For years I’ve been intrigued by the notion of the ‘seven-year itch’.
It’s a phrase whose meaning significantly changed in the mid 1950s – courtesy (mainly) of Marilyn Monroe (hers, after all, is still a well-known name) and (to a much lesser extent) Tom Ewell (I mean, apart from some odd-ball movie geeks, who ever heard of him?) in the film adaptation of George Axelrod’s play, ‘The Seven Year Itch’.
The phrase, which began its life in the world of dermatology, describing a physical condition which endures for roughly seven years (unpleasant), is now used to describe a relational condition which emerges after seven years (unnecessary). A boredom bred by sheer familiarity; a sense of frustration fuelled by a distorted desire for novelty; a dulling of an earlier delight, occasioned by the daily drudgery of household routines.
Monogamy become monotony. The seven-year itch.
What intrigued me, though, was the extent to which something really very similar is noted in the Scriptures: and, indeed, the extent to which a series of spiritual safeguards is put in place by those Scriptures to guard against the dangers of this dreaded seven-year itch.
In the numerology of the Bible, as you know, seven is a number of some significance – a significance which has its roots, of course, in the account of God’s creation. “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating He had done” (Gen.2.3). Day seven was the day to enjoy the completion of all that He’d done.
The significance of that, the Scriptures then teach, is essentially and constantly two-fold. It’s significant, first, in terms of the symbolism (hence the number seven conveys the idea of completeness, wholeness, perfection). But it’s significant also in terms of the very basic rhythms which now characterize the handiwork of God.
That there are such basic rhythms is a truth we soon discover as we learn about the world in which we live. The steady, rhythmic beating of the heart. The constant, rhythmic breathing of the lungs. The rhythmic, daily pattern of the blessing of our energetic work being followed by the benefits of sleep.
Across the whole of God’s creation the same essential rhythm’s to be found. The seasons of the year themselves bear witness to a fundamental rhythm in God’s world. Those who work the land see precisely this played out before their eyes each year. The hard work of sowing in spring; the patient and persistent growth through all those summer months; the satisfying labour of the crops at last being harvested throughout the autumn weeks: and then the land is quiet once again – its energetic working months now past, it settles back to find refreshment and renewal in its hibernating sleep.
There is this basic rhythm to God’s universe – because there is this basic rhythm in the way God works. And so we, too, we work six days and on the seventh day we rest. The weekly day of rest, the Sabbath; because we are made in the image and likeness of God. It’s the breathing of the human soul: six days given over to our well-paced, satisfying work, and then the benefits and pleasures of our rest. The steady, rhythmic breathing of the Spirit of the living God Himself, breathed into us, His creatures.
And so it’s surely no coincidence that Pentecost, the day on which we celebrate the gift of God’s own Spirit (the very ‘Breath’ of God) – the day on which we celebrate the gift of God’s own Spirit to the church, that day is 49 days after Easter Sunday when we celebrate the raising up of Jesus from the dead: seven steady bursts of that great rhythmic, seven-day pattern which so characterizes our God – and then, as very much the climax to God’s saving work in Christ, the Breath of God breathed into our humanity, that we might learn to ‘breathe’, as it were, to breathe and to work in time and in harmony with Him.
This rhythm revolving round a sequence of seven is a thing that is found again and again. It’s this which first intrigued me about the so-called seven-year itch.
The fields are worked for six long years, and in the seventh the land is left to lie fallow. A Sabbath for the land itself. Then, too, the year of the Jubilee, the year which signaled freedom and renewal for the debtors and down-trodden of society – that year was the 49th year, the Sabbath of Sabbath years.
The rhythmic breathing of God. Reflected in both His exploits in creation and His saving work in Christ. Something not entirely unrelated, I began to think, to the ‘seven-year itch’. I found the thing intriguing. And two particular circumstances prompted me, a long time back, to ponder this some more.
The first was the call from the church at Davidson’s Mains which brought to a close our time in Cumbernauld. Amidst everything else that such a move involved, I found both the need and the time to reflect on all that the Lord had been doing through the years that we’d spent at Kildrum Parish Church. It had been my first charge, and I thought it important to discern both what the Lord had effected through those years, and why it was time to move on.
We’d been there just a fraction over seven years when the process of moving began.
Coincidentally (and I mean the word in its literal sense – these two things simply coincided) I stumbled in my daily reading at that time on the words which Moses had addressed to the people of Israel towards the end of his life. “At the end of every seven years,” he insisted (and my ears pricked up at that), “when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God .. you shall read this law before them in their hearing …” (Deut.31.9-13).
It was this same ancient rhythm again. At the prompting of the Spirit of God, attuned as he was to the rhythms of the breathing and heartbeat of God, here was this man recognizing that every seven years there’d be the need to remind this people who they were, and what their calling was, and how that would apply to them where now they were.
As I pondered this, against the backdrop of those seven ‘rookie’ years we’d had in Cumbernauld, and seeking to discern by God’s kind grace why this was now not just the time to countenance that call to Edinburgh, but why it was the time to leave Kildrum, I developed a loose sort of theory. Or perhaps not so much a theory as a perspective through which to view and understand the on-going work of God in which as His church we’re involved.
The rhythms in the way God works and how we see those rhythms all worked out. The ‘theory’ was rooted in the pattern which Moses insisted upon. I could see what Moses was on about. The need to review and revisit the basics of their calling as God’s people at the end of every seven years: who they were and what their calling was – and how that now applied to them, seven years down the line.
The ‘theory’ I developed was simply this. That as the Word of God is faithfully preached and taught, and as the Holy Spirit is at work among His people, seven years down the line the fellowship has changed: a whole new congregation has emerged. Not merely, and indeed not primarily, in terms of the individual members who comprise that congregation, but much more in terms of where that fellowship now is – spiritually, I mean. It’s a different congregation.
And because of that I saw there was a need once more to come back to those very basic questions. Who are we as the church of Jesus Christ? What is our calling as the people of God? And what will that now entail for us here as we seek to press onwards and forwards outwards in the work of the kingdom of God?
“Every seven years .. you shall read this law before them in their hearing.”
It wasn’t an exact science by any means, but I set myself the discipline on the back of this of pausing every seven years to reflect again on who we were as the people of God, to take stock once again of God’s work in our life as a local church, and to discern with the help of the Spirit of God what His next step forward would be.
It made sense in the context of Cumbernauld, when I cast my mind back over all that those seven first years had involved. So this ‘theory’ I had, which was based on the clear rhythmic pattern I saw in the work of the Lord Himself, evolved into a customized spiritual discipline, whereby I sought to see what God had bit by bit effected through the previous seven years, and ask Him, ‘Lord, what next? How do we take it on from here? What’s the next step on and up and out from here?’
When people asked after 21 years and more in the place, ‘Do you not get bored after all those years with the one same congregation?’ – I’d laugh, and insist that this was now my fourth congregation. We were there for almost 27 years by the end: you can do the maths!
In truth it was four different congregations. The same congregation, of course, in a sense: but over the years four very different fellowships. God was growing His church. Through His Word and by His Spirit and for His glory.
It’s not, as I say, an exact science, but every seven years or so there was a different congregation: and, with that, there was the need to go back to those basics, to remind ourselves once again of who we were and what the Lord was about in our life, and where that meant we were headed. Every seven years or so we’d re-read the Maker’s instructions, and see how the ‘law’ now applied to where we were at.
And, yes, I could chart the steady growth which the Lord had been effecting in the life of that local church, and characterize in general terms each different congregation – and thus I could identify as well what needed next to be done and addressed.
All that, I hope, provides some sort of context for the process of reflection in which, these past few months we’ve found ourselves involved. This month it’ll be a full seven years since we left the Church of Scotland and became simply Gilcomston Church. That wasn’t an easy step which was taken back then: it occasioned much in the way of heart-searching, and no small amount of pain. But it was a step which we took very clear in our minds as to who we are as the church of Jesus Christ and what our calling as such always is.
Seven years down the line it’s time to ‘re-read the law’. We retain our core values, of course: what we’re about and how we go about it. That’s basic and non-negotiable! It’s what we enshrine in our acronym, ACTS – Attracting people to Jesus, Consolidating the faith of believers, Training our members for service, and Sending them out in the cause of the gospel of Christ. But given that, on what do we now need to concentrate?
It’s time to take stock; time to see the ways the Lord has grown and fashioned His church; time to be reminded again of our calling In Christ and how that will find its expression where we find ourselves now; and time to seek afresh the wisdom of God’s Spirit in discerning what the next step is, and the boldness of His Spirit in embarking on that path, with all the daunting challenges it brings.
Yours with eager expectation in our Lord Jesus Christ,