My Affection for the Grief of C.S. Lewis

On Sunday I read A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis again. I’ve read it once each year since I bough it in December of ’08 in Wichita, KS.

I don’t know why I keep going back to it. The first time I read it, I was shocked. I’d read a good bit of Lewis before, but this unmitigated emotion and frustration on display made me wriggle in my bed as I read it that first night. I can remember feeling the cool outside, even though our heat worked fine. That’s how cool it gets in Wichita in December.

Lewis’ books are like that, you remember the world around as read him, as he most likely remembered the world around him as he wrote.

And I needed some wisdom. We had moved our family up there just 6 months earlier and the pastor had already left. We felt unsettled. And I found myself wanting to read outside of the neo-Reformed world I was in. And I needed to read someone who wrote well.

About a week earlier I had gone into Eighth Day Books and plundered the C.S. Lewis shelf. Surprised by Joy was the highlight. I savored that one. I read that one every year too. But that one I read every year intentionally, whereas A Grief Observed has been accidental.

Last night I sat outside in the dark with Billie Holiday and my pipe and asked myself why I keep coming back to this little book. It’s a painful read. His grief is full-tilt and in your face in a way none of his others work are or could be.

I guess it’s because of the honesty. C.S. Lewis is one of the most beloved Christian public figures there is. Liberals and conservatives alike, love him. And here is he is for all the world to see, struggling with the loss of his wife, in full view of everyone.

I keep using the word “full.” And that’s what this book is. For it to be so small, there is a fullness within. The full range of emotions. The full chest of one who breathes deep a rare air of honesty with himself and the rest of us. So full of wisdom.

This little book is a strange help. I’ve not lost my wife to cancer. Nor my parents. Or anyone close, yet. But grief and hurt and the feelings of helplessness and loneliness are not foreign to any of us. And he never feeds us a gospel-hyphenated sugar pill. Only red meat.

Could a pastor have written these things? I doubt it. The expectations are too great. I’m sure he had to deal with those too. But he could ask the questions and stagger alone in the darkness, drunk of grief, without the baggage of a reverend. And none of his answers are all that preachy. There is no sentimental spirituality. Even a former pastor like myself would have not been able to resist a sermon before it was all over.

Isn’t it strange that Lewis is so popular and yet not a pastor. More pastoral than just about anyone, really. Sure, he preached a few times. But he was not a Reverend. He was just a Literature Professor, who believed.

We need more of these. More voices, not trained in the phrases of the pulpit. more voices, full to the brim with the warmth of words. Am I the only one who settles into Lewis the way others settle into soft blankets on a cold windy night full of stars?

This is no denigration of pastors. I am more than thankful for their work. But I want more writers who are writers and readers and lovers and dreamers and seers of all the little details of life that can get lost in the big visions.

Pastors are professionally spiritual. Their doubts must be reined in. They can talk about their struggles with sin, especially if they are of the masculine sort. But the ones in the pew can doubt out loud. Well, at least C.S. Lewis can.

Maybe the attraction of Lewis’s Grief is that it’s familiar. I’ve never been there but it has all the telltale signs of my own weakness and wondering. None of us would be able to express it like Lewis but the hell he traversed in the wake of Joy’s death is a path we will  make our way upon one day soon. We’ll probably be angry and question and keep grasping at the rope expecting its end to show up any moment. I’m just glad to know someone so sane as Lewis has gone on ahead of me and lived to tell of it.

Tuesday’s 10: Books That Have Helped Me ‘Get’ Grace

My guess is that none ever gets grace completely. We are all on a journey of discovery and recovery. We are discovering the grand vistas of God’s grace and also seeing worlds of grace in the minutiae of life. And we are recovering what was once intended – growing young in the aging face of history.

The following books have helped me along the way. This is not meant to be a best of list or seen as definitive. These are simply books which have moved me along in this world of “un-grace” as Yancey calls it. I’m not done with this list. As a matter of fact grace is what I’m always looking for when reading – no matter the genre or author.

My hope? Some of you will find a book to help you a few steps along the way.

These are in no particluar order.

1. What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Phillip Yancey. I’ve never been able to get over this book. There are a number of stories throughout the book and this is where the strength of the book lies. It was through this work I discovered Babette’s Feast, a favorite story.

2. Putting Amazing Back Into Grace by Michael Horton. It would not be much of an overstatement to say I was a Calvinist because of this book. And the theology presented here is the theology I still hold onto for the most part. mentally I go back to this book often.

3. The God You Can Know by Dan DeHaan You’ve most likely never even heard of this one. But it changed me and was the first book I felt like I could not get enough of. And it was the first book that made me weep while reading it. It’s probably been 14 years or more since I’ve read it but it still shapes me.

4. The Prodigal God by Tim Keller. The kind of book that can change everything.

5. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. A novel about an aged pastor learning to live out the grace he has preached. I Stayed up all night to finish once I got started. Painful and beautiful.

6. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. As much as I wanted to identify with Peter, as a kid I could not escape I was Edmund, in need of radical grace.

7. The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. This is still a relatively new one for me. I was always too reformed to even give it a try. But it came at just the right time. I was low and needed the grace that pours forth like Niagara from this book. The church…the world needs more books like this.

8. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard.  This was my introduction to Annie Dillard and she clearly understands grace more than most preachers.

9. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor. I know this cheating but in every story grace and the need for it edges in sideways and is sometimes there beside you sitting uncomfortably before you even know it.

10. The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. If you start reading the Puritans here, it just may ruin you. I’m not a Puritan hater but this is the standard in my book. A comforting book I’ve needed to read again again because of disappointment and the simple need to be reminded of God’s love for sinners.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

1. My wife made Carnitas last night and they were awesome. (I’m actually typing this on Wednesday but I’m pretty certain they will be awesome. Update: Awesomeness confirmed)

2. Choosing chopsticks over a fork is like choosing the telegraph over the iPhone.

3. C.S. Lewis volunteered for WWI and yet loved Jane Austen. I’ll take his manliness over the faux-manliness of the UFC-loving guys.

4. I love saying “Carnitas”.

5. I know I’m supposed to be thankful in all circumstances but does that include the circumstance of a song by Gloria Estefan?

6. I only eat free-range corn dogs.

7. I couldn’t be a pacifist if only because I like the Bourne movies and Taken too, too much. And i long for the day of conceal carry for rocket-launchers.

8. Did you know Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake”? But the real shocker is that Calvin Coolidge did say “Let them eat Bacon.”

9. I don’t trust people that don’t like Ray Charles.


Tuesday’s 10: Books I Read Over and Over

I have a tendency to read books over and over. I’ve got books I’ve read almost every year since the first time I cracked them open. In some I find comfort. In others it’s like walking to the top of a hill and being able to look out over a wonderful landscape again and again. This is a list of those books. I will actually be cheating on this list as there are more than ten books here…

1. The Harry Potter Series. Every October as it starts to turn cool outside I start these books and finish by Christmas. I don’t just think these books are entertaining. I think they are genius.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia. Every January I read all six seven. And I learn something…see something new everytime. Children’s books? Sure. And these children stories are the furniture of my mind and have been since I was a boy.

3. Surprised By Joy. This autobiography of C.S. Lewis’ early life draws me in almost yearly now. I “get this” book in a way that sets it apart for me. And it is written so darn well.

4. Pride and Prejudice. Not only is it considered Austen’s best but many consider it the greatest novel in the English language. C.S. Lewis was a fan as well as my professor, Jerram Barrs, who introduced her books to me while in Seminary. I’ve read all her books at least 5 times and P&P I’ve read at least 10 times averaging more than a read a year over the past 9 years. It is my favorite novel.

5. The Count of Monte Cristo. I picked this up so I could read it before the movie came out in 2002. I fell in love with the story, which obviously the makers of the movie thought unworthy of their “skills.” The movie was terrible and not the story written by Dumas. This work is over 1000 pages of brilliance.

6. Witness. Whittaker Chambers’ autobiography is my favorite book. Period. The fact that you do not know this book is a national tragedy. If I were the head of education in this country, I would make it required reading. Everyone I have recommended this book to has been rendered speechless – not only by the story but by the writing, which is singular.

7. The Prodigal God. This book meant so much to my wife and I after reading it the first time, when my friend David suggested “Keller” as a middle name for our son, we actually liked it and used it. There are not many books I’ve given away as much as this one.

8. Mystery and Manners. Flannery O’Connor is known for her short stories and two novels but this book of essays and talks is a favorite of mine. I’ve read it at least 4 times in the past 12 years. Maybe more. Great writing and helpful thoughts on faith and writing.

9. Orthodoxy. Chesterton is always interesting but this witty piece of apologetics is abnormal in it’s ability to entertain while making one think so much the mind bends to breaking only to be re-formed.

10. L’bri. The story of what the Schaeffers…of what God did in the Swiss Alps through the Schaeffers is a story I long to read every couple of years. Apart from Schaeffer, I am not sure I would have my love of art, philosophy and how our faith helps us think about these things. Schaeffer could not have dreamed what would be when he decided to move his family to Switzerland. The story of how God used them brings me to tears every time.

What about you?


1. Looks like they might have actually found the tomb of St. Philip.

2. I literally nerded out when I learned the man who played Cornelius Fudge in Harry Potter was a student of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien.

3. I miss Michael Spencer and am thankful for such posts as this. (Ducking.)

4. John Stott has gone on ahead of us. Here is a good short tribute.

5. A friend of mine has started a new “mom blog.” Go give her some blog love, moms.

6. I’m not a prophet or the son of one but the day I bought Adele’s 21, I told all of you it would be the album of the year. And…

7. A feel good baseball story for ya.

8. Tonight my wife and I will be going to see the last Harry Potter movie. Watch this video of my former seminary professor, Jerram Barrs talk about the redemptive themes of the story.

9. Speaking my former Seminary – which I think is singular – Check out the Worldwide Classroom and you can “take” the classes there for free. I paid thousands and they were worth every penny.

10. “Being Radical for Jesus Is Boring.”

Tuesday’s 10: Biographies of Christians Who Are Not Pastors Or Missionaries

Last week I posted about The One Problem With Christian Biography I was seeing in the evangelical pool I swim in so comfortably. Almost every recommended bio is of pastors or missionaries. But most Christians are not pastors or missionaries.

Below are 10 books about Christians, none of whom are pastors or missionaries. Most of these were recommended to me. I can only recommend a couple of them since they are the only ones I’ve read – Lewis and Vanaucken. I’ve read a few biographies of Bradstreet since I was introduced to her poetry in college. But the others I know very little about.

It was not easy coming up with 10. Especially when you are trying to stay away from athletes and entertainers. Feel free to recommend, endorse and kindly question any of these in the comments. Or recommend more.

1. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanaucken

2. My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion by Patton Dodd

3. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

4. Mover of Men and Mountains by R.G. LeTourneau

5. Unplanned by Abby Johnson, Cindy lambert

6. Same Kind of Different As Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together by Ron Hall, Denver Moore and Lynn Vincent

7. Anne Bradstreet: A Guided Tour of the Life And Thought of a Puritan Poet by Heidi Nichols

8. God’s Little People In Paul’s Letters by Brian Edwards

9. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis

10. Scientists of Faith: 48 Biographies of Historic Scientists and Their Christian Faith by Dan Graves

Why Are Catholics Great Writers and Baptists Are Not?

For a while now I’ve been toying with a question. Maybe a year or so at the most. I’ve had an answer in mind but I still keep asking the question anyway.

Why is it that Catholics are the best writers? And some of my favorites?

Flannery O’Connor. J.R.R. Tolkein. Thomas Merton. Dorothy Sayers. G.K. Chesterton.

And what about those who are far more similar to them than the people I’ve surrounded myself with? You know like the Anglicans.

Shakepseare. C.S. Lewis. Jane Austen.

And one of my favorites these days is Eugene Peterson, who has learned a great deal from those of Rome. Heck, I would have never picked up Merton if not for him.

My first and simplest answer is that they have a sacramental (read: sacred) view of words. Words are precious and full of beauty. They stand by themselves full of value, devoid of their use. But this is not how we evangelicals primarily think of words. We only use them – whoring them out. They have a function. Like machines. Maybe this is why I can think no writer, who is Baptist – outside of Bunyan – who is lauded as a ‘great writer’ by those outside of the evangelical subculture.

What do you think? Can you think of great writers who are Baptists? Who am I missing?

What have you read that could help me think about this some more?

Is it relevant that all of them are Paedobaptists?

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

1. Do you know how hard it is to play Angry Birds living in a house with 4 other people?

2. I’m guessing our president and vice president were against pretty much everything they have done before they were for it.

3. Wisteria. Red Buds. Dogwoods. Azalea. Pear. Cherry. Oak. Honeysuckle. Bacon.

4. Wait…if we think a book is heretical because a famous pastor said it was, does that make the pastor a Cardinal?

5. My kids like to play with all the pillows and cushions from the couch. And they like to do so on the floor. I say we leave them there to show our solidarity with the Middle East.

6. I’m no Monk, but I find it hard to drive my car with all this pollen on it.

7. Hey, if that pastor/cardinal is upset, are they an angry bird?

8. Bethany and I have been watching the Star Wars movies and the first two remind me of MST3K.

9.  Do we really think Twitter is a great place to mass rebuke people we have never set our eyes on?

10. So, I’m reading this book about heaven and hell and the fate of everyone who has ever lived and it tells the story of some people getting a second chance after dying and us being surprised at who is there. I started to throw the book away but then I realized I would only have the first six books of every evangelical’s favorite children’s series.

