There are some circumstances in my life right now that are at maximum suckage. If in fact suckiness was an electric guitar amp, some doofus from Spinal Tap would have cranked it all the way to 11. I’m not in a position that I want to blog directly about this sucky event. I hope that doesn’t seem coy.
Instead, I want to blog a bit about suckiness in general. As I’ve been searching for a Godly way to deal with all this, I’ve found myself in the amazing hands of CS Lewis. There is this quote that really struck a chord with me. It’s from a Grief Observed:
The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is… hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist. The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness… Suppose you are up against a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more he will go on cutting.
This resonated with me because I’m feeling a bit like I’m on The Great Surgeon’s operating table. And I think the temptation is tell me, as I submit to his scalpel, that I am all wrong. But let’s be careful here. Some bizarre circumstances lead to you as a metaphorical cheer leader while God operates on me. As you get those pom-poms ready, the thing is, first off, you’re not just disagreeing with me. You’re disagreeing with C.S. Lewis. And C.S. Lewis, his works are like honorary scripture. You can’t disagree with him.
Snarkiness aside, you can’t disagree with him because he’s not all wrong.
I’m not saying it’s all right. There are other mitigating factors. There are truths to hold in tension with this truth. While we hold the image of God as a merciless surgeon in one hand, we certainly can hold the image of God as a loving father in the other. While we grasp the reality that the surgeon would be unmoved by our cries, we can grasp on to the truth that God enters history for us and through us; he feels our pain. He cries with us.
These gentler truths help me to bare up under the more difficult ones. But I have this awareness, as I am in this pain. This is the thing that I am aware of:
We have this tendency to want to invalidate the harsh truths. We want this immature and one-sided view that lives in denial of the more difficult things. Perhaps it is built into us. Perhaps it is a sign of the times.
We want to go back the way that we came. We want to return to the Garden of Eden through the exit we were kicked out of.
We want to yell at Job to snap out of it. We want him to just forget what he knows and climb out of the ashes. We want Elisha to turn a blind eye to the terrible things he saw. We want Jesus to say, “Just kidding, it didn’t really hurt at all.”
I’m holding on to something. I wish I could say I was holding it firmly. I’m getting there. And the thing I’m holding on to is this:
There will be a time and a place beyond the tears. It’s easy to think what I really want is to have my knowledge and experience erased. The world, and often even the church, they tell me that I ought to just look past the hard things.
But do I really want that? Do I want to find it was just all a roll-playing game at the end? The apparent struggling and pain were actually meaningless?
I’m not sure if I’m saying what I want to say, but the point is that maybe we should stop trying to back up and drive around the pain, uncertainty, despair. Maybe we get to some new place by driving through it.
Last post, I began to explore some questions about what it means to believe that the bible is inspired, especially when Paul says a few times that he is just speaking as himself.
This blogger had a really interesting response. He put into words some of the things I was going to say in this follow-up. A portion of his comment is below:
He may not have been positive that what he’d just written was inspired, but the consistent, continual witness of the church through the centuries has been that he was, indeed, inspired in all that he wrote in 1 Corinthians. The church didn’t make it scripture; the church merely recognized that it was scripture. In short, inspiration of the Bible means that the Lord guided those who wrote, so that they wrote from their own knowledge and from their own personalities, but wrote what the Lord wanted written.
I think he is ultimately on to something. But taking this tract still has some problems for me that I’d like to think out loud about.
Because the thing is, based on the English translation, Paul doesn’t seem like he isn’t sure whether or not he’s speaking God‘s words. He seems pretty confident that he is just speaking as himself. This does not mean that these words are unimportant or untrue. There are numerous books written by wise people. And Paul was one of the wisest. But no matter how wise a person is, it seems like we ought to grant a seperate, lower status to these books than the bible. I’d like to believe that most people, even the authors themselves, would agree that CS Lewis, Max Lucado, or Rob Bell books ought to be secondary to scripture.
I actually believe that God is at work through those three authors. In some limited sense they might be inspired. But this is a far cry from the deep meaning that “inspired” should have for the bible.
And I don’t think it’ll work to suggest that Paul was wrong when he wrote that he was speaking for himself and not God. Of course Paul was fallible in his every day life. He was probably even capeable of making mistakes if he was doing something at the same time as he wrote scripture. (For example, if he was writing the book of Romans at the same time he was making dinner, it would be quite possible for him to make mistakes on the dinner recipe.) But what doesn’ t seem possible is for him to write something untrue at the very time he is inspired. It seems that if it means nothing else, being inspired should certainly mean that one is writing the truth.
It’s also a bit tricky to suggest that God was decieving Paul. It doesn’t seem consistent with God’s nature. Jesus is the truth; could the members of the trinity lie?
To some extent, the answer here is the one that almost always pops up in these discussions: our puny little brains simply aren’t able to comprehend God.
To whatever extent their is an humanly comprehensible explanation, I suspect it will revolve around just what we mean by truth. I believe that a person it makes sense to suggest some events didn’t literally occur. I think, in these cases, it makes more sense to focus on the idea that God was telling a very deep truth even if the events didn’t specifically happen. The truth in the statement “The early bird catches the worm” isn’t invalidated by the lack of an actually, specific bird catching an actual, specific worm. This statement is true in a more general way which is in some sense deeper than a mere retelling of a specific incident.
So maybe there is some deeper truth expressed by Paul, when he states that he is speaking for himself, not for God. I’m not sure just how this argument would play out, or what it would mean.
On the day that God was telling me some things I did not really want to hear, I could have said to God: No thank you. I won’t hear what you’re saying to me today. I am going to take your words, and I am going to twist them into what I want them to say, instead. I could have probably talked myself into just feeling good and loved by God as I sat there, by the river.
If I had done that, I could have easily clung to the delusion that I was listening to God. I could have bragged about how I’d meditated over that scripture and I took it as a promise that God was going to give me a new job. In doing all this, all though my words would have claimed I was doing this on the bible’s authority, it really would have been a denial of biblical authority.
After denying biblical authority over our own selves, we often go on to try and use it to wield authority over others. We try to use scripture like a club. We see the bible as instrument of force. We wield it in a way that forces others to do our bidding, that beats them into submission.
We judge people and categorize people inside our churches and outside of them. We elevate our human interpretations to the status of God’s pronouncements. In short, we pervert the bible. We can use it to wield the sort-of authority that we see the world using.
But the thing about the world’s way of authority is that all it ever does is calls us to compliance. It calls us to avoid punishment, it calls us to create endless lists of ‘do’s and ‘do-nots’. The world’s kind-of authority does not challenge us to excel, to seek deeply after things.
I don’t think our only motivation is in an unhealthy desire to control people. I can see how reassuring it would be, to look at things in such a black-and-white manner, to act as though the bible gave us rules instead of stories, to speak as though we have attained a final, complete, and unassailable understanding. If we’re not using Christianity as a way to control people, sometimes, at the bare minimum we treat complexity and challenges as if they were Christianity’s dirty little secret, the elephant in the room.
CS Lewis says this about the complexity of understanding The Bible, “We may think we should have preferred an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form – something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table.”
But scripture is not always systematic and tabulated. It is so much more than a simple set of rules. There are instructions in the bible that seem to contradict each other. The core of Jesus teaching is in parable, stories whose meaning was even struggled with by the apostles themselves. And almost every day, I find in the bible instructions that just don’t connect to what I experience in the world.
These frustrations and challenges are great things. They pull all of us into the grand story of scripture. They cause us to experience these stories with all of ourselves. It is an example of the way God wields authority: not just over us, not just at us, or to us. God uses authority in a way that pulls us into the equation. It becomes an experience that happens with us, when we are challenged to wrestle with meaning, to apply principles for ourselves.
God doesn’t want to speak at us. He wants to dance with us. He wants to interact and engage us. The idea of a God who wants to interact with us seems like a great segue as we move back into a time or worship with him.
Don’t mishear me. I’m not denying objective truth. I’m not saying that we should compromise everything. I’m not suggesting that we ought to fixate on only the difficult parts.
For all it’s frustration, I love the bible. But I think it’s really important to be honest and clear about why we love the bible, what is so compelling about it.
Part of the greatness, the authority of scripture, is not in spite of the challenging things, the apparently inconsistent things, the things that are so unlike the world. The authority of scripture is because of those things.
Before I knew Jesus there were all these Christians with there pat answers and simplified explanations. I thought maybe their lives were a permanent episode of “Leave it to Beaver.” The faith they were trying to convince me of did not speak to the world I was living in.
What I know now is that God engaged in this great act of love and respect for humanity’s mind and imagination. He wrote something that would challenge and even frustrate us. He wrote something that asks if we would like to submit to it.
And God gives us a roadmap for responding to this. Scripture itself provides a really important blue print in the second chapter of Philipians. In this portion of the letter, Paul shares with us some important insights into how God uses authority and what his expectations are for us around seeking out the truth.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Do Everything Without Grumbling
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
There is a metaphor in here for the true authority of the scriptures.
Just as Jesus did not use his equality with God, his authority, as something to be used to his own advantage, so to, the scriptures do not use authority to their own advantage.
By any reasonable way of thinking about it, God has the right to order us around, to compell us to do things, to wield his authority the same way that the world does. We might expect the bible to be nothing but orders and expectations. Orders and expectations are in there, but it’s not what the bible primarily is. The bible is God’s love letter to us.
In calling us rather than compelling us, the bible makes itself a servant to us. Are we prepared to make ourselves like a servant to it? It’s so easy and natural for us to come with our ideas, to carry our interpretations as though they are in the bible itself. The middle portion of these verses challenges us to follow the example of Jesus and make ourselves nothing. When we put all of our own selves away, that’s where and when we’ll find the truth that dwells within scripture.
Because so many people bashed the newish Narnia flick, I didn’t see it in the big, expensive, first-run theatres. The movie made its way to our local cheapy mom-and-pop run theatre. I saw it for like five bucks yesterday.
Perhaps it was because my expectations were low, but I have to say I thought it was incredible and I thought that many of the criticisms of the film were one-sided.
One of the incredible things was the paralells it drew between scripture and World War II, yet it was set in neither of these times/places.
Prince Caspian was a Moses figure. Early in the film I began to wonder about this. I noted that Caspian is a member of the royal family in a land where the power and wealth of the rulers has been built by opressing another group. He eventually flees the only home he has ever known and takes up leadership of the opressed group. The opressed group, meanwhile, are just barely hanging on to prophecies that a warrior figure will someday come and rescue them from bondage. When the emissary of that warrior figure arrives, the people have been so down trodden that they hardly recognize of believe that the person is coming to their rescue.
Despite those paralells, I wasn’t quite sure if I was reading into the movie. And then… the climax.
It all comes down to a confrontation between the evil empire’s army and the rabble who have been lead out. The God-figure shows up as the two armies find themselves on the bank. While I’ll grant that the sea wasn’t parted, a connection that seems undeniable is that when the evil army enters the waters, a tremendous wave comes up and sweeps much of the invading force away, just as it does in the Exodus account.
The fact that the Lewis was writing around the time of World War II, and that in the beginning of the movie they are being sent out of the city with thousands of other kids draws the obvious paralells between Exodus and the Holocaust.
World War I, however, also clearly left it’s mark on Lewis. I wonder if he was influenced by his good friend Tolkien or simply responding to the same events. Either way, there are more echoes of Lord of the Rings in this film than there were in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.
At least in the film versions, there is an interest in the concept of Total Warfare: a survey of how wars can take on a life of their own, and co-opt every aspect of a culture. Both Rings and Caspian also make much of the alliances and failures of conscience that lead to evil empires. Finally, both explore the ways that war punishes the Earth itself and both represent the Earth fighting back through the use of anthropomorphic trees.
I’d heard lots of criticism that much of Caspian was de-Christianized. Perhaps there is more directly out of Christianity in the book. But I think all this misses the point.
If the first Narnia movie explored what it means for God to be present, the second was an exploration of what it means when God appears to be absent. I actually think it would have been irresponsible to try to explore The Holocaust or The Exodus and make everyone appear to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. These are horrible events. It’s hard to find God in them. I was a little disapointed at how vaguely the answers were sketched out to the question “Where is God in these hard times?” But I would have been more disapointed if every single character rambled on endlessly about how much they love Aslan and how easy it is to make it through.
I also heard a few complaints about the female characters taking such an active roll in the fighting, particularly Lucy who is quite young. It seems to me that this once again misses the point.
A theme is developed: in the beginning of the movie the kids lived in a city that was being bombed and were fleeing the bombing. (I thought it strange that this was only alluded, to, though, and not directly mentioned.) They end up being sucked into an entirely different kind of fighting.
Closer to the end, Lucy stand next to Aslan on the bridge. She’s facing off with the entire evil army. The scene was a bit disturbing. But again, this is the whole point. Folks like Lewis seem to be saying that we’re all involved in an incredibly dramatic conflict with the very forces of evil. There is no getting on a train to escape it. Somebody might not agree with that theological idea. But it’s the theme that ought to be critiqued, not the specific scene.
So I’m on this retreat with the rest of the lead team of Fellowship Church.
This is a ski resort in the Winter, I guess. It is blanketed in green and tucked in by this perfect sky blue. A river winds through this place, providing this lovely little chatter wherever you go. People stroll about, with smiles on their faces. Later I’ll put some links in here with more of the nuts and bolts about this place, or maybe I’ll just add a post of description. Right now, though, this is not where my heart is.
I woke up early (it’s 5:30 as I write this.) and went for a walk. I asked God to just fill me up with whatever it was I needed. I’m going to share what that walk was like. I was, indeed, filled up with stuff. I believe it came from God. Maybe it didn’t. Doesn’t really matter. I think it’s likely that our whole idea about what ideas come from God and what ideas come from us are silly and simplistic.
At any rate, I began with this gentle sense of reverence. I realized that the whole idea of a spiritual retreat, it’s a bit like a days-long prayer. The ground I walked upon was hallowed just by virtue of my intent upon it… but that’s not exactly right, either. The ground I walked upon was hallowed by virtue of God’s actions based on my intent.
As I write this now, I am reminded of the burning bush, and how Noah (oops, I mean) Moses was told to take off his sandals.
At that time, I was mindful of something Martin Buber said “Prayer does not exist in time. Time exists in prayer.” Somebody else– maybe it was Madeline L’Engle– distinguished between two types of time. Chronos and Karios (Can some of you Greek speaking folks help me with the spelling here?)
Chronos is the sort of time that our watches keep. Karios is the sort of time that God’s watch keeps. It is squishy, maybe… It doesn’t just travel horizentally, at a constant rate, like Chronos does. Karios sometimes just goes straight up. Time doesn’t exactly stop passing, but eternity just fills up a moment.
Remember your first kiss? Or the time you new a (literal or metaphoric) car wreck was fast approaching, and nothing could be done about it? In some sense it seems to go on forever, but the funny thing is you probably could have given a pretty good guess around how long the whole thing took. Eternity is not only outside time, it is also inside the moments. Perhaps this connected to the fact that the kingdom of heaven is among us.
And so my first realization this morning, on my brief, brisk walk was that time itself is in prayer. The world thinks that prayer is this thing we do. I suspect prayer is this massive thing, a where house or better yet is a forest. One little meadow is asking God for stuff. A giant field is dropping to our knees and listening to God. It is the source of time itself.
Intimately connected to this was this little glimpse about God’s fullness. An understanding of what it means to fear God, a concept that I always struggle with. A feeling that God is love but he is not to be trifled with, at the same time. My random theologion quote here would be C.S. Lewis’, from the Narnia books about Aslan (his Jesus figure) being good but far from tame.
I can’t explain how, exactly, these were connected. And as I try to think back and put words to it I’m getting further away not closer. So I guess this is as good a place as any.
Wishing you peace and God’s presence,
This blog was my submission to Watercooler Wednesdays. A blog carnival. Click the link for more cool entries to Watercooler Wednesdays.
As I stated in my last post, I’m reading your amazing “Letters to Malcolm”. Today I wanted to focus on a passage that I am just awed by. I don’t have any disagreements here. I don’t even have to much in the way of questions. It’s worth noticing, though, that you were so amazingly ahead of your time. Folks like Irwin McManus and John Eldridge, and countless others have reacted to the stereotype that being in Christ means we lose our individually. Well before these guys were born, you had some pretty amazing things to say about this subject. As you know, on page 10, you write:
“It takes all sorts to make a world– or a church. This may be even truer of a church. If grace perfects nature it must expand all our natures into the full richness of the diversity which God intended when He made them, and Heaven will display far more variety than Hell.”
Maybe my favorite part of that passage is the last part: heaven will display far more variety than Hell. It’s so radical to claim that. I think we all spend our lives thinking that Evil is so much more interesting than Good. I wonder if this is because we think to be Good is to follow the rules and to be Evil is to ignore them. It almost goes without saying that there are many more ways to break a rule than to follow it.
I wonder if the reason for your disagreement with this ordinary understanding is based in the early part of the quote. What if being Good isn’t so much about following the rules as it is in discovering who we were meant to be? Who we were meant to be won’t be rule breakers– (atleast, not breakers of God’s rules.) So following the important rules certainly will be accomplished, but that’s such a small point along the way, the following of the rules. We could have so much more.
I hope I’m not being anachronistic here, and projecting todays values on to your thoughts from decades ago. If I’ve got it wrong I hope you, or somebody else will help me get it right.
I have to tell you that I’m challenged, fascinated, and perhaps even a bit convicted by a passage in your book “Letters to Malcolm.” I’ll recopy the passage here so you don’t have to dig up your original copies. (Actually, I guess Malcolm has your original copies.) This is what you wrote on pages 3-4
“It looks as if they (clergy) believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of the innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain– many give up churchgoing altogether– merely endure.
Is this simply because the majority are hide-bound? I think not. They have a good reason for their conservatism. Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we recieve a sacrament, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these thing best– if you like it “works” best– when, through long familairit, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoes is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.”
Mr. Lewis, I’m afraid maybe I’m being defensive here, but I wonder if I can object, debate, and question a few of your points here. If they weren’t so persuasive I wouldn’t be so captivated by them, so I hope you can see this as a sort-of flattery.
As you may or may not know, in the year 2008, there a huge array of options for woshippers. Lightened services, brightened services, shortened services, lengthened services, traditional ones, post modern ones, etc. I totally hear what you’re saying about the idea that these should be a lense and not the picture, that these should not be our focus. And your observation that this is about worship and not entertainment is huge.
But here’s the thing, Mr. Lewis. Some of these services and practices speak to my every day life experiences. Putting on a suit to go to church would just be like a kid playing dress up. It’d be fake and false. I could pretend, Mr. Lewis, that I’m moved by organ music. But the thing is, I’m not.
I think it’s a fair enough point to worry about trivializing worship and turning the whole thing into a dog and pony show. But I have to tell you, I’d notice a service a lot more, not a lot less, if it didn’t speak to my life experience. I’m considering what you’re saying around the idea that change just draws attention to the service and away from God.
But I’m wondering something, Mr. Lewis. I mean this as an open question, not a rhetorical one. I’m a pretty new Christian who attends a church that’s not afraid to shake up its order of service, so maybe my image on this is all wrong. But the thing I’m wondering about is this:
Doesn’t doing the same thing, in the same order, in the same way, for years and years, doesn’t this lead to going about worship on autopilot? Is the risk of empty ritual any smaller than the risk of focusing on the service rather than the object of our devotion?
Mr. Lewis, if you’re not in a condition to answer, I wonder if maybe somebody else might chime in with their own thoughts.
Jeff, a wanna-be inkling.
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