An irregular candidate

Jackie Ross was a man of boundless vision and energy; but, perhaps above all, of deep compassion for those heading to a lost eternity. Even while training for the ministry of the Free Presbyterian Church, he and some friends had formed what was then the Blythswood Tract Society. The aim was to write short explanations of the gospel, and distribute them to those outside the church – to those who’d never think of darkening a church door! The students visited the lodging houses that gave temporary shelter to the homeless, many of whom had wrecked their lives in different ways. Yes, Jackie would go on to fulfil a faithful ministry to his congregation in Lochcarron; but his heart was always open to those near and far who desperately needed to hear the good news about Jesus.

Others spread the tracts far and wide. (I found one through the door of my flat in Edinburgh when working as an accountant.) I hadn’t realised that, as the tracts were also sent overseas, Blythswood prepared a correspondence course for those who wanted to learn more. Jackie was moved to learn of how a young man became a pastor in Nigeria, having first received one of Blythswood’s tracts from his father. Christian Focus Publications, who produced this biography, was also an offshoot of Blythswood – one which Jackie, and his fellow trustees, wisely reckoned was a task beyond their abilities. And today we also know Blythswood as an aid organisation which provides practical support, and Christian hope, in many countries – a ministry that developed particularly after the Iron Curtain came down, revealing the tragic situation of children in Romania’s orphanages. Though Jackie’s vision reached the far corners of the world, it wasn’t blind to local needs. He led a team of people who established a centre in Lochcarron to care for those who would otherwise have to spend their final days in care homes in places like Inverness, far away from the people they loved, and the place that had always been their home.

But Jackie tells the story of how all this happened so much better than I could! And Irene Howat allows him to do that in his own words, with additional comments from family, friends and colleagues. This gives the book its lively, readable style.

Jackie looked back over his life knowing that he was terminally ill. The Final Chapter, as it is entitled, was written by his eldest son, and is an account of Jackie’s final days and funeral service. The final paragraphs consider the much-changed state of the Church in the Highlands from the start of Jackie’s ministry to its end. Villages that were blessed with two or three well-filled churches now see empty buildings, and several congregations served by a single minister. Philip’s perceptive comments are worth quoting, and apply beyond the Highland Boundary – perhaps more so given that nearly twenty years have elapsed since they were written. ‘It appears that the institutions of 150 years or more are guttering to an end. Yet we hope that in all that the Lord of the vineyard is pruning rather than destroying.’ The gospel is as unchanging as the love of God which it portrays. But the model of church life that was so effective in days gone by may not serve so well the Church of today, and the days to come.

Unusually, the Final Chapter isn’t the end of the book. Perhaps it’s typical of a minister, but Jackie does get the final word! It comes in the form of a letter, written in the last days of his life, that was printed and handed to all who attended his funeral. It’s a plea to ‘those who will follow me soon enough’ to be reconciled to God. He writes: ‘We all need Christ, and all we need is Christ.’

Jackie was a faithful pastor to the end of his life… and beyond!