The Opportunities Of Christmas


mary_and_baby_jesus017On Sunday, our fill-in speaker at church, Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, delivered an unusual Christmas sermon. His key points were anchored by John 12:31-32.

“Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”

Jesus was speaking about His own death. He declared that two things would occur: 1) judgment upon this world and the ruler of this world would be cast out, and 2) He, Jesus, would be lifted up.

First, “this world” refers to the world system that opposes God, His will, and His way. It’s one of the three sources of temptation: the world, the flesh, and the devil. The one who is the mastermind of all the world systems that oppose God is Satan, but it is the system or systems he’s behind that entice us to sin.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis was masterful in showing that what particular system the tempter used was not the issue. Whatever pulls a person’s eyes off God, works just fine. So someone with the wealth of the world, like Solomon, is vulnerable, as is the poorest of the poor such as the beggar Lazarus.

So Jesus’s coming initiated judgment upon the world system that tries to squeeze God from our consciousness.

Christmas affords the believer the opportunity to ask ourselves if we are siding with Jesus when it comes to casting out the ruler of the world, when it comes to standing against the world system. Oh, someone may say, you’re talking about keeping Christ in Christmas, about refusing to replace Him with Santa.

Well, no, I’m not. The world system isn’t about Santa.

It’s actually about ME.

It’s about looking at the world with the idea of seeing what I can get out of every situation, every circumstance. What’s in it for me? Am I getting what I deserve?

Trying to discern our own motives is hard. Do I want to postpone the meeting because I have something else I want to do that day or because I think it will fit everyone else’s needs more? Do I want to sign up for the prayer team instead of serving in the homeless shelter because it means less travel for me or because I think I’m more fitted for that ministry? You see, even in doing “good things” we can have our eyes firmly fixed on ourselves because the world system tells us it’s all about us.

It’s all about us, and it’s all up to us. We simply have to look within. We have to find our inner strength, because whatever we put our minds to, we can do. Whatever we want to make of ourselves, we can make it happen.

Not really.

But that’s what our world system says over and over and over.

It also says that a person is more valuable if they have all the right bells and whistles. Do you have the newest car, the latest technology, the most up-to-date software? Are your clothes in style? Did you get a really cool gift for Christmas? Dr. Muehlhoff touched a nerve when he mentioned that one.

When I was growing up, we were very middle class. Perhaps low middle class, but I never felt poor. Still, my parents were frugal, because we had been poor. So I generally wore hand-me-downs, and our parents never gave us extravagant gifts for Christmas. We often got practical things—socks, pajamas, that sort of thing.

So going back to school after Christmas vacation was always a challenge because kids would always ask, What did you get for Christmas? I wanted to be able to answer without making my Christmas sound lame.

The thing is, I really didn’t feel deprived for not getting some hot new fad item. I generally didn’t ask for things that I knew were beyond the price my parents usually spent on us at Christmas. But I dreaded telling my classmates what I thought they would look down on.

That’s the world system—gifts have to be of a certain caliber to be considered worth. Really?

That’s the world system that attacks our contentment, that judges according to monetary value, not according to heart intention or thoughtfulness or sacrifice.

Of course all these years later, our culture has become exponentially more hedonistic. Is it fun, is it entertaining—these questions override, can we afford it. Because we can afford anything simply by putting “it” on the credit card. One statistic Dr. Muehlhoff gave was that what the average person spends for Christmas this year via credit card, will take four years to pay off. Of course, they’re still paying off last year’s Christmas, and the one before that, and the one before that, so it is an ever increasing problem.

This consumerism, this hedonism, this ME-ism are reflective of the world system—Satan’s schemes to keep us away from what God wants, and Jesus came, in part, to bring the world and the ruler of this world, under judgment.

As Christmas, ought we who follow Jesus not stand against the world, at least a little?

The second thing Jesus said was that He would be lifted up, with the end result that He would draw all men to Himself.

The next question seems obvious: we who follow Christ are lifting up Jesus in what way?

To be honest, I didn’t like Dr. Muehlhoff’s ideas on this one. Everything he mentioned, someone who was an atheist or a Buddhist could do. On the other hand, at the Atheist/theist Facebook group, someone posted a video of an obnoxious pastor (self-identified) who went into a mall where kids and their parents were waiting to get their pictures taken with Santa, and became shouting that Santa was a lie, that the parents were lying to their children, that Christmas was really about Jesus, not Santa.

Is that what lifting up Jesus looks like?

I don’t think so.

I keep thinking of the disciples who confronted the beggar by saying, I don’t have any gold or silver, but in the name of Jesus, get up and walk.

I wish I could lift up Jesus’s name like that!! I mean, I can’t imagine someone who just received the ability to walk not wanting to know about this person named Jesus whose name made his healing possible.

So I can’t heal. Does that mean I can’t lift up Jesus’s name?

I think the key is the first part of the answer those disciples gave: I don’t have what you’re asking for, but I’ll give you what I can. I’ve always looked at it like, you want this thing you think you need, but I’ll give you something better. But why not accept it at face value. What if they had silver and gold, would they have given that instead of the healing?

I don’t think the key is in trying to give people the greatest thing they need. I think it’s in putting them before God and asking Him how I can lift up Christ before them.

So no one answer. But an awareness that lifting up Christ is the goal, and the greatest gift possible for Christmas.

Remembering C. S. Lewis – The Screwtape Letters


lewis_Screwtape_Letters_coverThis year marks the 50th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death. He, like President John F. Kennedy and author Aldous Huxley, died November 22, 1963. As part of the tribute (over at Spec Faith I’ve already written this post and this commemorating his life and writing) to this man who has influenced so many Christian writers, I thought it appropriate to let his writing speak for him.

So here is a flavor of The Screwtape Letters, one of my favorites of C. S. Lewis’s fiction.

My Dear Wormwood,

I note what you say about guiding your patient’s reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naif? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the daily press, radio, television and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous–that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing, you awaken the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it “real life” and don’t let him ask what he means by “real.”

Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (Oh, that abominable advantage of the Enemy’s) you don’t realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the Metropolitan Library. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line for when I said “Quite. In fact, much too important to tackle at the end of a morning,” the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added “Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,” he was already half way to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of “real life” (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all “that sort of thing” just couldn’t be true. He knew he’d had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about “that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberration of mere logic.” He is now safe in Our Father’s house.

You begin to see the point? Thanks to the processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch or see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don’t let him get away from that invaluable “real life.” But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is “the results of modern investigation.” Do remember, Wormwood, you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!

Your affectionate uncle,
SCREWTAPE

(pp 21-23, The Screwtape Letters)

Published in: on November 19, 2013 at 5:55 pm  Comments (4)  
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God In Contemporary Fiction, Another Take


Typically readers learn about characters, not by what the author says about them or how he describes them, but by what they do. Since God does not appear in our world as a corporeal being, it’s not easy for an author to show Him in action. I mean, how is the reader to know that the protagonist’s near miss on the freeway was God’s doing?

How do we know in real life? How do we know what God is “saying” to us or how He is leading us?

Often times it’s the accumulation of things — an open door here, a closed door there, a passage of Scripture, a specifically themed article followed by a sermon much like it, and so on. But those things don’t make for great fiction.

Neither does God coming in to save the day in answer to prayer, though He might do so in real life. In fiction it looks like authorial manipulation. The story seems contrived.

The truth is, life is contrived, more than we’d like to admit. God is sovereign, after all. Yet we humans, made in His image, have the freedom to choose. So what does that combination look like in fiction?

I’ve been playing around with different options for showing God in a contemporary story, and what I keep coming back to is showing Him through a relationship with the protagonist. The reader, then, not being able to see how God acts, can see how the person trusting in God acts.

I’m still not sure where the conflict should be, but I came across this quote on Facebook, posted by the C. S. Lewis Society of California:

Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys. – C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Besides making me want to reread the book, I saw a kernel of a story there. Not the demon’s involvement, but a protagonist still obeying in the face of events that look as if God has abandoned him.

The protagonist’s unyielding obedience, then, would serve to show us God — that He is worthy of that kind of trust, that kind of service. That His love matters more than whatever earthly stuff holding on to Him might cost.

I still think showing God truly, so that readers come away after reading the story knowing Him more, or at least being curious enough to want to know Him more, has to be some of the hardest writing a novelist can undertake.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced this is what sets Christian fiction apart from all other fiction.

Christians or non-Christians can write about troubled teens who hurt themselves or others. All writers can tell stories about angst-driven adults who have been disillusioned. Christians can show the world truly and sinful man’s nature in all its ugliness in the same way that non-Christians can.

Both can also show the moral thread that runs through men and women, making some determined to fight for justice and others choosing to live by the rules of their own making.

However, only Christians can include God in a story and have Him appear as He really is. Non-Christians can’t because they don’t know Him. Of course we Christians don’t know all there is to know about God, and our stories shouldn’t lead people to believe that we have Him tamed.

But neither should they make readers think God is unknowable or inaccessible or uninterested or absent.

Part of creating great art is addressing universal themes and telling the truth about them. Hitler had a distinct worldview but it was false. If he had been a talented painter or a great writer, he still would have been writing about that which was false. There is no beauty apart from truth.

Hence, today’s Christian novelists, should we wish to create artistic stories, must write about life in a way that unveils truth about far more than man and his behavior in the bedroom. We need to stop worrying about what we can and cannot write according to publishers’ strictures and put our shoulders to the task of writing what needs to be written, what only Christians can write — stories that tell the truth about God.

– – –

For earlier posts on the subject see “Realism In Fiction” and “When God Shows Up In Fiction.”

The discussion continues with “God In Fiction Via The Protagonist.”

Combating Satan


Scripture, of course, is the only reliable source of information on the subject of combating Satan. Last Thursday I alluded at the end of my post to the passage from Ephesians in which Paul names the armor we need for the battle we’re engaged in “against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12b).

I’ve most often heard the armor identified as the list in verses 14-17: truth, righteousness, the “preparation of the gospel of peace,” faith, salvation, and the word of God. Each of those elements Paul aligns with physical armor of his day.

Too often that’s where we stop since the metaphor stops, but Paul went on to name another vital element we need in our battle against the schemes of the devil—prayer.

With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints,, and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.
– Eph 6:18-20

Pray for all saints. Pray for those who are charged with proclaiming the gospel.

When I was writing the last few posts about Satan, I couldn’t help but think about C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. This little book contains supposed letters of instruction from an under-secretary of a department in Satan’s organization to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter. At one point he gives his thoughts about rendering prayer ineffective:

The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether … If this fails you must fall back on a subtler misdirection of his intention. Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by actions of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing.

– pp. 33-34

Screwtape goes on to say that should “the Enemy” defeat Wormwood’s first attempt at misdirection, all is not lost. He can still disrupt “his patient’s” prayer by getting him to pray to a “composite object” constructed from images of “the Enemy” during the Incarnation and images associated with the other two Persons, coupled with the patient’s own reverenced objects: “Whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it—to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him” (p. 35).

It seems to me this “keep them from praying” strategy might be all too real. How many churches dropped their prayer meetings? How many Christians dropped their family prayer times, their before-meal thanks, their individual quiet times?

And when we do pray, how much of our time is filled with requests rather than praise and thanksgiving … or confession? How many of our requests are for ourselves rather than intercession for all the saints and for those who preach the word of God? When we intercede for others, how much of our prayer is for what’s happening physically rather than for what’s happening spiritually?

Lest you wonder, I’m feeling quite convicted.

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