Monthly Letter – February 2021

Dear Friends,

Believers are defined in some ways by their being a people who wait.

It’s the flip-side of faith, a hallmark of hope, and the lifestyle of Spirit-wrought love.

And it may well be that in the face of this present, prolonged pandemic patience is that fruit of the Spirit of God in believers’ lives which at last comes right into its own.

Because patience in the populace at large is wearing thin.

You see that growing impatience, I think, in the riots there were in the Netherlands. You see it, I think, in the chaos up on Capitol Hill, the looting of that landmark of democracy. You see it, I think, in the barbed and stinging comments which are flung across the parliamentary fences day by day. You see it, I think, in the embryonic anarchy taking root within our land, with people now reverting to a time-of-the-Judges mentality where everyone did what was right in their own eyes.

Patience in the populace is wearing thin. Fraying at the edges. Falling apart.

Understandably so, of course. It isn’t hard to figure out the reasons for such ‘restlessness’ across the globe, as bit by bit the thin veneer of patience is eroded by the rough, relentless storms of this pandemic. Its constant, crashing waves of tough, preventative restrictions keep on breaking on the shores of every nation’s life. Its nasty, nebulous waters spread the toxin of the virus into all the farthest corners of the land, seeping beneath the sandbags of precaution which society’s put in place. And its chameleon-like capacity to vary its appearance leaves the nations of the world playing catch-up all the time and chasing shadows, so it seems, in all their valiant efforts to control the thing.

It’s a constant and challenging battle, one that’s been waged now for months. Battle fatigue kicks in.

Patience is always that much harder when fatigue sets in: we recognize that, surely, in ourselves. And people today are tired.

Physically tired in the case of so many. Many for whom the demands of their work have grown, expanded and left them well-nigh exhausted. Lengthy shifts. Staff shortages. Sleepless nights. Shrinking deadlines. Too much to do in too little time with too few people to do it. It takes its toll on a person’s physical frame.

Those with growing children, they too know all about that sort of physical weariness. Parenting’s always tiring, at the best of times. But with children around and learning on line and home-schooling thrust on them too, parents who combine all that with work which they themselves must do, in circumstances far from being conducive to productiveness – it’s a daily, damaging drain upon the energies of the fittest of the fit. Candles aren’t meant to be burned at both ends: and the need to be two different people at once, to fulfil in effect two full-time roles every day when you’ve only got the one life – well, spinning the plates may start off as good fun, but keeping each one of them spinning takes its toll and leaves a person tired and weary and drained.

People today are tired. Emotionally tired, as well, in the case again of so many. Tired of disappointment. Tired of long confinement. Tired of all the lockdowns. Tired of isolation. Tired of a life in limbo. Tired of the sheer monotony of life. Tired of persistent anxiety. Tired of boarding on the breadline and below. Tired of being hit when you’re down. Tired of strained relationships. Tired of the same old scenery. Tired of abuse behind closed doors. Tired of the ache of bereavement’s unrequited sorrow which has lingered like an ulcer on the soul. Tired, indeed, of simply being tired all the time.

Patience is always that much harder when you’re tired. And there’s a load of stored up tiredness doing the rounds.

Not just the physical tiredness. Nor just that emotional tiredness. But a spiritual tiredness as well. A nation, a culture, a whole way of life which has somehow grown old, decrepit and worn.

A nation which has left its spiritual moorings, and now has lost its way. And within that whole society, who knows how many people now are haunted by a growing sense of emptiness and loss; countless individuals now adrift and all at sea in terms of knowing what their lives are all about. Tired of trying to make some sense of life; tired of trying to figure out some meaning and significance in a world of shifting goalposts, one whose contours seem to be no more than merely so much sinking sand. Tired of the endless statistics, the solemn daily death knell which pulls the curtain down on life. Tired of a life without hope, without God. Tired of seeing nearly no one. Tired of doing next to nothing. Tired of going really nowhere, so it seems, other than in endless, pointless circles.

The patience of the populace is wearing very thin.

And part of the reason, certainly, is this tiredness: it’s harder by far to be patient when you’re tired – and the world as a whole has grown weary this past long year.

But uncertainty, too, is no friend to the culture of patience. When the outcome isn’t known and isn’t clear, when the outcome that you hope for is still far from being certain and secure, that very lack of certainty will nibble at the edges of your patience ‘til it starts to fray and fall apart, and you become all frazzled, fraught and fractious.

And we live in a time of great and mounting uncertainty. The pandemic, for one thing, is replete with its own great unknowns. How well will the vaccine actually work? How soon will it have such an impact that the stay-at-home lockdowns will cease? How many different variants will the virus start to conjure up? Will the virus or the vaccine get the upper hand? What will be the shape of the world into which we’ll at last be released when once the present restrictions are all eased?

Then there’s all the fall-out from the Brexit deal. Politically. Economically. Constitutionally. Socially. What will the post-Brexit world be like for us here on this island on the fringes of this massive European continent? Is this the start of another, different ‘continental drift’? And where will we here on this island end up, cast adrift as we are on the seas of a go-it-alone type of life?

Or the coming Scottish elections. Are there ‘fault-lines’ now appearing in the erstwhile sure foundations of United Kingdom life? Will there be another ‘Indy’ referendum, and if so, what will be the fall-out from all that? Politically? Constitutionally? Socially? Economically? Will the fracture from Europe be followed by further great fissures and fractures in the fabric of our common life?

And what about the challenges of climate change? What effects will global warming have? Is it swimsuits or snowsuits we’ll need to be off to the high street shops to procure? And will there be any such shops for us still to frequent?

Questions. Questions. Questions.

And the answer every time is – no one knows. Uncertainty abounds. The landscape of life as we knew it is all in the mix, and nobody knows how the contours will now be redrawn. We live at a time that’s uncertain, unsettling and thoroughly unpredictable.

And that constant lack of knowledge is both wholly disconcerting and disorienting for all. Uncertainty puts us on edge, makes us ‘edgy’ (in the sense, of course, of anxious more than avant-garde) – tense, nervous, apprehensive.

None of them good breeding grounds for patience now to thrive. When you’re tense, you soon become tetchy, and your patience left in corresponding tatters at its side.

But that’s the world we live in. And it’s always been that way. Ever since the creation itself was subjected to frustration as the consequence of sin. That’s in truth the bottom-line suffusing all the reasons why that patience in the populace is wearing thin today.

Frustration. Hauliers frustrated at Dover. Parents frustrated by lockdowns. Business frustrated by closures. Families frustrated by plans which went out of the window. Medics frustrated by shortages: not enough beds, not enough staff, not enough equipment, not enough time, not enough co-operation from the public out at large.

Frustration.

A world that has been long since marked and marred by sin. Sin which never satisfies. Sin which breeds frustration not fulfilment as its fruit. And the more a people departs from their Biblical roots the more it’s frustration of which they’re increasingly, disturbingly conscious. And the greater the sense of frustration, of course, the less the resources for patience.

After all of these wearisome months, therefore, the future itself so uncertain in many respects, the reservoirs of a stiff-upper-lip and typically British resilience are running dry, and the posture of polite, societal patience is no longer quite so widespread as it was.

Which is where and why the Spirit-given fruit of Christ-like patience may well now come right into its own and be seen for that distinctive grace it is. Men and women, girls and boys, patient in our attitude towards events going on around us: patient in the way that we relate and show forbearance to our neighbours and our friends: patient in both when and how we speak: patient in the care we take to listen, in the measured way we talk: patient in the face of all the many disappointments which will come our way: patient as we bear with inconvenience and disruption in our day by day experience: patient in our suffering and adversity: patient through the many situations which would otherwise be stirring real anxiety within our hearts: patient in the longing and the waiting for a better day: patient as we walk the fields of wearisome frustration in this world.

Patience: shining like a beacon in the darkness of the world’s confused uncertainties and in the shadows of the world’s frustrated gloom. Patience: perhaps the single most distinctive beam of startling light we bring today as those made new and whole by God’s own Holy Spirit, as those who ‘shine like stars throughout the universe,’ to use the words of Paul. Patience: bright shooting stars of grace across the night-time skies of modern, frazzled life – suffusing every conversation we may have, and infusing every action through each day with that which breathes the whispers of eternity to those we’re with.

But that is just not natural, you say. And of course you’re right. It is not natural at all. But that’s the point. This patience is entirely supernatural. It isn’t something we innately have: it’s the fruit of the work of the Spirit of God, a hallmark of the character of God Himself to whose most holy likeness those in Christ are being so wonderfully conformed.

For the Spirit of God creates in our hearts not merely the gift of new life – but a whole new way of living that life, one fruit of which is just this grace of patience.

Patience, because we have learned in the face of all that’s uncertain and dark to trust our God and Saviour: like Moses of old, we’ve learned in the darkness of this fallen world to ‘see Him who is invisible’. There’s much we do not, cannot know. But we know the Lord, and we trust Him as our shepherd through the dark and gloomy glens we have to walk, where the shadows of death itself loom constantly so large.

Patience, because in the face of all the daily demands which drain our natural strength, we have come to the One whose gift to His people is rest, and we’ve learned over time to lean on Him and to find as we do so our strength being strangely renewed.

Patience, because in the face of all the countless frustrations we meet, we’ve learned to look beyond this world and to hope in the promise of God: that’s to say, we’re no longer so taken aback, we’re far less surprised by the frustrations we find in this world, and we’re far more assured in the hope that we have of that ‘better day’, a world, like ourselves, made new. That day is assuredly coming. We’re sure of that. That day when the freedoms we long for will be finally, fully ours. That’s the hope in which we were saved – and we’ve learned by God’s grace to ‘wait for it patiently’.

May that patience indeed be the hallmark of our living in these trying times.

Yours in the glad service of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton