I was reading the “Notable Deaths” page in my Sunday newspaper (September 14) and came across the news of the passing of the famous Irish Presbyterian minister, Ian Paisley. The AP report said: “Paisley [was] the Protestant firebrand who devoted his life to thwarting compromise with Catholics in Northern Ireland only to become a pivotal peacemaker in his twilight years.” Paisley was 88 when he passed away last Friday.
Ian Paisley was bigger than life in so many ways. (He was a big man and his voice and size could intimidate you very quickly!) I never heard Paisley preach in person but I listened to him a number of times via audio tape, online audio and television. He was a marvelous orator.
Oddly enough I was browsing in a Christian bookstore in suburban Toronto (Ontario) about twenty years ago when I heard this distinctive voice and turned to see if it really was Ian Paisley. It was the real Ian Paisley in the flesh. My first instinct was to draw back and avoid him. (Like I noted, he could intimidate one very easily.) But I went up to him and introduced myself (as best I recall now). We had a very brief chat. He even told me to buy a particular book he had in his hands from the store shelves. He was personally warm, even charming. Mutual friends, who knew him quite well, have told me of this side of Ian Paisley since I met him. So I read things by him and about him after I met him. I followed his life the last few decades and was utterly amazed when he became a pivotal peacemaker” in his “twilight years.”
The Wikipedia entry on Paisley begins with these words:
He became a Protestant evangelical minister in 1946 and would remain one for the rest of his life. In 1951 he co-founded the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church and was its leader until 2008. Paisley became known for his fiery speeches and regularly preached and protested against Catholicism, ecumenism and homosexuality. He gained a large group of followers who were referred to as ‘Paisleyites.’
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, himself a devout Catholic Christian (and more recent convert), said of Rev. Paisley: “Ian was a man of deep convictions. The convictions never changed. But his appreciation of the possibilities of peace gradually, and with much soul-searching, did.”
Paisley was, if he was anything, the definition of strident. He was also courageous and intensely interesting. He had a great laugh that could disarm you once you got beyond his bombastic public side. Ironically, Paisley was one of the few strongly Reformed ministers that I think was ever invited to preach at Bob Jones University. I am inclined to think that this underscores how much the leadership at BJU appreciated his stridency and courage.
I could share stories about Paisley that would make you cringe. I could also tell you things I knew about Ian Paisley that would make you appreciate his humanity, warmth and genuine expressions of love for Christ. But this is not the time or place. What I can say is that his latter years give me immense hope. Sometimes men who age do so very gracefully. Some have said they grow weak and compromise. I think some begin to “see” more clearly that being a “peacemaker” is truly part of following Christ and must become as important as being courageous and convictional. Perhaps this is why Paisley’s passing spoke to my own life. I was never a strident fighter but I was not a convictional peacemaker in my earlier years. I took immense encouragement in seeing the elderly Ian Paisley seek peace in Northern Ireland. That took, so far as I am concerned, as much courage as it took to stand so strongly for his views for so many decades. It felt like betrayal to some of his best friends. I understand this and relate to it deeply.
I have come full circle at this point to the words used by the Associated Press to describe this larger-than-life man. AP said Paisley was a Protestant “firebrand” who “devoted his life to thwarting compromise with Catholics.” I can handle both of those in their right place. I can even respect, at least to some degree, such views if they are honestly situated within a context of a courageous love that truly pursues peace and justice. Paisley seems to have discovered this very late in his life. That gives me great joy and hope. Enemies can become friends! Firebrands can become peacemakers! Anti-Catholics can learn how to listen to Catholics with respect and love!
Paisley’s overall narrative is not a model for me, at least not in terms of his lifelong legacy. Yet his last years bring me immense hope when I see how men like him, who seem impossible to get along with relationally, can and do change. The Spirit is always working, especially in the most broken among us. This means that people like some of you will change. But most of all this includes me. As I look back over the fifteen years or so of my thirties, and my early forties, I often feel like “the chief of sinners” when it comes to rhetorical flourishes that divided Christian from Christian over doctrine and political conflict. At times I still live with intense regret about this part of my life. What I must do is continually seek the Spirit’s grace to love more deeply because God never stopped loving and changing me. I was thus profoundly thankful, when I read the Paisley obituary, that the Spirit never stopped working in the life of Ian Paisley, a really big and intimidating Irish Presbyterian. My guess is that Ian Paisley will be most remembered, and this will be with profound joy by many who knew him, for his latter years of life. This also means, if I am right, that for the largest portion of his public life, the years in which he lived in constant militant conflict, his work will come to nothing truly lasting. I say this because “faith, hope and love” abide but the only one that truly abides forever is love.
Reflecting on Ian Paisley’s life makes me ask: “Can people of profound conviction become convictional peacemakers who are filled with grace and truth?” I think Ian Paisley did exactly this in his last years. I also think that if he could speak to us now he would point all of us to his Savior and tell us that his last years were the most important ones in all his years of service for Christ and his kingdom. Rev. Ian Paisley, warrior and peacemaker, RIP.