Interview with Neil Cullan McKinlay – Author of ‘From Mason to Minister: Through the Lattice’

NeilI was born in Ontario, Canada when the leaves turned a beautiful red and gold in the fall. With mum and dad and my two older brothers we sailed across the Atlantic to my parent’s native Scotland when I was two. As my brother Stuart remembers it, “we sailed from the St. Lawrence in November 1958 in the bowels of the Royal Mail ship, Carinthia, taking a week to cross the winter Atlantic … We arrived off Greenock in a dense fog and taken ashore by tender – wow, despite the murky gloom we got a first sighting of a double-decker bus. We entrained for St. Enoch station in Glasgow where we were met by Aunt Pearl and Uncle George who took us to Miller Road in Haldane where we stayed for some months.”

I grew up in the Vale of Leven on the southern end of Loch Lomond. I left school at fifteen to work in a Glasgow shipyard but subsequently became an apprentice plumber in my home town of Alexandria. In 1977, just before my twenty-first birthday, I moved back to Toronto, Canada to work as a journeyman plumber.

On a trip back to Scotland I met Dorothy. We married in 1981 in Winnipeg, Manitoba where I worked as a railway pipefitter for Canadian National Railway. Our marriage produced three beautiful daughters who are now all grown up and married. It was after ten Manitoba winters that we pulled up stakes and moved to sunny Queensland where I studied to be a Presbyterian minister.

Ordained in 1998 I pastored congregations in Springsure and in Brisbane, with a five year stint in beautiful Tasmania. We have now settled back in Brisbane where I work part time as an Army Chaplain. The rest of my time is spent writing mostly theological items but I’m trying my hand at novel writing. I also write for a monthly Australian writer’s magazine called FreeXpresSion. I self-published a collection of these writings in a book titled The Song of Creation & Other Contemplations (ISBN 0-9757588-7-X).

I like strumming my guitar and writing songs, watching movies and reading good books. I openly admit to enjoying contemplating God’s creation, appreciating birds, bees, mountains, trees, good food and the occasional single malt.

You can find my blog at: Snow Off the Ben

Q: Thank you for this interview, Neil. Can you tell us what your latest book, From Mason To Minister: Through the Lattice, is all about?

A: My book records my journey into Freemasonry as part of my serious quest to find God and the meaning of life. It might seem strange, but at the time I thought that God was hiding! I thought that maybe He could be found inside some of the secrets of Freemasonry!

In one sense my book is a bit of a travelogue. I relate illustrative incidents from Scotland, Canada, and Australia (including Tasmania) as anecdotes. My book is a geographical, philosophical, and theological journey. But most of all it is a spiritual journey ending with God. There are three parts to my book, viz., Pre-Masonry, Masonry, and Ministry.

King Solomon and his Temple are a big part of Freemasonry and also of my book. I draw analogies between the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, and Solomon’s Temple, all of which, though real, are types or pictures of Christ’s Kingdom to come. The peppering of little anecdotes about the flora and fauna of Scotland, Canada, and Australia, serves to illustrate the little glimpses I was getting of God while on my spiritual journey. In these I was seeing Him watching me through the window, i.e., through the lattice (Song of Solomon 2:9).

There is also much symbolism in the rituals and furniture in the Masonic Lodge. The Bible is quoted from abundantly. The reader will be engaged in some of the aspects of Freemasonry that served to drive me to a deeper search for God. I was awarded a Bible by my Lodge as a reward and recognition for presenting papers I had written as a result of my Masonic studies. It was through reading this Bible that I was converted. From Mason To Minister: Through the Lattice tells of my exciting journey from darkness to light.

Q: How did you come up with the idea?

