Thoughts on Friendship

This weekend I will be officiating two weddings for young couples from White Fields. For pre-marital counseling, one of the resources I use is Timothy and Kathy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. One of the great takeaways from this book is that the foundation for marriage is “spiritual friendship.” On the topic of friendship, the book quotes several other authors. Here are some highlights:

Our need for friends is not weakness, it’s part of our design

Since God is triune in nature (one God in three distinct persons), creating us in His own image (“Let us create man in our image.” – Genesis 1:26), is by nature designing us for relationships. It is for this reason, that when God saw Adam alone in the garden without a companion,  God declared that “it is not good that man should be alone, therefore I will create a companion suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18)

What this is implying is that “our intense relational capacity, created and given to us by God, was not fulfilled completely by our ‘vertical’ relationship with him. God designed us to need ‘horizontal’ relationships with other human beings. That is why even in paradise, loneliness was a terrible thing.” (The Meaning of Marriage, 120)

The sifting hand and the breath of kindness

Two characteristics of real friendship are 1) constancy and 2) transparency.

One writer described friendship in this way:

the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person – having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away. (Craik, A Life for a Life, 169)

Oh, that there were more of this!

Seeing the same truth

C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, writes about friendship and says that friendship happens when two people discover that they “see the same truth.”

Friendship, he points out, cannot be merely about itself. It, by nature, must be about something else, something that both people are committed to and passionate about besides one another.

“This is why,” Lewis says, “those pathetic people who simple ‘want friends’ can never make any.” Because there is nothing they want more than friends, but ironically, you cannot have friends unless you love something or see some truth that you are passionate about. “Those who have nothing can share nothing,” he points out, and concludes: “those who are going nowhere can have no fellow travelers.” (The Four Loves, ch. 4)

This is why the basis for Christian marriage is actually friendship: it is two people standing side by side, together with their eyes fixed on Jesus, and moving towards him. Anything less is an insufficient foundation.

Spiritual friendship, Keller concludes, is the greatest journey of all, because the horizon is so high and far, yet so sure – it is nothing less than “the day of Jesus Christ.” (The Meaning of Marriage, 127)

Always Winter, Never Christmas

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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis’ classic first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, tells the story of 4 children: Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie. The setting is World War II, and the the children have been sent to stay with family friends in the English countryside because of the German attack on London.

As they are exploring and playing in the house, Lucy hides in a wardrobe, only to find that it is a portal to another world. As she passes through the portal she finds herself in Narnia – a cold place, covered in snow. She meets some creatures, who tell her about the bleak condition of Narnia: it is a land under the curse of an evil witch. Every day is as if it is “always winter but never Christmas.”

This is perhaps one of the most apt and poetically concise descriptions of hopelessness ever written: “Always winter, but never Christmas.”

2016 hasn’t been a great year on some fronts. Terror attacks in Europe, death and destruction in Syria. Maybe you have experienced some things in your own life, that make you acutely aware that you are living in a land that is under a curse – where it feels like you dwell in perpetual winter.

As Lucy and Edmund found themselves in Narnia, suddenly the children heard the sound of sleigh bells approaching. They figured it was the evil witch, so they hid. However, it was not the witch, it was Father Christmas!

Having been held captive by the witch, he had finally gotten free. “I have broken through at last,” he says. “She has kept me out for a long time, but her magic is weakening. Aslan is on the move! A merry Christmas! Long live the true King!”

We live in a world where there is a curse, where there is winter and cold and darkness, where there is pain and hardship – yet ever before us is the promise of Christmas: that Jesus has come to the world to save us.

Advent isn’t only about looking to the past, it’s also about looking to the future – to the fact that the curse is being broken, that the True King is coming and the winter will one day be over and the warmth and life of Spring will come.

Relient K wrote a song a few years back about this very thing:

What the Bird Said Early in the Year – a Poem

In my last post about my recent trip to England, I shared how I took my family for a walk along Addison’s Walk, the footpath at Magdalen College in Oxford (click here to read that post)

CS Lewis taught at Magdalen College, one of the 39 colleges which make up Oxford Univeristy. On the grounds of Magdalen College are a deer park and an island, upon which is found Addison’s Walk.

Along the path, there is this plaque dedicated to CS Lewis, which contains one of his poems, titled “What the Bird Said Early in the Year.”

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I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year nor want of rain destroy the peas

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn one year older by the well worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart.
Quick quick, quick, quick – the gates are drawn apart.

C.S. Lewis

This poem reflects the longing and the expectation of CS Lewis’ Christian faith; as he wrote elsewhere: “all the leaves are rustling with the rumor” that one day, the “new day” will dawn and the promise and hope of the gospel will become reality.

For more on this, check out this message I preached this past Sunday at White Fields titled, “The Dawn of a New Day.”

Addison’s Walk

I took my family for a walk the other day down a path called Addison’s Walk: a mile-long footpath around an island created by the river Cherwell in Oxford, England. The island and the path are part of Magdalen College, one of the 39 colleges that makes up Oxford University.

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It was there on Addison’s Walk that CS Lewis and his friend Jack, AKA J.R.R. Tolkien, had a conversation late one night after dinner, which Lewis later said was a turning point in his journey from atheism to Christianity.

Tolkien and Lewis both taught at Oxford and they were both part of the Oxford literary society known as “The Inklings”. The Inklings would meet regularly at two pubs in Oxford: the Eagle and Child, which they nicknamed “Bird and Baby”, and the Lamb and Flag. Both pubs are still there today, on opposite sides of the same street. At their meetings, the Inklings would discuss literature and share their writings with each other. It was at the Lamb and Flag that Tolkien read his first drafts of The Lord of the Rings.

Lewis and Tolkien shared a love for stories. They both felt the power of stories, and Tolkien had written a book titled, On Fairy Stories, which discussed how even in a scientific age, an “age of reason,” for some reason, people still desire to hear and to read fictional stories, even stories which talk about a supernatural world. The reason for this, he said, is that the characteristics which make up all the stories which people love: good overcoming evil, escaping time, overcoming physical limitations, interacting with non-human creatures and other-worldly beings, etc.; these reflect the deep longings of the human heart.

The reason we can’t get enough of these stories, Tolkien argued, is because deep down we believe that this is the way the world SHOULD BE, even if it’s not the way it currently is. The reality of life is that good doesn’t always win, that eventually we are separated from those we love, and so on – but even if this is how things are, it’s not how we believe that they should be. And so we love to read stories which describe life the way we believe it should be.

CS Lewis agreed with Tolkien on this point, and believe that this was indeed the power of stories. However, Tolkien took it one step further that night on Addison’s Walk: he told his friend CS Lewis to consider the gospel story of Jesus Christ. This story, he said, contains all of the elements which make every great story great: love which overcomes death, life out of death, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, overcoming physical limitations, the promise of a world where things finally will be the way they should be… Lewis agreed.

Then Tolkien went one step further: he said, the gospel story of Jesus Christ is not just one more good story which points to the underlying reality, it is the underlying reality to which all other stories point.

The gospel story of Jesus Christ is not just one more good story which points to the underlying reality, it is the underlying reality to which all the other stories point.

CS Lewis then asked how he could be sure, to which Tolkien encouraged him to look at the historical facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection.

It was that conversation which CS Lewis credited with leading him back to Christian faith. He went on to be one of the most effective apologists for CHristianity in the 20th century, partly because he was so intelligent, partly because he had been an atheist and was personally familiar with the arguments against Christianity, and partly because he was a layman and not a Christian minister.

I walked with my kids along Addison’s Walk, along the River Cherwell, and I told them the story of how Clive Lewis and Jack Tolkien had taken that walk along the same path, and I told them how Tolkien had shared with his friend this message of the gospel, and how all the things which cause us to love the stories we love point to “the true story of the world” – the story of Jesus and what he did for us.

As I did, my voice cracked a little bit as I tried to hold it together; you see, my heart has these deep longings as well. The promise of the gospel is that these things will not only remain longings, but one day they will once again be true, because of what Jesus did for us.

Playing Harps in Heaven? Don’t be Ridiculous

I have been reading CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity along with the men’s group at White Fields Church. I first read the book 18 years ago, and reading it again has been like reading it for the first time.

I came across this quote in the book, which I thought was excellent, in regard to the Christian belief in Heaven:

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’.

The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.

All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (p. 137).

I love his line about if you can’t understand a book written for grown-ups, then you shouldn’t be talking about it!

He says in another place in the book:

Very often a silly procedure is adopted by people who [oppose] Christianity. Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack.

When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads turn round and that it is all too complicated.

It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real thing are not simple.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (p. 41).

I have found this to be true – not only in regard to discussions about Christianity, but in many debates about many things. People put up a caricature of the other person’s views and then proceed to destroy them. This is sometimes called a “straw man argument”.

It is important that we should not allow people to do that with Christian beliefs, and also that we should not do the same with other people’s beliefs. This is sometimes called “Presuppositional Apologetics” – the idea that you should try to frame the views of your “opponent” in such a way, that they would say, “I couldn’t have put it better myself.”

As Timothy Keller put it recently:

 

 

Done with School, and a Few Other Things

I love finishing projects that I start. The only thing is, I also really like starting projects. So I sometimes find myself with several long term projects – but over the past few weeks I've been able to finish up a few of them.

