Thou Shalt Not Speak Thy Mind - that became my unofficial 11th Commandment after a few bitter lessons as a primary school age preacher’s kid growing up in the Sixties in the North East Ulster Bible Belt.
It was a personal commandment I was to later bin when I entered journalism in the late Seventies having emphatically decided that a vocation as either a Presbyterian missionary or minister was never going to be the Lord’s Calling for me.
But in 1960s rural Presbyterianism, I had great trouble learning the rule that it was best for the minister’s son to be seen, but certainly not heard. Another lesson I’ve learned the hard way as a Presbyterian minister’s kid - rural Presbyterians have long memories!
It was the early Sixties; my dad had only recently been ordained as minister of Clough Presbyterian Church in the north Antrim hills. I had only just started my primary school education at Clough Primary when I committed this cardinal sin which was to haunt me years later as a teenager.
As a family, we had come to Clough from the tranquil Tyrone village of Stewartstown. I always looked forward to the fortnightly trips to the home village to see Gran and Papa Coulter - my grandparents on my dad’s side.
Sixties’ rural Presbyterians may have been tremendous conversationalists, but when you are sitting in the back seat of dad’s car, anxious to get on with the journey to Stewartstown to visit my grandparents and cousins, the constant droning on of an elder’s wife was not appreciated.
As the age of 61 now beckons, I’m sure upon reflection that the conversation between my parents and the elder’s wife was of congregational importance. But not to me. Eventually, I’d had enough.
This elder’s wife came from one of the Presbyterian ‘elite’ families in the region. She was a woman who required tremendous respect when in her presence. So when I ordered her to get out of the car as I wanted to visit my grandparents, the sentiment was not appreciated.
Clearly, she had never been spoken to like that before, and certainly not by a young cub of a preacher’s kid. News of my rebuke spread through the congregation like wildfire. I may have been only six years old, but barking out orders to an elite elder’s wife was certainly not the done thing.
Twelve years later, as an 18-year-old preparing to sit my A levels, that ‘confrontation’ with the elder’s wife was thrown in my face by another Presbyterian elder as an example of my teenage behaviour.
While the woman to whom I’d given the order to get out of the car had long since passed away by the time I turned 18, I was assured that my retort to her had not contributed to her death! But to that Presbyterian elder who confronted me in the church hall that Sunday morning in the late Seventies, it might as well have happened six hours previous, not when I was six years old.
I could not believe the naivety of my persecutor that day - was my entire character as a young Christian in my late teens being judged on a throw-away childish remark as a six-year-old? Yes it was!
What had started off as an inquisition by this Presbyterian elder as to why I had not attended the Boys’ Brigade meeting on the Friday evening descended into a full-scale legacy inquiry into my conduct 12 years earlier!
Thankfully, I did not repeat the retort I’d said to a young evangelist in Tyrone in 1967 - an event which was to haunt me for decades after. I was still at primary school, but had since learned to watch my ‘P’s and Q’s’ when it came to folk from the Presbyterian congregation.
But in my mind, that only applied to dad’s church in north Antrim; not to the mission halls of Tyrone! Dad was a Tyrone man born and bred, so visits to the home county were a regular occurrence in the Sixties.
My grandparents and parents had a long association with the Faith Mission movement, so if the home county visit took place on the Sabbath, more often than not it would involve a trip to a mission hall.
The routine was enjoyable. Dad would be preaching somewhere and I would accompany my grandparents to a mission hall where I would be placed in the front row for the duration of the Sunday evening service.
As a seven-year-old, whilst I had Godly parents and grandparents, I personally lacked the spiritual maturity to know the blessings of Salvation or ‘getting saved’.
Whilst the singing of the ‘Auld Tyme’ religious hymns was most enjoyable, my mind would wander during the sermon as to how I could build my latest camp in the super apple orchard at Clough Manse. The fate of my soul was certainly not a priority then.
But it would become a serious issue that fateful Sabbath night in Tyrone. It was a full hall with around 100 people present. There was a young evangelist; my guess he was in his early twenties, tall with dark hair.
