Monthly Letter – August 2019

Dear Friends,

I wonder what you make of the prophet Jeremiah.

I like him. I have something of a soft spot for him. Or maybe more a certain affinity.

In part, I guess that’s something to do with my name being essentially his. Names matter. They certainly did in Bible times, and I like to think they do so still. There’s something almost prophetic about the name you’re given. And like it or not (and most of the time growing up I didn’t like it at all) I did at least feel a certain sort of kinship with the man whose name I bore.

Where I lived at the time there wasn’t another ‘Jeremy’ in sight: none of my pals at school had ever even heard of the name before – and half of them couldn’t pronounce it. So I found myself drawn to the only other person that I knew (or knew of) who had a name remotely like my own. The prophet Jeremiah.

I soon learned, though, that he didn’t get rave reviews: the prophet Isaiah was the pin-up boy, it seemed. Isaiah was class: his poetry seemed to delight the cultured ‘literati’ of the Bible texts, and the rich and extravagant promises of grace he brought had Bible buffs almost salivating with anticipation.

Whereas Jeremiah was known as the ‘weeping prophet’. A ‘wet blanket’, over against Isaiah’s ‘comfort blanket’. Where Isaiah was dazzling, Jeremiah was simply dour. The word on the street had branded Jeremiah as the archetypal ‘kill-joy’, full only of doom and gloom, with a personality and perspective on life, so the branding went, which would have made Private Frazer of Dad’s Army fame seem like an eternal optimist.

I wasn’t too chuffed to begin with. I sometimes even wondered what sick sort of joke my parents had played by giving me this man’s name. But it wasn’t just the name which slowly drew me to this man: it was his calling, too. I read of the way he struggled in his youth against the call of the Lord on his life, and I began to see that he wasn’t just my namesake, he was a kindred spirit as well.

The instinctive excuses he’d been quick to rehearse before the Lord … well, I found they were my excuses too. Way too young: and by the way, I can’t speak. I liked the man’s directness with the Lord, his almost childlike honesty: I felt I had an ally in this awkward and reluctant preacher from a bygone age.

And the longer I spent in the company of this man the more I found some comfort, too, in the way the Lord had firmly re-assured His ‘new kid on the block’.

“Too young? Forget it,” said the Lord (I’m paraphrasing of course): ‘it’s not your age but your call which is the thing that counts – just go where I call you to go, and say what I tell you to speak.” Excuse number 1 out the window.

“And you can’t speak? That’s as maybe,” insisted the Lord, “but I can: I’ll put the words in your mouth.” Excuse number 2 thereby binned: the Lord would be his enabling.

I knew a growing sense of unexpected excitement (unexpected because ‘excitement’ and ‘Jeremiah’ were not two words you’d commonly find in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence). But excitement there was as I heard the Lord saying that He’d not only give him the words to speak, but He’d make him the man to say them. “Today” (and my pulse began to quicken at the immediacy of that), “I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land ..” It maybe wasn’t the language I would have used, but I got the picture all right.

Jeremiah against the world. Or at least the world of Judah.

This was the battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s last stand, transcribed across to the realms of spiritual warfare. As a boy brought up on westerns and for whom the Lone Ranger had always been the peak of heroic action, I started to see Jeremiah in an entirely different light: he was John Wayne wearing a cassock, Gary Cooper with a collar; he was the last-minute charge of the cavalry appearing along the horizon, a last-gasp attempt at a rescue when all was otherwise lost.

Or, in the rather different genre of disaster movies, he was a Fire Chief Mike O’Hallaran in the Towering Inferno of persistent rebellion and sin which the land and people of Judah had become.

Check the script and see if the essence of Jeremiah’s message isn’t matched pretty much by that of Fire Chief Mike O’Hallaran – “It’s your building, but it’s our fire. Now let’s get these people *** out of here” (maybe I should have left the asterisked words in!)

“When there’s a fire,” said the Chief in one of his famous quotes, “I outrank everybody here.”

Which didn’t go down a bomb with a lot of the self-important people who comprised the ‘everybody’ there: any more than God’s ‘fire chief’, Jeremiah, went down a bomb with the people of his day.

However I viewed it, there was a certain sort of drama about this servant of the Lord, the prophet Jeremiah, which I was only beginning to learn.

No wonder Isaiah and he were so different – their respective sets (or settings) were poles apart. Isaiah was a one-man firm of graphic designers in a day of relative calm, portraying to their best advantage the stunning, forward-looking plans of the Architect supreme, the great Creator God (it wasn’t quite as simple as that, but you get the gist): Jeremiah, by contrast, was a one-man, blue-light fire brigade, tackling, by God’s authority, a ‘wiring’ of chronic corruption which had burst out into the flames of a towering inferno.

A different day, a different age, different times entirely.

We don’t get to choose the day in which we live, or the ‘set’ on which we serve. And when Jeremiah dropped a ‘Dear Sir..’, strongly-worded complaint along those lines into the Lord’s ‘Suggestion Box’, he got an immediate reply.

“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” (Jer.12.5)

Indeed, so thoroughly was this probing question descriptive of the life and ministry to which this man was called that it prompted the title of Eugene Peterson’s book about the prophet – ‘Run with the horses’.

And in many respects that question of the Lord to Jeremiah is precisely the challenge which faces us 21st century followers of Jesus in the western world today. Do we really think it’s been tough thus far being a follower of Jesus Christ? I mean, in a land, in a setting, where for 400 years and more the culture and society in which we live has been shaped by, steeped in, and has therefore also been essentially sympathetic to, the Christian faith.

If living our life and fulfilling our calling as the church of Jesus Christ in that sort of context has worn us out and left us exhausted and spent – then we’re in trouble, big trouble, when, as is happening here in our land today, the context radically changes and the going gets significantly tougher.

‘Get used to this, Jeremiah, it’s horses now you’ll be running against: not men. It’s about to get a whole load more demanding.’ It did for him, and it is for us.

We’ve a lot to learn from the man. Isaiah may still be everyone’s favourite ‘pin-up boy’, but Jeremiah is surely our ‘man for the hour’. Jeremiah’s the man who’s long since run this particular race and who’s tackled the challenging course which lies before us now.

The church has grown accustomed to a context where the benefits (if, indeed, you can call them such) – where the benefits of ‘Christendom’ prevailed: familiarity (at least in very general terms) with the content and the message of the Bible: acceptance of the ‘worldview’ and perspective which the Word of God sets out: agreement with the values and the tenets of the Christian faith: and adoption of the premise that there are in fact clear ‘absolutes’ which give substance to the concepts of both true and false and right and wrong.

Not all agreed with the message of the Bible. Not all were exactly comfortable with the worldview of the Word. Not all adhered by any means to the values and the tenets of the faith. And not all concurred as to what those absolutes were.

But that has been the context here in which our calling as the church of Christ has had to be lived out. And yes, that had its challenges. It wasn’t ever easy following Jesus, even in a context such as that. There was still a race to be run; and running any race is never a stroll in the park.

Things are changing rapidly, though.

As, of course, they were in Jeremiah’s day. He lived in the choppy, cross-current waters of a massive cultural ‘sea-change’, the turbulent transition from one familiar context to another, a new and strange and unwelcome one: from kingdom to exile. “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?”

Are we ready for the challenge? Instead of any familiarity with the content and the message of the Bible, there’s now maybe three or four generations’ worth of widespread, total ignorance, and a burgeoning, growing disdain, of the Book. Instead of the general acceptance of the ‘worldview’ of the Word of God, there’s a whole different outlook on life. Instead of the common agreement with the values and the tenets of the Christian faith, such values and tenets are met with both scorn and derision and viewed as restrictive and crass. Instead of there being absolutes, the post-modern world has decreed that everything’s relative, anything goes, and there’s no such thing as the truth.

Running the race, proclaiming the gospel, following Jesus – it just got a whole load tougher. It’s ‘horses’ now we’re competing with. It’s the swirling, dangerous, cross-current waters of the shift from kingdom to exile that we’re having to sail. And it helps to have a man to hand who’s already had to navigate such seas and who’s learned how to ‘run with the horses’.

We’ll do well to learn from Jeremiah. We’ll do well to be taking a deep, deep breath, and, demanding as life has maybe been as we’ve raced on foot with men, we’ll do well now to ‘up our game’ and ready ourselves for the altogether tougher sort of challenges these coming days present. Another ‘High Noon’ is beckoning!

Yours in Christ’s service

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – July 2019

Dear Friends,

“Can these bones live?”

It was a good question, which put the prophet Ezekiel on the spot. He in turn refused to be drawn, politely ducking the question with the dexterity of a seasoned politician. He simply threw it back at the Lord. “You’re God,” he said, “so You know.”

It was a pertinent question, for sure. And the prophet wasn’t stupid: I guess he must have figured where the question was likely leading. If Israel’s whole calling had been to embody before the watching world the grace of their Saviour God … well that body had now been reduced to dry bones.

Persistent disobedience had resulted in their spiritual death: exile for Israel was the nailing down of their coffin: and Babylon was the cemetery in which their remains had been buried. There wasn’t even any of that symmetry in a cemetery which customarily prevails – no neat little rows of headstones: the bones were just scattered all over the place.

“That’s what’s become of this people,” the prophet Ezekiel was told.

A chaotic spread of dry and dust-bound bones. Devoid of any residual flesh: detached from any skeletal form. Total disintegration.

Dead. Defunct. Done for.

So here’s the question, prophet. “Can these bones live?”

Can a people come back from the dead? Can a church be revived? Can a nation be changed? Can these bones live?

When the Lord does with us what He did with His prophet of old, and walks us through the streets of Aberdeen, takes us on a tour across our national life, and lets us see today what Scotland has become, it’s the same probing question we’re asked. Can these bones live?

Is there any way back for a people who have lost the plot and scorned the King, a nation which has spurned its roots, dispensed with God and celebrates its self-bequeathed autonomy? Because Babylon’s where such living always takes us: and a valley full of dry and scattered bones is where we end. Dead. Defunct. And done for.

There is such a thing as a spiritual ‘law of gravity’: it can be stated like this. When the One who holds all things together is dispensed with, then everything falls apart. This ‘law of gravity’ is easily explained: it’s simply Genesis 1 and 2 in reverse. Remove the Creator from the picture and there’s an often quite speedy reversion back to how things were at the start. Formless, empty, dark.

At the start there was only the ‘formless’. Confusion and chaos. No order, no shape. And the first thing the Lord is seen to be doing is giving definition, creating clear distinction. Indeed, it’s precisely this work of giving ‘definition’ which lies at the heart of the task God gives the man in the ‘naming’ of the animals: he is to learn the importance of making and marking distinctions.

If I seem to labour the point, it’s only because I want you to notice how in this particular facet of God’s creative activity, namely His bringing order in place of the chaos, shape in place of the formless – I want you to notice how there is something inherently and significantly ‘binary’ in this particular facet of His great creative work. The heavens and the earth. The light and the dark. The sea and the land. The animals and humanity. And finally, of course, the man and the woman.

It’s fundamentally binary.

For one of the tell-tale features of this country’s spiraling drift away from our firm historical roots is precisely this removal of the ‘binary’. With that customary sleight of his slippery hand, the devil has cleverly pulled the wool right over our eyes by insisting that equality must mean sameness: justice and fairness, so the devil demands, requires that we drop the distinctions. There’s an obvious flaw and a very basic fallacy in the line he’s persistently pushed – of course there is.

And the flaw, undetected, is the thing which has thoroughly floored us. The binary has been binned – and we’ve spiraled right back to the formless and shapeless and genderless primeval chaos, where animal rights are as weighty as any human rights, where male and female are interchangeable terms, and where pretty much anything goes.

Dispense with the rule of God, pull up your roots in the word of the Lord, turn your back on the Lordship of Jesus, and you pull the plug on the three great basic hallmarks of God’s created world – order, fullness and light. Remove the Creator, and Genesis 1 and 2 then work in reverse, with a dreadful gravitational pull back to the formless, empty darkness of a world bereft of life.

That’s what we’re seeing today. Socially, morally, politically, relationally – just about every way – the fabric of our society is falling apart, reverting back to a culture that’s no better than a quagmire. Formless. Meaningless. Lifeless.

And here’s where it ends: this is what such a people soon become, at least in picture-language. Simply dry and dust-bound bones, scattered without any ceremony across the barren wastes of so much of the western world. Dead. Defunct. Done for.

So we’re back to the question – except now it’s a good deal closer to home: this isn’t Israel in exile, this is now ourselves in turmoil. “Can these bones live?”

“Sovereign LORD, You alone know!”

‘Yes’ is the short answer. Dry and dead and dust-bound bones can live. The Scriptures underline just that from beginning to end: this is the essence of the Bible’s message. Resurrection power is God’s ever-present calling card which trumps all else, and Jesus is Himself the resurrection.

So, yes, of course, these dead bones can live. God hasn’t lost His resurrecting power. His church can be revived. A people can be restored. A nation can be changed.

The Scriptures teach it. Our history teaches it too. Ours has been the story of repeated interventions from on high; it’s a story that’s been punctuated time and time again by huge, great waves of sovereign grace as God has bathed this tiny little nation on the fringes of the continent with mighty, culture-shaping movements of His Spirit. Time after time we have known God at work in reviving, restoring power.

From Ninian to Knox. From Columba on to Cambuslang. From Mungo through to Melville. From Hamilton out to the Hebrides. God has been pleased again and again to raise up Spirit-anointed giants of the faith, and through them He has changed the face of the land.

No nation on earth has quite such a rich and repeated history of God’s reviving grace. No nation on earth has known over such a long time, and to such great effect – and on so many recurring occasions – this grace of the Spirit of God at work in reviving power.

We as the church here in Scotland should know better than any how able God is to erupt right into the heart of a decadent nation and cause dry bones to live. No matter how dry those bones may be. No matter how dead in their decadence that people may have become. No matter how defunct and how done for we presently are.

So, yes, of course these dry bones can live. We may pray to that end. We must pray to that end: we must pray indeed for revival.

But we may not presume upon it. There isn’t any room now for presumption on our part. I know He’s the God of all grace and I know He has resurrecting power. I know there has been that long history of God’s great gracious dealings with our land. I know He’s done it before, again and again; so why, you may think, why may we not anticipate His doing it again?

Well, here are two good reasons why we need to put the brakes on any easy optimism.

First because of that very history. No nation should know better than ourselves the folly of departing from the Lord and spurning all His overtures of grace: there’s a case for saying we’ve had more ‘second chances’ than any other nation on earth! And to that extent we have less cause than any to think that God might look with patience and forbearance on our miss-placed, foolish waywardness.

But, secondly, this may be the first time in our story, in the last thousand years and much more, when as a nation we have openly, brazenly, defiantly, and categorically turned our back on those roots in the Word of God. We have often departed in practice from such a way of life; sure. We have often paid no more than lip service to the Scriptures which we’ve had; agreed. We have often tried building with foolish and futile materials on the foundations which our forbears long-since put in place: granted.

But up until now the Lord and His Word remained our nation’s foundations.

Not so any longer. And when a nation, which so repeatedly, so markedly, over such a great length of time, and to such a transforming extent, has known such remarkable effusions of grace in Spirit-wrought revivals down the years – when such a nation deliberately and defiantly ditches the Word of God and spitefully spurns its rich and expansive heritage of grace, then there are Scriptures suggesting that God might well simply give them over to what they have lusted for and sought.

And Genesis 1 and 2 gets read in reverse.

Is there hope for our nation even yet? Can a future that’s steeped in the grace of God’s presence among us and shaped by His gracious hand upon us – can such a future even yet be secured for our children and their children? Is the prospect of revival realistic? Can these bones live?

Well, yes. Of course they can, by the grace of God. And please God in His mercy they will. But not as a matter of course, far less as a matter of right. Our only recourse is to do what the prophet himself long since did, and get out there – out there, in among the dreadful dusty deadness of a culture gone to seed – to get out there and start speaking for all that we’re worth to those bones, with a ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says…’.

And then as well to get down on our knees, begging, beseeching, crying out with urgency and tears in humble, united, persistent prayer and calling on, pleading with the Spirit of Almighty God to ‘Come, Holy Spirit, come from the four winds and breathe again into these slain, that they may live.’

Can these bones live? Will they? Sovereign LORD, You alone know.

Yours in Christ’s service

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – June 2019

Dear Friends

It’s a letter I’m writing.

You will think I’m simply stating the obvious – and, of course, I am: but I’m also making a point, because I mean to air an issue which has weighed upon my heart for long enough. The demise in our day of the written letter.

There are reasons behind such a patent and rapid demise, reasons which themselves are symptomatic of a spiritual malaise within society today: and there are consequences, too, of this demise, whose fruit, I want to suggest, is already becoming apparent.

Let me start, though, with a disclaimer, and then with something of a confession.

The disclaimer, first of all. I am not decrying for a moment the ways in which technology has almost overnight transformed the ways we now communicate. I’m not down-playing the many varied positives there are in e-mail correspondence, nor the benefits which Twitter can afford (I use e-mail all the time, of necessity: Twitter, though, I’ve managed to live without). Nor do I mean in any way to denigrate the use of ‘social media’ – Instagram and Facebook and the like, they all can be so helpful in ensuring friends, acquaintances, family can keep themselves in touch with one another.

Then, too, a confession. I confess to a personal interest in this letter-writing theme. In much the same way as a compass needle has a bias to the north (and we’re grateful for the direction it thus gives), so too I am biased. I have known for myself the enduring and powerful impact on a person’s life which a hand-crafted letter can have.

For years (until it got so frayed it simply fell apart) I carried in my wallet a letter which my Gran had written to me as she marked my 18th birthday: a letter in which she referred me to Micah 6.8 – “what does the Lord require of you but that you act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God”: she explained how the challenge and instruction of that verse had served her well throughout her 80 years, and then – as only perhaps a grandparent really can do (and get away with it!) – she gently but firmly impressed on me the call of the Lord to live my life in walking thus with Him.

Years later, almost 40 years later in fact, when my mother died, to her children’s surprise, we discovered she’d kept one letter through the previous 70 years: a letter from her aged grandfather, written to her when she was 13 years old, in which he’d carefully set before this young and impressionable girl the choice she had to make between, as he put it, a life of leisure and a life of service, between a life of self-indulgence or one in which she recognized always the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He ended by letting her know he prayed for her always, and was asking the Lord that she would live a rich and beautiful life.

She did. And the fact that this letter was kept safe by my Mum on her person from the day of receipt to the day that she died is itself an unarguable proof of the hugely significant impact a letter can have in thus shaping a person’s whole living and inspiring the course of her life.

So I confess to a definite bias!

Letter-writing matters insofar as letters are a primary means God uses in the careful, patient sculpting of an individual’s living to the glory of His Name – as important, perhaps, or perhaps (dare I say it!) even more important still than even any Spirit-powered preaching of the Word. After all, the larger part of the New Testament is comprised of just such letters. May that not have been precisely the reason why the Lord in His sovereign providence saw fit to have Paul arrested and stuck in a prison for all that time? How else would He ever have got that compulsive preaching-machine of a man to pause long enough to get all of those letters composed – and that way ensure that the benefit of his apostolic teaching would be permanently bequeathed to each succeeding generation of His church?

And how does the Bible end if not in those seven, so comprehensive letters from our risen Lord, delivered in the packaging of Revelation’s truth?

