Archive for the ‘ The Christian Spirit ’ Category

Did Lewis Like Americans?

C. S. Lewis 8By the start of this next week, I will have completed three chapters in my proposed book on C. S. Lewis’s impact on Americans. My first chapter deals with the often-repeated charge that Lewis didn’t really like Americans. Some excerpts from this chapter follow. Here’s how it begins:

On the very first page of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis, author Alan Jacobs tells the story of a precocious “Jack” Lewis, probably no more than eight years old at the time, entering his father’s study to make this following pronouncement: “I have a prejudice against the French.” Naturally, his father, Albert, wanted to know why his younger son would have such a definite opinion. The answer he received is perhaps an indication of the astute reasoning that would continue to be a hallmark throughout C. S. Lewis’s life: “If I knew why,” he calmly asserted, “it would not be a prejudice.” Early on, then, it appears that Lewis had a clear understanding of the unreasonable nature of coming to conclusions about people without evidence.

James T. Como, editor of a volume now renamed Remembering C. S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him, remarks that stories have always circulated about Lewis being antagonistic toward Americans. One story Como mentions in particular has Lewis turning down an invitation to speak to an American audience, and adding a rather spiteful twist to the refusal by writing his response on a piece of toilet paper. The only problem with the story, Como notes, is that it never happened; there is no evidence for it. Como then comments, “Lewis is not on record as possessed of an antagonism toward Americans.”

I have to amend Como’s words slightly. Lewis did make some disparaging remarks about America and Americans, but most of those seem to have emanated from a young Lewis, mostly prior to his conversion. I’ve spend the past few months examining his letters to Americans and have found, quite often, gratitude for all the gifts he received in post-war, rationed Britain, and the obvious connections he made with Americans.

Walter HooperHelping me with this study has been the Rev. Walter Hooper, an American who was Lewis’s private secretary for those months before he died. Hooper has sent me information via e-mail. Here’s what he had to say in one of those e-mails:

Let us suppose that when you were two years old your father slapped your hand to prevent you putting it in the fire, and you said to your mother, “Don’t like Daddy!” Would you, or would you not, be a fool to allow that statement to stand for your settled belief about your father? Well, there was a man who used to write a lot about Lewis who used a chance, ignorant comment Lewis made as an 18-year-old student about Oxford dons to stand for— as this man did—for “Lewis’s Belief About Oxford Dons.” To accept that as Lewis’s opinion on Oxford would be as ignorant and foolish for someone to regard “Don’t like Daddy!” to be regarded as your settled opinion about your father.

Lewis himself drew my attention to another illustration of ignorance that needs unmasking. I forget where it is, but Jonathan Swift, the Irish writer, when asked if he liked or disliked the Irish, the English, the Japanese, etc. etc, pointed out that he didn’t know all the Irish people, so how could he possibly know where he liked or loathed them. Of course, like nearly everyone else, some Irish he liked, some he didn’t.

And so to Lewis, who I think must have liked many, many Americans considering that roughly three-quarters of his letters were to them. One of them to whom he wrote to for years, Mary Willis Shelburne . . . he provided with a pension, paid for by his American publishers. And as we all know, he married an American, and—hardly of similar importance—he made another his secretary.

This study has been fascinating. I hope a book does result from this so I can share with all what I have found.

The Great Awakening: Jonathan Edwards

Last week, I introduced the historic event known as the First Great Awakening and wrote about the influence of William and Gilbert Tennant, who established a Log College for training ministers in extemporaneous preaching. This week, I want to look at someone who was just as influential, but entirely different in manner.

Jonathan EdwardsJonathan Edwards was a Massachusetts Congregationalist minister who is widely respected among theologians today for his thoughts on the love of God. He was a central figure in the Awakening, yet he wasn’t like the preachers being trained by the Tennants. His methods might be styled more “old school.”

Edwards certainly wanted to lead his hearers into a life of obedience to God, but not by any type of emotional appeal—at least in his manner of preaching. He never spoke extemporaneously, but spent a lot of time developing the logic of his sermons. Then when he delivered them, he chose to memorize them first, and recite them to the congregation. He didn’t use much inflection in his voice and didn’t look directly at the parishioners. Instead, he would stare at the back wall as he gave them his memorized sermon.

Jonathan Edwards's Surprizing WorkThat certainly sounds, on the surface, like a recipe for utter boredom. Yet there must have been something in his countenance and the way he spoke that captured people’s attention. His church experienced an awakening in the 1730s, well before the mighty wave that followed with the arrival of George Whitefield (my next subject on this topic). It was such a deep renewal of faith that Edwards wrote about it in detail.

He called his treatise A Faithful Narrative of the Surprizing [sic] Work of God. That’s the short version of the title; long titles were common practice back then. If you ever want to find out what took place in Edwards’s church, you can find this testimony online.

Edwards, though, is probably best known for one particular sermon, preached in a Connecticut church in 1741. It is called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. While that may sound rather startling for the theologian of God’s love, if one looks at it carefully, it is clear that what he is upholding is God’s enduring patience with sinners. The warning, however, is that if we resist His calling on our lives and die without taking advantage of His redemption, we can’t expect patience anymore. All that is left is the Judgment.

Here’s one of the more striking passages from that sermon:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

We are told that these words cut to the hearts of so many that morning that they were crying out not to be thrust into the flames. How do we know this was the Spirit of God at work and not the manipulation of a preacher? How many people today do you think would be so impacted by a man who spoke a memorized sermon to them in a flat voice while staring at the back wall? There was no manipulation here; merely a warning taken from the truth of God’s Word. Hearts, apparently, were prepared to hear the warning.

In 1757, Edwards took on the task of the presidency of the College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton). The trustees wanted someone who had that kind of dedication to the Awakening to guide the students. Unfortunately, he died from a smallpox vaccination only one month after being installed as the president.

Although Edwards’s ministry was cut short, his accomplishments as a pastor/teacher/preacher and as a theologian are highly regarded today.

C.S. Lewis: Up to the Gate

I’ve now completed my research into the letters of C. S. Lewis to Americans. It was a joy to delve into them. Near the end of his life, Lewis wrote often of his expectation of heaven. He was in bad health for the last couple of years, and held rather loosely to this world. As he explained to Mary Van Deusen, one of his most regular correspondents, who was contemplating a move from one house to another,

C.S. Lewis 9I think I share, to excess, your feeling about a move. By nature I demand from the arrangements of this world just that permanence which God has expressly refused to give them. It is not merely the nuisance and expense of any big change in one’s way of life that I dread. It is also the psychological uprooting and the feeling—to me, as to you, intensely unwelcome—of having ended a chapter. One more portion of oneself slipping away into the past! I would like everything to be immemorial—to have the same old horizons, the same garden, the same smells and sounds, always there, changeless. The old wine is to me always better. That is, I desire the “abiding city” where I well know it is not and ought not to be found. I suppose all these changes shd. prepare us for the far greater change which has drawn nearer even since I began this letter. We must “sit light” not only to life itself but to all its phases. The useless word is “Encore!”

Lewis was not seeking an encore of life in this world; instead, he longed for the next. Nine months after writing that letter, he slipped into a coma from which the doctors thought he would not recover. The Church of England held Last Rites for him and everyone prepared for him to die. Half an hour later, he sat up and asked for some tea.

Two months after that, he wrote to a lifelong friend from Ireland, Arthur Greeves, about that experience:

Tho’ I am by no means unhappy I can’t help feeling it was rather a pity I did revive in July. I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone thro’ again, and perhaps far less pleasantly! Poor Lazarus! But God knows best.

Those words reveal a man ready to go at any time—in fact, eager to do so—yet fully submitted to the will of God in the matter. He didn’t have long to wait, and the “going” was quick and painless in the afternoon of November 22, 1963.

While the rest of the world was reeling from the shock of the assassination of an American president, C. S. Lewis received his release from the trials and sorrows of this world and took up residence—permanent residence—in the presence of God.

C.S. Lewis Quote on Heaven

C. S. Lewis on the Death of His Wife

C. S. Lewis & Joy LewisGoing through the letters of C. S. Lewis, I reached, this week, the time in 1960 when his wife, Joy, died. After a two-year cancer hiatus, the disease came back in full force throughout her bones. Lewis always knew this could happen. In 1957, after the laying on of hands and prayer, she made a miraculous recovery (even the doctors admitted as much). Yet both she and Lewis knew this might not be a permanent thing, that perhaps God was giving them more time to develop their new marriage.

In four of his letters from 1960, we see the progression of this thinking and how he tried to work through the bad news of the cancer’s return and, ultimately, Joy’s death.

On April 16, he wrote to one of his former students, Sheldon Vanauken, an American who had studied at Oxford and whom Lewis had helped lead to the faith, and who had suffered the loss of his wife also. Vanauken’s story is found in his autobiographical A Severe Mercy, a book I highly recommend. In this letter, Lewis says,

You must pray for me now. Joy’s cancer has returned and the doctors hold out no hope. Of course this is irrelevant to the question whether the previous recovery was miraculous. There can be miraculous reprieve as well as miraculous pardon, and Lazarus was raised from the dead to die again.

The return of the cancer did not, in Lewis’s mind, negate the wonderful recovery of the previous two years. His use of Lazarus as an example, I think, is quite appropriate. How many of us have every thought about Lazarus’s later life and the fact that he had to go through death once more? All physical healing is temporary anyway. Our true life lies in eternity.

Joy died on July 13. Two days later, Lewis wrote a short note to Vera Gebbert, one of his long-time American correspondents:

Alas, you will never send anything “for the three of us” again, for my dear Joy is dead. Until within ten days of the end we hoped, although noticing her increasing weakness, that she was going to hold her own, but it was not to be. . . .

I could not wish that she had lived, for the cancer had attacked the spine, which might have meant several days of suffering, and that she was mercifully spared. You will understand that I have no heart to write more, but I hope when next I send a letter it will be a less depressing one.

Caught up in the numbness of her recent death, he still can be thankful that she was spared even greater suffering.

Two months later, he tried to describe his journey to Mary Willis Shelburne, another of his American friends:

As to how I take sorrow, the answer is “In nearly all the possible ways.” Because, as you probably know, it isn’t a state but a process. It keeps on changing—like a winding road with quite a new landscape at each bend. Two curious discoveries I have made. The moments at which you call most desperately and clamorously to God for help are precisely those when you seem to get none. And the moments at which I feel nearest to Joy are precisely those when I mourn her least. Very queer. In both cases a clamorous need seems to shut one off from the thing needed. No one ever told me this. It is almost like ‘Don’t knock and it shall be opened to you.’ I must think it over.

He was grappling with the loss, and trying to understand the ways of God in its wake. For a fuller account of how Lewis ultimately came to an understanding, read his poignant and searing little book A Grief Observed.

Three months after losing Joy, he wrote to Chad Walsh and his wife. Walsh was an American professor who had written the first analytical book about Lewis back in the 1940s—C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics. Here we see the balance:

Joy LewisI knew without being told how you would both feel about Joy’s death. What I did not know was the touching fact that our joint happiness had added something to your own. It was a wonderful marriage. Even after all hope was gone, even on the last night before her death, there were “patins of bright gold.” Two of the last things she said were “You have made me happy” and “I am at peace with God.”

Wouldn’t we all like to end our lives that way, with two sterling testimonies? To look at a loved one and say “You have made me happy” is a wonderful testimony for this earthly life; to say “I am at peace with God” is the entrance to an eternal joy.

Lewis: On Honorable Wrinkles

C. S. Lewis 5C. S. Lewis’s letters to his American correspondents cover the gamut of topics. Sometimes, he goes into deeply Biblical issues, offering advice from his well of knowledge. Other times, he is more whimsical, but also with an air of wisdom that is hard to miss.

To one of his regular correspondents going through some physical trials, he ruminates on the process of getting older. Maybe I’m drawn to this because of my own advancing years, but, for whatever reason, I think his insights are worth sharing today.

Here’s what he had to say (cobbled together from two separate letters):

I also have been in the hands of the dentist but much less unpleasantly than you: I know a “dry socket” after an extraction can be the very devil and all. We must both, I’m afraid, recognise that, as we grow older, we become like old cars—more and more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage! . . .

I suppose living from day to day (“take no thought for the morrow”) is precisely what we have to learn—though the Old Adam in me sometimes murmurs that if God wanted me to live like the lilies of the field, I wonder He didn’t give me the same lack of nerves and imagination as they enjoy! Or is that just the point, the precise purpose of this Divine paradox and audacity called Man—to do with a mind what other organisms do without it?

As for wrinkles—pshaw! Why shouldn’t we have wrinkles? Honorable insignia of long service in this warfare.

So don’t mind the increasing wrinkles–they speak of the long road one has traveled. If it is traveled well, those wrinkles are simply signs of having had the honor of serving the Lord for many years.

And keep looking forward to the Day when we lay aside this earthly frame and take up the latest Resurrection model to be found in the Divine Garage.

This world is passing; the New World awaits.

Happy New Year? Real Christians Are the Key

Everyone always says “Happy New Year!” Is that what we really expect, or do we look ahead with more anxiety than anticipation? Is there much to be happy about in our world?

JeremiahIn this blog, I’ve tried hard to stay upbeat even while pointing out the follies, misfortunes, and outright sins in our society. I’ve never desired to be a Jeremiah. Maybe that’s because I don’t like suffering. No one wanted to hear his words; at one point, he was thrown in a well to die. I’m not fond of wells and other pits. Not everyone gets rescued as he did.

It’s a delicate balance to maintain, pointing out the problems while remaining upbeat. There are too many who spend all their time denouncing everything. They become boring after a while. Yet there is a lot to denounce. How can we do so in the right spirit?

When I look at the world and attempt to make sense of what’s happening, I look first to the church. How is its spiritual health? What impact is it having on day-to-day life? Is it being faithful to the Message delivered to the saints?

It’s always important to keep in mind that there are two “churches” out there: one that is visible and outward, and the other that is within the visible and outward manifestation. The true church is comprised of genuine believers who may worship in many types of outward church buildings and/or denominations.

Do I have to say this? I will anyway. The true church is only a minority within the number of those who show up for a worship service on any given Sunday. The old cliché never goes out of date: going to church doesn’t make anyone a Christian any more than entering a garage makes one a car.

What the world calls “the church” is slipping away from its Biblical moorings. It has watered down Biblical authority and allowed the tenor of the times to dictate what it believes to be true. Some have even gone the entire way and have claimed that truth itself is elusive, rather relative, and unattainable.

We can never look to that external church for real leadership; we must look instead to those who labor within it who have remained faithful to the Gospel—individual salvation only through Christ and societal reform only via the salvation message.

On balance, we have both good and bad occurring simultaneously within what is normally seen as Christendom. That’s to be expected. Jesus made it clear there would be tares [weeds] growing alongside the wheat. He also said it would remain that way throughout time, until God the Father decides that our time is up.

In former decades, America saw itself as a Christian nation, at least in the sense that we honored Christian faith publicly. Those days are nearly gone. Yet, although that may cause us grief, there is an up side to it. The lines are more clearly drawn now; we cannot just rely on a civic religion that gives lip service to Christianity. We are now forced to make a choice—what do we really believe?

Atheists have lately become more emboldened. They are using the courts and putting pressure on the society to toss religious beliefs aside. The society has accepted behaviors that we never thought would become normalized.

What will the genuine church do in response to these challenges in 2015? Will that church stand tall and strong? Will it hold to Biblical truth in spite of the pressures to conform to new societal standards? Will it speak the truth in love and accept whatever persecution may come from that stance?

Salt & LightI keep coming back to this point regularly in my blog: Jesus called us to be salt and light. Salt preserves. There is much in our society that has been based on Biblical truth; it needs to be preserved. We have a responsibility to try to maintain our Biblical roots. Light shows others the way, the proper path to follow. They need this light because they are walking in darkness. If we don’t shine the light, they will remain in their sins.

Love God above all else and love our neighbors as ourselves. Those are the two greatest commandments. But we don’t love either God or our neighbors if we don’t tell the truth about sin, judgment, and how to restore a right relationship with the One who gave us life in the first place.

Will it be a happy new year? Or at least happier? The church of devoted followers of Jesus Christ is the key; we are His hands, feet, and mouth. Will we be faithful this year?

Righteous Judgment

So much of our culture and politics today is devoted to accentuating the differences among us. We concentrate on the outward—race, gender, etc.–and minimize the internal.

We are a hypersensitive people who perceive slights and disrespect in innocent comments and actions. Speaking truth about individuals is dangerous if those individuals are part of a group that continues to harbor resentments and grievances, both genuine and not so genuine.

Sometimes those who dare to speak truth are accused of being racist, sexist, or any other “ist” a group may want to incorporate into the language of modern political correctness.

Yet those who immediately respond with accusations of evil intent toward those attempting to speak truth can be blind to the real intent of those who critique what they see going on in our society.

Some of us are focused on the individual, the one who is going to stand before God someday—not as part of a group of some type—and have to answer for his/her own individual beliefs and actions.

God does not see us primarily as part of a “group,” but as individuals for whom Christ died. As the apostle Paul stated in the book of Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that God created only one race: it’s called “human.” Within that one race, there are different branches, evidencing God’s love of variety in His creation.

When one branch wrongs another (e.g., slavery, segregation, etc.), the wronged branch doesn’t help by perpetrating other wrongs (hatred based on resentment and bitterness, destruction of private property that hurts the innocent, disregard for the rule of law, which was established to protect the rights of all).

Wrong is wrong, sin is sin, whether it emanates from the heart of a white person or a black person (or any shade in between), male or female, or any other distinction that exists within the human race.

In the book of I Samuel in the Old Testament, we are given God’s perspective: “For God sees not as man sees. For man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Righteous JudgmentChristians, in particular, need to put aside the attitude of the world and discard judgments seen through the lens of political correctness. Christians need to judge appropriately, not based on resentment, stereotypes, or preconceived notions.

Neither are we to allow emotional reactions to dictate our responses. We should be fact-gatherers first, and only after we have the facts should we speak.

We are to be lights in this dark world, showing the path to righteous judgment and providing evidence of righteousness in our own lives.