Lewis: The Mere Christian Message

On this Good Friday/Easter weekend, the Christian message of sacrificial death and resurrection may be brought more to the forefront of minds that normally think little of such things. The message is the same at all times, but this weekend sharpens the focus.

To the natural mind, death is finality. There is no comprehension of how it can be of any good. Yet C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, shows us how:

On the one hand Death is the triumph of Satan, the punishment of the Fall, and the last enemy. Christ shed tears at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane: the Life of Lives that was in Him detested this penal obscenity not less than we do, but more.

On the other hand, only he who loses his life will save it.

We are baptized into the death of Christ, and it is the remedy for the Fall. Death is, in fact, what some modern people call “ambivalent.” It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon: it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered.

Death has led to life, which runs counter to what people normally believe. Lewis notes in Mere Christianity, “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.”

A fresh start. What a glorious concept. I know, personally, how much I needed a fresh start at one point in my life. My sins were forgiven; God treats them as if they never happened. That truth has led me to a constant state of gratitude for His mercy and has pointed the way forward. Lewis again in Mere Christianity:

Now the Christian belief is that if we somehow share the humility and suffering of Christ we shall also share in His conquest of death and find a new life after we have died and in it become perfect, and perfectly happy, creatures. . . .

In Christ a new kind of man appeared: and the new kind of life which began in Him is to be put into us.

Eternal life really begins in this earthly existence if we humbly receive Christ’s sacrifice as our own; death is merely a transfer of that life into a new and heavenly realm.

That is what Good Friday and Easter/Resurrection Day are all about. Let your gratitude for what God has done show in your life today.

Today Is For Remembering the Sacrifice

Death. We don’t like the word, and for good reason. Death was never supposed to be a fact of life. It was nowhere in God’s original purpose for His creation. It came about through rebellion against His love.

Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus even though He knew He was going to bring him back to life. Why? Because death is unnatural, a disruption of the good God intended.

On Good Friday, Jesus took the first step in reversing the curse brought about by sin, but He had to do it through death—His own.

Anyone who studies the mechanics of crucifixion can’t help but shudder at the horribleness of it.

Yet Jesus voluntarily subjected Himself to that horror. And He did it for me and for you.

Today is for remembering the sacrifice. It’s for grasping the enormity of what He had to do to offer us redemption. It’s for being grateful.

Grateful is really too mild a word for how we should feel. “O, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” are the words of a solemn hymn. That deep love should awaken in us a deep love in response.

In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Vanauken: I Loved Lewis Like a Brother

Sheldon VanaukenOne of the strongest friendships C. S. Lewis forged with an American was with Sheldon Vanauken, who studied at Oxford in the early 1950s. Neither he nor his wife, Davy, were Christians when they arrived, but after reading some Lewis, and via letters with that famous author, they both were converted while in residence there.

The connection became more than that of an author and correspondent. They met regularly; Lewis even came to their apartment for fellowship. When their time in Oxford ended, and Vanauken returned to America to a professorship of his own, that relationship didn’t end; in fact, it deepened due to a tragic circumstance.

Just a couple of years later, Davy was diagnosed with a fatal illness that took her life a few months afterward. Lewis’s letters to Vanauken during her illness and afterward helped shape the latter’s thinking toward the trials of life and how to face the death of a loved one.

One of the letters Vanuaken wrote to Lewis seemed to hint at suicide as a possible answer for the pain he was experiencing. Vanauken also confessed in the letter that he and Davy had not sought to have children because they had been concerned that a child would damage their own closeness as a couple.

Lewis took Vanauken to task on both of those points. How did Vanuaken know that his wife, after her conversion, still maintained the attitude of not having children, he queried. Perhaps he had denied her something she truly desired. As for the question of suicide, he was adamant that it would be folly to think he would be reunited with her in that way: “You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient,” he admonished.

Severe MercyThat letter also is the source of a phrase that Vanauken later used as the title for his book: a severe mercy. Here’s how Lewis put it, in context:

One way or another the thing had to die. Perpetual springtime is not allowed. You were not cutting the wood of life according to the grain. . . . You have been treated with a severe mercy.

You have been brought to see . . . that you were jealous of God. And from us you have been led back to us and God: it remains to go on to God and us.

Vanauken did not recoil from Lewis’s honesty; rather, he embraced it. The quote I have used at the beginning of my new book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, that I thought best epitomized Lewis’s American relationships comes from Vanuaken’s response to this letter in his own book:

It was a very deep friendship on my part: no man ever did so much to shape my mind, quite aside from Christianity, which of course shaped my whole life. I have never loved a man more. And I must believe, from things he said and wrote to me, that he felt both friendship and affection for me. . . . After this severe and splendid letter, I loved Lewis like a brother. A brother and father combined.

Lewis was like a brother and/or a father to many of his American correspondents. Reading through his letters is like feasting on a rare combination of honesty, wisdom, and humility.

Lewis, Learning, & War (Part 3)

C.S. Lewis 9C. S. Lewis’s essay “Learning in War-Time” concludes with some sobering thoughts on the subject of death. We all know death comes to each of us, but we don’t often face up to that reality.

Those who are without Christ are without hope in eternity, and they tend to ignore the fact that they will have to answer to the One who is the Ultimate Judge.

Christians have hope, yet don’t always think seriously about the moment they will enter eternity because they are too focused on the things of this world.

Lewis’s observations, written in his inimitable style, awaken us to the reality of our approaching death:

CemeteryBut there is no question of death or life for any of us, only a question of this death or that—of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later.

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased.

Written during WWII, this essay had that backdrop to make readers more alert to his message. Today, we have the threat of terrorism and a terrorist state developing nuclear weapons. While we may attempt to make a distinction and say we are not “at war,” we close our eyes to the truth. War is a constant in the human experience. What can it teach us? Lewis continues:

War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

War gets in our face and lets us know that life on this earth is only temporary. It gets our attention.

All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us knows.

We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered.

If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

This life is a pilgrimage. As the old gospel song says, “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through.” Permanence is not the nature of this world. Rather, we await the eternal city where the pilgrimage will be over and real life will begin.

That is the reality we need to embrace.

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.

C. S. Lewis: No More Pain

In July 1963, C. S. Lewis fell into a coma, and everyone thought that was the end for him. Yet he surprised the medical staff by sitting up and asking for tea. He did die four months later, but shortly after coming out of the coma, he wrote these poignant words to a longtime friend and correspondent:

Tho’ I am by no mean 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.

I think I can say I don’t fear death itself. My faith informs me of what awaits, and it will be glorious. But I share with most fellow mortals the anxiety, to some extent, of the steps leading to the glory. How much pain will there be? Will I retain my senses? So I can empathize with Lewis’s comments. I always want to have foremost in my thoughts that, as Paul said, to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord. That will be the ultimate reality that makes all pain fade away. There will be no more pain, no more tears. We will be in the presence of the One who is the essence of love.