Monthly Letter – January 2021

Dear Friends,

We’re all creatures of habit.

Do a thing often enough and it quickly becomes simply second nature. Habitual. You no longer even think about it: you do it automatically.

When you first start to drive a car as a learner, for instance, there are so many things to think about. The pedals. The steering wheel. The gear lever. The indicators. The lights. The wipers. The heaters. The mirrors. All the dials in front of you. The list is endless. A hundred and one different things – or so it seems – to get your head around: all at the same time.

But get into the car and do what needs to be done to drive the car: then do it again: and again: and again and again – and remarkably quickly you start to do all those things instinctively. Even men, who don’t do multi-tasking all that well, even they soon learn to do what needs to be done and manage to drive a car. Habits are quickly formed.

Not all of them good, of course. And that’s the point. Across the whole broad spectrum of our living, being creatures of habit means that we easily develop certain patterns of behaviour which we quickly cease to think about.

The language we use. The routines we follow. The programmes we watch. The clothes we wear. The menus we plan. The outlook we choose. The reactions we have.

We’re creatures of habit: they’re habits formed by simple repetition, and they issue in courses of action to which little if any real thought now needs to be given. We just do what we do almost automatically.

Which is why it’s no bad thing that at this time of year there’s often the time and the space (and a helpful, God-given instinct) to review and reflect on our living and resolve in that light either to ditch once for all or to develop still further some habits which the previous months have grown.

This year that’s perhaps more necessary and urgent than ever. On the back of the Covid pandemic, the past nine months and more have brought about some fairly major changes in our daily lives. Of necessity we’ve had to do a lot of things in very different ways. And in the process habits have been formed: patterns of conduct, repeated so often they’re done now without any thought: and perspectives, impressed on our minds with such relentless frequency that (unless due care is taken) they’re then adopted quite uncritically.

Part of the worship we offer the Lord is His tutelage of our minds. We purposefully choose to refuse to conform to the pattern of this world, and instead have our living transformed by His continual renewing of our minds. “I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to Your statutes,” insists the psalmist, in an early-version, ‘New-Year’s-resolutions’ act of faith.

Habits have been formed this year; some good, some bad. Some ‘wheat’, some ‘tares’. The pandemic has planted in the soil of our national life certain patterns and perspectives which, as the months have gone on, will develop into habits that may well, without wise husbandry, prove hard to kick. Now is as good a time as any, therefore, to reflect on what’s being going on, to review the patterns of behaviour we’ve embraced, and learn to be quite resolute in cultivating only those good habits that are honouring to the Lord.

So here, to stimulate your thinking – here are the seeds of seven bad habits which the pandemic has tended to sow and against which we surely must be firmly on our guard; and then the seeds of seven profitable habits which the pandemic has similarly sown and which we do well now carefully to cultivate. (If you’re doing the maths, don’t worry! I’ll not do much more than flag them all up and leave you to do some reflecting on them all).

First, then, the seeds of some seven bad habits which the pandemic has sown – this is far from being a comprehensive list!

We live our lives in line with government dictates. We’ve grown used to daily government briefings. We understand the need for them, in the face of the ever-changing contours of the landscape which the coronavirus crisis seems to shape. And we recognize, too, the role which government rightly plays in the gracious rule of God. So, we duly comply. Do this. Do that. Not now. Not here. No one doubts the need for such a lead (well, not many anyway). But it subtly becomes a habit, both for the governed and the governing. The government tells us how to behave. And what to believe. And what we’re permitted to teach. Habits become hypnotic, and it’s all too easy to sleep-walk into a no-nonsense ‘nanny-state’ which brooks no argument at all.

We think in terms of scientific models more than supernatural miracles. There’s a place for the models, of course, and a hugely important part which the scientists certainly play. Our gratitude for their taxing and tireless efforts mustn’t be downplayed. But they’re not gods. And a reliance on models which blinds us to the fact that our Lord is “the God who performs miracles” (Ps.77.14), cultivates only a perspective which is hellishly distorted and will prove to be disastrous since it fosters spiritual impotence.

We succumb to the motivating force of fear. Fear is a powerful driver, no mistake: for caution invariably rides ‘shotgun’ with fear. And fear has therefore constantly been fostered through these past long months in order that there be a rightful caution in the way our lives are lived. Isn’t such caution so vital? Of course. That the virus is contagious, the disease it breeds distressing, and the consequences far too often fatal, who could dare gainsay? So, fear has been carefully cultured in the propaganda labs of our society. ‘Be afraid, be afraid,’ is the haunting, incessant music that is piped into our thinking every day – when the burden of the message which the Lord declares is just the total opposite: ‘Be not afraid!’ And we who’ve been freed from that wretched, life-long slavery induced by the fear of death, can be subtly sucked into a manner of living which is shaped once again more by fear than it is by faith.

We learn to live life separately. Fearful that either we, or others we meet, may unwittingly be infectious, the bearers of potentially a lethal bug, we hide ourselves behind our masks and keep our ‘social distance’. We live apart, our practiced separation sometimes bordering on suspicion, with confinement not communion being the safer social option in a Covid-19 world. Our contact with each other is restricted and reduced: and thus we can learn by default to live in a less than splendid isolation, being slowly, like the fabled boiling frog, conditioned to the sore, reclusive lifestyle of a far from good aloneness which will actually be the death of us. “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Not ever.

We cease to recognize clear lines of demarcation. There are very good reasons for working from home in a time of pandemic like this. And doubtless too there are certain clear advantages. But for many it’s meant that ‘switching off’ is not the simple exercise which once it was. The lines have become rather blurred. Work and home are conflated. To be schooled at home is confusing. The lines of demarcation are important: Genesis 1 is a lesson on the need for lines to be drawn. Night and day. Light and darkness. Land and sea. Lines of demarcation. The blurring of all such lines in a society – gender lines included – is a trend which coils back down into that old primeval chaos.

We live our lives, including church, on-line. We thank God for technology. Its benefits have been an obvious boon throughout these long pandemic months. Necessity has shown herself again to be the mother of invention, as the option of the ‘livestream’ opens doors to Christian worship which were otherwise (and hitherto) quite closed. But the screen is not a like-for-like replacement for the sanctuary itself: it’s a soft and sanitising substitute for the Holy Spirit’s gracious, patient ministry in bringing people physically (and often most uncomfortably) together as a God-ordained clear pointer to eternity.

We adopt a ‘consumer’ understanding of the gospel. There’s a convenience as well as an expedience in the move towards an on-line shopping way of life. You can shop around with ease. You can go where you want; you can shop when you choose: you can get what you want delivered right to your door. In this culture of convenience, the customer is king (or queen). Its heady stuff: and it subtly spills across into the life of faith. From the safety and the comfort of your palace (aka your home), from the ‘throne-room’ of your keyboard and your screen, you get to choose – where you’ll go to worship, what you’ll have for nourishment (and from whom), and when, of course, it suits you best (if it suits you at all). The gospel’s been turned on its head!

Seven bad habits, then. But it’s far from being all bad! Seeds of some good and healthy habits have been similarly sown, and these are ones we’ll surely do well to cultivate in the weeks and months ahead.

We pray for our leaders much more than ever before. Whatever may be our political colours, we’re now very aware that the exercise of government brings a weight of huge responsibility for those who bear that mantle. The goalposts are constantly shifting, there isn’t a manual on how to handle pandemics, and they know they’re going to get flak. We recognize our sacred gospel calling under God to pray for those who govern us. And to pray thus constantly.

We grasp more clearly the people-centred nature of the church. We’ve been blessed with a building in the kind and sovereign providence of God: and for that we’re truly thankful. But the church has left the building, as the saying goes; and the focal point of ministry has shifted from the pastors to the punters, from the city-centre sanctuary to the far-flung streets and parks and gardens where in smaller groups folk meet. The building has its benefits. But the people are the channels of the Spirit’s gracious work.

We have significantly more contact with neighbours. The liturgy of lockdown means we ‘stay-at-home’ far more: gardens get far more attention: far more of the DIY jobs, long neglected, are finally done: cars are far more frequently washed. People are around far more. There’s both time and occasion and motive for speaking with those who live near us. Those neighbourhood relationships are, more times than not, the riverbeds down which God’s Holy Spirit loves to flow in saving power.

We’re more careful to stay in touch with friends and family. Deprived of the chance to see one another in person, cards and letters and telephone calls have come into their own once more. The Word becomes flesh all over again – Jesus Himself ‘fleshed out’ in the words which we write, or the words which we speak in a call. A sizeable part of the New Testament is comprised of letters – to very varied fellowships, to all sorts of different individuals. The Word, both written and spoken, has power. And God’s people become His mouthpiece.

We learn to live life at a slower pace. That’s not been the case for everyone, of course. Some spheres of work have made it feel as if you’re stuck inside an over-heated pressure-cooker. But for most, the restrictions in place mean there aren’t so many ‘other things’ to cram in to their jam-packed, daily diaries. And life gets lived more slowly, its rhythms less frenetic and its bursts of focused action far less frenzied, fast and fraught. There’s time and space to reflect on what we’re doing and enjoy the fruits of what’s been done. More like God in Genesis 1.

We scour the Bible for insight into all that’s going on. When the future’s unclear and the scale of the problems we’re facing is so very large; when all of the landmarks which formerly gave us our bearings have all of a sudden dissolved in the wake of a global pandemic; when what we’d assumed were solid, enduring foundations have overnight crumbled and all that remains is the rubble of all our dashed dreams – we’re all the more open to hearing a word from the Lord. We read the Bible, not as any mere academic exercise, nor as a pious and praiseworthy ritual of religion, but to gain from the Lord a perspective on our present, pressurized predicaments. We learn to apply the Scriptures rigorously to ourselves.

We work from the premise that our plans are always at best provisional. We’ve been learning that truth all over again from the start of the lockdown last March. We knew it as a basic biblical principle. We’ve now had to live it as well. Overnight the rules may change. Overnight the Lord may come. Overnight our lives may end. All our best laid plans this side of God’s eternity can only ever be provisional. And a clear grasp of that surely drives us all to root our lives more firmly in the Lord Jesus Christ, whose plans are never provisional and whose promise alone is our hope.

How quickly and easily so many habits are formed! At the start of another new year, then, it’s our wisdom to learn from the past! As the prophet Jeremiah long since exhorted – ‘Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.’

With the prayer that you will know God’s abundant grace towards you through whatever these coming months may bring, it’s my privilege to remain

Yours in the glad service of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton