Archives For Military Musings

The war in Ukraine trudges on, but the world has become safer with the imminent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Recognizing the expansionist aspirations of Dictator Putin’s Russia, Sweden and Finland have decided to request formal admission to the peacekeeping alliance. Their reception has tentatively been approved, although just today another dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is threatening to “freeze” them out if they don’t support his efforts to suppress Kurdish independence.

I have my own experiences with NATO. Foremost among them was the small part I played in helping bring about the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (I even served as one of the “escort officers” for a Soviet verification team when it visited RAF Greenham Common.)

I mentioned the treaty on Mere Inkling and lauded its success.

The great thing about NATO’s cruise missiles is that they were deployed to bring the Soviet Union to the negotiating table, where the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty led to the elimination of all such munitions from Europe!

Alas, this monumental treaty has expired.

It is a casualty of Russian Federation dreams to restore the Soviet Union’s former borders in Europe. Combined with the “defection” of the former Warsaw Pact nations, it is easy to understand why a suspicious Russia postures so aggressively.

Which, of course, encourages the democratic nations to draw closer in mutual defense.

How are the Finns Celebrating

Finns are different.

Not quite what you would expect. Many people – certainly most Americans, the ones who are not totally geographically ignorant – mistakenly think Finland is a Scandinavian country. Not quite. True, they are a Nordic nation, but Nordic Perspective offers an insightful discussion, replete with great maps, on the subject.

Being a Nordic people, it comes as no surprise many Finns are welcoming their entry into NATO with a beer. In fact, a brewing company named “Olaf” has opted to use the French acronym for NATO – OTAN – as a play on words. “The beer’s name is a play on the Finnish expression ‘Otan olutta,’ which means ‘I’ll have a beer…’”

Good for them. (So long as they remember to drink in moderation.)

Now, this OTAN-business raises a question in my mind. Is it merely a coincidence, or might the French have a passive aggression purpose in mind with this heteropalindrome?

After all, the headquarters of NATO had to be moved from Paris to Belgium when Charles de Gaulle withdrew from the military alliance.

Wondering about French subliminal messages got me thinking about C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on the subject. Lewis loved all people, but was no one’s fool. He understood many of the influences exerted upon culture are destructive. Decadent societies (e.g. pre-war Berlin) sow seeds that ultimately bear tragic fruit.

As the Second World War was just beginning, and Lewis’ brother Warnie had safely returned home after the Dunkirk evacuation, Lewis mentioned France in one of his 1940 letters to his veteran brother. It is quite entertaining, as long one is not an über-Francophile.

I am also working on a book sent me to review, Le Mystere de la Poesie*by a professor at Dijon, of which my feeling is “If this is typical of modern France, nothing that has happened in the last three months surprises me” – such a mess of Dadaists, Surrealists, nonsense, blasphemy and decadence, as I could hardly have conceived possible.

But one ought to have known for, now that I come to think of it, all the beastliest traits of our intelligentsia have come to them from France.

Well, that’s enough of that. It’s time to pop the tab on an OTAN and toast the NATO, and its expanding protection of world democracies.


* Volume two of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis has a footnote reading “This work cannot be traced.” I believe the likely object of Lewis’ disdain may have been written by André Vovard and published in 1951 in Paris and Montreal by Fides.

Ukrainian War Poetry

May 4, 2022 — 7 Comments

In the heat of war, bullets are not the only weapons piercing the air. Words too are wielded as weapons. And some of those martial messages take the form of poetry.

C.S. Lewis thought and wrote much about poetry. In his monumental study, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, he offers this curious insight. “Great subjects do not make great poems; usually, indeed, the reverse.”

Certainly, countless refrains have been penned about historical events and noteworthy personages. But the poetry that seems to speak directly to the emotions is typically unencumbered by dramatic or political reference.

That does not mean poetry and conflict do not possess an intimate bond. One of the tragedies of the First World War was, in fact, that so many promising young poets were cut down in their youth. These brief biographical notes introduce readers to several of them.

C.S. Lewis was a veteran of the grim trench warfare himself. Although most “professional poets” don’t consider his work praiseworthy, I do. I once wrote a post on the subject and included a poem which includes the following stanza.

Long leagues on either hand the trenches spread
And all is still; now even this gross line
Drinks in the frosty silences divine
The pale, green moon is riding overhead.

Voices of Ukraine

The current conflict raging in Europe carries echoes of the past century. Among those reverberations we hear war-inspired lyrics. Some seek to stir patriotic passions. Others consider the universal grief spawned by scenes of mangled mortality.

Five years ago, a collection of poetry entitled Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine was published. It chronicled the Euromaidan Revolution, also called the “Revolution of Dignity,” which possesses direct links to today’s war, and preceded Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Borys Humenyuk fought during that revolution, and appears to be in uniform today, as well. Presumably he will write more about today’s war, once Russia has been repelled and Ukraine’s sovereignty has been reaffirmed. In the meantime, he is likely reexperiencing the moment he captured in these words almost ten years ago.

When you shoot
Even when it’s at night and you don’t see the enemy’s face
Even when night hides the enemy from you and you from the enemy
And embraces each of you as her own
You smell like gunpowder
Your hands, face, hair, clothing, shoes —
No matter how much you wash them —
    smell of gunpowder
They smell of war
You smell of war
You and war are one.

It is poignant how the suffering birthed by war is also capable of giving voice to such moving sentiments.

Would that war should end. The loss of such heartrending words would be small price to pay.


After publishing this column, I received correspondence from Ukrainian poet, Vyacheslav Konoval, inviting me to share one of his poems. I offer the following, which I found particularly poignant. And I encourage you to visit Slava’s personal website at All Poetry.

Dog Day

Staggering, a drop of dew falls from the green grass,
fog, and even acrid smog, covers the ground,
the cylinder was torn on all sides, so it was gas.

Ragged camouflage with holes,
the Red Sea swallows the corpses
Are they in the field, cartridges without controls?

The tire blazed, moaned and tire finished,
here is the hostility, aggressive appetite has not diminished,
the enemy turned into fertilizer.

A stray dog ​​howls,
recites prayers with a hoarse voice,
stares at the torn soldier’s jaws,
the enemies have made their choice.

Sadly, we see history repeating itself. The Russians (resurgent Soviets) are trying to expand their borders by violence.

Czarist Russia was unabashedly imperialistic. However, their successors, the Russian Communists combined their hunger for new conquests with unbelievable brutality.

C.S. Lewis viewed them with the distrust they merited. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Russians played the Allies for fools when they signed a nonaggression pact with the Nazis, so the two countries could carve up poor Poland between them.

The following month, in September of 1939, Lewis referred to the ominous event in a letter to his brother Warnie, who was a career soldier. First, however, he describes the situation with evacuee children who were living at the Kilns.

The nicest of our evacuated girls (the Rose Macaulay one) has been taken away by a peripatetic lip-sticked mother who has changed her mind, and been replaced by an Austrian Jewess (aged about 16) whom the school warned us against as difficult: but so far neither Minto nor Maureen nor I can find any fault in her.

The house has shaken down into its ‘war-economy’ quite well, and indeed the children are incomparably less of a nuisance than [other guests] with whom we have often been afflicted in peacetime.

To-day is a bad day because we have just heard the news about Russia and poor Minto, for the moment, regards this as sealing the fate of the allies–and even talked of buying a revolver!

That December, he mentioned Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Finland in another missive to his brother Warnie. In the letter he refers to some old story told by their father, that was of special, humorous recollection to the brothers.

Well, Brother, (as the troops say) it’s a sad business not to have you with me to-morrow morning-and not to have the January walk ahead. The most cheerful thing at present (oddly enough) is the News. Russia’s attempt to do to Finland what Germany did to Poland reminds me of your father’s story of the “great bosthoon”* whom his athletic friend took out for the run and who tried to imitate him in jumping the flax-pond-one of those of his wheezes whose point lay wholly in his telling.

During the brief “Winter War,” Finland inflicted severe casualties on the Soviet invaders, despite being vastly outnumbered. Despite their heroic defense, Finland was forced to surrender some of their territory to the Soviets.

During World War Two, the Western allies (primarily Britain, the U.S., and France) liberated countries from Nazi oppression.

The Soviets, in contrast, simply changed the nationality of the victims’ oppressors. They regarded the nations devastated by the Germans as new conquests. And, rather than helping them reestablish their independent governments, the Communists absorbed the areas they could, and set up puppet regimes in nations they could not manage to digest.

When the collapse of the Soviet Union finally left Eastern Europeans with a chance at freedom, most fled from behind the Iron Curtain.

In 1950, only a half a decade after the global war’s end, another major war was erupting. The Korean War pitted another Communist aggressor (China) against the democracy in South Korea. Soviet troops covertly joined the North Korean forces, flying early generation MiG-15s. (It is the modern MiG-29 that Poland is hoping to transfer at the present time to Ukraine.)

Despite the Soviet denials, the Korean Conflict pitted the two great world powers in a battle that could well have erupted into a wider conflict.

The concern expressed by C.S. Lewis in the following letter was common among those who were still reeling from WWII’s violence. In June of 1950 Lewis wrote to thank an American friend for food sent to supplement the postwar rationing.

For once, the all absorbing topic of food has been swept into the background by the dreadful news from the Far East. The only gleam of satisfaction is that all of us feel that your prompt action may still save us from a third war; it has at least saved us from a second Munich, and there are hints in our papers today that Russia will very likely back down–but start probing for a ‘soft spot’ elsewhere: Burma, Cochin-China, or even Europe. One can but pray.

In 1950 Lewis prayed, as all Christians should, for a de-escalation and peace.

Seventy years later, events in Ukraine clearly reveal that Russian rulers still long to conquer their neighbors. While we pray for peace, the world dare not close its eyes to the specter of Putin’s resurrected Soviet empire.


  • Bosthoon is an Irish word for an ignorant or uncouth boy or man. The inference is that the initial failure of the Soviet invasion revealed their foolhardiness.

Peace is almost universally valued. Ironically, it cannot be achieved without holding militaristic forces at bay. And preventing them from crushing the weak, requires that a more “benevolent” be strong enough to stand up to the international bullies.

If there is no champion for those unable to defend themselves, the wolves tear their prey apart and the only limits placed on their appetites are the threats posed by other predators. The fate of the small ranges from domination by ruthless powers to domination by less ruthless overlords.

If there is no benevolent “superpower,” or if it is viewed as feeble and indecisive, the Third Reichs of the world will reign.

Historically, imperialistic agendas have been checked by other empires or alliances. Some alliances are small, such as the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) which includes only Canada and the U.S. Others are intercontinental, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with its thirty members. Further growth of this alliance is at the heart of global tensions as this post is published.

The alliances I have mentioned are established for mutual defense. NATO has not secreted away a covert plan for world domination.

My thoughts turn to the possibility of war because (in view of many) the power of the United States is waning. Wolves are licking their proverbial chops, eager to expand their spheres of influence.

Even as we pray that God would preserve Europe from conflict around Ukraine, remember that there are nations where civil wars have raged for generations. God have mercy.

War & Peace

The “collectable plate” pictured at the top of this post was purchased by my mother when she visited our family in the U.K. in 1990. A decade after my retirement from the USAF, I am still unpacking some of the boxes I accumulated during decades, and after my mom’s passing, this souvenir joined the archives.

It really is beautifully ornate. Such an attractive setting for an awesomely combative image.

Lest they be misperceived as “conventional” weapons, it should be noted that Ground Launched Cruise Missiles were expressly devised to deliver intermediate range nuclear explosives. Deadly.

The great thing about NATO’s cruise missiles is that they were deployed to bring the Soviet Union to the negotiating table, where the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty led to the elimination of all such munitions from Europe!

Combining military and peace imagery has a long tradition. I wrote about “Powerful Names” and how Iran chose the classic name “Peacekeeper” for one of its deadly missiles. But you can find in my post many other, stranger labels. (I’m still confused why the Brits named of their 1950s missiles “Green Cheese.”)

My assignment at Royal Air Force Greenham Common was a joy. And it was a genuine privilege to be part of a mission that literally made the world a safer place.

I hope all people who desire lasting peace will join me in supporting the allied nations of democratic countries as they counterbalance the world’s totalitarians. And if they can combine the power of necessary arms with artistry that celebrates the pastimes of peace, all the better.

C.S. Lewis worked his own magic combining frightening images with peaceful pursuits. Included in the ranks of Aslan’s army, after all, we see not only cute badgers and prickly hedgehogs. Fierce (even beastly) satyrs are found in the ranks of Good. (Think super-gross, goat-faced fauns . . . with axes). Still, when they are aligned in the ranks beside Narnia, they appear noble. I can even imagine them, during seasons of peace, tilling the soil and tending the orchards.

We will close with a piece of trivia about Narnian warriors. In the books, the Minotaurs (nasty creatures these), are all portrayed in a negative light. They are among the troops of the White Witch celebrating Aslan’s death. However, in the films they have been redeemed and some fight beside Aslan and Narnia’s kings. C.S. Lewis’ son, Doug Gresham, explained the change in an interview:

There are several reasons for that. Firstly, we felt that we needed to show that in Narnia as here, old foes can be forgiven and can reconcile and work together, given the will to do so. Secondly, that in Narnia as also it is here, a common adversary will bring even the worst of enemies together and unite them.

Also, that the shapes and colours of a species’ body do not necessarily denote their character, that just because someone is a Minotaur does not have to mean that they are all bad. Finally, we kind of like Minotaurs.

Machinery, one of the fruits of scientific research, is intended to benefit humanity. It often does. However, even machines with totally peaceful purposes – hay balers, for example – can be deadly.

Machines-run-amuck populate many dystopian novels and films. One of the most successful franchises is Terminator. Humanity is brought to the precipice of extinction, after devising machines – and their perilous companion Artificial Intelligence. The very first film, The Terminator (1984) brilliantly uses the biblical allusion “Judgement Day,” to mark the sentience of the genocidal Skynet.

Nearly forty years later, debates about weaponized autonomous systems have moved far beyond speculation. And it does not require a doctorate in computer science to recognize that given a potentially lethal machine the power to make its “own” decisions poses a deadly risk. After all, if software programs can be virally infected, and secure systems can be locked tight and held for ransom, there are no guarantees that “terminators” will not be part of our future.

We’ve seen how weapons can easily be mounted on the robotic dogs that are currently accompanying our troops.

And in a recent Air Force Magazine article, “Unmanned Flying Teammates,” we read the promise that “Robots will join the Combat Air Forces within the next decade.”

The common nomenclature for the current generation of these machines is Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. You can read about “slaughterbots” at the Future of Life Institute site.

Whereas in the case of unmanned military drones the decision to take life is made remotely by a human operator, in the case of lethal autonomous weapons the decision is made by algorithms alone.

Slaughterbots are pre-programmed to kill a specific “target profile.” The weapon is then deployed into an environment where its AI searches for that “target profile” using sensor data, such as facial recognition.

While the first generation of such weapons are still being designed, a genuinely wonderful new machine foreshadows what might be an ominous future.

In response to the destructive necessity for pesticides, scientists have come up with a new self-driving farm machine that avoids the need for poisons by selectively zapping individual weeds with lasers. Forbes has a great article on the subject, with the unwieldly but informative title, “Self-Driving Farm Robot Uses Lasers To Kill 100,000 Weeds An Hour, Saving Land And Farmers From Toxic Herbicides.”

The weeding machine is a beast at almost 10,000 pounds. It boasts no fewer than eight independently-aimed 150-watt lasers, typically used for metal cutting, that can fire 20 times per second.

They’re guided by 12 high-resolution cameras connected to AI systems that can recognize good crops from bad weeds. The Laserweeder drives itself with computer vision, finding the furrows in the fields, positioning itself with GPS, and searching for obstacles with LIDAR.

I applaud this invention, with one major caveat. How large a step is required between zapping weeds and burning holes through human bodies?

Ironically, they have even named this agricultural prototype for human-hunting machines “Terminator technology.”

Terminator technology is the genetic modification of plants to make them produce sterile seeds. They are also known as suicide seeds. Terminator’s official name – used by the UN and scientists – is Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs).

Actually, this is a very positive breakthrough in terms of increasing harvests while preserving the natural health of the earth (and the Earth). C.S. Lewis, I believe, would have welcomed this new technological achievement.

The affinity of C.S. Lewis and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien for nature is well recognized. The two WWI veterans were averse to industrialized landscapes, and much preferred bucolic images. You can see that in Lewis’ fiction, although it’s much more evident in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (Even Tolkien’s truest fans must admit that some readers find his elaborate discussion of the Hobbits’ harmony with nature almost mundane.)

True science is a good thing, but one must remain vigilant against an idolatry that masks itself as science.

Beware of Scientism

C.S. Lewis’ role as a an apologist for Christianity – and for what was worthwhile in past history – brought him into more direct conflict with technology. Of course, it was not scientific advances per se of which he was wary. It was the creeping idolatry of scientism, which assumes the trappings of faith in its disciples’ eyes. Tolkien shared his concerns regarding the matter, but confronting such lies was not part of his vocation.

Lewis’ clearest exposition of humanity’s lust for progress may be his 1954 Inaugural Lecture as the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. De Descriptione Temporum (A Description of the Times) should be read in one sitting, as it was delivered. It is included in several collections, but available online here. The quotation below offers a very small slice of his influential lecture. (Coincidentally, A Pilgrim in Narnia featured a superb column on the address just yesterday.)

[The birth of the machines] is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. . . . What concerns us . . . is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation,” with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”?

Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. . . . Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”?

Well, let us admit that these semantic developments owe something to the nineteenth-century belief in spontaneous progress which itself owes something either to Darwin’s theorem of biological evolution or to that myth of universal evolutionism which is really so different from it, and earlier. . . . But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image.

It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. . . .

Our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder [all of those who have gone before us.]

A thought-provoking article, “The Folly of Scientism,” offers the argument of a professor of Biology, which is independent of C.S. Lewis, while echoing many of his cautions.*

Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics – seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence.

An excellent work on this subject is available for purchase, entitled The Restoration of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism. Michael Aeschliman’s excellent treatment is evidenced by the fact the 2019 version is the third edition of the title.

But why should this central civilizing truth about the “res sacra homo,” [the fact that “humanity is a sacred thing”] . . . need C.S. Lewis’s [reaffirmation]? The answer to that question is philosophical, historical, and complex, but it should not be as obscure or little understood as it is today.

Although there was never a “golden age” of civilization within historical time, this radically noble idea was often better understood in the past, even the recent past.

Back to the Robots

Wait, I just noticed some armed drones flying overhead, and what appeared to be a silhouette resembling a GURT-101 Terminator skulking through the woods outside my office . . . Perhaps I’ve already written too much.


* This article appears in The New Atlantis, where they say “Our aim is a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.”

How long should a sermon be? There’s no universal answer to that question – unless you opt for the Holy Spirit gambit and claim you or your pastor preach inerrantly as the Spirit dictates.

The truth is, I can tell a lot about a person’s religious background or current preferences by their honest answer. That’s one of the first lessons a military chaplain learns. Different traditions possess vastly different expectations about sermon lengths.

There are plenty of individual exceptions to the rule, of course. But let me throw out a couple generalizations. People in mainline churches think the sweet spot is around 15 minutes. For many, 12 would be even more desirable, although most can tolerate 20 minutes before beginning incessant time checks on their watches or other devices. In the minds of some, brevity is next to godliness.

For many evangelicals, particularly pentecostals and more fundamentalist communions, a 15 minute sermon is an oxymoron. Anything less than half an hour is simply a devotion or meditation, and any preacher worthy of the title should be able to preach a 45 minute sermon without working up a sweat.

So, in the case of a chaplain preaching for two to three different congregations on a Sunday morning, you would need to tailor your sermons differently for various congregations. Otherwise, if you attempted to strike a happy medium, you ran the risk of having your evangelicals feeling shortchanged and your mainline protestants with eyes glazing over.

Recognizing these differences is helpful, lest we slip into that normal misconception that our assumptions/experiences/logic are shared by others. One evangelical seminary professor, clearly writing for others from a similar tradition as his own, illustrates my point.

The average sermon length, according to one poll, ranges 20 to 28 minutes. If this statistic is accurate, it is a telling indicator of the spiritual depth of today’s churches. Many churches have already discontinued their evening services. With the trend of reducing the length of Sunday morning sermons, our generation is receiving less than half the biblical teaching our parents sat under.

The better a person understands the Word of God, the more they will grow spiritually. . . . I find it difficult to believe that current pastors and their 20 minute sermon-ettes can reach any level of comparable depth to the 80 minutes (or more) pastors used to be given (between the morning and evening services).

I have been pondering this subject not because my own pastor’s sermons are too long. Actually, a few days ago the delightful newsnote, “Today in Christian History,” featured an intriguing note. It is one of Christianity Today’s free newsletters.

It described an incipient Crusade that was derailed before it set out, due to too much of a good thing (too much preaching).

September 26, 1460: Pope Pius II assembles European leaders, then delivers a three-hour sermon to inspire them to launch a new crusade against the Turks. The speech works, but then another speaker, Cardinal Bessarion, adds a three-hour sermon of his own. After six hours of preaching, the European princes lose all interest in the cause; they never mount the called-for crusade.

This is precisely the sort of event I cannot resist learning more about. In short, Pius was a talented orator who had written popular erotic literature during his pre-papal years. Bessarion was a Greek priest who coordinated the effort of Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus to reunite the Eastern and Western churches to protect Constantinople from the Turks. In 1463, a decade after the city fell to the Ottomans, Bessarion was appointed the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople.

If only Cardinal Bessarion had preached a shorter sermon, perhaps the glorious Hagia Sophia would still resound with the praise of Christ.

How to Measure Sermons

One of the worst ways to weigh a sermon, to consider its worth, is by considering its duration. There is nothing intrinsically better about a sermon that lasts 20 minutes than one of half that length. Barring extremes (e.g. Pius’ and Bassarion’s extended monologues or some jargon-laced, religious pop message modeled after fleeting modern commercials), duration matters little.

I think we could all agree that it is the substance of the message which is shared, that matters. This is where the Holy Spirit leads the way. The sermon should be based on God’s truths. It should be tailored to meet the needs of its particular hearers. And it should be timely, attuned to this specific moment.

Unfortunately, we do tend to associate sermons with extended lectures. In a 1962 letter to one of his regular correspondents, Lewis responds to her question about animals and heaven. After explaining his view, he concludes the letter with an apologetic “But this is turning into a sermon!” In truth, his comments are of the ideal duration to address the question at hand.

And that – an ideal length for the specific context – is the goal for which all preachers should strive.

A Mere Inkling Bonus

I’ve written about the importance of listening to sermons in the past. It includes an entertaining account of C.S. Lewis’ boredom during some of the sermons in his home parish. You can also read here about Lewis’ own experiences as a preacher.

One of C.S. Lewis’ rewarding essays is entitled “The Sermon and the Lunch.” Lewis uses the occasion of a sermon to explore the nature of family. The pastor offers a textbook endorsement of the importance of family, where “we can fling aside the weary disguises of the outer world and be ourselves.” Thereupon, he quickly loses the congregation’s attention.

Lewis’ own thoughts are distracted by his awareness of the pastor’s own family. Having been a guest in the home, Lewis knows the family dynamics fall far short of the ideal he is presenting. However, it is not hypocrisy which disturbs him. It is the fallacious premise upon which the sermon is based. You can read the entire essay at the link on its title in the previous paragraph, or you can listen to a reading of the essay on the link below. Here, however, is the reason for Lewis’ discomfort.

The memory of that lunch worries me during the last few minutes of the sermon. I am not worried by the fact that the Vicar’s practice differs from his precept. That is, no doubt, regrettable, but it is nothing to the purpose. As Dr. Johnson said, precept may be very sincere (and, let us add, very profitable) where practice is very imperfect, and no one but a fool would discount a doctor’s warnings about alcoholic poisoning because the doctor himself drank too much.

What worries me is the fact that the Vicar is not telling us at all that home life is difficult and has, like every form of life, its own proper temptations and corruptions. He keeps on talking as if ‘home’ were a panacea, a magical charm which of itself was bound to produce happiness and virtue. The trouble is not that he is insincere but that he is a fool. He is not talking from his own experience of family life at all: he is automatically reproducing a sentimental tradition – and it happens to be a false tradition. That is why the congregation have stopped listening to him.

The world is weeping today for the bloody collapse of a nascent democracy in Asia.

But not only are tears falling; prayers are rising. And history has shown us repeatedly that out of the ashes of suffering, God can raise a phoenix.*

Afghanistan is today a land of terror. Yet, even as the Taliban tightens its merciless grip on a population that for much of a generation has enjoyed a taste of freedom, it is not as if the darkness will ultimately triumph. War is not eternal. And for those who look to God for deliverance, even death does not have the final word.

Some familiar words in the Book of Ecclesiastes remind us of the fact wars ultimately end.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die . . .
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . .
a time for war, and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3).

While these words are of little or no comfort to those in the midst of the terror. And these innocent people are the ones we must do everything possible to help—especially the children, in which group I most certainly include the young girls forced into sexual slavery through involuntary marriages to the victorious terrorists.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . . a time for war, and a time for peace.” Let us all pray that the season of peace comes soon.

Surviving War’s Cauldron and Discovering New Life

C.S. Lewis entered the trenches of World War One as a confirmed agnostic. His childhood faith had been extinguished before he embarked for the battlefield.

Seriously wounded in the conflict, Lewis emerged from the carnage with a conviction there was no God.

As we all continue to pray for the people of Afghanistan, I found an encouraging article that may offer some hope that God can—ultimately—rebuild something out of broken rubble. Even as we continue to intercede now for the suffering, and seek God’s protection of those who are in acute danger, I encourage you to read this story.

Jeremiah Braudrick was similar in some ways to C.S. Lewis. His story is available in a brief Guideposts article linked here. Allow me to share the article’s beginning, in the hope that you will read his story.

For much of my life, I have assumed that I was a spiritual failure. . . .

Wind back the clock 12 years. I was transitioning to civilian life after eight years of military service, including combat duty in Afghanistan. My marriage was falling apart. I’d pretty much abandoned my faith during my time in the service. I suffered from depression. I was convinced God saw me as a worthless failure, and I agreed.

You know what pulled me out of all that? A quote I saw on Facebook. It was one of those random inspirational quotes people post. It read: “I have found (to my regret) that the degrees of shame and disgust which I actually feel at my own sins do not at all correspond to what my reason tells me about their comparative gravity.”

The language was complicated and formal, like something an Oxford don would write. I heard a simple message: Maybe my feelings of spiritual worthlessness weren’t the final word about me. Maybe I wasn’t the best judge of God’s attitude. Maybe I had a chance after all.

The author’s name? C. S. Lewis. Was that the same C. S. Lewis who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia books I’d read as a child . . ? It was like he knew exactly what I felt and exactly what I needed to hear.

