Monday, May 28, 2012

Epiphanies of the ordinary

"What is a classic book? For me it is one that stands out from the pile, one that you re-read, one that you recommend, one that you give as a gift and anticipate delight in the receiver. It is a book that makes me laugh out loud, or causes tears to fall down my cheeks, or forces me to put it down and pray or worship or confess; one that make me utter involuntary gasps of delight at its insight....By all these criteria [there are a few including being able to give it to a Regis Professor and a non-Christian alike], Charlie Cleverly's new book qualifies as just such a classic"

Simon Ponsonby from the Forward to Epiphanies of the ordinary

I saw Charlie, my old Vicar, at a conference recently and he told me he had written a book. He then followed this up by immediately asking me if I knew what an epiphany was and I had a surging fear that my epiphany would be my inability to define epiphany or my admission of my well-known ignorance of the liturgical calender. As it was, I did pretty well and for those in doubt of its meaning all is made clear on the first page so you can relax. I told him about Barnes and suggested he read 'Why plant churches?' and he went away rather enthused anew about planting which made me happy.

Not days later, I was in the Christian bookshop in my mothers village (growing up it always mystified me you could have a shop that only sold 'Christian books' and I used to peer in through the window and observe the weirdos inside. How ironic that I am now one of them). Anyway, there on the shelf as I browsed was Charlie's book and I underwent a mini-epiphany and had a sense that I should 'pick up and read'. I am so glad I did. Less people seem to read books these days and even less make space to while away time in a book shop. Why bother when you can facebook and witter and twitter. Abraham Lincoln once said that were he to have five hours to cut down a tree he would spend three of them sharpening the saw. My conviction is saws get sharp by reading and this, dear friends, is a 'saw-sharpening' read. 

I read once, it might have been in Graham Tomlin's Provocative Church, that the main reason that people cease attending church is that they don't encounter God. Funny that one isn't it? For all our religious hoop la's, liturgies, sermons and choruses, the vast majority of people seem to be leaving our ceremonies having not met the person in whose name we have all gathered and sung and with little passion to serve him or make him known to others. That was certainly the reason I stopped attending church. At one point, Charlie recalls Jackie Pullinger pointing out to him that to 'serve the poor' is patronising whereas to 'serve among the poor' allows you to admit you are one of them [Page 154]. We are all so very poor these days, in a soul rather than material sense - at least I feel so- but I'm longing for change as I think are many others. This book helped me with both the 'what' and the 'how' of that change.

There is a wonderful line in the warm-hearted film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (which you should all go and see not least because it is about fly-fishing which I have just been doing) when Ewan McGregor turns to Emily Blunt while watching muslims at prayer and says "I can't remember the last time I went to church- doesn't everyone these days go to Tescos instead". Now, if this 'God-absence' is true corporately, which I think it is, how much more is this not the case for people individually. And I'm talking to Christians now. If you have read the bible at all you will have read of people who actually encounter the living God. I mean really meet him and as a result are flattened face down and changed forever through it (Isaiah 6). They get up different, changed, joyful, amazed, abandoned, sold out and 'fragrant'. 

'My burden in writing this book is the desire that there might be a few more 'fragrant saints' around- and that that number might include you and me' [P.53] 

As the forward suggests, this is a book to be read slowly a chapter a day perhaps as part of your devotions or might I recommend you perhaps take it on your next holiday or take it away for the weekend or on retreat. Whatever you decide, do dwell on its contents deeply. There are too many good things to mention about this book. Firstly, it is very honest and Charlie shares some of the most intimate highs and deepest lows of his life. He is also refreshingly honest about his failings. He quotes many of his ancient mentors and there are too many quotes to share in full but I will offer one at the end. I used the Ortberg quote on page 2 from 'The 'We' we want to be' (it's worth reading this article in full) to start a sermon recently. He writes movingly about suffering and about his family story and the one phrase he uses repeatedly is what he calls 'Learning to lean' which is a line I now have carved on my heart. Who among us is not learning to do that and needful of doing it better?

The biblical score draws particularly on John's revelation, Moses and on Song of Songs among others. Whilst I attended St Aldates, Charlie preached through Song of Songs and that series will forever colour my emotions of my studies and life in Oxford. Reading similar thoughts again here was an opportunity to revisit that complex and catch-all word 'love' - it's meaning, nature, its outworking and how we might manifest more of it in each of our inner beings. If this book is about anything -it's about love. I was also moved anew by the call for unity and I know God has lain similar John 17 questions and desires within me that Charlie describes. Attending the first Love Oxford and listening to an African Pastor's tearful plea calling this nation back to the gospel was a real 'moment' for me- dare I even say 'an epiphany'.

As I near the time I will serve and lead a church of my own I have been thinking much about what that means so Charlie's wisdom and experience was truly timely for me. I have been praying about what this might demand of me, of the cost and of whether or not I will have the courage and teachability to 'learn to lean'. If I don't I have no doubt I will be utterly snookered. Most of all I have, more than ever having read this, a desire for a fresh encounter with Jesus and that he would open my ears and heart to hear his voice and then be obedient to it. 

I end with some words of Charles Finney from a sermon he wrote in 1843 and make the request that you might pray for Charlie, pray for me, pray for the church, pray for your church leader and pray for yourself and no matter how ordinary you feel believe epiphanies will come [Page 61]. We all so need them. 

'Nothing can make us stable Christians but to behold his glory, a revelation of Him to us. No excitement, no intellectual  acumen, no strength of logic, nothing can secure us but a revelation of God to our own souls. We should therefore persevere and insist that this be done for us, that we see God's glory, and be fixed on Him. The church should pray for ministers and for candidates for the ministry, that God would reveal to them the deep secrets of His love and mercy; that He would open to them the ever-flowing fountains of exquisite and perennial blessedness to let them drink from there and never thirst more. 

He goes on to exhort churches to 'feel how much they can do for their ministers by praying the heavens open, and letting down on their hearts such rays of glory......as that the spirit of the Highest shall come upon them, and the power of God overshadow them, and transform them from men of clay, to angels of mercy and power to a fallen world'

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