We do well to give some thought as to why it should be that this letter-writing medium is given such substantial space within the sacred bounds of God’s own holy Word. Is it not precisely because the rich and enriching truth of the gospel is both set out clearly with a great doctrinal clarity, and also, through this medium, applied so very fully with a gracious, pastoral authority?

And is there not a lesson to be learned, too, from our noting that in case after case it’s the letters of the preachers and the pastors of the past which are their most enriching and their most enduring legacy?

It’s the letters, for instance, of John Newton (far more than his sermons or songs) which remain, to this day, so hugely insightful and helpful, so warmly instructive and wise, so pertinent still to the times in which we are living. You could think of the letters which were penned by George Whitefield as well: a great and wonderful preacher, for sure – but, oh, take a read of his letters!

Or nearer to home (at least for those of us here in the north) there are all of those pastoral letters from the pen of Samuel Rutherford: like Paul the apostle himself in some ways, the man was removed from his pastoral charge (in Anwoth) – and for a spell he was confined up here in this ancient granite city. Away from his people, removed from his pulpit, his writing desk became (in the words of an old biographer) “perhaps the most effective and widely resounding pulpit then in Christendom”, and his letters (hundreds of them written from here in Aberdeen) became the means by which his Jesus-centred ministry reached so very far and wide, and (long centuries later on) still speaks with all its eloquence and grace into our lives today.

Letters. Letters addressed to individual people with a range of pastoral needs. Letters addressed to churches facing all sorts of troubles and trials. But letters. Hand-written and carefully crafted letters; what Goethe described as ‘the most significant memorial a person can leave’. Not a hastily-written, typo-filled e-mail.

The demise of the letter is a cause of no little concern. Partly because, as I said at the start, this demise of the written letter is a deeply-worrying symptom of the sickness and malaise within society today: and partly, too, because this demise has repercussions which do not augur well for coming days.

Here, then, are the reasons why we should be troubled and disturbed by this departure from a letter-writing culture in our day.

Number one. We live too fast. We’ve got ourselves trapped in a fast-food, countdown-culture where the clock is always ticking and we need our fixes now. We can’t afford, and (as often as not now) we don’t know how, to wait. Electronic, press-the-button mailing fits that bill. It’s quick, immediate, instant: and we look for an answer straight back. We’re a people who live by the ‘ping’. We mail on-line and we post on-line and we order on-line – and for some we almost live on-line.

But living on-line has seen us go wholly off-track. We’ve lost the grace of waiting. And with that too – maybe as the reason for, or perhaps as the result of – with that too we’ve lost the perspective of eternity. If the here and now is all there is the instant becomes imperative. Writing a letter takes time – and time is at a premium for a here-and-now society.

Number two. We disdain the Word. Grammar and spelling go out of the window with e-mails and tweets and the like. Words become cheap, and we scorn all the ‘rules’ which determine the way words are meant to be cherished and used.

We have forgotten that very basic truth, that “In the beginning was the Word”. Our careless, slovenly handling of the words we choose to use betrays a fundamental faultline in society today. We’re a people who now demean the sacred Scriptures and dismiss, disdain and dishonour the Word Himself.

Number three. We abhor discomfort. Our self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking culture has no truck for that component of hard work in all true art. Tracy Emin’s ‘My Bed’ tells you everything about our culture’s take on art: it’s the very reverse of the great, artistic handiwork of God (and the Scriptures insist it was ‘work’) we call creation. ‘My Bed’: the dark, disheveled chaos of an empty, sordid life of night-time wantonness is left untouched: and that, we’re told, is ‘art’. Not so.

Art involves hard work. Any creativity that is worthy of the name is modeled on and mirrors what the great Creator does. And because there’s an element of art, a low-key creativity, involved in the writing of a letter, just so, along with the craft, there is always hard graft in writing any letter – just try getting a child to write a Christmas ‘thank you’ letter!

A ‘tweet’ is not the same. A hastily scribbled e-mail as we spill out what is at that instant foremost on our hearts – that’s not the same. It’s the counterfeit craft without all the graft: the gospel without any cross.

Number four. We do not think. At least not as much as once we did. Today we feel instead. Listen to the way that people speak. “It didn’t feel right.” “I just felt I should do this.” The culture of the instant goes in tandem with a feeling-driven outlook in the way that we express ourselves. We don’t have the time now to think.

The story goes that Michaelangelo spent three whole months just looking at the solid block of marble from which, in time, he’d sculpt his famous ‘David’. ‘What are you doing?’ he was asked more than once through those early months. ‘I’m working,’ he replied. Thinking, pondering, reflecting.

That’s the primary ‘work’ involved in writing any letter. We reflect on what we want to say: we write it down: we read it through: we reflect on what we’ve said and sometimes then re-write the thing from scratch. Thought has gone in to the writing of any such letter.

And that’s what we’re rapidly losing: both the readiness, and then in consequence the very capacity, to think. We don’t have the time. It’s far too hard work. E-mails, ‘tweets’ and social media posting are all of them far quicker, easier, simpler. And so we don’t write letters any more – because we will not, do not, cannot really think.

Number five. We live in the shallows. We don’t do deep at all. We snack all the time on soundbites.

I’m speaking of society at large: and, of course, I’m generalizing too. But this spreading characteristic of our culture, this reluctance and refusal to dig down deep beneath the surface of a thing, this superficiality is very much the atmosphere we all of us are breathing day by day. And thus we run the risk, within a generation, of becoming now a church comprised of superficial saints: a message without substance and a people without roots. Restless, rootless and unwittingly reckless as well.

Number six. We’ve become less personal. A letter is highly personal, especially a hand-written one. The hand of the writer has moved across the page which we now hold: the pen with which the writer wrote has been but the extension of her hand, as if the writer, through the very ink upon the page, was reaching out her hand and pouring out her heart to the recipient.

Think back to the letter my grandmother wrote: it was her, as much as her letter, I think, whom I was holding to myself through all those years.

And the gospel is ultimately personal. Not virtual. Writing letters signals that – as this one, I hope, makes clear!

Yours in Christ’s service

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – May 2019

Dear Friends

Some events become almost immediately ‘iconic’.

The assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. The death of Princess Diana in August 1997. The attack on the twin towers in September 2001.

In each such case, the news of the event had an instant, profound and indelible impact on our minds and hearts. In part it was the shock, the sheer, disruptive ‘unexpectedness’ of this great, catastrophic bombshell which in one quick headline message somehow blew to smithereens the sense we’d fondly fostered that our world (or at least, perhaps, our part of the world) was both predictable and safe.

Most of us carry a picture in our minds of such events: a picture which has captured and expressed so well the huge, horrific impact of that scene – a picture which has stayed with us across the years, as if the seismic nature of the thing had been branded on our memories for life.

The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral will, for many I don’t doubt, prove to be another such event, the graphic, shocking images of which have, almost overnight, bestowed ‘iconic’ status on the massive conflagration that engulfed this towering landmark in the centre of the City of Light and of Love.

And rightly so. It was, and it is, an ‘icon’. A ‘likeness’. A picture portraying an important truth we might have been otherwise struggling to see. An image which powerfully highlights a highly uncomfortable reality. An in-your-face depiction of a far more serious, cultural inferno which is raging in the western world today. A stark prophetic statement of what’s happened, and is happening, in so much of Jesus’ church today.

Iconic, for sure.

It tells in a single image a story which spans long centuries. The story of so much of the western world.

It’s a story which traces the way in which our society was carefully rooted, almost a millennium and a half ago, in the liberating message of the gospel of Christ, and was built on the solid, enduring foundations of Scriptural truth: it’s a story which shows how again and again, in the grace and the mercy of God, our lands and our people were brought back from their proneness to wander, and restored to an anchorage in Christ, and a culture which was shaped by the Word.

In the daring, sovereign providence of God, the church has been, as Paul once said, “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim.3.15), that truth which has served both to shape and inform all the major facets of our culture and society.

Our every institution was developed and defined by what the Bible had to teach: our education, health-care, and the principles of law; the character of family life, the contours of political life, all of them were hammered out by blacksmith-like believers on the anvil of the Bible’s truth, that sacred ‘good deposit’ of the Word of God, of which the church has been the God-appointed guardian.

Few buildings today, I suppose, give a better visual expression than the Notre Dame cathedral does to just that central, foundational place which the church as the guardian of truth has played in the shaping of our western world across the last millennium and more.

The building is old, pre-dating the Reformation by centuries, construction on it having started in the mid-12th century. And the building has always been a great, impressive landmark in the centre of the capital of France, its two ‘twin towers’ both rising like a pair of huge colossi, and signifiying the overwhelming stature, strength and majesty of Christ Himself.

From far back in time, as from far away miles, this elevated edifice simply dwarfed surrounding buildings – and as such became a symbol of the strong and central role the church has played, as the bulwark of God’s truth, in shaping our society.

And all of that swiftly, suddenly destroyed. On Palm Sunday Monday (I don’t know what the day after Palm Sunday is called!) this building went up in flames. There was something strangely telling even in the very timing of it all.

For on the Monday of that fateful week, you’ll recall, that week which would climax in the ruthless, cruel rejection of the Son of God – on the Monday of that week there was a solemn acted parable at Jesus’ hands. The fig-tree was cursed for its lack of fruit, and was overnight ‘withered from the roots’.

The fig-tree itself a symbol of God’s people: the curse upon it a frightening indictment of their long, perverse refusal of God’s truth: and its fate a declarative portent of God’s forthcoming judgment on Jerusalem.

That was Palm Sunday Monday. April 15th in our language.

A building which had taken the best part of 200 years to construct, now gutted by fire in less than 200 minutes and ‘withered from the roots’. The roof fell in.

Iconic.

That single graphic image spelling out for all to see the stark and sobering truth which surely stares us in the face. The bedrock of our culture has been set on fire: and now the roof of our society is falling in.

It was an accident, we’re told. I don’t doubt for a moment it was. And all because of renovation work going on. Or so it seems.

How apposite the whole thing is! How pointedly descriptive this iconic conflagration proves to be!

For, of course, the roof falling in on our culture today is nothing but ‘an accident’ – or so they say. No one really planned that all the fabric of our western world should start now to collapse.

It’s just that those who are the ‘architects’ of today’s great ‘renovation’ work within the church, intent upon a vacuous and secular ‘renewal’ which will bring the church right up to date with current trends – ‘revisionists’ they’re termed – it did not cross their mind that to set a match to the truth of God is a dangerous game. That the roof is now falling in .. well, that was just ‘an accident’: it wasn’t meant that way.

Don’t play with fire.

Remember the rather ill-fated ‘renovation’ firm of Aaron & Sons? Nadab and Abihu, joint partners in the business of improving on the house of God, saw fit to offer ‘unauthorised fire before the Lord, contrary to His command’: and the fires which they casually lit grew rapidly into a frightening, holy inferno which consumed them in next to no time at all – and the roof fell in on their venture (you can read their brief ‘business bio’ in Leviticus 10).

Don’t play with fire! Don’t start lighting fires to burn away the bits you think redundant or repugnant in the Word of God!

Perhaps there’s a certain sobering symbolism, too, in the scene being set in Paris. For Paris has long since come to acquire the nickname of ‘the City of Light’ – a designation bound up as much as anything else with the central role the city played in the spread of the so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment’.

And maybe that’s where the cultural blaze which is presently burning to ashes the heart of our communal life in the western world – maybe that’s where it had its beginnings, there in the ‘Age of Enlightenment’: we didn’t fully realize just what widespread devastation would be caused when we started to light the kindling of our arrogant dissection and rejection of the Word of God.

An iconic event for sure. This great and ancient cathedral going up in flames, with the whole world looking on.

But wait. I’m thinking now in a rather different way, of course, but … but is that not just what Pentecost was?

The church of God on fire.

Just like the Lord Himself. The Lord who gave poor Moses such a fright by appearing to him in flames of fire: there was this former child of the palace minding his own little business and frittering away his existence now in a dry and barren wilderness – and the Lord appears to the man in a sudden, shocking moment which becomes itself immediately iconic for succeeding generations of His church.

On fire .. but not consumed!

And maybe that as well is what we’re meant to see, and where we’re meant to let our viewing take us as we see those furious flames of mighty fire within that ancient building. As if the Lord would thereby speak a word of great encouragement and challenge to the followers of Christ, and say – ‘There, My people: look closely! That is what you need again today.’

The rampant fires of the Spirit of God, cleansing, purifying, renewing – burning away all the dross of a compromised, half-hearted faith. And, who knows, too, maybe the fires of persecution through which the fiery Spirit moves; the real and painful ‘renovating’ work, so different from the self-indulgent tinkering we’d prefer.

A church on fire .. but not consumed!

Oh for such flames to engulf Christ’s church again! Oh for a further Pentecost today!

May we pray together in earnest to that end.

Yours in that prayerful expectancy

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – April 2019

Dear Friends

Growth is integral to what we’re about. Numerical growth; and spiritual growth.

We’re up for growth. And down on our knees for growth as well: we’re with our friend Jabez, who was down on his knees, beseeching the God of Israel – “Oh that You would bless me and enlarge my territory!” (1 Chron.4.10).

We’re given every encouragement in the Bible to harbour such aspirations, to be eager for this sort of growth. Right from the start, after all, the early church knew some astonishing growth (numerical and spiritual); and they seemed to take it all entirely in their stride.

They experienced it. They expected it. They exhorted it. And they explained it all by reference simply to God.

Growth – even the sort of phenomenal growth which the early church knew – growth like that was not some random fluke, some chance and timely concurrence of a range of significant influences.

Growth, they could see – growth was bound up with who God is and what He does.

God makes things grow. The first disciples had seen such growth, seen God at work, first-hand. They’d watched how Jesus grew food for the thousands from a young lad’s simple packed lunch. They’d seen how Jesus, in the first of His ‘signs’, had grown wine by the gallon out of that which had started as water. They’d seen, that is – they’d seen first hand both numerical growth in the feeding of the 5,000, and ‘spiritual’ growth in the stunning transformation of water into wine. Growth in the sense of multiplication, and growth in the sense of transformation. Both effected by the Lord.

God makes things grow. Not in any merely ‘occasional’ way, in the sense that if there does just happen to be some growth, then we’re to give the Lord the credit. But rather in a much more ‘intentional’ or even ‘essential’ way – as in, that’s just who He is and what He always does: He makes things grow.

And just try stopping Him! It’s there from the start of the Bible in the account of God’s creation. An ‘expanding universe’ is, therefore, no more than what you’d have come to expect once you sussed out who God is and what He does and how the very essence of His great creative genius is – He makes things grow.

Growth is never a fluke: but it isn’t magic either. There isn’t any secret, snap-your-fingers, ‘abracadabra’ formula whereby you pray the right prayer and .. boom! .. growth is magically pulled like a rabbit from your ecclesiastical headware. Growth involves hard work. Careful planning, faithful pastoring, anointed preaching.

As a body of leaders we’ve been working at this. We recognize that good leadership will mean, and issue in, real growth. We understand the challenge of that.

We understand that that’s what leaders are there for in God’s church. Their role is to ‘present everyone fully mature in Christ’ (Col.1.28): growth is what they work for in the life of the church of God – that ‘transformation’ growth whereby we each are growing in maturity: and, in many ways as a result of that, ‘multiplication’ growth as well.

Such growth, as I say, is neither a fluke nor the wave of a magic wand. It’s something we have to work at, a skill we have to develop. The skill of a ‘shepherd leader’. For that is the commonest term the Bible has used to describe the sort of leadership required in securing this growth in Christ’s church. Shepherd.

And as often as not it’s a verb. It’s a task which the leaders fulfill, not a title they choose to adopt. They are to shepherd the flock of God: feeding, shielding, guiding, restoring. And it is with this pastoral leadership (recognizing, of course, that it is always God Himself who makes things grow) – it is with this pastoral leadership that the true health, and thereby the real growth, of the people of God always begins.

It’s this, therefore, at which we’ve been working. We aspire in all things to excellence; and this significant area of our fellowship’s life is no exception. We aim, by God’s grace and for God’s glory, to afford the very highest calibre of pastoral leadership. And that involves both organizing our leadership aright and exercising this ministry well.

Our starting point, in terms of the first of these concerns at least, has been to work from a set of what we deem to be basic, self-evident truths.

We will build on all that’s good. There’s much that is pastorally good in our congregation’s life: and we have no desire or intention to ditch the lot and start from scratch. Rather we’re glad to recognize those features in the ‘structures’ of the church which serve us well, and use them as the basis for development.

So there are, for instance, many long-standing pastoral relationships which elders here have formed across the years with individuals: we want to build on, rather than to bury, such relationships, since in all such pastoral relationships the groundwork has already all been done.

Similarly, we’re very aware of the hugely important ministry of pastoral care which day by day is exercised throughout our congregation’s life. Some have long since been involved in this in a ‘formal’ sort of way, assisting as designated ‘Carers’ the elders in the various ‘pastoral care groups’ there have been: and many another, more informally, but no less significantly, are involved in affording such pastoral care to a range of different people in the life of the fellowship here. Again, far from dispensing with such a fruitful ministry, we want rather to build it into the fabric of the whole broad pastoral ministry exercised here.

Over the past three or four years as well the Community Groups have provided an important pastoral context where those involved have found support, encouragement and help as they’ve sought to learn together from God’s Word. Here, too, we see so much that is good, and are keen, thus, that these groups should be an integral part of our overall pastoral work.

Every Christian needs to be pastored. Including those who are pastors. The sheep and shepherd imagery runs right the way through the Scriptures: and that for a whole load of reasons, not the least of which is that we, like sheep, have a singular tendency to stray from the path, to lose our first love, to drift from our early commitment, to flee in the face of life’s trials, and to fall for the wiles of the devil.

We all of us need to be pastored. We all of us need the good Shepherd; and the One who is the Shepherd of the multitude too numerous to number appoints in every fellowship a group of pastoral leaders who are called by Him to shepherd well His flock.

We all of us have need of this demanding pastoral ministry, through whom we’ll be encouraged, challenged, comforted, restored; through whom we will be helped in all the ups and downs of life to grow to that maturity of faith of which I spoke, and to grow into the ministry of Christ whereby the lost are found, the blind begin to see, and countless men and women find the freedom and the fullness which they’ve sought, in Jesus Christ.

We take it as a given, therefore, that every member of the body of Christ’s local church (however loosely a person’s being a ‘member’ is defined) needs and will benefit from a designated pastor.

Every elder is a pastor. It may seem strange to make such an obvious point, but it’s a point which requires to be made. There is no other sort of elder which the Bible ever speaks about. Sometimes referred to as ‘elders’ (in terms of their spiritual maturity), and sometimes referred to as ‘overseers’ (in terms of their pastoral ministry), the calling of the local pastoral leadership is always and emphatically to ‘shepherd’, or pastor, the flock of God.

We have some 28 elders here now: and each, by definition, is a pastor. That is their calling. That should be their gifting. And that will be their primary, Christ-embodying ministry. Some may be out of the country: some may be now quite infirm. But the rest … well, they are pastors, those who at the last must give account to God for the careful cultivation of that growth which is God’s alone to give.

On the back of these three foundational premises we’re proposing that our pastoral leadership here will be exercised now in this way.

Each elder will have a number of designated individuals, for whom he’ll have that pastoral responsibility under God. Wherever a pastoral tie already exists we will aim, as I say, to retain it. And whereas in a bygone generation the allocation to an elder was done on a primarily geographical basis, our intent now is that the primary factor involved should be essentially relational.

