Monthly Letter – May 2020

Dear Friends,

‘Lockdown’ is the word with which we’ve all become familiar. The language of the prison has overnight become the lifestyle of society.

What are we to make of it, and how are we to think of it? A judgment from God designed to wake us up? A sign of the times to bring us to our knees? A visual aid to help us see how fearful is the virus known as sin? Perhaps it’s all of them, and more – who knows?

Whatever else this lockdown may involve (and clearly there’s a lot else it does involve), it would appear that Christ has given His church an extended ‘sabbatical’. No one asked for it: but we’ve been given it anyway. And maybe, right across the globe today, maybe the church is in need of such a ‘sabbatical’.

That’s one of the ways in which I understand this present lockdown: and it’s certainly how I’m seeking to treat it.

Think ‘sabbatical’, and you’re generally thinking individuals. But the notion of the church as a whole being given a ‘sabbatical’, however odd (and it is odd for a whole load of reasons), is not entirely unknown.

When the Jews ended up in exile, for instance, that was essentially a ‘sabbatical’.

A ‘sabbatical’ which they hadn’t asked for and certainly didn’t want. But in the Lord’s sovereign and wise providence, they were given a ‘sabbatical’ nonetheless. And an extended ‘sabbatical’ at that.

Government (as in the government, of God Himself) restrictions kicked in. Isolation the order of the day. Their life as the people of God in lockdown, as they found themselves removed from their land, distanced from their temple, deprived of their regular worship, and unsure of how long this would last and whether the life that they’d had in the land they’d been promised would ever be theirs again.

So maybe it’s just that sort of long, extended ‘sabbatical’ we’ve been given as Christ’s church in these days, a 21st century ‘exile’ in which we’ve found ourselves so suddenly deprived of all the central components of our life as the people of God. Removed from our ‘land’, the physical place we’ve come to view as our home. Deprived of our weekly convergence for worship, the coming together of the ‘festive throng’. Life put on hold. A strange new world. And the future so very uncertain.

The ‘exile’ was certainly seen in ‘sabbatical’ terms by the Lord Himself. Check out Leviticus 26.27-35, for instance, and you’ll see the experience of exile described in precisely such terms by the Lord: “the land will enjoy its Sabbath years,” the Lord had long since promised – and when the people were finally exiled, those were the words which the chronicler carefully used. “The land enjoyed its Sabbath rests” (2 Chron.36.21).

The analogy with the ‘exile’ is perhaps not far off the mark, so far as our own situation here in Scotland today is concerned (not least in terms of the reasons for such ‘exile’). And the notion of a ‘sabbatical’ is maybe helpful, too. For it wasn’t just the land which was given its ‘sabbath rests’ back in those days of Israel’s exile: it was the people themselves who were taken apart (in more than one sense) by the Lord and given by Him an enforced and extended ‘sabbatical’.

There are reasons for a ‘sabbatical’: and broadly they crystallise out as three. The three ‘Rs’ of ‘sabbatical’ life. Rest. Reflection. Re-focussing.

So, first of all, the enforced confinement of these present days affords the church some ‘rest’.

I don’t mean the individual members of Christ’s church, insofar as for many of them their work-load has only increased, and the stresses have simply multiplied: I mean rather a measure of ‘rest’ in the corporate life of the church, the life of the church as a series of local fellowships.

Nor should you think that the ‘rest’ involved in any ‘sabbatical’ period is a ‘do-nothing’ sort of rest. ‘Sabbaticals’ are not to be seen as simply a longer than usual holiday, a chilled-out, laid-back time of lazy and leisurely living. It’s more that the usual routines are dropped, the regular pattern of ministry and work is laid aside, and all our time and energies are channeled down some rather different avenues.

‘A change is as good as a holiday,’ they say, and it’s that sort of rest which lies at the heart of any ‘sabbatical’ period. The tasks which you’re always doing, the deadlines which week-by-week you’re having to meet, the routines you’ve learned to adopt to do what needs to be done and which you know so well you can do them all unthinkingly – they’re all replaced in ‘sabbatical’ times by different tasks, and you have to learn and develop a different rhythm to day-by-day life. There’s a certain sort of ‘rest’ in that.

Maybe the Lord has seen His church become a little too busy. Maybe we know all the rituals, all the routines, maybe we’ve done them so often and know them so well that we do them all .. well, routinely. Lots and lots of activity, which looks perhaps impressive, but which have become so familiar that we do it all unthinkingly. Which can be but a stage away from simply going through the motions. Which in turn can become the empty shell of mere, corrupt formality: the form of godliness while denying the power, to use the words of Paul.

In no small measure that was, indeed, a significant part of the reason why the Lord insisted on that extended, disruptive ‘sabbatical’ for His people through the painful years of exile. A complete, uncomfortable break from all of their activity, from all the religious ‘routines’ they had, to ensure they stopped at last to think of what they were missing: and what it was about these things they missed so much: and why the way they’d engaged in them all had proved so shallow and sinful.

It wasn’t quite a ‘naughty corner’ moment in the history of the Jews: but that’s close enough to capturing the nature of that time. An awkward, unwelcome, distressing ‘time-out’ for the people who bore the Lord’s name. The ‘rest’ they were given was not in any way a respite from activity: far from it. There was work to be done in a strange and demanding environment. But the regular rhythms of their life as the people of God was rudely interrupted, as the key components of their life as a worshipping community were snatched entirely from them. They got a rest (whether they wished it or not) from the regular routines of relationship with God.

Which is certainly part and parcel of our present-day ‘sabbatical’ as the church. Our buildings closed. Gathering together precluded. Life as we’d hitherto known it put on hold. Again, it may not be the ‘naughty corner’ (though that’s perhaps debatable); but it’s certainly a break with the usual routines, an uncomfortable break, an unnatural break, which has obliged us to live out our life as a local fellowship in what equates to a sort  of ‘exile’.

‘Sabbaticals’, though, are not simply a ‘rest’ in the sense of that change in the rhythms and routines of life: they’re also a chance for reflection.

For many, for most it may be – even perhaps for all – these days of total lockdown have not only created the space for a bit of reflection, they’ve generated, too, the need.

I had a message the other day, out of the blue, from a young man I’d known from his earliest childhood days back in Edinburgh: I married him and his wife some while ago, and it’s been a good long while since I’d had any real contact from them. It was answered prayer (and I think he saw it as such) when he got a job a few years back in the Scottish Ambulance service. He was prompted to get back in touch with me as his friend and erstwhile unofficial pastor (he calls me ‘J-man’ and though he’s never joined the church, he’s always been very open to the Lord): and this is what he wrote – if this global pandemic can give as well as take, it’s given me perspective on who and what are important.”

He sees some sorry sights in the course of his regular work: but these past few weeks with the toll they have taken on people like him have brought into sharper focus much that was either never thought about or simply taken for granted. That’s surely what’s being going on in the chorus of Thursday night ‘clapping’ which these past few weeks have seen. A growing awareness of the people whose regular, costly service is so easily taken for granted. The nurses, doctors, paramedics, whose commitment to care must leave them exposed to infection: the ancillary hospital workers, the cleaners, the porters, the admin staff: and the longer we have to reflect on it all the longer that list becomes – the staff who work in Care Homes, those who provide social care, the so-called ‘front-line’ workers in society.

And soon enough a certain, heart-felt gratitude replaces all the grumbling which the comforts of our culture had engendered over time: and we learn again how thoroughly dependent we all are upon that strong, resilient ‘infrastructure’, or what is often called the ‘body politic’. The body of society, where each part is dependent on the rest. Our all-pervasive, narcissistic western individualism has been rightly challenged to the core.

More recently still, and even more right out of the blue, I had a note from a friend from school (and more an acquaintance at that, I’d say, than what you’d call a close friend) – that was maybe 50 years or so ago, and he’d tracked me down as minister here at Gilcomston: this is what he said –“.. and so perhaps a time to reflect and rebuild before it’s too late ..”

Maybe there’s something ‘prophetic’ in that, for the church in our land today, I mean. Perhaps for ourselves as Christ’s church in Scotland today – perhaps it’s ‘a time to reflect and rebuild before it’s too late.’ Because that in some ways is what a sabbatical’s there for.

A time to reflect on what we’re about, why we do what we do, and how we might do it all better. That’s what their exile in Babylon, the long, enforced sabbatical they had – that’s what it gave to the people of God back then: the chance to reflect on who they were, and what their calling was, and where they’d gone wrong, and how they should live in future.

They came back off their sabbatical break a truly chastened people, humbler, wiser, weaker, poorer. The idolatry which down the years had proved so corrosive – that idolatry was never a problem again. And the two great prophets of the exile, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, those men who patiently, and at great cost, had done all their reflecting as they ‘stood there in the council of the Lord’ – they recognized the need God’s people had for God’s own Holy Spirit to renew them as a people from within.

Their need of a Saviour was clear. The longing for Jesus Himself only grew.

Things were never the same again on their return from exile. And I’m guessing (and praying) that things won’t ever be quite the same again for Christ’s church in our land, when we return from our enforced sabbatical.

Because the time for reflection is also always a time to re-focus as well. That’s what the Leadership Team have been starting to address, as we seek to develop our ‘exit-from-the-exile’ strategy here.

What will be the challenges we face once restrictions are removed? What have been the things we’ve missed the most across these months, and how are these priorities secured? What have been the lessons we have learned? What will be the gospel opportunities the post-Corona world throws up? In the changed and changing world of 2020 and beyond, what will being a follower of Jesus Christ involve?

There’s much more that I’d like to say on this, but that must wait another month! In brief, I think, it boils down to this. ‘How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?’ the psalmist there in exile cried. Perhaps that’s the lesson we’re having to learn in these days – strange days they are, in which we live, and a strange new post-Corona world in which we’ll be starting all over again: a foreign land in many ways. And how will we sing our ‘songs of the Lord’ when there?

Yours in Christ’s service

Jeremy Middleton