Monthly Letter – April 2016

Dear Friends

Those of you familiar with the world of Postman Pat – it’s an animated children’s TV series which has been up and (still) running since 1981 – will have heard of Ted Glen.

As a raw and rookie father in those far off days when Postman Pat was screening first, I was thrilled to have a reason to sit down and watch this unassuming, friendly, rural hero, Postman Pat; and I enjoyed the growing acquaintance with all of his friends. (I was grateful, too, and not a little pleased, I must confess, that – way back then, at any rate – I looked and sounded absolutely nothing like the white-haired, rotund, and somewhat dithery, vicar, Rev Timms).

Ted Glen was one of Pat’s friends, an integral part of the communal life of the fictional village of Greendale. Because he would often appear as such a warm and helpful guy, I remember a feeling of shock one day when this self-same Ted Glen declared, in the face of one of the regular crises each episode always threw up, “It’s hopeless!”

Hopeless? I mean, Ted was the local handyman, and the guy could fix just about anything: so when even Ted Glen is declaring it’s hopeless, you know that things are bad and the situation bleak!

But, of course, things do often get just as bleak as that: bleak enough for even the self-sufficient, ‘can-do’ handymen Teds of the world to be brought to the brink of despair.

There’s a lot of that hard-hitting hopelessness doing the rounds these days in this city of Aberdeen. And Christians, of course, are never immune from such things. Jesus isn’t ever just some handy, ‘freebie’ ticket to a life which gets exempted from adversity. Anything but.

Our circumstances will often seem to us hopeless: in fact, they sometimes will be hopeless – at least humanly speaking. Isn’t that what the biblical narrative shows?

Abraham and Sarah for starters, right up there at the head of the line of believers. For Sarah, the biological clock had long since stopped even ticking, and the prospect of children was not just ‘in their dreams’, but totally off the radar – humanly speaking. Their situation in that respect was .. well, hopeless. It was “against all hope,” so the apostle Paul reminds us, that “Abraham in hope believed..” (Rom.4.18).

A couple of generations on down the line, there were times when Joseph must surely have known such a sense of that terrible hopelessness: times when he’d surely have reasoned that any real prospects of seeing that future fulfilled which the Lord had impressed on his heart as a spoilt and clumsy teenager – any such prospects were no more than the stuff of dreams. How often, I wonder, did the young man down in Egypt hear those bleak, depressing words from the ‘handyman of hell’ being whispered to his spirit – “It’s hopeless!” Which, humanly speaking, it was.

Or a few more generations further on, and the people of Israel enslaved and as good as entombed, as the screw was turned by a megalomaniac ruler: what earthly chance have a slave people got against the might of the Pharaoh of Egypt? About as much chance as a featherweight boxer with one arm tied behind his back against the heavyweight champ of the world. They’d not be allowed in the same ring. No contest. No hope.

Or talking of a featherweight against a heavyweight, what hope is a gangly, teenage shepherd boy going to have against an over-sized giant from Gath with his top of the range, state of the art weaponry? Humanly speaking it’s hopeless.

And wasn’t that just the line repeatedly proffered by the local TG handymen back in those post-exilic days – Tobiah the fussy official, and Geshem his grovelling lackey – when boldly Nehemiah undertook that work of God and set about rebuilding all the walls of old Jerusalem: “It’s hopeless, hopeless, hopeless!” they kept on insisting. Which, of course, it was. Humanly speaking.

The Bible is full of such records. From the Exodus story, and a people hemmed in, with mountains each side, an army behind, and the great Red Sea to the front: right on to the exiles in Susa, and an orchestrated genocide being sanctioned and commanded by the king: the biblical narrative is a series of hopeless scenarios.

It should neither surprise us nor dispirit us, therefore, when our situations also often seem quite hopeless. And more to the point, when they often are quite hopeless.

Hopeless, that is, when you fail to remember the Lord; when you fail to factor into your assessment of your present human hopelessness the presence and reality of God, the great Creator, the God Who raised Christ Jesus from the dead. Factor that into the equation, and .. well, anything can happen, everything is possible, and all bets are suddenly off.

It’s a tough place to be, nonetheless, that place of utter hopelessness. The clouds of despair press in upon your soul; for, wrack your brains as you will (and being given the gift of our minds, it’s impossible not to be using them thus), you simply cannot see there ever being a way your situation can be eased, far less resolved.

And the darkness which follows is bleak and black, and bitter indeed to the taste –anxiety, worry and fear, corroding the inner reaches of our hearts with their rancid, acid fumes. We’d far rather never go there.

