Monthly Letter – January 2018

Dear Friends

The coming of Jesus changed everything. It always does.

The fact that in God’s providence our celebration of Jesus’ birth is followed so immediately by the start of a new year is a gentle reminder that He came as the One who will ‘make all things new’. He changes everything.

The Bible is full of this theme, from beginning to end. There may be chaos, void and darkness as the Bible starts, but that unholy trinity is not allowed to rule the roost. Change is in the air from the get-go. God is around.

So when Jesus is born and the name tag round His wrist reads ‘Immanuel’, notice is being given that history is turning a corner and that life is not going to be the same again. Everyone in the Christmas narratives discovers that. Immediately. No one’s life is the same.

The retirement anticipated by Zechariah and Elizabeth gets turned on its head: the nuptial plans of Joseph and Mary are torn up. Scholarly men out east put down their books and get on their bikes.

When God pitches up a page gets turned. A new year. A new start. A new life. A new chapter gets written. The Bible is full of it.

I got that much from the very first Bible I had. I don’t recall much from my youth of who gave me what at Christmas, and in which year: but I do recall that Christmas 1963 was the year when I was given my first Bible. It was a small, thick, black leather-bound Authorised Version of the Bible, and it certainly felt to a 10-year old boy that it was what it said on the cover – the Holy Bible.

It was a gift from my parents, and I guess they figured that I was old enough then to know how to look after a good quality Bible: and to know what to do with it. My Dad wrote the briefest of greetings in the front, and then added two Scripture references – Joshua 1.9 and John 3.16.

In that simple way he made sure that I would understand, first of all, that the Bible is all about Jesus. And from the moment I looked up that Old Testament text as a 10 year old boy, I got a first real sense that the business of following Jesus was more than just believing certain doctrines: a life involving adventure (and sometimes some scary adventures at that) was part, it seemed, of the deal.

In time I would get the connection between the two great texts my Dad wrote into my Bible: but long before I’d started to see that Joshua was Jesus’ namesake (and as such let me see what Jesus being my leader and my Lord entailed), this Joshua held a certain fascination for my not yet teenage mind.

“Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Here was a man of action, a man who was clearly going places. And a man who did indeed have, I soon discovered, any amount of good reasons for being afraid.

How do you follow an act like the mighty Moses?

How do you provide a lead for people who have dragged their feet consistently and shown themselves to be so constantly perverse?

How do you lead all this people right into the land that the Lord has promised to give them when there’s a massive big river in spate which has got to be crossed?

And how, even if you conjure up some clever scheme which will somehow get them all across that raging river Jordan – how on earth are you going to settle them there in the land, when the land is already chock-full of battle-hardened nations who’ll be ancient-times-equivalents of noisy, nasty neighbours from hell?

The man would have needed a barrow-load of straight-from-the-Lord re-assurance! Even way back then I got at least that much.

I guess my Dad in writing in that well-known Scripture reference was keen that I would have that same intrepid confidence in facing all the challenges which life might later bring – a confidence which stemmed from the conviction that in Jesus it is God Himself who comes to dwell among us and to be there at our side.

Do not be afraid, therefore! That ringing exhortation (which I later found runs right the way through Scripture) was set from the start in the context of a whole great smorgasbord of challenges which Joshua faced.

God was moving His people forward and onward. They weren’t allowed to make the desert home – which it was clearly tempting to do. The desert had quickly become a bit like a spiritual ‘ghetto’ for these folk.

I mean, OK, it’s the desert, but after a while you get used to that; and it’s not that bad when you get your food provided for you day by day with no real effort needed on your part; and there aren’t a lot of enemies to face or battles to be fought; and you’re having practical gospel truths expounded to you week by week from as fine a Bible teacher as the whole Old Testament affords – think of men like John Piper, Tim Keller, and Don Carson, roll the three of them into one, and you’re maybe near to getting a sense of the sort of Bible teacher Moses was. And you get that every week!

The desert had quickly become their comfort zone. And now the Lord was moving them on to a war zone. Conflict, not comfort. The desert was only ever meant to be a training ground, not some sort of never-ending, lower-budget holiday camp.

It’s a river of life into which we are swept by the Lord, not a stagnant pond. We’re rarely allowed to settle for long, for the Lord is the mighty Creator and He delights to be doing a new thing: moving forward His purpose and building on all that is past, and calling us, therefore, to rise to the challenge of change.

Not ever change for change’s sake. But change for the sake of the kingdom, change in the interests of moving God’s purposes on. Change with a view to the glory of God being made known.

Deliverance doesn’t end in desert living – even if the miracles of manna day by day, and a Bible teaching ministry to match the best, make such a life the sort of thing you’d settle for. The ghetto is not where the gospel of Jesus will take you.

There was work to be done for the people back then. The desert was only the training ground, equipping and slowly preparing God’s people for what they were called now to do.

In the face of, and surrounded by, a host of hostile, godless nations, they were to live out their communal life as God’s “church” in that tiny patch of middle-eastern land and show the watching world what life with the Lord at the centre is actually like. What life is meant to be like. How life is meant to be lived. Why fullness of life has its source in our friendship with God.

So cross the river, the Lord now said – because He was opening a door for them now in a truly remarkable way so they’d be able to do just that: head right into the land and start spreading that life, that fullness of life, that life as it’s meant to be lived, that life of the Lord being now lived out among and in His people – start spreading that life throughout the length and the breadth of the land.

For ‘the land of Canaan’ you might read ‘the garden of Eden’: for there’s a sense in which this was Eden all over again: the Lord boldly taking His people and placing them there in that latter-day ‘garden of Eden’ and telling them then “to work it and take care of it” [Gen.2.15].

And haven’t the bounds of that ‘garden of Eden’ been now stretched and expanded to take in the whole of the earth? Isn’t that the little patch of land we’ve been called to “work” and to “care for”? Isn’t that what Jesus commissions His people to do? To go out in the power of the Spirit and to ‘work’ the nations and make disciples of them all.

“And surely I am with you always,” says Jesus. Immanuel. Just in case we forgot.

That’s the business before us as we step out now into all that 2018 will hold: there’s a river to cross and land to claimed. The Lord has opened a door for us here through the course of the year that is past: and far from it being just a door through which folk can come in, it’s a door through which He now forcibly pushes us out.

Spring-time was the entry date the people of God were given back then in Joshua’s day for crossing the flooded river Jordan and stepping at last right into God’s destiny for them. And perhaps for ourselves as well there’s some sort of spring-time now coming. Time for us, too, it may be, to be stepping right out and into ‘the garden’ of God, to ‘work’ the land He’s given us with all we’ve got, confident that the Spirit of almighty God will do amazing things.

Immanuel.

As the wheel window always reminds us – God with us. Anything is possible! Anything can happen!

May you enter this year with the prayer in your heart that there’ll be big rivers crossed, and giant steps forward being taken through the course of these coming months – in your own life, and in our life as His people here.

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – December 2017

Dear Friends

I’d never have made it as a doctor myself (for a whole load of reasons): but I think I’d have liked Doctor Luke.

I like his style; I’m a fan of his careful approach; I like his holy boldness; and I like his wholesome balance too.

I like how the man has a sense of the sacred, and yet has a great sense of fun.

I can almost hear him chuckle as this thoroughly Gentile gentleman discovers in hindsight he’s almost the writer-in-chief of an essentially Jewish production (Paul might argue the toss, I suppose, as to which of the two in fact wrote more of the New Testament, but ‘the Doc’ has a pretty strong claim).

He understands the humour in the heart of God, I think: he can see how the whole great enterprise of God is no laughing matter at all – and yet is so ridiculously bold! He can see that that the good news of God in Jesus Christ is serious stuff, of course it is – but it’s meant to be enjoyed.

Faith was never meant to be a tick-the-boxes, regimented exercise: it’s meant to be a ‘get-on-your-bike’ and ‘streamers-from-the-windows’ sort of outing of a lifetime. It may involve a clear and costly parting of the ways – of course it does, he doesn’t downplay that at all: but it’s meant to be something of a party too.

I love how ‘the Doc’ just seems to get it! How order (and you can see in so many ways how strong the guy is on order: you’d expect no less from a man with his medical bent) – how order is matched by real freedom. As much as anyone else, this man whose attention to detail means that everything’s just where it should be, he’s a man who delights in the Spirit, and refuses point blank to be tying the hand of God down and insisting God works in predictable, traditional ways.

So I love his take on Christmas! He gives it the full treatment: he starts early and revels in the season at some length. Not like Mark who skips the whole thing, or John with his potent portrayal of the coming of our Lord, which scores high marks for sheer artistic impression, or Matthew with his Christmas-for-the-serious-Bible-scholar type of line.

I love the way Luke’s not ashamed to show himself a child at heart; for he starts his story of Jesus with … well, with all the excitement a young child has at Christmas, as he helps tear off the wrapping (you can almost hear the noise of the paper being ripped away!) from a pile of different presents from the Lord. It’s one big surprise after another.

