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.

The Pilgrim Story: Dealing with Death

The Pilgrims survived the voyage to the New World. They avoided civil disorder by establishing the Mayflower Compact. But they weren’t able to escape the specter of disease and death. How did they handle this new challenge?

First Encounter BeachFirst, they had to search out a place to call home. They sent out a party of men to try to find an opportune piece of land, but the Cape Cod area wasn’t hospitable to farming, and they also had their first encounter with the natives, who attacked them. It didn’t help their cause when they decided to take some corn they found buried at one spot. Bradford recounts that since there was no one around to barter with, they took it with the idea of paying back whoever had buried it there. I believe they intended to do that (which, by the way, they did eventually), but their action was discovered and created a bad relationship with that particular tribe from the start.

Coming back from one of those excursions, Bradford heard the awful news that his wife, Dorothy, had died—the first casualty of the trip. She had drowned falling over the side of the ship. We have to get this information from other sources than Bradford, since he never wrote about it. Many have speculated that she committed suicide, depressed over having to leave their young son back in Holland and now seeing the barrenness of the so-called Promised Land. Massachusetts in winter didn’t look like a promising place. Whatever the reason, her death was just the beginning.

Plymouth-Town BrookThey finally found a harbor, although not as good a one as the Puritans later found that they christened Boston. But no one seemed to be living there and there was a nice brook running through it as a water supply. The brook is still there today, and in summer, it lends a lot to the pleasant atmosphere of the town. Yet it wasn’t summer when they arrived, and their greatest task was to build the town that would become home.

Building the Common HouseThe men labored from December through March to transform a wilderness into some semblance of an English village. A common house was built first to store goods; midway through the winter, it burned down and they had to start over. But that wasn’t the worst of the experience.

Bradford relates, in sad words, that as the days passed, so did their band of brothers and sisters. Sickness swept the new colony. By March, half of the 102 settlers had died. At one point, only six or seven men were healthy enough to work, and they also had to take care of the sick. During this time, Edward Winslow, Bradford’s closest friend and a key leader of the colony in its early years, lost his wife as well. Frankly, if there had been natives in this area, and they had been hostile to the newcomers, the struggling colony never would have become a colony at all—it would have been wiped out.

The sailors on the Mayflower were dying also. Bradford writes about how they let each other die, afraid of catching whatever their comrades had. Yet the Pilgrims, despite their own trials, showed compassion on the dying sailors and did their best to comfort them. At least one of the seamen, who had before mocked and cursed these passengers, now credited them with being true Christians before he died. In the trial, their faith in God remained strong.

If you go to Plymouth today, you can see the large sarcophagus that commemorates this harsh first winter. But it’s more than a memorial; the remains of those who died are buried beneath it, a lasting testimony to what they endured.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the spring, the Mayflower set sail for England. Capt. Christopher Jones told the survivors that they didn’t have to be survivors; they could go back with him and give up this venture. No one took him up on the offer. Despite the hardships, every last one of them said, in effect, “thanks for the offer, but we are staying.” Since they believed God had called them to establish this community, they were going to see it through. They remembered their initial commitment, that even if they might all perish in the attempt, they would be true to God’s calling.

I think that’s called faith.

Those Dark Nights of the Soul

Thomas FactorA couple of Sundays ago, I offered an excerpt from Winkie Pratney’s book The Thomas Factor: Dealing with Doubt. As I’ve been steadily reading it, using it as a devotional, I keep coming across passages that make things so crystal clear, I want everyone to read them. So I have another section of the book to give you today. It’s in a chapter where Pratney is talking about how every Christian experiences, for want of a better phrase, “the dark night of the soul.” What does this mean? He explains:

It is not the darkness of wrong or guilt or demonic oppression. It is not sin; it is instead an inexplicable sense of loss, uncertainty, perplexity. It is above all a withdrawn sense of the presence of God.

Now it is natural to live in His sunshine. We believers don’t have to sing “Don’t Worry–Be Happy.” We take for granted that “in the presence of God is joy and at His right hand are pleasures for evermore.” Yet a lot of heaven’s journey must be made at night.

Happiness is not always the test of holiness. It is possible to be happy and not holy: “As the crackling of thorns underneath a pot, so is the laughter of fools,” said Solomon. “This also is vanity.”

There is a false laughter and an empty lightness of heart that the Bible calls the sin of levity, foolishness, and shallowness in the things of God and life and reality. And this is a characteristic of much of our public popular image today: Christians are often perceived as happy idiots, like people in some asylum, who are happy only because they have lost the ability to live in reality.

But God never designed real life to function in an artificial environment. Without doubt, conversion often takes place with an accompanying jolt of pure joy. In the glow of that first meeting with Christ, you get a taste of an excitement and release that seems as if it will last forever.

Prodigal SonWhen you first get saved you think it will be all music, dancing, and steak on the hoof. You come home like the Prodigal and there is the welcome party. But it doesn’t take long at home before you hear from your elder brother who is getting mad at all the excitement over your return. The party is fun, you get a new set of clothes and a ring; but the morning after the party there’ll be dishes to wash, a room to clean, and a farm to run.

