Monthly Letter – November 2018

Dear Friends

I want to think with you about boldness this month.

Indeed, I’m guessing the Lord Himself means us to be addressing this theme and learning somehow to cultivate this boldness in our hearts.

We have Stuart Townend in concert here this coming month (Friday November 23rd): and the series of concerts he’s holding around the country from 20th November to 3rd December (inclusive) is entitled simply his ‘Courage Tour’. It’s a repeat tour, coming fast on the back of a similar series of concerts he held, up and down the country, a month or two back: the concerts themselves seemed to strike such a chord with so many that these additional dates in November were soon being fixed.

Courage. Another word for boldness.

I was struck by the fact that this was a word picked up as well in the Tearfund night we hosted here last month. Both Will Torrent and Martha Collison spoke of the call of God to boldness.

They’re really just two very ordinary individuals (that’s not in any sense a put-down, just the way they chose to describe themselves) – two very ordinary individuals who, through the gifts they’ve been given by God, now happen to be right in the limelight. In the unforgiving world of social media, there isn’t such a thing for them any more as an essentially private life. They’re ‘followed’ by fans (and others as well no doubt!) who watch their every movement and who pick up on their every briefest pronouncement. Their ‘tweets’ and ‘blogs’, for those who prefer the contemporary parlance.

They understand the inescapable need they have for boldness, as they live out their faith under the relentless glare of the social media spotlights. Their own particular situation – stuck out there as they are, in full, very public view – their own particular situation only serves to bring into sharper relief what is true today for all who will follow Jesus. The need to be bold and courageous.

‘Be bold.’ We need to take those two little words and migrate their truth from the song that we sing right out and onto the streets of our daily living.

There’s a boldness required in our choosing to follow the Lord, to give our lives to Jesus and to live for Him, to speak for Him, to serve Him. There always has been. There always is.

But to make that choice and place your trust in Jesus is today an openly counter-cultural step, exposing you to ridicule, rejection, and to scorn.

Society today has reached its ‘teenage’ years; it pushes at the boundaries, asserts its independence and presumes to know it all. It therefore has to treat with real disdain that step of faith whereby we humbly choose to own complete dependence on a God we cannot see, and to bow to an authority beyond ourselves.

The ‘closed shop’ philosophy of contemporary culture prides itself always on human self-sufficiency: it doesn’t want to give the time of day to any sort of deity beyond such ‘gods’ which we ourselves control. To such a perspective your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ feels like a wholesale betrayal. You’ve let the side down: you’re no better than a traitor – and your faith will be an ugly social stigma which exposes you to vitriol, derision and attack. (I don’t want to put you off, any more than Jesus did! But as He Himself insisted, you’re as well to know from the outset what you’re in for).

It takes courage to take such a step. It takes courage to say where you stand. It takes courage to speak about Jesus. Every such step of that faith, every such stance for the truth of God’s Word, every such word which you speak in the cause of the gospel – they all alike expose you to the likelihood of scorn and only serve to stir the glowing embers of hostility to God into base and sometimes bitter opposition to yourself.

Society’s ceased to be ‘neutral’ in the way it maybe used to be a few decades ago. The gloves are off. ‘Tolerance’ only goes so far today: refuse to toe the line our culture has decided to adopt, that line of secular correctness – and ‘tolerance’ no longer applies.

Jesus is off script. The carnival of Christian faith is over, so far as our society’s concerned. Jesus isn’t welcome at the party.

Not, at least, the Jesus of the Bible.

A ‘chameleon’ Christ, who conforms to the moods and the morals our culture dictates – well perhaps there is room for that sort of Christ … but, please, no, not the Jesus of Scripture.

A puppet Prince perhaps, who’ll dance to the tunes which the pimps of post-modern philosophy play all the time: but, please, not the King whom the Bible declares with the claims that He makes to be Lord over all of our lives.

Jesus may well be your Rock, our society says. But He rocks the boat way too much with His radical claims, and He isn’t now welcome on board. And (increasingly) neither are you, if you choose to sail with Him. So it takes a fair boldness to rise to His summons to follow – to learn from Him, to live for Him, to love like Him.

There’s boldness required of us, too, though, in a different but related way: the courage to own and acknowledge our weaknesses, struggles and failures.

The gospel insists that “it’s OK not to be OK”. We are saved by grace: which means that God does for us what He does in Jesus when we’re anything but OK. Relationally we were enemies of God when Christ died for us – hardly OK. Morally we were simply a mess (‘sinners’ is how the apostle Paul puts it) when Christ died for us – nothing like OK. Spiritually we were dead as dodos (‘powerless’ is the term Paul used) when Christ died for us – as OK as the final, fatal KO we’ll experience when we end up as a corpse.

Grace means our welfare and security in Christ is not at all dependent on our being OK. It’s OK not to be OK. But it’s one thing to embrace that as a doctrine: an altogether different thing to live that out in practice, exposed to expectations all around us which may well be way off beam.

Pride kicks in, because we want to be OK – or at least we would like it to seem that we’re really OK: relationally, morally, spiritually: physically, mentally, emotionally. OK every way. So that simple, little, easy-to-say and quick reply, “I’m fine”, becomes our stock-in-trade, the verbal wall we subtly build around our lives to keep an often rather voyeuristic public out; and to keep up an appearance that we’re actually doing better than we are. That’s pride. And it takes courage to bury our pride.

Fear, too, is involved. Our grip on the gospel of grace proves often to be weaker than we think: our ‘hands on’ involvement in modern day life leaves our palms smeared with the grease of a world which knows little of grace and whose pundits preach only performance. We fear that acknowledging weakness may leave us stuck out on the margins, consigned to a social oblivion reserved for the countless, nameless ‘also-rans’ who just don’t make the grade.

We forget that it’s grace, not grades, which is the coinage of the kingdom of our God. And even if we haven’t forgotten ourselves, we’re afraid that those around us as the followers of Christ – we’re afraid that maybe they’ve long since forgotten and may silently be grading us according to the measures of this world, and viewing us with a sniffy, stand-offish disdain.

It takes courage to take down the shutters and confess that you’re struggling, and light years from being OK. It takes the courage that’s born of clear gospel convictions to let others know that you’ve not got it all held together, that you’re not coping well with the sorrows, diseases or dramas you’ve had thrown in your path, that you’re not in the best of conditions – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or whatever.

It’s that sort of courage (just as much a genuine gospel courage as the boldness involved in our choosing to trust in, and live for, and speak of the Lord Jesus Christ) – it’s that sort of courage, as much as any other I think, which undergirds the Stuart Townend tour.

He’s a man acknowledging struggles. The struggles which he and his family have had in the wake of his own brother’s death: the struggles which he and his family have known in the face of mental illness. The courage, as his daughter, Emma, poignantly says in the moving introduction to a song she sings with her Dad – the courage to accept “that I am broken; that I am not ‘fixed’; but that I am still ‘enough’ to stand here..”: the courage “to face my past .. to look at my future .. sometimes just to wake up; get up .. to live each day .. to say that I am Emma with mental health problems, not mental health problems called Emma ..”: the courage it takes to listen “to the quiet voice in the mayhem that says, ‘I am here for you.’”

Illness, weakness, sorrow, failure, pain. None of them are easy. Life will often be a struggle. And while in theory we know that it’s OK not to be OK, in practice it’s tough to admit it. Which is where such courage comes in.

Courage: boldness. Call it what you will, we need it. All of us!

And the title of the song which Emma and her father, Stuart Townend, wrote together gives a pointer to the source of all such courage in our lives. “I am here for you” is the theme as well as the title of the song: and while it picks up on the part which both the friendship and companionship of others always plays in all such times of struggle and of trial, it also points beyond mere human friendship to the loving care and presence of our risen Lord.

“There’s a greater Love than mine, that is closer than a brother .. He has walked this desperate road before and He’s walking here beside you .. He is here for you.”

He is here for you.

The call from the Lord to be bold and courageous (as often as not stated, too, in its negative form, ‘Do not be afraid’) is invariably set alongside the promise that He will be with us.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Josh.1.9). And the 23rd psalm sees a man putting that into practice. Boldness in the dark and bruising battles of this life – “… for You are with me.”

Courage is born from conviction: and conviction is formed from the truth of God’s word, and the covenant love He declares. May we so learn to rest in that covenant love and in all of the promise it brings, that our living’s abounding in boldness.

Yours in Christ’s glad service,

Jeremy Middleton