But I’m no Englishman; and this is not New York. It’s Milan and I stick out like a sore thumb. I’m an Ulsterman in Milan, Italy wondering, “How do I know I’m in the right place?” This has got to be filed in the folder labelled The Divine Irony.
I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as a sensitive man. “Subtle as wire brush” as we say back in Northern Ireland but on this issue I suppose I am a bit sensitive. Sensitive Christians are forever worried about stepping out of God’s will and being where He is not! However, the question has to be posed, “Is that ever really possible?” If the believer has been bought at a price (1 Cor. 6:20); if the Lord has unequivocally said He will finish the good work He has started in the believer (Phil. 1:6), and if all things work for the eventual good of the believer (Rom. 8:28) can we ever be anywhere where He won’t be at work on us?
Take me. I surrendered to Christ 25 years ago in 1987 in a park in my hometown of Bangor Co. Down, N. Ireland. I was a subversive in every sense of the word. I grew up in a strongly Protestant country in a moderate Presbyterian family. However, a combination of the Ulster troubles and Punk rock music drew me down an anarchic path. “Church goers” as I saw them were a subculture of middle class families with big smiles, big cars and big bibles. When I became a Christian I wanted nothing to do with such people! For a few months I kept my conversion quiet among my friends but then I began to see the first act of The Divine Irony in my new life. Me of all people joining a church was real joke but I came to see it as the right thing to do! Or to put it in the the negative; it would have been wrong not to do.
The next act of The Divine Irony, as I remember it came when I was sitting in a Christian outreach center (Drop-in centre as we call them in the UK) as a 17 year old. Another Christian said to me I should really come down on Saturday nights to tell other about the Lord. I died inside at the very thought. I was a timid boy in spite of my Punk exterior. I wasn’t the type who just chatted to people about the Lord. But the sense I had then was I really couldn’t refuse. It would have been wrong to say no.
A year on in August 1990 came the next. I was asked to preach on the streets! I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t believe it! What’s the Lord trying to do to me! Wasn’t it enough that I was part of a local church and witnessing to others?” Apparently no. I recall after agreeing on that fatal Wednesday thinking, “How do you preach? What would I sound like?” Well that work started for me on 4th August 1990 and continued pretty much non-stop till 1995. We preached late on the Saturday nights and well into the Sunday mornings. It became my life. I was preaching to my type of people; those who would never ordinarily grace the doors of a church building.
Then came the beginning of the next act, the next twist of my tale. A friend suggested I should become a minister, a pastor! Up till that point street work was the limit. It was challenging; it was tiring; but I had become used to it. But working in a church! Me! At that time I was reading about the Scottish Covenanters. Preaching in the fields and fleeing from the army under threat of arrest appealed to my non-conformist attitude. Coupled with them was George Whitefield. Literally cast out of pulpits and on the streets! No, the streets were my parish, thank you very much! Or so I thought. The Lord had other ideas for me.
It was during my street preaching years that I was introduced to the Church of Scotland Minister William Still of Aberdeen. He was a full sixty years my senior but we became friends. He had a knack of making “the nobody” feel important. Well, he must have seen something in me and at a certain point he wrote to me suggesting I consider formal training for the Christian ministry. Not on your life I thought! But for those who knew him knew he was a stubborn old man. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He suggested I at least try for various colleges. In doing so I was not making any commitments. So to keep an old man happy I tried. I met up with Hywel Jones who was then principle of the London Theological Seminary in late 1994 for an informal chat about the ministry. I was interviewed for the Evangelical Theological College of Wales (ECTW) in March 1995 but I remember feeling so homesick even being in Wales for that one day that the idea of actually being there for three years was impossible. So imagine my horror when I was offered a place at the college! “No way,” I thought. But when Mr Still called me and found out the news said now I had to go… I had come so far! (He was a cunning old man too.) My ace up my sleeve was the cost. It was too expensive. Mr Still then stunned me by saying, “If I cover the costs would you go?” What could I say? It would have been wrong to say no.
It took time to adjust to the British mainland and to the thought of living and ministering away from my province; my Ulster. Those three years were full of challenges but then a person came into my life in 1997 that would become central in the greatest act of The Divine Irony in my life to date! (More of that soon enough.)
Accepting the call to leave Ulster and study in Wales pointed to Christian service in the UK. ETCW had many contacts around the UK and men were often placed in churches looking for ministers. Interest was shown in me from various places but one seemed to be a good match. An independent Evangelical Church in Cambridgeshire, whose Minister was nearing retirement was apparently looking for a replacement. England it was then. But what about this person I just mentioned? I’ll get to that now.
Sonia Negri was a surprise addition to the student body in September 1997. I was the student chairman so I knew all who were supposed to come but she was included at the last minute. She came from Milan and we quickly became friends. As the months past we began to talk about “our” future. “Have you even considered Italy?” was her question to me. “Never” was my reply. It was true, if perhaps a bit insensitive. It had never crossed my mind. England was now the limit! After a year apart – me serving a church in England and Sonia back in Milan – we got married. We then started a six-year period during which time Italy came onto my radar. Divine Irony was calling again. By then I had too much experience in the Lord’s dealings to confuse what was going on. I was going to be an Ulsterman in Milan!
We arrived in June 2005 full of trepidation. We had neither home of our own nor work. It was a scene out the TV show Mission Impossible: Go there and wait for further instructions. For some I suppose it all seemed a bit reckless, even a misjudgement but they hadn’t experienced my play of The Divine Irony.
Work was found; then a car; then a home. We became members of the home church, which had sent Sonia to ETCW seven years before as it was the only place we knew. The church seemed very sincere but I saw issues that would have to be challenged over the course of time. There’s no perfect church, but there is a right path to walk on for me, which includes a high view of the pastoral ministry, the pursuit of exegetical accuracy and sound preaching. Sadly these elements were missing and after my views were rejected as irrelevant it was time to respectfully part company. This we did in January 2012. But it left us in no man’s land. The question had to be asked, “Are we in the right place?” It didn’t take long to have an answer.
I had first met Andrea Ferrari in September 2004, however since being in Italy our paths never really crossed. It seemed the right time to meet up and share thoughts. It didn’t take long to see we were both singing from the same hymn sheet. Our one difference was over covenantal baptism, which while I wasn’t a strong critic, I still favoured a credo-baptist position. Perhaps growing up in a post Lloyd-Jones Evangelical world meant such matters where considered divisive and the role of preaching took a prominent place. I was familiar with the view. I had so many friends who held to it, but would you believe no one in my years had ever said to me, “Mark, would you give serious thought to this doctrine?”
Such a challenge made me smile and I saw the Lord’s fingerprints all over it. Here I was, an Ulsterman in Milan, uncomfortable in a non-English speaking context, unable to do the very thing I had done for seventeen years of my life, i.e. preach, and frustrated by my need to work as an English teacher. And then, here in Italy an Italian Presbyterian challenges me on the doctrine of baptism. Doesn’t get much more ironic than that, does it?
But we really shouldn’t be that surprised at the way the Lord does things. As it is written, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) He seems to be pleased to take the most unlikely of people and put them into positions so contrary to their natures that they have to learn to lean on the Lord for all their help. In that way they know they can boast in nothing except in the Lord.
Well on that note I’ll end this introductory article. The subtitle, “Reflections of an Ulsterman in Milan” has as yet to be explored properly but all in due time. Like Sting’s Englishman in New York, this Ulsterman is observing and taking note of a lot which he sees in Italy and has much to share on the needs of the Italian people and on the importance of having a Reformed and confessional denomination in this land.