In other words, there are responsibilities in the Christian life that one must carry out, and there will be criticisms one must always face. It’s not all one big party. The key, though, is to remember two things: every Christian goes through the dry times; God is still with us in those times. His love endures forever. The testing of our faith is to see if our love will endure as well.

Convictions in an Anti-God Culture

Thomas FactorI’ve been reading evangelist Winkie Pratney’s book The Thomas Factor: Dealing with Doubt. Although it’s not necessarily intended as a devotional book, that’s the spirit in which I’m reading it, and so many of his comments and explanations have served to confirm what I already know and have challenged me to remain committed to the Truth.

I was particularly impressed with his treatment of what it means to have deep conviction of belief. Here’s a sample:

We are to take truth and personal convictions seriously. How do you know if you really have convictions? . . . No conviction is truly your own unless you’re prepared to hold it even if all others are against it. I’ve sometimes told young Christians, “You need to follow Jesus even if everyone you know who is supposed to be a Christian turns his back on both Him and you.”

Nebuchadnezzar StatuePratney then expounds on the well-known Biblical example of the three Hebrews who refused to bow down to the statute of King Nebuchadnezzar. They stood out like the proverbial sore thumbs while everyone else bowed. Nebuchadnezzar was irate and gave them one more chance: either bow down or go into the fiery furnace. Pratney then invites us to be one of those three and think about how we might have rationalized our disobedience to God:

What would you do? Would you smile and, so as not to offend, go ahead? Would you bow (certainly not enthusiastically) and mutter to yourself: “Well, God knows I am not really bowing ‘in my heart.’ After all, He has gone to all this trouble to put me in a place of some leadership and influence with these ungodly pagans and He certainly wouldn’t want all that to come to an end now because of some silly little external show. I’ll bow (outwardly only, of course) just to please the king, but God knows that it is all only an outward appearance. In my heart of hearts, am I not still following God?”

If those rationalizations sound familiar, they are. They’ve been used time and again throughout history to sidestep real conviction and try to convince oneself that disobedience really isn’t disobedience. The three Hebrews knew what awaited them, yet they stood firm. Pratney continues,

These boys knew who God was. They knew something of His wisdom, His character, and His power. They knew what He could do. They also knew some way or other, in life or by death, they would shortly be out of the king’s power. They knew God could intervene. But they did not know, for them, for then, if God would. And knowing the king as they did, knowing that he would do exactly as he said, knowing fully the consequences of a polite but firm refusal, they refused anyway. “But if not, we will not bow down.”

That’s conviction. It has to do with commitment—even if you don’t understand the whole thing, even if you don’t know what’s going on , even if you don’t know what is going to happen to you.

In our day, with the culture rapidly slipping away from even tolerating Biblical convictions, will we stand firm? If we rationalize our disobedience, it doesn’t change the fact that it is disobedience. The Lord is looking at each heart, seeking those who will remain faithful under trial.

The Pilgrim Story: Convictions, Not Preferences

You’ve heard the cliché “actions speak louder than words.” The New Testament book of James puts it another way when it says that faith without works is dead. People may say they believe something, but you don’t know if it’s a real belief until you see if, under pressure, it holds solid. A few days ago, I began an examination of the English Separatists who eventually became known as the Pilgrims when they settled in America. How solid were their beliefs? What indicators show the genuineness of their faith?

Pilgrims Going to HollandDue to their belief that the Anglican church should not speak for everyone, and that they should be free to set up churches apart from the state, they were perceived as traitors to the nation. One simply cannot reject the church without rejecting the head of the church—the king or queen of the realm. Taking that stance put them in peril, so much so that many Separatists throughout England sought to leave the country for Holland, where they would not be punished for pursuing their beliefs.

The little group of Separatists that ultimately found their way to the New World tried twice to leave England. Twice they suffered for the attempt. They had to make arrangements in secret so the government wouldn’t know, since they didn’t have permission to emigrate. On the first attempt, the captain of the ship betrayed them to the government, which paid him for the betrayal. He was in it only for the money. Consequently, they ended up in prison for a time.

Pilgrim Women & ChildrenDiscouraging, right? Why try again? Yet they did. As the men were loading all their goods on the ship, suddenly soldiers appeared on the horizon. Somehow word had leaked about what they were doing. The captain of this ship, not wanting to experience the same fate as his erstwhile passengers, pulled up anchor and took off with the men; the women and children were still on the shore waiting their turn for boarding. Now they were left alone. The soldiers dragged them away, where they suffered in prison, this time without their husbands. Meanwhile, the men on the ship were in the deepest distress as they took off for Holland without their families. To add to the distress, they sailed straight into a terrible storm that almost sank the ship.

Eventually, everyone arrived in Holland—men, women, and children—but the ordeal had been harrowing. One has to ask why they would go through such stress when all they would have had to do was outwardly submit to the authorities, put on a show of external obedience, and quietly gone their Separatist ways. Why subject themselves to this potential punishment when they could have lived in peace?

