Yesterday morning, at around 1030am, Pastor James Armstrong of Milford, Co.Armagh, passed into the presence of the Saviour whom he loved and served. At 92 years of age he had lived a full life, one which was devoted to the cause of Christ and the extension of His Kingdom. During my five years as Pastor in Armagh Baptist, I came to know Pastor James (as he is affectionately known to all) very well, and the more I became acquainted with him the more my love and esteem for him grew. He truly was a great man of God, a sterling servant, who courted no acclaim or recognition for the considerable service he rendered to his Master.
My abiding memory of Pastor James is of his deep sincerity, and his unyielding devotion to prayer. In my years as Pastor he had largely become housebound, but this did not stop him interceding for the work of God right around the world, and writing regularly to many people to encourage and help them in their walk with God. He regularly wrote letters to people who were not Christians, winning their attention and affection by his gracious manner and flowing style. The word of God was not chained.
Only in the fond recollection of others did I ever encounter the Pastor James of years gone by. A physically robust man, who had represented his country in shot-putting, had served as a soldier with the Irish Guards, and had known considerable success as a police officer with the RUC. He was a man of tremendous strength both morally and mentally, who commanded respect from all who knew him. Prior to taking up the work of Pastor in Armagh Baptist Church he had served as an itinerant evangelist, knowing what can only be described as the profound blessing of God on his ministry. People were saved through the Gospel campaigns in which he was involved by the score, something which he was always keen to attribute to the sovereign grace of God. Men and women who are presently serving God across the world trace their spiritual lineage back to God's gospel being faithfully and powerfully proclaimed through James Armstrong. His ministry extended to Canada, where he was much in demand as a preacher. People there still recall his service in glowing terms.
He initially took on the Pastorate of Armagh Baptist on a temporary basis when numbers were low and encouragements were sparse, and eventually served over 20 years in ministry in the church. Those who listened to his preaching still regularly quote the truths he taught, a favourite subject being the sovereignty of God over all of our circumstances.
As a young Pastor coming to my first church, I could not have hoped to have met a more encouraging mentor and model for ministry. From my first encounters with him, Pastor James and his dear wife Jean showed humbling support and concern for Carolyn and I in the work of God. Never once did I feel the weight of his many years of service brought to bear when I would falteringly read and pray in their home, after enjoying coffee and a long and encouraging chat. Pastor James' hearing had significantly ebbed away in latter years, but we would sit together in their living room in Milford, with Mrs Armstrong acting as interpreter between us in conversation. He would often say, 'I'm good for nothing now, only prayer', an assertion which made my heart soar in gratitude to God for one who faithfully interceded on my behalf. Every Sunday night as I preached the Gospel in Armagh I was assured that he prayed continuously for the service, and for a work of God to be done. It is hard to express in words how much that meant.
Pastor James' memory was incredible, with an ability to recall snatches of verse, stanzas of hymns, sections of Scripture, and news stories which was utterly astounding for a man of his years. He would occasionally pass on clippings from the newspaper which he thought might make good fodder for sermon illustrations. They were always helpful. I once preached a message in Armagh which borrowed an outline from one of his sermons - Jesus makes 'Life worth living, death worth dying, and eternity something to be looked forward to'. His wife told him when she returned home from church that night that she didn't think that she would hear James Armstrong preaching in Armagh again, but she had!! If only I had known a fraction of his force, fire and effectiveness...
He would speak of heaven in longing terms. With the complications of ill health he had a strong desire to be at home with his Saviour, and would make this known to any who called to see him. He carried a consistent and touching testimony with all of the health care staff who encountered him, many speaking appreciatively of his prayers and gracious manner. The loving care lavished on him by his wife, and the sense of partnership which they had shared throughout their life together, shone through in bright relief against the difficult backdrop of illness.
I write this little tribute today with a sense of great privilege. God has allowed me to know a man of depth, sincerity, honour and integrity - a man who loved God, His Word, and His people. I, along with many others, combine sadness at his passing with celebration of his life. A true soldier of Christ has been called home. My prayers are with his wife, Jean, his sons David and Andrew, and his daughter Helen - along with their families and the wider family circle. His love for them, and theirs for him were an inspiration.
I know that the funeral tomorrow will be honouring to God, and a marker of a life lived out by the grace of God to the glory of God. I would covet the prayers of any who read this blog as I lead and preach at the service. It is an event which is much bigger than me, but it is also an opportunity to exalt the Saviour whom Pastor James loved and served before a wide and varied congregation of people.
It seems fitting to conclude with words which Pastor James would quote from memory on a regular basis. They are representative of so much of his Word ministry in earlier years, and of his personal testimony more recently:
Sovereign Ruler of the skies,
Ever gracious, ever wise,
All my times are in thy hand,
All of events at thy command.
His decree who formed the earth
Fixed my first and second birth;
Parents, native place, and time
All appointed were by him.
He that formed me in the womb,
He shall guide me to the tomb;
All my times shall ever be
Ordered by his wise decree.
Times of sickness, times of health,
Times of penury and wealth;
Times of trial and times of grief,
Times of triumph and relief;
Times the tempter’s power to prove,
Times to test the Saviour’s love;
All must come, and last, and end
As shall please my heavenly friend.
Plagues and death around me fly;
Till he bids, I cannot die.
Nor a single shaft can hit,
Till the love of God sees fit.
John Ryland (1753-1825), Baptist minister, cited by J.I. Packer, God’s Plans for You, pg. 9.