Each member of our fellowship will also, thus, have a designated elder. We believe it’s important that each of us knows who our pastoral elder is (and that we’re each of us comfortable, too, with the pastoral elder suggested: we have given some careful thought in each case as to who that elder should be, but there’ll certainly be the chance to share any reservations you may have about the elder we suggest and to find someone more appropriate). And it’s just as important, of course, that each and every elder knows the individuals entrusted to his charge.

We envisage, of course, an inherent flexibility, recognizing that a given individual may well often gravitate to a number of different elders, and may choose, indeed, to confide in and seek out the help and support of those who are not elders as such themselves.

But the calling and thus the concern of such pastoral leadership is always to strive and ‘strenuously contend’ (Col.1.29) in the strength of the Lord to the end that we present each and every person ‘fully mature in Christ’. This sort of pattern, we’re persuaded, is how such an end’s best secured. Each elder with a designated group of individuals and the charge to “go, shepherd the flock of God”: and each individual with a designated pastor whose solemn charge under God is to “keep watch over you as those who must give an account” (Heb.13.17).

God makes things grow. We therefore both anticipate such growth and seek as best we know how to facilitate such growth. And all the while we’re crying out to God like Jabez of old, “Oh that You would bless us and enlarge our territory!”

Yours in the service of the Chief Shepherd Himself,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – March 2019

Dear Friends

You’ll not have heard of the lady, but poor Danielle Monaghan got a bit of a fright the other day. Out on a family day trip to Belfast zoo, what did she find but a real live chimpanzee parading down the path in front of her.

Indeed the footage of this startling event which was then posted on social media showed a little girl clearly risking upping the ante a bit when she shouted out, “Don’t escape, you bad little gorilla!” Like a gorilla, chimp or even an orang-utang is going to pay much heed to a little child like that and immediately say “Oh, I’m so sorry”!

We can well excuse a girl her size for thinking a chimpanzee is as good as a wanna-be gorilla: she certainly grasped that it’s a bad and worrying sign when beasts whose home is the jungle escape from their safe enclosures and start prowling around our streets.

Nor, it would seem, was this an isolated incident. A few weeks prior to the little chimp’s scary jailbreak, a runaway red panda cub had also breached its confinement and made itself quite at home in a local garden.

These things happen. I know. Nothing to worry about at all, we’re assured. As the zoo-keeper quickly explained – “They … know they’re not supposed to be out of their enclosure, so got back in themselves.” Like the good little boys and girls they are. Of course.

But it did leave me wondering if this was not somehow a sign to our society, a gentle, timely warning of the dangers which await us if we keep on treading down the path on which we’re set.

Are we perhaps under God not meant to be seeing that the jungle drums are beating and the ‘beasts of the jungle’ are somehow now being mobilized? Because I heard of poor Danielle’s adventure, and I saw the video footage of the incident, on the back of our reading together one Sunday night that sobering little episode on the outskirts of the ancient town of Bethel when Elisha invoked the curse of God on the town’s collected yobbos: and out from the woods came two big bears and mauled no less than 42 of these brash and disdainful young lads.

That sort of story simply doesn’t go down all that well today, does it? What a nasty little man the prophet must surely have been, our politically correct contemporaries are bound to retort. They’d have had the prophet cuffed and put in prison in a trice today.

But the man knew his business. And his Bible. Including the book of Leviticus. And a good job too that he hadn’t succumbed to temptation and skipped this part of God’s Scriptures. He knew the score. He knew what the Lord had flagged up for His people in advance, for precisely such times as he lived in.

“If you remain hostile towards me and refuse to listen to me,” the Lord had said, “I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve. I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted… “ (Lev.26.21f)

Tough love. The Bible isn’t kidology: God means what He says. This sort of provision, however uncomfortable some today may feel it to be – this sort of provision was actually a covenant mercy. Really.

Shocking, says society: absolutely shocking!

Well, yes. Exactly that, a deliberate shock to the system: in much the same way as that high-pitched screech of your smoke alarm (which is often so hard to switch off!) is meant to grab your attention and shock you out of any tired complacency, and recognize the danger that you’re in.

The Bethel bears, trundling out of the woods at the prophet’s behest (and there were only two, remember: what a genuine mercy it was that there weren’t any more!) – these Bethel bears were a shocking sort of smoke alarm designed to wake a wayward nation up and help them see how dangerous was their arrogant defiance of the living God, their radical dispensing with their biblical roots.

It was graphic stuff. For them: and for us. For the Bethel bears are maybe not all that different from the Belfast beasts – we’re back to the chimp and the red panda cub breaking free from their wooded confinement in Belfast zoo and running amok on the road.

A ‘sign’, a dramatic and graphic visual aid. If you won’t have Jesus’ law, then it’s the law and the life of the jungle you’ve chosen to have. That’s always the bottom-line choice. It’s Jesus’ law, or jungle law.

And to that people back then in the northern kingdom of Israel who’d so disdainfully torn up His script, dispensed with His Word, and removed those solid foundations He had graciously given – well, it’s like the Lord was politely saying to that people – ‘Have a taste then, now, of the life of the jungle, and see what the law of the jungle is like: you really want that?’

Because that’s what always happens. Remove those biblical roots which tie a people’s living to the safety of the Word of God, and you remove as well the restraints which keep the ‘beasts of the jungle’ at bay: there’s a frightening sort of ‘gravitational pull’ in the spiritual realm, which rapidly sees us spiraling back to the darkness, void and chaos which God’s great creative genius first addressed.

There’s the bizarre and bewildering chaos of the increasingly a-moral quagmire which our restless, rootless culture has created as the playground for its self-indulgent life.

There’s the ‘emptiness’ which so many experience today in lives devoid of meaning, purpose and point – an emptiness which they try to fill with any number of things which invariably all evaporate and leave them feeling emptier now than ever.

There’s the darkness, too, which has come upon our land: the dark and suffocating smoke from the braziers into which, with contemptuous defiance, the truths of God’s Word have been thrown: the dark, depressing clouds of fear and of foreboding, spewing out from the chimneys of the factories of secular thought, as the social, political, and even the environmental, fabric of society seems to be now falling apart at the seams.

Remove the biblical roots on which our society’s long since been built … and (perhaps unwittingly) we remove the restraints as well. A society gets sucked back very quickly to the Genesis 1.2 state, where our only hope is found at the end of that verse – “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

This land in which we live has been singularly blessed by God in His grace over countless generations. Perhaps few if any countries in the world have known such grace, so often, over such a long period of time.

Think back to those days, far back across the centuries, when first Ninian, then more remarkably still Columba, brought the message of the gospel to our land, and you’ll get some sense of just how extensive, in a temporal sense, has been God’s gracious dealings with our land.

Consider the spiritual ‘giants’ whom again and again the Lord has  been pleased in His mercy to raise up – men and women whose love for the Lord, focused as it always was emphatically on God’s Son and rooted as it ever was so confidently in God’s Word – consider the lengthy catalogue of spiritual giants who bestrode this land across the passing generations and see the lasting impact of their Spirit-powered zeal for Jesus Christ, as every single facet of our nation’s life was forged and shaped in the truths of holy Scripture: law and education; family life and politics – all the major institutions of our national life were deliberately and thoroughly rooted in the Word of God.

Little wonder that, across so many centuries (really from the time of Columba and his missionaries onwards), the influence for good upon the nations of the world in virtually every sphere of life – the influence of this small and sparsely populated nation at the far-out western fringes of the continent has been entirely out of all proportion to its size.

Our roots went deep, far down in the rich, nutritious soil of Scriptural truth.

Our history has been checkered, that’s for sure: and there are, without a doubt, all sorts of flaws in the psyche of our nation’s life. But notwithstanding that, those roots always served as a gracious restraint, preventing the erosion which would leave our land a barren, desert wasteland in the purposes of God.

The architects of Babel, though, have marched into our nation’s life: avant-garde and arrogant, with axes in their hands, they’ve stormed the country’s citadels of power and brought their diggers in to hack away, and do away with, all those ancient roots, and build instead across our land a replica of Babel once again.

Jesus’ law is ousted. The jungle law of Judges takes its place. “Everyone did as they saw fit.”

And the bears of Bethel come out of the wood. The chimps and the pandas start roaming the street. And the Lord starts asking the question thereby – ’Here’s a little taster for you all: is it really the jungle you want?’

Welcome to Scotland 2019! Dark, chaotic and empty.

Is it too much to hope, is it too late to hope, that, in the riches of His mercy, the Spirit of God may still be thus ‘hovering over the waters’? For if He is, then surely what crying need there is in these days for the people of God, above all else, to be urgent and earnest in prayer – and yes, a crying need, crying out for the mercy of God to be shown once again in a fresh and mighty moving of His Spirit, and for the gracious, saving power of His Word to be released once more in re-creative grace.

Yours in the service of Christ our Lord and Saviour,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – February 2019

Dear Friends

It’s not for nothing that the ‘logo’ for Alpha is simply a question mark.

People have questions: questions which they want to ask and air, even if they are not always quite so keen on the answers. We’re inquisitive creatures by nature – we were made with a hunger for knowledge, made with a drive to explore, discover and expand the horizons of our finite and limited understanding.

So we ask questions, ponder questions, like to hear questions being answered. We enjoy questions. Think of the drawing power of PMQs in Parliament every week: or the lasting appeal of the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ (on the go since 1979, as the TV version of the radio’s longer-running ‘Any Questions’, whose roots go back to 1948).

Questions are a kind of ‘telescope’ of truth, a means by which we seek both to explore and also thereby then the better to get an insight into all the wonders of God’s universe. And as such – not least in the culture of today’s ‘post-modern’ world, where everything and nothing is ‘the truth’ – as such, questions are a fruitful and important means of our engaging for the gospel with the people whom we meet.

Not a ‘Spanish Inquisition’ style of questioning, which only serves to pin the one thus questioned right against the metaphorical wall. That’s interrogation, a style of using questions which involves some verbal force and puts the person questioned into full defensive mode – hackles understandably up; position resolutely entrenched; mind inevitably closed.

That sort of question gets nowhere, in terms of our easing a person away from the view they have previously always adopted.

Gentler, subtler, far more ‘teasing’ questions are the sort I have in mind. Questions which will put the other person at their ease. Questions which convey no sense of arrogance, and carry not a hint of any finger-pointing tone. Questions which will open up discussion and facilitate reflection in an open-minded way.

There’s a short but important book we might all do well to read, which picks up on precisely this: written by Randy Newman, it’s called ‘Questioning Evangelism’.

(Don’t be confused by the title – the writer isn’t calling in question the value or significance of evangelism, so much as highlighting the role which questions can have in sharing the gospel with others!)

There’s a pastoral skill involved in our learning to ask telling questions. And the Lord Himself is the Master – as, of course, we’d expect!

Such questions began in the garden of Eden, in the wake of the truth being exchanged for a lie and the cancer of sin slipping into the world God had made. And it’s here that the first gospel message is clearly proclaimed: here that evangelistic ministry begins. Sin-stained, doomed-to-death humanity in need now of a message of deliverance and grace.

The man and the woman, however, have sneaked off into hiding – a forlorn sort of hope in the face of an all-knowing God, but the fools they’ve become (and the rebels they have shown themselves now both to be) they presume upon their out-manoeuvring God.

Camouflaged and hidden thus the two of them are in what is emphatically defensive mode. When people have adopted such entrenched, defensive postures (which as sinful, senseless rebels we invariably will do), a full-on, all-guns-blazing sort of censure only tends to strengthen such resistance and defiance on their part.

The Lord is a whole load wiser than that! There isn’t from Him a tirade of accusatory words: He doesn’t ‘throw the book’ at them (though He’d have had every good reason to do so); He doesn’t choose to hit them with deserved denunciation – “You’re a pair of good-for-nothing, hell-deserving scoundrels, who have messed up My whole universe and forfeited for ever what you might have both enjoyed.” Though He’d have been quite within His rights forthwith to do so.

Instead, there is a calculated question. “Where are you?”  He says.

He’s teasing them into some talk. ‘You tell me.’ He’s encouraging them to speak: to talk it through, to think it through, to see for themselves what they’ve done, where they’re at. To get back to being on talking terms with the God Who loves to speak. To tell them of the promise He has made: the promise which alone is their salvation.

But they’re not going to hear while hidden away in the bushes, hunkered down in defensive mode, out of earshot of the gracious, promising God. They need to be helped to come out of their enclave, to come down from their perch of pretentious self-justification. They need to be helped to see what a grave situation (in every sense) they are in, and to see what great grace is extended to them by the Lord.

It’s a question which paves the way to that prospect. “Where are you?”

Three short, tantalizing words, addressed to these two hardened hearts with a view to one important ‘gospel conversation’.

The Lord, as I say, is the Master at this art.

And it is art. It’s a part of His great creative genius, His ability to take that which is empty, chaotic and dark, that which is tainted and twisted and torn – to take such unpromising ‘rebel’ material and create out of that something new and ennobled, resplendent and sparkling with life.

It’s an art which you see Him applying Himself to in all sorts of ways in the Scriptures. See how He deals with a stubborn and moody, resentful and petulant prophet – Jonah. It’s questions He’s tossing in Jonah’s direction, again and again. “is it right for you to be angry? … Is it right for you to be angry? … Should I not be concerned..?”

Questions, questions, questions.

See how He speaks with His battered and bruised servant Job, when at last the Lord Himself pitches into the conversation Job’s been having with his so-called friends. It’s questions again. Question after question after question. Read Job 38-41 in a single sitting, and see for yourself what I mean – it’s a barrage of questions, designed as much for the ears of those Pharisaical friends (they’re still sitting in on the whole on-going discussion), who needed to hear the gospel as much as any irreligious rotter of the day.

This is ‘questioning evangelism’ through and through: questions, questions, questions as the swing-doors to a gospel proclamation, and the summons to repentance and what Paul will later call the ‘obedience of faith’. And it worked! These men all then heed that gospel message and the Lord, we’re told, won’t deal with them according to their folly (Job 42.8f). That’s surely gospel grace!

Read the gospel records and you’ll see how very often that it’s questions Jesus addresses to the folk He’s with. Remember the way He tackled the so-called ‘expert in the law’ who hadn’t got the gospel, and who was wondering what he had to do to gain eternal life (Luke 10.25ff).

See how Jesus engages with him. A question. Then a story. Then another telling question. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Teasing out good gospel truth.

Or think of Philip and the way that he engages with a stranger on the desert road: a sort of random conversation it would seem (not that there are ever any random conversations in the providence of God!) at an out-in-the-sticks type of café on a remote stretch of road heading south.

Philip’s a man who loves the Lord Jesus, and his heart is attuned to the promptings the Spirit is giving: he goes up to this total stranger, and triggers a gospel conversation with a simple, one-line question. “Do you understand what you’re reading?” he asks. Boom! All of a sudden this desert road has turned into a ‘highway to Zion’!

Questioning evangelism. An art which we’ll all do well to be learning.

But the ‘art’ (if it’s genuinely that) lies not just in our asking telling questions which then open up these gospel conversations, but also in our living lives so altogether different and attractive that they prompt the people round us to begin themselves to ask some searching questions.

‘What makes you tick?’ ‘How come you’re not losing the rag?’ ‘Why on earth do you choose to do that?’ ‘Where on earth do you get all your strength?’

The way we live, the words we use; the attitudes adopted and the choices made; the warmth in our relationships, the depth of our resilience. They all trigger questions in people whose paths we will cross.

Because we now live in a culture whose roots in the Bible have long since been lost, a manner of living that’s shaped by the gospel of grace always prompts such baffled questions – which become the basic platform for our sharing Jesus Christ.

It’s that we’re now going to be studying here in our Sunday morning worship. Learning to live in the love of the Lord in a way that leaves others intrigued! You can try and shut God’s people up … but you can’t stop people firing out their questions!

Yours very warmly in the service of the Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – January 2019

Dear Friends

“The word Irish is seldom coupled with the word civilization.”

With such a thoroughly politically incorrect statement, thus begins Thomas Cahill in his wonderfully titled book, ‘How the Irish saved Civilisation.’  It’s never going to be a classic, but from that opening sentence it’s a stimulating, engaging and sometimes provocative book, whose thesis may well have pertinent lessons for the Christian church in these present times.

For it’s a troubled world which meets us as we take our first tentative steps into another new year: and although it’s often with a superficial, manufactured hopefulness that we greet the calendar change, there are clouds all along the horizon which suggest there may be serious storms ahead.

The wind has got up and there’s turbulence now all around. No wonder it’s with real foreboding that many are viewing the future here in this land on the fringes of the continent. The world as we’ve known it for centuries is falling apart at the seams.

Politically there’s certainly a mess. Brexit has seen to that. It’s created, indeed, the potential not simply for growing confusion but for increasingly widespread chaos.

Morally, too, there’s a similar mess. The ‘trans’ debate and the street-wise advocates of ‘Queer Theory’ thinking have seen to that. It’s created not freedom so much as anarchy, and has birthed now a culture as mixed up, confused and self-contradicting as any our history has known.

And socially, too, there are rumblings we’re starting to register, ‘tremors’ in the fabric of our western world which are suggestive of the turmoil and trouble to come, harbingers of chaos and confusion.

There are today great ‘people movements’, not seen or known on such a scale for (quite literally) simply ages. Some of these ‘people movements’ are physical and geographical; huge waves of people surging powerfully westwards and northwards, like some great human tsunami, persuaded that there must be something better than the life they’re presently living.

War and conflict, oppression and corruption, poverty and disease, famine and hunger: rising water, lack of water … all these things and more have triggered these great waves of human movement whose impact may well prove to be as hugely devastating in effect as those terrifying tsunamis which an unseen, underwater earthquake sets in train.

But there are other ‘people movements’, too, today: movements more of ideology and thought, movements spawned in cyberspace, and growing with what sometimes seems a monster-like rapidity in the modern-day ‘laboratories’ of so-called ‘social media’ accessible to all. These movements, too, form weighty and subversive waves of thought, which sweep, tsunami-like, across the landscape of society, with little thought or care (or so it seems) for what the reconfigured landscape will be like.

Tsunamis occasion great mess. Always.

They’re not a sort of large-scale ‘irrigation project’, well-planned, controlled and monitored, resulting in improvement, growth and genuine prosperity. They have the opposite effect: the great rolling waves may look both impressive and ordered – but when they make landfall it’s chaos they always create.

There was just such a surging tsunami of people at the time of, and maybe, indeed, you might argue, as the cause of, the end of the great Roman Empire. The Huns and the Goths and the Visigoths and .. well, you’ll remember it well from your schooldays perhaps. Wave after great wave of people movements surging across the contours of this continent and sweeping aside the cultured institutions of a one-time mighty empire.

Result – chaos. What history labels the ‘dark ages’.

Which is where the Irish come in. Thomas Cahill put it like this – “.. as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labour of copying all of western literature – everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had over-whelmed. ..”

Some fifteen hundred years and more far down the line from then, we too now live at the end of a different empire; and we, too, are faced by the same sort of challenge today. It’s ‘rubble’ and chaos, confusion and mess, which increasingly now we, too, may be starting to see.

And if that is the case, then it’s Babel we’re seeing again (Gen.11.1-9).

Confusion is the consequence of sinful pride, that spirit of self-confidence intent upon creating a society in which the Lord will have no place at all, nor any part to play.

A new, much more sophisticated breed of ‘matted, unwashed barbarians’ have descended on the cities and the citadels of this, our much-loved land, overturning and uprooting in a calculated, and yet wholly indiscriminate way the Bible-based foundations of our life.

So here is the challenge with which we now find ourselves faced – “’When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?’” [Psalm 11.3].

The whole of the psalm addresses this one vital theme. What do we do when tsunamis bear down on our land and their waves wreak their havoc across all of our cultural contours and all our societal landscape?

Do we simply give up, and resort to a ‘ghetto’ existence? Do we do as the psalmist had heard some suggest, and ‘flee like a bird to our mountain’? That’s to say, do we just retreat to our bunker, keep our heads right down and wait ‘til the whole thing’s blown over?

Anything but, declared David. His opening gambit is simple and short – “In the LORD I take refuge.” And how you respond when the faith-fuelled foundations are being deliberately, systematically and comprehensively destroyed is determined by that stated bedrock of faith.

We trust the LORD. Period. No matter what may be happening around us. No matter how great the turmoil.

We don’t need to hide – because He is our refuge and we hide ourselves in Him. And we refuse to lose hope – because He, the LORD, is still in charge, He sees all that’s going on, and He will sort it out.

The ‘retreat-to-your-bunker’ perspective is often the default approach which Christians are tempted to take: that ‘shrug-of-the-shoulders’, ‘some-you-win-some-you-lose’ attitude is an easier, more comfortable option, for sure.

Such was certainly the easy, ‘laissez-faire’ attitude and stance adopted by many back at the end of the 5th century, when the foundations of that ancient world were so suddenly and emphatically being destroyed: it seemed to many, as Cahill puts it, that “.. the end was no longer in doubt: their world was finished. One could do nothing but, like Ausonius, retire to one’s villa [the Roman equivalent of ‘fleeing like a bird to your mountain’], write poetry, and await the inevitable.”

And then there is this wonderful sentence from Cahill. “It never occurred to them that the building blocks of their world would be saved by outlandish oddities from a land so marginal that the Romans had not bothered to conquer it, by men so strange they lived in huts on rocky outcrops and shaved half their heads and tortured themselves with fasts and chills and nettle baths.”

He goes on to quote the respected historian Kenneth Clark – “for quite a long time .. western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles [I think it’s actually less than that] from the Irish coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea.”

Perhaps it’s our calling today in Christ to be such ‘outlandish oddities’ ourselves: men and women seeming strange and weird to the world around, who dare to buck the trend, who choose to stand on that great pinnacle of Rock we know the Lord Jesus Christ to be, risen and rising high above all seas of change, and who thereby save, for future generations, ‘til He comes again, those ‘building blocks’ of the city of God wherein that life in all its fullness is aye known.

Are you up for the adventure?

Yours very warmly in the service of the King,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – December 2018

Dear Friends

So far as Brexit’s concerned, we’ve been there, done that and got the metaphorical T-shirt.

At least an ecclesiastical version of the thing, as, some five and more years ago now, we toiled long and hard to extricate ourselves from what was I suppose our denominational equivalent of the European Union.

(Breathe easy, this letter is not about Brexit at all!)

Negotiating any ‘exit’ deal is a hugely difficult task involving much hard work and painstaking care over long, demanding months: we know that as well as any. But that step of negotiating the exit is only a first step: and challenging as it undoubtedly was, in some ways it’s a whole load easier than the next important step we’ve been having to take – that of hammering out the call we have under God as a local, and now essentially an independent, church, and discerning how what we’re about and how we engage in our ministry here will tie in with the wider work of gospel churches here in Aberdeen.

We’re no longer a parish church, with a part to play and a patch to work (notionally anyway) within the framework of the ‘national’ church: it may well, as I say, have been not much more than a notional thing, but it was nonetheless the context of our ministry, that which ensured a distinctive definition to our life.

That ‘framework’, of course, is no more. We’re a stand-alone and independent congregation now; and as such we’re obliged under God to re-think from the start the calling we have in His work, and (by the help of the Spirit of God) to figure out the present-day parameters which serve to shape the pattern of our future life and ministry.

These are days of considerable and major upheaval – spiritually not least, but also constitutionally, politically and culturally as well: the contours of the landscape of our national life are changing with unprecedented speed. And while that should neither surprise us nor alarm us, it should make us alive to the need in these days for continual, prayerful re-assessment of our life as a local church.

In many ways this season of the Christian year, when once again the narrative of the birth of God’s own Son is rehearsed before us all – in many ways this season is itself so helpfully instructive as we think these matters through. For the birth of Jesus was highly disruptive: it occasioned a widespread upheaval, and prompted significant ‘movement’ on the part of one and all.

Joseph and Mary have their lives turned upside down, and their plans for a low-key and comfortable life as a non-descript couple up north on the quiet outer fringes of their nation’s life – well those plans are blown out of the window! They’re on the move, no matter that such movement is the height of inconvenience for a hugely pregnant, teenage Mum-to-be.

And although this couple are centre-stage in the drama of that narrative, they’re far from being the only ones whose lives are being disrupted and who find themselves obliged to change their slippers for a pair of walking boots and move outside their comfort zones.

The shepherds out there, in the fields surrounding Bethlehem, have the quietness of their night shift rudely interrupted and .. well, this one particular night shift sees them shifted down or up the hills and into town.

The well-to-do, Patrick-Moore-esque wise men of the east, gazing on the night-time sky and poring over text books through each day – they’re on the move as well. Hundreds of miles they’re constrained to be travelling together. A far-sighted, daring resolve: a lengthy and dangerous journey: and they don’t even know just exactly where their final destination is to be. Their friends must have thought they were crazy! But they’re on the move.

Even the angels of heaven get in on the action, and there they are too on the move!

When God comes into history, the whole earth shakes. Everyone feels the tremors. It’s a time of great upheaval. Scary, but significant. It’s a moving experience for all. For all who are believers, anyway. Their future (or at least the future as they previously had figured it would be) – their future is now, overnight, being overhauled and rightly redefined.

Little wonder, then, that in these days of challenging upheaval for us all, we too are re-assessing what God’s future for this fellowship entails, and how that will tie in with what He’s doing in this city and our land.

So here, as a starter for prayerful discussion and thought – here are a few first broad brush strokes to paint in the picture a bit, each of them drawn from the palette which the birth-of-Jesus narrative provides.

The message isn’t compromised at all. That’s the first thing. The upheaval which came with the birth of His Son was not on account of some panicky change of direction in the corridors of heaven: there was never a hint of the Lord somehow ditching Plan A and switching instead to a hastily drafted Plan B. What’s been promised all along by God is now being delivered at last.

It’s no different for ourselves. Our starting point in fashioning out God’s future for us here remains the same. Reliant in prayer on the gracious enabling of God, the four great core components of our calling stay the same.

ACTS. Attracting people to Jesus. Consolidating the faith of believers through clear Bible teaching. Training our members for fruitful lives of ministry. Sending out our people in the cause of gospel growth.

What happened that first Christmas, though, throws a tantalizing spotlight onto something which I think may be important in our grasping what the Lord Himself is up to in these days among us here. For there was first a significant centripetal factor in all that was then taking place. A convergence of people. A coming together. A moving towards the centre.

It’s strange how that land of God’s promise is, as a matter of geographical fact, so very much the centre of the world: a bridge between the east and west, a cross-over point between north and south. And within that land, itself so central, there’s a place which had become in time the centre-piece of so much Bible prophecy – the town in which the greatest king of Israel had his roots, and the town from which great David’s greater Son was prophesied to come. Bethlehem.

And it is to this central, significant point, in the land that is in some ways both the centre of the cartographical world and the central land of history – it’s to this central point that the movement of people is drawing them all.  Joseph and Mary coming down from the north, along with thousands and thousands of others from all the four corners of Israel: shepherds coming down off the hills: star-gazing scholars coming hundreds and hundreds of miles from the far away climes of the east: angels coming down from the heights of God’s heaven itself.

All of them strangely converging on this one central point. Bethlehem’s not just a notable town whose credentials are all from the past: the future is being fashioned now by God within her streets. Believers of all sizes, shapes and backgrounds are converging on the place. It’s significantly central.

Ponder that phenomenon. For I’m standing back and noticing something strikingly similar here!

I’m noticing first that the Lord, in His very sovereignly (very sovereignly!) giving us this building, has located us here in the centre of town, the last church standing whose doors still front on to the main street of our city. He’s always wholly intentional in all that he does: and He’s placed us here, in His wise and sovereign providence, in a strategically central location.

I’m noticing, too, that over these past many months, without our lifting a finger to bring it about, we’ve found this building being used, month on month, as a venue, right in the heart of the town, for a range of gospel events: always because we’re so central.

Powerpoint, the vibrant, SU-sponsored youth event, happening here at Gilcomston a few months back in September, and at other times on through the year: Tearfund, with their ‘Cakes, Bakes & Faith’ event hosted here in October, a pack-out occasion with crowds from all over the city, and far beyond, converging on our building for a Jesus-centred evening of worship-laden fun: the Stuart Townend concert on his ‘Courage Tour’, held here just a week or two ago, again a sell-out event drawing into our building believers and friends from the city and shire and beyond, to celebrate Jesus in testimony, music and song: the Christian Unions’ Carol service the following week, with hundreds of students packed into the building again to sound out the praises of Jesus: and then there’s the African Children’s Choir coming up in a few days’ time, whose simple and worshipful singing brings together a whole crowd of people from far and wide for a feast of warm festive praise.

All of them choosing to hold their event here at Gilc, because … well, because it’s so very central. Great crowds of people converging on us here, just as they did at Bethlehem so very long ago. Young and old. Rich and poor. Scholars, saints and sinners.

Then as well we’ve the CU group from RGU now holding their meetings each week in our halls: their request for the use of our halls coming in just because we’re so perfectly central. And now (this is hot off the press!) the monthly meeting of evangelical leaders from the city and the shire – from the start of the year that meeting will be hosted here as well: precisely because we are central. And those who’ve been the drivers of this monthly get-together mean not only that we’re central in a geographical sense, but ‘central’ too on the spectrum of evangelical churches – a safely central meeting place where those from all the compass points of evangelical life can eagerly and easily converge.

Like Mary that first Christmas, we, too, perhaps do well to be now treasuring up these things and pondering them in our hearts. In these days of considerable upheaval, there’s something of real significance taking place: the Lord is shaping the future! It’s for us to discern step by step just how we ourselves now fit in to that ongoing purpose of God in these days.

It’s not without good reason that He’s set us here in the centre!  And a part of that is undoubtedly tied to our being as a church a point of important ‘convergence’, a gathering point, perhaps it may be in some sort of sense a rallying point for the progress of the gospel in these days.

Not that the Christmas story ever ended there! The crowds who converged on that ‘little town of Bethlehem’ all went back and went out – and we must too: but that must be the story for another day!

It remains a great pleasure, a joy beyond words, to be sharing this life and adventure in Christ together with all of you here in these days. May you each and every one know the grace and the comfort of Christ Himself in the midst of all the season’s celebrations.

Yours very warmly in the service of the King,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – November 2018

Dear Friends

I want to think with you about boldness this month.

Indeed, I’m guessing the Lord Himself means us to be addressing this theme and learning somehow to cultivate this boldness in our hearts.

We have Stuart Townend in concert here this coming month (Friday November 23rd): and the series of concerts he’s holding around the country from 20th November to 3rd December (inclusive) is entitled simply his ‘Courage Tour’. It’s a repeat tour, coming fast on the back of a similar series of concerts he held, up and down the country, a month or two back: the concerts themselves seemed to strike such a chord with so many that these additional dates in November were soon being fixed.

Courage. Another word for boldness.

I was struck by the fact that this was a word picked up as well in the Tearfund night we hosted here last month. Both Will Torrent and Martha Collison spoke of the call of God to boldness.

They’re really just two very ordinary individuals (that’s not in any sense a put-down, just the way they chose to describe themselves) – two very ordinary individuals who, through the gifts they’ve been given by God, now happen to be right in the limelight. In the unforgiving world of social media, there isn’t such a thing for them any more as an essentially private life. They’re ‘followed’ by fans (and others as well no doubt!) who watch their every movement and who pick up on their every briefest pronouncement. Their ‘tweets’ and ‘blogs’, for those who prefer the contemporary parlance.

They understand the inescapable need they have for boldness, as they live out their faith under the relentless glare of the social media spotlights. Their own particular situation – stuck out there as they are, in full, very public view – their own particular situation only serves to bring into sharper relief what is true today for all who will follow Jesus. The need to be bold and courageous.

‘Be bold.’ We need to take those two little words and migrate their truth from the song that we sing right out and onto the streets of our daily living.

There’s a boldness required in our choosing to follow the Lord, to give our lives to Jesus and to live for Him, to speak for Him, to serve Him. There always has been. There always is.

But to make that choice and place your trust in Jesus is today an openly counter-cultural step, exposing you to ridicule, rejection, and to scorn.

Society today has reached its ‘teenage’ years; it pushes at the boundaries, asserts its independence and presumes to know it all. It therefore has to treat with real disdain that step of faith whereby we humbly choose to own complete dependence on a God we cannot see, and to bow to an authority beyond ourselves.

The ‘closed shop’ philosophy of contemporary culture prides itself always on human self-sufficiency: it doesn’t want to give the time of day to any sort of deity beyond such ‘gods’ which we ourselves control. To such a perspective your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ feels like a wholesale betrayal. You’ve let the side down: you’re no better than a traitor – and your faith will be an ugly social stigma which exposes you to vitriol, derision and attack. (I don’t want to put you off, any more than Jesus did! But as He Himself insisted, you’re as well to know from the outset what you’re in for).

It takes courage to take such a step. It takes courage to say where you stand. It takes courage to speak about Jesus. Every such step of that faith, every such stance for the truth of God’s Word, every such word which you speak in the cause of the gospel – they all alike expose you to the likelihood of scorn and only serve to stir the glowing embers of hostility to God into base and sometimes bitter opposition to yourself.

Society’s ceased to be ‘neutral’ in the way it maybe used to be a few decades ago. The gloves are off. ‘Tolerance’ only goes so far today: refuse to toe the line our culture has decided to adopt, that line of secular correctness – and ‘tolerance’ no longer applies.

Jesus is off script. The carnival of Christian faith is over, so far as our society’s concerned. Jesus isn’t welcome at the party.

Not, at least, the Jesus of the Bible.

A ‘chameleon’ Christ, who conforms to the moods and the morals our culture dictates – well perhaps there is room for that sort of Christ … but, please, no, not the Jesus of Scripture.

A puppet Prince perhaps, who’ll dance to the tunes which the pimps of post-modern philosophy play all the time: but, please, not the King whom the Bible declares with the claims that He makes to be Lord over all of our lives.

Jesus may well be your Rock, our society says. But He rocks the boat way too much with His radical claims, and He isn’t now welcome on board. And (increasingly) neither are you, if you choose to sail with Him. So it takes a fair boldness to rise to His summons to follow – to learn from Him, to live for Him, to love like Him.

There’s boldness required of us, too, though, in a different but related way: the courage to own and acknowledge our weaknesses, struggles and failures.

The gospel insists that “it’s OK not to be OK”. We are saved by grace: which means that God does for us what He does in Jesus when we’re anything but OK. Relationally we were enemies of God when Christ died for us – hardly OK. Morally we were simply a mess (‘sinners’ is how the apostle Paul puts it) when Christ died for us – nothing like OK. Spiritually we were dead as dodos (‘powerless’ is the term Paul used) when Christ died for us – as OK as the final, fatal KO we’ll experience when we end up as a corpse.

Grace means our welfare and security in Christ is not at all dependent on our being OK. It’s OK not to be OK. But it’s one thing to embrace that as a doctrine: an altogether different thing to live that out in practice, exposed to expectations all around us which may well be way off beam.

Pride kicks in, because we want to be OK – or at least we would like it to seem that we’re really OK: relationally, morally, spiritually: physically, mentally, emotionally. OK every way. So that simple, little, easy-to-say and quick reply, “I’m fine”, becomes our stock-in-trade, the verbal wall we subtly build around our lives to keep an often rather voyeuristic public out; and to keep up an appearance that we’re actually doing better than we are. That’s pride. And it takes courage to bury our pride.

Fear, too, is involved. Our grip on the gospel of grace proves often to be weaker than we think: our ‘hands on’ involvement in modern day life leaves our palms smeared with the grease of a world which knows little of grace and whose pundits preach only performance. We fear that acknowledging weakness may leave us stuck out on the margins, consigned to a social oblivion reserved for the countless, nameless ‘also-rans’ who just don’t make the grade.

We forget that it’s grace, not grades, which is the coinage of the kingdom of our God. And even if we haven’t forgotten ourselves, we’re afraid that those around us as the followers of Christ – we’re afraid that maybe they’ve long since forgotten and may silently be grading us according to the measures of this world, and viewing us with a sniffy, stand-offish disdain.

It takes courage to take down the shutters and confess that you’re struggling, and light years from being OK. It takes the courage that’s born of clear gospel convictions to let others know that you’ve not got it all held together, that you’re not coping well with the sorrows, diseases or dramas you’ve had thrown in your path, that you’re not in the best of conditions – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or whatever.

It’s that sort of courage (just as much a genuine gospel courage as the boldness involved in our choosing to trust in, and live for, and speak of the Lord Jesus Christ) – it’s that sort of courage, as much as any other I think, which undergirds the Stuart Townend tour.

He’s a man acknowledging struggles. The struggles which he and his family have had in the wake of his own brother’s death: the struggles which he and his family have known in the face of mental illness. The courage, as his daughter, Emma, poignantly says in the moving introduction to a song she sings with her Dad – the courage to accept “that I am broken; that I am not ‘fixed’; but that I am still ‘enough’ to stand here..”: the courage “to face my past .. to look at my future .. sometimes just to wake up; get up .. to live each day .. to say that I am Emma with mental health problems, not mental health problems called Emma ..”: the courage it takes to listen “to the quiet voice in the mayhem that says, ‘I am here for you.’”

Illness, weakness, sorrow, failure, pain. None of them are easy. Life will often be a struggle. And while in theory we know that it’s OK not to be OK, in practice it’s tough to admit it. Which is where such courage comes in.

Courage: boldness. Call it what you will, we need it. All of us!

And the title of the song which Emma and her father, Stuart Townend, wrote together gives a pointer to the source of all such courage in our lives. “I am here for you” is the theme as well as the title of the song: and while it picks up on the part which both the friendship and companionship of others always plays in all such times of struggle and of trial, it also points beyond mere human friendship to the loving care and presence of our risen Lord.

“There’s a greater Love than mine, that is closer than a brother .. He has walked this desperate road before and He’s walking here beside you .. He is here for you.”

He is here for you.

The call from the Lord to be bold and courageous (as often as not stated, too, in its negative form, ‘Do not be afraid’) is invariably set alongside the promise that He will be with us.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Josh.1.9). And the 23rd psalm sees a man putting that into practice. Boldness in the dark and bruising battles of this life – “… for You are with me.”

Courage is born from conviction: and conviction is formed from the truth of God’s word, and the covenant love He declares. May we so learn to rest in that covenant love and in all of the promise it brings, that our living’s abounding in boldness.

Yours in Christ’s glad service,

Jeremy Middleton