A Happy Horse

Bree, the vain Narnian warhorse in C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, when explaining to Aravis about the Great Lion, Aslan, assumes that Aslan is not actually a lion, but is as strong as a lion or as fierce as a lion. So when he meets Aslan face to face and finds Him to be a true Beast with four paws and a tail and whiskers…

“Aslan,” said Bree in a shaken voice, “I’m afraid I must be rather a fool.”

“Happy the Horse who knows that while he is still young,” [Aslan replied], “Or the Human either.”

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The Pattern of God’s Story

I’ve been reading a book together with my older son–Behold the King of Glory, by Russ Ramsey. It is a beautifully written narrative of the Gospel account, of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The next-to-last chapter recounts the story (from Luke 24) of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance and conversation with 2 disciples, one of whom was named Cleopas. Here’s a portion of what Ramsey writes:

But neither Cleopas nor the religious leaders in Jerusalem could recognize Jesus as the Christ because they were looking for someone other than what the prophets foretold, a pattern other than what Scripture laid out for them. They expected someone who would rise from a position of power and crush his enemies. Though the prophets spoke of the Messiah’s certain travail, Jesus’s own peers saw his agony as evidence against his claim that he was the Christ. And by forsaking the story of God’s redeeming work among them up to this point, a story whose pattern was that suffering preceded glory, they were blinded from knowing their Savior by way of his suffering.

The stranger took Cleopas and his wife through the Scriptures, from the books of Moses to the Prophets, showing them how suffering and humility were woven together into every story of God’s redeeming grace. God did this because his call on the lives of his people was not to a life of freedom from him, but to a life of utter dependence upon him….

This was…the story the stranger on the road told [Cleopas]. The arm of the Lord has been revealed. The Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, grew up in humility, like a tender shoot out of dry ground. He had no majesty that anyone would give any attention to, no beauty that we would desire him. His glory would be preceded by his suffering. He was despised and rejected by his own people, a man of sorrows and well acquainted with grief. As one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and without esteem. But he came to bear the sorrows of his own, to carry our grief, though even while he was in the midst of such travail, we regarded him as afflicted and smitten by God.

But he was wounded for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities and sins. God put upon him the punishment that would bring us peace, because all of us, like sheep, have wandered away from the fold. We have chosen paths of our own, and the Maker has laid our rebellion on his Christ.

Before his accusers, he did not open his mouth to defend himself. Like a lamb to the slaughter, he did not resist the will of his Father. Under the darkness of oppression and deceit, he was led away, cut off from among his own people. They humiliated him, killing him like a criminal, though he had committed no crime nor spoken a word of deceit.

He did all of this because it was the Lord’s will to crush him. His soul would become an offering for our guilt. But on the other side of all this suffering, he would find the satisfaction of being the righteous servant of the Lord who would make many to be accounted righteous.

He was numbered among the transgressors, but he bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to our sin and live in the freedom of his righteousness.

Though he was in the form of God, he came to us as a tiny baby, born in the likeness of man to a poor mother in a stable outside of David’s town. He made himself nothing, taking on the nature of a servant, and humbled himself through his obedience to the will of his Father, an obedience that led him to his horrific death on the cross.

We were like straying sheep, but by his grace we have been returned to the Shepherd of our souls. Behold the Man of Sorrows. Through his agony and by his wounds we have been healed.

[the author’s paraphrased quotes are from Isaiah 53, Philippians 2:5-8, and I Peter 2:24-25]

The pattern of God’s story is that suffering precedes glory. That is how we recognize our Savior, and that is how the world sees Christ through us.

No Accidents

C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are a longstanding favorite of me and my family. We have lost count of the number of times we have read them, and since Focus on the Family produced their outstanding audio version, we have just about worn out those CDs from listening to them so often too.

I was listening (again!) to The Horse and His Boy during a long drive recently, and was struck by Lewis’ depiction of God’s sovereignty. Seemingly random events first bring together a peasant slave boy with a talking warhorse from Narnia, but then further events bring the two of them together with an uppity princess and her talking horse. None of them set out to find or join up with the others, but each of their journeys become inextricably tied to one another in the adventures that follow.

What is especially striking to me is the way in which these characters come together in the story. When the runaway boy and his horse become aware that there is a girl and her horse nearby, they at first try to keep their distance and avoid being seen. But then some lions come and spook the horses, roaring at them from both sides until the two horses are inexorably pushed together. Later in the story we find out that there was only one Lion (but He was very fleet of foot) and that this Lion had a purpose in bringing these children and horses together. All they saw was their own purpose and what they were attempting to accomplish, and therefore on the multiple occasions when they encountered this Lion, they saw it as a frightful hindrance and dangerous interruption to their plans. But what they came to realize as their journey progressed was that these seemingly random encounters were not random at all, but were intentionally orchestrated events to bring about something far bigger than their own little ideas and plans. (As another Narnian character, Puddleglum, says in The Silver Chair, “There are no accidents with Aslan.”)

There are no accidents with our God. He holds all things in His hands, and He is sovereignly orchestrating His grand plan of redemption, for His glory. My wife and I sometimes wonder why God called us to adopt a little girl with special needs, because it often seems like just a random event that is disconnected from the plans we were aiming at. But we are trusting that this, along with each part of the story that we encounter, is being pushed together by the Great Lion into an adventure that is far grander than anything we could dream up on our own. And so we keep walking day by day, and keep trusting the One with whom there are no accidents.

Sabbatical Space

Speaking of spiritual disciplines in the Christian life, Henri Nouwen once said: “Discipline means the effort to create some space in which God can act.” Christian disciplines are not magic wands which force God to act in a certain way toward us, rather they are means by which we put ourselves in a posture of dependence and openness to God. As such, disciplines are acts of submission and humility, which recognize the limitations of our humanness and put us in a place of trusting receptivity to God’s good work of transformation.

Sabbath is a spiritual discipline, because it calls us to stop from our constant activity and to pay attention to the places where God is at work.

This fall, I am being blessed with a ministry sabbatical for three months. Like sabbath, a sabbatical is also a spiritual discipline, because it is an intentional stopping from my regular work of ministry, in order to create some space for God to carry out His work in me. Unlike sabbath, however, my sabbatical is not a time to cease all work, but only my regular pastoral duties. In that I must be careful, though, because I know my tendency is to replace one kind of work and stress with something equally busy and draining. Therefore one goal I am working on during this sabbatical is to re-establish better habits of productivity and sleep.

One of the books I am reading (for a class I’m taking at Talbot Seminary) is called Beloved Dust. In it, the authors speak of the freedom that comes from living within the limitations of our humanness. One of the primary limitations every human faces is that of time–we are creatures bound by time, and though we often try to live as if those bounds were not present, our lives function best when we embrace the reality that we cannot actually control time, nor can we do everything we desire.

Sleep is an excellent litmus test of our posture toward time. Often, we view sleep as superfluous–wasted space that can be used if we determine more time is needed to accomplish a certain task…. Embracing our call to be creatures entails embracing sleep as a fundamental aspect of our vocation…. In this sense, for many believers, sleep is a profound, spiritual practice reminding us on a daily basis of the truth of our identity as creatures. In sleep we are laying down our bodies as living sacrifices before the Lord (Rom. 12:1). This, too, can be an aspect of our worship of God.   [pg. 31]

That is a very convicting reminder to me–if this sabbatical is truly going to be a time of “creating space” for God to work in me, then sleep is not just a necessary part of my humanity, but it is a vital part of growing in relationship with God.

Do the Next (Best) Thing

Some time ago, I came across an anonymous poem which Elisabeth Elliot had popularized before her death. God ministered to me through the poem, and He continues to bring it to mind in places where I am feeling overwhelmed with all that He is calling me to.

From an old English parsonage down by the sea
There came in the twilight a message for me;
Its quaint Saxon legend, deeply engraven,
Hath, as it seems to me, teaching from Heaven.
And on through the hours the quiet words ring
Like a low inspiration: DO THE NEXT THING.

Many a questioning, many a fear,
Many a doubt, hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment, let down from Heaven,
Time, opportunity, guidance are given.
Fear not tomorrows, child of the King,
Trust them with Jesus, DO THE NEXT THING.

Do it immediately, do it with prayer;
Do it reliantly, casting all care;
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand
Who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on Omnipotence, safe ‘neath His wing,
Leave all results, DO THE NEXT THING.

Looking for Jesus, ever serener,
(Working or suffering) be thy demeanor;
In His dear presence, the rest of His calm,
The light of His countenance be thy psalm,
Strong in His faithfulness, praise and sing!
Then, as He beckons thee, DO THE NEXT THING.

I have always been an overachiever and workaholic, and therefore I often find myself feeling overwhelmed by the immensity (and impossibility) of all that I have undertaken and would like to accomplish. So it is into that place of anxiety and stress which this simple thought speaks powerfully: Do the next thing.

As helpful as that instruction is, though, I also know that I can easily get caught up in doing a long string of “next things” that are not always best. Whether it is getting stuck in the endless cycle of unimportant tasks, or the treadmill of the urgent, or the idolatry of only what I want to do, it can pull me away from the best things that really matter in the perspective of eternity. And so “Do the next thing” needs to be continually evaluated by what God is calling me to do, and what He has already called me to be and do. Then–and only then–can I be confident that when I do the next thing, that next thing is also the best thing, which moves me along in the mission that God has designed me for and called me to, for His glory.

(An excellent book on connecting productivity with a Gospel-centered mission is called What’s Best Next, by Matt Perman.)

You Know You’re a Nerd when…

  • you get excited over the prospect of starting back to school
  • a fun date with your spouse consists of wandering through Barnes & Noble
  • every time you meet up with good friends, you talk about what books you’re each reading
  • you have as much fun discovering new libraries as “foodies” have in discovering new restaurants
  • you own more books than you have shelf space to contain them
  • curling up with a good book is your favorite leisure activity
  • you bring your backpack full of books to every vacation
  • you spend your sabbatical studying…and enjoy it
  • you know the general topics of each section in the Dewey decimal system
  • you have a stack of books (or maybe several stacks) on your desk, of which you have read the first chapter or two, but then they got set aside when the next amazon box arrived

In high school I hated being called a nerd, but now I wear that label as a badge of honor!