Christmas for him is party time, with the folk involved erupting in an unrehearsed, infectious sort of singing which spontaneously combusts. Everyone’s suddenly at it! Staid old pious people who you’d think were long since past such outbursts of enthusiastic song. A teenage girl, too shy (we’d have guessed) to ever have auditioned for an ‘Israel has got Talent’ sort of show. Even the angels are at it, with an impromptu choir disturbing the nocturnal peace of the Bethlehem hills with their song of the peace we’re all seeking.

The Doc doesn’t skimp on his Christmas celebrations! It’s party time, he insists from the start: and he’s keen that all his readers share his own great childlike pleasure in the wonder of it all.

As a doctor he’s always adept, of course, at observing the people involved. He’s trained to look for symptoms: he’s quick to spot the cryptic clues which tell you what is really going on, beyond what meets the eye.

For there’s lots going on! And he doesn’t want his readers to miss out on anything.

So it’s striking to find that the story begins (in the Doc’s perceptive account) with the central Person, Jesus, surrounded by three very different couples. And, yes, I mean surrounded, flanked as it were, in a balanced, symmetrical way by these three significant couples.

Luke’s strong on order, remember, and he wants us to see how careful God is in sending His Son to ensure that He’s well ‘wrapped up’ as an infant, held and protected by the loving care of those God can trust to look after His Son.

There’s young Joseph and Mary to start with, the two of them there either side of their Boy in the real-life nativity scene – two still-teenage believers, thrust in the most unexpected and awkward of ways into the demands and dilemmas of parenthood. And then surrounding them, like a wider extended family, two other, older couples; like solid, stable bookends which will keep all your books from collapsing, these two older couples are there in what we can see is very much a ‘supporting’ role for this Child who is the Word, the One who Himself fills all of the books of the Bible.

It’s all so very well ordered: or, better still, so marvelously orchestrated well, by God, because the whole great surging story, as ‘the Doc’ is careful to note – the whole thing is very much a ‘musical’ with all the different ‘instruments’ being carefully positioned by the Lord.

God’s anything but foolhardy in this daring intervention of the Trinity. He has people in place to look after His Son from the start. It’s God who’s come as Saviour – but it’s ordinary folk like you and me who are called to play our ‘bit-parts’ in the story.

For they are very ordinary folk. All of them. Joseph and Mary are up-country youngsters, almost certainly viewed by their peers in the south as good-for-nothing, hill-billy types – pleasant peasant people who are never going to hit the front-page headlines. Which, of course, is just fine by the Lord: He doesn’t need publicity, He’s never ostentatious, and He’s happy with this ‘hiddenness’, with His Son tucked away in the arms of two careful young parents, and the two of them in turn enveloped in the faltering faith of a couple of elderly couples.

The Doc is maybe not a midwife, but he clearly is familiar with, not just the natural biology whereby a growing baby is first shielded in the mother’s womb and then is well protected by the sheltering shawl of the parents’ care – he’s clearly, too, familiar with the gospel’s own ‘biology’, whereby the ‘Seed’ (that’s how we’re meant to think of Jesus, is it not? For here at last is the ‘Seed’ of the woman whom Adam was given, the ‘Seed’ about whom the first promise was long ago made) … whereby the Son who’s the ‘Seed’, like a seed in the ground, is now hidden and shielded when He’s ‘planted’ incarnate in the earth.

This, I suppose, is the ‘..hid from sight’ of that haunting Christmas carol, ‘Still the Night’. Except it clearly isn’t hid from the Doctor’s sight, even if it’s lost on a world which only scrolls through headlines on sophisticated smart phones. These are the people, Luke sees, who snuggle God’s Son in His infant vulnerability, and who by their very non-entity-ness (I know that’s not a proper word!) smuggle Him into an unsuspecting world.

It’s ordinary folk who get to be part of God’s great and extraordinary adventure!

And it starts with an elderly couple. That knocks on the head straight away the ludicrous line that Christmas is all about the children!

For the story begins with an elderly couple, who have long since accustomed themselves to an old age without any children, and whose thoughts have surely turned towards retirement.

But there’s not going to be any easing off for them: the adventure begins in old age – it’s never too late to begin on this crazy and carnival path which the coming of Jesus lays out. Ask Abram and Sarah! They could tell you a thing or two about any thought of easing into a quiet, relaxing retirement being blown right out of the window: and all on account of a promise God’s made, a promise so rich it’s ridiculous.

“Elizabeth was barren: and they were both well on in years.” Luke, remember, is a doctor: polite and discreet in the way he records his “patients’” condition, but his writing is patently legible, and his meaning is clearly intelligible. The prospect of this elderly couple giving birth to a healthy young child is .. well, medically miraculous: and a promise that this will indeed be the case is for any level-headed person plain ridiculous. Except it’s no laughing matter, as the two of them will soon themselves discover!

The Doc is getting us into the mood from the start. The whole great message of Jesus is a roller-coaster adventure, where no one can lurk on the sidelines and hope they’ll not be noticed.

You can’t hide behind your ‘seniority’, the fact that you’ve now got your bus pass and are drawing your well-earned pension.

You can’t hide behind your ‘obscurity’, the fact that you’re nobody special and live, as Joseph and Mary have done, in a non-descript, outlying place.

You can’t hide behind your ‘piety’, the fact that you’re already very busy with a load of church activities. Because there’s another older couple, too, caught up in this opening birth-of-the-Saviour scene, and (like Zac and Liz at the start) playing a supporting role to the young teenage couple who’ve been left to hold the Baby.

Simeon and Anna are a couple, not in the sense of their being married (dear me, no!) but in the sense that they share a kindred spirit which sees them open to the Spirit of God and living their lives day by day in the hallowed temple precincts.

The whole momentous happening may well be ‘hid from sight’; but ‘the Doc’ would have us see that, nonetheless, there’s no hiding!

Those who’d be written off by the world on account of their age get written in to the story by the Lord. Those whom the world thinks are past it .. well, they’re passed it by the Lord – the ‘it’ in this case being a part in this crazy adventure! Those who are right off the radar are caught in the spotlight of God, and caught up in His whole daring drama.

That drama may well be well hidden, but there isn’t any hiding!

Please God we shall all share that ever-fresh sense of excitement as we too, this month, get into the story again; and may we all thrill once again at just what it is that our great God‘s called us into – a daring, disturbing endeavour; a crazy, confusing but wholly coherent adventure, whose ripples reach out to eternity!

Yours with an eager expectation in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – November 2017

Dear Friends

We hosted a great evening here at the end of September: it was called simply ‘Powerpoint’.

We’re not talking sockets in the skirting boards: nor the presentation programme we’ve been using for our graphics for some 30 years. ‘Powerpoint’ is a significant Christian event (some would say an experience), run under the auspices of Scripture Union, which has been on the go in the central belt for close on two decades.

And it’s moving north! Over the last couple of years the event, which was largely confined to the central belt cities, has expanded north and been planted here in Aberdeen: and because the initial venue had proved too small the ‘Powerpoint’ team had checked us out and asked if we’d be willing to provide for them the venue they required.

It’s an event which draws in literally hundreds of school-age, teenage youngsters. So we had over 300 youngsters – from all across the city and from far outlying districts too – pouring in to our building here on a Saturday night.

And, of course, pouring out of the building, too, at 10 o’clock on a busy Saturday night. An impressive, and slightly disorienting sight for the regular throngs who crowd this major street in Aberdeen each Saturday night – and who, by 10 o’clock on a Saturday night, are already not a little ‘disoriented’ by the quantities of alcohol consumed.

To see such crowds coming out of a church at any time is for many a major surprise: the church, they’ve assumed, is dead, or at least in the throes of dying. So such a tide of people flowing out of the building on any day of the week was itself no small shock to the system.

And young people, too! Goodness! I mean, that’s not how it’s meant to be is it? Aren’t the youth of today supposed to have no interest in the Christian church, no time for such religious stuff? Haven’t we managed (in our thoroughly modern and with-it and secular state) – haven’t we managed to educate all such notions of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ right out of these youths? And here they are coming out of a church on a Saturday night in their droves. Hundreds of them. Like a river in spate. One after another, group after group.

And bouncing! Their eyes bright with eager delight. Chatting and laughing and singing and dancing, as if they were almost on fire on the back of whatever it is they’ve been doing in there.

For the crowds on the street seeing this torrent of teenagers, just so patently full of excitement and joy as they exit this building of worship … well, it must have been somewhat akin to the total disorientation there was on the day that the church was born. Except, unlike the day of Pentecost, the crowds on the street were left asking themselves, not ‘Are these folk drunk?’ but ‘Have I had a couple too many? Am I seeing what I think I am seeing?’

This is ‘next generation’ stuff.

Reaching and teaching the next generation and getting the message across: engaging their minds and their hearts with the grace of the risen Lord Jesus, and seeing these youngsters delighting in Him and eager to offer their praise.

This is an Acts chapter 3 phenomenon. Except this was not just a lame and middle-aged man, but a whole large crowd of adolescent youth, coming into the place of worship and “walking and jumping and praising God.”

The place was heaving. It was standing room only; and that from the outset, because this is not a ‘spectator-sport’ type of thing, but an up-on-your-feet and a hands-in-the-air and an everyone-here-is-involved sort of night, where you don’t get the chance to be sitting it out since there aren’t any seats to be found.

Welcome to the worship of the living God! There’s music simply thumping out, reflecting the pulse of a people encountering God. There’s a message as well (just as there was in the Acts 3 counterpart to this); clear, punchy, and direct, it’s a message which is pointing them all to the Lord Jesus Christ, and stressing both His splendor and His summons.

‘Powerpoint’ is an event. It doesn’t happen every week: it maybe only happens just three times a year. It takes a lot of organizing sweat on the part of those who undertake to put the whole thing on: and when it does take place, it gathers in these crowds, which number hundreds, of the youth of both the city and the shire.

And as such it may well be that the evening here was more than just an event. It’s also perhaps a ‘parable’ as well; an event with a lesson we’re all of us needing to learn.

Because this, as I say, is ‘next generation’ stuff (and the Scriptures are strong on this next generation perspective – read Psalms 71.18 and 78.4-6 to see if it is not so). Our call under God is to pass on the message of grace to succeeding generations in our land (and of course beyond!) and fire the hearts of the youth of our day with the same sort of passion the Spirit of God has long kindled in our own.

For it isn’t just informing folk that Jesus’ ringing mandate is about, it’s enthusing them as well: setting their hearts all on fire for the Lord, and, alongside their knowledge of all that He is and has done, ensuring they’re jumping for joy as they follow our Jesus themselves!

Maybe there’s work to be done in ourselves, first of all, if there isn’t that passion in us! Because unless there is that passion in ourselves, hearts enflamed with delight in the Lord and bursting to share Him with others – unless there is that passion in ourselves there’ll never be the requisite compassion for the lost, the willingness to do just what it takes to fire succeeding generations with that surging faith in Christ.

That ‘Powerpoint’ night is a graphic illustration of that calling which we have. Here were 300 youngsters, hundreds and hundreds of next generation, local high-school pupils, crowding in to meet with the Lord, to hear from the Lord, to bring to the Lord their worship.

Doubtless, if you wanted, you could criticize the thing. But that’s beside the point. What would you give to see hundreds of vibrant young Christians enjoying the presence of God, delighting in Jesus their Lord, and all fired up and eager to serve in the cause of the kingdom? We’d give a lot, would we not? We’d be ready to make all the necessary shifts to be seeing these young people reached and enthused for the Lord.

And, of course, there were some things which required to be shifted to ensure there was this sea of eager, teenage followers of Christ converging on the church and bringing, too, their friends.

We needed to shift almost every bit of furniture downstairs, for one thing. The place required to be cleared. Standing room only, remember. No seats. This is an Acts 3 occasion from the start – young men and women coming in off the street, and they’re walking and jumping and praising God: and they need the space to do so!

And space for all the instruments, too, and the lighting as well, which is part of how the majesty and glory of the living God is honoured and reflected in this ‘Powerpoint’ event.

That’s a lot of chairs to be shifted and stacked and stored away in the hall. And then all shifted back when the evening was over; and set out in their rows once again, so that no one would guess, when we gathered for worship next day, that there’d been this other ‘secret life of Gilc’ the night before.

And we needed to shift the day of our prayer meeting too. When God’s people are gathered together for prayer there’s no doubt that that’s a real power-point too. But you can’t have the two both together: the throbbing teenage ‘Powerpoint’ event both crowded out and would have totally drowned out, too, the powerpoint of corporate prayer. So we shifted the latter, made room for the former, and prayed that the Lord would indeed come in power on the Saturday evening ‘Powerpoint’.

There’s a certain obvious symbolism in what went on: and the challenge is quite clear. How much are we prepared to shift, in order to ensure that our perspective has the whole ‘next generation’ on our hearts?

It’s the issue which the early church soon faced, is it not, when, after the initial gospel preaching in the city of Jerusalem, they then were forced to face the daunting challenge of a largely Gentile mission. What would this ‘next generation’ model of their gospel work entail? Would they be prepared to ‘shift the furniture’? To do things rather differently. To recognize the promptings of the Lord – the Lord who has the nations, and succeeding generations, in His view – and to launch with Him the ‘next generation’ model of His church. To open wide the doors onto their Union Street, and see such heaving crowds of Gentile people coming in, walking and jumping and praising God for all they were worth.

Would they be prepared to ‘shift the furniture’? And how much would they have to shift? That was the challenge they faced. And their answer was succinctly expressed by James – ”We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15.19).

Yes, they ‘shifted the furniture’! Great stacks of it. Which is why we Gentiles here in far-off Aberdeen have come ourselves to know the Lord and revel in the blessings of His saving grace.

And now the same sort of challenge is set before us as well: will we, too, ‘shift the furniture’?

That ‘Powerpoint’ night was a parabolic statement of intent so far as we’re concerned. Yes, we’ll gladly shift the furniture! We aim to be – we have to be – a ‘next generation’ people in the outlook and perspective which we have and in that gospel readiness to shift whatever furniture is needed, so as not to make it difficult for a rising generation as they turn to God.

Exciting days, with all sorts of challenges too!

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

 

Monthly Letter – October 2017

Dear Friends

We’re addicts.

Speed is our drug of choice: and like any addiction, we can’t get enough!

I’m not talking about amphetamines – though the slang which is used to describe that particular drug is itself not a little revealing, indicative of the essence of the problem our society has on a much more expansive scale.

We’re hooked on speed. It’s as simple as that. From high speed trains to high speed broadband connections, the symptoms are consistently there. We want it now – pretty much whatever ‘it’ might be.

News? We like to have it and hear it – and hear all the chat about it as well – almost as soon as it happens. And in this thoroughly electronic age our wish is the media’s command. We get it instantaneously.

Which means, of course, we also get it constantly: which means in turn that we find ourselves bombarded with an endless stream of information in the form of ‘breaking news’: which means that though we may be ‘knowledge-rich’ we’re more and more discovered to be ‘wisdom-poor’. Information needs reflection as its counterpart – and the lack of such ‘digestion’ in our high-speed instant culture means we’ve grown more fat than fit.

And in a very similar sort of way, now that the credit-card culture has been matched by our internet access, ‘on-line’ shopping has effected the same in the realm of our consuming. Speed has become of the essence.

You don’t have to wait ‘til you’ve saved up the cash and can afford what you want (credit cards have seen to that – and what a misnomer that is, is it not? ‘Credit’? Aye. Right!). And you don’t even need to wait these days ‘til you’re able to get to the shops. You can get what you want right now, in an instant.

Speed. We’ve slowly become addicted! And most of the time we don’t even know that we’ve got such a problem at all. Because it is a problem. A big one.

It means, for a start, that we don’t do delay very well: waiting is a discipline we haven’t learned to master: patience is perceived more as a weakness than the virtue which it is.

So when God doesn’t feed our habit we take it hard.

And most of the time He doesn’t.

It’s not that He can’t. Anything but.

God can clearly do the instant in a way that makes our high-speed seem so painfully pedestrian. “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Pet.3.8). That’s to say, He can with consummate ease compress into a single day what for us would take a thousand years.

Remember the ‘marriage miracle’ which Jesus effected? How when the wine ran out at the wedding He commanded the six hefty jars to be filled to the brim with water and then when they drew the first lot out they found what a moment before had been water had become in an instant the finest of wedding day wines!

That was miracle not magic. It wasn’t a rabbit which Jesus produced from a hat (that wouldn’t have solved any wedding day problem at all – unless, I suppose, the entertainer whom they’d booked for the reception had not pitched up and they were frantically looking for some substitute: but that was clearly not the problem way up there in Cana).

It was wine He produced from the water. Wine: which comes from water. That’s how God has ordered things. As C S Lewis put it in his essay titled “Miracles” – “God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus every year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine. That men fail to see.  … But when Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off” (‘God in the Dock’).

It was miracle, in other words, not magic. And the miracle lay (as it did with His every other miracle, whether multiplying the wee boy’s loaves and fishes or His healing of the sick) in His compressing into an instant what is usually done over time. A sign, wrote John: and a sign not just to highlight who this Jesus is, the very Son of God (though it plainly served that important function too) but to help us see the gracious hand of God Himself so very active and transformative in all the different facets of the world in which we live.

As Jesus shortly afterwards said, “The Son .. can only do what He sees His Father doing..” (John 5.19). This is what the Father is always doing, turning water into wine. It’s just that His normal mode of working is spread out across a larger stretch of time and makes such change so slow and imperceptible we easily fail to notice it.

So, sure, the Lord can do the instant. It’s just that most of the time He doesn’t.

And that’s made clear from the start. How does the Bible begin? With God at work. In creation. As if the Lord would establish from the outset that He isn’t into speed at all: He could be, but He isn’t.

And thus we find that it’s bit-by-bit-by-bit that He works through the days of creation. It’s not that He couldn’t have brought the whole grand thing into being in a single jaw-dropping instant: it’s just that clearly He didn’t. And didn’t from choice.

Partly, it seems, from the child-like delight which He has in simply savouring every smallest bit of progress in the glorious transformation He’ll effect: He’s not in such a hurry, it would seem, to see the finished product that He won’t enjoy each intervening stage there is in getting there.

And partly, too, it would seem because with a similar child-like delight He thrills to see development and growth.

He’d always prefer to make His own custard, as it were, instead of the instant, tinned variety you can buy any day off the shelf: He enjoys the slow and patient mixing of the powder and the milk into a paste, and then the slow and patient stirring of the mixture over heat until there comes that great, delicious moment when the liquid starts to thicken and the custard then appears.

The instant stuff is still custard, sure enough. But there’s something in the making of the custard in that slow and patient way which the instant cannot give and which appeals so much to a child’s sense of wonder and delight.

God is a child at heart! He never ceases to tire of the thrill that there is in His seeing the process of growth. It was there in creation. It is there in the cycle of nature.

And it’s there as well in the way He effects His salvation. See how He’s careful to stress this truth to His people as He takes them out of Egypt (and that itself was hardly overnight, some 400 years the whole long operation took – albeit the end came quick and a thousand years of the transfer of power was compressed into a single night).

Talking about the enemies they’d face when once His people were brought into the land He’d given them, He insisted – “I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little [note that well!] I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land” (Exodus 23.29). This is His ‘stirring-the-custard-slowly-over-gentle-heat’ approach: patient, steady growth towards the end He has in mind.

And Moses repeats this all later on the borders of the promised land. “The Lord your God will drive out these nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you” (Deut.7.22).

The instant isn’t offered as the way in which we’re saved. We might wish that it were, because within the promised land of grace in Christ the ‘enemies’ we have (the warped and wretched dregs of that society of sin which outside Christ had once held total sway within our hearts) – those ‘enemies’ are all too real and cause us still no end of heartache, pain and grief: so yes, we might well wish that God’s great final work of grace was somehow instantly effected in our lives – but it’s not.

We need the sort of ‘decompression chamber’ which His little-by-little approach will ensure. We’re like divers who’ve been down for a long, long time in the depths of the dark, dingy sea, breathing in our artificial air, and now being carefully brought back up to the surface, to the world for which we were made: doing it in an instant can be fatal.

Gradual is a hallmark of God’s workmanship. It’s from one degree of glory to another we are being transformed. The ‘enemies’ are indeed being driven right out by the Lord: but it’s ‘little-by-little’ He does it. The Spirit keeps on patiently working away in our lives, stirring our hearts till the ‘custard’ of conformity to Christ is formed!

The Lord loves growth. We’re right, therefore, always to look for growth and to expect such growth in our lives. But we must learn as well just how He works and why He works that way: and not expect too much too soon. Water’s being turned into wine all right – and for those with the eyes to see it, that is always a miracle of grace!

May we all share the Lord’s child-like wonder at the process of such growth!

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – September 2017

Dear Friends

Ours has increasingly become something of a ‘celebrity culture’. A society which has moved with such speed from the worship of God has been quick to invent some gods of its own – the superstars of today’s great global village.

So much so that many a child, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, has been known to say very simply – ‘Famous!’ But when questioned again as to what they would like to be famous for … well, they’re quick to admit that they haven’t a clue: and that in truth they don’t really care much at all. As long as they get to be famous.

Maybe it’s just the attention the famous receive which is sought; the desire to be noticed, the sense that you do actually matter. Though you’d think that you’d soon get really tired of such fame, fed up with your being in the spotlight like that all the time; you’d be longing for some anonymity.

Or maybe it’s just the esteem in which all the famous are so often held which is sought. Their views always sought from a swarm of sycophantic, groupie-like admirers; and their pronouncements carrying a weight which has little to do with their wisdom and all to do with their fame.

To some extent we all of us subtly are sucked right along in the wake of such a culture: almost without realizing the thing, we create our own ‘celebrities’, our ecclesiastical ‘galacticos’ – the preachers who get put up there on their elevated pedestals. Mainly (it should be said) these folk are put there by the people rather than seeking out such pedestals themselves – they’d mostly be the first to disdain and abhor such status and fame for themselves.

But to a larger extent we react against this contemporary celebrity culture. We see it for what in many ways it is, a shallow, superficial substitute for the worship of the Lord. We were made to worship, after all, that’s just how we’ve been wired – and if the worship of the living God is felt to be demanding and uncomfortable, then we’ll find some other shrine at which to satisfy that hunger in our hearts: we’re not fussed where, as long as that deep instinct in our souls can have some handy outlet for its strong, insistent energy. Pittodrie, Parkhead, or the Pop Idol show: or any of a multitude of ‘shrines’ from which to choose. Just somewhere where we get to be both worshippers … and still ourselves the god.

Because that’s the celebrity culture: able, it hopes, both to have its cake and eat it.

And, of course, as good, well-taught believers, we’re now ‘street-wise’ enough to recognize a ‘forgery’ and a fallacy when we see one! We know our ten commandments and we’ll not have any idols in our lives.

But in that very reaction we tend to swing far too far the other way: we miss the careful balance which the Word of God sets out and thereby often duck the crucial challenge which the Scriptures bring.

Perhaps the key to our seeing this biblical balance is to recognize the extent to which most (maybe all) of us have been influenced, encouraged and helped under God by the example which others have given: their lives have been a ‘means of grace’ and have been used by the Spirit to effect growth in our knowledge of God and secure change in our whole way of life.

For generations of Christian folk in the century and more since he died, Hudson Taylor, for instance – the pioneering missionary from a modest Barnsley home who dared to think that China could be thoroughly evangelized – he’s a man who’s become a continuing source of genuine inspiration through the life he lived, the truths he taught, the work he undertook.

“All God’s giants,” he once wrote, “have been weak men (and women, he meant) who did great things because they reckoned on God being with them.” He himself epitomised that; and as such he has fired in the hearts of any number of folk down the years the same great surging resolve that their lives shall be lived in this way.

Or think ‘Chariots of Fire’: think of the impact which the Scottish athlete Eric Liddell had – and still has. Or think of how the story of Jim Elliot (told by his wife in the book ‘Through Gates of Splendour’) – think of how the story of his martyrdom along with all the journals which he wrote, think of how they’ve left their mark on countless Christian people since he died.

You could instance a whole long list of such men and women. And there’s a sense in which Scripture itself does just that. Men and women of faith. That’s what Hebrews 11 is all about, isn’t it? Flawed individuals for sure, but faith in the Lord is what marked all these folk – and this is what it looked like in their lives. Not so much celebrities as saints – in the sense in which the Scriptures use the term: that’s to say, believers. Believers who become themselves a model for their peers and their successors in the faith.

Isn’t that what Paul is always on about? Bin those tacky bumper stickers with their “Don’t follow me, follow Jesus!” sort of line, he would say. What guff! It’s precisely the opposite which is what he is always insisting. Follow me, as I follow Christ.’ That’s neither arrogance nor conceit: nor simply an apostolic prerogative. It’s a simple belief in the work of the Spirit of God. The life of the believer becomes the canvas on which the Spirit of God paints the glory of the gospel: as if to say, this is what it looks like when a person honours Jesus in their hearts.

Do you remember that singular miracle at the start of the church’s life? The healing by Peter and John (well, it was Jesus who did the healing, of course, not them) of the man who was crippled from birth. Remember Peter’s opening gambit? “Look at us!” It’s a striking and challenging statement, defining in some ways the essence of all ministry. ‘Look – and then listen.’

That’s how men and women are helped to their feet and enabled to stand and walk with the Lord. Look at us! As much as anything else ministry invariably involves this Spirit-driven ‘modeling’ of gospel truth. We don’t need celebrities to worship: it’s shepherds we need, to follow. Those to whom we may rightly look and through whom we can see how this life we’ve been given in Christ is rightly lived.

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – August 2017

Dear Friends

The summer holidays very often bring in their wake a swathe of treasured memories. The places you’ve been. The people you’ve met. The sights you’ve seen. The outings you took. The fun that you’ve had. The things that went wrong (but which you laugh about now). The adventures on which you were launched.

As often as not we come back from those holiday weeks with a whole massive library of photos (more so now than ever, with the coming of the digital age); they’re the vain but persistent attempt which we make to capture in a 2-dimensional, visual way the pleasures, excitement and joy which those special days of holiday had brought. Each photo, for the person who was there when it was taken – each photo still well able to evoke within their spirit some real sense again of all that was experienced at the time: but at best it’s more like the haunting echo of some music that’s been played, still ringing in our ears – only now but the echo, far more than the actual music itself.

But how keen we invariably are to show all these photos to our patient, long-suffering families and friends – indeed to any and all who’ll give us the chance so to do! And why? Because we want not just to show a set of photos which we’ve snapped, but somehow to share (indeed, if only we could, to re-live) the whole experience which we’ve known.

Such photos, stored away in albums, are, of course, no more than just a few ‘hard copy’ print-outs of the far more vibrant, multi-sensual memories which we carry in our heads and in our hearts. For this strange and wonderful gift we’ve been given, which we know as simply our memory – this extraordinary gift means we’re able to savour, long and often, all the sweetness of those points in our experience which have brought us such enrichment, warmth and joy.

This gift of memory is thus, as it were, a doorway into a ‘virtual’ world where all of our senses come into their own and we’re able again in a remarkably rich and satisfying way to bask in those pleasures which are now, in the ‘real’ world, all past.

And yet, wonderful as this gift of memory is and can be, it’s strange in a way we’ve been made this way by the Lord. Is He not more concerned with the future? Is that not the drift of the message the Bible proclaims from the start? The best is yet to be.

Is that not the focus of all of the days of creation? Before the third day’s work is done, the Lord is declaring “It’s good.” And it is. All that the Lord ever does is good: altogether excellent, astonishingly beautiful – that good. But He doesn’t really linger there at all: it may be good – that good – but there’s more still to come, and the best is yet to be, ‘til by the end of day six it isn’t just good (that good) it’s very good. Superlative upon superlative.

And that’s just the start! There’s more to come.  A whole load more. The Bible doesn’t stop at the end of Genesis 2. God’s purpose is far from exhausted by the time creation’s completed. Anything but. There’s more. Stunningly more. The best is yet to come! However good it may presently be, what’s still to come is much better.

Isn’t that always the direction in which we’re being pointed? The future. God’s future. What He still has in store for His people.

So how come we’re made with this powerful thing we call memory? And how come God’s time and again found exhorting His people to utilize that faculty? ‘Remember,’ He’s always for saying, ‘remember what once you were…’

Isn’t that what so often we’re trying to forget? What wouldn’t some give to ensure they were free from their terrible flash-backs? Those moments when the memory seems to kick in of its own accord, over-ruling all a person’s careful, conscious efforts to subvert the recollection of the pain and harm and damage they’ve experienced in the past.

If the best is still ahead of us, then why this constant exhortation to look back? What on earth is He hoping to do by this call to look backwards instead of ahead?

Indeed, what’s the point in His giving us memory, when it often becomes, through those flash-backs, the tortuous means by which all of a nightmare of hurt and of pain is experienced again and again by someone who’s been wronged and abused?

It’s a risky gift in some ways which the Lord has given. For not only can the memory sometimes become thus such an instrument of torture, it’s susceptible as well to abuse. It can easily be used in quite the wrong way: when given its head, like an unbridled horse, it can carry us off where we weren’t meant to go and can lead us right into nostalgia.

For when nostalgia sets in, our memory becomes but a one-way ticket to a glamourized view of the past. Nostalgia sees us hankering after that past: to such an extent that we simply get trapped in the past, and .. well, cannot get past the past.

Our memory’s a powerful thing: it ignites in our hearts strong emotional pulls. There are places, for instance, where something momentous occurred in our lives, places perhaps where we caught for a moment a glimpse of a ravishing beauty, places where we knew in our hearts a joy and delight which seemed, for a second, almost wonderfully out of this world. The exhilarating scent of heaven’s purest joy, the haunting, captivating echoes of the music of eternity.

And we, some of us, try to go back to such places sometimes – when in truth it isn’t the place at all that we’re seeking; it’s the fragrance of God’s future, it’s the scents and the sense of the best that is still to be given, which that place, that small, soon-gone moment in time, subtly lodged and ingrained in our memory – it’s that which we’re seeking. And to try and recapture that fragrance of God’s promised future by going back to the place where some time in the past we caught that fleeting hint of it – well, we miss the whole point of that moment. It was only ever meant to be for us a signpost to the future, not a spring, whose waters we might drink there evermore.

There isn’t any future in nostalgia! And memory wasn’t given us by God to serve that end.

So why was it given by God? And why do we find that our memories so often will trigger deep longings and aching desires in the depths of our hearts? Have you ever wondered that?

And have you ever noticed how our memories tend to work? How they often seem to demonstrate a marvelous capacity for filtering off those darker, grubbier aspects of the past? How we find ourselves referring to ‘the good old days’ (when in all sorts of regards they weren’t that good at all)? How the bits that you remember of those childhood summer holidays are by and large the good bits – the bright blue skies at the seaside; the warm sun gently melting the tar in the road, and giving to all the countryside a lovely, sparkling lustre; the games that you played, the adventures you had, the innocent pleasures you knew?

Is it just a mere coincidence that this is how our memories tend to work? Is it just another pointer to the way we can delude ourselves? Is it just another instance of our proneness to engage in wishful-thinking?

Or is it rather – in the kind and gracious providence of God, is it rather that this is how the grace of memory works; so that over time they siphon off the parts of past experience which have no great or lasting bearing on the ultimate realities to which these haunting memories are intended under God to point? As if they were no more than just the ugly, awkward scaffolding around an ancient building being restored to what was once its former glory – which bit by bit (I’m speaking of the scaffolding) is stripped away and taken down.

Might it not just be, in other words, that this gift which God has given us of memory is the complementary partner to that other striking grace with which we are endowed – our capacity to think into the future and to hope? As our photos are but an ‘echo’ of the pleasures of the past, might it not just be that our memories similarly serve under God as some sort of temporary ‘echo’, a faint but exhilarating ‘echo’ of the rich and unspeakable pleasures which God’s future for us in His Son will one day bring?

What is, after all, the “far better” to which the apostle referred? And how can we even begin to have any idea at all about that which, we’re told, “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived” – the future God has prepared for those who love Him?

Might it not just be that the forward-looking God who gives us the gift of our memory and who vigorously calls us again and again to make use of the gift – “Remember, remember, remember,” He says – might it not just be that He gives us this grace of our memory precisely to help us to hope?

We’re like weary, expectant submariners, stuck, for the moment, beneath the water’s surface and able only to guess at the lie of the land still ahead. Will it be just a ‘dried out’ version of the dark and murky depths in which we presently exist? How can they know in their life beneath the surface just what that land of the future will be like?

Well, submariners use their periscopes to see beyond the surface of the seas. Mirrors. Mirrors which help them see around the corner.

And might not our memories be the ‘mirrors’ which God gives us to help us catch just some small sense of the soaring, searing beauty, wonder, pleasure, joy, adventure, peace and satisfying love which the future He has purposed for us all in Christ will bring – a glory which, in truth, simply no amount of human words could ever start to adequately convey?

Isn’t that the imagery which Paul himself employed? “Now we see through a glass darkly,” he wrote. Of course. He meant not ‘glass’ as we now understand the term, as if we were somehow peering ahead through a dirty pane of glass: he meant instead the sort of vaguely mirror-image which some beaten, polished metal might create.

We have no way of knowing what the beauty, joy and pleasures of that ‘best’ that’s still to come will actually be like – other than by ‘mirrors’: the poor and rough reflection, on some beaten, burnished bronze, of things too altogether bright and full of glory for our hearts and minds to even start to comprehend.

The people, places, pleasures, which still to this day evoke in our hearts a hungry, aching yearning for we hardly know quite what, but whose intoxicating fragrances we caught a momentary breath of in the past – such memories, perhaps, in the kind and gracious providence of God, are that beaten, burnished mirror-image ‘echo’ of the ‘great dance’ of eternity: God’s whispering heralds of heaven, assuring our hearts that the best is indeed still to come – the freedoms and fun, the delights, the adventures, the rest, the rejoicing, the laughter, the love. And the Lamb: for through it all, and in it all, and in some way His being Himself it all, there is at last the Lord.

May we learn to use our memory, and memories, aright, and by rightly looking back with growing gratitude to God be able to look forward too with a surging, eager hope and real expectancy! The best is indeed still to come!

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – July 2017

Dear Friends

When my father died, and that is now thirty something years or so ago, I found myself reading the comforting words of Psalm 16. Thinking back across the years to that significant day in my life, I realize that it’s hardly a coincidence that the psalm to which I was drawn begins with the straight-to-the-point opening line; ‘Keep me safe, O God, for in You I take refuge.’

My Dad, I suppose, had embodied for me through the course of my life the wisdom and patience and stature and strength of the Lord: from my earliest days as an infant and child, right on through the first decade and more of adult life, I knew that if there was a problem which I couldn’t solve I could pass the matter on to him – and he’d then always fix it, as if by some strange magic: if there was an issue which I didn’t know how to handle, he’d help me think the whole thing through until the answer seemed quite clear: if there was a challenge which was scaring me, he’d step between the challenge and myself and bear the brunt of it himself.

I guess without our ever really thinking it out loud, he was for all us children what a can of WD40 seemed to be for him – the remedy for every sort of problem. He afforded us guidance, support and protection: he was patient and wise and so strong.

And with him around we were safe.

Little wonder that when the man died, a stream of latent insecurities poured in: as if the shield which he himself had always been between us children and the scary, untold vastness of eternity had been removed: and I was left then, semi-orphaned, to discover in a whole new way the truth to which, in all he’d been, my Dad had been no more than just a pointer and a sign.

No wonder, then, that I found myself turning thus to the words of that psalm. It was safety I suddenly sought all over again.

And that yearning for safety is one which we all of us know. Events can be complex and cruel: our experience can become overnight both perplexing and bitter and dark. The upheavals and turbulence marking the world of today builds dark and threatening thunderclouds, and creates in society’s soul a certain restless unease, a sense of dread and foreboding which is hard to dispel; and the lightning bolts of terrorist bombs and tower-block fires, and who can tell what’s next, wreak havoc not just on the streets of our nation’s cities, but deep in our spirits as well.

We’re suddenly all the more conscious of how vulnerable always we are, how fragile our existence invariably is, how ‘exposed’ we all are when the walls of protection we thought that we had are discovered now not to be there. We yearn for safety.

And, of course, the message of the Bible, through and through, is really addressed to just that. Where can our safety be fully and finally found?

That’s what David, the psalmist, is asking (and answering) time after time in the psalms: he’s facing opposition and the odds are stacked against him – where is his safety going to be found? ‘Keep me safe, O God, for in You I take refuge.’

That’s what Jonah is asking (and answering again) when he prays from the great fish’s belly: it isn’t any hostile opposition which has brought him there, just his own perverse opposition to the call and summons of God: it’s his own folly, a moral mistake which the man has made in presuming to snub the Lord’s will: it’s an undetected weakness in the man, a ‘blind spot’ in his walk with God – it’s that which has brought him into such terrible straights. And in the face of our own fearful foibles, our own innate weakness and errors – in the face of that, where is his safety, where is our safety, ever going to be found? ‘Salvation (our safety) comes from the Lord.’

And that’s what Ruth and Naomi are asking as well: famine was hardly their fault, after all: and the triple bereavement the women must bear was simply the way things turned out. Neither foes on the outside, nor sin within: just .. well, just ‘life’ as we sometimes will put it. And in the face of the fact that disaster and tragedy happen – out of the blue, and with all their collateral damage – where will their safety be found? ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, (is the One) under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’

Refuge. A safe place. That’s the whole message of the Bible. God is our refuge. A very present help in time of trouble. No wonder we invariably find so much comfort in reading the psalms: they’re full of this. Because the psalmists, they live in a world where there are angry, frightening enemies; where drought, disease, disaster, death and dreadful disappointment are never far away: and where the knowledge of their own frail, flawed humanity alerts them to the mess they’re likely always to end up in.

‘Keep me safe, O God, for in You I take refuge.’ And He does. Come what may.

That’s what they’re always affirming. He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and fortress (my safe place), my God in whom I trust.’ (Sometimes you need to say it, to say it out loud, if only to yourself). Surely He will keep you safe .. He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings You will find refuge..’

That’s the heart of our message. Jesus is the one ‘safe place’ there is.

And because it’s the message we preach, it must be the people we are as well: if it’s in Jesus alone that our safety is found, then His church must be a ‘safe place’.

We know there’ll be some hostility we’ll have to face, as followers of Jesus – there always is. We know there’ll be adversities we’ll have to bear as we live out our lives in this world – there always are. We know there are all our own infirmities, too, the fruit of our fallen humanity – we’re never finally released from such until we reach eternity.

In the face of all that, the Bible affirms it’s in Jesus alone that true safety is known. And the people of Jesus must, therefore, themselves ever be that ‘safe place’ for those seeking refuge in a baffling, belligerent world. A relational ‘city of refuge’. A modern-day ‘cave of Adullam’ where “all those who were in distress or in debt or discontented” will gather around the Lord Jesus. And find, at last, a ‘safe place’ (see 1 Sam.22.1-2).

What does it mean for us, as the people of God, to be a ‘safe place’ in these days?

Infirmity. Someone spoke with me the other day, wary of too close or too full an involvement in the life of the church until this individual was quite clear that it was ‘safe’ now so to do. The person had doubts and questions, and wanted to know if membership meant there were loads of doctrinal boxes which had to be ticked. Is it ‘safe’ not to be sorted? Is it OK to be not OK? Is it safe to admit you’ve got questions and doubts and you’re still working lots of things through?

And, of course, the answer to all of those questions is ‘Yes!’ We’re learners. Nothing more. In terms of our conduct we all of us make our mistakes: in terms of convictions we’ve often got all sorts of questions.

Are we able to be such a people, our life and our ethos reflecting the message we preach – that the only safe refuge there is in the end is Jesus Christ?

Because to be a ‘safe place’ in the face of the varied ‘infirmities’ all of us have, it means we’ll not come down like a ton of bricks when the conduct of people falls short of what we think that it should be: it means we’re patient with each other, understanding of each other’s varied frailties, bearing with the manifold shortcomings we all have.

Adversity. About the same time, someone else also used the same language of ‘safety’ in speaking with me. ‘When I come through the door of the church,’ the person volunteered, ‘I feel safe: this is a safe place.’ It’s a struggle, for all sorts of reasons (which I well understand), for the person to get that far: but getting through that door and into the church, well, it’s ‘safety’ the person felt.

It’s tough ‘outside’. Life in the midst of addiction is a complicated, messy sort of thing. And dangerous, too. This person is physically beaten in the ‘jungles’ of the streets of Aberdeen. There isn’t really anywhere the person can be safe: not even in the flat the person has.

To come through the door of the church, you must know, is a struggle for someone like that. Battered and beaten, their life an observable mess, and fighting a losing battle against dark and dreadful demons, which opens up a torrent of adversity each day – it’s an effort indeed to walk through the door of the church: but ‘when I come through that door, I feel safe.’

But, again, to be that sort of ‘cave of Adullam’ today, where those in distress and in debt, where those who’re enslaved and who’re despairing of any release, where the discontented, disaffected, disillusioned multitudes who struggle in the face of life’s adversities – to be such a ‘cave of Adullam’ where those who are toughing it out in the jungle of modern-day life can feel, and be, safe – well, that means there’ll be compassion, care and practical support being expressed to one another in a range of different ways: it means we’ll share each others’ burdens; and it means we’ll live with all the noise and mess there’ll often be in what C T Studd once famously described as ‘running a rescue shop within a yard of hell.’

Enmity. Refugees from other lands are now a common feature of our city’s life. And because it’s now before us on our doorstep, we see a bit more clearly that enmity against the child of God is real and raw and wretched. Men and women and girls and boys are persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ: their homes burned down, their heads cut off, their earthly wealth all seized.

The psalms make sense to all such. ‘Enemies, like lions, are all around me’ (Ps.56.4). And it’s important, thus, that our life as the people of God makes sense to all such as well: that we are a ‘safe place’: a city of refuge for the hunted and haunted today.

Our message is simple. God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble: safety is found in Jesus alone. May our life as His church give expression to that more and more: a ‘safe place’ indeed.

Yours in the service of Christ Jesus our Lord

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – June 2017

Dear Friends

We forget too easily.

We forget all too often just what rags had been once our apparel: we forget what it was to be lost, when now we’ve been found; what it was to be blind, when we now see so well; what it was to be dead, when we’re now so alive.

We forget what we were. And that can make us presumptuous and proud.

But we also forget what we are.

We forget just what riches have been lavished upon us by God: we forget how abundant God’s mercy towards us has been, how complete is the grace of forgiveness we now have in Christ, how exalted the heights are to which we’ve been raised with our Lord. We forget how entirely extraordinary our experience has become and remains – and in that state of ill-conceived forgetfulness we thus resort to living out a life more ordinary by far than that we have been given by the Lord.

I recall a book from the mid-1970s, with the striking title of “Cinderella with Amnesia” (today it would probably be called “Elsa with Alzheimer’s”, or something like that – except that Cinderella is, of course, much more clearly a rags-to-riches girl than Elsa ever was).

It was a book about the church, the bride of Christ. And the book’s basic thesis was simple. The rags-to-riches girl has suffered from a memory loss: she’s forgotten the end of the story, she’s lost sight of the fact she’s the bride of the prince, she persists in the state she’d grown used to for who knows how long.

It’s not that the church has lost the plot: it’s rather that she hasn’t remembered which page of the book she’s now on. That’s a massive generalization, of course, because it’s far from being true about every local fellowship of those who are following Jesus. But across the board, in general terms, it’s often been the case that we’re unclear, unsure, and sometimes simply unaware regarding who the Holy Spirit really is, and where (if you’ll pardon me putting it bluntly like this) – and where He fits in. God the Father and God the Son – well, the terms are both familiar, referring to relationships we understand, which helps ensure we have at least some sense of who these Persons in the Godhead are and how each works together for our good. But God the Holy Spirit … well, we’re not even sure He’s a Person at all half the time (especially if we’ve watched too many Star Wars films and had our minds all marinated in a ‘May-the-force-be-with-you’ sort of outlook on the world).

The result, therefore, often has been that the Spirit of God has been squeezed to the margins of many folks’ minds: not quite a total embarrassment, true, but conveniently and quietly forgotten.

So Christmas we make a great fuss about year after year. God (the Father, we understand that well enough) – God so loved the world that He sent His own Son … Well, yes! Why wouldn’t we want a big fuss about that? Why wouldn’t we want to be marking such drama as God coming into our world with a stream of celebrations!

And Easter’s the same. A little more measured, I guess, in how we have tended to mark the event, since we want to show all due respect to the costliness, pain and great sacrifice right at its heart: we recognize the need for some solemnity, but we nonetheless give no small size of prominence to this great annual festival of faith. We understand – at least in part – we understand what’s going on: it’s a Father and Son thing again, isn’t it, and we’re glad to acknowledge the grace in the giving of both.

How deep the Father’s love for us,
how vast beyond all measure,
that he should give his only Son
to make a wretch his treasure.
How great the pain of searing loss:
the Father turns his face away,
as wounds which mar the chosen one
bring many sons to glory.

But shift the calendar seven weeks on, and Pentecost doesn’t really get comparable ‘air-time’, does it? It’s very much the obvious ‘poor relation’ of our major Christian festivals. No similar season of Advent or Lent, in the run up to this diary date. No carol-singing jamborees, no early morning climax to a holy week of prayer, profession, praise. No endless rounds of greeting one another with the ‘Happy Christmas’ chorus or the ‘Christ is risen, hallelujah!’ Easter morning chant.

Just a slightly nervous nod towards the Spirit of almighty God, an awkward and tentative “don’t-know-where-to-look-quite” brief acknowledgement that Pentecost took place. And the very fact that Pentecost is often just an ‘also-ran’ outsider in the trilogy of major Christian festivals reveals the real extent to which the Spirit is so often, too, the one ‘forgotten’ member of the Trinity.

Which is really the root of Cinderella’s chronic case of ‘who-am-I?’ amnesia. She’s forgotten indeed who she is: she’s forgotten the Prince is her Husband, and that He’s come now to live with His bride.

The church has forgotten, too often, the Person and work of the Holy Spirit of God: and we do so at our cost.

There is much which might be written to set out, in even summary form, the life-transforming ministry the Spirit comes to exercise: but here are some primary facets of His ministry, which we need to grasp and apply.

Power. Jesus said it. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1.8). But it’s a sovereign bestowal of power from Him which has a singular end in mind. It’s power with a view to witness: the power to proclaim Jesus, to live Jesus, to share Jesus; the power to declare the good news of God’s grace, to demonstrate in word and deed that Jesus has been raised from the dead, is alive and at work, and is wonderfully able to save.

The Spirit of God empowers His people. He gives them the boldness to see and to seize the chances there’ll be to speak about Jesus and explain what the gospel’s about: He gives them the wisdom to know what to say: He gives them the vision to step out in faith and engage with the people around them: He gives them the passion to enter all the dark and dangerous alleyways of life, intent, with the heart of the Saviour, on seeking and saving the lost.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you. That sort of power. We forget that at our peril. Amnesia here is nothing less than a blanket of asbestos, toxic in the unseen dust it spawns, and dousing the fire of the Spirit.

Pentecost always reminds us that if Jesus is indeed ‘the door’, then, be sure, that door is now a revolving one: the Jesus who welcomes us into the fold, is the Jesus who now sends us out – out with the power to preach and proclaim the good news and to share His pulsing resurrection life with a world so desperately dead.

Presence. “We will come to (that person),” Jesus said, “and make our home with him.” God has taken up His residence in the hearts and lives of His people. His love is made real, and infuses the whole of our being: we’re enveloped and bathed in great waves of God’s fatherly care.

The Spirit of God brings the presence of God right into the hearts of the people of God. He dwells in them, acts for them, and works through them. Jesus. Immanuel. God unmistakably with us.

To a world in rebellion against His rule, God is now a clear and present danger: alarmingly threatening, and uncomfortably close. He’s no longer some dim and distant Being whose existence is the sort of thing philosophers will debate. He’s now up close and personal, and wholly in your face. He dwells in His people: He encounters His world through their lives. There aren’t too many hiding places left, because His people are now all over the place: and God is present among them. God now physically present. On the high street, in the cafes, down the aisles of the shopping malls, out at the places of work and back at the ranch where they live.

God now patently present through His Spirit’s having come upon His people in this way. Perhaps we should all go around with a big, red warning triangle! Let the world be warned (and not just at our worship times) – ‘God is really among you!’ (1 Cor.14.25).

That’s the startling privilege God has given us: it’s in and through His people now that the Lord makes His presence known. God has left the building! His presence is now no longer confined to a temple out in Israel. He’s out and at large, on the loose in the world that He loves.

Cinderella’s memory loss means missing out on all that this new chapter in the story’s opened up. Pentecost turned that significant page: it’s a whole new part of the story in which we’re now caught up.

Purpose. The Spirit of God has come in person to orchestrate the work of God. He knows what He’s doing, and He knows where He means us to go.

He turfs His people out from all the cosy comfort of Jerusalem: there’s a world out there, He insists. He calls Philip away from a place full of action and excitement and directs him to an isolated parking bay on the main road south: Samaria may be bubbling with new gospel life, but there’s a whole, extensive continent which needs to hear the message just as much.

So Philip goes south, and Peter gets sent way out west, and Barnabas heads off up north, and Saul will be stopped in his tracks, turned completely around, and called to take the message to the massive Gentile world.

This band of believers is being sent off and out to every single compass point there is to play the music of the gospel of God’s grace. Not in any merely random sort of way. Not because they’ve figured out some empire-building strategy. But simply because the Spirit of God now orchestrates it all.

Purpose. The whole thing is marked by clear purpose, for the Spirit of God is directing the show – and He knows how to get the work done.

Pentecost means we don’t simply drift any more. We may have been given a building, but it’s not there for us to be sitting and twiddling our thumbs! There’s work to be done and the Spirit of God will be driving us out to the far-flung corners of the city and beyond, with one great purpose in mind: to get the message out!

Forget the amnesia: get your shoes back on, Cinderella – your Prince is off on tour!

Yours in the fellowship of the Spirit

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – May 2017

Dear Friends

Easter is the pivot of history. The death and resurrection of Jesus changed everything. The rule-book of religion was redundant. Overnight. Over that Saturday night to be precise.

I mean, you can take your old rule-book along to the tomb where they’ve buried the Lord whom you love – and .. well, it suddenly doesn’t help you one small bit. Is your being at the tomb really now a ‘defilement’, since the tomb is the place of the dead? Hardly! It’s life like this world hasn’t witnessed life ever before – it’s life which has just now exploded and filled the whole place. This tomb has become more a ‘womb’!

And the play-it-by-the-rule-book sort of rituals which have marked the former piety of people in their worship of the Lord – those careful, costly God-exalting rituals of anointing by which again the women were expressing their devotion to their Friend, well, they’re suddenly overtaken by events.

They’re living now on the future side of Easter. And there’s now for them, and for us as well, a whole new way of living to be learned.

Jesus is risen. His work is complete. The curtain in the temple’s been torn down. The door of the prison has been blown off its hinges. The future is no longer now the stuff of mere dreams. We’re out at last on the wide open seas of new life.

It’s a bit like that moment in the Tom Hanks movie Castaway when (and this is going to spoil the story a bit, if you’ve not yet seen the film but are planning still to do so! But isn’t that what we all of us are by nature, ‘cast away’ from the Lord?) – it’s a bit like the moment when the guy gets off the island. He’s been stuck there, alone, for more than long enough: and to leave this lonely, isolated, castaway, island life, there’s a great big ‘barrier’ reef  which has to be crossed. With just the right wind, and with a whole load of work, the man with his make-shift and DIY raft finally breaks through the surge of the reef, and the gateway to freedom is there.

That’s the ‘resurrection moment’ in the narrative of Castaway. But it’s not the end of the story, of course! Anything but. There’s an uncharted ocean the guy has then to navigate – and I’m not sure he’d given much thought to that (but I’ll not spoil the story any more)!

In much the same way, the post-resurrection experience of those on-the-spot disciples of Jesus, saw them suddenly bursting right out onto the uncharted waters of a whole new era of grace. Far from being the climax and conclusion of the story, Jesus’ resurrection was actually just the centre-piece and pivot of the narrative: the story was only beginning.

We, too, live now on the ocean side of the Castaway reef, the ‘future’ side of Easter. And the very specific context in which we here are sailing that ocean of grace is this period of ‘post-Bought-it’: and the question we’re facing is – what happens next, now that the building’s been bought?

For that was something of a ‘resurrection’ moment for ourselves, was it not! A mighty demonstration of the power of the living God, helping us see just how very able He is to do so immeasurably more than all we could ever ask or even think. What momentous days, they were!

But now that that ‘reef’ has been crossed, and we’re out on the ‘post-Bought-it’ seas of the freedoms which ownership brings, we’re learning fast the facts of resurrection life: the most basic of which is this – the display by the Lord of such resurrecting power is never where the story ends, but only where, in a very real sense, it finally begins.

So, what, in other words – what has this great display of His grace been all about? Why has the Lord entrusted this building to us? Where do we go now from here? How do we see this building being used? And what may we, therefore, expect?

Here, then, is what we may start to expect – in a very ‘broad-brush-stroke’ account of the burden which lies on my heart.

Stated very simply, Easter was followed, some seven weeks on, by the floodgates of heaven being opened by God in the event we know as Pentecost.

Is it valid to think that a similar sequence of God’s gracious dealings might be our experience too? There’s surely some reason to think so! As I said last month, the backdrop to the purchase of the building was the word the Lord laid firmly on our hearts – that word of extraordinary promise. “’Test Me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it..’”

