Monthly Letter, January 2023


Dear Friends,

Covid never telegraphed the knock-out, lock-down blows it landed on society. The conflict in Ukraine crept up, I think, on many by surprise. Even in the world of sport there’s ben – sorry, ‘been’! – another sudden, large-scale revolution as the so-called ‘Bazball’ brand of cricket has knocked everyone for six!

‘No one saw it coming’, as they say – not many, anyway. Yet change is nothing new. Storms which catch folk unawares are but the warp and woof of life here in this fallen world. The rain will come, as Jesus would remind us all: the rain will come, the streams will rise, the winds will blow and beat against the house. There is no ‘if’ about it. It’ll happen. You don’t know when. You don’t know what. You don’t know how. You don’t know where.  But it’ll happen.

A storm will erupt. A crisis will come. There are times when all hell, it will seem, is let loose. Paul was clear about that, recognizing that when (not if) the day of evil comes, you need to be able to stand. The fishermen followers of Jesus discovered the same – and a very good job it was for them that Jesus was in the boat, because He at least could stand. And, yes, speaking of which, the good Job, too, he also could testify well to the fact of such unforeseen storms.

Storms? The word itself is something of an euphemistic term when used to speak of what befell the man. His staff murdered, his wealth dissolved; his kids killed, his health lost; his wife railing at him, his friends turning on him.

Storms? He’d have settled for storms! This was more ‘catastrophe’. This was the bottom falling right out of his world. This was the ‘evil day’ when hell turned all its heavy artillery relentlessly on the man. And yet, at the end he was still on his feet: still standing in the face of the evil day.

The storms are not what’s new or strange – whether it’s Covid or conflict or climatic conditions which hit us out of the blue: or whether it’s four chancellors, three premiers and two monarchs all in the space of a single year. Storms and crises are nothing new.

What’s new is the loss of our ‘storm straps’, those ‘ropes’ of resilience which tie down the van of our living and keep it secure in the face of the force of the wind. Here in Scotland we’ve lost – or to be more exact, in our vain and arrogant folly we’ve deliberately discarded – our ancient, trusted ‘moorings’: and no wonder we’re all at sea. We’re suddenly found to be hopelessly, blindly adrift.

No anchor to hold us steady. No parameters to keep us safe. We’re on our own, left to our own devices. And we like it that way – or so we’re told, at any rate. The ultimate in moral independence: we make up the rules to suit ourselves: we go our own way and do our own thing, because, hey, surely we know best what’s good for us all.

Truth has ceased to be an arbiter of what we do: because truth is only now whatever you decide that it should be. Though born a man, as the formal registration document affirms, you’re now allowed to change your birth certificate and have it say the very opposite of what was biologically the case. Truth is trumped by trans!

And parents are trumped now by parliament. The state will determine how children grow up. The state will determine what children are taught. The state will determine who children can be.

A reckless ideology will make shipwreck of us all – for this is now a nation that has cast off all restraint, dispensing with the ‘storm straps’ which for long enough we had. Defiantly disdainful and dismissive of the precepts of the Lord, and arrogantly boasting of the freedom and sufficiency of self, the ropes have all been cut, the anchors thrown away, the moorings proudly jettisoned for free.

Will your anchor hold? Well, the question’s now superfluous.

We don’t do anchors these days: we’ve no great desire to be held at all. We’ll not have anyone hold us back: and no one, but no one, must dare hold us all to account. We won’t be held by anyone: we don’t do anchors these days.

So, no longer fastened, thank you very much, no longer fastened to any rock, far less the rock that cannot move. We want to be free, after all, do we not? Not fastened, but free! Flexible, footloose, and totally fancy-free.

No longer fastened, and no longer grounded in the love of any but the self. ‘We arra people,’ after all, are we not? And who needs a Saviour when now we’ve got the state?

We’ve become – overnight it almost appears – we’ve become a thoroughly witless, and totally rootless society. Without an anchor to hold us. Without a compass to point us. Without an engine to power us. Without a rudder to steer us. Without a pilot to guide us. We discarded the lot.

No wonder we’re found to be all at sea! All adrift on the storm-laden ocean of life, facing hurricane winds and a barrage of mountainous waves in the seething, angry cauldron of the crises which now come our way. And nothing to get our bearings by. Nowhere to hide for some shelter and strength. No one to turn to for guidance and help.

No wonder we’re all at sea. No wonder so many are struggling so much. Anger, depression. Addiction, despair. Perplexity, breakdown, rage. We don’t have the tools to handle the storms: we don’t any more have the range of resources we need to cope with the waves of our fears, to handle the pressures of stress, to deal with our anxieties, to bear all the burden of grief. We threw the tools overboard.

Our nation’s now like cocky, carefree climbers, looking in vain for handholds and for footholds on the rockface of adversity – and losing their grip (because there aren’t any longer the handholds required) and sliding rapidly down. A nation, which was formerly ‘a planting of the Lord’, has now become a people who are little more than pretty patio pot plants: such may look fine on a bright summer’s day, but come the storms and winds of winter they’re at the mercy of the elements and blown all over the place. Precisely because they’re just potted. Potted and not rooted.

There’s all the world of difference between the two. As a nation we’ve abandoned our roots and gone to pot. Isn’t that the essence of the present situation?

The challenge today is to get back to a much more ‘rooted’ way of life: and, yes, it’s a challenge we need to address within Christ’s church as well, for the culture of ‘patio pot plant life’ is one with a subtly insistent appeal, which so often ensnares unsuspecting believers in Christ. Roots seem so restricting, do they not! And didn’t Christ come to set us free?

Jesus’ chosen text to start His ministry insists upon believers being a planting of the Lord, and not a set of pretty patio pot plants. Rooted and not simply potted; because potted isn’t permanent.

So it’s there, with this issue, that we’ll start the new year. Recovering our roots and getting to grips with what that being rooted must always entail.

It means, first of all, our being rooted in a covenant relationship with Christ. ‘Grounded,’ as the old hymn puts it – ‘grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.’ A relational tie. Roots that go down deep into the rich and nourishing soil of the love of Jesus for His bride.

And a covenant relationship, not some casual or conditional sort of thing whereby you dump Him when things don’t quite work out the way you think they should. That’s the flawed perspective of the ‘patio pot plant’ line – a superficial, on-the-surface sort of faith, that isn’t really rooted, isn’t really grounded (deep down in the ground beneath the surface), isn’t really grounded in relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord, but arrogates the right to move around, to come and go, just as it pleases and seems right to you.

A covenant relationship with Christ. Are you rooted like that, in the soil of the Saviour’s love? That’s surely, at least in some sizeable measure, what Paul was inferring when he prayed for Ephesian believers that they might be rooted and established in love” (Eph.3.17): rooted in relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord, and nourished by the nutrients of His gracious, generous love.

It also means being rooted in the lifestyle of discipleship in Christ. The summons of Jesus to follow Him is a call to a life in which you’re committed now to learning always from Him. Taught by Him as well as loved by Him. You become, therefore, an earnest, diligent student of His Word.

Getting beneath the surface again. Digging deep and anchoring your outlook and perspective in the rich, sustaining and substantial soil of God’s enduring truth: the sovereignty and splendour of His purpose of salvation in His Son: the wisdom and the righteousness of all His faithful dealings with humanity: the constancy and kindness of His promise to be present with His people all the time: the matchless, pure sufficiency of grace which He extends to you in Christ.

Rooted thus in the truths of His Word, you’ll not be blown over when storms of adversity come. And rooted deep in the soil of God’s Word, its wisdom and counsel will also serve to feed and inform your attitudes, conduct and speech: you’ll grow to be a mighty ‘oak of righteousness’, whose stature and maturity in Christ bespeak to all who meet with you, at least in some small measure, the glory of the Saviour whose you are.

But there’s a third important aspect to this ‘rootedness’ to which the Scriptures point. And that is your being rooted in the costly bonds of covenanted fellowship in Christ. Putting down roots, that is, in the life of a church such as we are here at Gilcomston – giving expression to your commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord in your being now committed to a group of other believers. We are a body of flawed and fallible followers of the Lord, a mixed bag of (often mixed-up!) people whose transformed lives are centred on Jesus, whose Spirit-wrought faith is nurtured by Scripture, whose prayerful reliance is always on God, and whose day-by-day work is our seeking the glory of God in proclaiming His Son as King.

You put down roots in our common, shared life. You disavow the ‘freedom’ of the pretty patio pot plant and resolve to be a planting of the Lord. Trees grow best together, their roots sunk deep beneath the ground and intertwined in unseen bonds of long-term care and love: a planting and plantation of the Lord, strengthened and shielded by their Spirit-wrought togetherness when storms and winds cause havoc and destruction all around.

Sequoia trees will rarely flourish solo. Trees grow best together; sometimes in a forest, sometimes in a wood or in a smaller grove – but always, for good reason, trees grow best together. And you – if you’re a follower of Christ – you are a ‘planting of the Lord’. That’s His description, of course, not mine. He sets the solitary in families. He plants His oaks of righteousness together as a planting: and in their grand togetherness the great majestic splendour of His Being is displayed.

Pretty patio pot plants don’t do that business at all! Rooted, not potted, is the mark of the kingdom of God. You put down roots, you tie yourself in to the life of a Christ-centred church, and there – committed to that rag-tag, flawed community of believers – there you grow, with them, to be ‘a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendour’.

Have you taken that step? Have you made that commitment? Have you put down those roots?

You may have questions as well. How do I make that commitment? What is involved in ‘putting down roots’ in this way? Why does it matter so much that I take such a step? Well, they’re all good questions, and we’ll hope to explore them all through the early weeks of this brand-new year.

Because we are going to need to be rooted. Rooted in relationship with Christ. Rooted in the rigours of discipleship. Rooted in a fellowship of Jesus-centred, Bible-based, and Spirit-filled believers. As we start a new year, may we learn afresh what it is to be together a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendour.

Yours with great gratitude to the Lord for the richness of the fellowship we share with you and for all the constant kindness, love and care with which you have surrounded and supported us,

Jeremy Middleton