That Sunday evening, between the hours of 7:00 and 9:15, is permanently etched into my memory banks. I was 17 and had just arrived in Aberdeen, “The Granite City” (as it has long been known because so many of its buildings and houses are constructed of gray granite).
I was there to begin my studies at the university. I had never seen it before and knew almost nothing about it. But my first duty was already on my mind: “When Sinclair goes to Aberdeen,” an acquaintance of my father had said to him, “tell him to go to hear Willie Still of Gilcomston South Church — he gives great Bible readings.” Following up on that suggestion has left a permanent mark on my life and, I trust, on my ministry.
First Service at the ‘Gilc’
I had never heard of Willie Still and had no idea where Gilcomston South Church might be — “Gilc,” as I later discovered people referred to it. And as for “Bible readings” — I had no real concept of what they were. But having attended morning worship at the college chapel, I walked into the town center to find out where “Gilc” was, came back to my residence for a meal, and returned at the stated hour of 7:00 for the evening service.
Around 7:25, after singing and two prayers, a seemingly elderly, balding figure in the distant pulpit began to read from the Old Testament. He took around half an hour to read through two chapters, interspersing the reading with a variety of fascinating comments (he did not know then, I suspect, that the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for Public Worship frowned on such interruptions to the reading of the sacred text!).
Then we sang a hymn. I stood standing at the end of the last verse, but realized everyone else was sitting down. Assuming this was a signal that instead of a benediction there would be a closing prayer, I bowed my head and closed my eyes. It took only a second or two, however, to realize that the words I was hearing were not the opening words of a prayer but the first words of a sermon. An hour and fifteen minutes later, he pronounced a vigorous “Amen! Let us sing hymn number . . .” — and then, at last, the benediction.
A “Bible Reading,” I realized after a few weeks, was not what Mr. Still had done earlier in the service. It was evangelical speak for systematic exposition, what is traditionally referred to as the lectio continua approach to biblical exposition. That approach is now so common that many have little idea how novel it seemed in the post-war English-speaking world.
I was shy and socially a little awkward (only a little?). It was another eighteen months before I spoke to him for the first time.
Meeting Mr. Still
Born in 1911, Mr. Still became minister of Gilcomston South Church in 1945. He remained there for over fifty years. He was my minister for six years and remained a mentor and friend until his death in 1997.
It would be difficult to calculate what I owe to Mr. Still. We were very differently wired. His preaching style was not one I could have or should have imitated — perhaps mercifully. Because of illness, he had received little or no formal education between his early teens and his mid-twenties. That lacuna left its mark on the way he thought — rarely, it seemed, in a straight logical line, although on many occasions he would follow a biblical-theological line through the whole Bible in order to bring depth to the passage from which he was preaching. I often thought that listening to him was like watching a deep-sea diver disappear into the water, eventually surfacing with a precious pearl in hand.
His conduct of worship was one of his spiritual gifts — “bathed in prayer,” as he often said. The church met for prayer on Saturday evenings, summoned by the weekly Lord’s Day announcement, “The elders will meet for prayer at 7:00 and the congregation at 7:30.” The meeting usually concluded just before ten o’clock in the evening — but in those hours it was often difficult to get a word in edgeways, such was the flow of prayer.
I have sometimes likened that gathering to a helicopter ride round the globe, dropping down in places I had never heard of to intercede for the advance of the kingdom and people of God there. To be in the services the following morning and evening was evidence enough of God drawing near to those who draw near to him. We were, as young students, often bowed down in “wonder, love, and praise” at the end of the services.
“Mr. Still delighted to bring out new treasures, and he never tired of putting again on display treasures that were old.”
It is not possible in brief compass to describe Mr. Still’s ministry in detail. His approach is well summarized in his little book The Work of the Pastor. I have heard numbers of men who never met or heard him comment on this book’s impact on their own ministries. Some of the recurring themes in his preaching are expressed in his Towards Spiritual Maturity, not least what he often referred to as “the three dimensions of the Cross” — Christ’s atoning work dealing with sins (plural), sin (its reign), and Satan (our ultimate enemy). As he liked occasionally to put it, Christ dealt with “the root, the fruit, and the Brute!”
Somehow — I think under the earlier influence of authors probably more pietistic than Reformed — he had grasped the Pauline emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ as not only the foundation for our justification, but the ground plan and pattern for the whole of the Christian life (“Many deaths and resurrections for us,” as he would have put it). Significantly, his brief autobiographical book is entitled Dying to Live.
Poring Over, Pouring Out
Here there is space to reflect on only one particular lesson that I hope I learned from him — although I should emphasize that this was not because he spoke to me about it with any frequency (he “mentored” not in the modern vogue of “discipling,” but — at least in my own view — in a more biblical pattern of friendship). He modeled for us what it means to pour the word of God into people’s lives. This was the focus of his whole ministry — feeding the flock of God whether in his preaching, pastoral visiting, pastoral counseling, or pastoral writing to and for them.
This last dimension he developed in the congregation’s Monthly Record, which included an extensive pastoral letter, news of the congregation and the much larger “congregation” beyond who were upheld in prayer, and Daily Bible Reading Notes that he wrote himself. By the end of a ministry that extended through six decades, he had probably preached and written his way through the entire Bible three times.
I use the word pour deliberately here. It actually began with his own poring over God’s word. He loved it deeply and obviously. And the poring over of his own study and meditation (never one without the other) emerged in his pouring out what he had learned for himself. In that respect, he was a “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven,” who “is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). He delighted to bring out new treasures, and he never tired of putting again on display treasures that were old. But what struck me preeminently was the sense that the poring over and the pouring out were conveyed by what I can describe only as a pouring in of God’s word — into the minds and hearts of the congregation he served.
He certainly loved the word and studying it. I think that he did indeed love to preach. We are accustomed to seeing both of these characteristics in many preachers. But on their own, they do not constitute the same quality of pouring in. They lack a third essential ingredient for true ministry — namely, pouring into the people to whom one preaches “the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:8) in the understanding that “the aim of our charge is love,” not merely knowledge (1 Timothy 1:5).
Preaching with Depth
Mr. Still had come to recognize long before I met him that what is requisite for such a ministry is sharing the Pauline experience of being among the people “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3) — a profound, sometimes almost debilitating consciousness of one’s own inadequacies. Paul later calls this experience being “weak in him” (2 Corinthians 13:4) — being weak not apart from him, but precisely because of our union with him. When up close and personal with Mr. Still, this deep costliness of the ministry of the Word was self-evident.
“Mr. Still’s preaching became the chariot on which the presence of the blessed Trinity was carried into our hearts.”
It was this element in ministry, it seems to me, that Paul was describing when he told the Thessalonians that “being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). And it was this element that took Mr. Still’s preaching beyond the level of surface exegesis and analysis of passages of Scripture to evoke the living realities of which they spoke. There was in his exposition of the word of God a manifestation of the truth and a manifestation to the conscience (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:2).
This gave a kind of emotional and affectional depth to his preaching. But more than that, it brought a sense of God himself, of his worshipfulness, into the preaching. The late Jim Packer used to say about Martyn Lloyd-Jones that he had never heard preaching that had “so much of God about it.” What I am describing here belonged to that same order of reality. Mr. Still certainly honored Calvin’s dictum that we give the same reverence to Scripture as we give to God because it is his word.
But (if one may put it this way without being misunderstood) while that was true, he never lost sight of the fact that God himself is not to be reduced to words to be analyzed and discussed in their interrelations, plotlines, and literary structures. He is the One whose throne is in heaven and whose footstool is the earth, the One whose greatness none can fathom, the One whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain — and yet is willing to look to him “who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).
Mr. Still longed for this reality himself and for the congregation to experience it in worship and under the ministry of the word. And thus his preaching became the chariot on which the presence of the blessed Trinity was carried into our hearts. Looking back now with gratitude, I nevertheless believe those days spoiled me. For when we experience this, we can never be satisfied with less.
Written on My Heart
One day when I was a graduate student, Mr. Still gave me something. In itself it was of no real consequence, but having known him for several years as pastor and friend, I said to him, lightheartedly and somewhat teasingly, “You have known me now for several years — but this is the first time you have given me something!” I passed the gift back to him, saying, “You will need to write your autograph on it.” He pointed to the object, brushed it away, and said, gently but clearly conscious I would not doubt the integrity of his words, “That is not where I want to write my autograph.” Then, pointing his finger at my heart, he said, “There is where I want to write it.”
That is what lies behind and is expressed in and through a ministry in which the word of God is poured into the hearts of his people. The ink in which Mr. Still’s ministry has been written into my heart is now dry; but please God, I hope what he wrote will remain clearly legible to the end of my life.