Monthly Letter – April 2018

Dear Friends

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a big man. In every way.

His large physique (at least, it looks that way from the pictures you see of the man) was matched both by the largeness of his heart, and by the passion which he had to bring the good news of a Saviour to the lost and needy multitudes who swarmed the streets of London where he lived.

He was a preacher: a preacher with a rich command of English and a certain bold directness in the truths he was persuaded must be preached. He didn’t mince his words. He told it as it was. There wasn’t any ‘flannel’ in the messages he brought. It was always a shoot-from-the-hip sort of thing.

There’s a book in his name called “The Soul Winner.” The title is taken from Authorised Version of Proverbs 11.30 (“The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise”), and the title describes very well the man whose addresses the book itself contains.

It’s a book from which we would all undoubtedly profit – and some of us maybe would benefit most if we read it once every year!

Perhaps one chapter in particular: the one entitled – ‘How to raise the dead’.

If that sort of chapter heading doesn’t grab your attention and send a little shiver of anticipated trembling up your spine, I don’t know quite what will! But the title itself is so typical Spurgeon. No beating about the bush. No toning it down to make it seem a little less extreme. He’ll just shoot from the hip and tell it as it is.

The chapter concerned is a message he brought to “the teachers of the south London Auxiliary of the Sunday School Union, at their annual prayer meeting”: as such, of course, the lessons he’s teaching are applied with some force to the ministry then being exercised among the girls and boys of London at the time. But the message is one whose thrust is one we all of us need to be hearing (and the context – ‘their annual prayer meeting’ – is surely not without significance as well).

Because that’s what we’re called as Christ’s church here on earth to do. To raise the dead. As stark as that.

And as stupid and crazy as that, our society today would retort!

Our society today will have none of this at all: neither the fact of our own innate deadness; nor any notion of resurrection. How dare you suggest in the first place that we’re dead! And even if we were, well there’s no way on earth that the dead can be raised – that would be a miracle, and miracles are not on the menu today as something which people will ever swallow (so our society thinks).

And because we’re all out there each day and breathing in that toxic air of unbelief, we can subtly ourselves have our focus taken off the sharp reality of what we’re called to be and do as Jesus’ church.

Which is basically .. to raise the dead. (Except, of course, it’s not us, but the Lord who does the raising.)

We need to be clear about this. The challenge we face is not a case of ignorance or apathy; it’s not a case of people lacking interest or their being too much distracted by the multi-screen environment in which they live. That would be challenge enough, I don’t doubt: but it doesn’t even start to scratch the surface of the challenge which we face.

The challenge we face lies simply in this, that the world is one big cemetery, and those to whom the message must be brought are six-foot-under-ground and wholly dead and buried in their sin.

Outside of Christ, in their natural state, men and women and girls and boys are dead. Spiritually dead. As in a corpse: as wholly unresponsive, as wholly unable to hear, far less to act on, what’s being said .. as a lifeless corpse.

Dead. Dodos aren’t more dead than those we’re meeting and engaging on the streets of Aberdeen. Or wherever it is you may live. Brick walls are no less able to respond.

So don’t let’s think that if we somehow turbo-charged our kindness folk might start at last to see how good and gracious Jesus is: corpses cannot see. Don’t let’s think that watching YouTube TED talks to improve our own communication skills will mean that those with whom we’re speaking will now listen and respond: no amount of eloquence will ever make the dead a fractional percentage point less deaf.

So the one thing above all others which we need to learn is just what C H Spurgeon was going on about. How to raise the dead.

This is taking Easter and translating it from something on the calendar of history to something that’s inherent in our day-by-day engaging with the world in which we live. More than just a doctrine, but now the underlying dynamic to our living.

Isn’t that what Jesus Himself was speaking about when He countered the grief-stricken sisters in the aftermath of their brother Lazarus’ death?

Yes, they believe that their brother will rise at the last from the dead: their doctrine is sound, they believe in resurrection. Doctrinally sound they may be, but they hadn’t quite got the whole point.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” replies Jesus to their orthodox confession of faith.

They’re thinking of the resurrection primarily as event. A diary-date in the purpose of God at some point in the mists of the future. And they’re not much different from the way we too have often thought. Resurrection as event.

An event (and yes, of course, an astonishing, wonderful, glorious event) which happened back then when Jesus was raised from the dead: and an event which is still in the future when all the dead will be raised.

So, yes, we believe in the resurrection of the body. The apostles would be proud of us as we recite the creed!

But Jesus would haul us aside, He’d drag us away from any such vain repetition of the great historic creeds, to impress on our hearts that it’s more than just a doctrine we believe – it’s meant to be the Spirit-wrought dynamic of our lives.

The resurrection is emphatically not primarily an event. I mean it is an event – a past event and a future event – but it’s not primarily that. It’s a Person. Jesus. And with this risen Jesus in our hearts and lives, resurrection then becomes an ever-present experience, as well as simply a past and a future event. An experience whereby the dead of today are being raised.

And isn’t it really just that which Paul as well is on about when he says that he’d ditch all his other credentials if only he might “know Christ and the power of His resurrection” (Phil.3.10)? Knowing the Person who self-designates as ‘the resurrection and the life’  – and thereby also knowing Christ’s own resurrecting power both in and through his life. That power whereby the dead are raised.

Paul is insistent on that. That’s what the kingdom of God is really about, he declares. Not talk, no matter what eloquence, passion, or TED-talk potential the person may have: not talk, because no amount of any such talk will ever raise the dead.

Not talk, but power. And he means by that this ‘resurrection’ power, that power whereby the dead are raised. Remember how careful he was to contrast (in 1 Cor.4), to contrast the list of able and eminent ‘teachers’ which the church at Corinth had had – he contrasted them all with himself: you may have had a load of teachers, he insisted, but you’ve only got one father. That’s to say, ‘I gave you life’ (it was Jesus, of course, by His Spirit working through the man, who gave them life, but you get Paul’s point).

Isn’t that our heart’s desire and prayer? And isn’t that our greatest need today? To ditch the rest of the credentials we may well have prized, and cry for all we’re worth to God that this is what we long for and require – to know Jesus better; and to know in Him “the power of His resurrection”.

Nothing else does the business. Without such power to raise the dead we end up being no more than just a quaint religious club – offering folk the quietness of a fossil-filled museum, not the hubbub of a manufacturing enterprise where ‘waking the dead’ is not some TV programme but the product of our ministry as Christ’s empowered church.

May we all come to know Him better: and may we learn how to raise the dead!

Yours in the Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – March 2018

Dear Friends

‘Salvation belongs to the Lord!’

It’s one of the great one-liners of the Bible. Reduce the whole of God’s Word, the sixty six books of the Bible – reduce the whole of God’s Word to a single, summarizing sentence, and this is as good a way as any you might find. It’s the theme of the psalmist, the thrust of the prophets and preachers, the resounding refrain on the lips of believers in heaven.

Reduce the sentence to a single word, and you end with the name, ‘Jesus’: the Lord saves. The Bible isn’t that complicated at all.

And once we’ve got its message, it takes the pressure off ourselves. Saving people is His business, not ours: His initiative, His prerogative, and His ability alone.

We’re not called to be the stuff-of-legends heroines and heroes who go charging in to save the day and pull off feats of bold, amazing rescue all the time: not even some of the time.

God knows better than any that we make hopeless saviours. Salvation belongs to the Lord. We simply can’t do it.

No amount of rhetoric, no amount of erudite communication skills, no amount of eloquence and passion in the arguments we muster in the witness that we bear – none of that suffices to effect what involves in every case pure miracle. Raising the dead back to life: recovery of sight to those who’ve been blind from birth: deliverance from the shackles of addiction and the vice-like grip and downward-drag of sin in people’s lives.

We can’t do that.

But we’re not under any pressure to try to do so at all. That’s emphatically His business: salvation belongs to the Lord.

It’s what He does, and what he does so wonderfully well. It’s the hallmark of His workmanship from day one. Where there was but chaos, void and darkness, He rolled up His metaphorical sleeves and got on with the business of sorting the whole mess out and transforming it all, bit by bit, into a world of well-proportioned beauty.

We think of that as ‘creation’. But there’s a sense in which all that was really little different from the work we call ‘salvation’. Because in a world infected with the dreadful virus of sin, our lives are characterized precisely thus – chaotic, and empty, and groping around in all manner of desperate darkness. God’s saving work in our messed-up lives involves precisely the same transforming and creative power.

That’s just who He is and what He does. It’s His speciality. And we make no pretence at this being something we can ever do: we’re entirely up front about that. We can’t save a sausage. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

That doesn’t mean we end up mere spectators, though, admiringly watching the Lord at His work in the lives of those around us. We get to be participants. We get to share in His work.

Like nurses in the operating theatre, we don’t do the life-saving work ourselves; but we’re there to assist the surgeon as he carries out a heart-transplant operation on his patients in their need. We’ve watched the great surgeon at work: we’ve learned how he goes about what he does: we know the drill: we anticipate how best we can support him in this major operation. So we’re busy in the theatre at the surgeon’s side.

And lives are saved. Saved through the surgeon’s skill. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

We need to remember our place. We’re merely ‘theatre nurses’. That’s no small responsibility, of course, a privileged and demanding set of tasks to which we must attend with all due care.

But it’s the surgeon who’s the saviour. Our calling is as ‘nurses’ in the theatre of the Lord’s life-saving work; and our role requires we work in careful tandem with the skilled consultant surgeon, the gracious, great Physician of our souls.

We make ourselves familiar with the way in which He works. We see what He’s intent upon securing through the sovereign operations of His mighty Holy Spirit; we watch what He does, we see how He works, we learn what He needs.

And soon we are able to more or less anticipate what next He will be doing and therefore, too, how best we are deploying ourselves to tie in our activity with His.

We see the Lord’s reliance on the ‘scalpel’ of His Word.

(God’s Word is described as “the sword of the Spirit”, of course, a picture that’s drawn from the theatre of war – but change the whole analogy and the sword in the theatre of war becomes the scalpel in the operating theatre of God’s grace, does it not?)

We see how very central to salvation is the Word of God: we see from the start that this is the way the Lord works. Through His Word: the sharp, clean, incisive blade of this sacred scalpel in the “Surgeon’s” hand.

And so we have this ‘scalpel’ always ready and available for Him to use. We know with what exquisite care, with what superb precision, He will use His Word – and so we want to have it always ready for those very frequent moments when the “Surgeon” calls out simply “Scalpel please!”

So we build our life in this theatre of war which we call ‘the local church’, a theatre of war which is now as well the operating theatre of God’s grace – we build our life around our observation that the Surgeon needs His scalpel all the time. We prioritise the Word of God in other words, and by humble, urgent prayer (don’t forget that!) we place it in His hands that He may do the business and effect that work which only He can do. Saving lives for time and for eternity.

But that’s not all we do. We’ve learned as theatre nurses, not just all the instruments the Surgeon will be using – we’ve watched Him long enough at work and learned as well just how that work progresses through the sovereign operations of His gracious Holy Spirit.

Start reading the Bible and step thereby into the operating theatre of the living God: you’re learning right away just how the Surgeon works. Genesis 1. Chaos, void and darkness are replaced by order, light and fullness in a careful, loving operation at His hands. Hang around that operating theatre and almost straight away you witness how disordered, dark and empty life became. Human hearts were plagued by the killer virus sin: the Surgeon has a full-time job in remedying the dreadful plight humanity has brought upon itself. Major heart-transplant surgery’s required, which only He can do. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

And as we learn our calling as the Surgeon’s theatre nurses, we start to see that what the Lord is constantly effecting in His saving work is order in the place of all the chaos of our complicated, mixed-up, messed-up lives; fullness in the place of all the void and wretched emptiness which masquerades as life; and light and life in the place of all the despair, debauchery and darkness which have come to be the features of our fallen, flawed humanity.

That’s the world in which we live. Those are the people we’re meeting each day on the streets. A fallen, flawed humanity. Lives that are disordered, empty, dark. Men and women struggling somehow to muddle their way through the murky morass of their day-by-day life in the world. Lost. Loveless. Losers.

The condition is often disguised. People are proud and construct fine façades which suggest that there isn’t a problem. But remove the façade and the rotten condition is clear.

Many of the addicts we’re engaging with have long since ceased to bother with façades. (We’re all by nature ‘addicts’, of course, addicted to the lethal substance ‘self’: that’s the essence of the problem with humanity – it’s just we often will not recognize it as the problem and do not see how terribly enslaved we are).

Poisoned by the toxic, tightening grip of their addiction, their lives lack any sort of structure, their days are largely empty, their experience broadly dark. They don’t have a job, and their prospects are bleak: the only commitments they’re likely to have are appearances down at the courts: and the only real circle of friends that they have is as often as not just a violent, vicious circle which does little more than spiral them relentlessly downwards.

And, yes, I’m painting the picture in extreme and exaggerated terms to help make the point. We can’t save them.

We’d love to be able to help them, and to rescue them from this wretched plight which plagues our whole humanity: of course we would. But we can’t. Only the Lord can save. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

We’re just theatre nurses. He alone is the Surgeon.

But because we know what He’s doing as such, we learn to work along with Him. We can help to put some order into lives which are disordered and chaotic: we can provide for the Lord a place and an environment in which a certain structure can be built. We can start to put some content into lives which are devoid of any content day by day: for those who’ve got nothing to do and nowhere to go and no-one who’s willing to risk wasting time in their cause, we can find tasks which need to be done, we can risk finding out where the gifts of such people are found and open up vistas of purposeful service.

That’s not going to save them. Only the Lord can do that. But this is all good theatre nurses’ work: seeing what the Surgeon is doing, discerning just where He is headed, and anticipating what He’ll look for and require.

This is the work of the kingdom to which we’ve been called. Restoration and renewal. Vital heart-transplant surgery, where our role as theatre nurses is itself the very essence of the saving work of Christ: our lives now full (it’s demanding, wearying work), our living now not random but well-ordered (a theatre like this is surely no place for any sort of mess!), and our strength now spent in the life-imparting service of the gracious, great Physician.

May God grant us grace to rise to the challenges of these days!

Yours in the Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – February 2018

Dear Friends

You know how there’s such a thing as a ‘nervous laugh’? It’s a kind of defence mechanism. We’re laughing because otherwise we might be crying. We’re laughing because actually we’re scared – but we don’t want to let on that we’re scared to anyone else.

I think that’s why we like to laugh at Jonah: or at least reduce him to ‘comic strip’ status.

From beginning to end the way the man conducts himself is really quite ridiculous. Quite literally. When God says, ‘Go north and east’, Jonah heads straight off west and south: when God stirs up a violent storm, Jonah settles down for the deepest of sleeps: when God shows off His amazing grace, Jonah shows only a fit of the grumps: when God effects a widespread revival, Jonah comes up with a heart-felt rebuttal and presumes to give God a great big ticking off.

Laughable. Of course it is. The guy’s a buffoon! No wonder we like to laugh at the man!

But it’s a nervous laugh, really, isn’t it? Because we’re just a little bit scared, maybe all too aware, that Jonah is just like ourselves, and we’re, in truth, just like him.

Don’t you think so?

There’s a commentary written on the book of Jonah which describes him on its title page as simply ‘the reluctant prophet’. Which sounds quite good. Except it’s not really true.

He wasn’t a reluctant prophet. He was clearly a man who loved the Lord, a well-taught, believing individual, the product in every likelihood of the notable ‘school of prophecy’ which emanated from the ministries of Elijah and then Elisha: and that’s prophetic pedigree of the highest class and calibre.

There’s no indication at all that the man was dragged by the Lord against his will into this significant ministry: no hint at all of a man who’d been kicking and screaming as he took up this prophetic role in the Israel of his day.

This was a man who was good at the work to which he’d been called by the Lord, and who went about his business very faithfully and ministered the Word of God most fruitfully.

The reluctant prophet? Don’t you believe it! He enjoyed what he did, and was glad he’d been called by the Lord as a prophet.

It was just that he wanted to choose his own constituency.

The wayward people of Israel, Jonah? “Yup, I’m OK with that! I’ll bring them Your Word, Lord!” Well, good on you, Jonah – because the king at the time in Israel, Jeroboam mark II, was a good deal south of wayward, he was wicked in the extreme (mark I had been bad enough, and mark II was certainly not any better). “But, hey, I’ll live with that, I’ll bring Your Word to them, Lord!”

How about a group of pagan sailors, Jonah? Fancy a time as chaplain to the Seamen’s Mission, out on the sea with a crowd of cussing mariners? Same again. “Yup, I’m OK with that, I’ll bear witness to them as well.” My word! That’s a pretty radical line for an orthodox Jew to be taking! But then, any prophet trained in the school of Elijah and Elisha was bound to be quite radical.

How about the western Mediterranean, Jonah, and the people of far-off Spain? “No problem!” says our so-called reluctant prophet: “I’ll travel the world for You, Lord!” (the Spanish Riviera has its own particular attraction to this day, I suppose, for hard-pressed, beleaguered preachers in our damp, dreich Scottish context!).

Make no mistake, the guy enjoys being a prophet!

Just .. not them. Not the people of Nineveh.

He wants to choose his constituency: and the fact of the matter is this – you can’t. That’s always God’s call. The people to whom He will send us is always His call: the people among whom He sets us, the people for whom we are privileged to sound out the gospel, that’s His choice and His call. Not ours.

That much is clear.

And it’s clear as well – not just from the short book of Jonah, but from all that the Scriptures declare – that there’s such a thing as growth in how God’s calling on our lives works out.

So here’s this prophet Jonah, trained up in the best prophetic schooling that there was, his skills now honed, matured and sharpened by those years of faithful ministry among a people who at least had got some background in the Word of God – “Now,” says the Lord, “now you should be ready for the challenge of another needy people who must hear My word of grace and truth and life.”

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it..’”

Nineveh? You. Must. Be. Joking.

That’s what Jonah was thinking. And he meets God’s call with a flat, defiant refusal. And off he goes to the busy harbour ticket office at Joppa to take a trip to Tarshish and to run away from God. As if you could!

What a big buffoon the guy is! It’s a job not to laugh!

But it’s a nervous laugh, isn’t it? Because we’re a bit too much just like him ourselves.  We’d prefer to choose our constituency ourselves.

And this man Jonah is finding out fast that that’s never our call.

That much, I say, is clear. What I want to run past you now, though, is this: the question as to whether there may not in God’s wise providence be something of the same disturbing challenge facing us right here at Gilcomston today.

It’s a question I’m raising. Not anything more than that: but not anything less than that either. A question which needs to be aired as we prayerfully listen to God.

For long enough we were very much a ‘student’ church. Others certainly thought of us here like that: and maybe we thought of ourselves like that as well. It wasn’t only students that we had, of course: but there were students in large numbers, and the ethos of the fellowship was very much expressive, perhaps, of an educated, ‘going-places’ people. Not that such a ‘constituency’ is free from its own particular pressures, demands, and challenges: anything but!

It’s been, however, a constituency with which we’ve grown not just familiar, but also, I suppose, quite comfortable. For all the many challenges there are in engaging with the ‘student’ and the ‘academic’ world, there are clearly some attendant ‘benefits’ as well.

There’s always something special, for instance, in having a whole great crowd of eager, energetic students coming in, their enthusiastic idealism spilling over and into our life as a local fellowship: there’s a buzz about the place, as those with the future all before them, share these often very formative years of their Christian faith among us all, and then go on (many of them) to leave their mark upon their generation.

And, of course, there’s a certain ‘kudos’ as well.

We’ve long been accustomed to that. But it may just be that as part of the deal whereby God Himself secured for us our building through last year, there’s a “Go to Nineveh!” clause involved. A change in the constituency for whom He means the gospel to be brought by us.

It may just be that the very remarkable way in which this building has been purchased through His grace is itself a pointer to the purpose which He has for us in these and coming days.

There is work to be done on our doorstep. There is need at the foot of our steps. A constituency very different from that with which we’re maybe more familiar: people who don’t have a future so much as a history; people with problems more than prospects; people living in great bondage and bringing with them ‘baggage’ by the ton.

It may just be that this will be where our God-given centre of gravity is now to be found: in a thorough-going gospel ministry to what are sometimes called the ‘least, the lost, and the last’. (The ‘centre of gravity’, note: not the be-all-and-end-all of what we’re about by any means.)

Ministering the gospel to those in such need is perhaps for us here as demanding and daunting a challenge as the prospect of preaching in Nineveh was felt to be by Jonah. This is ‘low kudos’ and ‘high maintenance’ work – and for both those reasons (and others!) it’s not a sphere of ministry we’d any of us ever choose.

But it’s gospel work: and, remember, none of us get to choose our constituency! That’s always God’s call.

And as Jonah didn’t get the call to Nineveh ‘til he’d had years of preparation from the Lord (because preaching to the Ninevites was always going to be demanding), so it stands to reason that the Lord may call His people here, who for years have been equipped, prepared and fashioned by the Word, to learn now how to bring that gospel message to our Ninevite equivalents.

It’ll still be, without any compromise, a ministry of the Word. It’ll still be the same basic message we preach. Just a rather different context and constituency.

So don’t head off to ‘Joppa’! Don’t start thinking of Tarshish! There’s a city full of lostness on our doorstep – ‘Should I not be concerned?’ the Lord declares.

And should we not be excited that the Lord – Who’s made it clear to us He’s able, pleased and willing to do immeasurably more than all that we ask or think – should we not be excited that the Lord thus calls us ‘northward’ to our Ninevites, ‘enlarging our territory’ (as we prayed through our autumn series), and displaying His life-changing grace in extraordinary power?

Yours in trepidation and expectancy,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – January 2018

Dear Friends

The coming of Jesus changed everything. It always does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you follow an act like the mighty Moses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immanuel.

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

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

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – December 2017

Dear Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours with an eager expectation in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – November 2017

Dear Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is ‘next generation’ stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exciting days, with all sorts of challenges too!

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

 

Monthly Letter – October 2017

Dear Friends

We’re addicts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And most of the time He doesn’t.

It’s not that He can’t. Anything but.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – September 2017

Dear Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – August 2017

Dear Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – July 2017

Dear Friends

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

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

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

And with him around we were safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in the service of Christ Jesus our Lord

Jeremy Middleton