Monthly Letter – March 2020

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

Monogamy become monotony. The seven-year itch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours with eager expectation in our Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – February 2020

Dear Friends,

One of the things we’re short on these days is stamina.

Gap years are far more the rage than a life-time of missionary service now is: the former can be a self-indulgent stimulus on leaving school, while the latter requires of you a self-denying stamina in living life.

In much the same way, tweets are more in vogue than letters – the former make precious few demands on either writers or their followers, whereas a letter requires substantial concentration on the part of both.

Stamina. The grace of perseverance.

For the farmer out ploughing his land, that’s the whole of the field, and not just a single furrow. For the Christian out serving his Saviour, that’s the whole of our lives and not just some flashes of kindness.

Stamina. It may well be a dying art so far as our whole culture is concerned. But it’s an indispensable grace we all must learn to cultivate in following Jesus Christ.

And as we start this decade of the 2020s it seemed to me appropriate to illustrate this godly grace of stamina by reference to a man whose passing has straddled the two decades: a man who died at the end of last year and was buried at the start of this. Jim Shearer.

It was typical of the man that he was, with his quiet and self-effacing manner, that at his request there wasn’t any service of thanksgiving for his life – and thus no opportunity for us here as a fellowship to mark his final passing from this earthly life.

Perhaps we can do that this way! By my painting in a portrait of his well-lived life, and thereby pointing up just what the Holy Spirit will effect in us as, no matter who we are, our hearts and lives are offered up to Jesus Christ as Lord.

Which is what Jim had done in his childhood. Starting out on that path of following Jesus is one thing, of course: pressing on to the end and finishing well is quite another! And that’s where this Spirit-given stamina comes in. For right across the decades of his life, on through the years and up and into his nineties, this man sustained a gracious, consistent and Christ-centred life to the day that he passed from this earthly life.

I came across a book the other day entitled ‘Pressing on and finishing well’. It would be a fitting sort of epitaph for Jim! And whereas that book has the sub-title ‘Learning from seven biblical characters’, I mean to take the thesis one stage further and see us all instructed in the disciplines of stamina by this one distinguished character whose roots were always here with us in Gilcomston.

Let me do so under seven acronymic headings (seven being the number of completeness after all!) which together spell that indispensable grace.

Simplicity. Spinning too many plates in our lives is exhausting, draining and destined, most times, for a premature, painful disaster. The ‘one-thing-I-do’, no-nonsense approach which Paul the apostle espoused, is the key to developing stamina. And for all the many ways in which this always found expression in Jim’s life, he was, above all else, a ‘one-thing-I-do’ sort of man.

He was a man who’d set his heart from childhood on living his life for the glory of God: and that, to the end of the days, was the one great thing he was ever intent on pursuing. Indeed, it was precisely because of just this (however much we all might have wished to argue to the contrary!) that he insisted there should be no public service of thanksgiving for his life.

Testimony. Our calling in life as Christians is simply this, to bear a faithful witness to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Jim understood that. As far back as 1952, while still a young man in his twenties, with all sorts of prospects career-wise before him, he was one of eight missionaries associated with Gilcomston South Church. His life would be given, as best he knew how, to declaring the praises of the God who had called him out of darkness into His wonderful light (1 Pet.2.9). He’d trained at Selly Oak in Birmingham, and in 1955 was out in India serving with the Mission to Lepers in West Bengal.

Those of you who are in your twenties and thirties just now – are you countenancing this? That the Lord who calls us as His witnesses may be calling you to do as Jim himself had done and sound out His praises in something beyond the career and the prospects on which your heart has been hitherto set?

However few or many may be our years, may we live them all to the end that witness is born to Jesus.

Adventure. This is of the very essence of the faith in Jesus Christ by which we live. Our being willing to go wherever God calls us, to act whenever God needs us, to do whatever God tells us.

Wherever. Whatever. Whenever. The adventurous spirit of those who know they are but pilgrims here on earth.

The readiness to tackle new and greater challenges. The readiness to pack our bags and travel light to places far beyond the boundaries of comfort, in obedience to God’s call.

Jim travelled east, as I’ve said, and way out there in India he met, and then out there in West Bengal he’d subsequently marry, a missionary nurse called Maureen Hatte. The two of them returned to Aberdeen, and after Maureen’s death some 30 years and more ago, Jim was off again, only this time the man was headed west.

Off to the States on a fresh adventure to marry a long-time family friend called Judy Gass, and to settle out there in the States and begin a whole new life. God is a great romantic, and His adventures are always the best of the best!

But Judy, too, died, some 15 years ago, and back came Jim once more to Aberdeen, returning to his roots. J R R Tolkien’s book ‘The Hobbit’ has as its subtitle, ‘There and back again’ – it could well describe the adventure of Jim’s own life!

And of course, for Jim, the adventure wasn’t yet over. There was still more travelling the man had to do. Closer at hand by far. But harder, too, in ways that those who’ve made the journey all well know. The move from his own familiar surroundings to the care of a Nursing Home – in his case Summerhill Home.

It’s never an easy change for a person to make. But for Jim it was part of the adventure of faith, the next port of call for a pilgrim en route to his true and his ultimate home. And what an impact he had in Summerhill Home in his own quiet way. The staff all jostled for the privilege and the pleasure of attending on this man, such was his gracious manner and such were the stories he’d tell them as he served his Saviour and Lord.

Ministry. We sometimes speak of Jesus as ‘the Servant King’: for this willingness to serve, to pour Himself out for the needs of a people, this servant heart is integral to all He is. And the work of the Spirit of God in our hearts develops in His people that same appetite for service in the way we live our lives.

Nowhere was that eagerness to serve more evident than in the context of his home and family life. Sally, Amy and Simon remember their father as one who had put them all first; a husband who attended on his wife and saw to all her needs; a father who spent time with each of his children and filled their lives with fun; a man whose home, like his heart, was ‘open house’ and who’d gladly and often enlarged the scope of his ‘family’ and made his many visitors feel always so at home.

He served in the life of Christ’s church as well, of course. A hugely respected and much loved elder over many years (he was ordained in 1962), he’d fulfilled the demanding role of treasurer for the best part of three decades: and that had involved for him, too, a large responsibility through the prior negotiations and the initial stages of the major restoration of the exterior of our building in the early 1990s.

A servant; a man who gladly and whole-heartedly would give himself in warm, committed service in the home, at work, and in His Master’s service in the church. And not just in some flurry of occasional activity, but in a lifetime of sustained, committed ministry.

Has that spirit of service been somewhat lost among God’s people today? Has the drip-fed self-indulgence of our culture somehow watered down the lifestyle of the followers of Christ, and subtly, slowly neutered and eroded this dynamic of a life of costly service?

Initiative. God is the great Creator; the One who initiates change; the One who begins each good work, which He then brings on to completion.

We, too, as those made in His image, are freed to seize the initiative, taking charge of the changing scenarios in which we may find ourselves. This was a grace which Jim was ever displaying, as from time to time his circumstances changed. Where he was geographically, what he was doing vocationally, who he was with relationally, how he was coping practically – as circumstances beyond his control would change, Jim was a man with initiative; refusing to wallow in the slough of self-pitying despond, and instead taking charge of the turn of events and then making it work for the good. Right to the end of his life.

Nobility. “You are,” wrote Peter, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession..” (1 Pet.2.9): in other words, we are in Christ nobility. Men and women, as the book of Proverbs puts it, ‘of noble character.’ Not in any sort of fitful way. But a permanent, enduring quality about our lives that’s best described as ‘noble’.

Speak to those who knew this man and before very long they’d describe him as a gentleman. In every sense. Courteous, kind, considerate. A man like Job in the Bible, who could say of himself (and that with all due humility) –

“Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me, because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them. The one who was dying blessed me: I made the widow’s heart sing. .. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger. People listened to me expectantly, waiting in silence for my counsel. After I had spoken, they spoke no more: my words fell gently on their ears. … When I smiled at them, they scarcely believed it: the light of my face was precious to them. .. I dwelt as a king among his troops; I was like one who comforts mourners.”

It’s that sort of nobility which the Spirit of God instills and sustains in the lives of His people. God grant that this should be consistently the tenor of our lives.

Adoration. Praise is the middle name of the people of God. The day will come when all who’ve loved the Lord will gather as a multitude too large by far for anyone to number, and each and every one will be quite simply lost, engulfed, united and caught up with one another in their wonder, love and praise of Jesus Christ.

We only get the smallest little foretaste of that now. But even as such that spirit of praise and adoration in our hearts sustains us through the toughest trials of life (think of Paul and Silas in their prison cell at Philippi). We love the Lord. We delight in Him. We rejoice in His sovereign grace. He’s wise, and good, and kind and strong. He does all things so very well. We trust Him absolutely and He’s never let us down.

That growing adoration then creates a deep contentment in our hearts: the calm, assured conviction that the Lord does indeed watch over all the details of our going out and then our coming in. He knows what He’s doing. He anticipates our every need. He rescues us from every trial. And we rest in the assurance that He “will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom.”

That was certainly Jim Shearer through the course of his life. May it be each of us as well.

“Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you,” urges the writer to the Hebrews: an exhortation we will always do well to embrace. “Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb.13.7).

“You need to persevere,” that self-same writer insisted (Heb.10.36): stamina may well be a dying art within the culture of our day – but it is and remains an indispensable grace in following Christ. And the key to developing stamina lies in our eyes being fixed on Jesus: He remains the same always.

Yours, pressing on in His service,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – January 2020

Dear Friends,

White Island. All of a sudden this tiny island was headline news.

A little under 2 miles long, and just over 1 mile wide, about half the size of the island of Iona, it’s no more than the tiniest dot on the map of the world. But in the early afternoon (local time) of 9th December the island erupted (quite literally) into the media’s ever-expanding panoply of human tragedy.

And, of course, it was a tragedy; a wretched, terrible tragedy, a dreadful and heart-breaking disaster, which took the lives of a good few individuals – and turned the lives of countless families upside down for ever. You’d have to be wholly heartless not to have felt both something of the horror of the volcanic explosion, and something of the terrible pain of the anguish which those so cruelly bereaved have been left to bear.

It was a fearful, discordant finale to the end of another year.

And perhaps as well it was a sombre, visual milestone to mark the end of another whole decade; as if the great Creator God was Himself somehow opening the mouth of the earth which He’d made to make a stark and solemn statement to His world as the first 20 years of this bold, post-modern millennium drew to a close.

That it was tragic, there’s no doubt. But maybe, just maybe it was symbolic too.

Maybe what happened that day, maybe it serves as a mirror, portraying for us all, on our round-the-clock multiple screens, a graphic, uncomfortable picture of our secular, contemporary world. Maybe we weren’t simply viewing a distant disaster; maybe we were seeing ourselves. The people which as a society we have now become.

White Island is set in what’s called the ‘Bay of Plenty’. At least, it’s been called the ‘Bay of Plenty’ for exactly 250 years, ever since Captain James Cook discovered that things were a whole load more abundant and plentiful along this massive stretch of beach and beaches than they’d been around the corner at what he’d called ‘Poverty Bay’.

Maybe it’s been the very ‘plenty’ we’ve enjoyed in the western world which is proving now to be our complete undoing. Maybe the very abundance has made us entirely oblivious to the dangers and hazards there are. Maybe it’s bred a creeping, pernicious self-confidence into our soul. Maybe it’s made us conceited, presumptuous, proud. Maybe the material affluence to which we’ve become accustomed has slowly and subtly desensitized us as a society to some great, enduring, spiritual truths which we ignore and disdain at our peril.

Maybe our own ‘Bay of Plenty’ has made our contemporary culture profoundly complacent and lax.

Were we beguiled and deluded by the spin of our leaders who kept on insisting that we’d never really had it so good? Did we start to believe the devil’s own lie that the ‘good’ consisted in things? Has the ‘plenty’ actually left us quite empty, devoid of meaning and purpose, bereft of the riches of deep-rooted love which money and wealth cannot buy? Has our lust for abundance created a culture which makes us all lazy and fat – morally and spiritually at least? Is the widespread western epidemic of obesity symptomatic of a far more serious and chronic spiritual malaise? Has our western society become a sort of corporate ‘Jabba the Hutt’, an overgrown and overbearing ‘overlord’, becoming in the end a victim of our own grand, self-indulgent hubris?

In our long, expansive ‘Bay of Plenty’ have we simply become either blasé or blind in respect to the ‘fault-lines’ on our doorstep, casually disregarding all those smoke-filled clouds of warning which loom large on the horizon – a constant, stern reminder of the ‘boiling pot’ of magma that is waiting to erupt?

“What do you see?” asked the Lord of Jeremiah. And the young prophet replied, “I see a pot that is boiling .. It is tilting towards us ..”(Jer.1.13). A boiling pot. Tilting towards us.

But maybe our problem is this today, that we simply do not see. Not in the way our forbears were able to see. With the eye of faith.

Because our society has slowly become so desperately superficial. That, too, is an integral part of the same ‘Bay of Plenty’ condition. We only see the surface.

Where material wealth and abundance has become the goal of our society’s aspirations, and the measure of our well-being, then what’s physical and visible become as well the only things we see.