I was seated in the front row on my own, directly in front was the lectern where the young evangelist was delivering his Hell-fire sermon.
As the sermon progressed, the congregation would frequently burst into laughter. Suddenly, after several bursts of laughter, the penny dropped. The congregation was laughing at wise-cracks and jokes the evangelist was making about me!
Then came that fateful moment. He made another joke; it went way above my head in terms of content; the congregation laughed - then the evangelist leaned over the lectern and spoke directly to me: “And what do you think, John?”
I sat, arms folded; glared at the evangelist and in a loud voice bluntly replied: “Just f**k off!” The effect was devastating, both immediate, medium and long-term.
Bear in mind, in all the years that I knew them, I’ve never heard any of my parents or grandparents curse, so I must have picked up the ‘F’ word from the primary school playground.
I certainly should have listened to the words of what has become one of my personal great hymns, ‘Yield Not To Temptation’, which has that super line - ‘shun evil companions, bad language distain’.
I will carry the shocked look on that evangelist’s face to the crematorium. With the same speed at which laughter would erupt, an awkward hush descended over the meeting - and remained so for the remainder of the service.
Worse was to follow. When dad came to collect me, Gran was in tears as she recounted the incident. As a son, I have been fortunate to have had my dad in my life until I was 59. But that night in Tyrone in ’67 was one of the very few times dad was angry with me.
Retribution quickly followed. I soon found myself on my knees in prayer begging the Lord for forgiveness. A week later, I was back in Tyrone making a round of grovelling apologies either in person or by telephone to virtually everyone who had been at that mission hall meeting - except the evangelist!
Maybe my dad, grandparents, other relations, or the leadership of that mission hall gave the apology on my behalf. But I never saw that evangelist again. For decades after, it was the incident which must never be spoken about.
Half a century later, in 2017, I began research for this series of memoir articles. As I’d never talked about that fateful night, I didn’t know the evangelist’s identity.
One Sunday afternoon as I relaxed at my parents’ home shortly after returning from a journalism residential to Budapest, I asked dad if he remembered this guy’s name. He got visibly angry and I quickly dropped the subject.
My dad has been a super father, forgiving me for many transgressions as his son - but it appeared there was that one incident which he clearly found difficult to forget.
Dad passed away in September 2018 and mum in January 2020 - both never telling me the name of the evangelist. Both my grandparents died in the 1970s and took his identity to their graves, too.
If he is still alive, the evangelist would now be in his mid-70s. I have traced one woman who is now in her late 80s or early 90s and who was at the meeting in Tyrone that night in 1967. I am torn between asking her if she remembers his name, and annoying her. Then again, is it a case of letting sleeping dogs lie?
I learned two very bitter lessons that night as a Presbyterian minister’s son - don’t speak your mind, and lesson two - if you do, there will be serious consequences.
Maybe I should track down the evangelist from ’67 and personally apologise; then again, the rebel in me says if I do meet him, my words will be: “Remember me pastor, I’m back!” And then again, perhaps the sensible course of action for me should be - Bide Thy Tongue!
But in this lockdown era, with so many places of worship going online with Sunday services and Bible studies, those preaching the Gospel need to remember that Christ’s message is one of salvation, not judgmental gossip or condemnation.
We need to remember that great Biblical text of St John Chapter 3 and verse 17 from the New Testament that Christ came into the world to save it, not condemn it.
Before the lockdown, evangelicals faced the challenge of liberal ‘fluffy bunny’ theology. Now that Northern Ireland is still in lockdown, evangelical Christians face a new threat from militant judgmental fundamentalists who wish to push their self-righteous agenda that Covid 19 is a punishment from God.
That’s akin to the fundamentalist who once told me that my youngest son’s severe autism was a punishment from God and that he would never see Heaven.
While we see a huge interest in online Christianity, all Christians - and especially those preaching - while never compromising on the doctrine of Salvation, need to ensure they communicate the core of St John 3:16 using positive language.
If they can’t, but want to indulge in the art of militant and mindless judgmental condemnation, then my theme of ‘Bide Thy Tongue’ should be their ethos.