Monday, October 31, 2011

C.S. Lewis: A Reflection On His Letters – Humility

As November draws near I find myself thinking about C.S. Lewis; Lewis was born November 29, 1898 and died November 22, 1963. His death didn’t draw much media attention because November 22, 1963 was also the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

I am on the third (and final) volume of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis; this has been quite the multi-year journey and well worth the trip. I put this volume aside for a few months and recently took it up again and am now moving toward its conclusion; since I still have 553 pages to go I expect that I’ll be reading the letters into 2012. When I read books I love I tend to slow the pace towards the end, and when I read a multi-volume biography or a collection of letters I am especially prone to do this because I don’t want it to end – it’s like savoring the last bite of a favorite food.

Right now I’m up to October 21, 1959 and as I read the letters I’m keenly aware that I know something Lewis doesn’t yet know, I know that his wife will soon die of cancer. Every time I turn the page to read another letter I wonder if it will be a letter in which he writes that the cancer is back – I don’t want to read that letter.

Here’s an excerpt from a letter to Bernard Acworth, dated September 18, 1959:

About my (very happy) marriage, do you know the story? I married my wife at her bedside in hospital when she was to all appearances certainly dying of cancer in the bones. The young priest who married us…laid his hands on her and said the prayers for the sick. Then – it was unbelievable – nature went into reverse. The totally disintegrated femur slowly rebuilt itself. Now (2 years later) except that she limps, she is living a normal life, gardening, shooting, shopping, and walking. The doctors themselves used – tho’ not so seriously as we would, perhaps – the word ‘miraculous’. May we have your prayers? For of course the sword of Damocles always hangs over our heads.

In addition to Lewis’s letters I’m also reading the letters of another person, whose name I will not mention. This other person is intellectually sharp, a great writer, and a person whose public writings (as opposed to the letters) I enjoy. Like Lewis, this other person writes in different genres. The contrast in humility between Lewis and this other person is great. When Lewis was young he took himself quite seriously; he was an arrogant prig, as he would admit after he came to know Jesus Christ. The other writer takes himself/herself far too seriously, defending prerogatives at times with rapier thrusts that could only evoke misunderstanding and resentment in the recipients of letters.

I can make excuses for this other writer; I don’t know if the excuses are valid or not, but I can point to events in this other writer’s life that may have nurtured the “edge” manifested in the letters; but Lewis also had tragedy and disappointment in his life, yet his humility seems to deepen with passing years. Lewis can be self-deprecating, this other writer is not. Perhaps things will change with this other writer for there are still two more volumes of letters to read before the writer’s death, if so I’ll tell you what I find.

Lewis writes to the high and low, to adults and children, to friends and strangers. There is courtesy and congeniality and encouragement in his correspondence…and I think perhaps above all…there is humility.    

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mea Culpa! Another Text Without A Context

How is it that the obvious is not obvious? How is it that a text popularized out of context can blind us to the text? How many more texts am I reading out of context?

Philippians 1:6 has long been a North Star to me; For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

I love the assurance these words give; assurance that Christ has us in the hollow of His hand, assurance the Potter is molding the clay, assurance the Author is finishing the book, assurance the Sculptor is fashioning the marble into His image, and assurance the Silversmith is refining the silver so that His own reflection is seen in His work. There have been many times I’ve used this verse to comfort and encourage others when they’ve doubted that they’d cross the finish line, when they’ve despaired of growth in Christ, and when they have doubted their security in Jesus Christ. But! O but! And it is a large and looming But! – I have only told half the story, I have only read half the story, for I have engaged this text without its context.

Perhaps a key to my misuse of the verse is the word “used” in the above paragraph; I have “used” the verse rather than submitted to the text of Philippians.

Verse 5: …in view of your sharing in the preaching of the Gospel from the first day until now.

Verse 7: For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me.

From verses 12 – 30 Paul writes about the greater progress of the Gospel (verse 12), including the fact that the proclamation of the Gospel is accompanied by suffering; For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake (verse 29).

What then is the “good work” which Christ began in the Philippians? What is the “good work” which is the theme of Philippians Chapter One? Is not the theme of Chapter One the proclamation of the Gospel? Within the framework of this proclamation we see suffering, we see fellowship, we see the providence of God, we see a desire to depart and be with Christ, we see love abounding in all discernment; but the framework, the theme, the “good work” is the proclamation of the Gospel.

Verse 6, when used out of the context of the proclamation of the Gospel and the suffering accompanied by that proclamation can be self-centered – it is focused on me and not Christ, the Gospel, and others. On the other hand, when I submit to verse 6 in context it gives me hope and assurance that Christ will perfect the good work of Gospel proclamation in me and in my brothers and sisters. I need not fear the praetorian guards (verse 13) in my life, I need not fear suffering (verse 29), and I need not fear those with questionable motives (verse 15); I need not even fear death (verse 23).

Considering that most Christians do not share the Gospel because they are afraid, and considering that many Christians know Philippians 1:6 out of context (mea culpa!), can we not see the ironic tragedy that we’ve taken a verse which is supposed to spur us in Gospel proclamation and used it as a self-focused palliative – however sincere our motives might be? 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

In Defense of Pious Old Ladies

My friend Joe sent me an article by Mark Galli in Christianity Today titled, Jesus Is Not Nice. The article is an excerpt from a new book by Galli – so I guess the article is a marketing thing. A while back I purchased Galli’s book, Jesus Mean and Wild, in spite of the title – as I recall I didn’t finish the book. I guess the title is a knock-off from another author’s book, Wild at Heart – a book we could all do without.

Just for the record, Jesus isn’t mean and He isn’t wild – and He is nice. Galli says that Jesus is a revolutionary; he isn’t the first one to say that – but Jesus wasn’t/isn’t a revolutionary either, not in the context in which the term is typically used – Jesus is God incarnate – that’s who He is and that’s who He says He is – when Jesus Christ proclaims His identity He is unequivocal – He is Son of Man and Son of God.

Galli writes: We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him "meek and mild," and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. 

I find it unfortunate that the editor of Christianity Today chooses to use terms such as pale curates and pious old ladies. Why not talk about slick pastors and religious marketing gurus or somber old male trustees who control the purse stings of mega-church endowments and treat the money as their own? But I slightly digress – I want to defend pious old ladies.

First, may I remind us that it is written concerning Christ in Matthew Chapter 12: He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench. The context of this passage is one of opposition – in the midst of opposition and conflict Matthew reminds us of the character of Jesus Christ – He is, after all, the Prince of Peace.

I have known a number of pious old ladies in my time, and I don’t think I come close to measuring up to any of them. Sure I’ve know a few old biddies, but in retrospect they’ve had to put up with me as much as I’ve had to put up with them – and they’ve probably had a lot more to put up with me – after all I’ve been a pastor who has rocked the boat more than once.

Paul writes that we are to treat older women as mothers – not as pious old ladies.

When I pastored in Becket, MA we had a number of pious old ladies in my parish – and they were better to me than I deserved. They let me sit in on their weekly Bible study, fed me treats, laughed with me, prayed with me, and cared for me. Sally Poland was our organist at Becket Federated – and working with her on Sundays rivaled anything Johnny Carson had with Doc Severinson, especially as Sally and I were leading people in worship and were not about entertaining, but we did try to make folks feel at home on Sundays.

Then there was dear Mary Saville. I’ve read some things people have written about the song, In the Garden; often these are the same people who want us to think that Jesus is mean and wild. I’m sorry boys, I’ll never forget us singing that song at Win Saville’s funeral, seeing the comfort it gave Mary – I think Jesus, the nice Jesus, enjoyed that song that day in Becket, MA.

A few years after leaving Becket I was back in the area and I visited Elizabeth Furlong. As I sat in Elizabeth’s kitchen she said, “Bob, I pray for you everyday.” There is a lot to be said for pious old ladies.

Give me a group of pious old ladies as opposed to trendy preachers and magazine editors and authors; I’ve been blessed to know pious old ladies ever since I came to know Jesus as a teenager – and they’ve been a better model to me than a good many people in the limelight – and as I said, I can’t hold a candle to them, not even a flicker.

If you’d like to ready more about Elizabeth Furlong keep reading: