Transitional Leadership Team Update

As the Transitional Leadership Team, we’ve been starting to look in some detail at a range of important issues.

In particular, we recognize the importance of ensuring that there’s fruitful pastoral oversight being well and wisely exercised. A ‘starter paper’ on this area of our life is available for any who wish: and what we see as pressing is the need (a) to clarify what’s meant by pastoral oversight, and (b) to simplify the structures which we have in place – for there is, it seems a measure of confusion around this crucial area of ministry. In pursuit of (a), the need to clarify what’s meant by pastoral oversight, I’ve encouraged all the elders to read ‘The Shepherd Leader’ by Timothy Z Witmer.

There’s a similar ‘starter paper’ available on another important area of our life, namely the sort of ‘aspirations’ which we have, the basic shape which we believe Christ means our congregation’s life should have – the aim, direction, emphases: this ‘starter paper’ is entitled ‘Vision’, and we’re doing some work on that as well. It’s work, though, we’re keen that all should share, and we’re keen to be talking things through and teasing things out together as a fellowship. And it is our conviction that, come the end of summer, we’ll be well placed to ‘set out our stall’, as it were, and say “This, under God, is what we aspire to’: which is why we’ve also flagged up a weekend away in October, where we’ll aim to map out something of that future.

A third area which we’ve recognized as crucial relates to the matter of corporate prayer. Again there’s a ‘starter paper’ available for any who wish (like the others, it’s really just a ‘scene-setting’ thing, designed to stimulate thought and discussion). Our concern here is to maximize the contexts for such corporate prayer, and to minimize confusion, and the tensions which can sometimes be its consequence.

While these are three separate issues, we’re also aware that they are not entirely unrelated, and that addressing each involves addressing all. We value the prayers, and indeed the involvement, of the congregation as we continue to do so, and are grateful for all the encouragement we’ve received.

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – April 2016

Dear Friends

Those of you familiar with the world of Postman Pat – it’s an animated children’s TV series which has been up and (still) running since 1981 – will have heard of Ted Glen.

As a raw and rookie father in those far off days when Postman Pat was screening first, I was thrilled to have a reason to sit down and watch this unassuming, friendly, rural hero, Postman Pat; and I enjoyed the growing acquaintance with all of his friends. (I was grateful, too, and not a little pleased, I must confess, that – way back then, at any rate – I looked and sounded absolutely nothing like the white-haired, rotund, and somewhat dithery, vicar, Rev Timms).

Ted Glen was one of Pat’s friends, an integral part of the communal life of the fictional village of Greendale. Because he would often appear as such a warm and helpful guy, I remember a feeling of shock one day when this self-same Ted Glen declared, in the face of one of the regular crises each episode always threw up, “It’s hopeless!”

Hopeless? I mean, Ted was the local handyman, and the guy could fix just about anything: so when even Ted Glen is declaring it’s hopeless, you know that things are bad and the situation bleak!

But, of course, things do often get just as bleak as that: bleak enough for even the self-sufficient, ‘can-do’ handymen Teds of the world to be brought to the brink of despair.

There’s a lot of that hard-hitting hopelessness doing the rounds these days in this city of Aberdeen. And Christians, of course, are never immune from such things. Jesus isn’t ever just some handy, ‘freebie’ ticket to a life which gets exempted from adversity. Anything but.

Our circumstances will often seem to us hopeless: in fact, they sometimes will be hopeless – at least humanly speaking. Isn’t that what the biblical narrative shows?

Abraham and Sarah for starters, right up there at the head of the line of believers. For Sarah, the biological clock had long since stopped even ticking, and the prospect of children was not just ‘in their dreams’, but totally off the radar – humanly speaking. Their situation in that respect was .. well, hopeless. It was “against all hope,” so the apostle Paul reminds us, that “Abraham in hope believed..” (Rom.4.18).

A couple of generations on down the line, there were times when Joseph must surely have known such a sense of that terrible hopelessness: times when he’d surely have reasoned that any real prospects of seeing that future fulfilled which the Lord had impressed on his heart as a spoilt and clumsy teenager – any such prospects were no more than the stuff of dreams. How often, I wonder, did the young man down in Egypt hear those bleak, depressing words from the ‘handyman of hell’ being whispered to his spirit – “It’s hopeless!” Which, humanly speaking, it was.

Or a few more generations further on, and the people of Israel enslaved and as good as entombed, as the screw was turned by a megalomaniac ruler: what earthly chance have a slave people got against the might of the Pharaoh of Egypt? About as much chance as a featherweight boxer with one arm tied behind his back against the heavyweight champ of the world. They’d not be allowed in the same ring. No contest. No hope.

Or talking of a featherweight against a heavyweight, what hope is a gangly, teenage shepherd boy going to have against an over-sized giant from Gath with his top of the range, state of the art weaponry? Humanly speaking it’s hopeless.

And wasn’t that just the line repeatedly proffered by the local TG handymen back in those post-exilic days – Tobiah the fussy official, and Geshem his grovelling lackey – when boldly Nehemiah undertook that work of God and set about rebuilding all the walls of old Jerusalem: “It’s hopeless, hopeless, hopeless!” they kept on insisting. Which, of course, it was. Humanly speaking.

The Bible is full of such records. From the Exodus story, and a people hemmed in, with mountains each side, an army behind, and the great Red Sea to the front: right on to the exiles in Susa, and an orchestrated genocide being sanctioned and commanded by the king: the biblical narrative is a series of hopeless scenarios.

It should neither surprise us nor dispirit us, therefore, when our situations also often seem quite hopeless. And more to the point, when they often are quite hopeless.

Hopeless, that is, when you fail to remember the Lord; when you fail to factor into your assessment of your present human hopelessness the presence and reality of God, the great Creator, the God Who raised Christ Jesus from the dead. Factor that into the equation, and .. well, anything can happen, everything is possible, and all bets are suddenly off.

It’s a tough place to be, nonetheless, that place of utter hopelessness. The clouds of despair press in upon your soul; for, wrack your brains as you will (and being given the gift of our minds, it’s impossible not to be using them thus), you simply cannot see there ever being a way your situation can be eased, far less resolved.

And the darkness which follows is bleak and black, and bitter indeed to the taste –anxiety, worry and fear, corroding the inner reaches of our hearts with their rancid, acid fumes. We’d far rather never go there.

When you find that every conceivable resource you can muster, and every conceivable remedy which you’ve tried, are alike so entirely inadequate for addressing your need – well, you rightly despair: you’ve run out of solutions, you don’t have an answer, you’ve been beached and you’re now high and dry. Even the handiest handyman can’t really help.

It’s hopeless. And it’s a hard, hard place to be.

Yet … it’s a good place to be, just the same. And it’s often (far more often than we’d ever have wished), it’s often the place where God Himself will take us. Joseph taken to Egypt: Elijah sent off up to Zarephath: Paul ending up in a prison.

The apostle acknowledged, and went on to describe, the despair which came over his soul: and there’s maybe some comfort for all of us here in discovering that even apostles could know such despair.

He speaks about the hardships which he suffered (and given the lengthy catalogue of hardships which he’ll later list, you’ll perhaps start to see that in truth you’ve got off pretty lightly compared to him!), and the pressures he endured – pressures, he confesses, that were far beyond his own innate ability to bear.

So much so, he’s prepared to admit (surely it would be mutually beneficial if we honestly admitted to each other how bedraggled, bruised and buffeted we are through all the different struggles which we’ve faced) – he’s prepared to admit that “we despaired even of life” (2 Cor.1.8)

Paul: despaired. The same sentence. Well, there’s some encouragement for you. In the pits of despair you’re in the best of company: some notable others have been there before you. And survived to tell the tale: indeed, to tell (more often than not) a quite remarkable tale.

Because Paul, avid Bible student that he’d always been, and as clear a thinker as you could wish for in processing the implications of the cross and resurrection of the Son of God – Paul very rapidly learned that the pit of our human despair is also in fact the well from which God’s great deliverance is invariably drawn. “This happened …,” he continued (speaking about his being brought to the point of abject and total despair), “.. that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, Who raises the dead” (2 Cor.1.9).

That’s why He’ll ever take us to these dark and dangerous places of our total, utter hopelessness, and wretched, bleak despair.

First, because often it’s only when there that we turn to, rely on, and cling for all that we’re worth to the God Who defies all the odds, parts mighty waters, raises the dead, and marvellously rescues His people: and also because it’s emphatically there, when humanly Ted Glen is right, and it is indeed so thoroughly hopeless – it’s there, above all, that it then becomes clear that salvation comes only from God.

He knows us all a good deal better than we generally know ourselves: so He knows full well that given even half a chance we’ll somehow try to redirect at least a tiny little part of any praise for what’s been wrought towards ourselves.

For there are still those guerrilla-like pockets of sin which have their secret hide-outs in our hearts; and ducking and dodging unseen, dressed in the deceptive camouflage of piety and grace, those pockets of sin will so subtly persuade us that we have actually had some part to play. Our efforts, our wisdom, our gifts (we’ll even perhaps acknowledge they all have derived from the Lord – but still they are in a real sense ours as well) – surely they had some part to play in it all.

How easy it is for us as Christians to lose hold of that total reliance on God! How easy, once the Spirit Himself starts His sovereign work of renewal within our hearts, and by His good grace we start handling the issues of life in a measured, mature sort of way – how easy then to slip back into thinking that we’ve got the whole thing sussed, and lose that first dependence on the Lord.

Well, the Lord is no fool, He’s wise to all that – and He’s rightly always jealous for a glory that is solely His. He’ll take us, time and time again – He’ll take us to that Ted Glen place of hopelessness, the point of real despair.

And there, in that place of despair, the lives of His people become in that way the canvas on which the gospel of grace, the gospel of the resurrecting God, is painted by the Lord for all the world to see.

Because what is that gospel if not the soaring declaration that into our plight of utter and abject hopelessness before a holy God, the Lord has Himself provided a total salvation? What is Jesus’ desperate cry from the cross – My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me? – if not His anguished bearing witness to that plight of desperate hopelessness He takes upon Himself? And what is our worship each Sunday if not a resounding celebration of the God Who raises the dead, the God Who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or can imagine?

Perhaps that’s the light in which to be seeing your present situation. Perhaps that’s the way we should learn to view His dealings with us here across these months. “This happened .. that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, Who raises the dead”

On our weekend away we felt precisely this thrust from the Lord in the words of the song Hannah sang – “The Lord brings death, and makes alive; He brings down to the grave, and raises up” (1 Sam.2.6). Death .. then new life. Despair .. then mighty deliverance. Crucifixion .. then resurrection.

Easter, in a word. The way of salvation, which becomes, for those in Christ Jesus, a whole new way of life.

Yours in Christ’s service

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – March 2016

Dear Friends

Men can’t multi-task. So they say (I can’t really check that out while I’m writing this).

There’s got to be a flip side to this gender limitation, though; and the flip side is (presumably) the way a man can at least often have some focus, a single-minded, all-engrossing focus on the task-in-hand.

It’s a challenge along just such lines which is one of the tasks we now face. Call it recovering focus perhaps; think of it maybe as a careful and communal re-calibration of the life of our fellowship here; or simply use the word ‘vision’.

However we choose to describe it, the task is important: the need to know both why we are here as a fellowship, and where, under God, we are headed. Otherwise we’ll simply dither, drift, and die. And who wants that?

So what is the ‘vision’ God has for us here? Why, in the purpose of God for these days – why are we here? What does He mean us to be and to do? And where, under God, are we headed?

And I mean, by the reference to ‘we’, not ‘we Christians’ generally (or big ones for that matter!), but ‘we here at Gilcomston Church.’ Where are we as a fellowship presently headed? What is the Lord intent on accomplishing through us here in the days and the years up ahead?

Well, let’s start with the words of a single-track man: the apostle Paul. You remember his words in the letter we’re presently studying – “This one thing I do..”?

(Well, he was a man, after all, ill-equipped by the fact of his gender, you’d think, to aspire to anything more than any one thing at a time – though you’d hardly have said that this man was exactly inept when it came to his simultaneous juggling of a hundred and one different tasks!)

This was a man who knew very well just why he was here, and where it was he was headed. But when he affirmed, “This one thing I do”, he was talking about single-minded devotion to Christ: he was setting down a statement of the focus which each and every follower of Christ will share, no matter who they are, or where and when they live.

That’s a ‘general’ sort of focus: an important focus, for sure – but necessarily merely general in its nature, a ‘vision’ of the destiny we have in Christ, a fervent affirmation of the goal to which we’re all as Christians moving.

We’re here to sound out the praises of God, and to go and make disciples; and we’re headed, and preparing, for eternity – a fuller, richer, resurrected life in realms so thoroughly expansive that it’s hard for us to even start imagining how wonderful they are.

That’s all maybe clear enough (well, it should, I hope, be clear enough!) and, yes, that’s all just great: but it’s ‘general’ not particular, and it merely sets parameters, within which we are still obliged to figure out the narrower, more specific set of answers to the issue of the ‘vision’ for our congregation’s life. And the “one-thing-I-do” line of thinking provides, I suggest, an important key to addressing that critical question.

It goes against the grain of modern thinking even to suggest this, I know – but I’ll state it nonetheless: we’re none of us God. We simply can’t do everything. None of us. No individual. Not even a Spirit-filled, turbo-charged, action-man apostle who makes multi-tasking, modern, working women seem ham-fisted by comparison with him.

The apostle Paul himself was very clear about the scope and limitations of the work he had been given by the Lord. He may have been thoroughly single-minded in devotion to his Lord: but he never imagined that somehow, single-handed, he was called in his discipleship of Christ to change the world – and that no matter how well and how often he might hone all his multi-tasking expertise.

He was but one small part of what he would aptly describe as the spiritual body of Christ. He was clear from the start about his own specific role and responsibility; and in the process of describing to the Christians at Rome just what his own specific calling actually was, he sets out some helpful, general guidelines for our each determining with clarity just what our own small part in God’s great story is to be (Rom.15.14-21).

He puts it like this – (1) What our part in the story is to be is, firstly, His call always, never ours; (2) our part in the story will, secondly, always be part of the wider gospel ministry whereby people both come to Christ and grow in Christ; (3) and finally, our part in the story has always God’s reputation and glory in view, not ours.

So when we translate these very basic guidelines onto the canvas of our congregational life, we should be quite clear that our calling as a fellowship is simply to share with other gospel fellowships in advancing the kingdom of God – and not to be promoting, pursuing, or pressing the claims of some nebulous ‘empire of Gilc’.

It should also be clear that our context is therefore significant, as one among several vital considerations which come into play in our discerning together God’s ‘vision’ and call for us here at this time.

By our ‘context’ I mean, not least, just the fact that we’re one of a number of evangelical churches rather crowded together in a striking concentration of gospel work: not exactly an ecclesiastical, Aberdonian equivalent of London’s impressive ‘Square Mile’, nor quite a smaller Scottish version of America’s famous ‘Bible belt’ – but nonetheless a compact little geographic corridor of evangelical life reflected in a range of different fellowships.

This very proximity is itself a rather striking providence of God: but it does raise important questions to do with our ‘vision’. For if we recognize that the Lord Himself has set these separate fellowships here together, and if we recognize that He sets us here to complement each other in the progress of that ‘kingdom’ work of gospel proclamation to which we’re all committed – then some of the central questions we do well to address are these:

  • Where in God’s wise providence do our own ‘distinctives’ lie? [One unique feature of our congregation’s life, for instance, is the fact that our building fronts onto Aberdeen’s main street]
  • What are our strengths?
  • Where does our ministry’s ‘centre of gravity’ lie?
  • How do we build on the perspectives set out in the vision-casting paper, ‘Future Gilc’?
  • And, as important as any of the above, how do all of the answers we’ve given tie in to the work of the kingdom, orchestrated by the Spirit of Jesus, through the range of evangelical fellowships right here in the centre of town?

These are just some of the questions which the Leadership Team are now asking, as we seek, with you all, to discern and embrace the call of the Lord on our life as a church at this time.

Back to where we started: we simply can’t do everything. But by the same token we dare not sit passively back at this time, content with what’s a fragile sort of ‘status quo’, and concerned only to secure a comfortable, safe and inward-looking life – we dare not sit back and do nothing, for there’s crucial kingdom work to be done in these days. Neither everything; nor nothing. But some one thing – which may well have a hundred and one different facets when it all gets worked out in our life.

And the “one-thing-I-do” single-mindedness, seen in the calling of Paul, has its roots in the question he asked when the man was found flat on his face at conversion – “What shall I do, Lord?” [Acts 22.10].

A dangerous question to ask! Because the Lord in His answer (as He generally does in response to both questions and prayers) had a whole load more to give to Paul than the poor man perhaps had bargained for: and it won’t be any different with ourselves as we ask the same sort of question today.

“Get up!” said the Lord to His dust-covered new-born disciple (face on the ground is fine for a while, but there’s work to be done – and while the ‘we-are-all-dust-and-to-dust-we’ll-return’ sort of mantra is certainly true, it’s only the serpent, and never the saints, who‘s consigned to crawl on his belly, and eat the dust – and of course eventually ‘bite the dust’ – all the days of his wretched life): “Get up! Go into (the city), and there you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.”

Do you see that? “..all that you have been assigned to do.” Not what he’d ever have chosen to do: not what he’d have ever even thought to do. It’s the Lord’s call; always.

Scary! But more than a little exciting!

Well, we’re risk-takers here: we’re asking the dangerous question. What shall we do, Lord?

And now that we, too, are beginning to pick ourselves up from the floor and the dust is beginning to settle – we’re waiting ourselves on this Jesus in the confident hope that He’ll make it all clear for us here just what He has assigned us now to do. The adventure has barely begun!

Yours in Christ’s service

Jeremy Middleton

February 2016 Update from the Transitional Leadership Team

The TLT (the name says it all!) have set out three primary objectives to fulfill their remit – securing a united fellowship, clarifying a shared vision, and effecting a ‘practical’ cohesion (ie ensuring all the ‘practical’ bits are in place – in respect to buildings, constitution, etc).

While we’re very conscious that there are no ‘magic wands’ and no ‘quick fixes’, we’re also clear that we needed to start tackling the work to be done with some urgency. When we met on January 25th we identified that the most pressing matters for us to start addressing are, first, our pastoral oversight, and then our shared vision.

There’s much, of course, that is already good in relation to both, which provides a really positive basis from which to work. Some analysis of how things presently stand in these matters, and some suggestions as to how we may progress them both, will be prepared and set before the Leadership Team prior to our next meeting on Tuesday March 8th, when we’ll hope to give some initial thought also to the vital matter of our corporate prayer.

In all our ongoing work we are keen to ensure we have good listening ears – seeking to be guided and led by the Lord Himself, of course, but seeking as well to be engaging always with all within the fellowship: and to be sure that you’re familiar with who comprises the Transitional Leadership Team, we’re rotating the giving of the notices Sunday by Sunday among them all!

More than ever, we remain so grateful for your prayers: and as you keep praying we’ll seek to keep you both posted and pestered!

Jeremy Middleton

 

Monthly Letter – February 2016

Dear Friends

Five years after I was born a book was published which became something of a Christian classic.

The book was called ‘Through Gates of Splendour’, it told the story of the author’s husband, Jim Elliot,  who was martyred aged 28 along with fellow missionaries to the Auca Indians in Ecuador, and it featured an appendix with a string of the many highly ‘quotable quotes’ from his journals.

With almost prophetic awareness, he reflected at one point in his journal on a verse from Psalm 104 (v.4):

“[He makes] His ministers a flame of fire.” Am I ignitable? God deliver me from the dread asbestos of ‘other things.’ Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be a flame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this my soul short life? In me there dwells the spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God’s house consumed Him.

This book was part of the staple ‘devotional’ diet on which I was nourished as a relatively new Christian: and you don’t need a PhD to figure out why such quotes as the one above have inspired succeeding generations of Christians, and why they found a ready echo in our hearts.

We disdain all mediocrity. Don’t we all? Or am I alone (surely not!) in desiring to make a difference through my living for the Lord? When we first encounter and come to know the Lord, our hearts are often just about bursting with joy, with wonder, with the thrill of romance and adventure: it feels like a huge big fire has been lit in our hearts – a fire which we hope will never die down. God deliver me from the dread asbestos of ‘other things’! We want to be on fire for the Lord.

The imagery is powerful. In the hearts and minds of us all, there’s something almost primal about fire.

Perhaps because it’s a graphic reminder of the fiery centre of that fragile stellar system which remains our erstwhile home, that blazing sun without which there’s neither light nor life: and perhaps as well, therefore, fire becomes as telling a portrayal as any of the God Who is Himself the source of all creation and the author of all life.

Fire.

No wonder poor Moses got the shock of his life when his daily desert routines were so rudely interrupted by the Lord. No gentle tap on the shoulder with a quiet request for a chat: no hand-delivered appointment card with the prospect of possible work.

Just fire and flames. A bush ablaze with a fire which wouldn’t go out. A consuming fire which wasn’t consumed. And right in the poor man’s face. You want to know what God is like? Mr. Moses, meet your Maker!

Poor man! Talk about a baptism of fire. There’s a lifetime of work still to do for this man who’s been drifting towards his retirement: and the fire which he sees in the bush that’s ablaze is the fire he’ll require in his soul to be following through on this call.

This man who’ll have to face the might of Pharaoh as he sets the people free: this man who’ll have to bear the ire of Israel as he drags them through the desert in his wake, sometimes almost single-handed it will seem to him: this man who’ll have to teach and train his people in the truth of God with so much passion and persistence that the Word of God is well-nigh burned into their consciousness: this man will need to be, throughout his days, a man on fire.

And he will be – and that by the grace of the God Who Himself is ever ablaze; through the Spirit of God anointing the man and drenching him right from the start in the flammable fuel of heaven.

No wonder as well that the small group of Jesus’ disciples, convening discretely to figure out what to do next in the light of their Lord’s death and rising – no wonder that they, just the same, got the fright of their lives. Fire! A noisy and sudden eruption of fire invading their personal space, as the God Who is fire burst into the house, without so much as a ‘by-your-leave’ knock at the door, and bathed every one with the flames of His fire-laden Spirit.

Mr. Moses, your wish has at last been fulfilled. Remember the cry of Moses, the man on fire? “Oh that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!” [Numbers 11.29]. He just did.

Because they, too, will now need to be men and women on fire. To do what their Lord has commanded; to get up, and go into that hostile and hazardous world; to declare in the face of imperious demands from both Rome and religion alike that they edit their message and ditch any claims about Jesus – to declare nonetheless that Jesus is Lord and that life is alone found in Him: well, yes, they will need to be men and women on fire.

And down the centuries – ever so often, and often in an all too literal way – down the centuries they will indeed be men and women on fire: drenched in the blazing grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, saturated with the oil of the Spirit of God, and burned at the stake for the message of freedom they brought.

It’s men and women on fire that we all require to be: men and women whose hearts are ablaze with a deepening delight in our Lord: men and women whose service of Christ is a furnace that’s fuelled by the indwelling Spirit of God: men and women on fire. That’s true in every generation of the Lord’s on-going work.

And that’s why the theme of our weekend away is, I hope evocatively, Stirring the embers.

Embers are what happens when the blazing flames die back. Embers are residual. Embers are the state we’re in when faith has lost a measure of its urgency, when hope has lost that sense of real expectancy, when love has lost its warm and graceful vibrancy.

Embers are better than nothing. Of course. There’s still a degree of brightness and warmth. There’s still some sense of the fire there once was. And for some, once the flames have died back to that gentler condition of embers – well, for some that’s a preferable, much more ‘comfortable’ fire, less fierce and intense, less wild and disturbing and pure.

But embers simply are not adequate.

The bush in the desert was never a polite little pile of gently glowing ash, something more suited to an Ideal Home advertisement. It was ablaze, a frightening sight with voracious and unceasing flames.

And in just the same way, the Pentecost church was never just a warm and homely fellowship of cosy, friendly followers of Jesus: the church was a furnace of faith, her members on fire, her message always blazing out across the Roman world, her ministers (small ‘m’ please: they all of them shared in the life-giving ministry which Jesus continues to have) – her ministers great, leaping flames of fire (back to the Psalm with which I began).

No wonder we’re told that fear fell on people and cities all over the place. Fires are a scary phenomenon – fearsome and frightening; and yet always so fascinating too. Fear came upon whole communities: and faith started stirring in the hearts of the hardened and hopeless.

No wonder! This was a great rampaging fire whose every flame proclaimed the living and life-giving God.

Fire. Not merely glowing embers.

And where the fire of our faith and our hope and our love has burned back (and maybe burned out: how easily that can happen in our busy, beavering lives), when that fire in Christ’s church has burned back to leave her members merely embers – well, how we need the Son of God to bring out His bellows, and to breathe upon these embers great blasts of the wind of God’s Spirit.

You can see why Jim Elliot wrote as he did: and why the burden which lay on his heart finds a resonance still in us all.

Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be aflame. Make me a flame of fire: please God I’ll be ignitable!

My faith erupting into great leaping flames of delight in the Lord Jesus Christ: my hope simply bursting into flames of huge expectancy as I rest and rejoice in the resurrecting God: my love for the Lord and His people exploding into flames of warm, committed care for one and all.

Make me a flame of fire! Please, Lord. Brightening the life of the place where I live. Warming the hearts of the people I meet. Powering the thrust of the service I give.

That’s been my prayer and my hope for us here: that’s what the weekend away is about: that’s been the end which I’ve sought to pursue: and that’s what I trust we shall see!

“He makes His servants flames of fire.” To which we surely say, Amen!

Yours in Christ’s service

Jeremy Middleton

January 2016 Record: Update

A couple of months ago we put in place a small group, comprising David MacPherson (minister at Bon Accord Free Church) and Willie Harrison (teaching elder at Hebron Evangelical Church), both from here in Aberdeen, along with Phil Hair (minister at Holyrood Evangelical Church), David Laing (Chalmers Church), Willie Philip (The Tron Church), and myself, whose role is to provide external support, guidance and accountability for us at this time.

I’m grateful that many of you were praying for us when we met through the day on Monday 7th December, and then, in the evening, with the elders, for there was a very real sense of the Lord’s hand upon these meetings, affording wisdom and guidance through the Holy Spirit.

While remaining all the more committed to their pastoral and practical responsibilities, the elders unanimously agreed to step aside meanwhile from the responsibility of strategic decision-making for the congregation, and entrust that part of their work to a Transitional Leadership Team, with a view to that body putting in place what is necessary for the true health and future growth of the congregation.

The elders accordingly agreed to a proposal under which the six members of the Review Group, acting effectively as ‘Assessor Elders’, would themselves comprise part of that Transitional Leadership Team, along with six of the present elders, whom the Review Group would appoint to that Team.

We are very grateful that these men who comprise the Review Group have been willing to commit their time and energies to us in this way over this next period.

Notwithstanding the considerable demands of their own local fellowships, they have each undertaken to be present with us, and will be participating in our worship, on the morning of Sunday 10th January, when this Transitional Leadership Team will be formally commissioned: that service will be followed by a congregational lunch and the opportunity to meet with the new Leadership Team in person. We hope that you will see this as an important occasion and, if at all able, make every effort to share in that morning’s worship.

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – January 2016

Dear Friends

A few years ago, right out of the blue, one of my sons received a phone call at his flat (he was ‘working from home’ that day): he recognized neither the voice nor the name of the man who was asking – “Is that Mr. Middleton?”

The man was quick to explain. He was the manager of the restaurant which my son had frequented the previous evening with friends, to celebrate his promotion at work: and the call was to advise my son that he had been (wait for it) .. the one millionth customer at the restaurant. “Oh, and by the way, we’re marking this notable milestone by giving you two free return air fares to New York!”

When I heard his news a number of thoughts ran rapidly through my mind.

First up – that’s typical! Envy, I suppose. How come my son always seems to be in just the right place at just the right time? It wasn’t the first time at all that this sort of thing has happened with him – and it’s not been the last. It’s uncanny how regularly his timing is perfect!

Second thought – that’s unfair! Self-pity, I guess. I mean how many times in my life have I been 999,999th through the door and missed this sort of jackpot by a whisker?

Third line of thought – that’s impressive! On the part of the restaurant chain, I mean. At last, a more noble response – a measure of grudging admiration on my part.  I didn’t have need to be told, of course, that my son is one in a million (technically he’s one in three, but you know what I mean); but here was a high-profile restaurant chain affirming that truth for themselves.

How on earth do they keep such astonishingly accurate records, when there’s bound to be a massive daily turnover? Talk about personalized customer care! Every single person getting carefully counted in (and counted out too, I presume, with some sort of Brian Hanrahan on the door). That’s all very well, I suppose, when your clientele doesn’t really rise above a slow and steady trickle.

But a million of them? That’s an awful lot of careful client counting!

And that’s the point. Care. Their counting the clients ensured that their clients counted. (You maybe need to read that sentence again to get what I mean!) Each individual person always matters.

That was the truth which made such an emphatic impression; it struck home with a challenging force to my pastoral heart – this is the essence of all that the Scriptures convey when they speak of the role of the leader.

It’s that which, right at the start of another new year, I want to explore just a bit with you now. For it is above all, in the gift of His Son, a leader whom we have been given by God.

That’s how almost all the ancient prophecies refer to Him, as a ruler, as a leader: from the two-timing lips of the money-grubbing Balaam (“.. a star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel; .. a ruler will come out of Jacob..”), right on through to the elevated writings of the cultured and visionary Isaiah (“..to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders .. of the increase of his government .. there will be no end: he will reign on David’s throne..”): the message is always the same – the King whose kingdom’s enduring, that King is coming.

But the more that this theme is pursued in God’s Word, the more it’s made clear that the heart of the ‘rule’ which this leader would bring is a pastoral care for His people. That’s why David, the rags-to-riches shepherd-king, is set forth in the Scriptures as the one who best anticipates, the one who most clearly foreshadows the Ruler who’s to come.

For the King when He comes is dressed as a Shepherd – a dish-towel as the crown upon His head; and a down-to-earth and multi-purpose crook held in His hand, rather than any fine-looking ceremonial mace. Do you see that? The “one who will be ruler over Israel .. He will stand and shepherd his flock..” That’s who He is and that’s what He does. Always.

And that’s where our safety lies: in this Leader who shepherds His flock.

Now, precisely because that’s the case – precisely because at the heart of the gospel of grace there’s the gift from on high of this shepherding Leader called Jesus – a central, vital feature in the life of any fellowship is its leadership.

And not just any sort of leadership, but that which communicates Jesus; through both the shepherd-like care for the flock which the leaders display, and (notice this) .. and the willing obedience the flock are displaying to their leaders.

If we mean to ensure that Jesus as Shepherd is fully proclaimed through the life and the witness of any local fellowship – if we’re keen on proclaiming the gospel, that is – then few things are more to the fore in the issues we have to work through than the need to get leadership right.

That, as I’ve just been suggesting – that involves us all. And when better to start re-acquainting ourselves with this theme than the start of a brand new year? Christmas has focused our minds and our hearts on the birth of the “new-born King”: now it’s time to birth His gracious leadership in the life of our local fellowship all over again. That’s what we’re going to be working at here in the course of the coming weeks.

Why? Simply because the deepest desire of our hearts is to make Jesus known: to let people see not only that Jesus is Lord, but that when He holds sway in our lives, when He stands in our midst and shepherds His flock – then we live indeed securely.

What will that mean for us here?

“Shepherd God’s flock,” both Paul and Peter in turn exhorted the leaders of Christ’s church (Acts 20. 28 and 1 Pet.5.2: they were singing from the same sheet). And ‘shepherd’, you see, is a verb far more than a noun – a task far more than a title, a self-denying service far more than some self-asserting status. Jesus simply doesn’t do ‘status’, does He? The only ‘position’ He seems to commend is a down-on-your-knees and a sleeves-rolled up sort of thing.

So – shepherd God’s flock: that’s the great work to which leaders are called. And see from the Shepherd Himself where such shepherding work always starts. “I am the good shepherd: I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10.14). Knowing the sheep. That’s where shepherding starts. Always.

Which takes me back to that one-in-a-million son that I have, and the care that has got to be taken to ensure that not only is each person counted, but that each individual counts.

The figure which Jesus Himself liked to use was a little bit more where-we’re-at: the sheep which got lost, which the shepherd went off to retrieve, was just one-in-a-hundred, of course.

(That’s a good deal truer to the day-by-day realities of leadership within His church: mostly the flocks which the leaders are having to shepherd are closer by far to a hundred than anything like a million! Thankfully! I mean, it would be great in some ways if a million or more were converted, but running a fellowship of that sort of size is the stuff of administrative nightmares – we need to get real with our level of expectation; even the day of Pentecost itself fell way, way short of the million mark!)

The shepherd knows his sheep. That, as I say, is where such shepherding always begins. Because that’s where the gospel of grace begins. The knowledge God has of His people. Isn’t that what we’re seeing and always being taught in the Scriptures?

Isn’t that what startled Nathaniel when Jesus saw the man approaching from afar? “How do you know me?” he asked, doubtless more than a little alarmed that One whom he’d never yet met seemed to know him through and through.

And I don’t doubt, too, that the ‘Little Big Man’ of Jericho, the tax-man called Zacchaeus – he too was left wondering exactly the same when the Lord called him down from the tree … and did so by using his name.

“How do you know me?”

A good question. Was it pure and simple supernatural knowledge? Because that, of course, gives Him a rather substantial advantage when it comes to shepherding His people!

Or was it as much because Jesus was simply so careful always to listen? Always with such a real interest in the smallest little details of a person’s and a people’s varied life, always so able to read the crucial subtext in the bits between the lines of what’s being said.

The shepherds make sure that they know their sheep. Who they are (in the whole of their family network): where they are (in their walk with the Lord): and how they are (in the face of the pressures and problems they’re encountering).

It doesn’t happen magically. It can’t be done ‘remotely’ from the comfort of computerized bureaucracy: spreadsheets aren’t a substitute for on the spot engagement with the flock. It’s through and through relational. And never, ever optional.

Shepherding starts with this. It’s not all that’s involved in the shepherding role of the leaders: but it’s where such shepherding starts – nothing takes the place of this, and in its absence nothing else the leaders do amounts to very much.

It’s that crucial; it’s that significant; it’s that primary. The very proclamation of the gospel is bound up with this: the heart of the gospel is Jesus, the heart of His rule is His standing to shepherd His people, and the heart of His shepherding reign is the knowledge He has of His people. The shepherd knows his sheep.

The flip side’s as true and important, however. The sheep will also know their shepherds.

They know who he is: that’s always so vital in any congregation’s life. Do you each know who your shepherd is? That’s obviously quite basic, and it’s something which, in days of constant flux and rapid change, we always must be working at.

But there’s another significant sense in which they will also know their shepherds. They know what his call to the leadership here in Christ’s church will entail; they know what he’s called to be doing in Christ in the shepherding work he pursues; they respect his call to leadership; they discern in his person the Shepherd Himself. And they follow where he leads.

The shepherd knows the sheep and the sheep know the shepherd. While there are, of course, a load more steps to be learned by both the shepherds and flock alike, that’s where shepherding starts.

It’s the teamwork from ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, translated across to the every-day floor of Christ’s church: set against the haunting musical backdrop of the gospel of God’s grace, leaders and people alike learn the steps of an ancient, enthralling relational dance, one taking the lead, one careful to follow that lead – and it serves to portray to a watching world, in an altogether vibrant way, what a wonderful gift we’ve been given by God in the King who now shepherds His flock.

The music’s all there: it’s time to get out on the floor!

Yours in Christ’s service

Jeremy Middleton