When you find that every conceivable resource you can muster, and every conceivable remedy which you’ve tried, are alike so entirely inadequate for addressing your need – well, you rightly despair: you’ve run out of solutions, you don’t have an answer, you’ve been beached and you’re now high and dry. Even the handiest handyman can’t really help.

It’s hopeless. And it’s a hard, hard place to be.

Yet … it’s a good place to be, just the same. And it’s often (far more often than we’d ever have wished), it’s often the place where God Himself will take us. Joseph taken to Egypt: Elijah sent off up to Zarephath: Paul ending up in a prison.

The apostle acknowledged, and went on to describe, the despair which came over his soul: and there’s maybe some comfort for all of us here in discovering that even apostles could know such despair.

He speaks about the hardships which he suffered (and given the lengthy catalogue of hardships which he’ll later list, you’ll perhaps start to see that in truth you’ve got off pretty lightly compared to him!), and the pressures he endured – pressures, he confesses, that were far beyond his own innate ability to bear.

So much so, he’s prepared to admit (surely it would be mutually beneficial if we honestly admitted to each other how bedraggled, bruised and buffeted we are through all the different struggles which we’ve faced) – he’s prepared to admit that “we despaired even of life” (2 Cor.1.8)

Paul: despaired. The same sentence. Well, there’s some encouragement for you. In the pits of despair you’re in the best of company: some notable others have been there before you. And survived to tell the tale: indeed, to tell (more often than not) a quite remarkable tale.

Because Paul, avid Bible student that he’d always been, and as clear a thinker as you could wish for in processing the implications of the cross and resurrection of the Son of God – Paul very rapidly learned that the pit of our human despair is also in fact the well from which God’s great deliverance is invariably drawn. “This happened …,” he continued (speaking about his being brought to the point of abject and total despair), “.. that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, Who raises the dead” (2 Cor.1.9).

That’s why He’ll ever take us to these dark and dangerous places of our total, utter hopelessness, and wretched, bleak despair.

First, because often it’s only when there that we turn to, rely on, and cling for all that we’re worth to the God Who defies all the odds, parts mighty waters, raises the dead, and marvellously rescues His people: and also because it’s emphatically there, when humanly Ted Glen is right, and it is indeed so thoroughly hopeless – it’s there, above all, that it then becomes clear that salvation comes only from God.

He knows us all a good deal better than we generally know ourselves: so He knows full well that given even half a chance we’ll somehow try to redirect at least a tiny little part of any praise for what’s been wrought towards ourselves.

For there are still those guerrilla-like pockets of sin which have their secret hide-outs in our hearts; and ducking and dodging unseen, dressed in the deceptive camouflage of piety and grace, those pockets of sin will so subtly persuade us that we have actually had some part to play. Our efforts, our wisdom, our gifts (we’ll even perhaps acknowledge they all have derived from the Lord – but still they are in a real sense ours as well) – surely they had some part to play in it all.

How easy it is for us as Christians to lose hold of that total reliance on God! How easy, once the Spirit Himself starts His sovereign work of renewal within our hearts, and by His good grace we start handling the issues of life in a measured, mature sort of way – how easy then to slip back into thinking that we’ve got the whole thing sussed, and lose that first dependence on the Lord.

Well, the Lord is no fool, He’s wise to all that – and He’s rightly always jealous for a glory that is solely His. He’ll take us, time and time again – He’ll take us to that Ted Glen place of hopelessness, the point of real despair.

And there, in that place of despair, the lives of His people become in that way the canvas on which the gospel of grace, the gospel of the resurrecting God, is painted by the Lord for all the world to see.

Because what is that gospel if not the soaring declaration that into our plight of utter and abject hopelessness before a holy God, the Lord has Himself provided a total salvation? What is Jesus’ desperate cry from the cross – My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me? – if not His anguished bearing witness to that plight of desperate hopelessness He takes upon Himself? And what is our worship each Sunday if not a resounding celebration of the God Who raises the dead, the God Who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or can imagine?

Perhaps that’s the light in which to be seeing your present situation. Perhaps that’s the way we should learn to view His dealings with us here across these months. “This happened .. that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, Who raises the dead”

On our weekend away we felt precisely this thrust from the Lord in the words of the song Hannah sang – “The Lord brings death, and makes alive; He brings down to the grave, and raises up” (1 Sam.2.6). Death .. then new life. Despair .. then mighty deliverance. Crucifixion .. then resurrection.

Easter, in a word. The way of salvation, which becomes, for those in Christ Jesus, a whole new way of life.

Yours in Christ’s service

Jeremy Middleton