Monthly Letter – December 2019

Dear Friends,

December General Elections are collectors’ items.

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

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

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

They were ‘strange days’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were all now ‘going south’.

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

And the Baby with the bathwater?

No chance!

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

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

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

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

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

Silently?

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

Silent? Hardly.

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

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

But silent? Anything but. And yet …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in the service of Christ our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – November 2019

Dear Friends,

The Lord is our pastor.

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

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

“Where are you?” (Gen.3.9).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where are you? asks the Lord of us.

And where are you in it all?

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

Yours in the service of Christ our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton