The lectionary passage for this first Sunday of Advent included Isaiah 2:4, which speaks of a day in which we will beat our swords into plowshares. Inspired by that, I took a recent article that got a lot of unfair heat in the comments and turned it into a very simple Advent prayer. It’s not profound, but simply an attempt to look forward to what Isaiah prophesied.
I always wondered when the Pevensie children knew that something else lie beyond the fur coats in that wardrobe. The narration talks about how the coats eventually gave way to branches until they found themselves in the snowy woods in Lantern Waste. But I always imagined that the cold winter air of Narnia whooshed into the wardrobe. The wind would make you shudder and wonder what on earth is going on before you even went deeper into the formerly innocuous piece of furniture.
I used to say that people quoted C.S. Lewis almost as much as they quote the Bible. In American evangelical Christianity, he is a towering figure. Lewis was a revered apologist in a century in which modern apologetics became a cornerstone—for good and ill—in certain circles of the faith. Mere Christianity is rightfully heralded as a great work for people that want to think rationally about faith.
I like Mere Christianity but I do not find myself returning to it nearly as frequently as I do Lewis’ works of fiction: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce. My favorite Lewis quote about God is not a thoughtful and scholarly reflection from one of his apologetic works. My favorite—"Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you"—is in the context of a talking beaver speaking about a lion king in the magical setting of a children’s novel.
The apologetics of C.S. Lewis are important, but, for me, his legacy will always be his imagination. I first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the sixth grade. And I could feel the branches as Lucy discovered that magical world. Long before the movie adaptation, I knew what Cair Paravel looked like. As a child, I could wrap my mind around how sad they would feel for it to be always winter and never Christmas.
Lewis’ incredible imagination made Narnia feel real and lived in. In my first go-around of reading it, I didn’t catch all of the Christian symbolism. I was so wrapped up in the magic, talking animals, knights, and battle of good and evil. Yet the second and third and seventh time I read it, I picked up on the nods like how Christmas was when the Witch’s spell began to break.
Even today, when I talk about sacrifice, resurrection, and the problems of death and evil, I come back to that children’s book. The same could be said about Lewis’ more adult works of fiction. I am taking a class presently on The Problem of Evil. As helpful as all the works of brilliant scholars we read are, none really hit the nail on the head like Screwtape. The imagining of the afterlife in The Great Divorce challenges me and provoked me to dwell more on heaven, hell, and how each touches earth.
There is something about imagination that lights the entire mind up. Sometimes it will just immerse in joyous awe at the wonders of that world. Many other times, it will light something beautiful and true that has been there all along but you needed different eyes to see it. That is the power of a great story.
As we celebrate the life of C.S. Lewis on today, the fiftieth anniversary of his passing, I hope we celebrate his imagination. More than that, I hope we learn from it. Throughout the centuries, people eyes have been opened to the beauty of the gospel through the arts: through icons, stained glass windows, oratorios, hymns, roaring lions, and more.
The modern church has put such a premium on proving the faith—at whatever costs and occasionally at the expense of logic—that we have forgotten how to celebrate the faith through creativity. This creativity was bestowed to us by a God in whose image we are made. We must recover the spiritual discipline of imaginative faith.
To remember C.S. Lewis, let’s apply our imaginations: build worlds, paint canvases, compose songs, write a poem. It does not even have to be artsy. We can dare to dream about how to solve poverty in neighborhoods or give the voiceless an opportunity to be heard. Imagination is not just important to the realm of fantasy; the real world needs it pretty desperately too.
Thank you God for C.S. Lewis and thanks to C.S. Lewis for sharing your imagination with us.
I just realized something kind of strange: I love taking our trash and recycling out to the street. It isn’t enormously important to my life. It’s not like I wake up on Wednesday morning counting down the hours until I get to take that post-dinner journey down our driveway. But for that minute or two that I am out there, I’m grateful.
I think part of the reason is, it is always at night. Especially since daylight savings time ended, it is dark save for the moon and the stars. Still and peaceful. When I look up at the sky and see it stretching in all directions, I feel small in the best possible way. When I feel small, I typically think about how big God is and marvel at the fact that God would care about any of us at all.
I don’t usually stop that much anymore. Whenever I go somewhere, I am trying to get from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible. And unlike college when I walked virtually everywhere, I’m in a car. The only other times that I’m outside for extended periods is when I’m playing with my son or I’m running.
I realize as I write this that I need to get outside more, get quiet, slow down. When I do these things it puts me in a meditative state. I often pray when I run, but those are usually prayers of locomotion: either of accelerating joy or hanging on for dear life; elation or desperation. Those are important prayers, but there is also a place for those slow often silent prayers of wonder. When I consider the heavens and all the rest.
It’s kind of appropriate that I get rid of my trash along the way. What else is prayer but a place where we rid ourselves of our crap and get to experience the walk back where we don’t have to carry it anymore? There’s a rhythm to it. I leave the junk behind and I walk back home.
At times, I think this is kind of foolish: the whole making a big deal of ninety seconds of prayer once a week. Am I blowing this out of proportion and making a household chore super spiritual? Maybe. Yet I can’t deny that when I walk back to my house in the still night air, that it seems like a thin place. It seems like a place where God is close.
Of course, God is always close. It’s not the garbage or the night or the driveway. It’s me actually stopping to realize that God is there. I guess for me it is simply easier to remember in the stillness. The awesome thing is that when I do remember, God can turn the absolute mundane into something wonderful.
One of the classes that I am taking this semester is the Problem of Evil. We like to drop the name of the class into as many conversations as possible—“Yeah, I really need to go. I’ve got Evil in five minutes”—and we joked early on that we hoped to have the problem cracked by mid-October.
Of course, we haven’t solved the problem of evil. In fact, each week we practically walk out of class with a limp. That’s what happens when you wrestle with God for three hours about theodicy and the tragedy people face in their lives. We have learned much in dialogue and sat in many a silence that screams “I don’t know.” It’s been a good class.
We aren’t going to solve anything, but there have been a few important pieces that I have picked up along the way. One of them is this quote from N.T. Wright that I read a few weeks ago:
[T]he line between good and evil is never simply between “us” and “them.” The line between good and evil runs through each of us….We must not make the trivial mistake of supposing that a one-off petty thief and a Hitler are exactly alike, that the same level of evil is attained by someone who cheats in an exam and by a Bin Laden. But nor must we suppose that the problem of evil can be either addressed or solved if we trivialize it in the other way, of labeling some people “good” and other people “bad.” (Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, 38-39)
That is something that I have tried to keep in mind the last few weeks. Granted, it is an obvious concept: all of us have sinned. At church, they give you that verse while you’re still getting juice and animal crackers in Sunday school.
I know this cognitively, but it is hard to look at the world in that way. It complicates things. I think most of us like a good “us versus them” system. We wouldn’t admit it, but it is a heck of a lot easier to assume that your people are the good guys and anyone that disagrees with you is bad. That’s the narrative we see on cable news, Facebook, in football stadiums, in Washington, and many times even in our denominations. We like to believe we know exactly where the line between good and evil runs.
But 7 billion lines of good and evil bifurcating the heart of every human? That’s difficult. It would mean that I need to realize that there is evil in me. In spite of my faith, there is still a darkness inside of me. That is not a reality that I like to face, but it is true. It should humble me and make me realize my need for God all the more.
It also means that I have to remember that there is good in the people that I instinctively label “them.” I have to remind myself that congressmen, cable talking heads, celebrity pastors, good ole boys with giant trucks that nearly run me off the road, people that use the express lane at the grocery store when they have far more than 10 items, Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, Fred Phelps, and scores of others have good in them. I need to realize that, indeed, some do a great deal of good in the world despite their flaws.
Us versus them is a lot easier, but it’s a lie. It’s a lie that keeps good fenced up in so many tiny places and lets evil run unchecked in others. Like Wright wrote (I apologize for that), this is not some sort of relativization in which we just say everyone is the same. There is still great evil that has to be named and dealt with.
But I think it will help us better love our enemies and it will better help us spread good news, if we remember that we are often not as good as we think we are and they are often not nearly as bad. The world is far more complicated than that. Perhaps that is too idealistic to look at things this way, but I think it’s worth a shot.
I am not dressing up for Halloween, but I have ideas so I figured I’d share these—shall we say unusual—ideas. If you decide go with one of these, let me know. It’ll be a great honor.
Dr. Abraham Lincoln - I mentioned this one on Twitter a few nights ago. Get a pair of scrubs, a fake beard, and a stovepipe hat. I will dress up as Dr. Abraham Lincoln one day. “What was the time of death, Doctor?” “Four score and seven minutes ago.”
Martin Luther, Astronaut - Halloween is also Reformation Day, which celebrates Martin Luther kicking off the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. You just need a monk’s robe and a space helmet. Why an astronaut? I think the better question is: Why not an astronaut?
Teenage Mutant Pacifist Turtle - Instead of carrying around weapons, these heroes in a half shell realize that Turtle Power is best expressed in non-violent resistance.
Victorian-Era Batman - Batman mask, monocle, knickerbockers, cane. Never has crime-fighting been so classy.
Time-Displaced Hannah Montana - You’re in costume as Hannah Montana but pretend you’re actually from five years ago and have no idea what you’re doing in 2013. You express abject horror at the Miley costumes from this year and keep screaming, “We have to go back!”
Elisha and his She-Bear - Need two people and this works best if you are passing out candy at your front door. Person one is dressed as the biblical figure Elisha (robe and bald cap). If any of the kids make a comment about your baldness, Person two runs out of the house dressed as a terrifying grizzly bear and chases those punk kids down the street.
That’s all I’ve got right now. Feel free to share any ideas you have.
Our youngest son Liam was dedicated at church on Sunday. It was beautiful. Words don’t really do justice the contagious way that his eyes light up and spreads to the eyes all around him. You look at him and see so much possibility, so much hope.
During the dedication, one of the passages that caught my ear was the psalm in which the author marvels at God forming him and knitting him together in his mother’s womb. The word “form” jumped out at me because that day was also Reformation Sunday.
I’ve been thinking about that word literally. Re-form: to form again. That angle of reformation was spinning in my head when Dean preached about Martin Luther, the Apostle Paul, the sin that enslaves every human, and the Christ that saves us. Re-form. Form again.
Martin Luther wanted to reform the Church. H e wanted to go back to the start and begin again. But you can’t go back to page one. It’s impossible. You have to reform with what you have. Reformation is a new beginning and yet it is a simultaneously a continuation. Both are wrapped into a mysterious whole.
The Church has been reformed throughout its history. It needs to be formed again today. It likely will in the future. That is the prayer of semper reformandum; always reforming, always hoping that God will take the broken and good pieces and mold it all into something beautiful. Familiar yet new.
I think that is what Jesus was talking about with Nicodemus that one night. He said that a person needed to be born from above or born again. Nicodemus, you, and I need to be re-formed. God takes who we are and somehow creates us anew through what Jesus has done. Just like the Church, I am in frequent need of reformation. There is sin that breaks me and dogmas that restrain my growth.
Yet God, if I do not fight it, will continue to make me new. All the while, God will continue to make me that individual that was formed in my mother’s womb: a new beginning and a continuation. I think there is a reformation for me coming. I can feel it in the air like the crispness of autumn. I just have to quit breaking myself into a million pieces.
But I digressed from that sanctuary full of light this past Sunday. It is hard to think about my boys and realize that they will one day need to be formed again. God formed them both so beautifully. I don’t like to think of Jim and Liam messing up and needing to be made new. Yet I call to mind grace and the fact that our Creator loves us more than we’ll ever know. So though they will mess up and that breaks my heart, God is there to re-form them when they break.
In the same Book of Psalms where it speaks of being formed in our mother’s womb, another psalmist asks God to create a clean heart, a new and right spirit. “Oh God, form me again,” it could read. That is my prayer. I pray it will be my boys’ as well.
Sure, we lost. But we scared LSU enough to trend on Twitter for a while. Not too shabby for a small FCS school that oddsmakers had as nearly a seven TD underdog.
Christian, as Rob Bell once put it (and I know I’ve already lost some of you there), is a great noun but a poor adjective. So the concept of a Christian movie is not one that sits well with me. I could go on for a long time about all the reasons that I believe this from an artistic standpoint, from the vantage point that most preach to the choir and thus reinforce world views that said choir already holds, etc. I wish that Christians just made really good movies rather than there being such a thing as a “Christian movie.”
For the last few days, my Facebook feed has been blowing up with links to the trailer for a forthcoming Christian movie titled God’s Not Dead. If you are quite excited about his movie, please do not read the rest of this blog. I am going to try my best to be charitable, but I’m also going to pour some cold water on it.
I also want to acknowledge that I’m sure that the people who made this movie had the best intentions in the world and have put a lot of hard work and time into making it happen.
So here’s your chance to ditch this blog. Still here? Okay, let’s go.
Read more …
So yesterday a popular pastor (that I’m not going to name, but you probably know who he is) posted a blog about the 6th Commandment (do not kill) that hulked out into an apologetic for a God that metes out divine justice with violence. Should I have just not read this blog? Absolutely. I make all kinds of mistakes. Here is the line that I haven’t been able to shake:
Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist; he’s patient. He has a long wick, but the anger of his wrath is burning.
Once the wick is burned up, he is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow.
My initial response was to imagine a translation of the Bible according to this theology (sample: “Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, ‘That’s my boy!’ And surely the Lord high-fived Simon Peter.”)
But that “Blood will flow” line has been bothering me in a way that I could not just respond with a joke and move on. I find the idea that God responds to evil in the exact same way that humanity has tried to counteract evil—a repeated action that seems to enflame evil rather than eradicate it—to be incredibly troubling. In fact, I would argue for all of its power, fury, and wrath, it is an incredibly low view of God.
When I read this pastor’s words about Jesus slaughtering his enemies, my mind went immediately to Isaiah 55. People often like to quote the ninth verse of that chapter to remind us that God’s ways are higher than ours and we use this basically as God’s Get Out of Jail Free Card. What we don’t often do is look at the verses surrounding it.
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
It’s the context of mercy. Now I know that a lot of Isaiah also talks about God’s wrath and justice, so it would be a dishonest to simply cherry pick a passage and move on. But in those prophecies, God’s punishment is coming to bear through the Babylonian people; an action which God does not find righteous or good either. There is no pleasure in the slaughter and devastation found in Isaiah.
Back to the verse: God’s ways are higher than ours. For eons, humans have tried and failed to solve their problems by violence. Do we not think that God in all of God’s infinite wisdom, power, and imagination could not bring justice in a way that wasn’t copying thousands of blood-soaked years of human script? What was Jesus suffering on the cross other than God bringing about victory over evil in a way that no human ever would have seen coming?
Jesus is why I have a hard time believing that God is eager mow down the creation made in the divine image. Christian orthodoxy says that we can know what God is like when we look at Jesus. Jesus was compassionate. He taught that one could respond to violence with creative means that neutralized it. People wanted him to lead a human revolution. They wanted him to be king and overthrow Rome. They thought that was the only answer to their particular riddle of evil. God’s thoughts were just higher than their thoughts.
This famous pastor is right about one thing: Jesus isn’t a pansy. His reasons are just out of place. Jesus was the bravest individual that walked the earth partly because he didn’t respond with violence when he suffered the cruelty of this world’s evil. He lived a better way, a higher way. Jesus was not a pansy because he walked out the far more difficult path of not taking revenge and of forgiving those who did great violence to him.
I have a hard time believing that when all is said and done, Jesus is going to pull off that mask and go to town decapitating people. I could be wrong, but I don’t see the Son of God doing that. Revelation is loaded with symbolism. It is human understanding of cosmic matters that go far beyond our imagination (it is also deeply tied into the context in which it was written, which is another matter for another time).
I understand that violence and evil are complicated issues. I am not a Pollyanna about that. However, I think we often root for God to bring the pain because that is what we want. I think that by insisting that God holds tightly to the human rubric of combating evil, we are boxing the Almighty in. We are dragging God’s higher ways down to our fallen human ways.