Monthly Letter – October 2017

Dear Friends

We’re addicts.

Speed is our drug of choice: and like any addiction, we can’t get enough!

I’m not talking about amphetamines – though the slang which is used to describe that particular drug is itself not a little revealing, indicative of the essence of the problem our society has on a much more expansive scale.

We’re hooked on speed. It’s as simple as that. From high speed trains to high speed broadband connections, the symptoms are consistently there. We want it now – pretty much whatever ‘it’ might be.

News? We like to have it and hear it – and hear all the chat about it as well – almost as soon as it happens. And in this thoroughly electronic age our wish is the media’s command. We get it instantaneously.

Which means, of course, we also get it constantly: which means in turn that we find ourselves bombarded with an endless stream of information in the form of ‘breaking news’: which means that though we may be ‘knowledge-rich’ we’re more and more discovered to be ‘wisdom-poor’. Information needs reflection as its counterpart – and the lack of such ‘digestion’ in our high-speed instant culture means we’ve grown more fat than fit.

And in a very similar sort of way, now that the credit-card culture has been matched by our internet access, ‘on-line’ shopping has effected the same in the realm of our consuming. Speed has become of the essence.

You don’t have to wait ‘til you’ve saved up the cash and can afford what you want (credit cards have seen to that – and what a misnomer that is, is it not? ‘Credit’? Aye. Right!). And you don’t even need to wait these days ‘til you’re able to get to the shops. You can get what you want right now, in an instant.

Speed. We’ve slowly become addicted! And most of the time we don’t even know that we’ve got such a problem at all. Because it is a problem. A big one.

It means, for a start, that we don’t do delay very well: waiting is a discipline we haven’t learned to master: patience is perceived more as a weakness than the virtue which it is.

So when God doesn’t feed our habit we take it hard.

And most of the time He doesn’t.

It’s not that He can’t. Anything but.

God can clearly do the instant in a way that makes our high-speed seem so painfully pedestrian. “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Pet.3.8). That’s to say, He can with consummate ease compress into a single day what for us would take a thousand years.

Remember the ‘marriage miracle’ which Jesus effected? How when the wine ran out at the wedding He commanded the six hefty jars to be filled to the brim with water and then when they drew the first lot out they found what a moment before had been water had become in an instant the finest of wedding day wines!

That was miracle not magic. It wasn’t a rabbit which Jesus produced from a hat (that wouldn’t have solved any wedding day problem at all – unless, I suppose, the entertainer whom they’d booked for the reception had not pitched up and they were frantically looking for some substitute: but that was clearly not the problem way up there in Cana).

It was wine He produced from the water. Wine: which comes from water. That’s how God has ordered things. As C S Lewis put it in his essay titled “Miracles” – “God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus every year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine. That men fail to see.  … But when Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off” (‘God in the Dock’).

It was miracle, in other words, not magic. And the miracle lay (as it did with His every other miracle, whether multiplying the wee boy’s loaves and fishes or His healing of the sick) in His compressing into an instant what is usually done over time. A sign, wrote John: and a sign not just to highlight who this Jesus is, the very Son of God (though it plainly served that important function too) but to help us see the gracious hand of God Himself so very active and transformative in all the different facets of the world in which we live.

As Jesus shortly afterwards said, “The Son .. can only do what He sees His Father doing..” (John 5.19). This is what the Father is always doing, turning water into wine. It’s just that His normal mode of working is spread out across a larger stretch of time and makes such change so slow and imperceptible we easily fail to notice it.

So, sure, the Lord can do the instant. It’s just that most of the time He doesn’t.

And that’s made clear from the start. How does the Bible begin? With God at work. In creation. As if the Lord would establish from the outset that He isn’t into speed at all: He could be, but He isn’t.

And thus we find that it’s bit-by-bit-by-bit that He works through the days of creation. It’s not that He couldn’t have brought the whole grand thing into being in a single jaw-dropping instant: it’s just that clearly He didn’t. And didn’t from choice.

Partly, it seems, from the child-like delight which He has in simply savouring every smallest bit of progress in the glorious transformation He’ll effect: He’s not in such a hurry, it would seem, to see the finished product that He won’t enjoy each intervening stage there is in getting there.

And partly, too, it would seem because with a similar child-like delight He thrills to see development and growth.

He’d always prefer to make His own custard, as it were, instead of the instant, tinned variety you can buy any day off the shelf: He enjoys the slow and patient mixing of the powder and the milk into a paste, and then the slow and patient stirring of the mixture over heat until there comes that great, delicious moment when the liquid starts to thicken and the custard then appears.

The instant stuff is still custard, sure enough. But there’s something in the making of the custard in that slow and patient way which the instant cannot give and which appeals so much to a child’s sense of wonder and delight.

God is a child at heart! He never ceases to tire of the thrill that there is in His seeing the process of growth. It was there in creation. It is there in the cycle of nature.

And it’s there as well in the way He effects His salvation. See how He’s careful to stress this truth to His people as He takes them out of Egypt (and that itself was hardly overnight, some 400 years the whole long operation took – albeit the end came quick and a thousand years of the transfer of power was compressed into a single night).

Talking about the enemies they’d face when once His people were brought into the land He’d given them, He insisted – “I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little [note that well!] I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land” (Exodus 23.29). This is His ‘stirring-the-custard-slowly-over-gentle-heat’ approach: patient, steady growth towards the end He has in mind.

And Moses repeats this all later on the borders of the promised land. “The Lord your God will drive out these nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you” (Deut.7.22).

The instant isn’t offered as the way in which we’re saved. We might wish that it were, because within the promised land of grace in Christ the ‘enemies’ we have (the warped and wretched dregs of that society of sin which outside Christ had once held total sway within our hearts) – those ‘enemies’ are all too real and cause us still no end of heartache, pain and grief: so yes, we might well wish that God’s great final work of grace was somehow instantly effected in our lives – but it’s not.

We need the sort of ‘decompression chamber’ which His little-by-little approach will ensure. We’re like divers who’ve been down for a long, long time in the depths of the dark, dingy sea, breathing in our artificial air, and now being carefully brought back up to the surface, to the world for which we were made: doing it in an instant can be fatal.

Gradual is a hallmark of God’s workmanship. It’s from one degree of glory to another we are being transformed. The ‘enemies’ are indeed being driven right out by the Lord: but it’s ‘little-by-little’ He does it. The Spirit keeps on patiently working away in our lives, stirring our hearts till the ‘custard’ of conformity to Christ is formed!

The Lord loves growth. We’re right, therefore, always to look for growth and to expect such growth in our lives. But we must learn as well just how He works and why He works that way: and not expect too much too soon. Water’s being turned into wine all right – and for those with the eyes to see it, that is always a miracle of grace!

May we all share the Lord’s child-like wonder at the process of such growth!

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton