Monthly Letter – April 2020

Dear Friends,

You’ll not be surprised that I’m keen to use this letter to write about Covid-19. It’s front and centre constantly. It affects every person, fills every news bulletin, and features in just about every conversation that we have.

It’s so pressing and prominent an issue, however, and one whose practical repercussions have such a far-reaching and frightening effect, that it’s easy in our thinking to succumb to the paradigms of this world: when it was never more important that we viewed and addressed the situation in a thoroughly biblical way.

It’s as if a blizzard has hit the world. And you know what happens: when the snow of wintry blizzards have covered the land, the roads across the moorlands simply lose their definition, and it’s all too easy to go off track and come a cropper. Which is why such roads will generally have those ‘marker poles’ to keep all those who are out on the roads .. well, to keep them on the road.

It’s a bit like that: it’s as if a rather different blizzard has hit the world, covering our customary landscapes with a steady, persistent ‘snowfall’ of news and information about the CoronaVirus, and spreading across our nation’s life a monochrome blanket of guidelines, restrictions and lock-downs, until the world as we once had known it is well-nigh unrecognizable, and we find ourselves now looking out on a rather bleak scenario with which none of us is familiar.

So I want to try and plant in the ground of our thinking, therefore, some basic biblical ‘markers’ to keep us all on track as we seek to navigate our way across the contours of the present situation. And, of course, the metaphorical ‘snow’ keeps falling, creating more and more a very shapeless landscape – and increasingly, too, therefore, the need for these biblical ‘marker poles’ along the road.

1. Perspective. Covid-19 is not the end of the world. The way that it’s covered, the prominence it’s given, the heat that it’s managed to generate – all of these may sometimes leave you feeling that the world itself is coming to an end. The world, as we’ve previously known it, quite probably is coming to an end (and any such change is certainly far from comfortable). And yes, of course, it’s always true that the world itself may indeed be coming to an end: but we knew that anyway, and even if it is the end of the world, then that’s cause not for panic but for praise.

We need to have a biblical perspective on the thing. There are other big issues confronting the world, and other big issues impacting the lives of countless different individuals, here in our land and all over planet earth. And this is not, by any means, the first time that there’s been a devastating plague upon the surface of the earth, spreading out its dark and deadly tentacles to sweep away huge swathes of human populace, left powerless to stop its seemingly relentless flow.

We keep the thing in perspective. Covid-19 is a serious matter, for sure: the radical repercussions of the strategy adopted in response brings major deprivations in its wake; no doubt about it. But … sin, we do well to remember, is a far more lethal virus. And an eternity spent in wretched isolation from the living God and at odds with those around us is a far more solemn prospect than a mere few months of government restrictions.

2. Prayer. Our primary calling as the people of God – indeed our primary responsibility – is to pray. From day 1 of the life of the church, when Peter picked up on the words of the prophet Joel, it’s clear that we are as God’s people in a very real sense a ‘prophetic people’: “I will pour out My Spirit in those days and they will prophesy” (Acts 2.17-18).

And what do prophets do? They pray. The very first time that the word ‘prophet’ is used in Scripture, that’s what we find the guy doing. Praying. “He is a prophet,” God said to the king of Gerar about Abraham: “he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live” (Gen.20.7).

Let’s never lose sight of that calling. A prophet. He’ll pray: you’ll live.

Our primary calling is not to be throwing in our tuppence-worth as to the rights and wrongs of what we should be doing in these days: not to be up in arms about who knows just what, but down on our knees in prayer.

There are all sorts of ways in which all sorts of people can play their part in securing the common good at a time like this. But who has access to the King? Who can draw near to the One who alone can save and plead the cause of a nation? Who (as the Lord Himself once asked through His servant, the prophet Ezekiel) will build up the wall and stand in the gap on behalf of the land? That’s our privileged calling as the people of God. Prophets who’ll pray; and others will live.

That’s what the well-known passage in 2 Chronicles 7.14 is on about. Most Christians know the verse as the “If My people ..” verse: we’re perhaps not quite as familiar with the context, which has everything to do with the present crisis – “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain (it’s the Lord who is speaking) or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people …” .

 That’s the context in which this well-known verse kicks in: “If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” And you’ll see it’s not just an exhortation to make sure we’re saying our prayers. It’s prayer characterized by our humbling ourselves, by our seeking God’s face, and by our turning from our wicked ways.

If I write most fully on this, it’s because it’s surely the most important ‘marker’ of all. Scientific ‘modelling’ is doubtless very helpful: but the Lord is well able to stop a plague in its tracks. We’re called to be ‘prophets’. We’re to pray, that others may live. May God yet come in healing grace and power.

3. Planning. It’s important to plan. Even if the plans we put in place require a constant revision. We’re taught in the Scriptures to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom.13.1) as an expression of our submitting to the Lordship of Jesus: we recognize that they are there to fulfill their weighty responsibilities as part of the way God wisely orders His world; and we therefore gladly submit to their guidance as to what should be at any given time the right thing for us to do.

At least, we seek to do so as long as that doesn’t impinge on the revealed will of the God who established the authorities in the first place. We plan accordingly, seeking always the wisdom of God to discern, in the face of ever changing restrictions, how best His purposes are furthered, how His people are best nourished and sustained, and how His Son is best honoured and exalted through these days.

We make our plans flexibly, very aware that with the rapidly changing guidelines which the government provides there’s a need to adapt what we’ve planned, and re-configure what we’re seeking to do, to the very different context which prevails. And we make our plans humbly, too, quick to recognize the truth of the proverb – “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Prov.19.21).

That’s our comfort and our peace, of course, in the midst of all the turmoil of these present days. God Himself has His plans, His own eternal purpose, good and perfect in ways far beyond our comprehension, which even now He is sovereignly carrying out. His purpose will prevail. We rest in that assurance.

4. Protection. Loving the Lord our God is tied closely to loving our neighbour as ourselves. We may not ever simply look out for, and look after, merely ourselves. We live in community, and we have responsibilities towards those who are around us. Indeed James in his letter puts the thing very starkly indeed – “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (Ja.1.27).

He means by that, we’re to look after, to protect and help, the most vulnerable in our society. It’s one of the features of the Old Testament regulations that provision was always made for the most vulnerable, those least able to cope with the range of adversities which life in this world throws up. We have to apply such a concern to the needs and circumstances of this present day, where to a very considerable extent those most vulnerable in the face of the CoronaVirus and the restrictions which have been imposed as a result, are those least able to use the resources of technology to which most of us resort.

And quite apart from the dangers to physical health which this virus brings, there are the equally real, and potentially far more damaging dangers which an enforced and prolonged isolation will bring.

It is not good, the Lord Himself observes, that we should be alone, isolated, separate. It is not good that we should be deprived of the weekly opportunity to gather with our brothers and sisters in Christ and direct our hearts and minds together to the Lord. How graphic a picture of sin this virus is! For sin is an essentially separating power: and that’s precisely what we’re seeing. We find ourselves now being obliged to live separately: and there is always the danger that that physical separation is matched as well by a relational separation, as tensions creep in, frustrations burst out, and relational breakdown ensues.

How careful we must be to protect ourselves against all that this virus is bringing!

5. Provision. ‘The Lord will provide’ is a truth which lies right at the heart of the Bible’s message. We’re keen, therefore, to give expression to that in every way we can.

Practically, that means we’ll seek to ensure that the needs of those around us are being adequately and appropriately met. And we include in that the very real spiritual needs which we have as a people who self-define as a congregation, that’s to say a people who at the very core of our living ‘gather together’ with a view to the worship of God.

How do we make provision for that when we’re precluded from meeting together? We seek to be creative and adaptable, and will keep going the extra metaphorical mile to ensure that this very basic human need is also met.

6. Poverty. You may think that an odd heading (although not so odd, I guess, when you think of how many millions are being, and will be, hugely impoverished by the effects of the virus).

But I mean, rather, we make sure we are thinking and living in gospel categories. Sometimes we’re so familiar with the grace of the gospel that we lose sight of the fact that we’ve entered, and now live in, the world of grace. You know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, that “though He was rich yet for sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor.8.9).

At the heart of the gospel is the incarnation. Putting it bluntly, as Paul elsewhere in that letter did, Jesus in His incarnation became infected with the virus. “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor.5.21). What will it mean for us to be such gospel people in these days?

7. Proclamation. We dare not lose sight of this. The prophets of God very regularly (and rightly) saw the events of their day as a means by which the Lord was speaking both to His people and to His world: and that surely remains our calling as well today.

The people of God, like the rest of society, may well now be largely confined: but the Word of God is not bound, cannot be bound, and must not be bound.

Perhaps more than ever, there’s a pressing need for the Word of God to be sounded out by every means available: for the gravity of our plight as men and women infected with the virus of sin to be highlighted, stated and stressed: for the urgent summons to repentance and faith to be sounded out, loud and clear, to a society which has hopelessly lost its way: for the message of grace and hope in Jesus Christ to be proclaimed: and for the great, enduring bottom-line reality about our world, that the Lord is on His throne, to be declared.

God grant us grace to rise to the challenging opportunities of these days.

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – March 2020

Dear Friends,

For years I’ve been intrigued by the notion of the ‘seven-year itch’.

It’s a phrase whose meaning significantly changed in the mid 1950s – courtesy (mainly) of Marilyn Monroe (hers, after all, is still a well-known name) and (to a much lesser extent)  Tom Ewell (I mean, apart from some odd-ball movie geeks, who ever heard of him?) in the film adaptation of George Axelrod’s play, ‘The Seven Year Itch’.

The phrase, which began its life in the world of dermatology, describing a physical condition which endures for roughly seven years (unpleasant), is now used to describe a relational condition which emerges after seven years (unnecessary). A boredom bred by sheer familiarity; a sense of frustration fuelled by a distorted desire for novelty; a dulling of an earlier delight, occasioned by the daily drudgery of household routines.

Monogamy become monotony. The seven-year itch.

What intrigued me, though, was the extent to which something really very similar is noted in the Scriptures: and, indeed, the extent to which a series of spiritual safeguards is put in place by those Scriptures to guard against the dangers of this dreaded seven-year itch.

In the numerology of the Bible, as you know, seven is a number of some significance – a significance which has its roots, of course, in the account of God’s creation. “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating He had done” (Gen.2.3). Day seven was the day to enjoy the completion of all that He’d done.

The significance of that, the Scriptures then teach, is essentially and constantly two-fold. It’s significant, first, in terms of the symbolism (hence the number seven conveys the idea of completeness, wholeness, perfection). But it’s significant also in terms of the very basic rhythms which now characterize the handiwork of God.

That there are such basic rhythms is a truth we soon discover as we learn about the world in which we live. The steady, rhythmic beating of the heart. The constant, rhythmic breathing of the lungs. The rhythmic, daily pattern of the blessing of our energetic work being followed by the benefits of sleep.

Across the whole of God’s creation the same essential rhythm’s to be found. The seasons of the year themselves bear witness to a fundamental rhythm in God’s world. Those who work the land see precisely this played out before their eyes each year. The hard work of sowing in spring; the patient and persistent growth through all those summer months; the satisfying labour of the crops at last being harvested throughout the autumn weeks: and then the land is quiet once again – its energetic working months now past, it settles back to find refreshment and renewal in its hibernating sleep.

There is this basic rhythm to God’s universe – because there is this basic rhythm in the way God works. And so we, too, we work six days and on the seventh day we rest. The weekly day of rest, the Sabbath; because we are made in the image and likeness of God. It’s the breathing of the human soul: six days given over to our well-paced, satisfying work, and then the benefits and pleasures of our rest. The steady, rhythmic breathing of the Spirit of the living God Himself, breathed into us, His creatures.

And so it’s surely no coincidence that Pentecost, the day on which we celebrate the gift of God’s own Spirit (the very ‘Breath’ of God) – the day on which we celebrate the gift of God’s own Spirit to the church, that day is 49 days after Easter Sunday when we celebrate the raising up of Jesus from the dead: seven steady bursts of that great rhythmic, seven-day pattern which so characterizes our God – and then, as very much the climax to God’s saving work in Christ, the Breath of God breathed into our humanity, that we might learn to ‘breathe’, as it were, to breathe and to work in time and in harmony with Him.

This rhythm revolving round a sequence of seven is a thing that is found again and again. It’s this which first intrigued me about the so-called seven-year itch.

The fields are worked for six long years, and in the seventh the land is left to lie fallow. A Sabbath for the land itself. Then, too, the year of the Jubilee, the year which signaled freedom and renewal for the debtors and down-trodden of society – that year was the 49th year, the Sabbath of Sabbath years.

The rhythmic breathing of God. Reflected in both His exploits in creation and His saving work in Christ. Something not entirely unrelated, I began to think, to the ‘seven-year itch’. I found the thing intriguing. And two particular circumstances prompted me, a long time back, to ponder this some more.

The first was the call from the church at Davidson’s Mains which brought to a close our time in Cumbernauld. Amidst everything else that such a move involved, I found both the need and the time to reflect on all that the Lord had been doing through the years that we’d spent at Kildrum Parish Church. It had been my first charge, and I thought it important to discern both what the Lord had effected through those years, and why it was time to move on.

We’d been there just a fraction over seven years when the process of moving began.

Coincidentally (and I mean the word in its literal sense – these two things simply coincided) I stumbled in my daily reading at that time on the words which Moses had addressed to the people of Israel towards the end of his life. “At the end of every seven years,” he insisted (and my ears pricked up at that), “when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God .. you shall read this law before them in their hearing …” (Deut.31.9-13).

It was this same ancient rhythm again. At the prompting of the Spirit of God, attuned as he was to the rhythms of the breathing and heartbeat of God, here was this man recognizing that every seven years there’d be the need to remind this people who they were, and what their calling was, and how that would apply to them where now they were.

As I pondered this, against the backdrop of those seven ‘rookie’ years we’d had in Cumbernauld, and seeking to discern by God’s kind grace why this was now not just the time to countenance that call to Edinburgh, but why it was the time to leave Kildrum, I developed a loose sort of theory. Or perhaps not so much a theory as a perspective through which to view and understand the on-going work of God in which as His church we’re involved.

The rhythms in the way God works and how we see those rhythms all worked out. The ‘theory’ was rooted in the pattern which Moses insisted upon. I could see what Moses was on about. The need to review and revisit the basics of their calling as God’s people at the end of every seven years: who they were and what their calling was – and how that now applied to them, seven years down the line.

The ‘theory’ I developed was simply this. That as the Word of God is faithfully preached and taught, and as the Holy Spirit is at work among His people, seven years down the line the fellowship has changed: a whole new congregation has emerged. Not merely, and indeed not primarily, in terms of the individual members who comprise that congregation, but much more in terms of where that fellowship now is – spiritually, I mean. It’s a different congregation.

And because of that I saw there was a need once more to come back to those very basic questions. Who are we as the church of Jesus Christ? What is our calling as the people of God? And what will that now entail for us here as we seek to press onwards and forwards outwards in the work of the kingdom of God?

“Every seven years .. you shall read this law before them in their hearing.”

It wasn’t an exact science by any means, but I set myself the discipline on the back of this of pausing every seven years to reflect again on who we were as the people of God, to take stock once again of God’s work in our life as a local church, and to discern with the help of the Spirit of God what His next step forward would be.

It made sense in the context of Cumbernauld, when I cast my mind back over all that those seven first years had involved. So this ‘theory’ I had, which was based on the clear rhythmic pattern I saw in the work of the Lord Himself, evolved into a customized spiritual discipline, whereby I sought to see what God had bit by bit effected through the previous seven years, and ask Him, ‘Lord, what next? How do we take it on from here? What’s the next step on and up and out from here?’

When people asked after 21 years and more in the place, ‘Do you not get bored after all those years with the one same congregation?’ – I’d laugh, and insist that this was now my fourth congregation. We were there for almost 27 years by the end: you can do the maths!

In truth it was four different congregations. The same congregation, of course, in a sense: but over the years four very different fellowships. God was growing His church. Through His Word and by His Spirit and for His glory.

It’s not, as I say, an exact science, but every seven years or so there was a different congregation: and, with that, there was the need to go back to those basics, to remind ourselves once again of who we were and what the Lord was about in our life, and where that meant we were headed. Every seven years or so we’d re-read the Maker’s instructions, and see how the ‘law’ now applied to where we were at.

And, yes, I could chart the steady growth which the Lord had been effecting in the life of that local church, and characterize in general terms each different congregation – and thus I could identify as well what needed next to be done and addressed.

All that, I hope, provides some sort of context for the process of reflection in which, these past few months we’ve found ourselves involved. This month it’ll be a full seven years since we left the Church of Scotland and became simply Gilcomston Church. That wasn’t an easy step which was taken back then: it occasioned much in the way of heart-searching, and no small amount of pain. But it was a step which we took very clear in our minds as to who we are as the church of Jesus Christ and what our calling as such always is.

Seven years down the line it’s time to ‘re-read the law’. We retain our core values, of course: what we’re about and how we go about it. That’s basic and non-negotiable! It’s what we enshrine in our acronym, ACTS – Attracting people to Jesus, Consolidating the faith of believers, Training our members for service, and Sending them out in the cause of the gospel of Christ. But given that, on what do we now need to concentrate?

It’s time to take stock; time to see the ways the Lord has grown and fashioned His church; time to be reminded again of our calling In Christ and how that will find its expression where we find ourselves now; and time to seek afresh the wisdom of God’s Spirit in discerning what the next step is, and the boldness of His Spirit in embarking on that path, with all the daunting challenges it brings.

Yours with eager expectation in our Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton