Tag Archives: C.S. Lewis

The leader’s plow: C.S. Lewis seeds our imagination

As Circle of Hope, most of us pride ourselves in generously allowing people to try out the deepest expressions of their true selves. We like supporting their good ideas and especially enjoy seeing people taking on leadership through our cells and teams. We’ve even raised all our pastors up from within our ranks to their present service!

Last week one problem with leading came to the fore. It had to do with “plowing.” I told the pastors the C.S. Lewis quote below “appealed to me because you all have the terrible and joyful task of plowing. But plowing always means the disruption of the surface so that the deeper, richer soil can be turned over. The earth should not feel violated when it is readied for multiplication, but it does. It is hard to be the ‘violators’ all day.”

plow up that surface

Lewis is the master of the apt metaphor and the following quote from Mere Christianity is a good example of his genius. For every leader of the mission of the church, he pictures a grassy expanse, perhaps like all those huge lawns in our region for which the air-cleansing trees were sacrificed. The lawns are like all the self-chosen identities of the people the leaders serve — identities the people carefully mow and weed until they, too, resemble  suburban lawns, each guarded by security cameras collecting data on intruders. The Lord which every leader of the church serves plows up those artificial interior landscapes so they can be penetrated with truth and love, and so they can bear the fruit of knowing God again. There is little doubt that most people feel the “plow” as a violation and see the wielder of the plow as a violator.

See what you think of this little gem from Mere Christianity

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes, and precautions—to Christ.  But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead.  For what we are trying to do is remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.

And that is what Christ warned us you could not do.  As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs.  If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and resown.

That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.

He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When He said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder – in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. — C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity

Mowers can become plowers

It is encouraging to see that Lewis understood, even in the 1940’s, how distracting life is. I think he could imagine, even then, how our phones would wake us up every day and start notifying us to manicure our personal lawns. He could imagine a day of “fussing and fretting”  blowing into every corner of our consciousness until we could hardly be interrupted from our distractions. How sad to be stuck polishing our egg when we were meant to fly! — or stuck mowing our useless lawns when our souls were meant to sow the world with the seeds of real food and “gather fruit for eternal life.”

All Jesus followers put their hand to the plow. But the leaders, who are catalyzing our ongoing reformation, building a transformative community, and liberating our united action have a commission to handle the plow that keeps us from returning to the wilderness of an artificial, spiritually-unproductive landscape. They plow up the grass and plant a farm that grows life in Christ. They have to deal with causing the suffering they do when they stick their blade into the hardened earth of our false selves and sin. They have to deal with the alarm they cause when they tap on the shells of the birds who should be learning to fly.

I’m not sure we will every feel good about our hard earth being violated or our thin shells being penetrated.  But I do think we can feel sympathetic to and thankful for our leaders: cell leaders, team leaders, congregation leaders, and church leaders, as they dare to play their vital role in catalyzing what the Spirit is doing to make us new and to redeem the world. As the writer of Hebrews teaches, when it comes to our leaders, we should “Let them [lead] with joy and not with sighing – for that would be harmful for you.” I can see how hard we make it for them sometimes. And I know they think it is hard to wake up every day with the plow right there beside the bed and all that hardening earth to face.

A way Christians and Buddhists can be friends

Tim Geoffrion (a spiritual director/coach) interviewed Buddhist monks a decade ago while he was teaching Christian theology in Thailand and briefly in Myanmar. As a result, he became aware of helpful contributions Buddhist philosophy and practices offer, not only to Buddhists but also to Christians. (See “What I learned from the Buddhists.” ) 

Related image
Dalai Lama lays a wreath where MLK was assassinated.

Many of us are in regular contact with adherents of both Buddhism and its cousin, Hinduism, primarily through yoga. We see Buddhist monks on the street all the time, and many of us are fond of Richard Gere.  In the U.S., .07% of the people are Buddhist, 1% in Philly. 1% in the U.S. are Hindus, 7% in Philly. I mention Hinduism because  Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, was a Hindu, and though the religions are clearly distinct, they have similarities. Many Catholics and Evangelicals find Buddhism attractive, as a philosophy, because of it’s demanding, principle based, self-denying, personally-responsible practice. Without looking to closely, apart from its god-less center, Buddhist-like Christianity is common. So many of us have many connections.

Intellectually, Christianity and Buddhism are largely incompatible, but just as Christians have something most Buddhists do not, Buddhists have something Christians often do not, or need more of. As we often teach among the Circle of Hope, Christians need to know how to effectively practice deep breathing in order to relax the body, reduce anxiety and open up to spiritual experience. Buddhists specialize in this. Buddhists develop capacity to  comfortably and confidently access their inner wisdom. They develop their ability to detach themselves from the desires and preoccupations that bring them suffering. They value humility, patience, and mutual respect, in ways that actually lead to kinder, more peaceful relationships. Of course, it is true that many Buddhists do not regularly practice such things or possess such qualities. They may keep incense burning before a statue of Buddha just like other people might keep a candle burning in front of Mary, and that’s about it. But as a well developed, psychologically oriented, practical philosophy, Buddhism offers many helpful tools that are still mysteries to many Christians.

Tim Geoffrion being schooled by a Thai friend.

Looking to the East is nothing new for Western thinkers and seekers alike, though a concerted effort by Christian theologians to look to Eastern culture and religion for new insights into God and how God works is relatively recent. Yet, for many Christians, just the suggestion that we might have something to learn from Buddhism makes them feel uneasy, or outright furious. The notion flies in the face of traditional mission philosophy, not to mention (conscious or unconscious, stated or unstated) assumptions about Western cultural, intellectual, or religious superiority. So let’s talk about the issues.

A first question is: How can devoted Christians beneficially draw on the wisdom, insights, and practices of Buddhism (or any other religion)? I’m not trying to write about what specific benefits you should seek from Buddhism. Many of you are probably doing just fine without thinking about that subject at all, as am I, for the most part.  I am being more general. How should Christians think about encountering another faith?  What are the options? What are the issues? How do we keep faith with a spirit of generosity?

Among those who are truly curious, open, and willing to listen to those whose culture and religion are different than theirs, I see three different kinds of reactions.

The Blenders. Blenders are eclectic syncretists, who consciously try to wrap their arms around both Buddhism and Christianity, thus creating a hybrid religion of sorts. Such individuals may call themselves Buddhist-Christians (or Christian-Buddhists), believing that, in spite of contradictions and tensions that exist between the religions, their spiritual experience is best explained or best advanced by embracing them both side by side, or some hybridization of the two.

The Borrowers. Many Christians in the West have been exposed to Eastern thought through the media and popular literature, and wind up mixing and matching various beliefs, whether or not they realize they are doing so. They do not significantly alter their basic Christian world-view or faith, but they freely take from Buddhism whatever they think might be helpful to their life. They may embrace various insights (e.g., the power of attachments to produce suffering in human lives) or adopt helpful practices (e.g., meditation) as “add-ons” to their faith and spirituality. Often such borrowing is done without much theological reflection, and thus Borrowers are often unconscious syncretists. Post-modern scholars generally argue that all religious people, including Christians, are syncretistic. They just don’t know it. So they may have that thinking in the mix, too.

The Inspired. Then there are those for whom an encounter with Buddhism or another religion becomes a catalyst to look more deeply into their own faith tradition. They are inspired to see if they have missed something that may have always been there but has been lacking in their experience. Spiritual growth for the Inspired, stemming from the encounter with Buddhism, will still look, sound, and be very Christian, in the best sense of the term. Yet, at the same time, if you listen carefully, you will notice that the Inspired develop a larger, more inclusive view of Creation. They are more compassionate, sympathetic, and understanding. They care less about adherence to rules and traditions, and more about being “the real deal,” someone who genuinely loves God from their hearts and want to be an effective, fruitful servant of Jesus Christ. Maybe Thomas Merton would be in this category.

I think it matters which path one takes in seeking to benefit from Buddhism and other religions. What postmodernists call syncretism is probably a reality for many people: the media mashes up cultures and beliefs for us all day every day. For true seekers, I think it is possible that they are faithful to Jesus long before they know it, just like a Tibetan monk called Merton a “rangjung, a naturally arisen Buddha.” Regardless of all the connections humanity has in our spiritual searching, Jesus-followers need to reflect on what they believe, why they believe, and where they are going to look for spiritual truth, wisdom, and power. Our view of God and view of self are basic to how we live. How we know God and relate to God, and how we receive God’s work in our lives, affect all our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions. I am not talking just about intellectual reflection, we all need to integrate reason and experience in community to find our true self on the true path.

We are relating to Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus said, “Can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:36-8). The incarnation of God is Jesus begins our exploration.

In his book God in the DockLewis is quoted as saying, “If you had gone to Buddha and asked him ‘Are you the son of Brahma?’ he would have said, ‘My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.’ If you had gone to Socrates and asked, ‘Are you Zeus?’ he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammad and asked, ‘Are you Allah?’ he would first have rent his clothes then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, ‘Are you Heaven?’ I think he would have probably replied, ‘Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.’ The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man.”

From our secure base, reattached to our Parent through the work of Jesus, we can explore all sorts of beneficial goodness built into creation and imagined by humanity.  But every attempt to blend religions as a means to provide this base falls short of providing a spiritual foundation upon which to build. I think I have learned a lot from the wisdom and cultures found in “the East.” But Christian-Buddhist syncretistic blends tend to be so subjective that they resemble a host of individual, self-made religions. A Blender’s faith will likely depend mostly on his or her personal feelings and experiences in a vacuum, betraying fidelity to Jesus Christ in some way, and divorcing the Christian community’s reflection over the centuries that provides thoughtful examination of the implications of the competing worldviews, and a balanced interpretation of the revelation in the Bible.

The second route is less radical and seems fairly popular in some circles. Open to benefit from whatever might enhance their lives, Borrowers embrace meditation, yoga, ancient rituals, or anything else that they find helpful or meaningful in some other religion, but which is unavailable in their own tradition. Unconcerned about, or simply oblivious to, whatever underlying beliefs may be at odds with their Christian faith, they focus more on the immediate benefits of the borrowed ideas and practices that they are enjoying. I wonder, though, how often these “add ons” wind up being a distraction from spending time and energy seeking a more dynamic relationship with Christ and from learning how to live by the Holy Spirit. I feel more relaxed when I meditate, and my body feels better after exercise, but the most life-changing spiritual experiences I have ever had involve being consciously inspired and led by God as I wait in the silence; involve heart-felt, honest prayer and worship; or involve hearing God speak to me through the Bible and my brother and sisters in Christ.

Most of the time, my journey looks like the third path. I’m inspired. I’m on a quest for greater understanding about God, myself, and how human beings function and best flourish psychologically, socially, and spiritually. I am open to learn from any good source, and freely and respectfully borrow insights and practices from other religions (just like I am borrowing many thoughts from Tim Geoffrion today), providing they genuinely cohere with how the Lord speaks to me through the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ and the Bible. I have a relationship with God in Christ that guides my explorations.

I value dialogue but I do not journey as a lost soul. All along the way, I understand my way is laid out by my faith in and relationship to Jesus Christ. My quest is part obedience and part longing to better know, love, and serve God. I want to experience more and more of the abundant life Jesus offered to his followers. It seems inevitable that part of my experience will be encounters with different cultures and religions; they will help me open my eyes and mind. I respect fellow seekers and I welcome the opportunities.

As you consider your own journey, here is a prayer Tim Geoffrion suggests:

“Loving God, sometimes I feel overwhelmed and confused by all that I do not know or understand, and I want so much more for my life and relationships. Please help me to see what I need to see; give me courage to face truth wherever it may be found; and fill me with wisdom to know how to best learn from those whose beliefs do not fit neatly into my way of thinking or being in the world. I want to know you as you truly are, and to experience more of the abundant life Jesus came to give his followers. Please continue to lead me deeper into this life. In Christ’s name… Amen.”

This post was retooled from Tim Geoffrion’s helpful series: Benefiting from Buddhism.

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What does it take to make a church happen in your 20’s and 30’s?

Our church will be talking a lot about children for the next month or so. Not only do we love them, we know a lot of them. (They seem to be popping out all over like tulips). We want to strategize for raising them together.

Many people who have raised this generation of twentysomethings are second-guessing what they did. We can probably learn from them as we raise the next generation, since many of us are their children! A lot of Gen-Y/millennials (destructive labeling) seem a lot more helpless than expected, more than a few can’t work well enough or get along well enough to keep a job, and they expect a lot to be delivered into this very moment (like emotional delivery by drone). There may be reasons for this:

  • They may have been told they are special – for no reason. They didn’t display excellent character or skill, but were treated as if they had. Now they assume they are innately special and are frustrated if they have to prove it by doing something.
  • They may have been told to dream big – and now any small act seems insignificant.
  • Their parents may have made their happiness a central goal. Now it’s difficult for them to generate happiness — the by-product of living a meaningful life.
  • They may have been given every comfort – and now they can’t delay gratification. (Mickey Goodman)

Surprisingly enough, at our last Imaginarium, when we asked the question, “What is God saying to us?” we started talking about the same things. We are the “young” people who are learning new traits from God and one another that allow us to serve our cause. And yes, we think we are special and at the same time doubt anyone who says someone or something is more special than someone or anything else. We are often bumping up against the reality that we actually have to do something to live up to our ideals. A lot of what we talked about matches the quotes above. Here’s my summary of our rich dialogue:

Being and building the church is often hard — trust God

In the great scheme of things, we can’t instantly change the world. We have to take small, first steps – which seem like no progress at all to many of us.

One of us planted a tree in their back yard. Someone actually came into their yard, yanked up the tree and stole it! They had to figure out what to do with all their anger. They had bought the house, taken the step to plant something hopeful and now they had this irrational, cruel opposition. It was tempting to move out. Instead they managed to let it go and plant another tree.

stewingThe church has forces yanking on it every day. If it gets planted where anyone can see it, it might be  sitting duck for cruel opponents. We have to deal with that. The fact is, if it were easy to grow the church, that would probably mean we were doing it wrong. But easy is expected, nonetheless. The fact is, frustration might be good for us. We tend to think, “I don’t deserve this frustration. Look at how great we are!”  — sometimes we stew in that rather than acting in trust.

We need to risk being led by Jesus and leading people to Jesus. Even when we are ill, over-scheduled, or in the middle of chaos. We need to note how our distorted vision of our capability gets disrupted and take another step. We need to act on our few best ideas.  We need to admit that change = resistance — even our “second act” meets resistance although we all agree it needs to happen! We need to see that the domination system is likely to step on our sprout.

Encountering resistance to meaning is challenging — stay vulnerable

Happiness is not a commodity we can earn or deserve, really. It is a by product of living a meaningful life, a life for God, a life for others, a life for the common good, a life in line with with what we were given to be.

Nehemiah-wallOne of our leaders told the story of planting a tree in his sidewalk. He and the neighbors took a turn at sledging the sidewalk to bits. He saw it as undoing what true haters, the kind that paved his neighborhood a long time ago, have done. They got a tree in the ground. Two new people came to the cell meeting as a result. We are like Nehemiah and his allies re-building the wall around Jerusalem. The joy of the Lord is our strength. There is even joy in being able to suffer, able to sledge.

Unlike the domination system, we are killable. We are like sheep. We meet resistance with vulnerability.  A hospice worker talked about how vulnerable she feels whenever she enters a home where death is imminent. She has to let people know that if they trust her, she can do something. But it is not easy to trust, especially when the homeostasis is disrupted — as it so often is for us.

We obviously go through the same kind of resistance with God and others. Going through our internal resistance is much harder, even, than facing the outer. We do things in old ways and resist letting go of learned behavior.

The fact that it is bigger than just me is not always comforting — look farther than your reaction

Now it is time to relay the importance of waiting for the things we want, deferring to the wishes of others and surrendering personal desires in the pursuit of something bigger than “me.”

Our clean-up day T-shirts gave us a good example of doing something uncomfortable for the greater good. A surprising number of us are T-shirt resistant, even T-shirt phobic! If you grew up in a T-shirt-wearing youth group you may actually want to run from people on the street wearing matching shirts. They look like some kind of overbearing, coercive army.

One person told a story, however, about how he met his neighbor when he was working on his house. The neighbor wanted to know what his shirt was about, after a while of getting to know each other. He was kind of “trapped” into talking about something bigger than himself because he was wearing his earth shirt as a work shirt.

ghosts on grassAnother person said they wanted to be marked. They want to demonstrate solidarity. They want to be in the coalition. They thought our T-shirt redeemed bad T-shirts. We like the idea of adding a colorful part of the big story. We are not the beginning or the end, but we are happening.

Sometimes being part of something big can be really hard — like we might be like a tree that gets ripped out and transplanted. That can be good. But it is not comfortable. Multiplying a cell always feels something like that for someone — getting ripped up. One of us said it was like C.S. Lewis’ image of “spectres” becoming solid as they acclimated to heaven (in The Great Divorce). We might not even know what true comfort is until we obey the voice of God calling us into what is truest about ourselves and our place in the world.

We are God’s children. Perhaps we were ill-raised. But what a great parent we have to usher us into an improved adulthood in faith!

Our deep desire: Non-chemical ecstasy

When we imagine the far reaches of prayer, it includes how we feel. There is plenty of thinking when we pray, of course, but it feels good to know God. We followers of Jesus are being transformed by our relationship with Jesus. In prayer we are opened up to the influence of the Spirit of God in places we are built to receive it.

Spiritual ecstasy

The word “ecstasy” is not used in the Bible all that much, but people in the Bible are experiencing it. When people are having visions and are caught up into spiritual experiences it is called “an ecstasy.” So the word comes to describe an emotional/psychological place: “I am experiencing ecstasy. I am in ecstasy.” It is overwhelming feeling: happiness, joy, excitement. It is so overwhelming it can be like a trance, rapture, self-transcendence – it is beyond rational thought and self control. You might naturally associate the feeling with graduating from school, or falling in love, or having an orgasm. Spiritually, we might associate it with worship, speaking in tongues, or being brought to tears — the feeling of entering into a “huge space of grace” a friend once called it.

aguilera ramonesYou may or may not have had many experiences of ecstasy. You may not want to have them. There always seem to be two kinds of kids in high school when it came to feeling experiences. There were the Christina Aguilera kind who “just want to feel this moment.”  And there were always Ramones kind who want to be sedated.  I think most of us were in the middle somewhere kind of hovering on the edge of feeling and on the edge of sedation.

I think Jesus offers a completely new way, not on either extreme and not in the middle. Jesus eases our pain and helps us safely feel again. In prayer we find an ecstasy that is brand new, at least it has been for me. The experience and the feeling has reference points in my old self and my former way of life, but it is completely new, too, because Jesus has introduced me to God. The ecstasy that comes with knowing God may scare you or make you feel so skeptical that you want to run away from it. But it is also constantly enticing. We long for it.

Finding non-chemical ecstasy

One time in college my buddy and I went looking for an experience. At the time, I was more Christina Aguilera and he was more Ramones. I took him to a Pentecostal worship meeting at our piano teacher’s church. I am fond of Pentecostals and consider their way to be part of the 57 ways I can describe my faith. Experiences of ecstasy in worship with Pentecostals helped convince me that I was on the right track when I committed to follow Jesus. If the Apostle Paul experienced ecstasy, if the disciples of Jesus experienced the transfiguration with Jesus, I thought I ought to have some out-of-control experiences, too.

pentecostal worshipSo we ended up in a Pentecostal worship meeting among all these relatively normal looking people, (apart from some big hair here and there, which was popular among them at the time). Everything seemed like it would just be church until the music started and the ladies jumped up and started waving their arms. People cried. Someone shouted behind us and my friend flinched. Our piano teacher showed new sides of herself. Then they started singing loud and wiggling, some dancing, all waving. The music died down and they started shouting out prayers and then the speaking in tongues began. My buddy had had to get out of there and I left with him. He was one of the people that just could not get into the ecstasy, at least at that point. I don’t hold it against him. He was witnessing some non-chemical but maybe excessive kind of ecstasy. It was kind of scary.

Chemical ecstasy

You might be more familiar with the chemical called ecstasy: MDA — methylene-dioxy-meth-amphetamine. Ecstasy is the street named for a range of drugs. They are stimulants that speed up activity in the nervous system. They are hallucinogenic and typically affect perception in entertaining ways. I can’t resist this history; the Philly region has a lot of connection to this drug.

  • The original patent for MDMA was filed on Christmas Eve 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck which has a huge plant in Bucks county. The original purpose to control bleeding from wounds.
  • Alexander Shulgin resynthesized MDMA for use with psychiatric patients in the 70’s. The drug soon escaped the lab and appeared in trendy bars and gay dance clubs, where it got the nickname ecstasy. By the 80’s and 90s it fueled raves. It is still around.
  • For instance, our local Diabolique Ball at Shampoo not long ago was themed Agony and Ecstasy: A Religious Experience.

Today ecstasy is one of the four most widely used illegal drugs in the U.S., along with cocaine, heroin and marijuana.

My_Chemical_RomanceOne of my favorite bands of the last decade was called My Chemical Romance. They were named after a very popular book by Irvine Welsh called Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance.  In 2011 some people in Scotland turned the book into a movie. The main character justifies his use of the drug ecstasy with this thought: “It isn’t death that kills you; it is boredom and indifference that kills.” The drug ecstasy, apart from its well known side effects, like eating away sections of your brain, erases a person’s anxiety and allows them to connect more easily, which is why it is often called the love drug. People long to be free to connect and feel good.

People don’t want to die before they die. They want to live. If you don’t have Jesus, you might be tempted to try ecstasy to loosen up some life. But what if you are a committed Christian and drugs are on your do not do list because you have been resocialized not to kill yourself? What if you are still bored and still indifferent and you still don’t love and connect? I think we all need to face up to how we avoid ecstasy or we manufacture it. And we need to continue to discover how we feel in relation to God and even receive ecstasy from our renewed relationship with God. It should be a regular feature of our prayer and worship.

We were made for ecstasy

I think we are looking for joy; we were made for ecstasy. C.S. Lewis famously put it this way:

“I was still young and the whole world of beauty was opening before me, my own officious obstructions were often swept aside and, startled into self-forgetfulness, I again tasted Joy. … One thing, however, I learned, which has since saved me from many popular confusions of mind. I came to know by experience that it is not a disguise of sexual desire. … I repeatedly followed that path – to the end. And at the end one found pleasure; which immediately resulted in the discovery that pleasure (whether that pleasure or any other) was not what you had been looking for. No moral question was involved; I was at this time as nearly nonmoral on that subject as a human creature can be. The frustration did not consist in finding a ‘lower’ pleasure instead of a ‘higher.’ It was the irrelevance of the conclusion that marred it. … You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. … Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy…. All joy…emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.”

Lewis was describing his own experience of ecstasy and how the longing for God was better than receiving all the substitutes he could find. His was not quite the same as my Pentecostal friend’s leap into the arms of God, or Aguilera’s longing to feel it, or Gerard Way’s romance, but I think they were all motivated by the same root, the same desire. Everyone wants the joy of knowing God, it is how we respond to that want, that desire that makes the difference. It is in who or what we trust to understand the want and ultimately meet the desire that makes all the difference.

Often when people come across the idea of ecstasy in the Bible, they lay it off to the side like it is for odd occasions or strange people, or for the special people who stay after class. But all Jesus-followers are met by God, which, in itself is joy. We are not just looking at the Lord’s back as he leads us to eternity. He often turns and looks us in the face and we see his glory. Our relationship with the risen Lord reintroduces us in so many ways to paradise. Once we have peered over the fence and smelled the flowers; we always want to go back. And we should go there daily and enjoy that connection to the place  from which we were created and to which we are going, where God lives. That feeling sustains us and moves us and no one should take it from us.

Jesus says, “I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”

So now I have piled up some thoughts on the subject of ecstasy for you. I hope I have also given you some space to think and feel about your feelings. I defined the idea. I gave you some examples of it in relation to prayer. I showed the alternative the world offers in the drug called ecstasy. I countered that with a deeper definition by C.S. Lewis and topped it off with the promise of Jesus. I believe that promise is for each one of us — ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. The number one thing Jesus hopes we will ask for is himself — his grace, love, and Spirit. It is joy to us to know him and live in him.

Pentecost and the Deepest Magic

Pentecost is one of the main inspirations for my faith. I wish it were more “popular” as a holiday. At Pentecost, the truth, the law, the principles of faith are not just “out there,” in a building or in a book; they are all in me. The faith is not settled and static, it is living and everything is on the road, moving, changing and us with it. On Pentecost faith is real, risen and participative.  I see it is the first day of the new creation, the big bang in the little universe of Earth.

Pentecost is still a harvest festival

Some people eat blintzes on Shavuot. A good idea.

For the Jews of Jesus’ time Pentecost was more than just the first fruits of summer harvest festival because it was connected to the Exodus. Fifty days after the Passover and the deliverance from Egypt the people were offered to God as “first fruits;” at Sinai their consecration to the Lord as a nation was completed. So the celebration was also tied to the Ten Commandments and the “giving of the Law.” Jews believe that the law was given after exactly fifty days in the wilderness.

Paul says in Colossians 2:16-17 that the Jewish feasts and celebrations (like Shavuot) were a shadow of the things to come through Jesus Christ. A Christian’s celebration of Pentecost is about the reality that followed the promise of Jesus to his disciples that they would be filled with new life and new purpose. My celebration is about how the prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled.

I suppose it is no surprise that the new covenant gets activated with fire on the mountain of Jerusalem like it is a new Sinai. Jeremiah prophesied that a new covenant (or “testament”) was coming. The old covenant was broken. God was planning a new one. See Jeremiah 31. Pentecost celebrates a great new harvest. The holiday is still a harvest feast. But it is a harvest of people. It celebrates how the law is written on our hearts. It is still a festival about receiving the law. But the laws aren’t written in stone or in a book, they are written on hearts. The stone and book still count, but they are shadows of what the Spirit is making real.

Pentecost is a hard holiday to sell

These days Pentecost is a hard holiday to sell. Especially when it falls on Memorial Day weekend! It is a holy day with no special candy or music associated. There are no notable costumes to wear and people rarely put on plays about it. There is no way to make it cute or sentimental. It is very personal and very practical and spiritual. The basic material is: the disciples have this great experience, and immediately are sent on mission, and almost as immediately are in trouble with the authorities after 3000 people are received into the church. And we are to follow in their way. That’s so Christian, Christians can hardly stand it!

CS Lewis had a realistic view of the difficulty of getting people to understand the new covenant. He started by acknowledging a body of law that all humankind shares: everyone seems to agree that fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness are good. All the religions have some kind of version of this law. This law obliges us to do the right thing regardless of the pain, danger or difficulty involved. It is a hard law — “as hard as nails” But it is a shadow of the love Jesus is revealing. And the “law” of Jesus is even harder. In a poem he wrote:

Love’s as hard as nails,
Love is nails:
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of One
Who, having made us, knew
The thing He had done,
Seeing (what all that is)
Our cross, and His.

In Lewis’s first Chronicle of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the lion Aslan predicts this hardness of God’s love by promising to save Edmund from the results of treachery. He says: “All shall be done. But it may be harder than you think.” When Aslan and the wicked White Witch discuss her claim on Edmund’s life, she refers to the law of that world as the Deep Magic. Aslan would never consider going against the Deep Magic; instead, he gives himself to die in Edmund’s place, and the next morning comes back to life. Aslan explains to Susan that though the Witch knows the Deep Magic, there is a far deeper magic that she does not know. This deeper magic says that when a willing victim is killed in place of a traitor, death itself begins working backwards. The deepest magic works toward life and goodness.

Pentecost is about the deepest magic working toward life and goodness. We dare not get stuck practicing the “deep magic” that any person can know. As we see, Jesus says, “All shall be done. But it may be harder than you think.” As we immediately see from the history in Acts, it is harder than one might think to be alive with the Spirit in a dying world:

  • to be the presence of the future,
  • to have one’s own love that is hard as nails,
  • to be personally responsible for carrying life and not just let the priest or church take care of it,
  • to have a living faith and not just live a legacy of being a Christian as part of your culture or family.

Pentecost is more than the deep  magic

Most religion is just natural law — love the baby in the manger, justify yourself as not guilty by doing what others think is right. I think the world can sell all sorts of religion based on the “deep magic” that everyone already has an inkling of and that cultures preserve in their laws. But that law is not being the baby, or receiving forgiveness, or speaking out love and forgiveness. It is not receiving the power to work the deepest magic like Jesus.

I like Pentecost because I want to follow Jesus. I don’t want to profess to follow Jesus unless I am working with more than the “deep magic.”

I need the law written on my heart. Being a good person is not enough. I need to be forgiven, to be written on. I need God to write my itinerary and determine my value.

I need to harvest. Attending holy day meetings is not enough. I need to praise God in public like those enthused disciples. I need to form community and include people in it like the first church. I need to come up against the “powers that be” equipped with the truth about Jesus and little more. That’s what happened at Pentecost and happens still.

A Bit on Dawn Treader Lite

It is the most wonderful time of the year for movies. I enjoyed “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” last night. It was very beautiful. Reepicheep was the best actor among all the stilted children wielding swords. The voice of Liam Neeson was nice to hear, speaking as Aslan, who Edmund names as “the son of the Emperor over the Sea, who saved me and saved Narnia.” At least Edmund named Aslan that in the book.

My JRF Review of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader | Jason Staples
Eustace and Reepicheep

Lite Religion

For marketing reasons, I guess, producers find it necessary to go light on the religious nature of the Chronicles of Narnia when they film them. I was just complaining last week in our public meeting about how Disney feeds us watered-down, Disneyfied myths to compete with the story of Jesus, as if Santa were not bad enough. This installment of the Narnia series was distributed by 20th Century Fox, Disney’s twin, owned by NewsCorp, which is lead by possibly the devil incarnate, Rupert Murdoch.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader  plainly says it is based on the Chronicles of Narnia, so as not to offend the heaven-based C.S. Lewis, no doubt. It is not totally denuded of Christianity, but it is striking what they choose to water down and reinterpret. The freeing of Eustace from his dragon skin was the most disappointing moment of all. It was so disappointing I have actually typed out the passage in the book for you, so you can remember what really happened. The account in the book is one of the most pleasant renditions of how God frees us from sin and draws us through baptism into the healing process of our new life. It bears repeating. Read this to you children, don’t just let them see the movie version. If you just take them to the movie, they’ll get too much Murdoch, not enough Lewis, and very little Jesus.

             “Then the lion said—but I don’t know if it spoke—You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty near  desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back and let him do it.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt more than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.’
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I had done  myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker and darker and more knobbly looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. …
After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me—
“Dressed you. With his paws?”
“Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes—the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact. And then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream.”
“No it wasn’t a dream,” said Edmund. “I think you’ve seen Aslan.”…
“But who is Aslan. Do you know him?”
“Well—he knows me,” said Edmund.

Carrie, how could you?

The second most disappointing thing about Voyage of the Dawn Treader was Carrie Underwood. She wrote the song that will probably be competing for the Academy Award for best song. I was watching the credits for once because I wanted to see where they filmed the movie (New Zealand, of course). So I could not miss Carrie singing one of those songs that is religious without any Jesus in it. I think it is probably exactly the kind of song Lewis would have had Wormwood producing in the Screwtape Letters to make sure humans are fed light faith that doesn’t even need to be tempted.

Here is the most delusion-inducing stanza:

We can be the kings and queens of anything if we believe.
It’s written in the stars that shine above,
a world where you and I belong, where faith and love will keep us strong,
exactly who we are is just enough
there’s a place for us, there’s a place for us.

I’m sure Carrie means well. And if one listens to the whole lyric with Jesus in mind, it is easy to supply the truth that is not stated. But she could have least said, “If Aslan rips your skin off you have a chance to live.” She might have said, like the movie even said, “If you meet the Aslan of our world, who goes by another name you can enter that place for you.” Instead, she ended the watered-down tale by watering it down even more. I tuned to Gwen and said, “What is this b.s. song doing here?” (That’s my problem, of course.) Love you Carrie, but shame on you. You should have let Jesus take the wheel on that one.

I hope you enjoy The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It is fun. There are moments that are moving and mysterious. It does not miss all the Christian underpinning it should have. It is a good tale. If you unmuzzle Jesus while you are there, it will actually be a growth experience, too: receiving what is given and lamenting what is not.