Saturday, December 31, 2011

And God Came In – Book Review

I just finished And God Came In, a biography of Joy Davidman by Lyle W. Dorsett; first published in 1983, this edition was released by Hendrickson Publishers in June 2009 as part of its Classic Biographies series. Dorsett is recognized as a first-tier Lewis scholar, having been curator of the Marion E. Wade Center from 1983 – 1990, he is also the author of a number of books and articles on Lewis.

Dorsett writes in the Preface to the Hendrickson edition:

“To be sure, this brilliant American novelist, poet, and critic is no longer obscure like she was before And God Came In first appeared more than a quarter century ago. Nevertheless, Joy Davidman, if not unknown, needs to be rescued from the utterly false images of her that have appeared in two Shadowlands films. Both movies relied heavily upon my research and writing, but in both films the producers and screenplay writers distorted important facts for dramatic effect and for purposes of promoting their own biases. Joy, for instance, never begged C.S. Lewis to marry her so that she could remain living in England…In the same fictional vein the motion picture shows C.S. Lewis devastated and nearly robbed of his faith when Joy’s cancer returns…But letters Professor Lewis wrote after Joy’s death, as well as testimony of several of his friends, reveal that his faith and courage survived in robust fashion.”

Helen Joy Davidman grew up in a secular Jewish family whose faith was, to quote Nathan Glazer, “…socialism or rationalism…which oftentimes seemed to the outside world as Jewish as Judaism itself”, (pp. 3 – 4). Joy was ready for college when she was 14, but delayed entry until she was 15; she received her undergraduate degree at 19 and her master’s degree from Columbia University three semesters later.

If the pilgrimage of C.S. Lewis can be primarily traced through his writings and speaking, the pilgrimage of Joy Davidman can be traced both through her writings and actions – for Joy was not only a person of paper and ink and rapier repartee, she was a woman of action – both in her personal life and in the public arena. Social inequities were deeply disturbing to her, having witnessed an orphan who had been hungry for several days commit suicide. Dorsett writes:

“Joy couldn’t forget this tragedy…and her anger grew increasingly at the insanity and callousness of a society that dumped potatoes in the ocean, burned wheat, and poured lime on oranges, while millions of people were unemployed, malnourished, and forced to stand in soup lines and sort through refuse in garbage cans for sustenance.” I can’t help but wonder what Joy would think of the inequities in America today.

I marvel that Joy, who had a harsh parental upbringing, found herself moved by compassion and indignation at the plight of those who couldn’t help themselves. Perhaps she identified with them in terms of her own relative helplessness as a child and adolescent living with her parents?

And God Came In appears to be a straightforward and well-research biography, and it has created an appetite in me to read Joy’s writings. Dorsett writes:

“Perhaps Joy’s greatest legacy is the example of her transformed life. For over thirty years she walked the way of self-indulgence and atheism. Then she turned abruptly around and followed the beckoning of Jesus Christ. If her walk with Him was frequently graceless and faltering, it was also committed, courageous, and faithful.”

As one whose walk is often graceless and faltering, I’m encouraged by Joy Davidman.

Joy Davidman reminds me of Dorothy L. Sayers in that as women in a man’s world they more than held their own. Neither Davidman nor Sayers suffered fools gladly, exposing sloppy and lazy thinking, often without giving quarter. Of course while Davidman would find marital bliss with Lewis, and it was bliss; Sayers would never, from all accounts I’ve read, know domestic joy.

A friend of Joy’s, author Bel Kaufman, visited Joy in England during Joy’s illness. Dorsett writes:

“Although they both knew they would not meet again…Bel found Joy to be beautifully serene and happy. ‘She was so peaceful and happy in that bed,’ Ms. Kaufman recalled, and one of the reasons for this was Joy’s being so deeply in love. ‘In spite of the gravity of her illness,’ wrote Kaufman, ‘she said something to me that is memorable; it’s a sentence I have even used in my own last book…[Joy] said, referring to her marriage to Lewis: The movies and the poets are right: it does exist!’”

C.S. Lewis – Near the Journey’s End: III

On June 28, 1963 Lewis writes to Mary Willis Shelburne:

“Think of yourself just as a seed patiently waiting in the earth: waiting to come up a flower in the Gardner’s good time, up into the real world, the real waking. I suppose that our whole present life, looked back on from there, will seem only a drowsy half-waking. We are here in the land of dreams. But cock-crow is coming. It is nearer now than when I began this letter.”

As I ponder Lewis’s words to Shelburne…

I appreciate the idea of this life being a Shadowlands, of “seeing through a glass darkly” and “now I know in part, then I shall know face to face” (1Cor. 13:12). I was a storehouse of certain knowledge when I was young; the trouble was that much of my certain knowledge was indigestible to many (most?) people; it was hardtack that had to be soaked in grace and patience before it could be eaten, and even then its nutritional value was questionable.

I know a lot less today, but I think that’s a good thing in that I see Christ a bit clearer than decades ago. It is like traveling toward the Rocky Mountains from the east; they look so close at first and you think you’ll soon be there, but one hour passes and then another and then another, and though they still look close you realize they are far away. When we are young in Christ certainties of the Kingdom rise up before us and we think we are there; we don’t know that we have many miles to travel and many things to learn before we reach the foot of the mountains – and we haven’t even begun the ascent!

While this life may be a Shadowlands, what happens in this life matters; this life is not a land of dreams in terms of unreality, in terms of it not being real; this life is very real. Some of the things we encounter in this life as Christians may not last, such as pain and sorrow, but this life is real and this life matters. Jesus Christ died in time-space history and our sin and sins were dealt with by God on the Cross some 2,000 years ago – so this life, this planet, eternally matters; our witness to others and our own lives eternally matter. Christians have been dying to share the Gospel with others for 2,000 years because there are two exit doors in this vestibule of life; one is the door of the Good Shepherd and the other a door into an unfathomable abyss. As Lewis might say, one door is labeled “God’s will” and the other “Man’s Will”.

Jesus says, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is cast into the oven, will he not much more cloth you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28 – 30).

Of course when Lewis writes about the Shadowlands and uses terms such as drowsy half-waking he is not suggesting that this life does not matter; he is rather reminding us that we know so little and understand so little in this life, and that the desire for joy and beauty and fullness that God has placed within us will one day be consummated in His Presence.

“No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever,” Revelation 22:3-5.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Near the Journey’s End: II

On June 25, 1963 Lewis writes to Mary Willis Shelburne:

Tho’ horrified at your sufferings, I am overjoyed at the blessed change in your attitude to death. This is a bigger stride forward than perhaps you yourself yet know. For you were rather badly wrong on that subject. Only a few months ago when I said that we old people hadn’t much more to do than to make a good exit, you were almost angry with me for what you called such a ‘bitter’ remark. Thank God you now see it wasn’t bitter: only plain common sense.

[All excerpts from letters taken from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Walter Hooper editor, Harper San Francisco.]

In a recent meeting with clients whose real estate asset (an apartment community) I manage the subject of an “exit strategy” came up. An exit strategy in the real estate investment business is a plan to sell the asset at some point in the future so that the owners can recover their original investment in addition to making a profit on the sale of the property.

Some owners I’ve worked with over the years are not concerned about an exit strategy, they only see the “here and now” and bleed the property of cash flow without reinvesting money back into the property for upkeep and improvements – the value of such properties inevitably declines as a result of not preparing for the future. Smart owners take care of their properties and plan for the future, smart owners have an exit strategy.

A few years ago I read, The Question of God, by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., a Harvard professor. The subtitle of the book is, C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. If memory serves me well, according to Nicholi there was a marked difference between Freud and Lewis on death; Lewis lived his life in anticipation of death, Freud avoided the subject and was afraid of death. (Again, I’m relying on memory so please correct me if I’m off base).

In the business world it has long struck me that otherwise intelligent business people who are attuned to bottom lines and exit strategies in financial matters often avoid eternal realities, pretending they don’t exist.   

As I enter the 4th quarter (a reference to American football) of my own life, I’m keenly aware that this life is a pilgrimage and that my exit from this life is nearer than it was before. There are macro elements of our exit that we may have little control over; for example, Lewis wrote the above letter on June 25, on July 15 he would suffer a heart attack and lapse into a coma – in the context of 1963 I don’t know that Lewis had anything to do with this major event. On the other hand, Lewis, by God’s enabling grace, could choose to live each day in 1963 in prayer for others (prayer is a theme throughout his correspondence), in witness to others, in encouraging others, in caring for his stepsons and brother, in friendship, and in looking forward to his heavenly home. Lewis’s idea of making a good exit was not passive; it was being fully engaged in Christ and in others.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Near the Journey’s End

On March 19, 1963, Lewis writes to Mary Willis Shelburne:

I’m sorry they [a reference to doctors I think] threaten you with a painful disease. What have you and I got to do but make our exit? When they told me I was in danger several months ago, I don’t remember feeling distressed.

On April 23, 1963 Lewis writes Shelburne:

What in Heaven’s name is ‘distressing’ about an old man saying to an old woman that they haven’t much more to do here? I wasn’t in the least expressing resentment or despondency. I was referring to an obvious fact and one which I don’t find either distressing or embarrassing. Do you?

Didn’t the flowers all say “Good morning, Lawd!” in the (excellent) film of Green Pastures?

On June 17, 1963 Lewis writes to Shelburne:

Pain is terrible, but surely you need not have fear as well? Can you not see that death is a friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? You have long attempted (and none of us does more) a Christian life. Your sins are confessed and absolved. Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.

Remember, tho’ we struggle against things because we are afraid of them, it is often the other way round – we get afraid because we struggle. Are you struggling, resisting? Don’t you think our Lord says to you, “Peace child, peace. Relax. Let go. Underneath are the everlasting arms. Let go. I will catch you. Do you trust me so little?”

Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal.

Yours (and like you a tired traveler near the journey’s end)


[All excerpts from letters taken from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Walter Hooper editor, Harper San Francisco.]

Since the above excerpts speak for themselves I don’t have anything to add, other than what Lewis writes in his books he lives in his life – as Paul the Apostle writes, “We now see through a glass darkly but then we'll see face to face”, and as Lewis might say, “Indeed, we now live in the Shadowlands but the real Narnia awaits us, the holidays will soon begin!". Ah – the best is yet to come. Christ came, in part, that when we come into a relationship with Him that we might no longer fear death – Hebrews 2:14 – 15.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dante – The End Of Another Journey

This morning I read Cantos 32 & 33 of Paradise; this morning I concluded another journey – two conclusions within one week; both journeys took 3 – 4 years.

My journey through The Divine Comedy was instigated by my dear friend Michael Daily. A few years ago he mentioned a piece he read about Dante’s Purgatory and spiritual formation, that while Protestants don’t share the Roman Catholic view of Purgatory that there is much to commend Dante’s work if taken as it was written (these italicized words are actually my thinking); it is not written as an argument for Purgatory in the afterlife, but rather as an account of our transformation into the image of Christ through seeking what C.S. Lewis called “joy” and others term “a desire for beauty” – Purgatory leads to Paradise and Paradise leads to the Presence of the Trinity. While Dante believed in Purgatory, arguing that belief was not the purpose of his volume.

There wasn’t one time when Dante’s theology bothered me in the least; here I am in the 21st Century reading the words and images of a man who lived hundreds of years prior to me and who is expressing his desire for Christ in images and terms and paradigms which he knows and lives within. How can I quarrel with such a man? On the contrary, I found myself enjoying an education – as Virgil and Beatrice guided Dante, so Dante guided me – though Virgil and Beatrice had a more enlightened pupil in Dante than Dante had in me. Had it not been for the notes of Dorothy L. Sayers (and Barbara Reynolds) I would have been helplessly lost in the classical world of Dante.

Michael shared with me that the article he read suggested using Dorothy L. Sayers’s translation (completed after her death by Barbara Reynolds); since I’m a Sayers aficionado that was a suggestion I readily adopted. Knowing that Sayers was influenced by Charles Williams, in addition to reading Dante I read Williams on Dante, Sayers’s first series of lectures on Dante, and Barbara Reynolds on Sayers’s encounter with Dante – this all helped immeasurably.

Of The Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, I’m most likely to revisit Purgatory; but all three volumes have sections I want to return to and contemplate. I wish I had read these as a young man for I think it would take me a lifetime to appreciate the passageways of this grand house, from basement to top floor.

I recently began a rereading of The Pilgrim’s Progress – time for another journey.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Leaving the Shadowlands

Two evenings ago I read the last letter Lewis wrote before his death that is published in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis Vol. III, Walter Hooper, editor; Harper San Francisco. Since I have been posting excerpts from his letters in 1958 it was my intention to continue working forward from 1958 through November 1963, therefore not interacting with his last months in 1963 until sometime well into 2012 – it was with this thought in mind that I published my last post on Lewis. 

However, having now completed the journey, with the herbs and spices of those last months of his life seasoning my heart and mind, I feel I must return to June 1963 and revisit Lewis with you in order to better share my sense of the man, the Christian, whilst the aroma and taste is  fresh with me.

But to get to June 1963 I begin with an excerpt from November 21, 1963, the last published letter Lewis wrote (in The Collected Letters). 

“Dear Philip Thompson,
“To begin with, may I congratulate you on writing such a remarkably good letter; I certainly could not have written it at your age. And to go on with, thank you for telling me that you like my books, a thing an author is always pleased to hear. It is a funny thing that all the children who have written to me see at once who Aslan is, and grown ups never do!

As I have previously observed, Lewis wrote to children. Not only did he write for children, he wrote to children. And as he did not engage in condensation in writing for children, nor does he condescend in writing to children. What better way to conclude a life’s correspondence than with a letter to a child? Granted, Lewis may have had no inclination that his letter to Philip Thompson would be his last letter, but I can imagine no better way for the author of the Narniad to conclude a lifetime of correspondence than with a letter to a child.

Lewis’s correspondence as an adolescent and as a pre-Christian adult was often that of an arrogant ass, looking down on others – hardly willing to condescend to others. There were also letters of struggle, questions, and despair in those early years. Lewis’s letter to Philip Thompson is one of a man who not only writes to a child as he would speak to that child; it is a letter from a man who knows that our only hope is the love, grace, and mercy of God – a man not arrogant, but rather a man humbled by the Carpenter from Galilee. The Cambridge professor’s tutor is a Carpenter, and wasn’t it the Carpenter who said, “Suffer the little children to come to Me….”?  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Nearing the End of the Road

This post anticipates a post that will appear sometime next year, the Lord willing. I’m writing this now because I don’t want to lose the moment – I find myself nearing the end of a journey, and no matter how often I may revisit the scenes along the way, I’ll not take this journey again from first to last.

I have been reading the 3-volume compilation of the Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper; Harper San Francisco, for perhaps four years; I will soon read the last letter, I intend to do so before December 31, 2011. The next letter I will read is dated May 11, 1962, it is on page 1340; the last letter I will read is dated November 21, 1963, page 1483; Lewis will die on November 22. I don’t know if he knew that he’d die on the 22nd or not, but I know it.

I know that he will die just as I knew that his beloved wife, Joy, would die from a recurrence of cancer; I read his letters of hope, of joy, of thankfulness to God that the cancer was in remission…all the time knowing that on a turn of the page I would read his news of the return of cancer, knowing that on another turn of a page I’d read of her death.

This last season of letters is illustrated by the following written to Chad Walsh on April 21, 1962:

The news about me is rather ambivalent. They don’t think my kidneys will ever be ripe for that operation; on the other hand they think that I can carry on without it in an invalid sort of way – always catheterized and always on a low protein diet. I attempt the Cambridge term on Tuesday next.

After Joy’s death Lewis wasn’t the same physically; his health descended until it reached that eternal portal in November 1963. Multiple blood transfusions, heart problems, kidney problems, a prostate that needed an operation but a body too weak to undergo the procedure. He loved to teach, but he was confined to home. He loved walking tours, but they were to be no more. His vigorous correspondence was often reduced to simple acknowledgements of letters – the joy was subdued, he was sick, at peace but sick.

I’ve been on walking tours with Lewis throughout his letters, experiencing the pubs and mountains and vales with streams running through them; I’ve shared his friendships with Tolkien and Williams and Barfield and Dyson and with dear dear Arthur Greeves, a friend since childhood. Lewis’s correspondence with Dorothy L. Sayers has been a like a fine Port meant to be swished and smelled and savored.

These last letters are tough to read. He’s sick. My friend Lewis is sick and I know that in a few days I’ll read his last letter. But oh what a journey!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Already and the Not Yet

Yesterday our Lord convicted me of selfishness to a degree that prostrated my soul. My selfishness? I was at a function in which a conversation took a turn for the worse and I was not redemptively intentional in questioning what was being said – that is selfishness; I wasn’t there for my own enjoyment, I was there for Christ – yet, was I the redemptive presence of Christ? No. No excuses. It was a long drive home as the Holy Spirit replayed the video in my mind with His gentle (yet straightforward) conviction – the scalpel cuts deeper than the hammer.

Here are a couple of passages from the Valley of Vision, the Puritan prayer book I mention from time-to-time:

Thy loving Spirit strives within me, brings me Scripture warnings, speaks in startling providences, allures by secret whispers, yet I choose devices and desires to my own hurt…(page 125)

The Cross still stands and meets my needs in the deepest straits of the soul. I thank thee that my remembrance of it is like David’s sight of Goliath’s sword which preached forth thy deliverance…There is no treasure so wonderful as that continuous experience of thy grace toward me which alone can subdue the risings of sin within: give me more of it. (page 127).

Ah, living in the Already – Not Yet. On the one hand I am radical about us being complete in Christ – Colossians 2:10; Hebrews 10:10. On the other hand I am radical that outside of Christ I am a cesspool. As a pastor most of my parishioners have had no idea how secure they are in Christ, no idea of their identity in Him – and with most people in Christ my opinion is that until they know security they can’t well know the depths of sin – for when we are shown the depths of sin without knowing our security in Christ it can well be interpreted as God’s rejection, when in fact it is God’s love and mercy when He shows us who we are without Him, and when He shows us things that need to be dealt with by His Word and Spirit.

When we know that we are secure we can freely lay our lives down for others; when we know the depths of our sin we can know full dependence on Christ and we can remind ourselves that we ought not to compare ourselves with others; in Christ we can be ourselves and we can forget about ourselves.

I am praying that God will redeem my selfishness by allowing me to have some individual conversations with the people I was with yesterday. Would you please pray for that?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Friendship – II

 At last Monday’s breakfast meeting it was pointed out that to be a friend to someone is not the same as having a friendship with that person. The word “friendship” speaks (among other things) of two people working together in and on the relationship. We can be friendly toward others, we can befriend others, as others can do to us; but this is not the same as having a friendship with someone. Being friendly and befriending may lead to friendships – but they need not do so.

Depending on our temperaments, and on our situations at any given time, it is possible to mistake someone’s friendliness for a desire on that person’s part to cultivate a friendship. This can lead to unmatched expectations which in turn can lead to misunderstanding, which in turn can lead to hurt, confusion, and resentment. Such are the relational waters of life.

Mentoring relationships can be mistaken for friendships. While mentors and those they mentor can already be friends, or while the mentoring relationship may become one of friendship, it need not do so. Some mentoring relationships are for specific purposes and for a set period of time – let us hope that friendships are not.

Of course friendships have many tiers, or levels of intimacy and trust, and they have their ebbs and flows – friendships can be an adventure, discovering new things about each other or with each other; or they can also be like an old shoe – comfortable; no reason not to enjoy both.

1 Corinthians Chapter 13 is a good paradigm for friendship, and as a Christian I think the idea of the priesthood of the believer is also helpful. A brother recently shared with me that someone he befriended accused him of a certain thing to a group of his friends – and that by and large his group of friends believed the accusation. Considering that his group of friends had known him for a while I found this interesting – why are we so quick to believe accusations? Why not talk to our friend? And as a holy priesthood, is not one function of a priest to cover sin rather than to reveal it? So even if the accusation were true there is a holy way to handle it – and certainly that does not mean believing the accusation at its first hearing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Puritan Prayer with Challenges for Today

Here’s a excerpt from a prayer (page 117) in the Valley of Vision, edited by Arthur Bennett, Banner of Truth Trust:

            “May I …never confine my religion to extraordinary occasions, but acknowledge thee in all my ways; never limit my devotions to particular seasons but be in thy fear all the day long; never be godly only on the Sabbath or in they house, but on every day abroad and at home;

            “never make piety a dress but a habit, not only a habit but a nature, not only a nature but a life.”

Our society seeks to coerce us into compartmentalizing Christianity; it does not appear to seek that so overtly with other religions and philosophies. Yet, the Scriptures teach us to in all your ways acknowledge Him (Proverbs 3:6a), and Jesus speaks of those who are not ashamed of Him and of those who are ashamed of Him (Matthew 10:32-33). Shall we cave in and surrender to the world’s coercion or will we faithfully witness to Jesus Christ?

It seems that most of our witnessing training is covert, as if we lived in a totalitarian society. Do we? If so then let’s not gloss over the issue; but if we don’t then let’s not excuse our closet Christianity. And whatever the case might be, do we have an excuse to avoid persecution for the Christ of the Cross? If we don’t acknowledge Jesus Christ then how will others encounter Him? After all, the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16 – 20) is given to us all.

Hypocrisy can be an enigmatic thing, it isn’t so straightforward as we might think; it isn’t simply about people pretending to be something they are not – that’s too simple. People often don’t know they are pretending; they fall into the deceit, they fall into wearing a mask, and a time comes when they can’t distinguish the mask from the reality – they make piety a dress. The Laodicean Church (Revelation 3:14) didn’t know its own condition, it thought it was doing well, it thought it was healthy and wealthy, but it was poor and naked and miserable and blind; and it was lukewarm.

Those under the broad umbrella of Christianity who reject outright the Divinity of Christ and the Atonement and the authority of the Bible know where they are – there is nothing enigmatic about them – other than why they bother going into the ministry or why they bother operating and attending churches. But those who by compromise and self-righteousness and making piety a dress rather than an inward reality in Christ capitulate to the world’s standards and dictates, and who fail to acknowledge Jesus Christ in their ways – that is enigmatic – because it isn’t likely that they started out that way, it isn’t likely it was their intent – and no doubt we all have elements of these things in our lives.

We are so accustomed to not witnessing that our training in witnessing is nearly all stealth oriented, we are taught not to be straightforward (what Biblical warrant to we have for that?) – seldom is it inculcated in us as the fabric of life; and as much as I value and practice relational bridge-building – that must not be our only paradigm for witnessing, it certainly isn’t the only Biblical paradigm. The central Biblical paradigm is acknowledging Jesus Christ in all our ways, throughout all facets of life; bridge-building should be done in this context – Jesus is not some trump card we hold in our hand until a future time – that may be the norm in the current church, it is not the Biblical norm.

Lord Jesus, help us to acknowledge you in all our ways; let our acknowledgment of you be without self-consciousness or conceit or religiosity; but rather let it be as one friend speaking of another friend, let it be as a spouse speaking of his or her beloved, let it be as a hungry man telling others where he has found bread.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


The past week began and ended on a note of friendship – and friendship was woven throughout the week. Dense as I am, I think that even I should perhaps pay attention to the theme the Composer orchestrated.

It began with a breakfast with men I have, for the most part, not seen for about 18 months due to work obligations. I wanted to see those men, I missed them – and on my end it was as if I’d just seen them last week, we picked the conversation right up where it was 18 months ago. When I left the breakfast I was refreshed, it was as if I’d been bathed with living water – pure and sweet and radiant. The subject of our breakfast discussion? Friendship.

On my way to the breakfast I called a friend with whom I speak at least twice a week, sometimes more. He lives a few hours away and we seldom see each other, but we talk and we share and we pray and we share our joys and burdens – and oh, we laugh a lot and tell each other tall tales. I left him a voice mail message. By Friday I hadn’t received a call back, which is highly unusual. On Saturday morning I thought about calling a mutual friend in his area to see if he’d heard from him – for they typically see or talk to each other every week.

During my morning prayer time, both with Vickie and my solitary prayer time, I pray for friends and their families. During the past few weeks I’ve been strongly impressed to pray for two couples on a daily basis – I don’t pray for all my friends on a daily basis, but I do pray for all of my friends on an ongoing basis. These two particular couples have now been added to my daily prayer time and have been deeply “on my heart” for a few weeks. One couple lives in Massachusetts and the other in Florida; I haven’t seen either couple for a few years. Two weeks ago I called both couples, one answered the phone and we had a sweet time of catching up – as a result of that phone call Vickie and I have a very specific thing to pray for on their behalf. The other couple didn’t answer the phone and I didn’t receive a call back as I usually do. Throughout the week I was conscious that they hadn’t called back.

On Monday I received a voice mail from a friend whom I haven’t seen in about ten years. Even though we haven’t seen each other for such a long time our friendship has taken on a special meaning in the past two years as he walks through a challenging season of life. We’ve had many phone conversations in which my role has usually been to listen, ask questions, and pray. Sometimes I’ll have observations to make and sometimes I won’t. I wasn’t able to return his call until Thursday; during this phone time he said, “You know, I never imagined that our friendship would become what it is – I had no idea”. This friendship began when I asked for his help with learning Greek in seminary; that led us to meeting regularly for prayer and reflection; that led us to time with our spouses; and friendship grew.

On Tuesday I had lunch with a friend who I see at least once every two weeks for coffee or lunch. We’ve known each other for over twenty years and have been friends for most of that time – our relationship grew into friendship. At lunch he shared something with me that happened to him that morning, and even though he tried to downplay the incident, I knew better, I knew because he is my friend. After lunch I called Vickie and shared the substance of our lunch conversation because he is also Vickie’s friend and I knew she’d want to know and to pray. This particular issue was a matter of intense prayer for Vickie and me – as we prayed together and individually. On Thursday morning I called this friend to see how he was doing and rejoiced to hear that the troubling issue had been favorably resolved. That evening Vickie and I had dinner with my friend and his wife (also a friend!).

On Friday I had coffee with another friend. While Vickie and I have recently seen this friend, I hadn’t had any in-depth discussion/catching up time with this friend in a very long time. Driving home after our coffee I reflected back on my Monday breakfast and its focus on friendship and it struck me how friendship had been front-and-center all week.

On Saturday Vickie and I took a daytrip; it was a holiday open house tour of historic homes along the Rappahannock River. During the day we talked about my two phone calls that hadn’t been returned yet, and I said that when we got home I’d either call or email to see how our friends were doing. During the day my cell phone received two voice mails – one was from my Massachusetts friend giving an update and explaining why it had taken a few days to return my call, and the other was from my other friend, who lives in Virginia, explaining why it had taken him a few days to return my call. On the second voice mail (my Virginia friend) I think there may be more to the story because, after all, he is my friend and I can usually tell when there is something else going on. I’ll call both these friends back, one I’ll call today (Sunday) and the other tomorrow. I know their schedules and I know the good times to call.

It was great to end the week with a day out with my best friend – my wife.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Varian's War

Vickie and I watched Varian's War a few days ago. It is a 2001 Made-for-TV movie about Varian Fry, an American who saved primarily Jewish intellectuals and artists from Vichy France in the early days of WWII; prior to America's entrance into the war. Please note, I haven't taken the time to research the real Varian Fry - the movie is based on a true story, that much I know, and the little I have read confirms the storyline. This morning at breakfast Vickie talked about being uncomfortable with the movie, and by extension with the true story - for did you note that Varian Fry was saving artists and intellectuals?

The argument in the movie for saving artists, writers, and intellectuals was that they represented cultural hope for the future as well as being a group of people who could articulate Nazi atrocities to the outside world. This raises the question, "Are some people more valuable than other people?" The answer in 2011 from the general public is usually, "Yes. Some people are more valuable than others based on their contributions to society."

To the film's credit it shows a number of people seeking asylum from Fry and his associates who are turned away because they are average moms and dads and kids - they are not culturally special. The film does not gloss over the choices made by Fry - but I wonder if the contemporary viewer has any philosophical angst about turning away normal people in favor of special people? I suspect there is emotional angst during one prolonged scene of people being turned away to likely face death in concentration camps, but once that scene has passed I think it's probably business as usual for most viewers.

How many older people have I known who think they have no value to family, friends and society? Many. What does it say about our society when that thinking is prevalent? We are valued in terms of our use, of our utilitarian contribution to the greater welfare of the state and society. We are machines and when we start rusting out it is time to dispose of us. 

As Vickie discussed the film with me an irony hit me square in the face; Varian Fry was doing much the same thing Hitler was doing - he was judging between people based on something other than people being created in the image of God; while Hitler was judging in racial terms, Fry was judging in intellectual terms - both judgments meant life or death. I am not saying that Fry and Hitler were identical, I'm not saying that Fry was close, I'm not saying that Fry was evil as Hitler was; but I am saying that underlying Fry's actions was an utilitarian view of men and woman and children that held that social contribution is what matters as opposed to intrinsic worth.  

Friday, November 25, 2011

How A Word Or A Tangent Can Lessen The Impact Of A Message

A letter, written by an acquaintance, appeared this week in our local weekly newspaper. For the most part the letter was well-written and contained good facts about the subject matter – the opening of a local Pregnancy Support Center. It also contained important facts regarding a certain organization vehemently opposing the Pregnancy Center. The writer’s presentation of the facts was well done and thought provoking – if a reader had never considered the information before the reader might well ponder the letter; and if the reader had been opposed to the Pregnancy Center’s opening prior to reading the letter, such a reader might well have paused to reconsider his or her position.

It was a fine letter until the last paragraph when the writer referred to the opposing organization as “those nefarious places of business”. What was the point of this language? What was the point of the letter?

If the point of the letter was to set the record straight regarding the Pregnancy Center and its opposing organization then the writer accomplished that goal prior to the last paragraph. If another point of the letter was to provoke thoughtful consideration among those readers who may have opposed the Pregnancy Center or have been ambivalent about the Center then the writer did a pretty good job of doing that prior to the last paragraph. But then we have the characterization of the opposition as “those nefarious places of business”. What could such characterization possibly accomplish?

From a communications point of view the adage “show don’t tell” still stands – don’t tell me something is nefarious, show me that it is nefarious. Such a statement is not likely to encourage supporters of the opposing organization to reflect on the information previously presented in the letter, on the contrary, it may evoke a reaction that will lessen the likelihood of such reflection – for while information encourages reasoning, adjectives such as “nefarious” evoke emotion, in this case possible defensive emotion. The characterization of the other organization as “nefarious” was unnecessary and, I think, counterproductive. It may have made the writer feel good, but we ought to communicate with the reader or listener in mind – I’ve been guilty of this many times so I know whereof I write (or speak).

This in turn reminds me of a presentation I heard in the past year on a Sunday morning; the focus of the presentation was to be the speaker’s testimony, of how the speaker came to know Jesus Christ. It was a pretty good presentation, just as the above letter was a pretty good letter; but at one point during the presentation the speaker negatively referred to two well-known Christian authors – associating them with the devil and occult; then at another point the speaker raised the issue of how people interpret the seven days of Genesis – portraying those who do not believe in seven twenty-four hour days as not believing the Bible.  

In the case of the presentation did the speaker enhance or hurt the communication of the Gospel by introducing topics that may cloud the issue and dull the thrust of his testimony? I’m not aware that belief in seven twenty-four hour days in Genesis is necessary to our salvation; nor am I aware that thinking that these two well-known authors are outside the pale of Biblical Christianity is necessary to coming into a relationship with Jesus Christ. It may have made the speaker feel good to make these statements, but did these statements serve to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Did they serve to draw a listener into a relationship with Christ?

When we take any doctrine or opinion and place it on the same level as the person of Jesus Christ, when we add anything to the basic equation of trusting in Christ, of believing in Christ, of repentance to salvation in Christ – then we tread on dangerous ground and place barriers to knowing Jesus that I don’t see either Jesus or the Apostles erecting in the Scriptures.

I read a pretty good letter, and I heard a pretty good testimony – they both would have been better if their respective goals and audiences were kept in mind. As I wrote above, I’ve been guilty of these things more than once. As soon as we introduce a tangent or a statement that can hijack a listener’s or reader’s mind and pull him or her away from the main point then we have run the train off the track – no matter how good it made us feel.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

C.S. Lewis on Writing and Learning by our Mistakes

On August 31, 1958 Lewis writes to Joan Lancaster:

I am sure you had fun writing the stories. The main fault of the animal one is that you don’t mix the reality and the fantasy quite in the right way. One way is Beatrix Potter’s or Brer Rabbit’s [note: by Joel Chandler Harris]. By fantasy the animals are allowed to talk and behave in many ways like humans. But their relations to one another and to us remain the real ones. Rabbits are in danger from foxes and men.

The other way is mine: you go right out of this world into a different creation, where there are a different sort of animals…

…I hope you don’t mind me telling you all this? One can learn only by seeing one’s mistakes…

I post this excerpt because I’m interested in writing, in Lewis’s approach to writing and imagination, and in Lewis’s coaching and critique. As I’ve written before, I love Lewis taking the time to share insights with correspondents – with reading their material and thoughtfully responding to it.

One can learn only by seeing one’s mistakes… This is a hard saying in 2012 when feelings are valued above objectivity and when personal likes and dislikes rule the day as opposed to objective critique.

In a recent business meeting I was asked, “How did you feel about presenting this budget in its current form?” I restrained myself from a straightforward response, for how I “felt” about the budget was not the point, the point was whether the budget was a representation of reality.

I often encounter managers who will not tell their subordinates what they need to hear about their performance because “they will take it personally”. What often ends up happening is that the subordinate finds himself seeking other employment and the manager fails to grow as a manager because he uses feelings as a compass as opposed to facts. We miss the truth that we can work with facts while taking others’ feelings into consideration, people do matter, their feelings do matter – but the truth, or honest critique, must not bow to feelings which change as the wind.

While there are certainly other ways to grow in addition to seeing one’s mistakes, it is doubtful whether one can grow without seeing one’s mistakes. When playing a musical instrument and hitting a wrong note we (hopefully) recognize the error as it occurs, and hopefully we don’t take it personally, and more hopefully we don’t ignore the misplayed note – why should it be any different in other spheres of life?

Sports analogies are helpful to me when I reflect on learning from mistakes. Baseball teams have pitching coaches, hitting coaches, conditioning coaches – and one of the roles of these coaches is to critique players’ performance; it is a foolish player who rejects out-of-hand a coach’s observations and advice.

Yet most of what we experience today is feeling-oriented and feeling-dominated critique, and in the end we all lose. We lose because we don’t deal in truth, because we aren’t challenged to communicate in constructive ways, because we won’t take a good look at ourselves. We also lose because often, when the truth finally comes out, it comes out in ways that are not fruitful and that are without consideration for others. Anger, which we see so much of today – is partly a result, I think, of our collective sorrowful lack of daily communication skills and our burial of truth in daily life.

I have seen churches where feelings and harmony were dominate at the expense of truth. I have seen students who think they are getting an education when what they are getting is the lowest common denominator so that feelings won’t be hurt, tuition will be paid, and instructors will not have to deal with conflict and investment in students.

As Lewis well knew, no writer can grow without critique; self-critique and the critique of others. The Inklings were many things, including a critique group – critique was part of the fabric of Lewis’s life – it was invigorating as well as painful. But what is true of writers is true of us all – how much growth do I forfeit by being overly sensitive to critique? How much growth do I forfeit by not examining my own life by the light of God’s Word and in the light of the Holy Spirit? And what, I wonder, would my friends and associates tell me about myself if I had ears to hear them?

Monday, November 21, 2011

C.S. Lewis on the unity of his work

On October 29, 1957 Lewis writes to Kathryn Stillwell:

“…you (alone of the critics I’ve met) realise the connection, or even the unity, of all the books – scholarly, fantastic, theological – and make me appear a single author not a man who impersonates half a dozen authors, which is what I seem to most. This wins really very high marks indeed.

I can’t help thinking what “higher critics” centuries from now would think of Lewis; no doubt they’d insist that his work was that of at least “half a dozen authors”.

The above excerpt from Lewis indicates that he viewed his work as a unity, interconnected, and complementary. Lewis’s literary palette has abundant colors, including poetry, essays, short-stories, scholastic literary works, as well as those books familiar to the general (typically Christian) public. Lewis did not write in a vacuum however, his was a life of reading and pondering what was read, it was a life of reading and discussing with others what was read, it was a life of writing and listening to others critique what he’d written, it was a life of interchange and interplay and cross-pollination. Lewis didn’t travel much geographically, in fact, for a man of his renown he hardly traveled at all – but oh that mind of his, but oh that heart, but oh that imagination – C.S. Lewis may well have been one of the most-travelled men who have ever lived.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

C.S. Lewis to a Young Correspondent: Also Bob on Aslan and Images

On September 14, 1957, Lewis writes to Lucy Matthews:

I am so glad you like the Narnian stories and it was nice of you to write and tell me. I love E. Nesbit too and I think I have learned a lot from her about how to write stories of this kind. Do you know Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings? I think you wd. like it. I am also bad at Maths and it is a continual nuisance to me – I get muddled over my change in shops. I hope you’ll have better luck and get over the difficulty! I makes life a lot easier.

I makes me, I think, more humble than proud to know that Aslan has allowed me to be the means of making Him more real to you. Because He could have used anyone – as He made a donkey preach a good sermon to Balaam. Perhaps, in return, you will sometimes say a prayer for me?

[As a reminder, all letters are from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis – 3 Vols, editied by Walter Hooper, Harper San Francisco].

I’ve included this letter in this series of posts because I love Lewis’s letters to children and adolescents. I love them because of the simple fact that he wrote them in the midst of a busy and sometimes painful life, I love them because it seems to me that he was as thoughtful in these letters as he was in those to adults, and I love them because I can hear Lewis’s voice to young people in the letters.

A friend of mine who is a Lewis scholar mentioned recently that someone who knew Lewis (I forget the name) said that, “Lewis wrote as he spoke”. If that is the case then in reading his letters we are reading (usually) the conversational Lewis. This quote also reminds me of a recent post in which Lewis gave the advice to write for the ear, not just for the eye.

The Bible is a book of images, yes there is narrative and there is didactic material, but there is also image, and image, and more image. There is image embedded in narrative and in didactic material. Consider that the Bible culminates in a book that is primarily a book of image – The Apocalypse. Yet rather than reading the images naturally we often try to force a literal reading, which in turn causes us to miss the life and reality of the images. On a literal level Lucy Matthews knew there was no Aslan, but why would someone even pose that question? That would be nonsense. But as an image portraying a reality, there is a seamlessness in Christ and Aslan – not even a transition is necessary for many (most?) Christian readers – anymore than a transition is necessary from the images of the Lamb and the Lion in Revelation to Christ, they are seamless.

Men without chests, as Lewis styles modern man, are people without hearts and imaginations, people who view life mechanistically and therefore materialistically and, by extension I suggest, literally. That is, if we can’t see it and touch it we don’t recognize it. There is an element of Christendom that embraces this approach when reading the Bible and considering the things of the Holy Spirit. Rather than seeking to balance the didactic with image in a natural holistic reading and experience of Scripture, this element sublimates image to the literal and material – thus sucking the life from the image; it unwittingly finds itself oriented toward things seen rather than things unseen (2 Corinthians 4:18). Perhaps it is little wonder elements of American Christianity are so politically oriented – if all we see is this world (in the sense of what is seen) then we must look for solutions in this world’s political systems – for we have chosen not to see the unseen.

But I digress you must be thinking – or perhaps I’m just following things to their logical conclusion. Just as Aslan is caricatured in The Last Battle, so is Christ caricatured  in our time…often by those who profess to follow Him. If we’ll just use our imaginations a bit I think we’ll see it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

C.S. Lewis on Writing: II

Continuing with Lewis’s September 2, 1957 letter to Jane Gaskell:

You are too fond of long adverbs like ‘dignifiedly’, which are not nice to pronounce. I hope, by the way, you always write by ear not by eye. Every sentence shd. be tested on the tongue, to make sure that the sound of it has the hardness or softness, the swiftness or languor, which the meaning of it calls for.

Haskell was 14 when she wrote the book Lewis read; she was 16 or 17 when Lewis wrote to her. Here is a world-renown author and professor at Cambridge taking the time to write to a teenager, and not just write, but to critique and offer advice.

Lewis concludes the letter with:

I hope all this does not enrage you. You’ll get so much bad advice that I felt I must give you some of what I think good.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

C.S. Lewis on Writing

On September 2, 1957, Lewis writes to Jane Gaskell. Gaskell had written a book when she was 14 that Lewis reads and comments on. Since Gaskell’s book is in the genre of fantasy, much of what Lewis writes is about that genre. However, there are a couple of paragraphs that apply to us all; whether we’re writing or speaking:

Never use adjectives or adverbs which are mere appeals to the reader to feel as you want him to feel. He won’t do it just because you ask him: you’ve got to make him. No good telling us a battle was ‘exciting’. If you succeeded in exciting us the adjective will be unnecessary; if you don’t, it will be useless. Don’t tell us the jewels had an ‘emotional’ glitter; make us feel emotion. I can hardly tell you how important this is.

When preparing sermons I found the temptation to succumb to what Lewis warns against was a temptation to take the short-cut – telling people what I wanted to them to experience rather than working to bring them into the experience. I could write the words “tense” or “exciting” or “amazing” in seconds, but it might take me hours to structure words and passages that would cause the congregation to sense tension, excitement, or amazement.

When listening to presentations, whether in a Christian gathering or elsewhere, as soon as I hear someone succumb to the above temptation (usually with no idea what they’re doing) I want to interrupt the speaker and talk about what he or she is doing. It happens more often than not, and it happens with people who have been doing public speaking for years. Writing and public speaking, at any level, is a craft, and as a craft it should be honed and practiced and critiqued – just as a concert pianist practices and practices and then practices some more – so should we constantly be aware of our writing, our speaking, our communication – it is a never-ending endeavor.

I’ll share a second paragraph in Lewis’s letter in my next post.

Monday, November 14, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Duty & Love, A Distinction

On July 18, 1957, Lewis writes to Joan Lancaster:

But of course you are quite right if you mean that giving up fun for no reason except that you think it’s ‘good’ to give it up, is all nonsense. Don’t the ordinary old rules about telling the truth and doing as you’d be done by tell one pretty well which kinds of fun one may have and which not? But provided the thing is in itself right, the more one likes it and the less one has to ‘try to be good’, the better. A perfect man wd. never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people) – like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times: but of course it’s idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc) can do the journey on their own!

I’d not thought of the distinction Lewis makes between duty and love prior to reading this letter. As a matter of fact I’ve always ranked duty high on my list of virtues – a sense of duty has been important to me. Is Lewis equating duty with obedience to the Law? That is, he is in effect saying, “If we need to conform our actions to an external Law in order to do the right thing then it is better to do that than not to do it; however, as we are transformed by grace into the image and character of Christ then we no longer need the scaffolding of the Law to motivate us to right behavior, for our internal character will naturally rejoice in right behavior – we will love God and others”.

I don’t know if this is what Lewis means or not, I’m thinking out loud on paper, so to speak/write. My take on the performance of duty has been that grace empowers me to fulfill my duty – I see my duty and I do it; there may even be a sense in which we can say, “I love fulfilling my duty. I have a love of duty.” But again, I’m thinking out loud.

A problem with equating duty with Law is that Law cannot produce obedience; it produces death and condemnation (2 Corinthians 3:5-11). So I don’t think Law and duty are the same thing because Law can only produce failed attempts at doing what is right, and I don’t see duty in that same light. Anyway, I thought this excerpt worth posting  in the hope it might stimulate our thinking.