Sunday, April 27, 2014

Narnian Training

[my last blog for the month of April for the Society for Christian Psychology]

I’ve been visiting Narnia frequently in recent weeks. Every few years I find myself drawn back into that world of talking beasts, epic battles and, of course, The Great Lion, Aslan. Each time I go through the stories I seem to find new inspiration and insight in my walk with Jesus. Attention paid to Aslan’s words and activities seems to help me see Jesus afresh, free from religious jargon and traditional Churchianity.

In fact, my last round through the series (December 2010), I wrote a blog entitled “Loving Aslan More Than Jesus.” I want to expand a bit on that idea, particularly how imaginatively spending time in Narnia can help many lost and broken souls (like myself!) find hope in reconnecting with the saving work of God through Jesus. Our western culture is riddled with corrupted ideas and practices surrounding the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and anything that helps us read the Gospels afresh is to be welcomed. Narnia does this for me.

There are two writings from C.S. Lewis that guide my thinking in this area. The first comes from a letter he wrote to Philinda Krieg and the second an excerpt from Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

9 year old Lawrence Krieg confessed to his mother, Philinda, that he loved Aslan the lion more than Jesus. Lawrence feared that this feeling made him an idolater. Philinda wrote to C.S. Lewis somewhere between 1955 and 1958, asking for his advice. Within 10 days they had their reply,

“Tell Laurence from me, with my love,” Lewis wrote in a detailed letter, “ … [He] can't really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that's what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before. … I don’t think he need be bothered at all. God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works (He made it, after all) … .”

Based on Lewis’ words and my own experience, I can say with some confidence that learning how Aslan works and speaks can help me understand and relate to how Jesus works and speaks. For me personally, the draw of Aslan has always been that he is free of religious rubble and the spiritual caricatures of Jesus that seem to litter my mind and feelings. Many good novels can do this for us, but the character of Aslan especially.

The second passage from Lewis comes from the end of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Aslan reveals that Edmund and Lucy won’t be returning to Narnia.

“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”

“Oh, Aslan!!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan. “Are-are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of The Dawn Treader, HarperCollins Publishers, 1980: 269-70).

Time spent in Narnia with Aslan helps us know him here in our world, under a different name: Jesus. These stories are not just for kids but for all grown-ups who recognize their need to become children again (Matt 18:3-5). Few places teach us to become children again like the green grasses of Narnian hillsides. Every time Aslan roars or breathes on a statue to set it free we have fresh access to the heart and actions of God incarnate that opened blind eyes and overturned merchant tables. The utterly unique combination of kindness and strength that we find in Jesus is on display every time Aslan is on the move. We can become his disciples in Narnia and in our world. Pressing in to know Aslan can become pressing in to know Jesus Christ as we unite childlike faith and imagination. If we think ourselves beyond such training, too mature for Narnia, perhaps we are too mature for Jesus as well.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Growing Down

[a blog I wrote for the Society for Christian Psychology]

Psalm 131 is a Psalm of Ascents, one of the songs (Ps 120-134) that Israel sang and prayed on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem for festal celebrations. Psalm 131 prepares the worshiper through childlike simplification and trust in Yahweh. It can do the same for us today.

My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore.
(Ps 131:1-3 NIV)

Dale and Juanita Ryan from the National Association for Christian Recovery have written a very moving meditation based on this Psalm in their book, Rooted in God’s Love: Meditations on Biblical Texts. I will share this meditation and then offer some comments throughout.

A weaned child in the psalmist's culture is a child who can walk and talk. It is a child who for many months has been nourished day and night at it's mother's breast. Every time the pain of hunger came, the child enjoyed the powerful combination of having its stomach filled with warm milk while being held in a close, intimate embrace. Messages of love and valuing flowed into the child's spirit while the life-sustaining milk flowed into its body.

Love and nourishment are the soil in which security grows. A weaned child still needs to eat. But, it is not frantic about its next meal. It has learned that it's needs are important, that they will be noticed and that they can be met. Because of the love and nourishment it has received, a weaned child has grown secure.

How often our pathologies and insanities are driven by an insatiable thirst for love and nourishment! We grasp, bite, kick, envy, lust and grab all because we feel deficient, deprived and alone. We can be like starving refugees rushing a UN Aid truck in a crazed stampede!

The authors continue,

Recovery is like being loved and nourished until we can be weaned. We don't grow out of having needs - our goal is not mere self reliance. Rather our goal is to experience love and nourishment. As we do so, we gradually become less frantic about our next meal. We grow. We heal. Eventually a new kind of security grows in us - not the security of toxic self-reliance, but the security that comes from nurture. We become less frantic, less fragile. Our souls become stilled and quieted.

Have you experienced this progression in your soul? The Lord Jesus wants to move us from a frantic grasping to a quiet receiving posture, from the grasping of the orphan to the simple request offered by the beloved child. If we were honest, many of us would likely say that we are not where we would like to be in this regard. But this experience (or lack of experience) does not mean that such realities in God are not possible; perhaps we are not in a place to receive them yet. There is a certain amount of breaking and humbling that must occur for orphans to loosen their grip on the ideals of control.

There are many obstacles in the spiritual life, many corrupt beliefs and practices that are complexly interwoven with our cherished systems of survival. We are not really sure we want God or his promises! We’re not sure he can be trusted with our care and nourishment. It takes many gradual, tiny steps of trusting and testing God and his goodness within the context of safe communities of Jesus. Eventually, we can be weaned. But even then we shall never “grow up” and graduate to greater matters of control. Blissfully, we grow down into the ever younger and simplified new self that asks for what it needs from God, serenely trusting that our Father shall always give us what we need.

Dale and Juanita Ryan close the meditation with a beautiful prayer to help us get started:

Nourish me, Lord. 
Nourish me with your love.
Calm the frantic feelings within me.
Grow a sense of security within me.
I want to be able to sit quietly.
Like a weaned child.
Secure in your love.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Silence of God

Words are overrated, especially during Holy Week.

As we prepare for Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, consider that the Word of God was silenced and the Author of Life killed, all for love of you.

Take some time this week to get alone and quiet. Reflect on the silence of God this weekend. Otherwise the words coming from the silence of the empty tomb ("he is risen!") will be merely pretty words.

It's enough to drive a man crazy; it'll break a man's faith
It's enough to make him wonder if he's ever been sane
When he's bleating for comfort from Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heaven's only answer is the silence of God

It'll shake a man's timbers when he loses his heart
When he has to remember what broke him apart
This yoke may be easy, but this burden is not
When the crying fields are frozen by the silence of God

And if a man has got to listen to the voices of the mob
Who are reeling in the throes of all the happiness they've got
When they tell you all their troubles have been nailed up to that cross
Then what about the times when even followers get lost?
'Cause we all get lost sometimes...

There's a statue of Jesus on a monastery knoll
In the hills of Kentucky, all quiet and cold
And He's kneeling in the garden, as silent as a Stone
All His friends are sleeping and He's weeping all alone

And the man of all sorrows, he never forgot
What sorrow is carried by the hearts that he bought
So when the questions dissolve into the silence of God
The aching may remain, but the breaking does not
The aching may remain, but the breaking does not
In the holy, lonesome echo of the silence of God.

Andrew Peterson, "The Silence of God" from the album Love and Thunder (2003)

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Minding The Heart: A Book Review

Minding the Heart: The Way of Spiritual Transformation

by Robert L. Saucy

Kregel Publications, 2013

One of the weaknesses of the current resurgence of the movement toward Christian spiritual formation is the lack of biblical moorings to ground and guide the enterprise. Too often the project is dominated by feelings or experience for experience sake, and God’s Word is only one among many voices of apparently equal authority. Many have noticed this need and are seeking to address it, unpacking the vast resources of the Bible for spiritual formation in Christ. Dr. Robert Saucy of Talbot School of Theology at Biola University is one of those persons seeking to address this need.

Dr. Saucy rightly centers his focus on the heart, the inner person in need of change. There is no behavior modification here, but a radical exploration of what inner capacities are changed by God as he forms us. Our primary access to the heart is through the mind, so he develops several wonderful chapters on Bible meditation.

The author repeatedly stresses that actions flow from thoughts & feelings, and if we want to change our actions, we must go with God to the areas of thinking and feeling. The two primary agents in transformation are God and ourselves, as we respond to him in faith and obedience.

There are many strengths in the book that deserve mention. First, the author successfully uses sidebars throughout the book as a “for further study” for the reader. Instead of footnotes, which can be distracting at times, the sidebars provide a nice visual invitation into taking things a few steps further. As I read I learned to appreciate these little sections a great deal.

Second, Saucy thoroughly grounds the formation of the person in Christ in a biblical psychology of mind and heart. Psychological categories can be informed by other sources of research, but for the Christian it is essential that the primary source of information be the Scriptures.

Third, Saucy bases the “abundant life” (Jn 10:10) that Christ gives on the grounds of forgiveness of sins in context with the rest of the speaking and acting of God. Christ purchased our salvation on the cross, but the cross also provides access to the transforming presence of God Himself. Too often the spiritual life is equated with forgiveness of sins, leaving this dimension largely undeveloped. Saucy’s work in this area is very helpful in addressing this.

Fourth, the biggest strength of Saucy’s book is his development of how God’s grace works with our effort in the process of spiritual transformation (see esp. pages 118-19; 261). Both elements are absolutely necessary if genuine transformation is to occur. We must act, but we never act alone, for God works with us.

The only weakness of the book is relatively minor. Too often spiritual formation “talk” doesn’t do justice to the brokenness that obstructs the project in the various realms of the human soul, those areas of psychological damage that we all carry into our relationship with God. Many people simply cannot do disciplines yet, their minds are too cluttered with rubble from the past to effectively engage with God. The human element that we bring to the grace of God to cooperate for transformation can be mitigated and muted to a great degree. In these situations, we need healing prayer and ministry from others in order to be brought to a place where we can actively participate with God’s grace in Christ. I felt the chapter on community was especially lacking in this regard. Saucy seemed completely oblivious to the fact that many people have been deeply wounded by their interactions with “church,” rather than helped and equipped. The book would have been even better if this had been acknowledged and developed in the context of his overall project.

Thanks for Kregel Academic for a review copy in exchange of an unbiased review.