Praying and Working (Thoughts on Prayer Inspired by CS Lewis)

Nearly everyone prays at some point.  Christians, Muslims, Jews and probably even skeptics may ask the heavens or inquire of the great beyond.  Those of us who are Christians address God, our loving Father and Divine Parent, in the name of Jesus Christ in the strength of the Holy Spirit (we pray in Trinity…but that’s another story).

Yet, what is prayer?  Does it affect God?  If God is infinite and all powerful, isn’t God just going to do whatever He, or She, wants?  This is a big question.  Its one of those questions that everyone has an answer for which in reality means no one has an answer for.

CS Lewis addresses this question in an essay found in his book God in the Dock:

“We know that we can act and that our actions produce results.  Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole of history with His own hand.  Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all.  It is like a play in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise.  It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all; but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method” (106)

In other words, just as our actions make a difference so to do our prayers impact real events.  It may be a mystery how it works, but for Lewis, the relationship of God and humanity means prayer, or lackthereof, does make a difference:

“He (God) made the matter of the universe such that we can (in those limits) do things to it; that is why we can wash our own hands and feed or murder our fellow creatures.  Similarly, He made His own plan or plot of history such that it admits a certain amount of free play and can be modified in response to our prayers” (106)

Lewis goes on to address the difference between prayer and work.  He basically says that we humans possess a good deal of power in our work, God has given us freedom.  When it comes to prayer, God has “discretionary power”.  To use an example, you can choose to harm another person and act to make it happen and God, as far as we know, will not intervene to stop you.  But if you pray to kill another person, God will not make it happen.

“You cannot be sure of a good harvest whatever you do to a field. But you can be sure that if you pull up one week that one weed will no longer be there.  You can be sure that if you drink more than a certain amount of alcohol you will ruin your health or that f you go on for a few centuries more wasting the resources of the planet on wars and luxuries you will shorten the life of the whole human race.  The kind of causality we exercise by work is, so to speak, divinely guaranteed, and therefore ruthless.  By it we are free to do ourselves as much harm as we please.  But the kind which we exercise by prayer is not like that; God has left himself a discretionary power. Had He not done so, prayer would be an activity too dangerous for man and we should have the horrible state of things envisaged by Juvenal: ‘Enormous prayers which Heaven in anger grants'” (107)

My take away from Lewis is simple: Pray.  Do not choose between Prayer and Work because both make a difference.  Work hard to do good and pray hard for good to be done.

There’s lots more that could be said  If you’re interested, my friend Tim just preached a sermon on prayer this past week: Negotiating With God.  Give it a listen.  I’ve posted on prayer in the past, here are two that might be helpful.

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer and Fasting

Thoughts on Prayer – Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

Finally, if you’re into books you could always try Lewis’ Letters To Malcolm on Prayer or Philip Yancey’s Prayer or Andrew Murray’s With Christ in the School of Prayer.  Of course, there’s the book of Psalms in the Bible which is filled with prayer.

And there’s the act of praying.  Since prayer is not about reading and learning but mostly about doing.

 

 

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Politics, Parties, Means and Ends: A Political Post Inspired by CS Lewis (yes, politics, but its okay)

I am slowly working through God in the Dock, a collection of some of CS Lewis’ essays, and a few days ago read the essay “Meditation on the Third Commandment.”  In this essay, Lewis discusses the desirability of a Christian political party.  I’m not sure if this was something people wanted in mid-century Britain, but the idea would be that all Christians come together in one, explicitly Christian, political party.  Lewis begins by discussing ends, or goals, and means:

“The Christian Party must either confine itself to stating what ends are desirable and what means are lawful, or else it must go further and select from among the lawful means those which it deems possible and efficacious and give to these its practical support.  If it chooses the first alternative, it will not be a political party.  Nearly all parties agree in professing ends which we admit to be desirable – security, a living wage, and the best adjustment between the claims of order and freedom.  What distinguishes one party from another is the championship of means.”

Lewis assumes that all Christians agree on the ends.  I am sure Christians do not agree on every end, but I will be optimistic and say that for the most part, agreeing on the goals remains true today.  That said, part of the challenge with having political discussion is that our political climate is so divided that we have trouble assuming the best of the other.  We righteously assume that only our side cares for people having enough to eat or decent housing or freedom or whatever.

Lewis shines the light on something important that can only help our political dialogue.  If we are going to argue politics, we should pause before the yelling starts and figure out if we are discussing means or ends.  For example, and Lewis alludes to this one, but I assume all Christians agree that the goal is for all people who work to make a living wage.  How to get here is the debate: do we increase the minimum wage? Allow competition in the market to drive up wages?  Those are discussions where Christians may agree, and those are discussions on means to the same end.

Lewis is writing this essay to discuss whether there should be a “Christian” political party.  He thinks it is a bad idea, arguing that putting all the Christians join in one party would end up backfiring.  This is because Christians are naturally going to disagree on the means, even while agreeing on the end.  Such disagreement will lead some to leave the party.  Then the so-called Christian party will include only one sort of means to the end, and this party will think they are the only Christians:

“But there will be a real, and most disastrous, novelty.  It will e not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole.  By the mere act of calling itself the Christian party, it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal”

A Christian party that not only agrees on goals but is not open to more than one idea on how to reach those goals will do more harm than good.  Lewis imagines worse can happen than just some Christians leaving the party:

“The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient make up we can find. And when once the disguise has succeeded, his commands will presently be taken to abrogate all moral laws and to justify whatever the unbelieving allies of the ‘Christian Party’ wish to do. If ever Christian men can be brought to think treachery and murder the lawful means of establishing the regime they desire, and faked trials, religious persecution and organized hooliganism the lawful means of maintaining it, it will surely be by just such a process as this.”

When one party is baptized as Christian, Lewis fears they won’t have to worry so much about actually seeking a Christian ethic.  They can even go along with the less than Christian elements in the party who are now emboldened by their holiness. Assured they are correct, being in the only “Christian party” after all, they will commit all sorts of crimes in the name of the good.

This essay reminds me that we need Christians in different political parties.  Not all political parties, for some parties represent ideas (ends) far beyond anything relating to a Christian ethic (Nazis, Marxists).  But in America, we need Christians in the Democrat and Republican parties.

We need Christians who remind us that individual freedom is vital to a functioning society and that government will encroach on that freedom, as it has done since forever. 

And we need Christians to remind us that individuals are fallen and will take advantage of their fellow men and women so we need institutions, including government, to work to keep the peace and ensure fairness.

America, like any nation with Christians in it, can only benefit from Christians speaking from Christian principles – primarily humanity as created in God’s image and broken by sin – in both the Democrat and Republican parties.  Hopefully, Christians in those parties can also lead the way in talking to one another – which requires recognizing the other might have something good, humility is also a Christian virtue.

At this point in our country, just talking to people convinced of different political means may be the place to start.

 

The True Myth and Challenge of Belief

871832The Christian faith has a lot in common with other religions.  We find story after story of dying and rising gods in ancient literature.  Isn’t the story of Jesus just another mythical story?

Well, yes.  And no.

CS Lewis writes in his essay “Myth Became Fact” (found in the book God in the Dock):

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth.  The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.  The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate.  I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from religion they professed.  To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary then the other (God in the Dock, 58-59).

Of course Christian faith has much in common with other faiths, myths and stories.  Truth, wherever it is found, whether in religion or philosophy or a good novel, points to the ultimate truth.  The difference, Lewis argues, is that in the story of Jesus Christ the shadowy unhistorical myths become real and true history.  Jesus’ resurrection took place in a real time and place.

Believing that such a thing really happened is not easy.  It is difficult to believe in fantastic things, as I wrote about recently.  Yet “belief” itself needs some sort of definition.  For some Christians, including me at various points in my life, belief merely meant assent.  To believe then was to assent to a series of statements.

Did Jesus rise from the dead?  

Yes, I consider that to have happened.

Did Caesar cross the Rubicon?

Yes, I consider that to have happened.

The problem here is that merely assenting to things does not affect your life much.  I fear that often what goes by the name “Christian apologetics” has its goal to convince people to assent to the truth of Christian faith.  So we defend our view and offer arguments targeted at the rational mind.  Can we get them to flip their vote from “no, of course Jesus did not rise” to “yes, it makes sense to say he did”?

Lewis goes on to write, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.”

Yes!  It is not that Lewis thinks believing it to be fact is unimportant (read the first quote up above again).  But he recognizes that simply believing does not count for much.  How does it change your life?  If Jesus is risen then everything is different.

Life has the last word, not death.

Hope has the last word, not despair.

Love has the last word, not hate.

 

Stephen King, CS Lewis and Believing Fantastic Things

51s5tovoubl-_sx302_bo1204203200_Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot is the story of how vampires destroy a small town.  In the midst of this, some characters figure out what is going on and try to rouse the town to fight back.  They run into many obstacles, such as skepticism.  At one point a priest, Father Callahan, is trying to convince a family their son is targeted by the vampires:

“Let’s talk a little more first. I’m sure your witnesses are reliable, as I’ve indicated. Dr. Cody is our family physician, and we all like him very much.  I’ve also been given to understand that Matthew Burke is above reproach…as a teacher at least.”

