Monthly Letter – August 2018

Dear Friends

We’ve shifted seismically as a nation over this past short while.

And it’s definitely ‘shift’ more than ‘drift’. It’s been deliberate, planned, intentional: a marked and calculated shifting of the great ‘tectonic plates’ which form the world-view and the outlook of our nation’s life.

We have shifted, with what is in truth a dramatic and dangerous speed – we have shifted from being a people who were anchored in the Book to being a people who have not just gone and wantonly weighed anchor but who’ve recklessly gone and chucked the thing away.

As a society we have carefully, consciously, and with a wholly miss-placed confidence, moved away from an outlook on life and a pattern of living which had prevailed for hundreds of years – an outlook on life and a pattern of living which was indebted to God, informed by the truths of the Bible, and infused with the grace of the gospel.

There’s been a cultural earthquake: these huge tectonic plates which form the bedrock of a nation’s life, the great foundational premises on which a people’s life is built, these plates have shifted.

One of the tell-tale signs of this seismic shift has been the move towards the litigating mindset of a compensation culture, and the speed with which an attitude of blame’s become the standard, first-stop stance which we adopt.

That’s invariably, and inevitably, what happens when the gospel of grace is dispensed with, and the tenets of Scripture are scorned. When we cease to walk humbly with God, as the ancient prophet Micah would have said, when we cease to walk humbly with God then the delicate balance in national life of our acting with absolute justice while retaining as well a perspective informed by God’s grace – that delicate balance is lost, and our thinking and living gets skewed.

A scapegoat-seeking, finger-pointing attitude of blame becomes the default stance society adopts: and a selfie-taking, “I’m-the-one-who’s-suffered” sort of victim-like mentality (in a general rather than in any more technical sense) becomes the prevalent self-assessment people hold.

No-one to my knowledge has done a study on this theme: but my guess is that there’ll be some correlation between the ditching by a nation of a biblical perspective and the simultaneous rise within that nation of this ‘compensation culture’ and its fruits.

Sometimes, of course, both blame and compensation are important and required. Crimes are committed and damage is willfully done. Walking humbly with God means we will indeed act justly: no blind eyes will be turned: high and low, rich and poor alike, will be equally subject to their just desserts. But such processes of justice will always be accompanied by an attitude that’s characterized by mercy.

Indeed, it was surely precisely because our land was the land of the Book, its world-view and life both informed (however imperfectly) by the truths of the Bible and infused (again however imperfectly) with the gospel of grace – it was surely precisely because that was so that our distinctive legal system was itself so highly esteemed: the ‘act justly, love mercy’ balance of a nation intent on walking in humility with their God ensured that such a system worked so well.

But we choose now as a nation not to walk with God: and that balance has been lost. Instead now our first port of call as often as not is to point a blaming finger, and to seek, where we can, a bulky compensation package.

But it’s a flawed and complex world in which we live! Disasters take place. Accidents happen. Catastrophes sometimes occur.

Wild fires break out across the parched and wooded slopes of southern Greece. Boats carrying hundreds of refugee people capsize in the seas of the Med. Typhoons destroy massive swathes of a far eastern land. Tower blocks go up in flames. Half-built dams are breached releasing torrents of destructive power.

And what happens on the larger, louder canvas of the nations of the world is paralleled precisely on the canvas of our own more personal experience. Accidents happen. The bottom falls out of our world. An illness afflicts us severely. An injury comes out of the blue. Disappointments blind-side us completely.

Things don’t always go right – sometimes, indeed, they go horribly wrong. And rarely do they all go to plan. That’s just the broken-down and complicated world in which we live.

And that’s where our world-view and outlook kicks in. Because when we’ve lost our solid, steady anchorage in Christ, our instinct when such hard, unwelcome trials come our way is to take up the cudgel of blame.

Take the Grenfell Tower and what happened there. The block goes up in flames – a wretched, frightening, near apocalyptic spectacle: and for those involved a nightmare now become reality. But hardly have the fires been doused than (with blame as the default response) the question’s inevitably asked: who’s to blame?

The architects? The builders? The contractors? The council? The town planners? The tentacles of blame reach far and wide. Even the fire-men and women, who risked their very lives to douse the fires and rescue those within – perhaps even they are to blame.

Blame is our natural default response in the face of anything ‘bad’.

You see exactly that in all the down-to-earth and very honest narratives we find across the pages of the Book.

Remember the man born blind, whose remarkable story is told in the gospel of John? The disciples of Jesus had still got a whole load to learn when it came to their walking with God and their living the new life of grace. And their opening gambit is way off the mark (John 9.2): it’s the language and outlook of blame they adopt. Who is to blame? is the question they think needs an answer. The man? His parents? The system? The Lord?

Blame.

And Jesus has to correct them. Wrong sort of question, He says. That’s not a land of the Book sort of question: that’s a jungle warfare sort of line.

It’s exactly the same with poor old Job, is it not, in the wake of the disasters which have come his way? His friends, when they finally can’t hold their tongue any more, are all pointing the finger of blame.

(It’s classic ‘Sound of Music’ theology they’re propounding really. You remember that song in ‘The Sound of Music’“For here you are, standing there, loving me, Whether or not you should. So somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good..”. It’s bad, appalling theology: but the so-called friends of Job are singing the B-side of that very song: ‘so here you are, Job, sitting there, battered, bereaved, and now beset with terrible sores – so somewhere in your past you must have done something bad.’)

Blame. It’s the stance we most naturally choose when confronted by the harsh and sore realities of life within this flawed and fallen world.

We’ll sometimes blame others. Sometimes it’s only ourselves we will blame. And sometimes, of course, it is God we will blame. But blame is the name of our game.

See where it leads, though. Blaming others will lead to an angry and festering resentment: blame yourself and that over time breeds a lingering guilt and despair: blame God and a stubborn, defiant unbelief will slowly grow.

Do you see what’s really going on then when we’ve ceased to be a people of the Book? Blame is what’s left when we cease to be rooted in Scripture and lose the perspective of grace. Faith, hope, and love have disappeared: and unbelief, despair, resentment now move in, like a sordid crowd of squatters in our hearts and in our land, and take their place.

So how are we meant to respond when such wretched things take place? Because sooner or later, in one way or another, they will take place – often very suddenly, usually unexpectedly, and most times with a trailing sting of grief, pain and perplexity: welcome to a fallen world.

Blame is not the line down which our questioning must go. For one thing, blame always ends with ‘me’ (spell it and see): point the finger and you’ve three other fingers pointing right back at yourself.

No. There are two main alternative routes down which we are to steer the surging torrent of emotions which catastrophes create.

First, it would seem, we are meant to be asking – are there things we can learn from these wretched events, from these terrible trials? It may not be the language which we’d choose for Him to speak, but what is God saying through it all?

There was a tower block disaster in Jerusalem back in Jesus’ day: and news as well of a quite horrific massacre (Luke 13.1ff). Jesus steered the people right away from any instinct which they might have had to blame, and pointed them rather to what they’d do well to be learning. Life is fragile, grace is available, make sure that you’re sorted with God.

When our world is informed by the truth of God’s Word and our outlook infused with the gospel of grace, then we’re learners more than anything: and not litigators.

But there’s a second line of questioning as well to which we’re always pointed by the Lord. How can we best take things on from this point for the glory of God?

The man born blind is .. well, blind. That’s just where he is right now, and no matter how much you debate who’s to blame, you’ll not thereby change things at all. Blame is the wrong sort of question: it burrows away in a past which you cannot undo.

The world of grace, by contrast, has the future as its focus and the cross of Christ its centre-point. It understands that God can take the darkest and most wretched sort of circumstance and use it as the platform for a mighty demonstration of His glory and His grace.

Joseph back in Egypt, it was evident, had learned that lesson well. He’d been through the mill; but just at the point where his brothers expected that blame would be how he’d react, Joseph is focused on how their great God had turned this whole thing on its head and through it all was “saving many lives” (Gen.50.20).

That’s to do with world-view and with attitude. Faith believes in advance what can only make sense down the line. So how do we take this circumstance on in a way that will glorify God? That’s how Jesus instructed His friends in regard to the man who was blind (see John 9.3).

That’s how we learn to be careful ourselves to respond to the trials there are. And that’s how we learn to support one another in the face of the struggles we face.

God’s in the business of “saving many lives” (Gen.50.20): God has come down to rescue us (Ex.3.8): Jesus is the Saviour, the cross the path He trod. In following Him, the shadow of that cross will never be that far away in one form or another: but through the pains and griefs which all the darkness of that shadow-land will bring, we choose by faith to see that He’s intent on ‘saving many lives’.

We pray to that end – for ourselves, for each other – desiring that somehow or other His power will be gloriously displayed in the ‘weakness’ we are called by Him to embrace. And we encourage one another to that end as well, and (as I was saying last month in regard to Jonathan’s care for his friend) we seek in this way to strengthen each other in God.

As the ‘tag-line’ which we use here for the Great Aberdeen Run will say, ‘Glory awaits’. We run the race with that knowledge impressed on our hearts. Glory awaits, a glory with which all the suffering and sorrow the present may bring is simply not worth comparing.

Yours in the Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton