethren in PCC gave him when he came in June 2000, enabled him to purchase the car that we were being ferried in and what a blessing and help the car had been to him and his family. We praised the Lord that we could be of encouragement to this humble servant of His.


Pastor Connors was a builder before he heeded the Lord’s call to the ministry. He built many of the homes in northeast Tasmania. The guest room that we stayed in Launceston was built by Ps Connor with the help of his then pre-teenage son! I must say that I was amazed at how deeply intellectual and well-read Ps Connors is, considering the fact that several years back he was still building with wood, brick and mortar!


He tells us that his father, Elder Vivian Connors, was a builder himself, and that he had worked with his father from young. But he was not only learning the trade of building, he was also learning theology, for they would inevitably land up discussing theology whenever they worked together. Is this not what Deuteronomy 6:7 is all about?


Well, we landed up discussing theology at every opportunity too. And what extraordinary oneness of faith and understanding with each other. I do not think that the oneness of our understanding is inevitable since we hold to the same confession of faith. The fact is that I have known many brethren who hold to the same confession as us, but whom we may disagree in many ways. In fact, my discovery of similarity with Ps Connors and other EPC ministers and elders are found not in the statements of our Confession which we assume we are all agreed on, but on the areas that are outside the explicit expressions of the Confession. What could explain this similarity but the illuminating work of the Spirit?


The opportunities we had to meet up with the members in the congregation prior to the camp was also very edifying. My wife met up with the ladies when they had a gathering in the park. She was pleasantly surprised to find that the subject of small talk is doctrine and theology and books read, rather than things mundane as often is the case in most ladies’ gatherings. That night, when I met up with the elders and deacons for a meal, we again had a most meaningful conversation. They asked about the origin of PCC, and shared their own struggles. It was as if we had known each other for ages! Could it be a mutual recognition of the image of Christ stamped in our hearts?


Smithton, our Camp Site


We left for Smithton (North West Tasmania) on Thursday in a rented 12-seater bus, which the Launceston Deacon’s Court paid for, so that Ps and Mrs Connors could drive us up. We made a detour to the spectacular Cradle Mountain and Lake, which reminded us of the greatness of God as displayed in His wondrous creation. In all, the journey took several hours, but it was made short by theological discourses!


I spoke on the parables at the camp. I think there were about 100 or so present, mainly from two congregations (Launceston and Winnaleah), though there were others from the mainland and beyond. It was such a wonder for us to see so many teenagers at the camp. In so many conservative congregations that we have visited over the years (in Singapore, U.S. and U.K.), we have found only a handful of teens because they have either left the church altogether or left for ‘more exciting and contemporary’ churches. Could it be that the EPC’s strong emphasis on covenant family responsibilities has been instrumental in rooting their children in the faith? It appears to me that the EPC has the best of the Dutch tradition (via the Protestant Reformed Church in America, I think) and the Scottish tradition (via the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, and the Practice of the Free Church of Scotland). As a student of the Scriptures and of Church History, I am quite convinced that this is where the biblical balance, in terms of ministry and doctrine, may be found.


We were very encouraged by the evident working of the Spirit of Christ in the hearts of the hearers, and also by the remarks by numerous persons that they had been helped by the studies.


But one thing we found to be very different in this camp as compared to church camps that we have attended is the informality and spontaneity of the attendees (except on the Sabbath). There were numerous games organised for the young people. Many of the older folks joined in too and participated heartily. Who says the Reformed faith must produce staid and formal Christians?


Herrick and Winnaleah


Smithton is to the west of Tasmania, while Winnaleah, where Ps Mark Shand ministers, is towards the east. It was a very long and twisty drive, which involves crossing a couple of mountain ranges. But again the journey was made pleasant by the beautiful scenery by day and warm Christian fellowship by night.


Most of the members in the Winnaleah congregation live in Herrick, though the church building is in Winnaleah, about 10 minutes away. Pastor Mark and Mrs Suzie Shand and their children live in Herrick, in a 40-acre plot of land, in a house built by Ps Chris Connors years ago. Ps Shand was recently ordained to the ministry, having graduated from PRS about half a year ago. He was a Queen’s Counsel before heeding the Lord’s call to serve Him. A builder building in the Temple of God; a lawyer serving in the Court of the King. Who will the Lord call next?


Here in Herrick, Tasmania, unlike in the mainland or in Launceston, the children go to a parent-supervised covenant school founded by the church (rather than being home-schooled). I can see the advantage of having such a school, which in many ways may even be better than home-schooling. Perhaps the establishment of such a school in our church may be the way we should look towards for the education of our children. In saying this, we ought to remember that most, if not all, of the “Christian schools” in Singapore are only a little more than “glorified public school,” just as one EPC brother puts it in reference to the Australian schools.


The evening before we left for Launceston again, the congregation gathered at Ps Shand’s home for an Aussie barbecue. The food was sumptuous, but it was the delectable fellowship that really warmed our hearts! We had the opportunity to meet some of the brethren who were unable to go to the camp, as well as to catch up with some friends we made at the camp, including Pastor and Mrs Burley. Ps Burley is semi-retired after suffering poor health due to overwork some years back. He is now serving the Lord as a pulpit supply wherever the Lord calls. This way, the church benefits from his gifts and years of experience, without his having to take on heavy pastoral burdens.


The night ended with a psalmody, that is, a psalm singing session, where participants could choose their favourite Psalms. We enjoyed the time. But it was particularly heartening to see the children requesting for particular Psalms to be sung. Oh, may the Lord grant us that our children will grow to love the Psalms too.


Conclusion


Our final night was spent with Ps and Mrs Connors in Launceston. The next morning, we were again facing the poignancy of parting. But as had happened on every occasion of parting throughout this trip, our sadness was mitigated by the mutual promise that the Lord willing, we will meet each other again… “if not in this life, in glory!”


The EPC is 40 years old. PCC is only approaching our 3rd year. Yet, we are so similar in our convictions. Many of the difficulties that we are facing today were also faced by the EPC: which explains their extraordinary sympathy towards our cause. The EPC has learned some hard lessons along the way, and have proven by experience the words of our Lord, that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church. Will not the experiences of these our brethren down-under also be helpful to us when we come to similar crises? Will Christ, the Head of the Church, in the unfolding of His Providence, bring the history of our churches to cross again in such a way that it becomes intertwined?