Monthly Letter – February 2020

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

Stamina. The grace of perseverance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours, pressing on in His service,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – January 2020

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the surface it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A live and dreadful volcano.

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

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

Yours in the service of Christ our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton