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