Monthly Letter – August 2020

Dear Friends,

Remember Rip Van Winkle?

He was the man who went into his own sort of lockdown, and then woke to discover that the world in which he’d gone to sleep had changed. In some ways, out of all recognition. The man had slept through a revolution. Everything was the same: and yet nothing was the same. How distressingly disorienting it was!

We’re in Rip Van Winkle territory ourselves these days.

A different sort of lockdown, for sure. 20 weeks rather than 20 years. And not so much sleep as a time of enforced sabbatical. But it’s the same Rip Van Winkle experience all the same. As our lockdown is eased, we’re glad once again to be up on our feet and out and about; but we’re waking to find that the world in which we’ve had our springtime hibernation has all changed. While we were all in that lengthy sabbatical ‘sleep’, a revolution has taken place.

The revolution wasn’t televised (to use the language of the 70s song). It wasn’t announced in advance: it wasn’t put out for widespread consultation: indeed, it wasn’t publicized at all. It just happened.

And just like Rip Van Winkle, we can find ourselves more than a bit disoriented: for everything is the same – and yet nothing is the same. Small but significant changes have taken place. A silent, subtle revolution has taken place across society.

It’s not at all dissimilar to the story of post-exilic Israel. A people returning from the ‘sleep’ of their time in exile – eager, excited, and glad to be back: and yet a people waking up to discover that their world had changed while they’d all been out for the count. The land and the landscape looked the same: but life would be now wholly different. The revolution had not been televised: it had simply taken place.

In our society, too, today, a cunning, quiet, beneath-the-radar revolution has been taking place. The euphemistic phrase with which it’s introduced, and behind whose gentle terms it subtly hides (‘the new normal’) belies the rather harsher nature of the thing. In truth it’s neither normal nor that new.

The lockdown’s simply brought out into clearer view some trends which were already there: some seeds of major change, which long since had been planted in the soil of our society, were fertilized and watered by the spread of the pandemic and the consequent restrictions which we’ve known: and they’ve now taken root and have started to grow. A quiet revolution’s been taking place.

For a start, authority has assumed a more authoritarian expression. A subtle, but significant shift.

Authority itself, of course, is good; it’s an integral part of God’s wise ordering of society, and we rightly submit to the governing authorities, as the Scriptures teach and exhort. They have been established by God: government is a God-given institution. We are to pray for those set in authority over us, giving thanks to the Lord not only for the institution of government itself, but also, more particularly, for those who willingly assume the weighty responsibilities its exercise involves.

In the face of the terrible spread of the corona virus the burden placed upon our leaders, both locally and nationally, is huge. Few if any would envy them their task, tackling, as they’ve had to do, the threat of widespread disease and death which this nebulous, virulent killer has brought – and, in terms of their planning, having to make it all up as they go along without the usual benefits of any sort of manual at all.

Of course they’ve had to come up with a strategy. Of course they’ve had to take some urgent action and to make some hard decisions. Of course they’ve had to regulate our conduct right across the whole wide spectrum of our living. Of course it’s the case that exceptional times require exceptional measures.

That’s the nature of authority: those entrusted with the role and responsibility of government exercise that authority “as God’s servants” and for the good of all.

But the needs and the patterns of exceptional times can become, if we’re not all that careful, the habits of a lifetime: and a government requiring to state and dictate the way our lives are lived, down to the smallest details of our daily life, can drift towards a use of their authority which assumes a more authoritarian style.

The particular exigencies of a pandemic such as this can issue in our quickly becoming accustomed to having every smallest detail of our lives being regulated by the government.

How many people may meet in a pub. How many people may gather for worship, regardless how large or small the building may be. How many people may gather for worship when the service is a wedding or a funeral. It’s all very detailed stuff.

When, and where, and by whom, a face-mask must be worn. And more detailed than that, how many layers the face-mask must have.

Who would have thought at the start of the year that we’d not bat an eyelid when government dictates required that our shops and our businesses simply closed down, our churches were shut and all of us were confined to our homes? We understood and understand the reasons why, of course. And so we’ve quickly grown accustomed to this crisis-driven pattern of authority, whereby the details of our daily living are determined by the dictates of our government.

But what if the flip side of that is as true as well? What if this crisis-driven pattern of our life across society being regulated thus can see those set in authority over us beginning to think that it is indeed their role in less exceptional times, too, to order all the smallest details of their peoples’ lives?

For the trend we’re beginning to see in how we’re governed is one whereby it’s now determined for us (and dictated to us) not only what we may and may not do, but what we may and may not say.

And what we may and may not teach our children.

And what we may and may not think and believe.

The trends are disturbing. For authority then has drifted to a more authoritarian mode. Which is a very different thing. The revolution will not be televised. It just slips in under the radar. Watch out when you wake up, Rip Van Winkle!

Another subtle shift has slowly taken place. Faith has given place to fear. That’s a generalisation, I know; but insofar as it is, and has been for many a year, a discernible shift in our society, it’s a shift which this lockdown has tended only both to exacerbate and accelerate.

Faith, let’s be clear, is the converse of folly; and faith without works is no faith at all. So the cautious approach which Moses adopted in sending spies up into the promised land was not in itself a sign of a lack of faith on the part of the people of Israel – after all they sent spies up and into the promised land the second time round as well.

Faith doesn’t shut its eyes to reality. Faith isn’t blind, and it doesn’t bash blindly ahead in a foolhardy way, relying on God to come rushing each time to the rescue. Jesus didn’t jump to the devil’s tune and leap from the highest point of the temple presuming on some promise of God.

And so by faith we are careful to recognize the gravity of the present situation, the way in which the virus spreads, the devastating impact that the consequent disease may have. There is a rightful sort of caution in the exercise of faith. We rely upon the saving and preserving grace of God, yes: we rejoice in the saving and preserving grace of God, yes: but we don’t and we won’t and we dare not ever presume upon that grace.

Faith isn’t folly and we’re wise to take good care for both our ‘neighbour’ and ourselves. There’s a rightful sort of caution in the exercise of faith, and we therefore take appropriate precautions in the way we deal with hazards, threats and troubles which may come.

But some subtle shifts have taken place.

Caution, for instance, has morphed into fear: and the two are not the same. Fear has become a feature of our contemporary society, a prevalent and negative force in the way our lives are lived. We fear the disease; and we fear the death which may result from the dreaded disease; and we start in all sorts of unconscious ways to fear other people too. ‘Social distancing’ has become not just a physical expression of a rightful and necessary caution: it’s become the relational stance of an all-pervasive fear.

A fear of what others may give by social contact, in terms of our physical health (they might infect me with the virus and send me to my grave). A fear of what others may do through ‘social responsibility’, in terms of our activities (they might report me to the police). A fear of what others may say on social media, in terms of our beliefs (they might ruin my reputation and make my life a hell).

So we’ve become more and more a culture characterized by carefully keeping our distance. The caution of faith has morphed to the ‘coldness’ of fear.

Because we believers are breathing the air of our culture each day, that shift can take root in our own hearts as well. And thus, as just another instance of that subtle shift, we too can all too easily, unthinkingly, lay greater weight on scientific modelling than on supernatural miracle.

Faith does not discount the value and significance of all such careful modelling those experts bring. In that faith by which we trust in God we thank Him for their giftedness and learning, for all the tireless hours of work they have clearly put in to figure out how best on our behalf to understand the way this virus operates, and to mitigate its impact on society.

But faith sees, too, that God the great Creator and our gracious King is able by His sovereign word to halt the spread of this or any virus in its tracks. By faith we hear the scientific modelling and understand the place of vaccination: and by faith as well we see the supernatural miracles of God and plead on our knees in the place of supplication.

But how much in evidence is that today? That humble resort to urgent and earnest supplication before almighty God? “When I send a plague among My people, if My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” Well, wouldn’t that be something!

But faith has given place to fear as the bottom-line foundation of our national life: we turn now more readily to the labs and their products than we look to the Lord in prayer. The revolution will not be televised. It just slips in under the radar.

Rip Van Winkle, your world has changed considerably! The foundation stones have been replaced: the world to which you’re waking up has reverted to its old, more pagan roots, grounded now increasingly on fear far more than faith. And such a world will function very differently from what you formerly knew.

But such a world is more in need of the gospel of grace than ever: we must rise to the challenge, rely on our Shepherd, and prove once again the sufficiency of His grace.

Yours in the service of Christ,

Jeremy Middleton