For the past several months I was very busy finishing my dissertation for my theology degree. I started at this university when my first child was the same age as my current youngest child: 5 months old. Now, in completing my dissertation, I am done – at least for now… I would like to continue.

The title of my dissertation: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Implications of Epistemology and Culture for Christian Thinking, Practice and Mission

Another thing I've been working on for a while that I was able to complete: During the 10 years that I lived in Hungary I spent a lot of time getting different kinds and levels of residence permits and visas. By the time I left I had permanent residence and a work permit, which I gave up when I moved to the US. No big deal, because I have no plan to move back. But about 2 years ago a friend in Hungary told me that I should look into becoming a Hungarian citizen and that I might meet the requirements for citizenship. I looked into it, and I did – so, a year ago I applied for Hungarian citizenship, and I just found out 2 weeks ago I received it. Last week I traveled to Los Angeles for my naturalization ceremony at the office of the Hungarian Consulate.

Receiving my Hungarian citizenship from Kálmán László, consulate general of Hungary.

I'm not really sure how it will benefit me, but it is meaningful nonetheless. My wife and kids are Hungarian citizens, and I does encourage me to spend more time making sure the kids learn Hungarian and have that identity.

Another long term project we've been working on is getting out of the debt we incurred from the adoption we did. It's been an exercise in budgeting, downsizing and penny pinching, inspired by a Dave Ramsey class, and at the end of June we will have that project complete as well.

I've also finished a few books recently:

The men's group at our church has been going through Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, following a study guide and video series by Eric Metaxas. A lot of the videos refer to Lewis' autobiography, Surprised by Joy, so I picked it up and started reading it. In it, Lewis tells the story of how he became an atheist and then the process by which he turned from atheism to deism and finally to Christianity. “Joy”, spelled with a capital J, is the thing which all people are looking for and get glimpses of throughout their lives in various ways, but which can only be found in and through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Sounds interesting, right? I have to say, Surprised by Joy left me surprised with boredom. I had a really hard time getting through the book, and felt that a lot of the material was indulgent details which had nothing at all to do with the story he was telling. That part though, the story of his journey from a nominal Christian upbringing, to atheism, to deism and finally to Christianity, was truly captivating. The last chapter was particularly good. It's worth reading if you are a CS Lewis fan.

The other book I finished recently was John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent. I heard somewhere that it is good to read fiction because it fuels creativity and imagination in a way that other media does not. I read a lot of non-fiction, particularly theology books and biographies, and so I want to make sure that I read some good fiction from time to time as well and I have it in mind to read classic novels and literature.

The Winter of Our Discontent was interesting, particularly in how it dealt with moral and ethical issues, as well as issues of contentment, and pressures in society which create dissatisfaction. The novel describes how people often cross their own moral and ethical lines to get what they think they want, and when they get it, they are still discontent and often more miserable that they were before. I think it's a great commentary on society and on the fallen human condition.

Ironically, The Winter of Our Discontent and Surprised by Joy have their core theme in common. The only difference is that whereas Steinbeck didn't answer the question of what it is that human beings are ultimately looking for: the true quest beneath all our quests, Lewis did. And although Lewis' writing style is harder to read, Surprised by Joy actually answers the question posed by The Winter of Our Discontent.

 

I'm enjoying this season.

 

This Life and the One to Come

I’ve been preaching a lot on the topic of hope recently. It is a theme which I consider amongst the most beautiful in the world.

This past Sunday was Easter, and I taught a message titled: ‘A Living Hope’ (listen to it here).

In the sermon I spoke about Viktor Frankl and his book Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he says that life only has meaning if you have a hope which suffering and death cannot take away from you.

Interestingly – and perhaps tragically, however, it is not clear to me that Frankl ever discovered a hope worthy of that description.

This is the living hope which we have in Jesus, which Peter talked about in 1 Peter 1:3-9, speaking to people who were in fact suffering. It is a hope which is imperishable, unfading and kept in heaven for us – that’s how secure it is.

It is only that kind of hope which can enable us to live now and face any difficult which life might throw at us.

I recently came across a quote from CS Lewis: at the end of The Last Battle, the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, he says that for those of us who have received the gift of eternal life, when we get to the end of our lives here on Earth, we will realize that they were merely the title and the cover page, and then at last we will begin Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on Earth has ever read: which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before.

I don’t know about you, but that gives me goosebumps. I long for that day, and I desire to live with that perspective.

“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

CS Lewis, The Last Battle

 

How to Truly Live

The final paragraph of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity is incredible.  He’s speaking on the issue of how to truly live, and his point is that selfishness is not actually in our best self-interest.

Check it out:

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 favorite wishes every day and the death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber 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.