And the fact we were able to purchase the building outright was not so much the floodgates of heaven being opened (though we recognized the hand of God in “the abundance that we have provided” [1 Chron.29.16]), as our rising to God’s challenge to our giving, and our ‘testing’ God in this.

Have we not some cause to expect, therefore, now that the floodgates of heaven will be graciously opened by God in a fresh and abundant outpouring of blessing? Our ‘Easter’ being followed by a ‘Pentecost’ of grace. Isn’t that the tenor of God’s word to us and the pattern of God’s work? And isn’t that the thrust of what we might be praying now as well?

If the ‘floodgates of heaven’ are opened, then it’s streams that we’re likely to see: and that’s what I hope we may find ourselves burdened to pray for. There’s a verse in the book of Micah which puts it well – “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and people will stream to it” (Micah 4.1).

People streaming in.

Sunday by Sunday, early in the morning, I stand by the lectern and pray to that end – that the floodgates of heaven will be opened up wide by the Lord as the doors of the building He’s given us here are pulled back, and a great and growing crowd of thirsty people will come streaming in.

To which you maybe say (politely, of course, and under your breath) – dream on! How on earth (you may think) are we ever to see such a ‘stream’ of people crowding in to share with us in our worship? Those days are past now, surely (as the song goes): and in the past are they not now bound to remain?

So – are such streams merely dreams?

Surely not with a God who is able to do so immeasurably more than all we might ask or might think. Surely not with a God who has said that He’d throw open wide the floodgates of heaven.

But how? Well, it’s spring-time now (at least in theory!) and we know how it works in the natural world. You look at the thick layers of snow on the mountains, the huge depths of ice in a glacier, and .. well, we haven’t got equipment which can turn all that to water! We maybe haven’t – but the Lord very definitely has, hasn’t He?

And what’s true in the realm of the glaciers and snow is as true in the realm of the spirit. “He sends His word and melts them; He stirs up His breezes, and the waters flow” (Ps.147.18)

That’s what those dreams of the streams are all made of! The Word of God and the Spirit of God – a mighty combination! No matter how hard are the hearts of the people around us: no matter how cold towards Jesus the culture may seem in these days still to be – when the Lord sends His Word, when the breezes of God’s Holy Spirit at work blow in with His life-giving grace, then a new spring-time season arrives, and the glaciers of cold unbelief start to melt: the waters flow, and the streams of our dreams fill those valleys, which ‘til then have only been full of dry bones.

Dear friends, let’s never forget that we’re post-resurrection people! We’re out now on the ocean side of that reef! The building’s been bought, we’re afloat on the high seas of grace! Let’s pray for that grace from on high whereby, through His Word, the hearts of the cold are all melted: let’s pray that the Lord stirs His breezes again and the wind of the Spirit sees the waters of new life begin to flow: and let’s pray for those streams, for those people streaming in!

Yours with warm expectancy in Christ

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – April 2017

Dear Friends

Thrilled. Elated. Stunned. Awed. Humbled. Moved.

The list of suitable adjectives could easily go on! For it’s hard adequately even to begin to express the rich, exhilarating cocktail of emotions which we’ve surely known as we’ve seen the funds being given to enable us to purchase the building here at Gilcomston.

It would be easy, though, to be so caught up with the sheer, astonishing scale of the sums which have been given, and so bathe and cavort in this river of joy-steeped euphoria, that we miss the real significance of what’s going on. However remarkable the scale of that giving may be (and it is, make no mistake) we need to see it in context: it’s part of something far greater.

Such giving didn’t simply happen in a vacuum: it was part of a sequence of sovereignly-ordered events – and it’s in seeing that sequence that I hope the significance, too, of all that is now taking place will begin to be seen for what it is.

We can trace, for one thing, a series of striking, timely providences on the part of God, which opened up the way for us to buy and take possession of this building here on Union Street. Some six or so specific sets of circumstances – none of which we could, with any sort of confidence, have previously presumed upon – combined to open up for us this present opportunity to purchase the building. We’re able, as I sought to make clear in my letter last month – we’re able to see that it was, indeed, by nothing less than the sovereign providence of God that we found ourselves at this point.

As Jehoshaphat humbly reminded the Lord in that prayer which we’ve now come to know all too well (2 Chronicles 20) – it was You, Lord, who brought us here.

But alongside the fact of the providence of God, there has been the telling impact of the Word of God. For months now the Lord has been speaking His Word right into the heart of our life.

‘Immeasurably more .. immeasurably more..’ He kept saying, ‘I can do immeasurably more than all that you ask or think.’ That’s what He’s been saying, isn’t it, until that truth was inscribed in indelible ink on our hearts and minds. So that as the moment finally came when we faced the sudden challenge of a K2 type of monetary mountain to be climbed – except in our case it wasn’t K2 it was K750, three quarters of a million pounds and more to be found, within a matter of just a few weeks … well, we knew the score by then, didn’t we? We knew just what to expect.

More.

Immeasurably more.

And – it’s remarkable, this, from a purely human standpoint: it’s astonishing really, the next best thing to miraculous, you might be inclined to surmise – within a matter of barely a couple of weeks the sums coming in have indeed been precisely that: more. More than the sizeable purchase price we required: more than the mountainous £750k we needed to be buying the building outright: and more than that price with all the considerable fees added on.

And not just more but immeasurably more – because we’ve still not been able to measure just how much the Gift Aid component will be!

So the sums of money coming in are to be seen against the backdrop of – and as very much the sequel to – God’s providential dealings with His people in this place: and seen against the backdrop, too, of what He has been saying through His Word, the striking, specific fulfillment, indeed, of that Word which He’s been speaking through the past few months, right into the heart of this fellowship’s life.

How then are we best to interpret the fact that the money’s coming pouring in?

It’s seemed to me that the most helpful way of grasping the significance of this is found in the words of David of old, when he offered his thanks to the Lord in these terms –

“O LORD our God, as for all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for Your holy Name, it comes from Your hand, and all of it belongs to You” (1 Chron.29.16)

With a glad and whole-hearted generosity, the people of Israel had responded back then to the call they’d been given by David, not to buy, but in their case to build, a temple for God. And it’s striking to see how the stunning amounts which they gave were perceived by this man in his prayer. ‘This abundance that we have provided .. comes from Your hand.’

Our giving, Your hand. The two belonging together. There’s a sense in which, he surely saw, that this was no less than the hand of God Himself being stretched out upon His people. And that’s surely, as well, how we should understand the astonishing scale of the giving there’s been. This abundance which we have provided … well, it comes from Your hand, O LORD.

It’s solemnizing to see it like that. The living God means business.

And the ‘business’ He means is itself, I believe, immeasurably more than we’ve asked or begun to imagine.

Way back in the autumn we had a number of studies in the book of Acts (you maybe recall), under the series title of ‘Opening the floodgates,’ a series which culminated in a significant weekend away. It was as if, back then, the LORD through the whole of our weekend away, spoke a clear and defining word to us all – the verse from which the series title was drawn.

“’Test Me in this,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and see if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. ..’” (Mal.3.10)

Many, perhaps, have looked at the giving we’ve seen in these last few weeks, and concluded that the Lord has indeed done just that – that He’s opened the floodgates of heaven, and the money’s come pouring in; so much indeed we hardly know what to be doing with it all. (Except, of course, the treasurer and the Trustees, they know very well what to be doing with it all!)

I think that misses the point. The money that people have given has far more to do with the summons the Lord gave His people to ‘test Me in this..’, than it does with the floodgates being opened. Isn’t that the case? What was the challenge the Lord was giving the people back then, if not a challenge regarding the way they would give? No half measures, He was saying to them then, give the lot.

No half measures. That was the challenge, and that, in a sense, was the test. Show Me true ‘extravagance’ in your giving, the Lord was declaring – and then you’ll see what ‘extravagance’ really is like. Heaven’s extravagance. Then you’ll see what real abundance looks like, as the floodgates of heaven are opened!

So the ready response which there’s been here now on the part of so many folk, here and beyond, I should stress – I’m not at all sure that that may not be just the ‘test Me in this’ end of things. Don’t you think that perhaps, all those weeks ago now, when the Lord spoke that word to us all – don’t you think that perhaps it was this He was actually saying: ‘you show Me your abundance: and then you’ll see what real abundance looks like, as I open the floodgates of heaven and I show you Mine!’

It’s the essence of His covenantal dealings with us once again. ‘You go, and I give. You go do that crazy thing and climb the massive mountain – and then see the mountain of blessing that I then will give, way beyond what you know how to cope with!’

In other words, we haven’t seen anything yet!

Because it’s not primarily with a building as such that the Lord is really concerned, is it? It’s what may now happen in and through this building in proclaiming Christ.

And the ‘blessing’ poured out as the floodgates of heaven are opened – may we not dare to think that that will yet be a fresh and abundant outpouring by God of His mighty Holy Spirit? Perhaps even more, immeasurably more, than all we might be daring to think.

And that with a view to enabling and emboldening us His people here to rise to His summons afresh, and to take the Lord Jesus right out and onto the streets and into the hearts of the people of our city.

Yours, both gratefully and expectantly, in the service of Christ our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton