For Brenton Dickieson – thought he’d enjoy this (written some time back):
It was one of those cold, clear winter nights when the stars are like clouds covering the sky. The air was crisp and the moon was yet to rise.
Silhouetted upon the church tower stood a very large man. His hair was long and rather unkempt. He wore a coat of fur and held a staff in his hand. His head was upturned to the sky. There on the horizon like a red jewel was Mars, twinkling like a fire, peering down upon the earth with its martial gaze. The great man looked upon it and sighed, not with the sigh of despair, but with the sigh of determination.
Dire times were at hand. The flicker of Mars brought to his mind the flicker of fire: fire consuming British villages and churches; fire set upon the land by Danish hands. He briefly closed his eyes and tried to shake the vision from his mind.
He crossed himself and turned to descend the tower. As he did so, the moon began to rise and a prayer formed in his heart. It was a prayer for Logres, a prayer for the school, a prayer for the King, who was the last wall of defense for Christendom in the days ahead, the sole Protector of the Britons and what remained of Pax Romana in the land.
And with that prayer, Merlinus bade farewell, for now, to the stars.
It is intriguing that Kincaid, in his last excerpt from Lewis’s writings on prayer – How To Pray from HarperOne – choses one of the darkest of Lewis’s passages about the subject. Lewis makes much of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane in his meditation on prayer, especially in Letters to Malcolm. This last chapter is from the 8th chapter of that book. It’s like reading A Grief Observed.
The background to Letters to Malcolm, chapter 8, is not here present. Lewis has imagined a scenario in which his correspondent’s son has had a possible diagnosis of a serious disease. Lewis commiserates with him, saying that his friend’s grief has brought to mind his own recent grief, which we know to be the loss of his wife, Joy. We are thus here, in this chapter, reading something of a 1963 post-script to A Grief Observed, published in 1961. These are further reflections Lewis has had since writing that book.
Let me briefly say that at least one purpose behind this passage is to help Christians to understand that anxiety about problems is not in itself sinful. Why? Because Jesus was subjected to anxiety. He was obviously anxious in the garden, yet without sin. In fact, Lewis would argue that it is human to be anxious, and that Jesus was simply here being fully human.
Lewis wants to know how the perfect Son of Man could be anxious about anything, and why did his Father allow it? I’ll leave it to you to read that. It’s interesting.
The point I want to make is that Jesus was anxious, and yet did not sin, because he did the right thing with his anxiety: he brought his anxiety to God.
The apostle Paul, in Philippians 4, tells us, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.” Now note: Paul is assuming that we are going to be anxious. As Lewis says, it’s part of living in a world where things are not all pre-determined. We never know what the next day may bring. But we indulge in an evil anxiety when we blaspheme God by assume the ultimate responsibility for our lives and questioning his goodness. We enter darkness when we think and feel our probems are ours to solve on our own, though we may ask God to help us solve our own problems, in our way and in our time.
The truth is that we are not in ultimate control of our lives, and that God, in his goodness toward believers, wants to work our circumstances together for our good and his glory (Romans 8). The right way to handle anxiety is not to fret and worry, or try to manipulate people and circumstances to bring ourselves relief. It is instead to go to our heavenly Father in prayer, and walk with him through the circumstances, trusting that he is going to take care of you. Indeed, as Paul instructs us, we give him thanks, ahead of time, for what he is going to do.
Jesus felt free to ask his Father about anything; but he also knew how to leave his life in his Father’s hands, and trust him – even when the going was rough and painful.
All questions will be answered. All tears will be wiped away. Let us wait on the LORD.
I wish I knew who painted that wonderful picture of Jesus praying in the garden.
Reference: C. S. Lewis, How To Pray: Reflections and Essays, (New York, HarperOne, 2018), ISBN-13: 978-0062847133.
This excerpt from The Problem of Pain, chapter 7, is a fascinating meditation in two large paragraphs. The question at hand is, as the title reads: “Can We Pray to Avoid Suffering if it is Good for our Soul” (p. 137, HTP)? Lewis knows that it is very natural for us to ask God to deliver us from suffering. Indeed he must allow this, for David’s psalms are full of such prayers. Even our Lord prayed, “Let this cup pass from me….”
But then Lewis notes a problem: the Bible elsewhere speaks of the sufferings of the saints as – potentially – good for them. Here comes the argument: if our prayers are to be for good things, and if suffering can be a good thing, then is it a contradiction to pray for its alleviation? Or, should we even be praying that we will be given suffering?
One could consider Lewis’s answer as an exposition of Romans 8:28, 29: ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” He breaks out the elements of the problem of how and why God uses evil in the life of a saint. He also deals with the nature of how suffering can help sanctify the saint. The whole is simply stated, but you have to work to keep his train of thought in these long paragraphs.
Lewis refers to the prayer of Jesus I’ve already mentioned, and here we have much of the answer to the question on the floor. It is a good thing if, maintaining a right motivation, a saint asks to escape this or that suffering. That right motivation would be, “nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” We are to save our lives, instead of losing them (Mark 8), from a sense of self-preservation that includes consideration of God’s good purpose for us.
Obviously, I’m avoiding giving away much here.
I close by referring to one thing he brings up: the self-contradiction in a statement like, “I want to just do what God wants me to do.” That sounds good, and in a certain sense it can be. However, it can mean, “What I chose at this moment is to chose to do what God wants me to do.” To say, “I chose to chose” is not to chose anything. There has to be some substance here. There has to be something on the table, something in the hand that is acted upon or submitted to. Otherwise, we have only an excuse for passivity: “I’m waiting to know what God wants me to do,” when God, ordinarily, opens doors and guides through our action or submission. But that means we have to actually do something; we must act. We must do this or accept that. The Christian life is not lived intending to do God’s will.
Does that make sense to you?Feel free to share this post
In this chapter, we have an excerpt from chapter 4 of A Grief Observed. As Lewis struggles with the pain of losing his wife, Joy – he calls her “H.”, for her other name was Helen – he goes back to his decades-old reflection upon Reality. What we imagine of God is usually faulty in some way. It does not match his real Self. In like manner, what he remembers of Joy was never really all that Joy was, and it is certainly not what Joy is now. Yet, he desires God and he desires Joy. He longs to enjoy the reality of both: “Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H.” (p. 133).
God also desires us (John 4:23). Therefore, if we are to meet at the same point of honesty and truth, he has to deal with our false concepts of him. Thus, as Lewis puts it, “He is the great iconoclast.” (p. 132) He has to destroy the false images of him that we worship.
Lewis eventually deals with one common false concept of God, and that is God as a means to some other end. Here, Lewis knows that, if he is to see Joy again, he must wind up where she is. Yet, we are not called to be faithful to God so we can see those we love in his presence. We are to love him for himself. Why? Because he is worthy of such devotion. Everything else is secondary.
But God is good. Lews does not refer to it here, but we cannot help but here the echo of his words in other places where he writes of how, if we desire God, we get everything else thrown in. The problem is desiring God, more for what is thrown in than for himself. We can never do that perfectly in this life. Thankfully, God knows this and makes allowance for it.
The best thing to do is to recognize that motivation is a choice, not a feeling, just as obedience is a choice, not a feeling. A right motivation is not some particular feeling that we have imagined we ought to have. In this life, our complicated and still imperfect selves can be “all over the place.” But our will can be fixed.
We can say, “Lord, you know right now, I want to see this or that person in your presence more than I actually desire you in some devotional way today. But I chose to make you preeminent in all things, because you are, and I want you to be. I chose to be willing to lose all for your sake, whether I feel like doing that or not. I commit my feelings into your hand, knowing you can deal with them. In the meantime, give me grace to be faithful in my present duties the best I can in this life at this time. You are my Salvation, not my feelings about you. Thus I go forth, in faith, trusting you to lead me safely to heaven, and to yourself.” He will take care of everything else.
The Rector of St. Luke’s Anglican (EMC), in Blue Ridge, Georgia, The Rev. Victor Morgan, preached this sermon today for the Second Sunday in Advent. This Sunday, in the Anglican tradition, is called “Bible Sunday” because of the emphasis upon the Scriptures, evident in the Collect for the week:
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Rev. Morgan e-mails his sermons early on Sunday mornings to what he calls the “St. Luke’s Diaspora.” I thought it so good, I got his permission to reprint it below. The sermon is based on Luke 1:26-56.
Sing of Mary, pure and lowly, Virgin mother undefiled, Sing of God’s own Son most holy, Who became her little child.
So, begins Hymn 117 in the Episcopal Hymnal. This morning I want, in fact, to do what this hymn directs: to sing a song of Mary. In churches reformed in the 16 century — for us, the Anglican Church — Mary does not get the press she receives in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. But that does not make her unimportant or dispensable. She remains an absolute necessity. No Mary. No Son of God in flesh made. No bridge joining heaven and earth. No salvation of the world. No hope and help for the individual struggling from some addition or sin.
For this reason, I want this morning to sing a song of Mary, the God bearer, Theotokos, as she is called in the Greek church tradition. In particular, I want to speak to you on the subject of Mary and the Word of God . . . ‘Word of God’ here having a double meaning, as I will go on to show.
We turn first to Mary and the Written Word, the Bible. Today, after all, is Bible Sunday, a day on which we give thanks to God for His written revelation and for all the blessings that have come about as a result of having an open Bible since at least the time of the Reformation of the 16th century.
But, what about Mary and the Bible? Did she in fact know the Written Word of God? Of course, it goes without saying that for Mary that Word would have been the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. Back to our question? Did Mary know the Bible? I want to suggest that not only did she know it, she knew it well.
A friend of mine is of Sicilian descent and has family members who are devout Roman Catholics. The older ones, she says, are very reluctant to read the Bible. “Why should I read the Bible? The priest tells me everything I need to know,” they say. This generation, you see, grew up at time when the Bible was something of a closed book in the Roman Catholic Church. Thankfully much of that reluctance has gone away. Roman Catholics are now encouraged to read the Bible, as I understand it.
Returning to Mary. Clearly, for Mary the Bible was an open book, not a closed one. How do I know? What are the clues? The first comes from her response to Gabriel’s message, the message which said she was to be the mother of the Messiah. It is obvious she knew what Gabriel was talking about. The hope given in scripture of a coming King out of David’s line was her hope.
I would want to argue further that her knowledge of scripture enabled her to say yes to God’s call quickly and decisively. How so? Well, in this way: God’s faithfulness in the past as detailed in the Bible served as a powerful incentive to trust Him in the present. She could therefore say: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
The same thing is true in our lives. The better we know the scriptures, the better we know the character of God, and thus the better able we are to put ourselves confidently in His hands. To entrust our very souls and bodies to Him.
We have found one clue that Mary knew her Bible. Is there another in today’s reading? I believe there is. It is the song that came pouring out of Mary’s mouth while she was at her cousin Elizabeth’s house. I am, of course, referring to the Magnificat, which gets its name from its opening words in Latin: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my saviour.” This song is saturated with scriptural allusions. One not steeped in the Bible could not possibly have come up with it.
One additional thought: Mary’s Magnificat is an act of worship . . . worship which flows from a knowledge of the scriptures. She remembers God’s promises, she sees that God is now fulfilling those promises, and she is moved to praise Him for His faithfulness, to worship Him.
That reminds me . . . Once a lady coming out of one of our services here at St. Luke said to me: “Since I have started reading the Bible and going to Bible study. I get so much more out of your sermons and worship.” Well, I think that is often the case. Familiarity with God’s Word encourages and enriches our worship of God. It was true in Mary’s life, and I think if we put it to the test, we shall find it to be so in our own lives.
Before I close, I want say one additional thing about Mary and the ‘Word of God’. This time I am using “Word of God” in a different context. The “Word” I am thinking of now is the Word Incarnate. “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing,” we sing in one of our Christmas carols.
Mary, I want to suggest, was not only a reader of God’s Word, she was a bearer of God’s Word. She brought this Word – the Incarnate Word — to the world. In her case, literally. You and I, I want to suggest, have a similar task. We too are called to bring the light and hope that comes from the Incarnate Word to the world, beginning with those who live in the shadow of this church.
Do you know anyone who is suffering at this time? Or who has lost hope? Do you know anyone who needs a Saviour, at any level? Do you know anyone who is alone and unloved at this time? If so, your task, my task, is to be a bearer of the Word Made Flesh. To bring His light, His love, His message of hope to this person and everyone with whom we come in contact.
May Mary’s response to God’s call be our response: “Be it unto me according to thy word.” Or, more simply: “Here I am. Use me.” This morning I sing a song of Mary.
In How to Pray (HarperOne, 2018), the fifteenth chapter, the editor places before us chapter 11 from Lewis’s book, Letters to Malcolm. My comments on this material may be found in this 2016 video I made in Oxford. It’s found on my YouTube channel, but I provide it here below.