A: I guess my first intention was to sit down and write a book about how I had found God through Freemasonry. I had entered the Lodge seeking God and (to the consternation of some Christians!) I found Him the Lodge. A lot of Christians assume Freemasonry is all about the occult. Perhaps portions of it are. However, I took to heart the stuff that I was being taught as I went through each degree. Yes, at a certain point I was given by my lodge a Bible which I began to read. However, the Bible confirmed to me some of the lessons I was learning in the Lodge, especially when I had entered the Royal Arch Chapter (a body designed for Third Degree or Master Masons desiring to know more about Freemasonry). It was most amazing to discover in Freemasonry and to have it confirmed by the Bible that “the stone the builders rejected” was Jesus Christ – the head of the corner, the keystone. To me God in Jesus Christ, like that keystone, is what holds all of creation together. I needed to write about this to tell others…

Q: What kind of research did you do before and during the writing of your book?

A: It had been a number of years since I was involved in Freemasonry. I had to refresh my memory on a lot of things, such as Masonic ritual, articles I had read put out by Quatuor Coronati (a Masonic research body), material from The Morals & Dogma of Freemasonry written by Albert Pike. I had to make sure that I wasn’t misquoting or misrepresenting anyone or anything.

The research mostly involved double checking theological concepts against the Bible and Bible Commentaries and other theological books. These varied from researching Adam and the Garden of Eden, Noah and Noah’s Ark, Solomon and Solomon’s Temple, to Christ and His future Kingdom. I researched the similarities among these, which is to say that the previous three are types of Christ and His Kingdom.

Then I also researched certain aspects of Freemasonry. Is the God of Freemasonry the Christian God, i.e., the Triune God? And if so, how can Freemasonry accommodate e.g., Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, etc., who obviously do not worship the Triune God? I also had to research the main differences between York Rite and Scottish Rite Masonry. These two rites are open to Master Masons who want to further their Masonic education. Is one of these rites more “Christian” than the other?

I also had to research things like US presidents, Australian Prime Ministers, National Anthems, explorers, historical characters, geographical locations etc. A great deal of research has gone into the writing of From Mason To Minister!

Q: If a reader can come away from reading your book with one valuable message, what would that be?

A: That God is found only in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible! Sure, we can entertain notions about God in various ways, He is the Creator, He directs Providence, He gave us the Bible, etc., but until you encounter Him in Jesus Christ I believe that you are still (to use a Masonic allusion), “in the ante-chamber”, you remain in the realm of generalities. Therefore, I hope that people who read my book will come away with the desire to seek a deeper relationship with God through Jesus Christ. In Christ alone is there reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of our sins. This is the most valuable message of my book.

Q: Can you give us a short excerpt?

A: My own conversion was climactic. Like a stuck needle on an old broken record, I was trying to come to grips with Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). I thought this exclusivity was very arrogant. I remember sitting in my armchair contemplating these words, and wondering who this Jesus thought He was! The “stone the builders rejected” of the Bible (and of the Chapter of the Royal Arch teaching) was about to really sink into and permanently lodge in my heart.

My brother Fearghas’ painting of the spaceman lost in space became how I felt. He had become detached from the mother ship – I was lost in space. The millions of stars were twinkling in the black night sky. I was surrounded by people at work and had my family at home. I played soccer. I had a busy social life. I attended Masonic meetings, but like the drifting spaceman, I began to feel so lonely and detached in the universe. Still, in my heart I pondered the things I had learned about God as I sat in my armchair.

I began to call out to God audibly: “I want to know You!” I had come to the stage in my philosophical travels of being unable to prove to myself whether I was awake or dreaming. It’s a terribly terrifying place to be, not knowing if I was dreaming that reality is real, or worse, whether I was part of someone else’s dream! How does anyone know if they really exist? How are we to measure reality? Perhaps I was really in a coma lying on a hospital bed somewhere…

I believed in a Supreme Being, but who was He? I continued to cry out to Him. And as I did so, I listened in my heart for the answer. But all that I could hear was Jesus saying I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. I would reply to Him, “Get out of my way. I am looking for God!” And again I would cry out to God. And again Jesus would say, No one comes to the Father except through Me. Around and around we would go.

Sitting alone in that armchair I became, in my mind, the spaceman. The severed umbilical cord slowly flapped in the solar wind. The stars in the dark sky continued silently blinking. I began to gasp for air. I felt weak. I gasped for God, for life! “I want to know You, God!” No one comes to the Father except through Me was the singular reply. “But I’m looking for God!”

Then it happened. The lights went out in my mind. Not one twinkling star in the black expanse of the universe – only utter darkness! Horror and great darkness fell upon me! Like a fish in a net, or deep in the dark hold of the icy bowels of a fisherman’s boat, I feebly gasped for air! “I want to know God!” My cry was very feeble now. Again the words of Jesus entered my mind: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.

Tears began to stream down my face when at last I realized who Jesus is. He is God! How stupid of me! I had seen it over and over in the Bible, yet it never really dawned on me until I was at the end of my tether. Jesus is my Saviour. He is my Lord and my God. As I sat in my armchair, I began to cling to Him for dear life. And it was only afterward that I recognized that He was the One who held me safely in His grip first. By His Spirit, working with His Word, the Father had revealed the Son to me. The Spirit enabled me to see the Father in the Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the way to God. He is the Truth. He is objective truth – truth outside of me, outside of all men. And He is the Life – everlasting life. Jesus is Paradise. He is Noah’s Ark. He is Solomon’s Temple. He is Salvation.

Q: In your own experience, is it hard to get a nonfiction book published today?  How did you do it?

A: I think that it is really hard to get a non-fiction book published today! I was comforted by the knowledge that Robert M Pirsig’s bestselling Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was knocked back something like 121 times before it was published! I only had one knockback before being accepted!

I had noticed that Nordskog Publishing Inc. had published a book by my old theological college professor Dr. Francis Nigel Lee. As I ordered a copy I noticed that I also liked the look of most if not all of their other titles. It was obvious to me that we shared something of the same flavor of Christianity. In light of this I sent my manuscript to Nordskog Publishing (not forgetting to mention that I was an ex-student of Dr. Lee’s!) I received positive feedback, but was perhaps on the point of being rejected on account of the publisher wondering who might read a book such as mine. Good question! I think anyone with an interest in Christianity will be interested in my From Mason To Minister. And anyone involved in or having connection with Freemasonry (father, brother, grandfather, uncle). I would also include including those who wish to know what the founding fathers of America were doing in the Lodge will read and enjoy my book. I could go on…

Q: What’s a typical day like for you?

A: On the days when I’m not working as a Part Time Army Chaplain, I rise between 5.30 and 6AM, boil the kettle and check and try to reply to my emails with a cup of green tea beside me. I’ll have some toast and marmalade as I watch Fox News (usually Glen Beck) at 7AM. From 8-10 it’s work on the computer. Then I’ll break to watch The O’Reilly Factor. After this I’ll work till noon then have lunch and watch the Australian News. I’m usually back on the computer before 1PM till about 3PM. Then it’s Bible and Prayer time followed by a dip in my outdoor spa (that’s if I don’t have to mow the lawn or trim the hedge or something). I’m usually back on the computer from 4PM till well after 5PM when Dorothy gets home from work. After the evening meal it’s back onto the computer till about 8.30PM (unless there’s some project that needs finishing then I’ll work till after midnight if need be!) Then I’ll watch some television. I usully start to fade about 9.30 or so. Then it’s off to bed!

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m really enjoying myself at the moment working on an historical fiction piece with the working title of A Stick In Time. It majors on the fictional rather than the historical. Twin young men, one Protestant, the other Catholic, are transported from Ireland in the early 1600s to Outback Australia today along with Saint Patrick’s Staff. The Staff is needed to reunite the religiously and politically divided Ireland. However, the young men become distracted by ending up in competition with each other for the affections of Erin, a beautiful young Australian woman. Erin represents Ireland. The novel has angels and time travel in it, and delves into the future “Golden Age” that some Christians believe that the Bible teaches. Like I say, it’s great fun writing in this genre!

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Neil.  We wish you much success!

A: Thank you!

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