CS Lewis on Hope :: Reflections for a New Year

Tolkien’s words yesterday seemed timely, yet nearly discouraging—though he would have wanted his letter to be quite the opposite. Today we turn to his contemporary and, often, sounding board, C.S. Lewis, to highlight the hope he and Tolkien shared.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:

Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do.

It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.

It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters.

Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more—food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilization as long as civilization is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.

Most of us find it very difficult to want “Heaven” at all—except in so far as “Heaven” means meeting again our friends who have died. One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognize it.

Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.

Today’s Reading
Zechariah 14 (Listen – 3:52)
John 17 (Listen – 3:40)

Tolkien on Global Turmoil :: Reflections for a New Year

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. — John 1.5

It has been difficult to process how our world changed in 2016. Terrorism has become the new norm in almost every part of the world, nationalism and xenophobia have won the moment, and we now use the term “post-truth” to assuage the harsh reality that a large part of our culture  is ambivalent—even partial—to the lies that form their worldview.

Yet, for people of faith, we do not lose hope. I am reminded of one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s letters, sent to his son Christopher toward what would be the end of World War II. The elder Tolkien navigates the present darkness and, as he does in his books, finds hope that penetrates the heart.

30 April 1944

My dearest:

I have decided to send you another air letter, not an airgraph, in the hope that I may so cheer you up a little more… I do miss you so, and I do find all this mighty hard to bear on my own account and on yours. The utter stupid waste of war, not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who have to endure it. And always was (despite the poets), and always will be (despite the propagandists)—not of course that it has not is and will be necessary to face it in an evil world.

But so short is human memory and so evanescent are its generations that in only about 30 years there will be few or no people with that direct experience which alone goes really to the heart. The burnt hand teaches most about fire.

I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days—quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapor, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil—historically considered. But the historical version is, of course, not the only one.

All things and deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their ’causes’ and ‘effects’. No man can estimate what is really happening at the present sub specie aeternitaris [(in light of the eternal)]. All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labors with vast power and perpetual success—in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in. So it is in general, and so it is in our own lives.

Today’s Reading
Zechariah 13:2-9 (Listen – 1:40)
John 16 (Listen – 4:14)


O Holy Night :: Advent’s Peace

On Christmas Eve of 1906 Reginald Fessenden, who had been one of Thomas Edison’s chief chemists, was testing a new generator for radio transmissions. In what became the first broadcast of voice and music over radio, Fessenden read the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke and played the carol “O Holy Night” on his violin. This remarkable entrance into history was not the first, nor the only for this song.

The lyrics to “O Holy Night” came from a French socialist, who penned them for a Catholic service in 1847. The music was written by a Jewish composer. Legend holds that the song brought a 24-hour respite to fighting between French and German troops after being sung from the battlefield on Christmas Eve of 1871. The carol hopped the pond, thanks to the Unitarian minister and abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight, and caught on in the North far more quickly than in the South:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

The only thing more astonishing than the journey of one the most beloved Christmas songs is the event which it celebrates:

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

How remarkable that in the light of God our soul feels its worth? “God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment.” remarks Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, God is in the Manger. He continues:

And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.

The hope, love, joy, and peace of Advent broke into our world on the holiest of nights. Songs about Christ have endured, and changed, history—more importantly the good news of Christ changes our present and future.

ListenO Holy Night by Chris Tomlin (1:29).

Today’s Reading
Zechariah 10 (Listen – 2:11)
John 13 (Listen – 5:06)

This Weekend’s Readings
Zechariah 11 (Listen – 2:40) John 14 (Listen – 4:13)
Zechariah 12:1-13:1 (Listen – 2:30) John 15 (Listen – 3:20)

Silent Night :: Advent’s Peace

Christ’s life begins and ends in poverty. It’s easy to see the depth of pain in the end; where the Messiah is homeless and stripped of his sole earthly possession moments before being hung on a cross. The beginning of Christ’s life, however, has been sanitized.

“Manger” is a generous word because it distances our minds from the realities of an infant resting in a feeding trough. Jesus’ story starts not just in financial poverty, but also relational poverty. It doesn’t appear that Joseph had family or friends in the town of his ancestors— searching for room in an inn is the task of a foreigner.

While it’s easy to miss all this while we carol, the reality of Christ’s birth was never far from the minds of the authors behind the carols. Born to an impoverished single mother, Joseph Mohr penned the original German lyrics to “Silent Night” around 1816, while serving as the Father of a small village church in the alps. Mohr would spend long sections of his life ill, ultimately succumbing to a pulmonary disease at 55.

Thousands travel to the Austrian Alps to visit the town where Mohr is buried, but only because it’s a now thriving ski resort. It’s easy to miss the full impact of Mohr’s life; present luxury quickly overwhelms past reality.

Although far from affluent, Mohr also found himself significantly more comfortable than his family had been. In this, he chose to leverage everything he had for others. Mohr died penniless after reportedly donating all his money to children’s education and care for the elderly. (Mohr demonstrates how a Christian with wealth should live not in guilt, but in thankfulness and generosity.)

The lyrics to “Silent Night” can easily trick our mind’s eye into seeing comfort and privilege that simply were not present—Heavenly Peace entered our world through the depths of poverty. Silence and stillness were not present that night for the reasons the affluent find them, but because God’s presence filled our barren world with radiant sufficiency. Truly, Jesus was Lord at his birth.

ListenSilent Night by Sarah McLauchlan (3:48)

Today’s Reading
Zechariah 9 (Listen – 3:01)
John 12 (Listen – 6:26)

Do You Hear What I Hear? :: Advent’s Peace

“God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people,” observes Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, God is in the Manger.

God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof. Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety.

True to this, the Christmas story is full of unlikely characters. At the center we have a single mother, in a culture that scorned those in such circumstances, and a father who was thinking about bailing. Together they form a subsistence-level family carrying enormous amounts of stress.

The next groups to arrive are the shepherds, outcasts of society, and the wisemen, who were likely both superstitious and pluralistic. In the midst of this we find the Son of God—first in a barn, laying in a feeding trough, then in the arms of political refugees fleeing across international borders.

If earthly comforts and riches are “blessings,” Christ lived a radically unblessed life. He was found far from the palaces of men. He spent much of his adult life homeless, detached from even the slightest of luxuries, and, upon his death, possessed only the clothes on his back.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” asks the carol, of the same name, by Noël Regney. ”I am amazed that people can think they know the song—and not know it is a prayer for peace,’’ Regney told the New York Times in 2002.

Rome brought peace through the sword. God offered peace freely, though it was bought with the humbling and destruction of his own son. Grace confounds power and pride. Bonhoeffer concludes;

Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly.

ListenDo You Hear What I Hear? by Mary J. Blige 

Today’s Reading
Zechariah 8 (Listen – 3:33)
John 11 (Listen – 6:37)

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