Friday, June 13, 2008

At the Kilns: The need to be needed

The first of the “four loves” C.S. Lewis writes about in his book The Four Loves is “Affection”. Affection is the broadest and most inclusive of loves, the sort of love between parents and children, teachers and students, masters and pets, so on and so forth. In his discussion of this sort of love, he details the associated pitfalls. And, like all beautiful gifts of God, given to fallen man, there are many pitfalls.

One pitfall in particular struck me. He described the “terrible need to be needed” and he cited, as example, the over-protective mother, who labours to ensure an ever-dependent mindset in her children. Lewis describes the “ravenous need to be needed” that will “gratify itself either by keeping its objects needy or by inventing for them imaginary needs”. This abuse of affection, however, is not limited to mothers. Lewis goes on to cite a literary example from Jane Austen’s Emma. I have not read the book, but I have watched the film version. I recall Emma’s controlling affection for Harriet Smith.

What struck me in all this was not that I am an over-protective mother (or father…) nor am I the sort of sort person who interferes with the happiness of my friends. What struck me was Lewis third example—the teacher. He writes,

My own profession—that of a university teacher—is in this way dangerous. If we are any good we must always be working towards the moment at which our pupils are fit to become our critics and rivals. We should be delighted when it arrives, as a fencing master is delighted when his pupil can pink and disarm him.
I must confess that—at times—I delight too much in the reciprocated affection from my pupils. I must remind myself that educators “must aim” at making ourselves “superfluous…” It is a stern warning for all educators. C.S. Lewis writes, “The hour when we can say, ‘They need me no longer’ should be our reward”. A truly great reward indeed.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Why I should retire from teaching (at the ripe old age of 32)

As the school year draws to a close, as exams are graded, marks are calculated, comments and reports are generated... as my students walk across the stage in great pomp and ceremony... I am beginning to plan for next year. What texts will I teach next year? What assignments shall I give? How can I rearrange my classroom to maximize student learning? What is WRONG with me?! I am having a baby (or my wife is having our baby) in a month's time while I... instead of building cribs and doing pre-baby stuff... I am starting to plan my courses for next year! Technically this school year hasn't even finished yet.

I was warned by a veteran teacher that this might happen. Two months vacation in the summer becoming two months of "prep" time... time devoted to the overhauling of courses and preparations for the following academic year. This veteran teacher told me it was time to retire when that happened. So, I am announcing my retirement from teaching. I think my retirement plan will offer a nickle a month until I reach 2059. Then it goes to a dime. In the meantime, I may go into educational consulting and spend my summer planning someone else's upcoming school year.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

At the Kilns: On Reading Lewis and Watching Star Wars

I am reading C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. It is an unparalleled example of Lewis’s insightful and ingenious way of writing; he makes many poignant and perceptive observations about human nature and the world. The commentary he offers is rooted in a well-considered and broad perspective of all reality. Real truth for a real world, a world that includes the physical and spiritual.

As I was considering my plan to immerse myself in the writings of C.S. Lewis this year, it has occurred to me that I should have mapped out my reading list chronologically. That is, according to the order that Lewis wrote/published his works. I have already begun to see parallels in the ideas Lewis presents as I read his works. It would have been profitable to discover Lewis’s train of thought as it surfaces through his publications. No one ever arrives at all knowledge and wisdom, and then proceeds to write it all down. There is a process of growing and gathering. By reading his works in the order that he wrote them would give me a better idea of how Lewis fostered his worldview. I am not talking about fundamental changes in his thinking; I am interested in minor advancements in his thinking, shifts in perspective, refinement, new discoveries and so on. How did he envision life as a 35 year old (say in, Pilgrim’s Regress 1933) as opposed to a 58 year old (say in, Till We Have Faces 1956)?

If I ever do this sort of thing again, then I will certainly begin at the beginning. As I look ahead to future reading, I am becoming increasingly interested in Francis Schaeffer. I may start reading his works in the order of publication.

On a related note, I also recommend that new readers coming to “Narnia” enjoy the books as they were published, not according to Narnian chronology. Lewis recommends---albeit whimsically---that people should read the Chronicles of Narnia chronologically. This is why the publishers number the books beginning with The Magician’s Nephew. This book was actually the sixth book he wrote. In spite of Lewis’s recommendation, I must disagree with him on this point. I am convinced that readers should begin with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The main reason is the fact that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a much better book than The Magician’s Nephew. It is a better story. I have heard many people confess that they started to read the Chronicles of Narnia but “never got into the series…” I proceed to ask what book they started with: the answer, The Magician’s Nephew. It is the “Genesis” of Narnia, it explains the origin of the Narnian world. However, I believe this book’s value to readers comes only after readers have fallen in love with the world Lewis created. How did the lamp post get into Narnia? We only ask that question once we come to cherish that first magical image of the lamp post on the other of the wardrobe… along with an umbrella wielding Faun carrying packages on a snowy day. I am so glad I began my own personal journey into Narnia with the snow covered lamp post. For me, this image is unforgettable. My brother, who gave me the books as a gift many years ago, recommended that order of reading. Thanks, bro.

The order Lewis actually wrote the books is as follows (the publishers numbering according to Narnian chronology is in parentheses):

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2)
Prince Caspian (4)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (5)
The Silver Chair (6)
The Horse and his boy (3)
The Magician’s Nephew (1)
The Last Battle (7)

On a (mostly) unrelated note, I also recommend that first-time viewers of the Star Wars franchise watch the films in order of production, not in order of Star Wars chronology.

Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977)
Star Wars V: Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Star Wars I: Phantom Menace (1999)
Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

I just hope Lucas doesn’t get any more “pre-quel” ideas with the Indiana Jones franchise…

Thursday, June 05, 2008

At the Kilns: On Death

I recently read C.S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce. It tells the story of the narrator’s journey from Hell to Heaven on a magic bus. The work is entirely imaginative in that Lewis does not make any attempts to seriously speculate what Hell or Heaven is really like. What he does accomplish, though, is a powerful allegory of salvation and humanity’s determined resistance to the gift of JOY found only in Christ.

It is a strange tale, I must admit. Nevertheless, I found it powerful, especially in portraying our folly as humans. Visitors from Hell encounter--in the “foothills” of Heaven---redeemed saints who they once knew in life. These redeemed saints seek to persuade the condemned--one last time--to turn to Christ. The petty and self-centred sinful nature of humanity is revealed to be so ridiculous and so pathetic (at times) when contrasted with the setting of Heaven, which is vividly portrayed as a fantastical and imaginative landscape. In light of eternity, in light of Heaven, in light of the God of all creation, anything and everything that separates us from Christ should be immediately discarded. Lewis portrays this plainly and forcefully. Frequently during the short read, I pondered my own life and wondered how much I valued Christ and the salvation of souls over my career, my family, my life, my possessions, my “anything” and “everything.”

The book also caused me to ponder death. This became especially potent in light of my Opa’s recent passing. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet is told by his mother that death is common.

Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity. (Act I Scene 2)

Death afflicts us all, but it is not “common” in the colloquial sense of the word, that is, mundane or ordinary. We were not created to endure death or the separation that death brings. The fact that we do manage to endure the passing of our loved ones is due to the grace of God. Death itself is not natural, in that we were not created to die. We were created to live eternally in fellowship with God and man.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes candidly about his own grief after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. It is an incredibly revealing account of Lewis’s private thoughts and his pain. Lewis had experienced the death of his mother (when he was 10 years old), the death of his father, the death of fellow soldier Paddy Moore, and the death of his close friend, Charles Williams. Yet, he never seemed to fully accept the “commonness” of death. Originally, A Grief Observed was published under the pseudonym, N.W. Clerk, to hide the fact that the great apologist C.S. Lewis doubted the goodness of God while he was in mourning (N.W. Clerk is short for “I know not what scholar” in Old English). On death, C.S. Lewis writes,

It is hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter. I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?
Death IS difficult to handle and impossible to truly understand. Even though death has lost its sting, it still hurts. Coping with death does not come naturally. So much else in life does come naturally… Take for example a mother loving her wrinkly, purplish, alien-like newborn baby. She even calls it beautiful! But maternal love is natural. God made fathers and mothers to love their children. But accepting death... that is not natural nor easily done, despite the obvious and universally known fact that "all that lives must die." As Lewis puts it, one gets “over” the death of a loved one the same way a one-legged man gets “over” loosing his leg. He gets “by” not “over.”

Death is a consequence of sin. Christians have hope in death, but Christians also have hurt in death. Death has no sting for the departed in Christ, but for those left behind, death stings like any other consequence of the great fall of man.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

My Opa...

Hilbertus Albertus Adriaanus Vanderklok
February 24, 1923 - May 19th, 2008

A couple weeks ago, my Opa went home to be with the Lord. I was honoured with the opportunity to give the eulogy at his memorial service. As I prepared the eulogy, I discovered how difficult a task it is to publicly honour a loved one who has died. Was I speaking on behalf of myself… what Opa meant to me? Was I speaking on behalf of his children, grandchildren, friends? I was painfully aware of the mourning of others as well as myself.

In the end, I spoke about what my Opa meant to me. I wanted to speak the truth; what I knew to be true is what he meant to me personally.

He was, above all, a spiritual mentor to me. This was the most challenging aspect of the eulogy. I have many relatives who do not know the Lord. Initially, I confess that I was afraid of offending them with "religious" talk. I almost scrapped my whole eulogy the night before the service. Oh, what a foolish thing to fear! Ironically, my Opa was not squeamish about sharing his faith in Jesus Christ. In the end, I knew that I had to honour Christ if I were to truly honour my grandfather. By the grace of God, I shared his life of faith and what that faith meant to me. Here are two areas of my Opa’s Christian walk that meant a great deal to me.

He was a man of prayer. He prayed daily for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Daily. My Opa would not go to medical appointments before 9 o’clock in the morning because he was “still meeting with the Lord.” He got out of bed at 5 o’clock in the morning every day and he spent over three hours in prayer. When my father was clearing out Opa’s desk, he was amazed at the lists of people and organizations my Opa was praying for before his death.

My Opa also loved the Word. He read the Bible cover to cover hundreds of times since his conversion in 1963. At the plant where my Opa worked, he would spend every lunch break reading his Bible. On the tool box, by the machine he operated, sat his Bible. He was not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His testimony at work resulted in the conversion of at least one of his co-workers, a man who has also become spiritual mentor to me, a man who is eternally grateful for my grandfather’s bold devotion to the Word of God.

What a legacy! What a gift my Opa was to my soul! By his example, he taught me to pray, to love the Word and to live my faith “always” and “everywhere.”

Before he died, my Opa filled out a form indicating his preferences regarding his funeral arrangements. In addition to which hymns he wanted sung and which Scripture passages he wanted read, my Opa was asked, “What message would you like to give to those left behind?” His response was this (paraphrased): “I hope to see everyone again someday, joining me kneeling at the throne of Jesus.” When the dead speak, the living listen.

Oh, that I would leave such a legacy for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Oh that I would be so bold in my Christian walk, to pray so fervently and to drink in the Word so faithfully. May my life and my death exult Christ as did my grandfather’s life and death!

Monday, June 02, 2008

At the Kilns: Lewis on Predestination

In Doug Wilson’s article, “Was C.S. Lewis Reformed?” he addresses C.S. Lewis’s understanding of the seemingly contradictory tension between “predestination” and “man’s responsibility” apparent in the Scriptures. Wilson writes that “[C.S. Lewis] refused to set one truth against another.” Wilson goes on, quoting Lewis on the subject: “Of course reality must be self-consistent; but till (if ever) we can see the consistency it is better to hold two inconsistent views than to ignore one side of the evidence . . . It is plain from Scripture that, in whatever sense the Pauline doctrine is true, it is not true in any sense which excludes its (apparent) opposite.” Although Lewis wasn't "reformed" per se, Doug Wilson comments, “It is important here to note how Lewis named the doctrine of predestination under discussion—the ‘Pauline doctrine.’ And he assumed it was true in some sense which would make people think it might exclude its apparent opposite—the genuine freedom of men and women. But of course, because God cannot lie, no truths contradict at the ultimate level. God is sovereign and the creature is free.”