“If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

I love this quote from CS Lewis’ The Weight of Glory. Unfortunately, usually only the second half of it  is quoted. I think the first part is perhaps even more important than the second, where Lewis states that the assumption that true spirituality consists of depriving oneself or pleasure, or that to seek pleasure is unspiritual, is not a Christian teaching, but comes from Kant and the Stoics.

I would add to Lewis’ comment that this is also rooted in Plato-an thinking, which holds the physical to be inherently bad and the ethereal to be good. Plato-an philosophy was also at the root of one of the first great heresies in the church – Gnosticism, and the lingering effects of this are still present in much thinking amongst Christians as to what makes one truly spiritual.

True spirituality is not found in depriving oneself of pleasure, but in walking in step with the Spirit of God to the point where your pleasures are re-aligned – properly aligned with the heart of God.

The Cost of Community

“If you love deeply you're going to get hurt badly. But it's still worth it.” – CS Lewis

One of the things that my wife and I liked about Longmont when we were first moving here last year was that it wasn't a suburb of Denver or Boulder, but a stand-alone community. Whenever possible we choose to spend our money at local businesses and restaurants rather than at chains. Last year we had some friends visiting from California, and we took them out to eat on a Saturday night in downtown Longmont, where we walked around for a while trying to find a place to eat where we wouldn't have to wait an hour for to be seated. At one point this friend of ours asked us, “Don't you guys have any chain restaurants around here? I haven't seen any!” I think people in this area pride themselves on supporting the local community. That's why people here love Oscar Blues and Left Hand Brewing, because they are local businesses that love this community and pour back out into it. 'Community' is an increasingly popular concept all over America – just as it is here in Longmont. Its a good thing to be a local and to be a part of your community – which means knowing and being known, it means relationships and mutual support.

And community is at the heart of Christianity. The whole of the Bible centers not around isolated individuals who know God, but around families and nations – people living out a relationship with God in community. What we learn from the Bible is that community is essential to growing in the knowledge of God and living out your faith. The radically individualistic American culture has tried to take Christianity and make it into a private, personal thing that you can do on your own without any ties to anyone but God – but that's not what it was ever meant to be.

There has been an increasing resurgence of value for community in Christian circles in recent decades – with lots of books being written on the topic and books like Bonhoeffer's “Life Together” becoming popular. But the thing is: when you actually do it, you realize that there's a cost to community. And the reason there's a cost is because real life is messy and people are imperfect. So if you get close to people and you really, actually “do life” with them, and enter into their lives and allow them to enter in to the reality of your life, sooner or later you are going to see their mess and they will see yours. It's a lot easier and cleaner to keep people at arm's-length, and keep relationships superficial. That's what social media is great at: we are able to always put our best face forward and only show people what we want them to see about us. But that's not reality and that's not real community. In fact, neither is simply knowing your neighbors and shopping at the local store and gardening at the community garden.

The word the Bible uses is the über-Christianese word “fellowship”, but the original Greek word for it is super rich: Koinonea, which means 'sharing' or 'having in common' – the root word of 'community'. It says in Acts 2 that the early Christians had all things in common. They were dedicated to fellowship and they met in the temple daily and then met in each other's homes and ate together. This is the life of a community. Knowing and being known. Sharing and partaking. Life together.

And life together can be a rich and fulfilling experience – but the flip-side of that is that there is risk involved. Any time you choose to share your life with someone and get close to them and love them, you make yourself vulnerable – vulnerable to the pain of losing that relationship, vulnerable to the hurt of being betrayed by that person, which, the closer they are to you, the more it hurts. You make yourself vulnerable to their junk affecting your life and messing it up.

If true community has a cost and risk involved, then the question is: is it worth it? Why not just isolate yourself, keep your relationships superficial and your life private? You can still know your neighbors and shop local, but you don't have to get involved in other peoples lives nor will they get close enough to hurt you or cause you grief. The reason is, because the more you love, the greater your capacity for joy. It also increases your vulnerability to be hurt, but you can't get great returns without taking great risk. It's like having a child; there is a great amount of risk involved: your kids could turn out to be terrible people who hate your guts and ruin the world. But if you never take that chance, you'll never experience the depths of joy that kids can bring. Or like marriage: that one's a huge risk statistically! If you get married, there's a huge chance you could go through a painful and expensive divorce. But if you don't get married out of fear of those things, you will miss out on the depths of intimacy and fulfillment and joy that marriage can bring.

So, here's my 2 cents: let's not just like the idea of community – let's actually live life together. You'll be richer for it. Because those other people have something to give to you and to receive from you. There is a cost to community, and it can be substantial! When someone is close, their junk can affect you. But the risk is worth it, because it raises the ceiling on how much joy and growth you can experience.