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Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
Ordination in the Old Kirk with the Plain Face


THAT YEAR WE HAD AN INDIAN SUMMER, and Fairshiels in October was a painted pastoral of russet and gold. It was well that the twentieth of the month was fair, for long before the sun was high the village folk were all astirin expectation of the first arrivals. The day of ordination in a country kirk is still, by the mercy of Heaven, a great and holy day. The village bustles with unwonted life, the school-bairns have a holiday, and the old folks, in their doorstep collogues, have been reminding each other all morning of the far-off days which are still sanctified with memories of this one and that who were ordained to the holy office of shepherding the flock of Christ in this same clachan of Fairshiels.

At last, long before the hour of service, the first of the hillmen begin to arrive, some on foot, with sheep dogs at their heels, some in gigs, with the good wife by their side; and at the sight of them the blood of the Covenant flows quicker in the veins of those of us who have been begotten of men and women who kept the faith and told their children the austere tale of Christ's Kirk in Scotland and her blood-bought peace.

In the quiet manse garden, at the back of the kirk, the young minister stands and looks wistfully across the rolling eastland country, which lies like the Garden of the Lord, sleeping in the mellow October sunshine, betwixt him and Lammerlaw. Here he is to find his life-work. Here, in this sequestered parish at the foot of the hills, after seven long years of scholastic preparation, and a later probation of work in city churches, he has been called of God to take charge of a handful of plain, silent, countryfolk. But the Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, and that man alone is worthy who measures the things that are Eternal by the measure of the angel, and not by the measure of a man.

Soon the members of the local Presbytery arrive, having driven nine good Scots miles uphill from the county town. A Presbytery is like the world, made up of all sorts and conditions of men. There are one or two white-haired ministers who carry with them an old-world air of courtesy wherever they go. There are wise-looking ecclesiastics, with a flavour of Assemblies about them, who are for ever clearing their throats to ask questions on points of order. There is the Doctor of Divinity, with the farben look on his ascetic face, and on whom the burden of his erudition sits lightly like a flower. But most of them are humane, rosy-faced pastors who are faithful to their Master in quiet places, and who know to a penny how much Glenshiels got for his oats or what Westmains paid for his lambs. Add to these a handful of younger ministers, some of whom wear very long coats, and are even now seriously exercising themselves about city pulpits before they know the names of all the bairns in their first charge.

The white-haired Presbytery clerk—that man of punctilios, whose chief duty in life is to tell moderators what to do—is master of the ceremonials for the day.

But the chief interest of the village folk centres neither in him nor in the nervous young minister, last ordained, who is to preach for the first time before the Presbytery, nor yet in the experienced pastor who is to ordain and give the charges. All interest centres in the new minister and his friends.

The village wiseacres feast their eyes on the constant stream of strangers who have come from the city, and driven up the hill road to the lonely hamlet of Fairshiels on this calm October day. Those were the tranquil days, of blessed memory to some of us, long before the country roads were secularised with the dust and distemper of motor-cars. Brakes, traps, carriages, and carts crept slowly up the Tunnel Brae, as we call it, or came up from East Lothian, or over Soutra from Lauderdale, and drew up with a clatter of hoofs in front of the Old Kirk with the Plain Face which stands at the back of the village. For it is the good home-spun philosophy of every Scot that it is with kirks as it is with women—the plain-faced ones have often the best hearts, but those with the bravest exteriors of beauty and architecture are whiles but a snare for debt and difficulties unforeseen. So the sunlit roadway is filled with a bustling crowd of gentles and simples, who, after many friendly greetings, pass into the cool silence of the ancient sanctuary.

Without, the red rowans glisten in the sun at the manse gate and over the churchporch. The still, warm airs of October are honey-laden and fragrant with the scent of the village gardens. The far horizon of hills is dim and blue and elusive under a cloudless sky, and the little robins, those Birds of the Cross with the blood-red breasts, are singing in plaintive notes their farewell song of the year.

Within, all are assembled now in the crowded kirk to worship God and to set the shepherd over the sheep as has been done by all the generations of pious Scots presbyters since the days when Knox and Melville wrested the liberties of a people's faith from the meddling hands of priests and kings.

After prayer, the people rise to join with one accord in singing the Gathering Psalm to the tune of Harrington:—

I joyed when to the house of God,
Go up, they said to me.
Jerusalem, within thy gates
Our feet shall standing be.

And so long as our Kirk in Scotland includes those who that day were among the upstanding worshippers in Fairshiels Kirk, douce country folk, labouring men and women, shepherds from far herdings, farmers and their wives, business men from the city, the local laird, and the little bairns—just so long will Christ's Kirk prosper in our land.

When the preaching is over, the young minister , stands to hear those searching questions which for ever commit him, of his own free will and sincerity, to the ministry of Christ among men, and somewhere, in a back seat, the mother heart that bore him gives thanks to God that she has seen this day.

Thereafter, he kneels in the midst of the upstanding ministers, while the Moderator offers up the dedication prayer. And this is the most mystic act of simplicity in all our presbyterial ritual of ordination. For, at these solemn words: Send down, we beseech Thee, the Holy Spirit upon Thy servant, whom we, in Thy Name, do now with the laying on of hands ordain to the office of the holy ministry, each minister silently steps forward and lays a gentle hand on the bowed head of the new-made shepherd of God's sheep. Kneeling there, with a holy circlet of ordaining hands resting as one upon his head, the servant of the Lord realises with a strange uplift of soul that this is the symbol of God's own Hand Unseen! Hidden as in a cloud of witnesses, stricken in the soul with the thought of his own unworthiness, and wrapt about with a solemn sense of the Actual Presence, he is set apart for ever as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And only those who themselves have knelt in the midst of that encircling band of holy men, and have been weighted with such awful sanctity by the laying on of hands, can ever realise the depths of the responsibility of the Ordination Vow.

It is with many a yearning prayer that the old folks see their young minister rise from his knees to receive the right hand of fellowship from his fellow-presbyters. It is with attentive ears that they listen to the fervent words which are addressed to him and to them on their duty to one another and to God. And at the close of the simple service, what praise can Scots men and women sing but the Second Paraphrase, that song of the soul which is associated with every one of our outgoings into life!

O God of Bethel! by whose hand
Thy people still are fed;
Who through this weary pilgrimage
Hast all our fathers led:
Our vows, our prayers, we now present
Before Thy throne of grace:
God of our fathers! be the God
Of their succeeding race.

The Second Paraphrase is the Scotsman's benediction. As the singing rises and falls to the tune of Salzburg, many a grey-haired son of the Covenant sees dead faces living again in the straight-backed pews round about him, and many a soft-faced mother sings the well-beloved words with wet eyes, as she too remembers some who went out on the perplexing path with wandering footsteps from her very side, to the singing of this same traveller's song—and never returned.

When the last line has been sung, and the Benediction has been said, the young minister stands at the kirk door and shakes hands with every man, woman, and child who has been to the Throne of Grace with him that day. Soft hands and horny hands, little hands and great, he receives them all, and with them, a good Scots welcome from the heart—silent, grippy, leal.

Late that night, when the last wheels had rumbled away, and the lights of the candles in the old wooden candlesticks were all put out in the grey-walled kirk which loomed against the sky, like a silent witness to the vows he had taken, the minister walked round his garden in the moonlight—alone. Those who had given him life and love were sitting within the lamp-lit manse; and scattered far and wide over the sleeping country were those whom God had that day given him to lead through the green pastures and beside the still waters. The silence and the moonlight were wonderful to him. But, as he stood and listened, the bleat of a wandering sheep, far up on the lonely hills, fell on his ear. In a moment, that plaintive sound became the message of God to his soul. And, bowing his head in the moonlight, he determined that, by the help of Heaven, he would henceforth seek the lost lambs, and shepherd the wandering sheep.


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