On Corruption and Conversion: The Great Divorce #11

Even though I have been behind schedule, I cannot help but write briefly on the second half of Chapter 11. In a story that, thus far, has provided heartache and conviction, I felt I had to comment, even if only for a moment, on that one story of great joy!

As the Writer and his teacher move away from Pam, the mother who struggled with bitterness over her son’s death, they have a bit of a conversation followed by a magnificent encounter.

 

“Brass is mistaken for gold more easily than clay is… it is a stronger angel, and therefore, when it falls, a fiercer devil.” (MacDonald) 

 

The love of a mother for her child is far closer to godly than is the depravity of lust. Because of this, the love of a mother for her child can also more easily be mistaken for something godly than can the depravity of lust. Because of this, it is entirely possible that the love of a mother for her child could be a greater hindrance to faith than can the depravity of lust. That lust is sinful is without argument, even from a secular perspective. I have read articles recently, spoken without mention or mind towards God, condemning the danger of lust. To argue, though, that mother-love is dangerous, is to tread on far more brittle ground.

To further the comparison, the writer and MacDonald then encounter a man and his lust, portrayed as a red lizard fixed upon his shoulder. The man is speaking with an angel who is pleading for redemption. Redemption, though, will come with pain. The lizard must die. The process will hurt. But the result will be glorious.

 

“Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.” (MacDonald) 

 

Finally, a ghost who chooses redemption! A ghost who chooses freedom! A ghost who chooses Christ! It’s a moment to stand up and cheer. The country itself rejoices, a song rising from the rocks, hills, and trees.

So what about that lizard? How is it that the lizard became a mighty steed? And what about the mother and her love?

Sin is the corruption of something God intended for good. Idolatry is a corruption of true worship, substituting something created for the Creator. Murder (or even anger) is a corruption of the image of God. Lust is a corruption of real love. In Adam, every heart is sinful, which means that the seeds of goodness created and implanted by God have been corrupted and manifest in deadly ways. It stands to reason, then, that when sinners come to salvation in Christ, the corrupt seeds find life anew in him. Worship is rightly directed towards God again. The image of God is restored, changing views of self and others. Love itself is redeemed and expressed rightly with an eye towards God, who is love.

And so the lizard became a steed. The sinful corruption was buried, here crushed by the flaming hand of the angel, and then granted resurrection in purity. What had been distorted was now right again.

 

“Ye must ask, if the risen body even of appetite is as grand a horse as ye saw, what would the risen body of maternal love or friendship be?” (MacDonald) 

 

By showing the steed rising from the lizard, we are not merely meant to marvel at the redemption of such a sin. Instead, by MacDonald’s words we are left to wonder what might be if Pam’s mother-love found conversion in Christ? How glorious would such love be if the stain of corruption is lifted and new life reigns? In my previous post, I quoted the words of the Lord, illustrating that our corrupt love must appear as hatred in comparison to our love of God in Christ Jesus. Many might protest such an instruction, but Lewis here illustrates the result of surrender to the supremacy of Christ.

Conversion.

Redemption.

Resurrection.

Love incorruptible.

Greater than a lizard becoming a steed.

Love fueled by God who is love.

Love moved by Christ who gave his life.

Love powered by the Holy Spirit.

Real love.

 

 

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On God, Family, and Grief: The Great Divorce #10

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26 ESV) 

When stripped of all context and understanding of the gospel, this verse is quite challenging. Through the eyes of sin and self-centeredness, this verse is downright offensive. And yet this is the call of Christ upon the life of any would-be disciple. At the start of Chapter 11, Lewis plays out the consequences of this particular verse and passage in the form of a conversation between Pam, a Ghost, and Reginald, her Bright-Spirit brother.

 

“the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for his own sake.” (Reginald) 

Each and every Ghost seems to come to this country with a particular agenda. Each is looking for something from God, and none seem to be looking for God. Each comes with a complaint or an issue, some grudge against God for the events of their earthly lives. And in a fit of fantastic irony, they now want something from the God with whom they stand at odds. This is the case with Pam, whose son was taken from her sooner than she would have designed.

In self-centeredness, Pam is only able to see her own suffering & loss, and she completely fails to grasp the fact that God, too, has suffered. God suffered as humanity, the pinnacle of his creative work, chose sin and death over his glorious presence. God then suffered even further as his own son paid the ultimate price in order to bring redemption. Pam’s vision of God’s suffering, though, is blinded by her own. And that is the point of these conversations – each Bright Spirit is tasked with lifting the gaze of a sinner (even a suffering sinner) from the despair of humanity to the glory of God.

 

“no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.” (Reginald) 

 

It’s amazing how a gaze fixed upon God through the cross of Christ can comfort grief, enhance joy, and provide eternal perspective. This is not to say that grief is not real and substantial. But feelings wrapped up in the flesh are but a trap if God’s hands are not on the reins. Pam was consumed by her grief without a focal point to define suffering. Christians will suffer, as will all until the curse of sin is completely removed. The encouragement of the Lord, though, is that suffering need not consume and define our existence if we have a buoy to grasp in the midst of tragedy.

 

“[the past] was all you chose to have. It was the wrong way to deal with sorrow. It was Egyptian – like embalming a dead body.” (Reginald) 

 

The beauty of the cross is the grace-enabled ability to reorient the viewpoint of the broken heart from the past to the future. Embalming is a strange practice when you think about it. Preserving death to make it seem alive. Or, by definition, to forestall decomposition. It is the art of keeping something which has died from looking as though it has died. It is the choice to live in the past. Our Ghost had chosen a future that was entirely oriented around the past. Again, and I can’t say this enough, I do not wish to minimize very real pain, but rather to say that there is a hope and a future which lifts our souls from the suffering of the world. To view the past from the present with a heart for our future – in Christ – is to have an eternal perspective. To be satisfied in such a view is to want God for his own sake, trusting his goodness with the details.

 

“I don’t say ‘more than Michael,’ not as a beginning. That will come later. It’s only the little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process.” (Reginald) 

 

Looking back on Luke 14:26, I think of this quote. Loving God in Christ is not a matter of more or less. In other words, to love God over family is not simply to love God more than family. It is entirely possible to chase God in such a way as to abandon family, all the while claiming to love him more. This is backwards, for the Scriptures are also clear that adoration of God will enhance love for family.

To have a properly oriented view of the love of God is to love him first. As Lewis reveals in this chapter, such love is to want God for his own sake. From the love of God, then, every other love is strengthened as God takes hold of the reins. This does not mean the complete removal of pain, or even the complete perfection of love – not so long as the corruption and curse of sin remain. But it does mean a gaze heavenward to the cross of Christ, beholding his glory, his suffering, his redemption, and his promise. And it is a gospel-soaked, grace-infused fixation of the heart upon Jesus which will, all at once, reduce what we thought was real love on earth until it seems as hatred, and elevate that same love to a place of glory in the hands of God.

All we need is a little germ of desire to start the process.

Praise God that his grace is such a germ.

May it be so for you today.

 

 

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On Project Love: The Great Divorce #9

smoke_from_a_candle___wallpaper_by_artyben-d6rg6u1Chapter 10 is rather short. Perhaps a better description would be that chapter 10 is rather fast. As I read of the Ghost’s encounter with the bright Woman, I envision the “conversation” passing quickly. The Ghost has much to say and a desire to speak rapidly and forcefully. Speaking as though the bright Woman (Hilda) aims to interrupt, Hilda is not permitted to squeeze in even a single word edgewise. The Ghost apparently fast talks her way into oblivion, snuffed out like a wick burned down into the puddle of wax below.

 

“The ingratitude! It was I who made a man of him! Sacrificed my whole life to him!” (female Ghost)

 

I’m not sure of the relationship between Robert and the She-Spirit, Hilda. I am guessing her to be his mother, but I cannot say for sure. Ultimately, it is of little consequence as the Ghost wife’s complaint quickly consumes the chapter. I find myself uncomfortable in the midst of the Ghost’s speech – for two reasons. One because her argument appears to be so absurd that it is laughable. She is a caricature who elicits heartbroken laughter. No one could be so oblivious?!? But at the same time, I am uncomfortable because I know that her situation is not so absurd after all. In fact, it is downright common.

The situation to which I am referring, I shall call Project Love. The concept is quite simple. Project love is “love” that views the other person as a project. Consider most of my household projects. At the root of the project is an even blend of dissatisfaction with the current state and perceived potential. From this evaluation, it is important to determine if the project is feasible – do I possess the skills, the materials, the resources to make this a reality? If the answer is yes, the project begins.

Only after the project begins does the real crisis arise. During demolition, very real and unexpected problems inevitably surface. During reconstruction, costly changes are typically required. By the time the project comes to a close, there is a severe lack of energy and a shortage of resources. Motivation dwindles and often expectations are lowered. The timetable has been long-blown and the finished product has rotated 90 degrees from my original drawing.

I can only hope that your project history is more consistent and successful than mine. (It would be difficult for your history to be less consistent and successful than mine! But don’t worry, I always finish the project before we sell the house.)

Sadly, I am pretty sure people treat people in the same way. Sadly, I see echoes of this reality in the testimony of the female Ghost.

Let’s try to break this down.

Love is inherently other-focused. Love is not about receiving. Love is about giving.

When love focuses on feelings, it is entirely self-centered. By this definition, you are in love when you a) feel the feel-goods about the other person (self-centered); and/or b) you feel loved by the other person (also self-centered). Sure, you have to at least glance at the other person in order to assess this kind of love, but the core is purely selfish. Selfishness is not at all other-focused, it is entirely about receiving, and not remotely about giving.

When love focuses on sacrifice, it is possibly other-centered. By this definition, you are in love when you think less of yourself, think more of the needs of another and meet those needs without thought of what you will receive in return. You give regardless of the current measurement of feel-goods, and regardless of the expression of love offered by the other person.

I would consider project love to be a corrupt and sinful distortion of sacrificial love. You constantly think of the other person, but only because you want to mold them into kind of person who would give you the feel-goods. You think constantly of their needs, but only because meeting their needs is necessary for your happiness. You meet needs because you want the satisfaction of knowing you’ve been the agent of change. Project love is poisoned by self-centeredness, and is entirely void of real love.

If you thought household projects carried surprises, trying molding and shaping another human.

Our Ghost friend gave it all… but for all the wrong reasons. Even in eternity, she simply wanted another person to manipulate.

Have you given it all to another?

Was it for their good?

Or your own?

Hmmm…

 

“I’m so miserable. I must have someone to – to do things to.” (female Ghost)

 

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On Eternal Perspective: The Great Divorce #8

George MacDonald 1860s.jpgIf you’ve been reading along, chapter 9 is by far the longest, and perhaps the most intriguing yet. The Writer finally encounters his Bright Person, a favorite author named George MacDonald. Yes, this is a real author who lived mostly in the 19th century, though his life did venture into the 20th! It would be easy to spend weeks here, but we have a schedule to keep…

Rather than simply listening in on the conversations of others,the Writer is finally able to ask some questions and receive answers – challenging though they may be.

 

“But ye can get some likeness of [eternity] if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective.” (MacDonald)

 

If I could sum up MacDonald’s description of the relationship between life and death, heaven and hell, temporal and eternal, it might sound like this: We are eternal creatures. Though we experience things in the temporal world now, everything we do intersects eternity. Our current perspective is incomplete because it lacks experience and understanding. Our final perspective will flow from our experience of the eternal, when we will see more clearly all that has ever happened in our lives. For those whose final perspective is heaven, heaven will necessarily color every experience – even the temporal. For those whose final perspective is hell, hell will necessarily do the same.

(To get caught up in the details of MacDonald’s words here could be maddening. The difficulty of a fictional book like this is that it is colored by the author’s theology – or in this case, MacDonald’s theology! And while I know works of fiction do not typically have chapter and verse citations of why an author would choose certain words and phrases, they sure would be helpful. In the meantime, I’m choosing to focus on the sense of the chapter rather than the details, for the sake of my sanity.)

Lewis’ intersection, his offer at this point, is to lift your gaze from yourself, to fix your eyes on the mountains (so to speak),  and to take steps towards the heavenly – that is, towards Christ. The alternative is to fix your eyes on yourself, which is something of a descent towards hell.

 

“Ah, the Saved… what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage.” (MacDonald)

 

Lewis strikes a chord here as he describes the perspective of the damned and the saved. Of course, he describes this perspective as flowing from a perfected eternal experience, but I believe there is a great application for us here and now. There are certain biblical truths which are glorious and yet extremely difficult to accept. One truth is found in Romans 8:18-30. The heading in my Bible reads Future Glory. The passage speaks of a future glory which will necessarily overshadow any of the trials of this life. The passage speaks of the groanings of creation, longing for all things to be made new. The passage speaks of God’s participation in our prayers as we cry out to him.

We then see Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” 

This is a verse that is often misquoted – or more specifically it is often truncated, cut short and therefore misquoted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “it’ll all work out for the best.” I’m not sure if there’s a name for quoting 1/3 of a Bible verse and totally ignoring context, but this is a prime example. There are two super-important qualifiers on that little phrase. For those who love God and for those who are called according to his purpose. The qualifiers alone are a reminder that all things do not work together for good… for everyone.

Context is the stuff around a verse. The immediate context of Romans 8:28 tells us who should be comforted by the knowledge that all things work together for good. The extended context tells us the light in which we should view the promise. In other words, as we long for future glory, as we cry out to God for his eternal presence, we are enabled by our calling in Christ to see current suffering as a wellspring of life. Even further context reminds us that there is nothing that can separate (including current suffering!) the redeemed from their Redeemer, and that we are indeed conquerors through the love of God in Christ.

This promise is of supreme comfort, but those qualifiers… those qualifiers produce a chill in me. The qualifiers say that there are some for whom the trials of life will not ultimately end well. Oh, that the gospel would bring countless hearts to faith in Christ!

 

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.'” (MacDonald)

 

And that draws me back into the story. MacDonald seems to be painting such a picture. There will come a day when eternity will be set, the future course unchanging. (I don’t even want to get into the possibility of choosing life after death, for I do not believe the Scriptures guarantee any such opportunity) When the dust settles on this life and the eternal is all we know, our perspective will indeed be complete. The Christian can taste this perspective now by the grace of God, seeing trials as life-giving waters drawing us near to our Savior. The Christian can say, even now, with confidence, that things will work out for good. What a blessing!

Even greater is the news that our worst trials, and even our finest hours, will be but a faded memory when we have the opportunity to gaze upon our Lord face to face.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

Come Lord Jesus!

 

 

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For Shame: The Great Divorce #7

Shame: (n.) a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
I’ve often thought one of the most remarkable sentences in the Bible to be Genesis 2:25. They were naked, and they felt no shame. Adam & Eve, married in the garden, naked before each other and God – yet feeling no shame. They were quite visible in every sense of the word. No clothes. No sin. Nothing to hide. Nothing to fear. Knowing and being known.

Incomprehensible.

In our current state, we cannot fathom this feeling. In the moments following, everything fell apart when our first parents chose sin and self over God. Humanity’s heritage is now steeped in sin and the accompanying shame. Pain. Humiliation. Distress.

Shame is something that is stirred. Our sinful nature guides us to hide all things unacceptable. When those things are brought into the light, there is inevitable pain. As the pain surfaces, we have a choice: carry it or bury it.

 

“Friend, you see I’m not dressed at all.” (the Bright Person)

 

This chapter features an interesting perspective of shame as the well-dressed Ghost encounters a Bright Person. There’s a delightful irony in that the well-dressed Ghost is, um, well-dressed, while the Bright Person is quite naked. But it is the Ghost who feels shame. She believes it to be far worse to be transparent in heaven than to be naked on earth. To bear her ghostliness in the presence of the Bright People is more than she is willing to endure.

The Bright Person tries to encourage her. Bear your shame just long enough to take the first step, and you’ll find the burden lifted. An hour later you won’t care. A day later you’ll be laughing about it. But give in to the moment. Drink that cup to the bottom and take the first step. In fact, the Bright Person offers to walk along, to lift as much of the burden as possible, everything short of carrying her. But it starts with a single step.

 

“Friend, could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?” (the Bright Person)

 

When our focus is inward, it’s hard to see goodness beyond that first step. It’s hard to see healing beyond the first momentary glimpse of pain.

The gospel introduces life to the carry or bury scenario. Carry that shame… to the cross. Lift your eyes to the heavens, fix your gaze on Jesus who bore sin and shame in his death. Fix your mind and your heart on the one who has overcome, and surrender. That moment of pain is real – the moment of conviction at the realization that we’ve offended our holy God. That moment of shame is real, an awakened conscience in the face of what God has done in response to what we have done. Powerful.

There is relief in taking the first step towards the cross. The burden is not erased in that first step, for our sinful flesh remains. But the burden begins to lift. An hour passes, then a day. Jesus is fully capable of turning shame into joy through a gift of redemption.

 

“But, I tell you, they’ll see me.” (the well-dressed Ghost)

 

I can’t help but think of the tragedy of the modern altar call. Maybe some pastors will share my sentiment. Bow your heads, close your eyes. I have to be honest, I have a problem with these words. So many churches. So many events. So many pastors invite people to respond to the gospel with heads down and eyes closed.

Billy Graham once said something like this: If Jesus died publicly on a cross for you, the least you can do is respond to him in kind. In fact, I would add, because he died publicly for you, he enables you to respond in kind. Because he bore infinite shame, he can carry yours in that moment of surrender.

8148552878_586f703d52_zMaybe I’m wrong here, but I believe the ultra-private altar call has consequences. By inviting people to respond in hiding, is it possible that we’re burying shame? Is it possible that we’re adding the gospel  to the list of things to be ashamed of? Could it be that people need to take a first step in order to surrender the burden of shame and find true healing?

When I first heard Billy Graham’s words, I vowed never again to ask people to hide when they respond to the gospel. I remember saying I didn’t want people to be embarrassed. I didn’t want them to be singled out. The honest truth is that I didn’t believe Jesus could carry them through a moment like that. I didn’t believe the church or the event to be a safe enough place for the gospel I was preaching.

I’ve since watched individuals stand alone in a crowd of hundreds in response to Jesus. I’ve watched people stand up, walk to the front and drop to their knees. I’ve watched people drink that cup of shame and be exposed as a sinner. It is glorious. It is the moment the Bright Person and the Writer were waiting to see. I can honestly say I’m thankful that others have been around to witness my moments of brokenness and inadequacy. I don’t recall ever waking up thinking, “I hope someone sees me weep today.” But I do recall waking up the next day thinking, “I’m glad somebody was there to see what happened.”

 

“My suspense was strained up to the height.” (the Writer)

 

Like the Writer, I have had moments of wondering, inwardly pleading that somebody would face the moment and surrender. I felt that my own destiny hung on her reply. I can honestly say, I understand that feeling.

Lewis leaves us with the delightful tension of an unresolved situation. The Writer walks away, the interview incomplete. How nice.

 

 

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I’d Like to Speak to the Manager: The Great Divorce #6

The capitalistic endeavor of the intelligent man in the bowler hat continues as he labors off with the smallest of golden apples. This is the ghost determined to bring heaven to hell, to introduce a real commodity in a place with “no scarcity”, and maybe to turn a little profit in the process.

Lewis has a knack for description. Providing detail, yet all the while leaving endless room for imagination. A thunderous yet liquid voice. Rarely calling anything or anyone by name, he relies on engaging description to keep your mind wondering. As he described the efforts of Ikey, I couldn’t help but feel small. Literally small. As I imagined the scene, I imagined things being great in size. I couldn’t help it. I had to read paragraphs again to bring them to a manageable scale in my mind. I thank Mr. Lewis for this, because it is his ability and his gift to describe scenery in such a way that invites me and surrounds me.

The presence of the Water-Giant is exciting.

 

I saw now… that it was also a bright angel who stood, like one crucified, against the rocks and poured himself perpetually down towards the forest with loud joy. (the Writer)

 

The Writer became self-conscious in the presence of the Water-Giant. How fitting. It is exciting to me that this short chapter shadows the presence of the Lord, all the while portraying his brilliance.

 

 

 

Here we encounter the hard-bitten ghost, an opinionated skeptic through and through. He is defined by what he already believes to be true. He proudly carries his presuppositions into every situation, and carries them back out again unscathed. His earthly life as a traveler was, in the end, wasted, because he had no interest or appreciation for his circumstances. He already knew what he was going to see, and so he never really saw anything. His eyes and his understanding were darkened, and so his years were, in the end, fruitless. Oh, how often we miss moments because we refuse to see that there’s something to see.

This ghost even knows Management. As a side note, kudos to Lewis for capitalizing the final occurrence. As if to cement the hard-bitten ghost’s defiance of God, he subtly magnifies the final complaint by giving Management a sense of significance.

 

“What would you say if you went to a hotel where the eggs were all bad and when you complained to the Boss, instead of apologising and changing his dairyman, he just told you that if you tried you’d get to like bad eggs in time?” (the Hard-Bitten Ghost)

 

It is a loaded complaint. The assumption is that the eggs are, in fact, bad. What if, instead of the eggs, it is your tastes that have been corrupted? We’ve talked before in this series about the difficulties of relativistic thinking. The hard-bitten ghost has fallen into the trap of thinking that what he thinks is true, simply because he is the one who is thinking. He cannot see the possibility that his presupposition is wrong, that the eggs are in fact good and that his tastes have somehow been perverted.

If the Bible is true, then our tastes have been compromised. Sin has darkened our heart, causing us to view God and his absolute Truth as narrow, stifling, and judgmental. In response, we place ourselves on the throne, living according to definitions of right and wrong that we’ve concocted (and, on occasion, borrowed from God without giving him due credit). By keeping God out of the equation, we build our straw houses with tons of room to wiggle in and out of any solid definition or standard of right. (Romans 1)

We think we know.

The hard-bitten ghost wants Management to give him something that suits his darkened heart. Something to spice up his sinful straw house. The ghost wants a god that he can tote around in his pocket, one who bows to his every whim – not only answering his questions, but reading hollow answers from cue cards crafted in the ghost’s sinful core. In short, the ghost has already found the god his heart desires right in the mirror.

What if Management could give a new heart to appreciate the eggs? What if Management could replace a cold, dead heart with a living, beating heart, and open eyes to boot? To the hard-bitten ghost, this would probably seem like the ultimate joke at the end of a bad dream. But then again, that’s exactly what the cold, dead heart would think.

I’m thankful this morning that the one true God of the universe is in the business of removing hearts of stone and giving hearts of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:22-38) I’m thankful that he is in the business of opening eyes and ears to the truth of the gospel. But then again, as one who has found life and life abundant in Christ, that’s exactly what I would think.

 

“I prefer it up here.” (the Writer)

 

The fading hope in the Writer, stressed under the weight of encounters with ghosts who remind me all too clearly of my own clinging sin, now carries me, wondering, to the next chapter.

 

 

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Heaven and Hell – Literally: The Great Divorce #5

I could spend weeks reflecting on Chapter 5.

I felt a sting as I read and reread a conversation between two members of the clergy. Two men who gave their lives to the consideration of biblical things, though never submitting to biblical truth. Two men who spent a lifetime knowing about God, while wasting precious lives that could be spent knowing God. In the end, one submitted to the truth, the other submitted only to himself. And their eternities – though they intersect here for a moment – remain separated.

My sting in this chapter is twofold. The first comes from knowing how often my heart defaults to its sinfulness, treating God like a philosophical construct instead of a being. In fact, as RC Sproul often says, God is the only being… the rest of us are still becoming. He himself is unchanging, all the while constantly changing me. How often has my heart ignored him personally as I’ve pursued him intellectually? How often have I chosen to think and talk about God rather than talking to him? I can hear my own voice in the voice of the episcopal ghost.

The second sting comes from my tendency to generalize, another error corrected by our bright friend. This is a symptom that comes with an intellectual approach to matters of eternity. If I can just keep the reality of God, sin, and salvation vague and general, then I need not let my heart be affected. Because I occasionally have a platform to preach (or blog), the occasional attempt to speak in general language certainly infects my ability or desire to see the truth as the Lord speaks to me. I’m fighting that one.

 

“Excuse me. Where do you imagine you’ve been?” (Dick)

 

This conversation finally gives names to the bus stops. Heaven and hell. Not the idea of heaven and hell. Not the subjective understanding of heaven and hell, but the real life, literal, honest to goodness heaven and hell. It’s worth remembering again the statement in the preface that CS Lewis had no intention of describing the biblical and theological revelation of heaven or hell. Rather he sought to place the reader at a crossroads – a crossroads where human interaction is rich, where the weight of eternity is real, where the condition of our hearts is more important than the intellectual framework. Don’t go digging for specifics, let the conversations carry you to the crossroads!

This conversation also names Jesus as the Lord of heaven and hell. Here, God is real. Jesus is real. Eternity is real. I’m pretty sure Lewis’ agenda is now on the table! Eternal destinations are set by the response of the heart to the revelation of God in his Son. Grace is unfathomable and accessible. Forgiveness has been accomplished and is being applied.

 

“Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions?” (The Fat Ghost)

 

Relativism. Post-modern. Post-Christian. Post-everything. These terms define a great deal of the prevalent thinking in our culture. There is an idea that we’ve moved beyond the idea of Truth. As a culture, we’ve collectively matured such that we no longer need to seek objectivity and absolutes. I’m reminded of the third episode of Star Wars, though obviously not for reasons of cinematic excellence. As the classic face-off between Obi-Wan and Anakin launches, Anakin says something along the lines of, “If you are not with me, then you’re my enemy.” Obi-Wan responds by saying, “Only a Sith (evil) speaks in absolutes.”

The sentiment is widespread that absolutes are evil. Even the possibility that right exists apart from self is downright combative to many. For such thinkers, much like the Fat Ghost, the thrill is often found in the question, more than the answer. Stirring doubt raises excitement. I can certainly appreciate the anticipation of the intellectual chase. I love asking questions. But I’ve come to love even more the realization that there is stability in Truth, and joy in that stability.

Our bright friend encourages childlike inquiry. Rather than remaining satisfied at asking a good question (a real zinger!), a child simply wants to know. The beauty of inquiries into the heart of God is that, as he has revealed himself to be incomprehensible, while every answer is satisfying in and of itself, every answer will also likely raise a deeper question. In my opinion, God is the refuge for the modern thinker, providing a constant wellspring of investigation, all the while providing sweet contentment as the source of unending Truth. In him there are worthy questions and, better yet, real answers.

The Fat Ghost is no fan of absolutes. He acknowledges God is real, as long as that reality is defined subjectively. I’ve posted on this subject before. The American population is undeniably spiritual, but when the conversation is narrowed to the idea that there is one legitimate, personal, and eternal source of life, things get a bit more tense. That this one true Deity has declared a death sentence over humanity because of sin, causes the proverbial rubber hits the road. But friends, there is good news in Jesus.

Both Ghostly conversations thus far have been a direct struggle with the reality of sin. The Big Ghost just wanted his rights. He had tried as hard as he could, and that should be enough. The Fat Ghost was honest and sincere, and that should be enough. Neither considered the possibility of real sin with real consequence.

 

“Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?” (Dick) 

The bright folks plead with the ghosts to come to the mountain. To dwell in the midst of the Truth long enough to let it penetrate the grey heart – to gaze upon the face of God and find grace in the midst of deserved judgment. To take a long walk that will hurt, but ultimately will heal. The invitation to walk with Jesus, for us, is no less an offer. Bring your doubts, your pride, your intellect. Bring them to the mountain. But know that an honest encounter with the Truth (He has a name) will cause you to lay it all down.

 

 

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Getting Personal: The Great Divorce #4

 

jocund: (adj.) cheerful and lighthearted

 

I am quite skilled at personal conversation. Not the kind of conversation you’re imagining, though. I’m talking about the conversations that replay perpetually in my head, but never actually happen in real life. These are the conversations of conflict, the conversations of offense, the conversations of reconciliation. If I’ve known you long, chances are I’ve had one (or many?) of these imaginary conversations with you… and you never even knew it! When I summon the courage to let one of these conversations play out with another human being, reality usually works out to look nothing like the ornery world residing happily in my head.

There is an unpredictability to humanity that makes conversation interesting. Engaging people, beyond the mundane talk of the weather or traffic patterns, stands among the greatest adventures we, as people, can enjoin. Laughter, terror, wonder, frustration, agitation, resolution… all from shared words and misinterpreted body language.

 

“There are going to be affecting scenes” (The Writer)

 

The Writer seems very aware that the approach of the solid people, the bright people, means that things are about to get personal. These people move with intention, as though each has an assignment. He seems oblivious to the possibility, though, that one of the people might be coming for him. Reading the book slowly, I appreciate his naivete, which keeps us happily inside his interpretation of the events.

2539_giant_cedar_treeIn this chapter we see the Big Man’s conversation with a ghost of his past. This is the kind of encounter I play out in my head all the time. If only I could speak with this person or that person who did this or caused that. These are the conversations I tend to irrationally fear. I think that helped me press into chapter 4!

How interesting, as he faces “the ghost of his past,” that the Big Man is actually the ghost, while “the ghost” seems to have become very real! Lewis overturns our expectations as the passengers on the bus are now plainly referred to as ghosts and shadows, recognizing that this place is, in fact, the fullness of reality – and that the people and animals are to be envied for their ability to live in so solid a setting!

 

“Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything here is for the asking and nothing can be bought.” (Len)

 

Somehow, in this place, murder has been cleaned up. Death has been overturned. Self-centeredness has been redirected, though self-awareness seems to be complete. People have received the opposite of what they deserve, yet they have the opportunity – chasing these ghosts – to seek reconciliation for the evils of their past while pleading for a friendly future. Every last bit seems to be upside-down and backwards. The Big Ghost was certainly uncomfortable with the situation. Len (the solid/bright person) seemed quite comfortable.

I can understand the Big Ghost’s discomfort. As humans, we carry pain. To see a source of pain vindicated would certainly be strange. To be invited to spend forever and ever with a source of pain in friendliness would be even stranger. Imagine a source of pain pointing out your faults, even if in love. Imagine a source of pain providing the solution to a better eternity. No wonder he walked away, grumbling and whimpering at the same time. He faced an impossible choice.

Simply defined, grace is receiving something you do not deserve. In Christian-ese, grace is a gift. Unearned. Undeserved. This chapter reminded me of the truth that those who have received grace often seem perfectly comfortable with the concept, while those who have not seem to struggle. I believe the difficulty comes from seeing grace as an unjust outcome. After all, “letting go” of the wrongs and hurts of the past makes no sense because it is void of justice. Our hearts long for justice! Forgiveness involves absorbing the pain of loss. Humanity does not openly seek the absorption of pain. The Big Ghost wants justice. It was murder!

Ah, but what if justice has been satisfied in some other way, making grace a perfectly sensible gift? Then, I believe, we would speak of grace more like Len and less like the Big Ghost.

This is where the gospel of grace and justice speaks.

 

“I’d rather be damned than go along with you.” (the Big Ghost)

 

This hint of the good news falls on deaf ears. As he retreated to the bus, the Big Ghost boldly displays a human heart’s gut response to the gift of grace: I’m not bad enough to need it, and you’re not good enough to receive it.

 

 

 

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Freedom and Danger: The Great Divorce #3

vituperation: (n.) bitter and abusive language

I had to start there, because words are fun, and that one was not in my current collection.

Finally, the bus arrives there. Because the Grey Town exists as a place of perpetual dusk, it stands to reason that the destination would be a place of perpetual dawn. The details and distinction are immediately clear. The fresh stillness of a songbird. Light and cool. Colors. Clouds (or are they mountains?), valleys, cities. Majesty. Grass, trees, and flowers. Life. Yet with the revelation of this place of beauty came the revelation of their inability to fully enjoy or partake of such goodness.

 

There was no change and no progression as the hours passed. The promise – or the threat – of sunrise rested immovably up there. (the Writer)

 

As the bus ride continues, I have to say I enjoy more and more the contrast between the writer and everyone else. I am reminded that, though we all have certain things in common by way of our humanity, everyone experiences the same moment with different perspective, different baggage. Everyone on the bus, we’ve discovered, is a phantom, a ghost. Yet each carries a different set of expectations, fears, even hopes. This place is real, there is a solid situation before them, yet their varied interpretations leave us desiring to know exactly what is truly true.

The clearest gap comes in the writer’s ability to slow down and begin to recognize the goodness of the experience, even if he can’t fully grasp the goodness. He seems to react like a child, with vigor and excitement. In the previous chapter, as he opened the window, he spoke of freshness with energy (even if the other downers toss a giant wet blanket on all the sweetness!). Now, as he exits the bus, again the experience is fresh, light, and cool, larger than life. Freedom met with danger, while the others express discontent.

 

I also was a phantom. Who will give me words to express the terror of that discovery? (the Writer)

 

The writer speaks with a certain vulnerability that the others can’t seem to appreciate. He is aware that this setting is large beyond measurement, beautiful beyond compare, and so very real that it is dangerous. Yet he presses on. He reaches out to experience the reality of this world. Others stay by the bus while he experiments with immovable daisies.

But even the writer joins the huddle when the people approached, but that’s getting a bit ahead.

Most surprising is the driver’s statement that the passengers need never return to the Grey Town should they want to stay. Why would anyone prefer the threat of darkness to the promise of light? Why choose empty streets over fields of grass? Yet some run with haste to the bus. Indeed, the prison of the human heart is not easily escaped.

Taking the book slowly means the approach of these people of light now creates a wonderful cliffhanger. Must. Resist. The urge. To read. Ahead. Haha. I hope you’re enjoying the story. I hope you are enjoying the comments. I hope you have brought someone else along for the ride.

Random Thinking

I spent two hours on my front porch last night. I watched dusk give way to the night. I woke up early and spent two hours on my front porch this morning. I watched dawn give way to the morning. As I read this chapter, I was considering which one I enjoy more. Both have a distinction. The dawn brings with it the potential of a new day, the uncertainty and adventure of a fresh start. The evening brings with it the affirmation of surviving another day, the chance to reflect on successes and failures of the hours gone by.

Though I do enjoy both, I believe my enjoyment of the dusk is actually rooted in my enjoyment of the dawn. To have the knowledge and experience of another day would be quite maddening if not for the opportunity to apply and to grow as the sun rises again. As I consider this place of perpetual sunrise, I have to say I’d rather spend time with my morning coffee and the possibility of possibility. There is new mercy each and every morning.

 

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Everything I Ever Needed to Know, I Learned on the Bus: The Great Divorce #2

One of my favorite aspects of The Great Divorce is the fact that the Writer isn’t entirely sure what’s going on, or at the very least he doesn’t let on what he does & doesn’t know as the book unfolds. This means that our point of view is parallel to his, and his discoveries become ours. The story unfolds rather nicely in this way. If you read the first chapter as if you’ve not read the rest of the book, there is no reason to know that the Queue was in hell. The Grey Town appears to be a town that is, well, grey. The bus appears normal at first, though clearly something unique begins to take place.

With this second chapter, as the Writer encounters more people, he learns more of his situation and the circumstances of the Grey Town.

For example, the Grey Town is not Earth.

 

“But we look on this spiritual city – for with all its faults it is spiritual – as a nursery in which the creative functions of man, now freed from the clogs of matter, begin to try their wings. A sublime thought.” (The Fat Clean-Shaven Man)

 

The Grey Town is a place where the irony of self-centered humanity works out on an eternal scale. People are given the apparent freedom to simply allow their situation to match their hearts’ desire. If a quarrel breaks out, another street opens up in which to live, an opportunity to cast aside the source of the problem and seek a new situation. Imagination is the engine of expansion. Eventually, though, the resulting situation is to exist alone, only to realize that the source of the problem was rooted in the sinful self all along. The outcome is eternity trapped with the source of the problem, unable to imagine a new self. The apparent freedom is, in fact, a debilitating prison.

People, though, are still people. Lewis has a wonderful knack for making the passengers so very real in my mind’s eye. I appreciate that. It would appear that each has his or her own motive for taking this particular bus ride.

The tousle-haired youth has shared more of his story. Desperate for recognition and significance, the youth is excited to be the only one who will get to stay there, the place where he will finally be appreciated for his greatness. His story is tragic, but somehow void of sympathy because of his unwavering blindness to anything and anyone but himself.

BowlerThe intelligent man has no intention of staying there, instead planning to bring a taste of there to the Grey Town. His desired significance lies in bringing commodities to the masses, an entrepreneur, a profiteer. He is not at all wrong in recognizing the value of scarcity and the inherent benefits of culture and human interaction, but his desire for exploitation rather than mutual benefit is telling.

The fat clean-shaven man seems to see the Grey Town as being on the brink of revival, viewing the bleakness as matching that preceding a sunrise rather than a sunset. He is progressive, content with his place in the Town, showing no desire to return to Earth. One wonders why he has taken the bus ride.

Another irony, in light of the fat man’s view, is the cruelty of the light. Far from refreshing, the light brings despair rather than hope. There is a bold contrast brewing at a deliberate pace. An hour of darkness may (or may not?) be approaching for the Grey Town, and what is the nature of this light?

Random Thinking

One of the tensions of humanity is that we have a simultaneous need for other people coupled with a desire for personal sovereignty. We want things to be done our way, in a way that benefits our situation, yet we cannot get there without the time, talents, efforts, and gifts of other people who struggle with the same wants. It is true, there are the ultra-enlightened few who have evolved, developing an inexplicable maturity such that they act in pure selflessness. And they’re usually the first to tell you about it.

Pride is at the root of our fallen nature. It is curious to ponder an existence with self on the throne. Such an adventure might begin with an air of excitement, but the end result is downright depressing. The Grey Town is probably a kind and generous depiction of the dark result.

Getting to the root of selfish thinking is kind of like a child repeatedly asking Why? The first why is a surface why. The answer is a surface answer. But keep asking why, and eventually you’ll really learn something. I believe there is a measure of God’s grace that unmasks pride, but like the cruel light of the bus, I don’t believe we want to go there very often. After all, our self-image is likely to be bruised more deeply with every why. Yet it is only in revealing the depths of our own depravity that we can ever hope to receive true hope, true growth, true selflessness.

 

 

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