Braudrick’s story of redemption and hope continues today. I encourage you to visit his website after reading his Guideposts story.

There you will find his post entitled “C.S. Lewis Goes to War: Some Silver-Linings in Chaos and Unrest,” which was written nearly a year ago. He describes how Lewis’ wartime experiences transformed him.

His pessimism did not plague his life for long however, as his atheistic façade began to encounter cracks . . . After suffering his wounds, Lewis found himself breathing in the English countryside on a train ride to London where he was sent to heal. Staring out of the window, in both physical and mental recovery, he recognized a slight spiritual opening.

“I think I never enjoyed anything so much as that scenery – all the white in the hedges, and the fields so full of buttercups that in the distance that seemed to be of solid gold,” he wrote a friend. “You see the conviction is gaining ground on me that after all Spirit does exist. I fancy that there is something right outside time and place . .  You see how frankly I admit that my views have changed.”

The wounded and strident atheist, after surviving humankind’s bloodiest war, saw beauty and was receptive to the spiritual, perhaps, for the first time as a young adult.

Lewis was not yet a Christian, theism being a waystation in his conversion, but he had encountered Light in the midst of the darkness. Sadly, that was not the experience of all (as “Wilfred Owen, C.S. Lewis, and the ‘Great War’” illustrates).

Let it be our prayer that those suffering today might follow the same path to the One who is the Light, the Way, the Truth and the Life.


* Yes, I realize the phoenix was a pre-Christian myth, but the early church sometimes used it as a symbol of the resurrection. You can see that in Lactantius, and Clement of Rome.

Inkling Action Figures

August 31, 2021 — 8 Comments

Have you ever dreamt of having an action figure made in your honor? No, neither have I.

Well, that was until I saw this picture of product knockoffs published last week by The Power of Story.

One of the characters portrayed above raised the notion in my mind because of the counterfeit’s “name.” No, it wasn’t the muscular hero with the S emblazoned on his chest (even though my family frequently reminds me that I am “special”).

The figure that inspired me was Robert Cop. Not because I wore a police uniform for seven years (as a volunteer chaplain for the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office). But because Robert is my own name.

By the way, the Social Security Administration says that it’s still the 80th most popular boy’s name in America (down from 29th twenty years ago). For those curious about the frequency of their own names, I’ll provide a link to the SSA website below.*

“Robert” was number three in the 1950s when I received it (superseded only by James and Michael). That’s not to suggest frequency of usage bears any significance. One could easily argue that having a less common name makes a person more “special.”

Take C.S. Lewis, for example. His full name was Clive Staples Lewis—Clive came from Major-General Robert Clive (1725-1774) and Staples was a great-grandmother’s family name.

In fact, Lewis published his two early poetic works, (Spirits in Bondage in 1919 and Dymer in 1926) under the name Clive Hamilton, using his mother’s original surname.

Later, Lewis chose to use his first two initials for publication and official purposes. To his family and friends, however, he was always known as “Jack.” This oddity was a consequence of his conscious decision as a very young (and, apparently, precocious) child to choose his own name.

In his ‘Memoir’ of his brother, Warren – or ‘Warnie’ as he was known – said that when Clive was about four years old he “made the momentous decision to change his name. Disliking ‘Clive’…he marched up to my mother, put a forefinger on his chest, and announced ‘He is Jacksie.’ He stuck to this next day, and thereafter . . . a name contracted to Jacks and then to Jack” (C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Sceptics).

C.S. Lewis also, like most of us, had a variety of nicknames. I’ve written about some of them here.

Inkling Action Figures

Sure, heroic characters from Narnia and Middle Earth have been memorialized as action figures. Many have even made it into the hallowed halls of Lego figurines.

But where are their creators (or subcreators, to use Tolkien’s parlance)? I know I’m not alone in yearning for some great Inkling figures. (And I’m confident there must be at least two or three other potential customers.)

Just think of all the dynamic action poses a creative manufacturer could include. You could have C.S. Lewis lecturing at a podium. Or J.R.R. Tolkien busy at his desk working on his translation of Beowulf.

You might pose Charles Williams proofreading a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary. Or Owen Barfield conscientiously administrating C.S. Lewis’ estate. What about Hugo Dyson lecturing about Shakespeare on a 1960s television soundstage?

And these exciting scenes around the campus environment are merely the beginning. Can you imagine a group of them seated around a table at the Eagle and Child pub? Or, getting them off of their bums [British usage], you could pose them in the midst of one of their thrilling walks.

Seriously, several of the Inklings did exhibit heroic actions that would provide forceful images. Take Tolkien and Lewis, for example, during their combat service during the First World War.

Warnie Lewis was a veteran as well, and a career Royal Army officer to boot. Nevill Coghill served in the artillery during the First World War, and occasional member Christopher Tolkien was in the Royal Air Force during the second global conflict.

In one of his essays, Lewis described the use of particular things for alternative purposes. In making his case, he illustrates it with several examples. One is apropos here. And, although he would never have dreamed of it being applied to him personally, I believe it fits the manner in which many of us regard him and his friend Tolkien.

You can use a poet, not as a poet, but as a saint or hero; and if your poet happens to have been a saintly or heroic man as well as a poet you may even be acting wisely. (The Personal Heresy).

Both men were talented writers. Each was a sincere disciple of Jesus. And both responded to their nation’s call to face the horrors of the Western Front. In light of their service, it seems a skillful designer could base exciting Tolkien and Lewis figurines on something like this generic WWI British officer.

Just do everyone a favor, please don’t use a doll as a template for my literary and spiritual hero.

After all, real heroes are not always cuddly. But they are definitely epic! Just like Robert Cop and Special Man.


* If you are curious about where your first name ranks in popularity, now or during various decades back to the 1880s, you can find out here.

Prayers, Barbers & Saints

January 27, 2021 — 14 Comments

Barbers, and hairdressers, play a unique role in society. Let’s consider now two barbers whose interactions with great Christians contributed to our understanding of prayer.

Before we do, however, I wish to share another aspect of C.S. Lewis’ life which parallels many of our own. The great professor and author was exceptional for his knowledge, but in most other ways was just like us.

One example of Lewis’ normalness, is seen in his interactions with barbers. Due to the survival of much of his correspondence, we can witness a perennial tension—the desire of fathers that their sons cut their hair.

As a veteran whose adult son had a ponytail for several years, I understand the frustration of Lewis’ father, the Irish solicitor, when his son Jack lacked diligence in maintaining a neat appearance. In my own case, the die had been cast from my youth. Growing up in the late sixties, I did manage to sport a thick contemporary mane which chafed my own father, but too much of my youth was spent with a crewcut, the haircut-of-choice for my dad, the Marine Corps sergeant.

Presumably, while young Jack was still at home, his parents saw to it his hair was attended to. After his mother Florence’s death, and his move to boarding school, haircuts were a curious recurring theme in Lewis’ correspondence with his “Papy.” Below are a few of young Jack’s passing remarks on the subject.

Today I did a thing that would have gladdened your heart: walked to Leatherhead (for Bookham does not boast a barber) to get my hair cut. And am now looking like a convict (1914).

My dear Papy, Thanks very much for the photographs, which I have duly received and studied. They are artistically got up and touched in: in fact everything that could be desired–only, do I really tie my tie like that? Do I really brush my hair like that? Am I really as fat as that? Do I really look so sleepy? However, I suppose that thing in the photo is the one thing I am saddled with for ever and ever, so I had better learn to like it. Isn’t it curious that we know any one else better than we do ourselves? Possibly a merciful delusion (1914).

I am very sorry to hear that you were laid up so long, and hope that you now have quite shaken it off. I have had a bit of a cold, but it is now gone, and beyond the perennial need of having my hair cut, I think you would pass me as ‘all present and correct’ (1921).

I am afraid this has been an egotistical letter. But it is dull work asking questions which you can’t (at any rate for the moment) give a reply to. You do not need to be told that I hope you are keeping fairly well and that I shall be glad to hear if this is the case. For myself—if you came into the room now you would certainly say that I had a cold and that my hair needed cutting: what is more remarkable: you would (this time) be right in both judgements. Your loving son, Jack (1928)

Lewis’ High Street Barber

In the early 1950s, C.S. Lewis developed a meaningful relationship with his barber, based on their shared faith. Before we consider an essay inspired, in part, by this friendship, this 1951 letter reveals the affection Lewis held for the man.

My brother joins me in great thanks for all your kindnesses, and especially on behalf of dear little comical Victor Drewe—our barber, as you know.

When he cut my hair last week he spoke in the most charming way of his wife who has just been ill and (he said) ‘She looks so pretty, Sir, so pretty, but terribly frail.’ It made one want to laugh & cry at the same time—the lover’s speech, and the queer little pot-bellied, grey-headed, unfathomably respectable figure.

You don’t misunderstand my wanting to laugh, do you? We shall, I hope, all enjoy one another’s funniness openly in a better world.

Years later, C.S. Lewis would write a profound essay on “The Efficacy of Prayer.”

Some years ago I got up one morning intending to have my hair cut in preparation for a visit to London, and the first letter I opened made it clear I need not go to London. So I decided to put the haircut off too.

But then there began the most unaccountable little nagging in my mind, almost like a voice saying, “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.” In the end I could stand it no longer. I went.

Now my barber at that time was a fellow Christian and a man of many troubles whom my brother and I had sometimes been able to help. The moment I opened his shop door he said, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” And in fact if I had come a day or so later I should have been of no use to him.

It awed me; it awes me still. But of course one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the barber’s prayers and my visit. It might be telepathy. It might be accident. . . .

Our assurance—if we reach an assurance—that God always hears and sometimes grants our prayers, and that apparent grantings are not merely fortuitous, can only come [through a relationship which knows the promiser’s trustworthiness].

There can be no question of tabulating successes and failures and trying to decide whether the successes are too numerous to be accounted for by chance. Those who best know a man best know whether, when he did what they asked, he did it because they asked.

I think those who best know God will best know whether He sent me to the barber’s shop because the barber prayed.

You can read “The Efficacy of Prayer” in its entirety here. Or, should you prefer, you can hear it expertly read here.

The Story of Another Godly Barber

Four centuries before C.S. Lewis honored his barber by forever associating his name with the subject of prayer, the church reformer Martin Luther did the same. Luther’s friend was named Peter, and he lived during an age when skilled barbers also served as surgeons. According to the Barber Surgeons Guild,

The early versions of the Hippocratic Oath cautioned physicians from practicing surgery due to their limited knowledge on its invasive nature.  During the Renaissance, Universities did not provide education on surgery, which was deemed as a low trade of manual nature.

Barber surgeons who were expertly trained in handling sharp instruments for invasive procedures quickly filled this role in society. Barber surgeons were soon welcomed by the nobility and given residence in the castles of Europe where they continued their practice for the wealthy. These noble tradesmen, armed with the sharpest of blades, performed haircuts, surgeries and even amputations.

One church historian describes the Reformation context in an article entitled “Praying with Peter the Barber.”

Early in the year 1535, Peter Beskendorf became the most famous hairdresser of the reformation. He was Martin Luther’s barber and wrote to the great reformer asking for advice on how to pray.

Peter not only had a reputation as the master barber of Wittenberg, but he had a reputation for godliness and sincerity in his love for the Word of God. He was one of Luther’s oldest and best friends, so his request is not all that surprising.

What is surprising, however, is that Luther took the time out of his immensely busy reformation schedule to write him a thirty-four-page reply with theological reflections and practical suggestions about how he ought to approach prayer to the Almighty God.

In “Cutting Hair and Saying Prayers,” a lay theologian describes the focus of Martin Luther’s counsel.

When Luther’s barber, Peter Beskendorf, asked him how to pray, Luther wrote him an open letter that has become a classic expression of the “when, how, and what” of prayer. It is as instructive today as when it was first penned in 1535. . . .

Luther spends the bulk of his letter discussing what to pray. Implicitly in his letter, Luther teaches that God’s word is the content of our prayers.

Luther graces the beginning of the book with a sincere prayer of blessing. “Dear Master Peter: I will tell you as best I can what I do personally when I pray. May our dear Lord grant to you and to everybody to do it better than I! Amen.”

In a very interesting essay entitled “Warrior Saints,” a Marquette professor commends the “sweet and practical booklet,” writing that “today this work is justly celebrated as a minor classic that both epitomizes Luther’s spirituality and powerfully suggests what a deep and lasting impact he would make on the lives of his many followers.”

Volume 43 of Luther’s Works includes the treatise. In the collection’s introduction to the document, it includes a heartbreaking event that followed its publication.

Luther wrote the book early in 1535 and it was so popular that four editions were printed that year.

At Easter a tragedy befell Peter. He was invited to the home of his son-in-law, Dietrich, for a convivial meal the Saturday before Easter, March 27, 1535. Dietrich, an army veteran, boasted that he had survived battle because he possessed the art of making himself invulnerable to any wound. Thereupon the old barber, doubtlessly intoxicated, plunged a knife into the soldier’s body to test his boast. The stab was fatal.

Master Peter’s friends, including Luther, intervened for him, and the court finally sent him into exile. . . . He lost all his property and, ruined and impoverished, spent the rest of his life in Dessau.

Such was the sad course of Beskendorf’s life. One can only hope that, as his life itself had been spared, Peter experienced some sort of healing and peace. Such blessings, after all, are often the fruit of prayer.

Luther’s humble essay on prayer remains in print today. If you would like to read or own it for free, I have found a London edition entitled The Way to Prayer.

One caveat, which might trouble some readers: since the translation was published in 1846, it employs the “medial S,” the one that looks more like a lower case “F.”* Whichever edition you choose to read, you will not be disappointed.


* The medial S is sometime referred to as the long S. You can read about its history in this interesting article.

The history of S is a twisting, turning path. Until around the 1100s or so, the medial S was the lowercase form of the letter, while the curvy line we use today was the uppercase form. But over time, the regular S, technically known as the “round S” or “short S,” started being used as a lowercase letter, too.

By the 1400s, a new set of S usage rules was established: The medial S would be used at the beginning of a lowercase word or in the middle of a word, while the round S would appear either at the end of a word or after a medial S within a word, as in “Congreſs” (which appears in the first line of Article I of the Constitution).

Epitaphs & C.S. Lewis

June 10, 2020 — 16 Comments

Have you already decided on an epitaph for your headstone? Or are you trusting others to sum up your life in familiar, traditional words of relationship? C.S. Lewis was of the opinion that a unique sentiment was most appropriate for such occasions.

My own decision has been made by default. At the present time I’m leaning towards simply using a military marker. They look distinguished, and the money that is saved can benefit the living, or perhaps one of the charities we support.

Basically, they have name, rank (I just want “Chaplain” instead of “Lieutenant Colonel”), dates and sometimes a very short personalized element. I think I’ll opt for the simple “Christian cross” which is familiar to those who have visited military cemeteries. I am tempted though, to use the agnus dei, even though it is listed as the official emblem of the United Moravian Church.

Due to the religious diversity (and confusion) in the United States, the Veterans Administration offers a theological smorgasbord of options. You can see the seventy-five options currently available here.

They include established American faiths such as Zoroastrianism and the Tenrikyo Church as well as more contemporary favorites Wicca and Eckankar (which claimed not to be a religion when I encountered its missionaries during my college years). Not to be ignored, are Humanism and its sibling, Atheism. For those preferring ethnic options, we have the Medicine Wheel, ancestor worship (African Ancestral Traditionalist), and the Hammer of Thor.

How Much Should an Epitaph Say?

I’ve seen some headstones that record only a name. Leaves only questions. Some give a brief observation, such as Boot Hill’s marker for Dan Dowd who perished in 1884. It records single word, “Hanged.”*

There are a few longer epitaphs, such as this one, sounding almost like an apology. “Here lies George Johnson hanged by mistake 1882. He was right we was wrong. But we strung him up and now he’s gone.” Sadly, they learned too late the horse they assumed he had stolen, was purchased legally.

In New Hampshire, there is a headstone with a 150 word inscription. Apparently, the woman’s husband had quite an axe to grind with a local congregation.

Caroline H., Wife of Calvin Cutter, M.D. Murdered by the Baptist Ministry and Baptist Churches As follows: Sep’t. 28, 1838; aged 33 She was accused of lying in church meeting by the Rev. D. D. