Monthly Letter – August 2021

Dear Friends,

Tightrope walking is described as a sport, a so-called ‘extreme sport’ – and probably best seen as being at the extreme end of the ‘extreme sport’ spectrum! It certainly has an appeal for some: but equally, of course, it has a significant drop-off rate!

Most would maybe not choose to walk those hazardous tightropes. The challenge, however, is one which no one can duck. We all have to walk such ‘tightropes’. We all have to learn the scary skills of balance as we walk our way through life.

We learn to walk, toddling and toppling to start with, but then quickly establishing balance. We learn to ride a bicycle, discovering that speed both facilitates readier balance, and yet aggravates bruises and bumps when our balance is suddenly lost.

We learn the need for balance, too, when it comes to what we eat: we soon come to see that all sweets and no greens makes for a sickly and overweight child. We recognize, too, how important it is to be able to balance the books, so to manage our saving and spending that expenditure is right in line with income. And we discover (in some cases far too late in life) – we discover how vital the right sort of work/life balance will be.

Balance. From day one of our lives we’ve been having to learn these basic balance skills.

So there’s a sense in which there is nothing that new about the challenges our leaders have been facing these days in the course of the present pandemic. It’s the challenge of balance again.

Securing the physical health of the nation while seeking simultaneously to safeguard our mental well-being as well. A difficult balancing act.

Protecting an over-stretched health service, while at the very same time promoting the interests of business. A difficult balancing act.

Balancing health and wealth. A tough and tortuous tightrope which our leaders have had to be walking.

But then such is the nature of any sort of government. Such is the challenge leaders always face: balancing always a whole long list of different vested interests, and budgeting accordingly. It isn’t ever easy: and it isn’t something new.

Except… Except that in this present global crisis the leaders of our land today have found themselves obliged to walk this tightrope with effectively no ‘pole’ to aid their balance. Imagine asking Blondin to attempt his tightrope walk across Niagara Falls without his 25-foot balancing pole! Even he would have figured that discretion was the better part of valour and would hardly have dared the attempt.

The ‘pole’ is always essential. Without it, the challenge of the tightrope is a whole new, crazy ballgame.

And yet that, in some ways, is precisely what’s new about the challenge which the Covid-19 crisis has incurred. Our society today has dispensed with the perspective of faith: and as a result, it’s sought to walk the tightrope of coping with Covid without its trusty ‘balancing pole’.

Because that’s what our Christian faith has been: historically speaking, faith has been for centuries the stabilizing, ‘balancing pole’ with which the inevitable tightropes of our national life have been consistently walked. And it’s that – the absence of faith – which has made the response to the present pandemic so much harder for our leaders.

Risk is always present in this fallen world. Illness and injury alike can afflict a person any time. Whoever you are. Whatever precautions you take. Disease and death are facts of life. However paradoxical that sounds; they’re ever-present features of this present, punctured world. Adversities and harmful animosities can suddenly erupt, spewing out destructive streams of foul volcanic ash which devastate communities.

Risk is simply one of the realities of life in this long-since-fallen world. How such risk is handled, then, is what the task of leadership involves. Raise a family – you’re engaging in the management of risk.. Drive a car – you’re managing risk at every turn. Run some sort of business – and it’s risk you’re having to manage. Head up a school, a college, a university campus – it’s the management of risk to which your energies and expertise are being applied. Ratchet it up a level or two and govern a city, a region or country – there, too, there are risks you’re having to manage, right across the board.

Invariably, it’s all about balance. The Covid pandemic has simply upped the stakes of this risk-management.

For it’s a tightrope which has to be walked, and the margins are frighteningly fine. Should our leaders choose a care-free sort of line? Or should they opt for caution? Which way do they lean? Should they cultivate fear – and run the risks of jeopardizing very basic freedoms? Or should they rather safeguard people’s freedoms – and run the risk of realizing all their people’s deepest, worst-case fears?

It’s a tightrope that our leaders have to walk. A difficult balancing act. And while there have been such scenarios before, what’s new about the challenges today is the absence of that ‘balancing pole’ with which our forbears always sought to ‘walk the line’ and navigate our nation’s life through all the stormy seas we’ve had to sail.

The ‘balancing pole’ of faith. Or, more particularly, that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Such faith brings a poise to our lives and our living – as well as a peace. Such faith brings a needed perspective when decisions are required – as well as a common objective.

Faith in the Scriptures is a 3-dimensional thing. The upward look of faith itself, directed to the living God and a deep-seated trust in Him. The forward look of a certain hope to a future whose contours have already been secured for us by God. And the outward look of Christ-like love, inspired by His Spirit within, which makes us always careful for our ‘neighbours’ and our world.

It isn’t rocket science to figure out that such a combination of this faith, this hope, this love, inevitably affords a people far more by way of balance in their lives. Here’s why.

First, that upward look of faith ensures that from the outset we will recognize the sovereignty of God: He knows what He’s doing, and He remains in complete and perfect control. Heaven doesn’t have a handy panic button – there’s never any need for one.

And beneath that protective ‘umbrella’ of His sovereign over-ruling, we recognize as well, by faith, how wise He is, and how, when faced by sudden crises in our lives which leave us at sixes and sevens, He’s always the one who knows what to do and who’s able to sort things out. We turn to Him for wisdom: and we turn to Him for power, for He’s made it clear that it’s easy for Him to stop any plague in its tracks. And we turn to Him for mercy, too, conscious that His rule is marked by righteousness and that none of us can ever measure up.

That upward look of faith makes all the world of difference. We no longer look to the science (from the Latin ‘scientia’, meaning ‘knowledge’), we look to the Saviour instead: we rely no longer on our knowledge (which at best is both finite and flawed), but His wisdom. We’re no longer stuck with our own very meagre resources, we can draw on those of heaven. We don’t have to countenance panic, we resort instead to prayer.

That upward look of faith ensures a genuine, and necessary humility: it has a healthy ‘gravitational’ pull which puts us in our proper place: it brings us well and truly ‘down to earth’ and thereby helps secure a better ‘traction’ on the tightrope to be walked. And it is to the humble, of course, that grace is ever given by the Lord.

The ‘balancing pole’ of faith, however, has an outward look as well: a Spirit-wrought compassion which translates into our living as a thorough-going and practical care, and a consistent concern for the truest, lasting welfare of both individual people and the integral communities of which they are a part. Such love, rooted in the love of God Himself, embraces every facet of a person’s life and seeks the true ‘shalom’ of healing, health and wholeness for each one.

Such love seeks more than just mere physical health: it’s careful for the mental and emotional health, the material and the spiritual health and welfare of each member of society. A costly, extravagant, patient and pains-taking love. A love which found its ultimate expression in the cross on which the one who had no sin became for us that sin. That sort of love.

Faith has always that outward momentum and look. And it also has a forward look as well: a forward look which, just like the upward and the outward look, again affords the depth of perspective which we so much need in tackling any crises which we face.

That forward look of faith is what the Bible means by ‘hope’. Such hope is not some optimistic attitude or outlook which a person may adopt: it’s not a rather cavalier and carefree way of living life, a happy-go-lucky naivety which blankly presumes it’ll all be all right in the end. This biblical hope is one that faces facts: it’s tied to some basic, big realities. Hope knows that death is certain: that judgment is coming: that heaven is better: and that salvation’s been effected and secured for us in Jesus Christ alone.

Death is an enemy. Yes, we recognize that. It’s the last enemy: certainly the last enemy to be destroyed. But death has been defeated: and hope thus frees us from that ‘slavery’ occasioned by the fear of death. Can you see the huge big difference that makes in terms of the perspective we adopt? For it has been fear which has been daily and deliberately drip-fed into both the bloodstream and the mindset of society these past long months: that fear, the fear of death – which issues in a slavery.

The hope we have in Jesus Christ delivers us from just that wretched slavery: we no longer live for just this world, we’re living towards a world that’s still to come. A world that’s infinitely better. A world that is enduring and eternal. A world that is bigger, and better, and longer and lovelier than the best which this world can offer. It’s not that we simply give up on this world, but we see it for what it is and don’t place upon it a weight which it cannot bear.

That’s the 3-dimensional ‘balancing pole’ by which we develop a poise and a peace as we tread across the tightropes of adversity. Remember Psalm 23 (who doesn’t?) – this is what the psalmist there was on about: the ‘balancing pole’. What is the comfort the poor man has as he walks through the darkest valley? ‘Your rod and your staff, they comfort me’. It’s that 3-dimensional ‘balancing pole’ all over again.

The upward look of faith – for the psalmist knows the Shepherd God is with him: wise, strong, kind and good, always present with him, leading him into and through and then finally beyond the valley of the shadow of death. The outward look of love, which sees him patiently learning to walk those gracious paths of righteousness, walking with his Lord and God, and learning with Him what it is to act justly, what it is to love mercy, what it is to rightly relate to the world of which he’s a part. And the forward look of hope, seeing the banquet beyond the buffeting, having eyes far more for the pleasures of that promised future destiny than the hazards and the heartaches of his painful present darkness.

That’s how you best walk the tightropes which trials demand that you tread. What fool will think to walk a narrow tightrope that’s been slung across the chasm of the great Niagara Falls without a trusted ‘balancing pole’ to hand? Yet that’s what society’s secular stance has required of our leaders today: to navigate this crisis on their own, to walk a high-rise tightrope minus pole.

Walk through the valley of the shadow of death (and isn’t that what the Covid pandemic has been?) – walk through that valley without the very real ‘comfort’ of His rod and staff, without this ‘balancing pole’ of a living faith in Jesus … well, it’s effectively ‘walking the plank’! Curtains.

What need, then, in these troubled days, for all of God’s people to resort more than ever to prayer!

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton