On this day, fifty-one years ago, within a few hours of each other, President John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis all died. In the calendar for Holy Women, Holy Men, we give thanks for the the life and witness of Clive Staples Lewis on this day. A brief biography and the readings appointed for the day can be found here.
This weekend the Standing Committee and Diocesan Council of my diocese went on a working retreat at the Barbara Harris Center in Greenfield, New Hampshire. At this morning's Eucharist, it was my privilege to preach the sermon commemorating Lewis, which follows here.
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O God of searing truth and surpassing beauty, we give you thanks for Clive Staples Lewis, whose sanctified imagination lights fires of faith in young and old alike. Surprise us also with your joy and draw us into that new and abundant life which is ours in Christ Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I was once in a book discussion group among the faculty and staff at Assumption College—a Roman Catholic college in Worcester. We were reading The Weight of Glory and all those Roman Catholics kept speaking of him with such great affection that I just had to say one day, “you all do know he was an Anglican, right? Just checking…”
But the truth is that Lewis doesn’t really belong to us either. He was an ecumenist before that was cool; keep in mind he died in 1963, just as Vatican II was opening the door to new possibilities. He continues, I think, to call us to go beyond (or beneath) our ideologies and denominational biases to point us to Jesus, because his interest was in what he called "mere Christianity."
So let me begin with and end today with Lewis’ own words, from Mere Christianity:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
That is a pretty good metaphor for the scandal of the Incarnation: the God who has come to pitch tent among us means to live in us, and through us. (Our congregations too.) God desires to pitch tent among us. This God of searing truth and surpassing beauty deigns to be our guest – today, here, as we break bread together but also as we leave to go back to our homes and workplaces and congregations.
Lewis lived what he wrote about. He changed his mind (in the academy no less, where such things are very hard to do) as he journeyed from (as the little bio in Holy Women, Holy Men puts it) “…atheism to agnosticism to theism and finally to faith in Jesus Christ.” You get tenure by making your point and sticking with it, but Lewis went on that hard journey and for my money, this is where his light shines most brightly. He was surprised by joy, and in that joy he invites us to share his joy. And then after all that, he was nearly broken by grief, and yet in “A Grief Observed” he shares that pain with us as well.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says he that he goes in order to send another. That other - the Holy Spirit - is sent to guide us into all Truth, because God wasn’t finished with the Church or the disciples yet. And God isn’t finished with us either. More than any other truth, I think Lewis bore witness to this reality and lived his life committed to it. Some of us yearn for an idealized version of the past. Others of us crave for things to be settled – to reach the destination, to become what we are meant to become. But that tendency blocks the work of the Holy Spirit – always meaning to take us by the hand and lead us into deeper truths, one step at a time. We cannot bear much more than that...
As the great Nelle Morton once put it, the journey is home. We are invited to trust that Spirit to keep leading us on an adventure as exciting as the journey through the wardrobe into the world of Narnia – this is the journey of faith.
To make such a journey requires hope. There is so much in that one little verse we heard from Proverbs today:
Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.
Because we entrust the future to God, because we dare to hope, we are freed to be courageous and to do this work that God has given us to do. We have nothing to fear – not even death. We don’t have to hold on for dear life to what is, because we trust God with what will be. Do you remember how it ends in The Last Battle – the seventh and last book of The Narnia Chronicles? Lewis writes:
…for us, it is 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 forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.We might add, "where every tear is wiped away –and crying, and pain, are no more."
I think that what the church needs most in our day is not innovation, but imagination – or to be more precise, as we prayed earlier, for the “sanctified imagination [that] lights fires of faith in young and old alike.” We don’t need new technical fixes or programs, but real, adaptive change that is leading us into all Truth, and bringing us to a place where we have eyes that see and ears that hear what God is up to in the world.
Underneath all the talk about healthy congregations and ASAs and buildings melting icebergs and all the rest – important stuff to be sure,--we do well to remember that there is a larger mission of a Bishop and Diocese that we share with one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In the midst of all of our plans and our agendas we must never forget that. Jesus didn’t come into the world to pitch tent among us so that Christians could be fussy about the liturgy or argue about which instruments the hymns should be played on, but so that our lives might be changed for good and so that we could then be sent out into the world to do the work God has given us to do. The challenge is to live like we believe that.
So I promised you I’d begin and end with Mere Christianity and hopefully if you don’t know it you’ll take this occasion as a recommendation to read it, perhaps this Advent, or to read it again. The last word to Lewis:
It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.
We must be hatched or go bad. That about sums it up. Stasis is not an option. Transformation is the invitation. And then Lewis goes on to add this – which is where I will stop:
This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else. It is so easy to get muddled about that. It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects - education, building, missions, holding services… [but] the Church exists for nothing else but to draw people into Christ, to make them little Christs. If [we] are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.