“But in spite of that?” Callahan asked.

“Father Callahan let me put it to you. If a dozen reliable witnesses told you that a giant ladybug had lumbered through the town park at high noon singing ‘Sweet Adeline’ and waving a Confederate flag, would you believe it?”

“If I was sure the witnesses were reliable, and if I was sure they weren’t joking, I would be far down the road to belief, yes.

Still with a faint smile, Petrie said, ‘That is where we differ.”

“Your mind is closed,” Callahan said.

“No – simply made up.”

When I read this I could not help but think of CS Lewis’ children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  In this story a young girl named Lucy discovers a secret door into the land of Narnia.  Her brothers and sister do not believe her.  Then one of her brothers, Edmund, goes through the door too.  Lucy is ecstatic.  Finally her story will be believed!  Yet Edmund, in a moment of sheer meanness, says he saw nothing and that he and Lucy were just pretending.  She’s just a dumb kid, after all.

The older siblings go to a wise old Professor.

“How do you know?” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”

“Oh, but – ” began Susan, and then stopped. Anyone could see from the old man’s face that he was perfectly serious. Then Susan pulled herself together and said, “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.

“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance – if you will excuse me for asking the question – does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful

“That’s just the funny thing about  it, Sir,” said Peter. “Up until now, I’d have said Lucy every time.

The Professor encourages them, in light of her past trustworthiness, to trust Lucy now.

The idea is the same as that in Salem’s Lot: it is possible to believe impossible things if trustworthy people share them.  If we do not rule out certain possibilities at the outset we may come to see that fantastic  things could be true.

Lewis would draw a real world conclusion from this.  Certainly humans do not usually rise from the dead, everyone knows that.  But if people we can trust report to us that once someone did rise from the dead and if we can think of no ulterior motives or other possibilities for what happened, then it makes sense to believe them. This is what happened with Jesus.

Do you buy it?   

I do.  Of course, I can see how others wouldn’t.  Its fantastic.  Heck, believing in vampires and magical worlds through doors may make more sense.  But what if the reports that have been passed down through the ages are true?

It changes everything!  It changes how we look at the world.

Is the world hopeless or hopeful?  Well, what if the story of the world is not one that ends in death but one that ends in the hope of new life?  What if, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of the universe truly is curved towards justice?  Not because humans are so great and can work really hard and build something (I think history shows us that’s too optimistic) but because there is a Being we call God working behind the scenes to ensure that in the midst of all the hopelessness and death, there is hope and life.

I’ll take the fantastic and hopeful explanation.  Its all that can get me out of bed in the morning.

 

Devotional Recommendations?

Students and friends often ask me what books I would recommend for devotional reading.  I admit I am not entirely sure what sort of book they are looking for.  If by devotional they mean a book they can read a few pages each morning that will provide spiritual reflection throughout the day, then nearly anything can be a devotional!

One thing I have found helpful for devotional reading is Prayer Books, such as the classic Book of Common Prayer.  Such books provide prayers to read each morning, noon and night as well as scripture.  Or you can just use the prayers and then read whatever scripture you like.  Recently I’ve been using Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  Rather than reading the suggested scriptures, I’m reading my own bible passages of choice (two chapters of Exodus and one of the Gospels right now, if you’re curious.  Another prayer book I’ve appreciated is Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours.

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If you want to go a different direction, in the last year or so I discovered a whole series of devotional books that come from the work of some of the best spiritual writers throughout the history of the church.  All the books in the series are “Praying With…” someone and I’ve prayed with the likes of Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena and Francis of Assisi.  I’ve long liked reading history and these sorts of works.  These books are nice because they give good background on each author as well as commentary on their work.  Each day includes scriptures, prayers and questions you can journal about or think on during the day.  Plus, you can get them used quite cheap!

Ultimately, this series points me to the best of what “devotional” literature can be.  It does not replace reading scripture; engaging with scripture should always be a part of our spiritual practice. Yet we recognize that we are influenced by our own culture and experience, so we look to spiritual guides from past places and times in whom the Spirit has worked.  Sitting at their feet, reading their words, helps us to grow.

Finally, if you aren’t sold on that series, I can think of lots of books that have been helpful to read a page or two a day.  Basically, a list of some of my favorite books!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Cost of Discipleship

Philip Yancey – What’s So Amazing About Grace

Richard Rohr – The Naked Now

Barbara Brown Taylor – An Altar in the World

Thomas a Kempis – Imitation of Christ

CS Lewis – Mere Christianity