In chapter 14 of the new How To Pray from HarperOne, C. S. Lewis raises the issue of the benefit of a sacramental understanding of the Creation in which we dwell and worship. The summary question, provided by the chapter heading, is “How Can We Be Like David and Pray with Delight?” The obvious answer is to pray like David prayed. But what did that look like? How might it have differed from the way we pray, as modern westerners? The answer is found in David’s unconscious assumption about God’s presence with us, vis a vis, Creation.
Lewis says he benefits from the Psalms because they illustrate for him a kind of “appetite for God” (p. 120) that he himself desires. Lewis wants to personally and experientially know God, in all his fullness. It seems to him that the ancient Jews had an experience that was richer than what we moderns tend to experience. They had this experience because they were not conscious of some divide between the literal and the abstract. If the ark of the covenant was in your house, God was in your house. The admittedly still spiritual presence of God was not distinguished from some object which in some way was associated with his presence, for whatever reason. The result is that the more sensual part of our being, as humans, is included in our experience of God, not excluded for some philosophical reason.
This interconnectedness of the material and spiritual is something of what is meant when we talk about a sacramental view of the world. The result can be more joy, more delight in our spiritual experience. We can enter more fully into the worship experience which we see in the Psalms – we add rituals, feasting, singing, and dancing to Bible study and prayer.
By the way, we don’t want anyone making the mistake that this kind of thinking excludes the grace of faith. It does not. It is simply a consideration of how faith can engage the promises and presence of God in various ways. Our hearts can take hold of the promises of God and the Gospel story in other ways than merely banking on a chapter and verse of the Bible – though by “merely” I do not mean to lessen the Bible’s proper place of importance. Yet, the Patriarchs walked with God by faith without a Bible at all.
The modern Christian can think this is too “carnal.” He or she can also be concerned about the more tragic element of our adoration of the LORD, living as we do after the life of Jesus. Lewis understands this and admits that, “Our joy has to be the sort of joy which can coexist with that; there is for us a spiritual counterpoint where they had simple melody” (p. 121). But, as he goes on to say, his concern in this essay is to help us to understand what he means by “coexist” with the older view. We need to be aware of the older view and seek to somehow get more experientially inside it, so we can share in that kind of joy of the presence of God.
Lewis doesn’t mention this, but we have to be on guard against a certain kind of hermeneutic – for centuries called Marcianism – which divides the religious belief and experience of the Old Testament saints from the new. We have to remind ourselves that their God is our God. And their experience of him was just as real as ours can be today. “Abraham rejoiced to see my day,” Jesus said. That being the case, our New Testament worship can potentially profit from more of a taste of their kind of worship. Indeed – for those of us concerned about being apostolic – would this not be closer to the worship of the early church? Though western thought was already creeping into their lives, they were still very much children of the Old Testament spirituality – they did keep worshipping in the Temple (Acts 2).
Many western churches, because of their fear of empty or even superstitious rituals, have no rituals at all. A worship service is really just a glorified Sunday School class. The apparent reason for meeting is to learn more about the Bible and have good Christian fellowship. There is no structure or decor about the service that would lead people before the throne of God to worship their King. Would David have recognized that as the worship of God’s people? Maybe, but what would he think was missing?
Does stripping away the historic, centuries-old worship of the Church lead us into a biblical spirit of worship which satisfies more than just our minds or our bare “spirit?” I am not saying you cannot experience God in a service of 3 hymns – don’t forget the announcements! – and a sermon. But what potential is lost if we depart from the traditional liturgy? How does that help us pray as David prayed?
Lewis points us to the Psalms and answers that, if we would pray as David prayed, we will want to increase our awareness of the “sacramentality” of Creation and to taste the presence of God through it, in those places where he has promised to “show up.” We want the distinction between the physical rites and actions and the presence of God to blend, to fade, to be one experience. We want more than to satisfy a curiosity about God. We want to have a hunger for God and to “taste” Him, who is both the Creator and the Redeemer of All.
The 13th chapter of How To Pray from HarperOne is a brief excerpt from chapter 15 of Letters to Malcolm, accompanied by two sidebars: the poem “Footnote to all Prayers” from Poems – and paragraph 27 of chapter 6 in The Four Loves. Here we are dealing with an issue of much importance to Lewis.
It is again that issue of Realty; here, the real me praying to the real God, vs. my unreal ideas and feelings about myself and God. Lewis says that we must get beyond our false ideas if the Bush is going to burn – if we are going to be where Moses was on the mountain: face to face with a God we cannot fully know, and unescapably faced with our own finitude and uncleanness.
We were made to know God. But we mess ourselves up in that relationship. We know so little. Our feelings get in the way. Our ideas can be so wrong. Our motives are always in question. And on top of it all: the immeasureable brightness and holiness, the ineffable being and presence of the Glory of God. It’s as if prayer is impossible from the start. Lewis wants us to be aware of this dilemmaso that, by God’s grace and the share we have in the work of Christ on our behalf, we can get beyond it.
The whole chapter reminds me of a hymn, which is a good commentary on Lewis’s point:
Eternal Light! Eternal Light! How pure the soul must be When, placed within Thy searching sight, It shrinks not, but with calm delight Can live and look on Thee.
The spirits that surround Thy throne May bear the burning bliss; But that is surely theirs alone, Since they have never, never known A fallen world like this.
Oh, how shall I, whose native sphere Is dark, whose mind is dim, Before th’ Ineffable appear, And on my natural spirit bear The uncreated beam?
There is a way for man to rise To that sublime Abode; An Offering and a Sacrifice, A Holy Spirit’s energies, An Advocate with God:
These, these prepare us for the sight Of holiness above; The sons of ignorance and night May dwell in the eternal Light, Through the eternal Love.
Thomas Binney (1798-1874)
Here is Lewis’s passion:to meet God on “the holy ground.” May it be our passion – and delight – as well. Footnote: read Hebrews 10.
In chapter 12 of the new HarperOne book, How To Pray, we have a meditation on a specific prayer by Lewis, originally in his essay “A Slip of the Tongue” found in The Weight of Glory. He relates an experience wherein he was praying this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer: “O GOD, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.”
Lewis tells us how he mistakenly said, “we may so pass through things eternal, that we finally lose not the things temporal.” The essay is a meditation on his alteration. Initially he plays with it. Why would he have made that slip? Was there something going on unconsciously? And then he thinks about how he might say that kind of thing on purpose.
This leads to an excellent examination of that mistrusting reluctance to freely give ourselves away to our Lord, which simmers away in all of our hearts. He gradually deals forthrightly with the prayer as it is written. If we pass through this temporal life without having given ourselves fully to God, we will lose the things eternal.
The sidebar that Kincaid, the Editor, adds to this chapter reminds us of a theme we see elsewhere in Lewis’s writings. It is a few lines from “Five Sonnets” in Lewis’ book Poems (#4, p. 126). If we only seek Christ partially, we lose all we desire. But if we seek him alone, we get everything else thrown in. But the lines also ask the question, how do we do that? How do we live that way? How do we start? How do we move beyond merely spashing in the sea to diving fully into it?
He doesn’t answer this question, save to help us to be sure we understand the matter at hand. There is no bargaining with God, and if we do not give him all we are, that we might receive all He is, we will lose our life – eternally. It’s about what Jesus tells us in Mark 8:34-37: “And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. 35 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. 36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? 37 Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
Is not the answer that we ask the Father to give us a renewed vision in our hearts of just how wonderful he is, that we might desire that giving of himself to us more than anything else? Then, will we not freely give ourselves to him? “We love him, because he first loved us.”
Then if there is any reluctance in our hearts – any reservations about our life in his hands – let us fervently pray with Moses, “LORD, show me your glory!” And may that glory heal any fear, kill any sin, and lift up our hearts in joyous abandon to him, who loves us and alone can keep us.
My next book is going to be a short piece by the 19th century bishop of Virginia, The Rt. Rev. William Meade. I don’t think you can find it anywhere else; I’m working from an original edition. It will be entitled Reasons for Loving Evangelical Anglicanism. It was originally published in 1852 under the title Reasons for Loving the Episcopal Church by the Protestant Episcopal Society for the Promotion of Evangelical Knowledge. I am going to write a preface, introducing the bishop and the work, and include an Appendix providing his dying words, which are in his biography. It will be interesting to read how the good bishop expounds the values of “evangelical” Anglicanism over against the Tractarian movement and other influences he considers unhelpful.