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Review – The Song of Songs: Exploring the Divine Romance

Charlie Cleverly is a fine devotional writer. As well as being Rector of the well-known St Aldates Church in Oxford, England, he is rapidly taking his rightful place among the best of our contemporary writers of faith. Every time Cleverly publishes a new book, I wait with some anticipation.

This latest book on Solomon’s Song of Songs is very good, but perhaps for me, not as impactful as his earlier, ‘Epiphanies of the Ordinary’, which to my mind was extra-ordinary – and a unique contribution to modern devotional writing.

Song of Songs

However, we should be grateful to Charlie for opening up again what, to so many, is an inaccessible book in the Bible. I was brought up on the poetry of the Song of Solomon. My father loved it, but in the tradition of his day, regarded it purely as an allegory describing Christ and His church. Of course, it’s far, far more than that and Cleverly cleverly brings allegory and reality together, ensuring that the book is once again made relevant to today’s church and to wider society.

For my part, I think I’ve always regarded the biblical book as far more than allegorical. As an adolescent growing up in a rather rigid church environment, the text of the Song of Solomon was often an exciting and (yes, I’ll admit it!) earthy distraction in an otherwise dull church service! It was possible to be seen reading the Bible, but to be enjoying it at the same time, perhaps for all the wrong reasons!

I read Charlie Cleverly’s new book on holiday whilst staying at a couple’s only resort. The upside of the many attractive qualities of human love was clearly evident around us! His celebration of human sexuality together with the divine romance as laid out in Solomon’s ancient song is very beautiful, as is the biblical text itself.

Cleverly’s writing is wise, clear, deep, evocative and contemplative, much as in the Song itself. One detects shades and hints of the Puritan Divine in his writing. Here are eighteen chapters covering the eight chapters of the Song of Solomon in some considerable depth. In strict terms, this is not really a commentary, but more a devotional exploration of the Divine Romance and the ‘Kiss of God’.

If anything, the book may be overly long, perhaps relying too much on quoting swathes of text from the Church Fathers. Cleverly is at his best here in his application of the Song of Songs to the Church in today’s culture. I valued his perceptive point that ‘society is obsessed by sex and the Church obsessed by marriage’– and that both such emphases are wrong! He is clear that true marriage is a ‘passionate monogamy’ and has ‘exclusive permanence’. However, he is sensitive to singleness and celibacy, but oddly silent on the persistent matter of homosexuality in human relationships.

Cleverly’s notion of the pressing need for ‘Finding your voice’ (or helping to express yourself intimately) in life and relationships is also powerful and telling, and worth the price of the book alone. He writes movingly of the winter of loss and bereavement, and of the ‘dark night of the absence of God’.

I appreciated his profound insight that churches may be better if ‘presence-led’ rather than ‘purpose-driven’! The final chapter is a wonderfully uplifting rehearsal of the truth of the Maranatha future return of Jesus Christ.

Could his book have been shorter? Possibly, but actually I’m glad that it isn’t as there is much to go over again in the future. Overall, a more than worthwhile book for anyone involved in the intricacy of life’s often complex relationships.

THE SONG OF SONGS: EXPLORING THE DIVINE ROMANCE

CHARLIE CLEVERLY (HODDER FAITH)

ISBN 978-1-444-70204-0

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Reflection – After the Call

August 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Many Christians are familiar with the veracity of a ‘Call of God’, and although this idea may be interpreted sometimes differently by the various wings of the church, most groupings would view it as a bona-fide spiritual experience; albeit one that requires further checks by wise and mature confidantes. I myself would say that I have experienced such a phenomenon.

What’s harder to deal with is the prospect of failure when following such a call. Fear can so often remain as a continuing reality. It feels that there is still the possibility of being laid low or being set aside.

Yet we remain open to God. He is the Lord. He is committed to His call. So too must we be. We continue to be confident in God even when our path seems blocked. Sometimes we receive glimpses of the way ahead, only to be frustrated and cast down again.

The solution in such times is a resolute trust in God.

Chiesa di San Francesco, Alghero, Sardinia - window

Jeremiah 17:7-8 and Psalm 43: 3-5 are key to this:

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,

    whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.

Send out your light and your truth;

    let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling!
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
O God, my God.

 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God. (ESV)

There is always the danger of looking other than to God for our solutions. It’s quite a natural reaction – and therein lies the problem and the point. It’s natural, not spiritual. True trust occurs deep within our spirit: ‘Has God said?’ We can soulfully answer, ‘emphatically yes’. Such clear and certain knowledge is crucial to our ‘resting’ in His sovereign call. If God is for me, who can be against me? (Note my emphases).

Sometimes the call of God is to oblivion in the eyes of the world. Even the Church aspires to the cult of personality and lifts its heroes high – pastors, musicians, evangelists, music leaders, organisations et al. It wrongly equates calling and vocation with worldly success and influence. These are not Kingdom values but just more of the world inside the church. Care needs to be exercised as such occurrences can be insidious and appear perfectly fine at the time. They are not – and they will be found sadly wanting in due course. Even very recent church history shows us this quite clearly.

Those of us blessed with a sense of a divine calling must show great care. Ours is a holy calling and one not to be taken lightly, even when the way ahead seems dark, confused and unclear to us. I’m reminded that Romans 11:29 says,

’For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable’

And in I Corinthians 1: 25-27,

‘For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong’.

This Scripture is quite clear – to give it Richard Rohr’s expression – ‘the upside-downness’ of the spiritual life and its values. The juxtaposition seems contrary to everything we aspire to and is very hard for us to accept, let alone practise – but live it this way we must.

Reflection: 10 Keys to a Healthy Soul

Hints for Soul Care for those in Ministry, Leadership, Management or Business:

An antidote for the toxicity of life by building a lifestyle comprising winsome spirituality and a healthy soul

Street art in Singapore

10 Keys to a Healthy Soul:

1. FAITH – not Fear. Trusting God implicitly. Something joyful. Something positive. This is the antidote to Worry.

2. CALLING – a vocation, a clear knowledge, a purpose. Knowing. This is the antidote to Questioning.

3. PRESENCE – a sense, a consciousness, a practice. A daily occurrence. This is the antidote to Loneliness.

4. DEPENDENCY – Vulnerability, not independence. Not always knowing. This is the antidote to Strategising.

5. WAITING – on God. Friendship with God. No rushing. Inner peace. This is the antidote to Tension and Stress.

6. LISTENING – A quiet whisper in my spirit. A clear witness in my soul. This is the antidote to Uncertainty.

7. QUIETNESS – Silence. Switching off. Peace. A digital detox. This is the antidote to Societal noise.

8. SPACE – Breathe. Rest. Pray. In openness. Experiencing wonder. This is the antidote to Insignificance.

9. GLORY – Seeing God.  Knowing Him. The Shekinah. That sense. A glimpse. This is the antidote to Drudgery.

10. WORSHIP – The ultimate. This is the Chief end of Man. Being caught up. This is the antidote to Self-interest.

These thoughts were originally written and posted on Twitter during May 2013.

Reflection: Thoughts on Faith, Trust – and Worry

April 23, 2013 Leave a comment

God often turns up unexpectedly. The God of surprises delights us by turning events in our favour. If God is for me, who can be against me?

Relax, listen, pray, breathe. Security and planning are the antithesis of faith and trust. Put yourself in God’s hands – and be surprised.

Santorini, Greece

In life, faith is required – and trust. It’s possible to ‘secure’ God out of your life. If you do this, you may miss His quiet intervention.

Today – live just for today. Worry can be all consuming and is ultimately pointless. Not for nothing does the Bible tell us not to worry.

Faith and trust can result in surprises. These would not be possible if you are constantly worrying – and leaving God out of the picture.

Trust in God’s word – not in the word of those in the world. I’d far rather rely on the Divine certainty than on human plans and promises.

Looking back, I regret not listening more frequently to God – and less to people. But it’s never too late and I’m catching up. You can too!

Get to the end of yourself and your plans. Allow God to intervene. He will surprise you. He intervenes when it seems we have nothing left.

If you keep everything beyond the risk of requiring faith, you may never experience His intervention. God will come to you in the moment.

These thoughts were originally written and posted on Twitter during April 2013.

Reflection – on the life of Daniel

December 22, 2012 Leave a comment

The Old Testament account of Daniel’s life is remarkable and instructive. Dig deeper and you quickly realise that here was a man – a godly man – who served four ruthless and despotic rulers for around 60 years at the highest level in government of the two major empires of the day. Yet apparently he did so without either moral compromise or personal failure, remaining true to God throughout. How was this possible?

Ruling approx. 600 years before Christ, Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar (the Babylonian empire) and Darius and Cyrus (the Medo-Persian empire) were today’s equivalent of Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi or President Assad. They all did some pretty wicked things to maintain power. So how did Daniel cope and indeed, thrive in such a violent culture?

One reason for his survival was almost certainly that he demonstrated the gift of true prophecy which made him seemingly untouchable and in some strange way, revered by those he served. This clear prophetic gift was centred in Daniel’s unwavering devotional life.

The more you think about his rise to power, the more extraordinary it seems. Did Daniel ever succumb to the insidious pressures of his position? It would seem not.  Daniel exemplifies the clear validity of a calling to high political office. Our liberal, secular culture finds it hard, if not impossible, to believe that anyone can live at such towering levels of integrity. Surely he had to have skeletons in the cupboard somewhere? Well, with Daniel it would seem not. In fact, we are clearly told in Daniel chapter 9 that he was ‘highly esteemed’ by God or as other Bible versions put it ‘greatly loved’.

Daniel reminds us of the ongoing tension that always exists between God’s word and the reality of current events – which are we to believe? Ultimately God is sovereign over human affairs and the teaching here is that He uses ungodly, despotic empires to fulfill his promises. Daniel stood against the godless arrogance of these human empires. He demonstrated the importance of a personal devotional life – and of combining the word of God with prayer. Above all, Daniel teaches us that no ultimate harm can come to us when we are living in God’s plan – why fear death when God is clearly for us?

Daniel assists us in an understanding of how to practise faith in a secular, pluralistic society – in his case it was a pagan and hostile world. John’s Gospel requires Christians to be ‘in the world, but not of it’. What does this mean in reality when absolutist claims of Christianity are no longer tolerated by our own supposedly tolerant society?

My own take on what sustained Daniel throughout his life is the importance and significance of the Word of God. It informed all he did. Daniel was gripped by the written promises of God – and he believed them. Chapter 9:2 – 3 ‘I Daniel, understood from the Scriptures … I pleaded with God in prayer’. His reading of the parchments led to his prayer and in verse 23, Gabriel appears to him (the same angel as later came to speak to Mary!) and said ‘As soon as you began to pray an answer was given … for you are highly esteemed’. 

Daniel received the endorsement of God, the highest possible authority! In my book, nothing else much matters in life. No doubt, he had faced criticism and accusations about his motives for being in high office but here was God endorsing all that Daniel stood for by answering his prayer in quite a dramatic fashion. A lesson here for us. When we are misunderstood or criticised, what really matters is are we following the voice and direction of God because if so, that’s all that really counts. The accolade of Almighty God should be enough for anyone.

Daniel 9: 18f: ‘We do not make requests of you because we are righteous but because of your great mercy.  Lord, listen. Lord, forgive, Lord, hear and act. For your sake my God, do not delay’.

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