Which is why ‘White Island’ far out in the Bay of Plenty provides such a graphic picture of society today.  It’s an attractive island to look at. It appeals to the eye and, certainly so far as islands go, it’s thoroughly photogenic. Easy to access, with clear, pronounced features; and, of course, it’s highly ‘atmospheric’, in a way that plays right into the insatiable lust our society’s acquired for what we call ‘experience’.

But it is a volcano. It’s just that only the tiniest part of that huge, expansive volcanic cavern reaches the surface, so that the crater itself is only just above sea level. No hard hike up the steep and jagged surface of a mountainside to reach it: it’s almost a case of getting out of the boat and .. well, there you are, you’re walking right into the crater. It’s all so very accessible (which always scores well in a culture that takes pride in being politically so correct); and it looks so very attractive!

On the surface it is.

And that, at heart, is the problem. If appearance is all that matters, if you’re only concerned with what you can see, then you cease to discern and take cognizance of what lies beneath the surface, far out of the line of your sight. There’s a massive great cauldron of magma, an underground furnace of huge and gigantic proportions, with a heat too terrible to countenance, a whole massive mountain beneath the seas which simply dwarfs, in every regard, the tiny bit you can see.

What meets the eye is lovely perhaps. But what simply isn’t visible is lethal.

And that, in many ways, so typifies the society we’ve become. We only see the surface. We’re desperately superficial. Such is part of the price we pay for dismissing the perspective of faith. Because “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see(Heb.11.1): or, put more starkly, as the writer to the Hebrews later does, it is by faith that we see Him who is invisible (Heb.11.27). It is by the eye of faith that we see both beneath and beyond the surface, and discern those great and ultimate realities which (almost by definition) are in the end invisible.

That’s the perspective our society today has so readily and arrogantly jettisoned. And so we only see the surface. We’re frighteningly superficial. We don’t do ‘depth’ at all. Our attention span is limited. We communicate in ‘sound bites’ and tweets: 140 characters (not words) was all that, to start with, you were ever allowed (although it has been doubled now over the last two years or so).

Don’t think for a moment I’m denigrating all the ways that ‘tweeting’ can have value. It’s more to the spiritual malaise of which Twitter and tweets are simply symptomatic that I’m wanting to point. You can say a fair bit in 280 characters, I suppose: but you won’t do depth. You can’t begin to dig beneath the surface of a thing and analyse the underlying issues there may be. Our society today has largely lost the appetite for depth – and increasingly, too, the ability: our eyesight’s grown dim, our minds have grown lazy, and superficiality has now become a hallmark of our western way of life.

It’s this same ‘White Island’ phenomenon. Indeed, the name itself betrays another striking, subtle feature of the deep malaise which has today infected our society: the ease with which we find ourselves deluded by the language which is used.

You can see, I suppose – at least in certain conditions – why this place got called ‘White Island’. Or at least why the settlers chose to give the island that name. The layer upon layer of the ash that’s been spewed from the depths have given the island a coating which looks sometimes white. I suppose.

But the name makes the place seem innocuous, harmless and good. It’s precisely the kidology that’s become so characteristic of our culture. Maybe if we give a thing a pleasing name and call it that persistently, then … that’s what it will be!

How deluded we can prove ourselves to be! For it’s certainly not what the locals have called the place: the Maori name for the island is ‘Te Puia o Whakaari’, which means (in case you’re not that fluent in their language!) ‘the dramatic volcano’. They at least still call a spade a spade. They at least still see beyond what’s there to be seen on the surface. They at least won’t have the wool pulled over their eyes. ‘White Island’? My foot. It’s a dreadful volcano.

This subtle use of language to distort and deceive is one of the frightening features of our culture. “Woe to those who call evil good,” warned the Lord through His prophet Isaiah (Is.5.20), “who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” Or as Paul would put it later, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very thing but also approve of those who practise them” Rom.1.32).

It’s the same ‘White Island’ delusion which the Scriptures roundly denounce. Persisting in calling what God has deemed evil – persisting in calling it good. On the basis that if you say it often enough (and get enough ‘big-hitters’ to say it too), if you keep repeating the mantra, then people start believing you. The delusion is complete. Our culture has mastered the art.

It’s a subtle, but insidious thing. ‘Tolerance’, for instance, has moved from being a virtue to being instead a world-view. And, of course, because the same word’s used, no one really notices the seismic change involved. But the shift is, indeed, seismic. For ‘tolerance’ as a world-view actually ends up breeding as a virtue an intolerance, and an intolerance not least of the basic Christian message. How subtly society has been so wholly deceived by the clever and persistent way some words are used.

This is ‘White Island’ culture, is it not, where words can be used to disguise heinous lies as the truth, and distort unpalatable truth.

But there’s something scarier still about this same ‘White Island’ phenomenon. And it’s this: we’ve become mere self-indulgent ‘tourists’.

White Island is a major tourist attraction. A boat will take you out there: a helicopter, too. (Although, for the moment, of course, all such trips have been postponed). As if the place was no more than just some 3-dimensional, multi-sensual art gallery, for you to casually walk around at your leisure. Get your photos, take your ‘selfies’, enjoy a day out as you wander through the crater.

What sort of voyeuristic madness is that? The place is a live volcano! The fire can erupt – and you don’t dare be anywhere near it when it does.

Our culture today has precisely that arrogant, brash perspective of the tourist who will simply never countenance, despite the smoke, despite the constant warnings of the experts who should know – who simply will not countenance that this volcano might erupt.

That’s our contemporary culture. We’ve become little more than a nation of spiritual ‘tourists’, exploring with our metaphorical cameras all the sites of spirituality round the world, writing up our well-informed, illuminating ‘Trip Adviser’ comments on the fascinating points of view we found. Giving points, as it were, to the gospel, rating it with however many stars, as if it was no more than just an interesting artifact from a foolish, bygone age. Critiquing the ‘crater’ which Christ’s coming has left, and failing to see (or more to the point refusing to see) what lies behind and beneath it all.

A live and dreadful volcano.

God help us. We tramp like so many tourists over sacred ground, and ever so casually trample on the gospel truths of God, scorning the fundamental fact about our world on which the Scriptures insist: “Our God is a consuming fire.” A live and dreadful volcano. We ignore that truth at our peril: and we disdain that truth to our eternal loss.

So here’s a simple prayer for the start of a new decade. God help us. May God have mercy upon us and the arrogant ‘tourist’ lifestyle which we live: and in His mercy may He yet open our society’s eyes once more to the great explosive truths of the gospel of Christ. Before it’s too late.

Yours in the service of Christ our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – December 2019

Dear Friends,

December General Elections are collectors’ items.

It must get pretty near to being the experiential equivalent of the so-called ‘perfect storm’. The constant hustle and bustle of the festive season, colliding with the hustings and babble of election campaigns, and all in the context of the ongoing hassles and battles of everyday life.

Not the place to be for those who’re after the quiet life.

But then Bethlehem back at the time of Jesus’ birth was hardly the place or the time for those who were simply after the quiet life.

They were ‘strange days’.

The circumstances of the birth of Jesus Himself were strange and surprising, to say the least. The substantial series of ‘side-show’ events which accompanied His birth were themselves no less striking and strange.

But all of these were entirely side-lined (at least so far as the headlines went) by the on-going political drama, which at the time was being played out right across the Roman Empire.

The issues back then were not altogether dissimilar to those with which we’re presently having to grapple.

Remain or leave, in or out, was simply not an option, of course: the Empire’s ‘storm-troopers’ saw to that – you were In (the Empire), whether you liked it or not (just about everyone didn’t) and whether you’d voted for it or not (they hadn’t).

The tensions were very real. The atmosphere was highly charged. And proposals for an Indy revolution (referenda didn’t figure in the politics of the day) – proposals for an Indy revolution were being whispered, sometimes none too quietly, in the dark and shady corners of the taverns of the towns.

Into that was flung a bureaucratic bombshell, a civil obligation which required of each and every person that they fill the needful forms.

For although way back then it wasn’t quite your vote on any ballot paper which the powers that be were after, it was still your name on the relevant form they required. Whoever you were, wherever you lived, it was an inconvenient, ‘on-your-bike’ requirement, laid on one and all, to head off to your old, ancestral ‘polling station’, and get yourself registered.

A census. A census imposed by the much maligned machinery of the Roman Empire’s bureaucrats.

There was no resorting to postal votes. There wasn’t the internet option of an on-line registration. It was time off work, loss of pay, and as often as not a hefty hike to the place you’d to think of as ‘home’.

Though your residence might have been way up north (as it was in the case of the teenagers, Joseph and Mary), if your roots were far in the south (as they were for both of those two) -then you were headed south. And I guess for many it must have seemed a picture of the world in which they lived.

They were all ‘going south’. Their nation and their history. Their economy and their politics.  Their peace and their prosperity. Their hopes and all their dreams.

For some at least it must have felt that there was something almost relentless about the thing. A momentum of something like madness had started to grow, a momentum which triggered great movements of ordinary people, which would issue in both overcrowded cities and a catalogue of men and women sleeping rough, and which down the line would see a whole-scale massacre of unsuspecting two-year olds.

They were all now ‘going south’.

Like lemmings sucked seemingly headlong over the edge of the cliff, there must have seemed to the people of God at the time – there must have seemed a terrible ‘southward’ suction in the things which made the headlines in the news: an irresistible force, an irreversible pull, which saw all the bathwater of God’s former blessings on their life going relentlessly down the tubes.

And the Baby with the bathwater?

No chance!

However confusing, chaotic and cruel the political turmoil might be, whatever the ripples of popular discontent were now becoming as they grew into dangerous waves of resentment and anger in the face of a government clampdown – however big the headlines in the papers were, something infinitely bigger was (unbeknown to most if not all) happening on the ground.

Behind the scenes, God was at work. The living God had come.

‘How silently, how silently..’ as the Christmas carol rather quaintly puts it. Well, not really.

Not if you read the extraordinary accounts of what was going on.

Not if you’d gatecrashed at just the right time the unsolicited 3 month stay which Mary took with her aged Aunt Elizabeth, when out of the blue this teenage girl just opened her mouth with a spur-of-the-moment burst of praise and .. well, just gave it laldy.


Not if you lived through the wall from Zak and his wife Elizabeth, and heard the old man erupt into heartfelt song with a good nine months’ of stored up lung capacity poured into the singing of his song. Which was hardly any sort of lullaby, conducive to sending little John to sleep. The poor wee mite must have got as much of a fright as all of the rest of them did.

Silent? Hardly.

Not if you’d had a sleepless night and gone out for a midnight stroll on the sheep-strewn hills round Bethlehem, and found yourself listening in to that spontaneous, ‘pop-up’ carol singing by ‘a great company of the heavenly host’ as they burst into a one-time-only rendering of the original ‘Gloria’: cross Mariah Carey with the choir of King’s College Cambridge, amplify the output, and turn the volume up to full – you might get some small sense of what the thing was like!

Stunning. Symphonic. Even seismic in a sense, maybe.

But silent? Anything but. And yet …

‘How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.’ Well, only in the sense that all this sacred, spine-tingling music was drowned out, and crowded out by the noise and the bedlam of everything else that was going on at the time. And simply missed.

As if the Lord’s decisive personal entry into human history, resonant with the loud reverberations of that great, audacious promise from the dawn of time and heralded with strong trumpet blasts of eager and excited praise – as if all that was providentially ‘camouflaged’ by the loud, cacophonous ‘static’ of the tough, disruptive politics of Rome.

Only those with eyes to see, like the ageing individuals introduced to us by Luke (the temple-squatting Anna, and the Spirit-driven Simeon), only those with eyes to see, only those who watch what’s going on throughout their world with eyes that see beyond the surface and who look behind the headlines of the daily news to trace the subtle moving of the Spirit of Almighty God – only they discern that there has been an ‘earthquake’ which will change the whole of history for good.

There are lessons we maybe do well to be learning from this. For there’s a lot of cacophonous ‘static’ in the global world of politics today.

Not just here in our own land, with the noisy debates and the spiraling volume of protests, demands and rebellion. But right across the world as well. From the rioting in Hong Kong to the Middle Eastern crises.

Australia in ashes. Bolivia on the boil. Chile a cauldron of upheaval. Almost a total alphabet of countries: right on through to the violence in Venezuela, and the overbearing zealots in Zimbabwe’s corrupt officialdom.

The global world of politics creates its own cacophony today. The sights we see are scary. The ‘noise’ the news is making can be deafening.

But perhaps that very noise itself serves as today’s contemporary ‘camouflage’, which hides the mighty moving of the Spirit in these days.

We learned from one of our missionaries there of how in Bolivia today, amidst all the chaos and crises that country at present is knowing, there’s a turning to God on the part of large swathes of the people: whole police forces on their knees before God in prayer: Christians uniting to meet with each other and to cry out to God in earnest, communal prayer in the public plazas.

A lady from Venezuela comes to our ‘mainly music’ week by week, grateful that we pray for her land where her parents and her wider family still live – and she speaks of how in Caracas today large numbers of people, not least among the young, are turning to the Lord in faith.

‘How silently, how silently …’ Perhaps. Perhaps. But only in the sense that these things never make the news.

The cacophony of chaos remains to this day the camouflage which hides, except from those with eyes to see, the music of His mighty Holy Spirit and the symphonies of grace which He is gloriously playing through so many different lives.

May we dare, even in the midst of these dark and difficult days – may we dare yet to look for the moving of the Spirit of Almighty God, and listen, through the ‘static’ of this ‘perfect storm’, for the sound of that great ‘blowing of a violent wind’ with which the Day of Pentecost was marked – those sounds of Jesus coming once again to work within our city and our land?

Wouldn’t it be good to have that sort of glorious coming of our Saviour once again!

Yours in the service of Christ our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – November 2019

Dear Friends,

The Lord is our pastor.

He’s the best. Wise and discerning, patient, forbearing and kind: firm, yet gentle: probing yet all the while so mindful of our frailties and flaws: and always intent on leading us forward, securing our growth, and fulfilling His purpose of grace in all of our lives.

His opening gambit in Scripture is as often as not His opening gambit too whenever we’ve reached some sort of cross-roads in our life. It’s a simple, but searching, question.

“Where are you?” (Gen.3.9).

It’s a question to which both the Leadership Team and the elders are presently applying their minds as very prayerfully under God we seek His way forward for us in these days. Where are we?

The question is always important – not least because a proper understanding of just where we are enables us to know how best we travel on from here. The joke about the local who, when asked by passing tourists what the best way to the capital would be, declared with great simplicity that “If that’s where I wanted to get to I wouldn’t be starting from here!” – that joke has more than an ounce of wisdom in its punch-line.

Where you are necessarily will determine, at least to some considerable extent, what your best next step forward will be. We can only establish where we go from here, when we know where ‘here’ actually is.

‘So where are you?’ asks the Lord. Not as an end in itself, but rather so that we may be the better placed to discern just how the contours of His future for us lie. It’s an important pastoral question, and, as I say, it’s one which the Leadership Team in particular, and the elders together more generally, have been pondering for a while.

The question’s always a good one, not least because there are various different perspectives from which an answer can be given: these different perspectives serve as a series of what might be called ‘trig-points’, from which we then are better placed to ‘map out’ the lie of the land going forward.

Any conclusions as such are at present still very premature, and the elders have already diarized Saturday 18th January for a half-day elders’ conference with a view to our better discerning the mind of the Lord on this: some 20-20 vision as we start the year 2020.

It’ll be helpful, I hope, for an ongoing conversation on this theme throughout the fellowship at this time, if I set out for you here at least the general drift of our thoughts thus far as we’ve sought to wait upon the Lord.

Where are we? There are, as I mentioned above, a number of different perspectives from which the question can be viewed.

And the first of these is an historical one. Where are we on the time-line of God’s dealings with this local congregation of His people? And is there any pattern in those dealings over time which help us put down markers for the next few steps ahead?

It’s an interesting exercise to track that path and see the sovereign providence of God through this most recent century.

Back in 1929, Gilcomston South Parish Church was given a tiny parish, with next to no residents actually living in the parish: combine that fact with a minister at the time who proved to be quite sickly, and then the turmoil of the war, and you see why in the immediate post-war years we were very well placed for the radical expository teaching ministry of Mr Still to be exercised here, and for the church to be and become, primarily and very distinctively, effectively a central and centripetal ‘preaching station’.

With the closure of Denburn Parish Church (where Hebron Evangelical Church are located today) the congregation’s ‘parish’ extended first to the north: and a similar parish expansion occurred to the south, with the closure of the old Langstane Kirk (where ‘Soul’ is now to be found). For the last 25 years or so, accordingly, and certainly in the period leading up to our becoming an independent congregation, the sense of a wider ‘parish responsibility’ was impressed upon our corporate mind and heart.

And reflecting on that across those years, we’re aware of a range of different ‘constituencies’ within our parish reach. There’s a constituency, first of all, of those who day by day are resident here in our vicinity. There are those who are our neighbours as they come in to their work, in offices and businesses and shops. There are those who travel in to our environs, with varying degrees of frequency, for fun and entertainment. And there are those who simply walk the streets – to browse, to beg, to scour the shops, to see the sights; or just because their life has been reduced to but a vague and aimless wandering, and the main street is as good a place as any for their weary limbs to roam.

We’ve been made more aware across these years, that is, of both the pastoral responsibility and the evangelistic opportunity which the Lord has firmly laid upon our life here as a fellowship – always alongside and complementary to, rather than in any sense a substitute for, the ‘preaching station’ ministry which is and was and will be very much the core of all that God has called us here to be.

Having recognized that, however, it’s been important as well, from still very much an historical standpoint, to see that we’ve been (and still to some extent are) in a time of significant transition.

There is, first, the ‘ecclesiastical’ transition from being part of a major denomination, with some clearly defined parish bounds, to becoming within the last 7 years essentially an independent church, for whom ‘the world is now our parish’. That is never an easy change to make; there are all sorts of hazardous cross-currents through which such churches have to navigate as they sail into the very different waters of a non-denominational life.

Then, too, there has been the transition in personnel from one long and significant preaching and pastoral ministry to a new one. All sorts of emotions inevitably come into play, and all sorts of adjustments invariably have to be made. The smoothest transitions take patience, and care, and time.

Perhaps the biggest transition of all, however, is a cultural one. There has been something of a seismic shift in the great tectonic plates of Scotland’s culture over all these last decades. And as a result the whole societal context in which our life as Christ’s church is now lived out has altered, almost beyond recognition. The cultural landscape is no longer remotely the same as once it was, and all the different facets of the way in which as Christians we engage with our society – all that has necessarily had to change.

Perhaps we are loath to believe it: perhaps we are slow to wake up to the change there has been and the challenges consequent on it. But we’re surely at best still very much playing simply ‘catch-up’.

Where are we? We’re still, from an historical perspective, – we’re still at least to some extent in transition.

But the historical perspective is only one among a number of ways of addressing the pastoral question God bids us address.

There’s a geographical perspective as well to the question – ‘where are you?’

That may be obvious: but we’re minded to conclude that it’s also under God significant. We didn’t have to end up here on Union Street when we left the Church of Scotland. We might have wished to do so: we might even have presumed to do so. But we certainly didn’t need to.

