Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Gospel According to Puddleglum

Anyone who knows me well, knows I am a reader. That's a bit like saying Michael Jordan could play a little basketball, or Imelda Marcos liked to shop for shoes. I read pretty much constantly. My wife is the same way, and our kids have inherited the disease to varying extents. We live in a library that grows like a jungle, slowly enveloping all the horizontal surfaces in our home. Every once in a while we chop it back, but I think the jungle is winning.

More specifically, I love to read stories. I'm not immune to the virtues of good non-fiction, and I always try to keep a non-fiction book going. But fiction really speaks to me. In fact, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit speaks to me through the stories I read. Not all of them, certainly, but many, many times I have learned Biblical truths when reading a fictional story. I can remember one such incident several years ago when I was reading one of the books in Stephen Lawhead's Arthurian cycle. There was an incident in the book of demon possession and spiritual warfare that was more real to me than anything I had ever read in another book or seen in any film. It struck something deep within me, and gave me a fuller appreciation of spiritual warfare than I ever had before. Suddenly it was undeniably real.

That happened again, recently, although not in quite so dramatic a fashion. Considering what I was reading, it really shouldn't have been that surprising. I was reading C. S. Lewis's The Silver Chair, part of The Chronicles of Narnia. Those books were an attempt to put the truths of the gospel into a children's fantasy setting, and Lewis succeeded admirably, in my opinion. They are very approachable books for children, yet continue to delight adults (such as myself). In addition, they do present God's truths in a novel way.

The Silver Chair is the story of Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole, two children from our world, who travel with Puddleglum, a Narnian Marsh Wiggle, on a quest to find and rescue Prince Rillian. Puddleglum, for me, is the most memorable character, and the hero of the story. He is a dour, pessimistic grumbler who sticks tirelessly to his duty, and manages somehow to find good in every bad situation, all the while supposing that things will get much, much worse. When it rains, Puddleglum is certain it will soon turn to sleet, but thinks how much more grateful they'll be then for the rain. He muses that the wood will probably be too wet to make a fire, and is pleasantly surprised when it burns quite well. To Puddleglum, no silver lining is without its dark cloud. The children call him a "wet blanket", and they wish he'd stop grumbling and looking for the worst all the time. In the end, they come to realize that he really is a happy person, and one of the bravest they have ever met.

But what really struck me from the story was how God uses the good and the bad to make things work out. Aslan, the great lion who is a stand-in for Jesus in The Chronicles of Narnia, gives the children four signs that will help them on their mission to rescue Rillian. The first is that Eustace will meet an old friend in Narnia, and must speak to him to get help. They muff that one almost immediately, and they must go forward in secrecy and without help they would otherwise have had. Consequently, as they set out on their difficult journey, they devote themselves to remembering and repeating the signs nightly.

But as their journey becomes long and difficult, they cease remembering the signs, caught up as they are in fighting the elements and their own weariness. At one point Jill says, "Oh, bother the signs!" In that moment she is more interested in finding warmth and comfort than in remembering the purpose for which they have come. Consequently they miss the ancient city of the giants, though they are actually struggling through its ruins at the time. That, in turn, causes them to miss the third sign, and after that they find themselves in a very tight place, indeed, where they must struggle for their own survival, not just to complete their quest.

And yet . . . in spite of missing the first three of the four signs, they find a way to get back on track, and move toward the goal. It is hard, and dangerous, and looks as if they will fail and likely die in the attempt. But their way becomes clear.

Then it struck me. How like us, and how like God! God put Adam and Eve in the Garden, and told them to guard it. But it’s not long before Adam and Eve are in a relationship with the serpent, close enough that he is able to convince them God is holding out on them. And so enters death. The first sign muffed. But even before he drives them from the Garden, God announces the way things will be made right, through the sacrifice of his own son, indeed of himself.

And we continue that pattern today. Who of us could honestly say we have done everything right, and have always chosen God over ourselves, over our own pleasure, over our fears? Not a one. And yet . . . in spite of muffing sign after sign after sign, he still makes a way. We get another chance to get back on track, to continue on the quest, to do the right thing.

And then, in The Silver Chair, Puddleglum and the children hear the last sign. The madman is tied into the Silver Chair, where he comes to his senses and begs them to free him in the name of Aslan. All prudence, all good sense, all care for their own safety tell them to ignore his pleas. But Puddleglum says it best:

“But then, supposing this was the real Sign? . . . They had muffed three already; they daren’t muff the fourth.

“Oh, if only we knew!” said Jill.

“I think we do know,” said Puddleglum.

“Do you mean you think everything will come right if we do untie him?” said Scrubb.

“I don’t know about that,” said Puddleglum. “You see, Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn’t wonder. But that doesn’t let us off following the Sign.”

Here Puddleglum shows us our only course. We cannot change the past. We cannot make a future where our sins did not happen. We’ve muffed a lot of signs. But when God makes a new way, when we see the next sign, when we come to the next choice, nothing must stop us from choosing right.

There is such freedom in that! No matter what kind of mess I’ve made of my life, I can still choose right. I can still declare my allegiance. I can still fight on God’s side. It’s not up to me to determine what the cost will be. It is only up to me to obey.

That’s good news, the Gospel according to Puddleglum. Thanks, Puddleglum. And thank you, God, for giving us stories that point us back to you. Wherever they may be found.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

And if Not . . .

A friend posted a blog recently that I really got a lot out of and agreed with. Except for one thing. He's younger than I am (isn't everyone?), and he posted on Matthew 7:1 ("Do not judge, or you, too will be judged.") He repeated the idea that this was now the best-known Bible verse among college students, whereas 20 or 30 years ago it would have been John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.")

I believe that is correct. John 3:16 used to be the best known verse, and now Matthew 7:1 is better known. Where I had to differ with my friend was the reason he gave for that. His thought was that his generation had seen so much religious intolerance, from the 9/11 terrorism, to crazy street preachers calling out against things they didn’t like and putting Jesus' name on it.

Hey, there is a ton of religious intolerance in the world. And there are lots of folks who have decided that the things they particularly dislike are the things God dislikes, and they love to share their opinions with you as if they are Holy Writ. I'll agree with that.

But it's not new to this generation. It's not even particularly prevalent in this generation, compared with many others. Let's not forget that Islam conquered all of the Middle East, and a good portion of Europe in the name of Jihad. So that's not new. Let's also not forget that the Crusaders killed virtually everyone in the city of Jerusalem—Muslim, Christian, and Jew—in the First Crusade. You can argue that these were actually political wars covered over with religious trappings. I think you'd be right to argue that. But the point is, intolerance, even violent intolerance isn't anything new.

Just about every generation has seen religious intolerance, and a good many of them believed it was worse in their time that in was in times past. The same thing goes for legalism. It has been here since the beginning, and this generation has it easy when it comes to legalism.

So, what explains the popularity of Matthew 7:1 vs. John 3:16 today?

There is likely not any one reason. But I can think of two factors that are a big part of that.

The first is our society's emphasis on personal freedom and expression. Freedom has come to mean freedom to do anything without worrying about consequences or what the neighbors (or God) might think. Tolerance has been held up as the highest virtue, with a definition of tolerance that our forefathers would never have considered. In the past, tolerance has implied that one idea could be superior to another. One tolerates what one does not agree with. Now, it has come to mean celebration of all ideas as equal.

We have made an idol of personal freedom. And it is not the generation that is now in college that has done this. It is my generation and the generation of my father. In some respects it might be viewed as the pendulum swing away from legalism and strict societal controls on behavior. You can make a case for that. But whatever the reason, the current young adult generation did not create it. They are simply having to live with the consequences.

As a bit of a side note, my friend's blog points out that the young adult generation does judge one another. And they do it on a performance criteria, which is the direct opposite of how God sees us. It is a very good post, and you can read it. The direct link isn't working, so you'll have to go to, click the Archive link, and look for "Do Not Judge."

But the reason Matthew 7:1 is well known is that we have made a society where people do not want to be judged and cannot even bear the thought that someone might think ill of them. That's not really new, either.

As for why John 3:16 got knocked out of the top spot, I think you have to look at how the Bible has been taken out of Western culture. In past generations, the Bible was considered to be a foundational book for education. You found quoted verses in newspapers, magazines, literature, radio, television, theater. It was simply part of our culture. It is only in the past 50 years or so that it has been slowly removed from our culture. I'm not going to go into the why and how of this right now. Chuck Colson, in one of his Breakpoint commentaries gives an example of how ingrained the Bible was in Western culture not so long ago, and how that has changed:

June 1940: Hitler's armies are poised to destroy the cornered British Army, stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk. As the British people anxiously await word of their fate, a three-word message is transmitted from the besieged army: "And if not . . ."

The British public instantly recognizes the message: It's a reference to the biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego standing before King Nebuchadnezzer's fiery furnace. "Our God is able to save us . . . and if not, we will remain faithful to him anyway."
The message galvanized the British people, and thousands crossed the English Channel in small boats to rescue their army.

Fast forward sixty-one years to January 22, 2001: President Bush delivers his Inaugural Address. Afterward, Dick Meyer of CBS News confesses "there were a few phrases in the speech I just didn't get. One was, 'When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.'"

"I hope there's not a quiz," Meyer concludes.

What a difference a generation makes. For centuries, biblical references were the common coinage of Western speech. As Dunkirk demonstrates, people were so steeped in the Scriptures they immediately recognized a cryptic biblical allusion. But today that memory has been erased.

There, in a nutshell, is the reason and the problem. Our nation no longer knows the Bible. Or we choose only to know what helps us feel good about our lifestyles. There truly is "nothing new under the sun." And we "reap what we sow."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lost, then Found

Those of you who know me even moderately well know I'm a Lost fan. I actually came to the series late, sometime in the second season. But my son had the DVDs of the first season, and we borrowed them from him. We were almost immediately hooked. Side note: The DVDs of past seasons are a great way to watch the show. No week-long (or longer) breaks, no writer's strike, watch at your own pace, go back to see things you missed, etc.

Okay, side note over. Lost is one of the few network television shows my family watches. It actually has good writing, which is something I absolutely demand. It has great characterization, interesting plot and plot twists, cleverness, and a story about people. There are time travel paradoxes, which are like old home week to this long-time science fiction fan. Lost also has some great themes that echo Christianity.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. If you haven't seen Episode 7 of Season 6, Dr. Linus, you are going to see things here you might not want to see yet. You've been warned.

The biggest of those themes are redemption and forgiveness. I am certainly not the first to write about that, and won't be the last. But this whole show could be sub-titled Island of Second Chances. Because everyone there gets a second chance. And a third, and a fourth . . . Locke gets his legs back. Charlie gets to kick his habit. Kate escapes the law. Sawyer goes from con-man to protector, to leader. Even the Others get a second chance. Some make terrible choices with their second chance. Every one of them blows it at least once, even Hurley. But they get to pick up and try again.

Since the time shifts started and we began to see the flash sideways scenes, we've seen even more second chances. And they're wrapped up with redemption and forgiveness. But I was truly struck by redemption and forgiveness in this latest episode. And the best examples are those that take place for Benjamin Linus, the most despicable character in the show.

Ben is Machiavellian to the max. He has lied to and used everyone he met. He even killed his own father (with glee, I might add) when the Others wiped out the Darma Initiative. Most recently, he has killed Jacob at the instigation of the man in black (masquerading as John Locke). He also let the mercenaries kill his own adopted daughter rather than give himself up to them. Ben is rotten to the core. He's the slime that scum wipe off their feet.

But . . . in the flash sideways he becomes another man. He still has that Machiavellian spirit inside him. He uses knowledge of his Principal's indiscretion in a bid to gain the Principal's position. But when it comes to a choice between that and helping his favorite student (who was his daughter in the other timeline), he chooses to help the student. He makes the sacrificial choice. He saves his daughter, at a great cost to himself. Anyone see a Biblical echo in that?

And in the "real" timeline (what is "real" in Lost?), we see an even greater act, one of incredible forgiveness. Ilana, who has come to the island to bring several "candidates" to Jacob, and to protect them, finds out that Ben is the one who killed Jacob, who was the only father she ever had. She is one fierce lady, and bent on revenge. She shackles Ben to a tree and forces him to dig his own grave. When the hole is getting deep, the Man in Black frees Ben and tells him there is a rifle leaning against a tree inside the jungle. As he runs to get it, Ilana gives chase. But he gets there first and forces her to drop her own weapon. Yet he doesn't shoot her. He admits killing Jacob, and doing many of the other heinous things he has done. But he doesn't want to shoot her. He wants only to get away and join the Man in Black on the other island.

"Why?" Ilana asks.

Ben says, "Because he's the only one who will have me!"

After a moment's pause, Ilana says, "I'll have you," then turns, picks up her rifle, and walks back toward the beach.

Ben is absolutely speechless, beyond stunned. (So am I.) We see that perhaps for the first time in his life he has experienced real forgiveness, real acceptance. He simply cannot process it, not yet. He walks back to the beach, sets down the rifle and offers to help Sun fix her shelter.

How many of us have been through that "I'll have you" moment? Certainly all of us who have faced our sin squarely and fallen on the grace of God. You see, redemption is real. Forgiveness is available. New life happens.

John Newton, the ex-slaver said it pretty well in Amazing Grace. "I once was lost, but now I'm found." All it takes is to realize your predicament, lower your weapon, and follow.