C.S. Lewis: An Ordinary Chap

IMG_2014My family had the privilege of visiting Oxford, England, and seeing the home where C.S. Lewis spent the latter years of his life, called The Kilns. As we listened to some delightful stories of Lewis’ life, what stood out to me was his humility.

The tour guide at The Kilns mentioned that while most photographs of Lewis show him in a suit and tie, looking very distinguished, he actually preferred to wear baggy trousers and an old hat, because he didn’t want to stand out.

We visited the little country church where Lewis attended with his brother–it is small and unknown, except for the fact that C.S. Lewis attended there…just an ordinary parish church. In fact, we were told that Lewis would arrive late to church and leave early, to keep from calling attention to himself. It is at this same tiny parish church that Lewis is buried, with a simple gravestone off in the corner of the graveyard–not pretentious in the least.

Not only did Lewis write the famed Chronicles of Narnia as children’s books (in a time where writing children’s literature was not a prestigious thing for an Oxford professor to do), but he also wrote numerous personal letters to children who had questions about life or about the stories. Despite his great learning and commanding voice, he played well with children and enjoyed their company.

In these ways, and many more, the picture of Lewis that emerged as we listened to the stories about his life was that of an ordinary man, not looking to be a hero, but simply to be faithful with what he was given. And God in His mercy chose to use this ordinary chap very profoundly, in the lives of many people around the world, including my own rather ordinary life. I am thankful!

 

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Savoring Weakness

How do you typically respond when what is expected (or required) of you is way beyond your capacity? How do you react when you feel worn out and weak, but life doesn’t let up? What do you do when you are at your wits end, but the problem isn’t going away?

Even when we come to God in our weakness and need (which, if we’re honest, we don’t always do–often we seek to handle it on our own), even then we usually ask God to remove the problem, to make us strong. We get discouraged over our weakness, thinking that if only we were stronger maybe this wouldn’t be happening. So what would it look like to actually savor the weakness rather than trying to overcome it?

Paul teaches that God’s way of exhibiting power is altogether different from man’s way. Man tries to overcome his weakness; God is satisfied to use weakness for his own special purposes. Too many Christians become disheartened over their infirmities, thinking that only if they were stronger in themselves they could accomplish more for God. But this point of view, despite its popularity, is altogether a fallacy. God’s means of working, rightly understood, is not by making us stronger, but by making us weaker and weaker until the divine power alone is clearly manifested.  [David Alan Black, “Paulus Infirmus: The Pauline Concept of Weakness,” Grace Theological Journal, 92.]

The Apostle Paul spoke of “rejoicing in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3), “boasting in our weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and even being “content with weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:10). How does that happen? For those of us who have been Christians for a long time, we may be able to say the right words–even force a smile–in the midst of suffering, but to actually be internally content in weakness seems impossible!

J.I. Packer writes of how this “way of weakness” produces perseverance and eventually character within us:

It works like this. Comes the pain and the grief and the sense that this is too much for us, it is swamping us, we can’t handle it. What does the Christian then do? The Christian looks to the Lord, praying, “Lord, give me strength, give me wisdom, give me resources to handle this”–and the Lord does. So Christians who thought that they could never cope with what the Puritans called the losses and crosses that come their way find that they have in fact got through the trials, by the strength that the Lord supplies. Then the memory of that experience gives confidence for the next round of pain and grief and distress. Sufferings produce perseverance as our confidence in God grows through experience after experience of his upholding grace. The sufferings, the pains, the griefs, the time spent in hard places, are so many experiences of testing; over and over we pass the tests through the strength that the Lord gives us, and the habit of doing that is character–tested character, approved character, strong character.  [Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, 217-218.]

So if you find yourself overwhelmed and swamped, and your continual lament is “God, I can’t handle this!” then take heart–God is bringing you into weakness in order to make it abundantly obvious that His strength alone carries you. And as you walk–weakly, but with God–into that impossible situation, He will bring you through and grow your faith and form your character.

Unexpected Remodeling

Resurrection cannot come to one who is alive, only to one who has died. But dying is never fun or easy.

In 2 Corinthians 3:14-16, we read of a veil over our hearts that keeps us from seeing the glory of God, a veil that can only be removed through Christ. A.W. Tozer writes that this veil over our hearts is “the veil of our fleshly, fallen nature living on, unjudged within us, uncrucified and unrepudiated. It is the close-woven veil of the self-life which we have never truly acknowledged…self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-admiration, self-love… Self is the opaque veil that hides the face of God from us.” [The Pursuit of God, pg. 41-43]

Tozer goes on to say that when we speak of “rending the veil” as a figure of speech, the thought of it is “poetical, almost pleasant,” but the actual experience of dying to our flesh and to the self-life is quite the opposite:

In human experience that veil is made of living spiritual tissue; it is composed of the sentient, quivering stuff of which our whole beings consist, and to touch it is to touch us where we feel pain. To tear it away is to injure us, to hurt us and make us bleed. To say otherwise is to make the cross no cross and death no death at all. It is never fun to die. To rip through the dear and tender stuff of which life is made can never be anything but deeply painful. Yet that is what the cross did to Jesus and it is what the cross would do to every man to set him free. [The Pursuit of God, pg. 44]

Die we must, if we would hope for resurrection. Therefore it should not surprise us when trouble and suffering come our way–God is at work, mercifully rending the veil of our flesh in order to awaken us to his glory. C.S. Lewis describes it this way:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of–throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage; but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. [Mere Christianity, pg. 176]

If there is unexpected remodeling happening in your life (as there is in mine), may you hold on to the certain hope that you are being built into a palace fit for your King. And as the veil of your flesh is torn away, may the glimpses of glory that peek through the rips in the veil give you the courage to enter another daily death, trusting that resurrection is indeed coming.

Pastors Need Prayer Too

The Apostle Paul was a man of prayer. His letters to individuals and churches are filled with his prayers for them. In fact, he tells the believers at Ephesus, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers…” (Ephesians 1:16).

But this apostle and pastor who constantly prayed for others also regularly sought prayer for himself.

I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints… (Romans 15:30-31)

You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.  (2 Corinthians 1:11)

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.  (Colossians 3:3-4)

Brothers, pray for us.  (1 Thessalonians 5:25)

Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men.  (2 Thessalonians 3:1-2)

At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.  (Philemon 22)

Paul was very aware that in all his life and ministry he was not wrestling against flesh and blood, but that there was (and still is!) a cosmic battle waging in the spiritual realm that we cannot see (Ephesians 6:12). But those heavenly places and spiritual forces are no less real simply because they are hidden from our eyes. And that reality moved Paul not only to pray for others but also to ask for prayer for himself (Ephesians 6:18-19).

So if you are a believer in Jesus–pray! Pray for those around you. Pray for those you love. And don’t forget to pray for your pastor as well. Your pastor is likely praying for you–as well he should be. But would you also pray for him? He may not ask you for prayer, and he may not be at liberty to share the requests that are deepest in his heart, but he needs you to pray for him.

And even if you don’t know me as your pastor, please pray for me as well. If you’ve followed this blog at all, you’re likely aware of at least some of the pressures and sorrows that are heavy on my heart, but even if you have no idea what those are, please pray. Your prayers accomplish much more than you may ever know, because the One to whom you pray is powerful and good, and He delights to answer the prayers of His children.

Why Study Sanctification?

When is the last time you sat down to ponder the doctrine of sanctification? Have you ever given much thought to understanding how God grows a Christian into the likeness of Christ? Why should you even care about such an academic-sounding topic?

I am currently enrolled (and will be for some time, since I’m only taking one class at a time) in a graduate program at Talbot Theological Seminary called the Institute for Spiritual Formation (or ISF for short). To some degree, this whole program exists for the purpose of understanding the process of sanctification–the process by which God forms our spirits through the indwelling presence of his Spirit so that we become increasingly the kind of people who love God and love others in the same ways as Jesus did.

Have you ever wondered how that process works? Or are you content to leave such ponderings to pastors like myself?

In his excellent book, Renovation of the Heart, Christian philosopher Dallas Willard wrote this:

Understanding is the basis of care. What you would take care of you must first understand, whether it be a petunia or a nation. If you would care for your spiritual core–your heart or will–you must understand it.   [pg 27]

I get that. In the past five years since my daughter Anah joined our family, I have come to understand far more about Down Syndrome than I ever did before. Why? Because Anah has Down Syndrome, and I care about her. Because I care for her, I want to understand how Down Syndrome works, and as my understanding has grown, my ability to care appropriately for my daughter has likewise increased. And to the extent that my understanding of Down Syndrome is still deficient (which it no doubt is), to that extent I struggle to care for Anah in ways that are best for her.

That same line of reasoning applies to my understanding of sanctification. Why is it important that I understand how sanctification works? Because I am in the midst of the process of sanctification–and so are the people I love–so if I am to care effectively for my own soul and the souls of those I love, I must grow in my understanding of how that process works.

One vital aspect of sanctification that we need to understand is that it is a process in which we as Christians participate. God is the one who produces holiness in the hearts of his people, but he calls us to take part in the process. In Scripture, Jesus invites his followers to learn from him (Matthew 11:29); Paul commands believers to walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16, Romans 8:4); and Peter instructs Christians to “make every effort” to supplement their faith with other virtues (2 Peter 1:5-8). 2 Corinthians 7:1 says, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” What does it look like for a Christian to learn from Jesus or to walk in the Spirit? How do we go about bringing holiness to completion?

These are not merely theoretical questions fit only for debate among theologians. No, these are immensely practical questions which every Christian must consider, for if sanctification is truly a process in which we participate, a weak understanding of the process will lead to anemic spiritual lives and ineffective churches.

 

Resurrecting

There is so much joy in singing together with hundreds of brothers and sisters in Christ–especially on Easter Sunday as we celebrate Christ’s victory over death, which opens the way for those He saves to conquer death as well! One song that we sang this Sunday stood out to me because of the uniqueness of its focus.

The song is titled Resurrecting, and this is the bridge:

By Your Spirit I will rise
From the ashes of defeat
The resurrected King
Is resurrecting me
In Your name I come alive
To declare your victory
The resurrected King
Is resurrecting me

Romans 6:5 tells us that since we have been united with Christ in His death, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. This resurrection is both already and not yet. It is my declared status before God–the old has gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17)–yet as long as I live in this body and in this world, sin and death will still fight against that resurrected status. But God is at work in me, and by His Spirit I am being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18), which is what this song is celebrating.

“The resurrected King is resurrecting me.” Little by little, day by day, choice by choice, the old me is dying and the new me–the real me–is coming alive. And one day, when my body finally gives way to death, I will be more fully alive than ever before, as that resurrecting process will be gloriously complete!

So may you find renewed hope, as I do, in the beautiful reminder from this song that the resurrection we celebrate at Easter is not merely an event in the distant past nor a sentimental wish for the future, but it is a glorious and ongoing reality today and tomorrow. Your resurrected King is carrying out a process of resurrecting you to walk increasingly “in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Praise Him!

Acquainted with Grief

Art can give us a window into the soul in a deeper way than words alone can do. For that reason, I’m tremendously grateful for my daughter’s recent photography exhibition–it allowed those who viewed it to understand our family’s pain in ways that our words cannot fully communicate. Her final piece was a self-portrait that zeroed in on a theme of her exhibit: Grief is not an easy fix. In our discomfort over other’s grief, we often seek to merely gloss over it with Christian platitudes like Romans 8:28, but in doing so we miss the deeper connection of entering in to one another’s sorrows.

Romans 8:28 is certainly true, but when we are in the midst of a grief that is not likely to be resolved anytime soon, being told that God works all things together for our good sounds more trite than comforting. And so in those places of deep grief in which “working together for good” seems very far off, I am thankful for the way Isaiah 53:3-4 describes our Savior.

He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows…

A man of sorrows who was well-acquainted with grief. This is our sympathetic High Priest, who knows us not just as a far-off all-knowing deity but as One who has suffered sorrow and grief even deeper than our own and therefore truly understands us. And in fact, not only does Jesus understand our grief and sorrow, but he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows. He not only bore His own grief on that cross, but the grief of all we for whom He died. He not only carried His own sorrows of being rejected and despised in His earthly life, but He carried all of our sorrows as well.

And as the One who ever lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25), Jesus bears our griefs even now, and carries our sorrows until He carries us into His very presence for all eternity and wipes every tear away.