Go Ahead and Be Nobody Special

I’m in book five of The Chronicles of NarniaThe Horse and His Boy. Since it happens to everyone, like myself, who rereads books over and over, it goes without saying that I am seeing things this time never noticed before. For example, this short speech by the Hermit of the Southern March to Bree, the talking horse, on his way home to Narnia after being in slavery:

My good Horse,” said the Hermit… “My good Horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit. No, no, cousin. Don’t put back your ears and shake your mane at me. If you are really so humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses. Of course you were braver and cleverer than them. You could hardly help being that. It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another. (emphasis mine)
This is the message you will never hear in schools, TV commercials or churches. In fact you will hear the very opposite. “You are special!” is the mantra of well, everyone. The idea is everyone is really, really special. And to a point, I suppose it is true. But if everyone is special then no one is special. So, then, of course, the goal is to be more special by doing special, specialized things. Distinguish yourself.
Schools tell you, “you are innately special so do something special and change the world.” The commercials tell you, “you are special, buy our product, change the world.” And the evangelical churches? There are two kinds of pastors in the main. Those who speak at conferences with Green Rooms and those who want to do so. How could they have any other message besides one in which the listener walks away with the purpose of doing something special to change the world? All for the glory of God.
I mean, who would want to be a person no one has ever heard of? What kind of person just goes about their business in this rock-star culture? What pastor wants to remain nameless in year-in and year-out obscurity? When fame and reputation and notoriety are ripe for the picking? Why would you be Greta Garbo, when there’s YouTube?
But I say, “Be nobody special.” Do your job. Take care of your family. Clean your house. Mow your yard. Read your Bible. Attend worship. Pray. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Love your spouse. Love your kids. Be generous. Laugh with your friends. Drink your wine heartily. Eat your meat lustily. Be honest. Be kind to your waitress. And expect no special treatment. And do it all quietly.
The problem is that the zeitgeist of this age is you should let nothing stop you from being special. And the most especially vulnerable to this sermon are the young people who after a semester of college are now experts at being special. And the preachers of this message, regardless of the medium, are nothing if not earnest. And it is not hard to imagine why. Telling someone they are not special sounds cruel. But I disagree.
The “you’re nobody special” message may be the most freeing message of all. For now, you can just be yourself. Over against being the abstract, “special”, you can land on the hard concrete reality of being yourself. No need to be the “pie in the sky” version of someone else’s idea of what special is. You can now just love God, love others and be nobody. And as long as you know this. “…you’re nobody special – you’ll be a very decent sort of horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another.”

One Year With C.S. Lewis As A Mentor

At the end of 2009 I found myself teetering on the brink of quitting the ministry. I am not sure I told anyone this at the time – not even my wife. The taste in my mouth had become bitter toward the ministry. Not the gospel, just vocational ministry. It felt like business. The mystic and prophetic elements that drew me in seemed all but missing. So I thought about quitting. Sitting in a pew sounded wonderful. It still does sometimes. I remember praying one night while walking around my neighborhood alone. The air was cool. Christmas lights were lit already. All I could really say was, “help.” This sounds more dramatic now than it was then.  Then it just sounded pretty pitiful. Thankfully, he provided that help.

I started reading Eugene Peterson’s books for pastors.  And they were refreshing. For the first time in months I could feel my heart warming to the idea of being in ministry again. So I decided to start reading through more of his books and so I gave myself a year of slowly reading through his writings. It has been very rewarding despite the fact that some people literally think he is going to hell for writing The Message. I wish I was young and brilliant again.

This brings us to 2011 and my decision to read through C.S. Lewis. While I am not new to Lewis like I was with Peterson, there is a good bit of his work I have not been exposed to. And there are a few books about him I want to read. I can only guess his sobriety and skill in writing will be helpful. Refreshing even.

My plan is for this to be a little more intensive. Not only do I plan to read about 30 or more books this year – either by Lewis or about him and his work – I also plan on blogging through them. As of now, I am thinking about starting a companion blog devoted specifically to this while linking to each post through this blog. If any readers would like to read through any of the books “with me” they will be able to do so.

(On a side note I plan on reading some classic Greek mythology, George McDonald and all the usual books I read in a given year. All in hopes they will add some interesting insights.)

I do have a request from my readers. Are there any books of Lewis you would recommend as must reads for me? Chances are I am already planning on reading it but I am sure I am missing something someone has read and found interesting. So please send me some recommendations and feedback on what you think about this project of mine. And if you have any ideas on how to make this project better, let me know.