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 (“ 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