The reason they didn’t submit, of course, is that they wouldn’t have been at peace in their spirits. Their reading of Scripture convinced them of the rightness of their beliefs; they would have violated their consciences if they had disobeyed what they felt God was calling them to do.

Conviction vs. PreferenceI like to explain it this way: for some people, their “beliefs” are no more than preferences; they lack the conviction to follow through on what they say they believe. A preference is not a conviction. A preference isn’t even a real belief. These Pilgrims showed integrity in their steadfastness through trial. They were the real deal.

Just getting to Holland, however, did not signal the end of their trials. More hard times awaited them, more instances when they had to make decisions based on their heartfelt convictions. I’ll continue the Pilgrim story in upcoming posts.

Finney: Dealing with Unjust Accusations & Trials

Revival LecturesIn his Revival Lectures, Charles Finney writes about the indications that one is filled with the Spirit. There are a couple of these that have always been difficult for me. Perhaps you may find a portrait of yourself as well in these words:

If you are filled with the Spirit, you will not find yourself distressed and galled, and worried, when people speak against you. When I find people irritated and fretting at any little thing that touches them, I am sure they have not the Spirit of Christ. Jesus Christ could have everything said against Him that malice could invent, and yet not be in the least disturbed by it. . . .

You will be calm under affliction; not thrown into confusion or consternation when you see the storm coming over you. People around will be astonished  at your calmness and cheerfulness under heavy trials, not knowing the inward supports of those who are filled with the Spirit.

I admit publicly it’s always been particularly hard for me to handle being unjustly accused of something. My immediate reaction is to rush to my own defense. Past experience shows that hasn’t always been the wisest way to deal with the situation. I seek to respond the way Jesus would, and I hope, in future trials, my testimony can be an example of a life directed by His Spirit and not my own.

Snyderian Truism #6

When I teach history, the emphasis is not on statistics, charts, or graphs, helpful as they all are. Instead, I concentrate on individuals and their impact on events. I believe history is a story, which includes themes, plots, and character development. As we begin to delve into the events of history in class, I reveal to my students another Snyderian Truism that I hope will make them see a significant distinction:

Personality and character are not the same: the first arrives with you at birth; the second is a matter of choice and requires work on your part.

I find that people often confuse the two. There is no moral aspect to one’s personality. It’s simply the type of person you are, as created by God. Some are more take-charge types, while others are laid back. We have introverts and extroverts. The distinctions could go on for quite some time. Yet all types are necessary; that’s the kind of diversity God seeks. They each have their unique strengths.

Noah WebsterCharacter is the moral side. We are all free moral agents made in the image of God, and we must take on His character in order for the world to operate the way He intended. Noah Webster, in his original dictionary, defines the generic “character,” apart from the human element, in this way:

A mark made by cutting, engraving, stamping, or pressing.

I say that’s the generic definition because it applies to the word in general. One makes a character on a sheet of paper, for instance, by pressing down with a pen. Anyone remember typewriters? When you press the key, the designated letter jumps up and stamps or engraves the mark on the paper. It makes an impression.

We can make the application to human character as well. How is our character formed? All the cutting, engraving, stamping, and pressing that occur in daily life—also known as trials, tribulations, challenges—shape our character. We emerge from these pressures as different people. God uses them to help conform us more to the image of Christ. Our hearts are changed along the way, and we take on a greater measure of the character God intended for us. It’s our hearts that are affected; we are transformed within, and then the transformation shows up on the outside so others can see it.

I find this exemplified in a statement the apostle Paul made to the Corinthian church. In 2 Corinthians 3:2-3, he remarks,

Your yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You know that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

When we see exemplary character exhibited in history, it serves to inspire us to emulate that character. The prophet Samuel, upon his retirement, asked the elders of Israel to tell him if he had done anything to harm them while he served in his high office. They responded,

“You have not cheated or oppressed us. . . . You have not taken anything from anyone’s hand.” Samuel said to them, “The Lord is witness against you, and also His anointed is witness this day, that you have not found anything in my hand.” “He is witness,” they said.

Think about that. What a testimony. How many politicians can we say that about today? They exist, but we see the opposite so often that it invites cynicism. Another great example from the Old Testament is Daniel, who served in the government for most of his life. At one point, the other government officials were so jealous of his success that they sought to find a reason to get him kicked out. Here’s what happened:

Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators . . . by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. . . . The administrators . . . tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.

Again, what a solid testimony of God’s character through an individual.

George Washington1When George Washington stepped down as general of the army at the end of America’s war for independence, he sent out a letter to the states in which he prayed,

That He [God] would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.

That prayer is still urgently needed. The truth of Washington’s statement remains. Unless we take on the character of Christ, we will be most miserable as a people. It’s the Christians who have to take responsibility to show the way. We must fulfill our obligation to reveal the character of God, and it’s through our own character that He is to be revealed.