Saturday, November 19, 2016

Lament Between the Paws: Walking with Aslan through Pain and Suffering - Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

Aslan and the Lost Boy
A young boy named Shasta has had a hard life. He was abandoned when he was very young and raised by a harsh fisherman. When he realizes he might be bought as a slave by a wealthy visitor, he decides to try and escape. The wealthy man’s horse happens to be a talking horse from Narnia, who convinces him that his homeland of Narnia will suit them both better than servitude. As they set out together, they encounter many dangers and trials as well as a few friends along the way. As this little band nears Narnia, they get separated, on the run from lions and enemy troops. By the time we catch up to Shasta, he is exhausted and nearing despair. It does not appear as if his life is turning out very well. He is being torn apart by his story, and he cannot keep it in much longer. If we listen closely, we might see lament at work and find ourselves in his story. Perhaps his story can give us renewed vision, intention and means[1] to engage in this ancient practice of lament as disciples of Jesus.

"I do think," said Shasta, "that I must be the most unfortunate boy that ever lived in the whole world. Everything goes right for everyone except me. Those Narnian lords and ladies got safe away from Tashbaan; I was left behind. Aravis and Bree and Hwin are all as snug as anything with that old Hermit: of course I was the one who was sent on. King Lune and his people must have got safely into the castle and shut the gates long before Rabadash arrived, but I get left out."

And being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks.[2]

Shasta is recounting his sorrows. Engaging in self-pity is often the first step toward lament. We allow ourselves to think about our suffering as something important. We give voice to what we’ve lived, if only in our own heads. It is very easy to get stuck at this point, wallowing in our sorrows and rehearsing the wounds of the past. We must often be frightened awake by something or someone outside of us, something that helps us consider a new interpretation.

What put a stop to all this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. And the Thing (or Person) was going so quietly that he could hardly hear any footfalls. What he could hear was breathing. His invisible companion seemed to breathe on a very large scale, and Shasta got the impression that it was a very large creature. And he had come to notice this breathing so gradually that he had really no idea how long it had been there. It was a horrible shock.

It darted into his mind that he had heard long ago that there were giants in these Northern countries. He bit his lip in terror. But now that he really had something to cry about, he stopped crying.[3]

Shasta has encountered something (or someone) more disturbing than all his pain. He is frightened awake to a larger world, which silences his tears in a way that reason could never do. At this point, Shasta knows little to nothing about Aslan, the Wild Lion of Narnia. His ignorance has opened him up to receive from Aslan the gift of his presence in a way that is unguarded and raw. This scene reminds us of Jesus coming alongside the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:14-35). Jesus shows up in disguise to allow the two disciples full vent to their grief. They are free to lament freely and to pour out their hearts precisely because they don’t recognize Jesus as Jesus. Had Shasta seen Aslan, he would have been too frightened to speak. Yet, he is frightened enough out of his wallowing and intrigued by the silent mass of a Being beside him. Finally the intrigue gives way to inquisitiveness and then to conversation.

The Thing (unless it was a Person) went on beside him so very quietly that Shasta began to hope he had only imagined it. But just as he was becoming quite sure of it, there suddenly came a deep, rich sigh out of the darkness beside him. That couldn't be imagination! Anyway, he had felt the hot breath of that sigh on his chilly left hand.

. . . So he went on at a walking pace and the unseen companion walked and breathed beside him. At last he could bear it no longer.

"Who are you?" he said, scarcely above a whisper.

"One who has waited long for you to speak," said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.[4]

            Shasta is able to finally put a voice to the presence. It is a presence of One who has been waiting not to speak, but to listen. It is the presence of One who has been waiting to receive Shasta’s words of pain and sorrow. The One who sang Narnia into being with his voice chooses not to speak in order to provide space for Shasta’s words. Aslan’s silence is Shasta’s invitation. If you’ve ever sat with anyone in intense suffering, you know this experience. Words fail at a certain point, and the only thing to do is wait and listen.[5] Each person’s suffering is unique and sacred. It is in those places where life has pressed us to a point where we break and all that we thought we knew and trusted in is tested by fire.

. . . "I can't see you at all," said Shasta, after staring very hard. Then (for an even more terrible idea had come into his head) he said, almost in a scream, "You're not - not something dead, are you? Oh please - please do go away. What harm have I ever done you? Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world!"

Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. "There," it said, "that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows."

Shasta was a little reassured by the breath: so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman. And then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis. And also, how very long it was since he had had anything to eat.[6]

            Shasta cannot see the person or thing that he can hear, and this makes him afraid. His fears rise until they get the better of him. Fear that takes him back into the land of his sorrows. There, in the land of his sorrows, Aslan’s simple invitation to “tell me your sorrows” acts like a release on a pressure valve and all the toxic interpretations come bursting forth. He holds nothing back, because he believes he has nothing left to lose.
            Lament is God’s invitation, his breath on our hand gently saying, “beloved child, tell me your sorrows.” Lament is given to us as a gift from a loving Father who knows that if he showed up in all his glory we would run for our lives. So, he comes to us often disguised in our own stories, as things unnoticed and mundane. He comes in friends and strangers and birds and rainfall.
            Now the real action is taking place. No new interpretations of Shasta’s story could be considered until he shares, of his own volition, his predominant interpretation. This is Shasta’s confession, the self-disclosure that is at the heart of all lament. We are not just crying out about something wrong out there, but something radically wrong in here. Something is wrong in me, something broken, and unless something happens I won’t make it. This is lament.

"I do not call you unfortunate," said the Large Voice.

. . . "I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you."[7]

            Aslan begins his new creation of Shasta’s story by challenging the existing interpretation. Shasta has been going on and on about how “unlucky” he has been and “unfortunate.” He has identified with his sorrow to such a degree that he is enmeshed with it. Aslan gently retells Shasta’s story to show him how fortunate he has been in receiving Aslan’s providences. Everything that Shasta believed is in upheaval and in disarray. There are no more foundation stones left, and he is losing his sense of self. In a surprising turn, everything that Shasta believed that was evidence for his rejection and mistreatment is reworked between the paws of Aslan into something else, something new. Shasta is shocked, taken aback.

"Then it was you who wounded Aravis?"
"It was I."
"But what for?"
"Child," said the Voice, "I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own."
"Who are you?" asked Shasta.

"Myself," said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again "Myself", loud and clear and gay: and then the third time "Myself", whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all around you as if the leaves rustled with it.[8]

            We now come to the crux of the story. Shasta comes back to his opening question, “Who are you?” This is the fundamental question that underlies all lament. The identity of God is at stake. What we need is to know God better, and this is far more important than getting relief, gaining clarity or regaining control.
This One, whoever he is, is Lord of all stories.[9] In Narnia, Aslan is the only one who can tell us our stories because he is the initiator and finisher of all stories. Aslan is telling Shasta’s story, not Aravis’.[10] This is important because our pain seems to be at times the strongest story we know. We need help seeing that as powerful as it is, it is only a part of a much better story being told, one which we do not yet understand. God is the only one who can help us understand this.
This is what lament does; it pours out all our pain at the feet of our Creator. If he does not speak, we will not live. This is the crisis. If he does not re-tell us our story, then we will be lost in a panoply of lesser stories of our own making which are nothing more than ragged, discordant interpretations. In telling our story to God, we open ourselves up to hearing our story retold. It cannot happen otherwise. Listening is the backside of lament; once we’ve poured ourselves out we feel empty. If we learn to listen for long periods of time, we learn not to fear the silence or the emptiness. We might even catch a glimpse of something glorious going on - resurrection.

Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, nor that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too.

The mist was turning from black to grey and from grey to white. This must have begun to happen some time ago, but while he had been talking to the Thing he had not been noticing anything else. Now, the whiteness around him became a shining whiteness; his eyes began to blink. Somewhere ahead he could hear birds singing. He knew the night was over at last. He could see the mane and ears and head of his horse quite easily now. A golden light fell on them from the left. He thought it was the sun.

He turned and saw, pacing beside him, taller than the horse, a Lion. The horse did not seem to be afraid of it or else could not see it. It was from the Lion that the light came. No one ever saw anything more terrible or beautiful.[11]

            Finally, it is safe to see and be seen. Shasta sees Aslan but is unafraid because he has won his trust. The beautiful story being told has something to do with this beautiful Lion. He still feels fear, but it is fear enveloped by trust. The stories that our hearts know and uniquely hold are arguably the most sacred part about us. When we bring this out before God in practices such as lament, God can’t help himself - he rushes to make himself known to us in tender kindness. We find that this is what we’ve wanted all along.

Conclusion: Learning Lament Between the Paws

The High King above all kings stooped towards him. Its mane, and some strange and solemn perfume that hung about the mane, was all round him. It touched his forehead with its tongue. He lifted his face and their eyes met. Then instantly the pale brightness of the mist and the fiery brightness of the Lion rolled themselves together into a swirling glory and gathered themselves up and disappeared. He was alone with the horse on a grassy hillside under a blue sky. And there were birds singing.[12]

Shasta’s encounter with Aslan was life transforming. Suddenly appearing next to him in the dark, the Great Lion had invited Shasta to tell his story, particularly the story that he had been rehearsing – a story of pain, disappointment and despair. Had Shasta known who or what walked beside him, he surely would have been too frightened to share anything so painfully sacred. Aslan’s anonymity was necessary for Shasta to feel safe to share what was on his heart.
Several themes can be gleaned from this encounter that can help us understand and enter into the spiritual discipline of lament.
Aslan’s Hiddenness

The soft, gentle presence of Aslan next to Shasta invites him to open up the most painful parts of his heart. As he laments in Aslan’s presence, he is invited into an experience of shared intimacy with the Great King. Our God also shows up in our stories as one who is weak and vulnerable, as needy as a baby in a manger and as a crucified criminal. The hiddenness of Aslan draws out our most sacred stories.
Aslan’s Compassion

The Great Lion is not distanced from the pain of those he rules. What he offers is not quick fixes, but an invitation to relationship. He is not unfamiliar with suffering, which helps us understand how Jesus can be a “man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isa. 53:3a NIV). Lament is not directed toward an uncaring deity of stoic resolve. We have a God who has entered our painful stories and taken the worst of it upon himself.
Aslan’s Beauty

In his encounter with Aslan, Shasta (and Digory, before him) encounter a beauty so rich, free and wild that it pierces them even more deeply than their pain. Beauty is essential for lament because we need to know there is a better story going on than the one contained in our pain. Sometimes, a walk outside among trees, birds and flowers will do more for the sorrowing soul than a counseling session. We remember that our God is a God of unending, soul piercing beauty - a beauty that we were made to inhabit. Beauty reminds us that there is a vast story being told by a good God, and somehow our pain (and lament) has a place. As disorienting as our pain can be, we can never be dislodged from the love of God in Christ.[13]
Some Final Thoughts About Lament

            Lament as seen through Narnian eyes can help us bring our sorrows to God, with the growing experiential knowledge that God meets us in our sorrows in every possible way that we need him to.  We find in the character Aslan a symbolic lens through which to see Jesus Christ, and his desires for our lives. Above all, he pursues relationship with us in order to teach us how to really live.
            Lament is, in one sense, “telling God what we really think.” It is a form of confession that brings together the dark plotlines in our lives and places them in the light of God’s healing presence. For lament to be formative, we approach it as disciples with radical honesty before God. This often involves allowing ourselves to feel and express anger over our pain, as the Psalmists did.[14] This experience of anger, submitted to God in the act of lament, can be one of the greatest acts of faith we can engage in. As it connects our pain with the healing power of God, it becomes spiritually formative.
“Did I get angry at God during my struggles? You bet I did. I stood in the middle of my living room and screamed at Him. I pounded my fists on the floor. Once I slammed a door so hard that the molding shattered. I got far angrier with God than I have ever been with any human being. I do not defend this behavior. But in the course of it I did learn that such feelings are not at all incompatible with faith. On the contrary, faith involves our deepest passions engaged by the reality of God. Precisely because He is more real to us than anything else, He is able to sound both the top and the bottom of our registers in a way that no one and nothing else can. The person of faith is one who, like Job, knows what it is to be torn apart by the enormity of God.”[15]

[1] A concept developed by Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 2002).
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Horse and His Boy (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1982), 172-173.
[3] Ibid., 173.
[4] Ibid., 173-174.
[5] Even Job’s friends, for all their faults, seemed to know this. Job’s suffering was so great that they sat with him in silence for seven days and seven nights (Job 2:11-13).
[6] Ibid., 174-175.
[7] Ibid., 175-176.
[8] Ibid., 176.
[9] He is “Myself” which reminds us of the great “I AM” of Exodus 3:14.
[10] cf. John 21:20-22.
[11] Ibid., 176-177.
[12] Ibid., 177-178.
[13] Romans 8:35-39.
[14] Cf. Psalms 60 and 74 for example.
[15] Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), xii.

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