The fact that we have done so, with the ownership of this particular building at this particular place entrusted now to ourselves – that has had the hallmarks of the sovereign will and providence of God. It was something of a minor miracle that we had the opportunity to buy this old familiar building, particularly in the circumstances in which that purchase was secured: it was something of a minor miracle that the very substantial sums involved in the purchase price were met within a matter of a few short weeks: and the fact that on the day when that substantial purchase payment was transferred we had precisely the substantial sum required (with a tiny bit more as the generous ”baker’s dozen” grace of God) – that simply underlined, if we had any lingering doubts, that this indeed is where the Lord Himself now clearly means that we should be.

The last remaining church to front onto the main street of our city here in Aberdeen.

Location, location, location. The geographic answer to the question is as pertinent as any: and one we therefore have to take on board. The Lord has located us here. He has a role for His people to play, right here.

There may be all sorts of aspects to that, of course, given both where we are set and what our building affords. The centrality of the location. The constituencies around the location. The consistency in the location. But one way or another this perspective is an important one which must help inform our thinking.

There is also, though, always a spiritual perspective from which the Lord’s probing question must be answered. Where are we, in terms of our walk and our life with Him? Not so much in terms of individuals, as in terms of our communal life as a varied congregation of His people in this place.

For many a long decade there has been at the heart of our life together a very intentional, systematic expository teaching of the Word of God: that, under God, has always had in view both a thorough-going equipping of believers for the work of daily ministry wherever Christ has called them thus to serve, and also a clear and constant sending into all the world of each and every member of His church. Everything, of course, undergirded by a disciplined ministry of prayer.

All of that equips us for the very varied ministry of witness and of service which each of us will individually exercise. But might it not just be that in the providence of God, across these long decades, He’s been so very patiently preparing us to exercise together as His church a challenging new ministry of engaging both a culture and a context and constituencies with each of which we’re neither comfortable nor that confident? It happens! Our old, familiar friend, the prophet Jonah, could tell us all a thing or two along precisely such a line!

So as the Lord addresses the question, ‘Where are you?’ to us, we in turn have been asking the question that Jesus was always asking: ‘what do we see the Father doing?’ Because that alone defines what we must do.

We see the Lord seeming to prosper the ministry through our Community Groups. We see the Lord seeming to have His hand upon our children’s work. We see the Lord seeming to do His transforming work in the lives of those who come off the street with huge and wide-ranging need. We certainly see the Father at work in a range of significant ways: and what we see Him doing is the only sort of compass we can have in charting out His future course for us. We must not live in dreamland. We may not look at others and decide that that’s what we would like to be and do. “If that’s where I wanted to go to, I wouldn’t have started from here!”

Here is where we are. And that must always define for us where it is we are bidden to go by the Lord, and what it is that He would have us as His people here to do.

So where are you? asks the Lord of us.

And where are you in it all?

May there be a growing sense of God-inspired expectancy as we seek His face for the future.

Yours in the service of Christ our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – October 2019

Dear Friends,

Hamlet would be having a field day for his soliloquies now. To be or not to be. In the EU, that is. Noel Edmonds, too, I suppose, might just be considering a comeback with his Deal or No Deal show.

Brexit. Everyone now, so it seems, wants in on the act: however the thing’s to be viewed. A contemporary, five-act tragedy that would have done old Shakespeare proud? A real-life, early evening soap, with so many twists and turns to the script that no one is sure if the thing will ever end? Or just some elaborate political gameshow, a mad, mazy mix of Countdown, Pointless, and Tipping Point?

The jury’s out! Prorogued perhaps, who knows!

When it comes to Europe and Brexit, you’re either fired up, or fed up. Maybe both, I suppose. But what on earth are we meant to make of it all? As Christians, I mean.

Perhaps we do well to stand back just a bit from the whole complex saga and consider not so much the merits of the whole debate, but its result. For wherever you land in terms of the rights and the wrongs of this wretched hot potato, the politics have actually been but the canvas on which some far more profound and sobering truths about our land have now been painted out.

This is not the classic art of Rembrandt or Van Gogh. This is modern art, more Turner Prize than a Turner painting. Or strictly speaking post-modern art. Because try as you might to make any sense of it all, the whole thing seems often just a mass of contradictions and .. well, a mess.

A mess it may well be: but through it all the three great primary colours of our present day society are clearly seen. And it is to these, far more than to the details of the whole bizarre scenario – it is to these three ‘colours’ that attention must be paid.

Division, confusion, and aggression, are the ‘colours’ painted across our nation today in all their naked ugliness.

Division, first of all. We have become a starkly divided country. Europe and Brexit have only served to highlight and exacerbate what has been there for a while: the phenomenon of a growing fragmentation right across the whole broad panorama of our national life.

The flesh of our national life has become diseased, the skin of societal health is cracking up all over the place, and the cracks themselves have become now huge, great chasms, gaping and infected wounds of widespread discontent.

Europe and Brexit have only served to bring it all to the surface. A disease of the body politic whose first important symptom is an all-pervasive, right-across-the-board disintegration.

Remain or leave. In or out. Deal or no deal. Now or never. And that’s just Europe and Brexit!

The fault lines are found to be everywhere now. Independence or union. Private or public. The state or the individual. Traditionalist or revisionist. Bible or Babel. We’re a people now falling apart at the seams, the common ground on which we all once stood as hazardous now as the no man’s land between two strong, entrenched opinions of opposing views.

Divided, and more significantly perhaps, increasingly divisive too.

“Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined,” our Lord once said (Matt.12.25). The disease of division has become now epidemic with us here, a plague among our people, whose putrid stench is the harbinger of ruin.

Then, as well, there’s confusion. Some of what’s gone on within the Commons and the Lords has surely had the character of farce: the line between what’s pantomime and what we thought was parliament has sometimes been astonishingly blurred.

How did we ever arrive at the place where we are? And where exactly are we? And what on earth do we do to get out of this ‘catch 22’? No one knows. We’re in ‘uncharted waters’ we’re told.

But phrases such as that are just a euphemistic label to disguise the basic fact of that confusion which pervades not just our politics but almost every single sphere of national life.

Distinctions which gave clear and healthy definition to the fabric of society have bit by bit been blurred.

The 24-hour global-village clock, and the 7-day working week, have seen us lose the careful demarcation of our days which once we had, and seen instead the busy days just blend into each other without a single punctuation mark at all.

And the systematic, across-the-board dismantling of the ‘boundary lines’ in morals has resulted in a similar confusion. Equality has now become a vigorous insistence on a dumbed-down need for sameness. Freedom is interpreted as little more than anarchy, where you and you alone must now determine who you are and how you live. Even basic grammar is a victim of such wanton disregard for every former ‘boundary line’: and thus a single individual can insist on being described by the plural terms of ‘they’ and ‘them’, while saying in the self-same breath that this is but ‘my’ (singular) right. With a hundred and one different genders from which to choose, and the liberty to make up some more, no wonder that people are lost and confused as to who exactly they are.

We’re a people completely at sea, our landmarks all ripped up, revoked and removed. We don’t know where we’ve come from. We don’t know who we are. We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know why we’re here.

And we certainly do not know how to get out of the mess that we’re in.

Politically. Environmentally. Relationally. Morally. And half the time our society now is so sufficiently confused that it can’t even see its confusion.

Is that too stark an analysis? Is that too bleak a picture? Well, yes, of course, I’m painting the thing in as striking a way as I can. For it’s there, this confusion, and it’s there as part of the picture we’re seeing painted out on the canvas of Europe and Brexit.

Division. And confusion.

And a worrying aggression as well. Have you not become aware of that? A creeping, insidious increase in the volume and the pitch with which in all sorts of ways in our land today we now choose to take our stand against each other.

The vitriol and the venom with which the drama of our parliamentary business has increasingly been acted out. The anger, the rage, the contempt that’s been there; and the rank, unbridled disrespect with which protagonists engage with one another and now play their parts before the watching cameras.

Parliament itself is surely but a window onto what our whole society’s become. We’re an angry nation, embittered in so many ways, and resorting, it seems, with remarkable ease, to expressing our views and demanding our rights with a mood that’s acerbic, explosive and hard. It feels as if we’re sitting on a tinder box, gripping grenades with the pins taken out.

Isn’t that what you see on the faces of those pouring out to protest on the streets in their thousands? Isn’t that what you hear in the voices of the many so eager and quick to ring in and have their say on the plethora of chat shows we now have? Isn’t that what you read in the tweets and the posts which are planted like so many mines and IEDs in the fields of social media? Isn’t that what you so often find in the books and articles penned today by those with a point to make?

Open, acrimonious hostility. Aggression.

To form, with the division and confusion, a terrifying triptych of our land today.

And that should set alarm bells loudly ringing. Because these are the three invariable symptoms of a people who have cast off all restraint, spurned God’s rule, dismissed God’s word, and scorned God’s Son – and arrogantly assumed that we can be the masters of the universe. Not a ‘progressive’ society at all, but the hallmarks of regression.

Remember how the Bible begins in its stunning, opening salvo. A very similar triptych again.

“Now the earth was formless, empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Gen.1.2).

Formlessness. Emptiness. Darkness.

It was that which the LORD addressed in His great creative power when He ruled by His word over it all. Darkness replaced by light. An abundance in place of the emptiness and void (a world that teemed with good things). And order, in place of the formlessness once there had been. And that was all good: very good.

But when in chapter 3 and beyond the rule of God was usurped and the word of God was dismissed, see how very quickly there’s a potent, gravitational pull back to that pre-creation triptych of a world apart from God.

Confusion kicks in. The old, chaotic formlessness, where all the great distinctions have been blurred. The distinction between the creature and Creator. The distinction between humanity and the rest of the animate creation. The distinction between the man and the woman. Questions. Chaos. Confusion. Am I my brother’s keeper? Who am I?

And division. That which had not been ‘not good’ was the fact that the man was alone. Fullness of life had been given to him in the walk he had with his God and in the love that he found in his wife. Relationship. But now the emptiness returns.

The man and the woman, the two made so wonderfully one, now torn apart, at loggerheads with each other, as the game of blame is mercilessly played: and torn apart from God their Maker as well, as they’re banished from the Garden. And as the whole sorry sage moves on, brother’s now set against brother in a rivalry and envy which was only ever going to end in tragedy and tears. Division. And its consequential emptiness.

And aggression. The dominion of … yes, of course, the dominion of darkness takes charge. The law of the jungle in place of the kingdom of God. Hatred, hostility, harm. Darkness spreads over the surface of the deep again. The darkness of fear. The darkness of force. The darkness of self on the throne – self-centred, self-seeking, self-indulgent. And the darkness of death as well.

Chaos, a void, and darkness. Confusion, division, aggression. The towers of our society have collapsed: we’re back at ground zero.

Europe and Brexit is only the canvas on which the plight of a people who’ve scorned God’s rule and God’s word has now been painted out. It’s not to the merits or demerits of Brexit itself that our eyes are wisely turned: but to that triptych of symptoms the issue’s shown up, indicative now of our need.

The only note of hope that we can find is the statement we find at the end of the primeval triptych – “.. and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Nothing less than a mighty and merciful work of the Spirit of God through our land today can undo and reverse the rot that’s already set in.

Yours in, I hope, a concert of urgent prayer to our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – September 2019

Dear Friends,

It’s ‘Doors Open Day’ here in Aberdeen this month.

We’re glad of the opportunities the day presents – despite the fact that our doors are obviously open on more than just the one day in the year – because the three-word title which is given to the day is itself so expressive of the gospel we proclaim: it could almost be our ‘strap-line’! ‘Doors open day.’

The whole message of the Bible is essentially about an open door: or at least about a door which had once been closed, being now opened affording access. For our problem as humanity has, from the Garden of Eden onwards, been one of access: or, more precisely, a lack of access.

The door was shut in the face of Adam and Eve (metaphorically at least), when they chose to spurn the word of God: they were chased out of the garden, the gate was closed behind them, and the key was pretty much thrown away.

A big red circle with a broad white line across the middle is the sign we all encounter, whichever way we try and climb or scramble or bribe our way into heaven. ‘No Entry’. The door firmly closed, locked and bolted.

We understand at least in some measure something of the phenomenon, and the reasons lying behind it. The people of Winchester maybe better than most these days.

The very mention of Novichok there, for instance, is enough to trigger an instant, total lock-down: they know all too well just how fatally lethal that wretched nerve agent can be. The doors will be closed. Access denied. Keep out.

Or have a chat with Pauline Cafferkey about the effects of the ebola virus, and remind yourself of just what ‘barrier’ nursing looks like, why it’s employed, and what it entails for infected individuals: a whole series of ‘barriers’ – doors, as it were, firmly shut and sealed, to keep the contaminated person out, and to prevent that potent virus slipping in.

We understand the principle. Sin contaminates: and we’re all infected. The good, the bad, and the ugly – it doesn’t matter who we are, we’re all of us infected. We carry the virus with us.

And the door of heaven stays solidly shut.

Until the thing has been dealt with. That’s why we often sing as we do the great words of Psalm 24 when we celebrate communion and rehearse once more the life and death of Jesus on our part.

Ye gates, lift up your heads on high; ye doors that last for aye, be lifted up, that so the King of Glory enter may.

The drawbridge of heaven is lowered at last, the portcullis at last is raised. At last there’s a Man who can go in. The Man who’s not infected. The Man who’s dealt the thorough-going antidote to sin. No wonder that one of the ways He describes Himself is simply as ‘the door’.

This is now a ‘door’s open’ day. The door has been opened to Him, the sinless, perfect Man. And for those who can say “I’m with Him” .. well, they too get the nod, they too can go in now with Him. They too can draw near and feast with the Father, like the prodigal children we are, because the stain of sin’s been removed, and it’s virility rendered impotent: we’ve been declared no longer infectious.

That’s how we most times think of the ‘open door’. And rightly so in some ways. ‘Come on in!’ we exhort, with a genuine warmth in our words of exhortation and a valid sense of urgency as well.

‘The door has been opened by Jesus: come on in!’  This is “the door’s open” day for sure. We welcome everyone in.

Except the New Testament rather knocks that comfortable notion on its head. Or rather, the New Testament church discovered to their considerable discomfort that God was knocking that notion on the head. Or at least swiveling the head 180 degrees.

Those who’ve come in are now to go out. A whole new ball game ensues. And Jesus Himself, the great ‘pioneer’ and perfecter of our faith, He shows the way.

Remember that famous little episode in Jericho. The wee man, Zacchaeus – little in pretty much every way (and most of the ways weren’t that pretty) – remember how Jesus engaged with him?

Not the way that we’d have likely followed – if we’d cared to engage with the man at all. We’d have maybe put a flier in the wee man’s chubby fingers and encouraged him to come to church, told him the times of services, and assured him he’d be made most warmly welcome. The door’s open to all!

Not Jesus. It was the other way round with Him. “Zacchaeus,” He said, “I must come to your house for tea.” Your house.

If Jesus is indeed ‘the door’, His disciples soon learn that this is more like a revolving door. For the early church would learn very quickly – and painfully too, by means of open persecution – that, yes the door’s open, but it’s been opened by Jesus to send His people out.

It wasn’t an easy lesson for any of them to learn. For centuries past their entire perspective had been framed by the basic conviction that the only door, the one and only access that there was to God, involved you going to Him – more specifically you going off to the house of God, located in Jerusalem. That’s where and how you met with God. The door was narrow; and just occasionally ajar; for once a year, on your behalf, with all due complicated protocols observed, the great high priest could get himself an audience with the Lord.

The early church was being called to break the habits of a lifetime. The only working model which they had was one whereby “the open door” meant only that you’re free now to go in. Come. On. IN!

We’re faced by a very similar challenge in these days. For centuries now, and for very good reasons, the primary working model that we’ve had, in terms of how we go about our calling to proclaim the risen Christ, has been one which sees us eager to invite our neighbours in. In to the building, in to the church, in to share in our worship. Come on in – the door’s open!

Well, yes; the door’s open. And, yes, folk are welcome always to come in. But just as the early church soon learned that God had other plans in opening thus the door, so we today are having to break with the patterns of the past, dispense with the working models which have served us well, and learn again what the ‘strap-line’ actually means. Door’s Open Day. God’s opened the door to send His people out.

‘Don’t expect that they will come to you: you go to them. Door’s open – out you go. Go call on wee Zacchaeus and his chums. Go visit them, have tea with them. Their place not yours.’

Door’s open. This is the children of God now coming of age. No longer confined to the home, no longer grounded, no longer housebound. But trusted now to go out, ‘chaperoned’ and indeed empowered by the indwelling Spirit of God, to do themselves what Jesus had been doing from the start – the Son of God who opened the door of His home and went out, out on mission, and came to us. Isn’t that what the incarnation is all about? ‘I must stay at your house today!’

Remember how Paul and Barnabas reported back to the church at Antioch, telling them of all that God had done through them and “how He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14.27)? Or how, a bit later on, he writes to say that “a great door for effective work has opened to me ..” (1 Cor.16.9)?

“Door’s open” meant they went. That’s the challenge which we now, like the early church, are facing today. The ‘revolving’ door of grace is turning our model of ministry on its head. No longer a case of people first coming in and then, once in, being roundly and soundly converted, through the preaching of the Word: instead, people only by and large coming in when once they’ve already been converted. Through the spreading of the Word of God out there on the streets, in the homes, and in the places of leisure and work where the swarming mass of humanity live out their every-day lives.

The church at Antioch now provides a far more important model for us all than the church which was stuck in Jerusalem. That church’s story (the church at Antioch, I mean) begins with those who were ‘scattered’ (Acts 11.19): they were kicked, rather unceremoniously, out through the open door. But without a hint of a ‘but-we’ve-aye-done-it-this-way’ complaint, they got off their backsides, stepped into their trainers, and carried right on out.

They ‘travelled’, we’re told, travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. Not just out, but way out. So ‘way out’ in fact that the church in Jerusalem got singularly nervous and twitchy about it all, and sent a delegation off to check the whole thing out.

And ‘out’, of course, was the operative word! Disciples were out on the streets of the world: kicked out, or sent out, depending upon your perspective – but definitely now right out on the streets of the world: and the word was out that Jesus was risen, that the King had come, that a whole new world order had started.

A great door had opened to the world at large. For “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord .. a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11.21, 24).

A huge, great centrifugal force had been, in God’s wise providence, now set in train, and an outward-looking, outward-going model had become this ‘scattered’ people’s new perspective in the cause of gospel ministry. A momentum had been triggered by the act of their expulsion from Jerusalem; and Antioch would prove to be not just their landing place, but rapidly their launch pad, too, for more far-reaching ministry which would see the message sounding out and spreading out to peoples far and wide.

It’s a “door’s open” day. We’d better believe it! We’d better learn to recognize and understand the spiritual dynamics of this great ‘revolving’ door!

Because it is just a ‘day’. Not a brief September Saturday; but not forever and a day either. Just a ‘day’, a season, an era, a day of opportunity which does not and which will not last for always. For the Lord who’s gracious in opening such doors, is sovereign as well in His closing the door when it’s time.

Remember what’s said about Noah after all those years of building the ark and preaching the word? “The Lord shut him in” (Gen.7.16). Or, more bluntly, ‘the Lord closed the door.’

Scary, if you were stuck outside and felt the first drops of rain on your head. You’d have had years and years of listening to Noah the boat-builder preaching the Word: and now the heavens opened .. and the door was closed, to the only sort of safety there would be. How dreadful to find too late that you’d missed the boat!

It’s a “Door’s open” day still here: but maybe only just in Scotland now. As we’re wont to say, the nights are drawing in fast. “While it is still day,” therefore, “we must do the works of Him who sent (us)” (Jn.9.4): on the street side of the door.

Yours in Christ’s service

Jeremy Middleton

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