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,