Monthly Letter – February 2020

Dear Friends,

One of the things we’re short on these days is stamina.

Gap years are far more the rage than a life-time of missionary service now is: the former can be a self-indulgent stimulus on leaving school, while the latter requires of you a self-denying stamina in living life.

In much the same way, tweets are more in vogue than letters – the former make precious few demands on either writers or their followers, whereas a letter requires substantial concentration on the part of both.

Stamina. The grace of perseverance.

For the farmer out ploughing his land, that’s the whole of the field, and not just a single furrow. For the Christian out serving his Saviour, that’s the whole of our lives and not just some flashes of kindness.

Stamina. It may well be a dying art so far as our whole culture is concerned. But it’s an indispensable grace we all must learn to cultivate in following Jesus Christ.

And as we start this decade of the 2020s it seemed to me appropriate to illustrate this godly grace of stamina by reference to a man whose passing has straddled the two decades: a man who died at the end of last year and was buried at the start of this. Jim Shearer.

It was typical of the man that he was, with his quiet and self-effacing manner, that at his request there wasn’t any service of thanksgiving for his life – and thus no opportunity for us here as a fellowship to mark his final passing from this earthly life.

Perhaps we can do that this way! By my painting in a portrait of his well-lived life, and thereby pointing up just what the Holy Spirit will effect in us as, no matter who we are, our hearts and lives are offered up to Jesus Christ as Lord.

Which is what Jim had done in his childhood. Starting out on that path of following Jesus is one thing, of course: pressing on to the end and finishing well is quite another! And that’s where this Spirit-given stamina comes in. For right across the decades of his life, on through the years and up and into his nineties, this man sustained a gracious, consistent and Christ-centred life to the day that he passed from this earthly life.

I came across a book the other day entitled ‘Pressing on and finishing well’. It would be a fitting sort of epitaph for Jim! And whereas that book has the sub-title ‘Learning from seven biblical characters’, I mean to take the thesis one stage further and see us all instructed in the disciplines of stamina by this one distinguished character whose roots were always here with us in Gilcomston.

Let me do so under seven acronymic headings (seven being the number of completeness after all!) which together spell that indispensable grace.

Simplicity. Spinning too many plates in our lives is exhausting, draining and destined, most times, for a premature, painful disaster. The ‘one-thing-I-do’, no-nonsense approach which Paul the apostle espoused, is the key to developing stamina. And for all the many ways in which this always found expression in Jim’s life, he was, above all else, a ‘one-thing-I-do’ sort of man.

He was a man who’d set his heart from childhood on living his life for the glory of God: and that, to the end of the days, was the one great thing he was ever intent on pursuing. Indeed, it was precisely because of just this (however much we all might have wished to argue to the contrary!) that he insisted there should be no public service of thanksgiving for his life.

Testimony. Our calling in life as Christians is simply this, to bear a faithful witness to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Jim understood that. As far back as 1952, while still a young man in his twenties, with all sorts of prospects career-wise before him, he was one of eight missionaries associated with Gilcomston South Church. His life would be given, as best he knew how, to declaring the praises of the God who had called him out of darkness into His wonderful light (1 Pet.2.9). He’d trained at Selly Oak in Birmingham, and in 1955 was out in India serving with the Mission to Lepers in West Bengal.

Those of you who are in your twenties and thirties just now – are you countenancing this? That the Lord who calls us as His witnesses may be calling you to do as Jim himself had done and sound out His praises in something beyond the career and the prospects on which your heart has been hitherto set?

However few or many may be our years, may we live them all to the end that witness is born to Jesus.

Adventure. This is of the very essence of the faith in Jesus Christ by which we live. Our being willing to go wherever God calls us, to act whenever God needs us, to do whatever God tells us.

Wherever. Whatever. Whenever. The adventurous spirit of those who know they are but pilgrims here on earth.

The readiness to tackle new and greater challenges. The readiness to pack our bags and travel light to places far beyond the boundaries of comfort, in obedience to God’s call.

Jim travelled east, as I’ve said, and way out there in India he met, and then out there in West Bengal he’d subsequently marry, a missionary nurse called Maureen Hatte. The two of them returned to Aberdeen, and after Maureen’s death some 30 years and more ago, Jim was off again, only this time the man was headed west.

Off to the States on a fresh adventure to marry a long-time family friend called Judy Gass, and to settle out there in the States and begin a whole new life. God is a great romantic, and His adventures are always the best of the best!

But Judy, too, died, some 15 years ago, and back came Jim once more to Aberdeen, returning to his roots. J R R Tolkien’s book ‘The Hobbit’ has as its subtitle, ‘There and back again’ – it could well describe the adventure of Jim’s own life!

And of course, for Jim, the adventure wasn’t yet over. There was still more travelling the man had to do. Closer at hand by far. But harder, too, in ways that those who’ve made the journey all well know. The move from his own familiar surroundings to the care of a Nursing Home – in his case Summerhill Home.

It’s never an easy change for a person to make. But for Jim it was part of the adventure of faith, the next port of call for a pilgrim en route to his true and his ultimate home. And what an impact he had in Summerhill Home in his own quiet way. The staff all jostled for the privilege and the pleasure of attending on this man, such was his gracious manner and such were the stories he’d tell them as he served his Saviour and Lord.

Ministry. We sometimes speak of Jesus as ‘the Servant King’: for this willingness to serve, to pour Himself out for the needs of a people, this servant heart is integral to all He is. And the work of the Spirit of God in our hearts develops in His people that same appetite for service in the way we live our lives.

Nowhere was that eagerness to serve more evident than in the context of his home and family life. Sally, Amy and Simon remember their father as one who had put them all first; a husband who attended on his wife and saw to all her needs; a father who spent time with each of his children and filled their lives with fun; a man whose home, like his heart, was ‘open house’ and who’d gladly and often enlarged the scope of his ‘family’ and made his many visitors feel always so at home.

He served in the life of Christ’s church as well, of course. A hugely respected and much loved elder over many years (he was ordained in 1962), he’d fulfilled the demanding role of treasurer for the best part of three decades: and that had involved for him, too, a large responsibility through the prior negotiations and the initial stages of the major restoration of the exterior of our building in the early 1990s.

A servant; a man who gladly and whole-heartedly would give himself in warm, committed service in the home, at work, and in His Master’s service in the church. And not just in some flurry of occasional activity, but in a lifetime of sustained, committed ministry.

Has that spirit of service been somewhat lost among God’s people today? Has the drip-fed self-indulgence of our culture somehow watered down the lifestyle of the followers of Christ, and subtly, slowly neutered and eroded this dynamic of a life of costly service?

Initiative. God is the great Creator; the One who initiates change; the One who begins each good work, which He then brings on to completion.

We, too, as those made in His image, are freed to seize the initiative, taking charge of the changing scenarios in which we may find ourselves. This was a grace which Jim was ever displaying, as from time to time his circumstances changed. Where he was geographically, what he was doing vocationally, who he was with relationally, how he was coping practically – as circumstances beyond his control would change, Jim was a man with initiative; refusing to wallow in the slough of self-pitying despond, and instead taking charge of the turn of events and then making it work for the good. Right to the end of his life.

Nobility. “You are,” wrote Peter, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession..” (1 Pet.2.9): in other words, we are in Christ nobility. Men and women, as the book of Proverbs puts it, ‘of noble character.’ Not in any sort of fitful way. But a permanent, enduring quality about our lives that’s best described as ‘noble’.

Speak to those who knew this man and before very long they’d describe him as a gentleman. In every sense. Courteous, kind, considerate. A man like Job in the Bible, who could say of himself (and that with all due humility) –

“Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me, because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them. The one who was dying blessed me: I made the widow’s heart sing. .. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger. People listened to me expectantly, waiting in silence for my counsel. After I had spoken, they spoke no more: my words fell gently on their ears. … When I smiled at them, they scarcely believed it: the light of my face was precious to them. .. I dwelt as a king among his troops; I was like one who comforts mourners.”

It’s that sort of nobility which the Spirit of God instills and sustains in the lives of His people. God grant that this should be consistently the tenor of our lives.

Adoration. Praise is the middle name of the people of God. The day will come when all who’ve loved the Lord will gather as a multitude too large by far for anyone to number, and each and every one will be quite simply lost, engulfed, united and caught up with one another in their wonder, love and praise of Jesus Christ.

We only get the smallest little foretaste of that now. But even as such that spirit of praise and adoration in our hearts sustains us through the toughest trials of life (think of Paul and Silas in their prison cell at Philippi). We love the Lord. We delight in Him. We rejoice in His sovereign grace. He’s wise, and good, and kind and strong. He does all things so very well. We trust Him absolutely and He’s never let us down.

That growing adoration then creates a deep contentment in our hearts: the calm, assured conviction that the Lord does indeed watch over all the details of our going out and then our coming in. He knows what He’s doing. He anticipates our every need. He rescues us from every trial. And we rest in the assurance that He “will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom.”

That was certainly Jim Shearer through the course of his life. May it be each of us as well.

“Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you,” urges the writer to the Hebrews: an exhortation we will always do well to embrace. “Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb.13.7).

“You need to persevere,” that self-same writer insisted (Heb.10.36): stamina may well be a dying art within the culture of our day – but it is and remains an indispensable grace in following Christ. And the key to developing stamina lies in our eyes being fixed on Jesus: He remains the same always.

Yours, pressing on in His service,

Jeremy Middleton