Monthly Letter – October 2018

Dear Friends

There’s a chapter in the Bible all about holidays. The official guide to the why, what, when and where of all our annual holidays: a manual from our Maker on the rhythms of our living which His people are to learn.

We’re not always all that familiar with this healthy little handbook on our holidays. Partly because it’s tucked away in the ‘troublesome’ book of Leviticus (‘troublesome’ since there are not a few bits which we struggle to get our heads around): and partly, too, because we don’t equate the ‘holy days’ this chapter speaks about with what we call our ‘holidays’.

Which is a pity, because the chapter’s full of guidance as to how our annual living’s both enriched and kept refreshed by these great rhythms of our work and rest which ‘holy days’ define.

Leviticus 23 is a sort of “Holidays for dummies” which God’s people of a former age were given as a handbook by their Lord. And the last of the three great festive ‘get-togethers’ which the manual specifies, the last and in some ways, too, the climactic one, was a great big ‘thank you’ celebration.

And it always took place at this time of year – a timing related, of course, to the ingathered harvest, so vital for a people who were rural more than urban and for whom the crops which had been harvested were the culminating evidence of God’s good hand upon their daily, sweat-stained labour through the previous months.

They were thanking the Lord for the wonder of the harvest which the land had once again produced – the annual, slowed-down version of the feeding of the multitudes whose ‘speedied-up’ expression would become the stunning, ‘trademark’ miracle of Jesus’ 3 year ministry.

And the way in which they offered up their thanks each year afforded them as well an annual, fun reminder of the Lord’s sustained provision for His people’s needs through forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

They were being helped by the Lord in this way to see their world through the wondering eyes of a child, for whom the whole thing appeared to be some sort of wonderful magic. The land, from a scattering (and indeed from what seemed like no more than a smattering) of seed, somehow turning such minimal ‘fuel’ into fields which were waving and weighted with grain. And the Lord, with a myriad mouths needing food, in a wilderness barren and stark, somehow feeding them all for the best part of four long decades with a daily supply of good food which appeared overnight on the ground.

Wow! How does it happen? A child can see and feel the sheer, bewildering wonder of it all.

And the Lord would have His children learn again the great infectious laughter of such wondering eyes. And would have them, too, be thankful.

That’s what this final great holyday gathering was all about. Giving thanks to the Lord. And more than that, their once again having God quietly grow in their hearts (as some sort of spiritual harvest in their souls) a spirit of enduring joy and gratitude.

God’s handbook on how life’s best lived is simply shot full of this constant exhortation to us all to be, above all, thankful: the ‘attitude of gratitude’, as it’s sometimes put by those who like a catchy turn of phrase.

“Give thanks in all circumstances,” instructed the apostle, summing up the thrust of a constant refrain which runs right the way through all the Bible. “For this,” added Paul, “this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” And His will, of course, is good and pleasing and perfect.

In other words, this is not something culled from odd-ball-land. This is mainstream, measured living, the way life’s meant to be lived. This is how lives filled with the Spirit of God will look, a primary characteristic of the Holy Spirit’s sovereign, gracious work within the human heart. “Be filled with the Spirit .. always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.”

Always giving thanks. Not in a way which makes us either masochists or hypocrites, of course: but in a way which sees us resting assured that God knows what He’s doing and that what God does is good.

There’s something intrinsically healing and healthful in our being always truly thankful. For one thing, being thankful has a potent emotional outcome, reducing to manageable levels the stress, the cares and anxiety we otherwise often will feel.

We weren’t ever meant to be stressed right out of our socks. Martha, remember, had found herself being ever so gently chided for the stressed out way of life that she’d assumed – “anxious and troubled about many things” is how the Lord expressed it.

That’s not the way life’s meant to be lived. And if that’s where your reading of the parable Jesus told (about the so-called ‘good’ Samaritan) leads you .. then you’ve got it’s ‘go and do likewise’ message horribly wrong!

Gratitude is the antidote to worry and stress and anxiety. Isn’t that key to what Paul had to say when writing into the tense and troubled fellowship at Philippi? “Don’t be anxious about anything,” he wrote: a gospel command, rather than a tentative, helpful suggestion. Instead, yes, prayer, take it to the Lord in prayer. But it’s important to see at the heart of it all that it is, and it must be, with thanksgiving, that we present our requests to God.

Gratitude acts as an antidote to the emotional drain of stress. For the very act of giving thanks means that we will concentrate our minds on all the countless different ways in which God’s love and grace and goodness has been shown. Time after time He’s done us good: time after time He’s met our need: time after time we’ve seen how very wise He’s been: time after time we’ve discovered ourselves how sufficient is His grace.

So we learn to apply our minds to those things that are true and noble and right and pure. Like the way God’s so designed His world that a few scattered seeds grow into a field of corn. Like the way God provided for thousands and thousands, through forty long years of their wandering through a parched and largely barren wilderness.

We learn to think with a childlike sense of wonder and astonishment: and tracking the endless display of the living God’s consummate goodness and kindness to ourselves through all the decades of our own very personal history (through good times and hard times alike), we learn, as Paul puts it – we learn a certain contentment, a quiet sort of confidence in God’s providing grace, which eases back anxiety and care. Our God has always wonderfully met all our needs: and our God will, we may therefore be sure – He will meet all our needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus. We slowly cease to worry so much as we grow in that sense of wonder.

Giving thanks enhances our lives relationally as well. It’s no mere coincidence that Paul’s great call to thanksgiving, as he writes to the church at Philippi, is set in the context of a strained and tense relationship between two quite notable women in the church.

How easy it is to find fault in one another! How easy it is to pick holes in each other’s decisions, to question one another’s motives, to misinterpret one another’s actions, to cast a slur on one another’s attitudes! And how readily, therefore, relationships can become strained.

We gravitate naturally to criticism, don’t we, and easily end up at odds with one another: but our adopting an intentional spirit of gratitude acts again as a powerful, healthy antidote to strained and struggling relationships. The disciplined resolve we make to offer up our thanks to God for another individual obliges us to think of all that’s good about their lives, to put the best construction on their words and deeds, to see their many attributes, instead of all their faults.

And it’s striking in that very connection that in writing to the fellowship at Philippi Paul speaks of these two women not as ‘problem’ individuals, but as partners in the kingdom work of Christ, valued, loved co-workers who will share with him eternity.

What a difference it makes to all our relationships when we learn to be those who give thanks! We’ve known just that, for instance, in those times when the building here has been used for the Powerpoint youth event. There’s a whole crowd of people involved in all the major organization such a night requires, of course: loads of folk, with lots of demands and decisions and deadlines; and all of these people so different too – in terms of background, age, personality, needs. It’s got all the ingredients for fraught and fractious relationships!

But the team who put on this whole thing are always so careful to show and express their warm and generous thanks that it makes for a set of relationships as rich as they are rewarding.

Relationally as well as emotionally: spiritually as well as physically: in a thankful heart lies our truest health.

No wonder the Lord is intent on His growing such a spirit of real gratitude within our hearts! No wonder His holy-day year builds to this crescendo of exuberant thanks!

Let us learn, then, to give thanks in each and every circumstance! Let us learn to give thanks for all that He is, for all that He’s done, for all that He’s promised to be for His people in Christ! Let us learn to rejoice in the knowledge that Jesus is King, that God’s on the throne, that right will prevail, that God will provide and protect through whatever it is we may face, ‘til He brings us safely home.

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good: His love endures for ever!

Yours in Christ’s glad service,

Jeremy Middleton