Monthly Letter – November 2023


Dear Friends,

I’ve been on ‘study leave’ these past few weeks.

I know. You thought I’d gone for surgery. And, yes, I underwent that surgery all right.

But nonetheless, it’s been ‘study leave’ as well. It may have been an operating theatre, but it proved to be, so far as I’m concerned, a lecture theatre too: a series of instructive, inspiring lessons on ministry which the Lord, our patient Teacher, was intent upon impressing on my heart.

I wasn’t in the hospital for long – but it was long enough for me to benefit from four main, memorable ‘lectures’ from the Lord.

Lecture #1: the primacy of prayer

I was going to say, ‘the power of prayer’, but it isn’t the prayer which is potent, it’s the Lord Himself who is full of the power: yet it’s prayer which engages, lays hold of, releases that power.

My youngest grandchild sent me (via his dad) a short and to-the-point audio message the evening before I went in for my hip replacement: “I love you, Grandpa .. I hope you have a nice time.” It wasn’t exactly a prayer, but it expressed in the words (and from the limited perspective) of a 4-year-old child, what many another was praying. I knew what he meant.

You’re thinking perhaps (as I was, too) that ‘hip-replacement surgery’ and ‘nice time’ are maybe not phrases which you’d generally place together. But I’m bound to say, it was indeed, to my great surprise, ‘a nice time’. Extraordinarily so. And the link between the faithful, loving prayers of so many different people and the sovereign, gracious hand of our powerful God – that was almost palpable. James in his letter declares that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (Ja.5.16): and how wonderfully true that is! Lecture one was an object lesson in the potency of prayer, an insight into all the countless ways in which the hand of the Lord is moved by the prayers of His people, and applied with exquisite precision to every single detail of an individual’s need.

The providence of God in the timing of it all. The care of God displayed in the varied skills of all the personnel involved, and in the way in which those skills were so well exercised. The kindness of God in the remarkable speed, ease and smoothness of recovery: the lack of any nausea, the absence of the ‘grogginess’ I’d thought that I might have, the pleasure of mobility returned. And the ‘presence’ of God in the persons of His people: a surgeon in whom the Lord ever lives by His Spirit, a lovely Christian student nurse, and an occupational therapist who loves the Lord and was, that following Sunday, becoming a member at Trinity Church here in Aberdeen – these three not least were themselves a veritable trinity of flesh and blood, somehow almost embodying the ‘Trinity’ of God Himself, assuring me thereby that He Himself is with His people always.

When people have gently expressed surprise at the progress that I’ve made, I remind them that surgeon and patient alike were being prayed for by countless faithful saints, and that the prayers of the righteous are indeed astonishingly ‘effective’: when we cry to the Lord, do we not expect Him to answer – and then some?

I came away from lecture #1 with two big lessons burned on my heart.

First, I found myself humbled by, and profoundly grateful for, the privilege that it is to be surrounded by such a faithful ‘family’ of praying people: not just my own family, down the generations, with even little children praying for their Grandpa at their every meal, but the genuine ‘family’ of believers among whom the Lord has set us here and far afield. Thank you so much.

And second, the challenge to impress upon a rising generation just this primacy of intercessory prayer. I think it was Tennyson who wrote that “more things are wrought through prayer than this world dreams of” – and, yes, it is by prayer that the hand of God is moved: mightily so, wonderfully so:, and oh that we might recapture again that confidence in God, and that expectancy in prayer which flows from the conviction that He is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or think, and which thereby prompts us eagerly and constantly to join together in believing prayer!

Lecture #2: the impact of example

This ‘lecture’ was as memorable as the first. It’s a rare privilege for a pastor to be given this sort of access to the workplace of a member of the flock, indeed to what in some ways is the sacred ‘inner sanctum’ of his daily life. And it was striking – and more encouraging than any words can express – to see the powerful impact of a godly life, lived out amid the pressures and the stresses of a busy and demanding daily schedule.

Everyone who worked there knew the man. And everyone who worked there, from consultants through to cleaners, from anaesthetists through to admin – each, unprompted, volunteered immediately the singular esteem in which they held him: both the quality of his work and, just as significantly, the character of the man. ‘What a lovely man!’ they each one said, unprompted as I say. That’s how the fruit of the Spirit translates in the workplace of His people’s lives.

Another student nurse – Mhairi by name – accompanied me from arrival at the hospital, right through the operation and beyond. It was her first experience of real, live surgery, a big-time learning curve in her experience. She was there in the ‘Recovery Room’ when I was through with the actual operation: and the impact this surgeon had made on the lady was nothing short of immense. “So careful. So skillful. So precise. So calm. So gentle.” Her words. Then this – “And so thoughtful, too,” she said, astonished that he should have taken notice of her, an incognito student, in the midst of the stresses of surgery, and been careful to talk her through what was going on and to speak to her at the end. A first-time experience which will stick with her forever. It was the gospel being lived in the workplace. The impact of example.

I was in the ward for a couple of nights. And the second night there, at the end of her shift a nurse went out of her way to see me before she left the ward. “Are you a writer?” she asked. Not the sort of question I’d expected! “I’m a pastor,” I said, “but yes, as part of that I do sometimes write. Why do you ask?” It seemed an odd sort of question for the nurse to have asked. “It’s the way you use words,” she said: and clearly detecting a degree of puzzlement on my face, she further explained – “You’re always so careful with the words you use, and choose such good and amazing words always!” Which led on to a lengthy conversation about Jesus, who is Himself ‘the Word’, and why it is that words do indeed always matter.

It was a startling and thrilling conclusion to lecture #2. It’s as often as not the little things, including our words in the humdrum chat of a hospital room, that can leave their mark on others far more than perhaps we might imagine.

Lecture #3: the value of pastoral ministry

Another captivating lecture, in which the Lord worked through some more important truths regarding fruitful gospel ministry. I think of all the things that I was dreading most, the spinal injection topped the list. I don’t like injections at the best of times: and this one felt in prospect like the ‘daddy’ of them all.

The venue was an anteroom (I assume) beside the operating theatre, the temple in which these priests of a pain-free ‘peace’, the anaesthetists, are daily plying their trade. There were five of them (at least) surrounding me as I sat on the bed, preparing for the injection. Such was my state of growing dread, my first thought was of vultures slowly circling round their prey: which says more about me and my thorough dislike of the needle, of course, than it does about them! Vultures? No, they were pastors. And how I thanked God for them! Together they exhibited the essence of what all good pastoral ministry involves: plain speaking and patient listening.

It was a team effort: pastoral ministry very often is. Natalie, Louise and Mhairi (the student nurse), and then the two who stuck the needle in, Josh and the main anaesthetist. Pastoring people involves a lot of listening, for one thing. Job’s friends spent a week doing that, not opening their mouths at all: and that was the nearest his friends ever got to anything resembling pastoral ministry. The nurses were great at the ‘low-level’ listening and chat: companions in this dark time of uncertainty and dread, teasing out my story, waiting on my words, their sheer complete attentiveness itself a reassuring comfort and encouragement, affording me a peace. Sometimes it isn’t answers to our questions that we need: sometimes it is just that ‘companionship’, the knowledge that we’re not alone, there are folk there right beside us, who have our back.

But (speaking of those who ‘have our back’) there was still the need for the needle! And in a way not that dissimilar, pastoral ministry does also involve our taking the Word of God and applying it, with a very particular care, to just the right spot in a person’s life: the Word of God, sharper than a two-edged sword – rather like that needle. How important to hit the right spot; and how careful the two anaesthetists were to ensure that they hit the right spot.

And how careful they were, in addition (and I think this is what impressed me most), to talk me through the whole thing step by step. Rather by definition, you obviously cannot see what’s going on with a spinal injection. The imagination can go quickly into overdrive at such times. But not with those guys. They talked me through the lot. What they were doing. Just where the needle was going and why. How long it would take. What pain I would feel. And when it would take effect.

Not just the sharp pain of the Word of God, in other words, but the Word of God being carefully, patiently explained and wisely, graciously applied to the person there in front of you. Speaking the ‘peace’, the ‘shalom’ of God into the person’s life. However long it takes.

Between the two – nurses and anaesthetists – another object lesson in this vital, healing aspect of all ministry: pastoring God’s people.

Lecture #4: the doctrines of grace

And then the final, riveting lecture on the theme which really underpins all ministry. Grace. It is by grace we are put on our feet again and enabled to walk with God. It is by grace that we are saved.

I presume I went from the anaesthetists’ room to the operating theatre! But I was out for the count by then. As they tipped the bed on its side, assuring me in my final moment of consciousness that I was held by them and secure, I checked the clock – 9.20am. The next I knew it was a different room (Recovery), a different clock (11.20am) – and in a real sense, too, a whole new different day! That’s the gospel. A new day, a new future, a new life. And all done for me. For I contributed nothing, absolutely nothing at all – not even my polite co-operation.  I was anaesthetized, out for the count – much as Abram was put to sleep by the Lord (Gen.15) as the Lord underlined that He would do it all. That’s grace.

The complexity of the operation, the skill involved, the patience required, the care applied – I don’t know how it’s done: I only know that once I was crippled and lame, and now I can walk again. And that I contributed nothing at all to that. Pure grace is the heart of the gospel. The Lord does it all, and He alone must save.

And yet. And yet, that grace of God must never leave us altogether passive. That two-hour void when I was out for the count had ‘bookends’ which are just as much a part of grace as the surgery itself.

Bookend (1). The surgeon gently told me, ages back, that there were problems with my hip; and he let me know that he was there, both able and willing to help. I knew it myself, of course: the stabbing, convicting stiffness and pain. And thus there were these two significant ‘preliminaries’ – the limp in my gait and the summons of the surgeon. ‘Grace’, it’s important to see, encompasses both.

Translate that across to the larger canvas of our crippled human condition: there is the Spirit’s deep, convicting work, the stabs of pain in our consciences, which underline our need; and there’s the call of Christ which bids us come. “Come unto Me,” said Jesus, “and I will give you rest.” He does it all: but still we have to come to Him. And there’s the first conundrum of God’s grace – how can those who cannot walk take any step at all, far less that step: except that step of faith itself be powered by God’s own great drawing grace.

And bookend (2). Beyond the operation, there was work for me to do! Grace is not the same as magic – a click of the fingers, an abracadabra, and everything’s suddenly changed. No, grace doesn’t ever function in that way. You’re put on your feet right away (remarkable really!), but the physios soon come round! There’s work to be done. Exercise. Exercise. Exercise.

That’s how it is with the grace of God in our lives. He does it all. He puts us on our feet again. He enables us to walk with Him. But truly and fully to walk with Him, there are the costly, daily disciplines of discipleship to be embraced. Or to put it in the language of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi – we’re to work out what He’s working in us.

The wonderful surgical work of the Spirit of God, a work of pure, unmitigated grace, puts us on our feet again with God and sets us on the path of life: a path we’re called to walk – discovering as we do so that we’re fitter, stronger, better, day by day, and that it is to a new and glorious future that we’re headed. Amazing grace! Yes, indeed. But that grace enables us now to walk with the Lord, to work in His service, and to wake at the last to a freedom and fulness which will pale all present pain into oblivion.

This lecture on the grandeur of God’s grace became a fitting, enthralling climax to my study leave. How wonderful that He should do it all! What a privilege that He should thus have set us on our feet in Christ His Son! And what a constant challenge grace entails, in calling us to walk now humbly with our God in all we say and do!

With my gratitude for your love and prayers,

Your servant in Christ Jesus our Lord

Jeremy Middleton