Letters are wonderful things and these days we write so few of them. Emails yes and texts often but not the discipline of reaching for a fresh letterhead and writing the words:
Letters have a great Christian tradition that started with a man called Paul who wrote quite a few trying to sort out a variety of messes in the local church. Ever since, letters have been written by Christians to advise, to encourage, to rebuke, to explain and to share information. I have a few collections of letters that I return to over and over again. These include The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, The Letters of C S Lewis, The Letters of John Newton, Death by love: Letters from the Cross, The Letters of Evelyn Underhill and The Heart of a Servant Leader. Letters are wonderful to read I think because they can be dipped into, they can be reread and they can say things very directly into a personal situation or circumstance that generalities can't do nearly as well.
I read this book because a friend recommended it to me. I've never met Chris but I like what I now feel I know of him having read his warm and thought-provoking letters. He seems authentic, questioning, well-read, funny, honest and he likes Eugene Peterson so he's got to be OK. The book takes the simple idea of what it looks like to write a letter to a friend (some Christian's and some not) about a topic summarised by the chapter titles. They have pithy titles like 'Everything', 'Faith', 'Belonging' and 'Sin' and Chris endeavours to explain the word to a confused reader in the hope that once they have given his letter an audience they will be a bit closer to getting the concept than they were before. These are letters written about real things to real people (some with names changed) and each one has the air that it has been a truly lived through experience or conversation. He explains:
'In the letters that follow are the things I really want to say in the event of my death. Some are things I haven't dared say, felt confident enough to say, or just got around to. Others have been regular themes in many a conversation. But this is not some manifesto for life; it's addressing particular things to particular people. These are letters that I have written, printed off and signed, and which reside in the top drawer of my desk; the ten letters to be delivering in the event of my death'
The thing I like about these letters is they seem to capture some of the circumstances that many of us have spoken, thought or witnessed our way through down the years. They are addressed to normal bods like an atheist, a staunch conservative Christian aunt, a famous Christian man, a yoga teacher, a newly baptised baby and a theological student. And Chris seems like a normal bod-he must be he's a Vicar in Reading- which is possibly as normal as it gets. I was racking my brain for some pertinent funny fact about Reading but I couldn't think of one which about sums the place up. However, I do remember watching a documentary about a slightly strange man who owned Reading football club and owned shopping centres. He wanted to put Reading on the map and I must confess I am not sure he has quite succeeded with that yet. Maybe Chris is the man for this. Reading is also, perhaps though, where most people exist spiritually and in some ways it's the best postmark letters like these could have in our post-modern, sometimes very bland, searching and relativistic days.
I particularly enjoyed his letter to the Famous Christian Man and as someone who writes a blog that does on occasion make these folk even more famous it spoke to me. He describes the dangers of what Simon Walker calls 'The front and back stage' and our tendency to not integrate them authentically. It's so easily done and I should know because I've done and do it (thank goodness for my truth-telling friends). A good dose of Nouwen's In the name of Jesus from Chris was very helpful.
'I'm writing this because I have been present when, during an interview on stage, in front of thousands, Famous Christian Man was asked what the church in the west needed, and he unhesitatingly answered, 'More people like me'. I am writing because there is a gap between the projected image and the reality. I am writing because this is dangerous. For everyone.
But to be honest, maybe the main target of this isn't Famous Christian Man, or the Christian subculture. Maybe it's the part of me that still feels regret and failure that I am not Famous Christian Man myself'
Do get this book. It will help you and encourage you and Chris is a clever chappy so you might, like me, learn a thing or two from his wide reading and shared wisdom. If it's not too offensive to say it, this book might be one for the loo. A pick up and put down kind of read and it is also certainly one to be kept in the armoury of 'to be given away' to friends.
Just as I got to the end of this post I had the idea of writing all this in the form of a letter to Chris to share my thoughts on his book but I've written this now so I'll leave that one to you.
Anyway, see how you get on. I think you'll enjoy these.