It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

(Reblogged, slightly adapted,  from last year.)

No – not what you’re thinking. Not Christmas: Advent. It starts this coming Sunday, December 1st, and lasts until Christmas Eve.

Ever since my children were little I’ve loved the season of Advent with a passion. Advent tells us that there’s a better future ahead; it reminds us of the Old Testament promises of the coming of the Messiah, and the New Testament hope that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom of justice and peace will never end. The Advent hymns and scriptures (mainly from the Old Testament prophets) reinforce these themes for us.

The oldest ‘layer’ of Advent, in my experience, is the traditional hymns. I was brought up in a churchgoing family and sang as a chorister when I was a boy, so these hymns are indelibly fixed in my memory. ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’, ‘On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry’, ‘Hark the Glad Sound – the Saviour Comes’ – these are just some of the best known examples of hymns that celebrate the Advent message. I love the music of Christmas, too, but I really don’t like it when stores start playing it right after Remembrance Day (all in an effort to enhance Christmas sales, of course). I don’t want to get to Christmas too soon; I want to wait, and savour the sense of anticipation that Advent gives. Singing the Advent hymns helps me to do that.

Speaking of waiting, when my kids were very little (back in our Arborfield days), Marci and I found a book about family Advent customs called ‘Celebrate While We Wait’, by the Schroeder family. It was this book that first introduced us to the Advent wreath; the wreath had never been a part of my childhood Advent experience, and until I read about it in the Schroeders’ book, I had never heard of it either. But we quickly made it a part of our family Advent practice.

I made our first wreath from a piece of circular styrofoam, but later I made a more permanent base from the top of an old wooden stool into which I drilled five holes for the candles. The candles are traditionally purple (some people now use blue, but I myself prefer the traditional colours), perhaps with one pink one, and a white one in the centre for Christmas. Marci and I still light our wreath at suppertime every evening, and after supper we use a book of Advent devotions to help us meditate on the themes of the season and to lead us into prayer together. There is a wealth of resources available for this; simply googling ‘Advent devotions’ brings up 304,000 hits in a quarter of a second, and searching for ‘Advent devotional’ on amazon.ca produced 570 results! We sometimes add our own prayers, and conclude with the Lord’s Prayer together.

Advent, of course, is about God’s kingdom of justice and peace breaking in to transform the world, and so Advent is a good time to think about what we’re doing to forward the work of God’s kingdom. What am I doing at this (often rather selfish) time of year to care for the poor and needy and to transform the structures of our society so that our world becomes a more just and peaceful place? A few weeks ago, in our church (St. Margaret’s, Edmonton), we were visited by representatives of a couple of Edmonton outreach agencies. Listening to them speak about the work their organisations do reminded me again that there are things that each of us can do to help translate the Advent hope into reality in the world for which Jesus gave his life. What might God be calling me to do this Advent, in a practical way, to live out the message of his Kingdom? (Here’s a good perspective on this.)

Christmas celebrates the central mystery of the Christian faith – God coming to live among us as one of us in the person of Jesus. Advent helps me enter more meaningfully into that celebration. It reminds me that as the light of the candles shines in the darkness, so the words of the prophets shine in the darkness of despair and hopelessness and point us to a time when we will study war no more, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

Let me close with my favourite Advent prayer, composed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer and used in Anglican churches worldwide, with little variations, down to the present day:

‘Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility, that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and for ever, Amen’.

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Eustace Clarence Scrubb: Changed by the Power of Aslan

As we remember C.S. Lewis fifty years after his death – and today, which would have 001862ba95bf951f_largebeen his 115th birthday – I post the second in my 2006 Lent series on characters from the Narnia stories and what they can teach us about following Jesus.

Please note that this sermon is based on the book, ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, not the movie!

C.S. Lewis begins his Narnia story The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with these words: ‘There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb – and he almost deserved it’. What follows is a wonderful story that works on at least two levels. On the surface, we have a classic tale about a sea voyage and the adventures the sailors go through along the way. On a deeper level, though, we have a story about the transformation of Eustace Clarence Scrubb from a thoroughly self-centred and unpleasant character into a person who is learning to think of others and to have a more realistic view of himself. And this transformation is accomplished through the power of Aslan the Lion.

This is a very important theme for us as we continue our journey through Lent.  We’ve been taking as our guide C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories for children and childlike adults. Last week we thought about the character of Aslan the Lion. We discovered that he’s definitely not a tame lion, and neither is he safe: “Course he isn’t safe!” Mr. Beaver exclaimed, “But he’s good!” Aslan helps us to understand our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus loves us with a love that is absolute and uncompromising, a love that isn’t just about being nice to us but about telling us the truth about ourselves and helping us to be more than we are, even when growth is hard and unpleasant. We approach this Jesus, we said, with absolute confidence in his love for us, but also in absolute obedience to his authority.

But this week we’re going to have to grapple with the subject of change, and how change takes place. We’re going to have to look at the reality of sin, and how sin has a literally monstrous effect on us. We’re going to have to look at how hard it is for us to change: in the end, unless we have the help of Christ, change isn’t going to happen. And we’re going to look at some of the effects of that change when it finally comes about.

UnknownSo – back to Eustace. Eustace is the cousin of the four Pevensie children we met last week, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is chronologically the fifth of the seven Narnia stories, and Edmund and Lucy by this time have a lot of experience with Narnia. Now, however, they are back in our world, and they find that they have to spend their summer with their cousin Eustace. Lewis loses no time in telling us what sort of person Eustace is:

Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card. . . . [D]eep down inside him he liked bossing and bullying . . . [H]e knew that there are dozens of ways to give people a bad time if you are in your own home and they are only visitors. He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators.

Eustace is a selfish person, intensely practical, with absolutely no imagination – which, for C.S. Lewis, was one of the worst things you could say about someone. He has also turned the infliction of misery on other people into an art form.

The three children are magically taken to the land of Narnia, where they find themselves on the Dawn Treader, a Narnian ship on which King Caspian is on a voyage into unknown seas to find seven lost lords. The Dawn Treader is a sailing ship, and Eustace loses no time in starting to criticize it. He ‘kept on boasting about liners and motor boats and aeroplanes and submarines’. Boasting, of course, is all about trying to seem better and more important than other people.

We get more opportunities to find out what a self-centred character Eustace is as the story continues. One of the finest characters in the entire Narnian series is Reepicheep, the valiant and chivalrous talking mouse who comes across as a sort of ‘D’Artagnan’ figure from The Three Musketeers. One day Eustace finds Reepicheep perched on the figurehead of the ship:

As soon as (Eustace) saw the long tail hanging down… he thought it would be delightful to catch hold of it, swing Reepicheep round by it once or twice upside down, then run away and laugh.

Unfortunately things don’t quite work out the way Eustace thinks they will, as Reepicheep is just as good with his sword upside down as he is right way up! On another occasion, when the ship is becalmed and the water is running low, Eustace makes excuses to try to get more than his fair share of the water supply. In these and many other ways Eustace makes a thorough nuisance of himself through his selfishness and self-centredness.

Eventually, after a severe storm, the Dawn Treader arrives at an island where they can get fresh water and repair the ship. Eustace slips off into the hills by himself, and comes by chance to the cave of a dragon. He finds the cave filled with treasure – as you all know, being very imaginative people, that’s what you expect to find in a dragon’s cave! His mind immediately begins to play on what the treasure could do for him, and he eventually goes to sleep on the pile of treasure, his mind full of greedy and selfish thoughts. But when he wakes up, he discovers to his horror that in his sleep he has been transformed into a dragon himself. ‘Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard, with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself’.

This is what sin does to us, you see; it reduces our humanity. Romans 3:23 says ‘All have eustacesinned and fall short of the glory of God’, and the Living Bible paraphrase of that verse says, ‘All have sinned and fall short of God’s glorious ideal’. As John Bowen says ‘Sin may tempt us to try to become more than we were made to be, but its effect is ultimately to make us less than we were made to be’.

So Eustace has chosen to be a selfish and self-centred person, and the dragon he has now become is just an outward expression of the inner state of his heart. This forces him to begin to face the truth about himself. He realizes that he doesn’t like the person he has become. Lewis tells us,

[h]e wanted to be among friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realized he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to see that the others had not really been fiends. He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed. He longed for their voices.

So he goes back to join the others, and succeeds in letting them know that even though he is a dragon outwardly, inwardly he is Eustace. They want to receive him back but can’t decide how they can possibly take him along on the ship in his dragon form. For Eustace, this is a symbol of the misfit he’s chosen to be all along.

Poor Eustace realized more and more that since the first day he came on board he had been an unmitigated nuisance and that he was now a greater nuisance still.

Things seem hopeless for Eustace; there’s nothing he can do to change himself back into human form. But then one night he meets Aslan the Lion, who leads him to a garden on top of a mountain. There he finds a well of water, which sounds a lot more like a walk-in Jacuzzi to me! Eustace wants to bathe, but Aslan tells him he must undress first. Eustace remembers that dragons can shed their skin, so he scratches and scratches and eventually the dragon skin comes off. Underneath, however, he finds another dragon skin, and then another and another. He eventually despairs, and then Aslan says to him, “You will have to let me undress you”. Aslan uses his lion claws, tearing the dragon skin away completely, tearing so deeply that Eustace feels as if it has gone straight through his heart. It hurts him worse than anything he has ever felt, but the next thing he knows Aslan is throwing him into the water, and then he finds to his excitement that he has turned into a boy again.

Eustace then goes back to join the others. He knows that Aslan’s power has changed him, but he also knows he’s got some things to put right with the others. He meets his cousin Edmund, and he says, “By the way, I’d like to apologize. I’ve been pretty beastly”. He’s now on the way to becoming a much less selfish and unpleasant human being. Not that the process is an instant process. Lewis is far too honest about our Christian experience to pretend that this can happen. He says, ‘It would be nice, and fairly true, to say that, “from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.” To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of these I shall not notice. The cure had begun’.

This story of Eustace has a lot to teach us about transformation. And transformation is what the Christian message is all about. The Greek word is ‘metanoia’, which means change – deep, lasting change. It’s sometimes translated as ‘conversion’; in one place Jesus uses the image of a new birth, which is about as powerful a change as you can imagine – to be born all over again. But transformation isn’t a one time only event for us Christians – it’s a process that continues throughout our Christian life.

The story of Eustace tells us what sin is all about. We make a big mistake if we think the essence of sin is specific sinful acts like lying or stealing or lust. Sin in the Bible is essentially selfishness or self-centredness; it is rejecting the rule of the one true God and claiming the right to be God for ourselves. I’ve often said that it’s a happy coincidence in the English language that the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ in the centre of it – and when I put myself at the centre of my life, and see everyone else as just there for my convenience – even God – then I’m in a state of sin. That’s what Eustace does. He lives a totally self-centred life.

The story of Eustace shows us what sin does to us. As we said earlier on, the reason sin is so terrible is because it makes us less than truly human. I said at the beginning that sin has a literally monstrous effect on us. Sin transformed Eustace into a monster – but the monstrous form was simply a reflection of his monstrous heart. Sin makes us something hideous, something far less than the fully human persons God wants us to be. And sin spoils our relationships, too, isolating us from others. Even Lucy, the youngest Pevensie, who has probably the kindest heart of anyone in the Narnia series, finds it hard to put up with Eustace, and Edmund, who usually calls a spade a spade, simply calls him a ‘record stinker’!

The story of Eustace shows us that transformation starts by facing the truth about ourselves. The Letter of James, in the New Testament, tells us that God’s law is like a mirror that shows us what we are really like. Some people, though, don’t want to face that truth: ‘They look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they are like’ (James 1:24). But Eustace can’t do that; he realizes that he has been a thoroughly unpleasant person; he accepts that truth, and longs more than anything else to change.

But the story of Eustace shows us that we can’t change ourselves. Eustace gets to the point where he longs to change. He hates what he has become, and he wants more than anything else to be just a boy again. That’s a moment we all have to come to. We choose to change direction, to repent of our sins, to learn a new way of life. We read the story of Jesus, we’re inspired by his teaching, and we think, “This is what I want!” So we make some resolutions, plan to make some changes, and off we go.

Crash! It might take twelve hours or twelve days, but sooner or later we come face to face with our human weakness. Sinfulness goes far deeper in us than we thought it went. Christianity, as I’ve said here before, isn’t difficult: it’s impossible! All Eustace can do is make himself into a slightly less wrinkly dragon; he can’t make himself into a boy again.

The story of Eustace shows us that we can only be changed by the power of Christ. Aslan is the only one who can rip the dragon skin off Eustace, and the first tear pierces Eustace all the way to the heart. His problem started with his self-centred heart, you see. Superficial solutions can’t accomplish anything.

Over and over again, Christian people have discovered that only the power of Jesus can help them become different. We come to the point where we cry out desperately: “I’ve tried, I really have, but I just can’t change myself”. So we call out for his help. Often that help is painful to receive; Eustace said it hurt more than anything he’d ever felt in his life. Things happen to us, or we find ourselves asked to do things, that we shrink from because they seem too painful. But, as the Twelve Steps of A.A. say, ‘Half measures availed us nothing’. If we’re going to be changed, it will have to be with the help of Christ.

Finally, the story of Eustace shows us that transformation is gradual. The mountaintop experience with Aslan leads down to the daily decision to follow him. And this daily decision, too, is made with the help of Christ. Often it feels like two steps forward and one step back – on some days, one step forward and two steps back! But the Christian disciple is wiser now; she realizes that self-confidence is a dead end, so each day she looks to Jesus for guidance and strength to take the next step. By the power of Aslan, Eustace is learning a new way of living. By the power of Jesus, I can learn that new way too.

Many thanks to John Bowen, who let me read his fine book ‘The Spirituality of Narnia‘ in draft form before it was published. John gave me many excellent insights into Lewis’ characters and how they could help us follow Jesus.

Aslan: ‘Not a Tame Lion’

A few years ago I did a Lent series on characters from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories and 20070313-cs_lewis_strong_1what they can teach us about following Jesus. At this time when we’re especially remembering Lewis on the 50th anniversary of his death, I thought I might post some of them here. Here’s the first one:

Aslan: ‘Not a Tame Lion’
In the late 1940s, C.S. Lewis was a teacher of English Literature at Oxford University. He had moved gradually from atheism to Christian faith in his early thirties; he had written a number of scholarly books about English literature, as well as some books defending the Christian Faith, including a very popular one called The Screwtape Letters – imaginary letters from a senior devil to a junior devil on the art of temptation. He had also written three science fiction novels.

In the mid 1940s Lewis began getting some pictures in his head. He began to see a faun – a character from Greek mythology with the body of a man and the legs and feet of a goat. The faun was walking in a snowy wood, under a lamp post, with some parcels under its arm. Lewis wondered what the faun was doing there, and so he began to write a children’s story to find out. He wrote about sixty pages or so, and then suddenly a new character came bounding into the story – a great Lion, Aslan. Lewis said later that ‘when Aslan came into the story, he pulled the other six stories in after him’. The seven children’s stories about Aslan and the land of Narnia have become C.S. Lewis’ best-loved and most popular books.

The books are not allegories. Rather, Lewis explained, they are ‘supposals’. ‘Suppose there was another universe, and God and Christ appeared there and did things, but in a different form than in our universe. What might they be like?’

The Narnia stories present Christian truth to us in an imaginative way. For the next six weeks, as we go through Lent, we’re going to look at characters from the stories, to see what they can teach us about Christian discipleship. My outline for the series will tell you which of the books each week’s sermon is based on; I strongly recommend that you read them ahead of time. They are short books and very easy to read – each of them is about a two hour read, I think.

6a014e5fb9e8aa970c0191034eea2f970c-800wiToday we’re going to start with the central figure of the whole series, Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure. In one of the books, it’s said of Aslan that he’s ‘not a tame lion… Of course he isn’t safe! But he’s good!’ Let’s see what Aslan has to teach us about Jesus.

When I was a little boy I used to sing a bedtime hymn that went like this: ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child’. This went along with the popular view of the blond haired Jesus with little lambs in his arms.

The truth is that the character of Jesus as we find him in the New Testament is just too vast for us to get him all in – it’s like trying to take a photograph of the Pallisades with a tiny camera! Because of this, we all tend to ‘leave bits out’ when we think about Jesus. In medieval times it was his majesty and authority that was emphasized, and people were afraid to even approach him. I suspect that was why the Virgin Mary was emphasized so much in those days; it was as if people were saying to her, “You talk to him for us, please!” Our age, on the other hand, has gone to the opposite extreme with Jesus. We’re a therapeutic age, and so we like the gentle, non-judgemental Jesus who specializes in warm fuzzies and active listening.

It was a feature of C.S. Lewis’ faith that very early on he was determined not to ‘leave bits out’ of his picture of Jesus. His oldest friend Arthur Greaves had been a Christian long before him, but after his conversion Lewis soon came to suspect that his friend wasn’t really taking the gospels seriously. In a letter to him he said, ‘I’m beginning to think that you can only get what you call “Jesus” out of the Gospels by leaving a lot out’. Some years later Lewis was writing a letter to a woman who was thinking about becoming a Christian. He says something like this to her: ‘Everyone told me that if I read the gospels I’d find Jesus irresistible. Well, I didn’t find that at all! What I did find was that most of the time we aren’t even invited to give an opinion about him – he’s the one who will give his opinion about us!’ So it’s not surprising that when Lewis came to give us his picture of Jesus in the character of Aslan the Lion, he tried to portray this combination of kindness and severity – of total authority and absolute love.

In the first of the Narnia stories to be written, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we meet the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They have been evacuated from London during the Blitz and are staying in the countryside at the stately home of an old professor. Little Lucy is the first one to discover the magic wardrobe which, sometimes, acts as a doorway into a completely different universe. She goes through it, meets the faun Mr. Tumnus, and finds out the tragedy of life in Narnia: it’s a country ruled by the evil White Witch who has made it ‘always winter, but never Christmas’.

Edmund is the next one to get into Narnia; he meets the White Witch there and is foolish enough to become one of her supporters. Eventually all four of the children get in at one time. Lucy takes them to meet Mr. Tumnus, but they discover that his cave has been destroyed and he has been arrested for helping humans. As they are wondering what to do, the children are guided to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver – I should tell you that Narnia is peopled by these talking animals. There the beavers tell them that Aslan, the true ruler of Narnia, has returned and plans to set Narnia free from the rule of the White Witch. But he needs the help of the four children to do it, because there’s an old prophecy of two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sitting on the four thrones in the castle of Cair Paravel.

Mr. Beaver is the first one to describe Aslan to the children. Susan asks who Aslan is, and Mr. Beaver says:

“He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand. Never in my time or my father’s time”.

Lucy asks, “Is he a man?”

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not! I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion”.

A moment later Lucy asks if this great Lion is ‘safe’.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good”.

And over and over again, throughout the Narnia stories, people are reminded that Aslan is ‘not a tame lion’.

Peter, the oldest of the four, says, “I’m longing to meet him, even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point”. And this is exactly what happens. Later in the story, when the children first meet Aslan, this is how he is described for us:

People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.

Good and terrible – gentle and severe – loving and commanding – this is Aslan. In other places in the books this combination of characteristics is underlined for us. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Aslan ends up giving his own life in the place of Edmund the traitor, just as Jesus gave his life for us. Aslan is portrayed as being very close to the two girls, Susan and Lucy, especially to Lucy who he often calls ‘dear heart’ or ‘dear one’. But he never shrinks from confronting his dear Lucy with her shortcomings. In Prince Caspian he has been trying to get the children to follow him, but only Lucy could see him, and the others had not believed her. When Lucy finally gets to talk to Aslan about it, here’s what happens:

‘Yes, wasn’t it a shame?’ said Lucy. ‘I saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so – ‘

From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.

‘I’m sorry’, said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. ‘I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway, was it?’

The Lion looked straight into her eyes.

‘Oh, Aslan’, said Lucy. ‘You don’t mean it was? How could I – I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that… oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you…’

There isn’t time for me to recount this incredible conversation, but you get the sense of how Aslan doesn’t shrink from helping Lucy to see the truth about herself.

Let me give one more example. In the book The Horse and His Boy, Aravis is the young 4l1sdaughter of a great Lord, who runs away to escape a forced marriage. She drugs her slave girl, so that she will go to sleep and won’t be able to stop Aravis’ escape. Later we learn that the slave girl is whipped for letting this happen. Toward the end of the story Aravis meets Aslan in a terrifying fashion; she is riding her horse, Hwin, and they are chased by a Lion. The Lion catches them, and strikes Aravis across the back with his claws, wounding her with great stripes. Later on, explaining this to Aravis, Aslan says,

‘The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like’.

Aslan loves people with a deep and tender love, but it is also a tough love, a love that never shrinks from telling them the truth, and sometimes even subjecting them to painful discipline, in order that they may grow and become the people they were meant to be.

We see the same thing in the Gospels with our Lord Jesus Christ. Sometimes we see his tenderness: he takes off his outer robe and washes the feet of his disciples, the job the slave was meant to do. He’s patient with them, forgiving them and restoring them when they fail. When Peter denies him three times he doesn’t reject him, but gives him an opportunity later on to reaffirm three times that he loves his Lord after all.

Yet the sense of authority is also very clear here. We sometimes read in the Gospels that his disciples were afraid to ask him things. We don’t get the sense that a fireside chat with Jesus would automatically be a cosy thing. Jesus tells his disciples the truth, even if they don’t want to hear it. At the last supper, when Jesus warns his disciples that they are all going to desert him, Peter says, ‘ “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you”. Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times”’ (Matthew 26:33-34). When a rich young man asks him what he must do to enter the Kingdom, Jesus tells him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. The man turns away, refusing to pay the price, and Jesus doesn’t negotiate with him; he doesn’t say, “Wait – come back – perhaps we can come to an agreement – a tenth would be enough!” Jesus is the King; he gets to dictate the terms. He drives out the money changers from the temple with a whip, and he tells the Pharisees that they remind him of whitewashed graves – nice on the outside, but full of bones and corruption inside.

How are we to approach this Jesus? First we approach him in absolute confidence in his love for us. Aslan gave his life on the stone table so that Edmund the traitor could go free. In the same way, the Bible tells us that the Son of God loved us and gave himself for us on the Cross. He held nothing back. So we can be absolutely confident in his love for us.

But his love for us is not always the same as ‘being nice to us’. It’s a tough love that will never ‘let us off the hook’; if he knows that something is good for us, he will be relentless in pointing us toward it, even if it is hard and painful. He will always tell us the truth about ourselves, in the hope that we will accept it and move forward in our relationship with God.

And so we also approach him in absolute obedience to his authority. ‘He’s the King’, says Mr. Beaver. The Kingdom of God is not a democracy; the Son of God is our Lord, and we are summoned to follow him.

I find that the picture of Aslan in the Narnia stories helps me to understand and follow Jesus better. Toward the end of one of the books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund that they will not be coming back to Narnia again. Lucy is heartbroken at the thought of never meeting Aslan again. But Aslan reassures her, “But you shall meet me, dear one”:

“Are—are you there too, sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. That was the very reason you were brought into Narnia, that by knowing me for a little, you may know me better there.”

And that is also my hope for you all as we go through this Lent sermon series.

‘Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours’

LewisBut there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away ‘blindly’, so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is his) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come to you when you are looking for Him. Does that sound strange? The same principle holds, you know, for more everyday matters. Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity Book 4, Chapter 11 ‘The New Men’.

Clive Staples Lewis, Nov. 29th 1898 – Nov. 22nd 1963

On this day fifty years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the 50th anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And thank you.

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Mary and the Soldier

This is a wonderful live take from 1976 with a very young Paul Brady, Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny performing their version of the traditional song ‘Mary and the Soldier’. Andy and Donal are long-time members of the legendary Irish folk group ‘Planxty’, and Paul was with Planxty for a short time too.

Paul Brady’s web site.

Andy Irvine’s web site.

Donal Lunny on MySpace.