Growing ever upward

About a quarter-century before 9/11, I had this terrorist for a pen pal. I was a gawky 11 or 12 and met him through a Humane Society group. John, who was, in his forties about my dad’s age and lived in Scotland, always tucked in with his letters photocopied news clippings of attacks on facilities where animals were undergoing experimentation or other cruelties by the shadowy Animal Liberation Front – years before ALF became more sophisticated in their tactics. I had never heard the word terrorism. I didn’t understood that was what those attacks were, only that I loved animals and, with a childlike understanding of justice, wanted it for them after seeing an ad captioned “There will be no Christmas for Red.” In the same way that seeing “The Killing Fields” seven years later awakened me to a savage inhumanity I’d had no idea could happen in our world (I was kind of an idiot), it was a watershed moment in my life. The ordeal of the skeletal Setter is to this day seared into my mind.

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“But the whole point of the Gospels is that the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of a God—the God recognized in Jesus—who is radically different from them all, and whose inbreaking justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness.” ~ N.T. Wright

I thought of John this week after terrorists armed with knives went on a rampage just a few miles from where my daughter is studying abroad in China. Well-meaning and generous enough to spend time writing to an uninteresting kid who also loved animals, and had a sense of justice I now know is imprinted on us as being God’s fallen image-bearers. But I thought, too, of the 29 victims in Kunming: husbands, wives, even children impaled or slashed to death in front of their terrified loved one’s eyes. As good and just as your cause may be, as much as you may have suffered, in stabbing a 6-year-old you lose all moral claim.

But still, I prayed for the attackers and their own families, too. I know now terrorists are real people with real passions who somewhere in their desperation crossed a line and lost their sense of humanity. It is a heartbreakingly awful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.

And I’m trying to forgive them for giving me a whole new way to play Worst Case Scenario inside my head. Between the few short minutes they said her heart was stopping in my womb and they had to cut her out or she’d die to the moment they put this tiny girl in my arms, I became the worst kind of helicopter mom. God has helped me so much with that as she went 3,000 miles, then 7,300, away to study. But of all the things I imagined could happen to her there, knife-wielding terrorists wasn’t even a remote scenario in the sketchy neighborhood that is my mind. Sometimes I think the knowledge of evil is among the worst curses of the Fall.

Things are so often not what they seem. Kindly friends can be terrorists, and terrorist murderers can have suffered so great an injustice they lose their sight of any other way.

C.S. Lewis touches on this so often, things not being what they seem. In “The Great Divorce,” in “Till We Have Faces,” in his shadowlands and Other. In ‘Divorce,” we come to understand that we’re not fully human until we become what we were created for – when we’ve grown into a Person. Even Creation itself longs to grow into this, and rejoices when it does: “to have been once more ridden,” the very earth and the woods and the waters singing, as it is used in the way it was made for. How much we see this in the Psalms!

In that place – the Valley of the Shadow of Light – we find that that life here is but a shadow of things to come, an inkling. One gets glimpses, even in our country, of that which is ageless, the narrator explains, telling an artist:

“When you painted on Earth – at least in your earlier days – it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it allowed others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came.” the narrator’s friendly guide tells him.

“We’re at present ghosts by comparison, “man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.”

Growing ever upward! What a great hope we have in this! In losing that which is not us and becoming what we truly are, fully human. I pray that I will in time grow into the mother in the story fought against joy not because she loved too much, but defectively, too little. “Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s.” (“The Problem of Pain”). This is all through the Gospels: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

“Son,’ he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”

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Arts and the New Earth

“But the romantic muse is still called to be a handmaiden of the Lord, and … the Maid of Longing dances wildly but chastely in praise to God. She nourishes us more than we realize, for our taproots which go deep in the soil draw upon the secret mysteries which she provides.” ~ Corbin Scott Carnell, “Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C.S. Lewis”

I loved this book not just for what it says about Lewis and inconsolable longing – about the divine, the ecstatic wonder – but how vastly the better part of the arts reflect man’s great longing for God, by design or by common grace, and how such arts “give us a foretaste of what an ordered world might be.”

This comes with a caveat; Lewis says in The Great Divorce that “Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.” But Lewis strikes just the right balance on the razor’s edge:

“The Well at the World’s End, the Green Hills Beyond, Shangri-La, El Dorado, Narnia – Lewis believes these are all splashes of Godlight in the dark wood of our life. … Lewis can take aesthetic experience seriously because he does not make it into a religion. By interpreting the aesthetic “under the aspect of eternity,” he is able to let the experience be itself. It points to a Great Dance, yes, and to the Lord of the Dance, but it also provides the first halting steps of that exultant movement and our feet can begin now to learn its figures and its rhythm.” (Carnell)

J.R.R. Tolkien on the joy of the happy ending

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“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories (You can read the full text here.)

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

“But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater — it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite.  I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels — peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.

“But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men — and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused. But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.”

Exiles amid the homeland

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“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful then the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see… world within world, Narnia within Narnia…”

“Yes,” said Mr Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

~ C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

Whoever will listen will hear the speaking Heaven

A.W. Tozer writes, in The Pursuit of God, of this inexpressible longing, wonder and awe:

“Every one of us has had experiences which we have not been able to explain: a sudden sense of loneliness, or a feeling of wonder or awe in the face of the universal vastness. Or we have had a fleeting visitation of light like an illumination from some other sun, giving us in a quick flash an assurance that we are from another world, that our origins are divine. What we saw there, or felt, or heard, may have been contrary to all that we had been taught in the schools and at wide variance with all our former beliefs and opinions. We were forced to suspend our acquired doubts while, for a moment, the clouds were rolled back and we saw and heard for ourselves. Explain such things as we will, I think we have not been fair to the facts until we allow at least the possibility that such experiences may arise from the Presence of God in the world and His persistent effort to communicate with mankind. Let us not dismiss such a hypothesis too flippantly.

It is my own belief (and here I shall not feel bad if no one follows me) that every good and beautiful thing which man has produced in the world has been the result of his faulty and sin-blocked response to the creative Voice sounding over the earth. The moral philosophers who dreamed their high dreams of virtue, the religious thinkers who speculated about God and immortality, the poets and artists who created out of common stuff pure and lasting beauty: how can we explain them? It is not enough to say simply, “It was genius.” What then is genius? Could it be that a genius is a man haunted by the speaking Voice, laboring and striving like one possessed to achieve ends which he only vaguely understands?”

You can read the full chapter, The Speaking Voice, here.

In the beginning was the Word

“Left to myself, doing what comes naturally, I would fail. But the point of love is that it doesn’t. That is why love is a virtue. It is a language to be learned, a musical instrument to be practiced, a mountain to be climbed via some steep and tricky cliff paths but with the most amazing view from the top. It is one of those things that will last; one of the traits of character which provides a genuine anticipation of that complete humanness we are promised at the end. And it is one of the things, therefore, which can be anticipated in the present on the basis of the future goal, the telos, which is already given in Jesus Christ. It is part of the future which can be drawn down into the present.” ~ N.T. Wright,  After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters

In a 2010 interview with Trevin Wax, N.T. Wright explains this a little more:

“When you learn a language, your brain literally changes: new connections are made, new possibilities emerge, new habits of mind, tongue, and even sometimes body language emerge and are formed. The result is not, though, that you can speak it for the fun of it, but that you can communicate with people in that language, and perhaps even be able to go and live in the country where that language is spoken, and feel at home there.

This illustration helps to explain one part at least of the well known problem about how “what we do here and now” is umbilically connected to “who we will be in God’s new world”.

The point is that in the new heavens and new earth there is an entire way of life awaiting us, and we have the chance to learn, here and now, the character-skills we shall need for that new way of life – particularly the great three which Paul says will “abide” into God’s future, namely faith, hope and especially love. (All this depends of course on the Spirit, and on the transformative renewal of the mind which Paul speaks about in Romans 12:1-2.) …

In particular, the biblical vision of being human is that of being God’s Image-bearers: which means being like an angled mirror, reflecting God’s wise, stewardly love into his creation. The Christian vision is of Jesus as the true image and of Jesus’ followers, shaped by his Spirit, being transformed “into the same image” (2 Cor. 3.18). Thus being truly Christian and being truly human ought to come to the same thing.”

 

Glory Fills The Skies

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Singing in the trees! My big brother Lester wrote this song Glory Fills The Skies and sings it so beautifully here. I think it was him who first showed me the beauty of creation, before I knew any other way to see it. It makes me think so much of Psalms 19 and 98 and how the rivers, the very mountains will burst into song and clap their hands, and all the earth shout for joy.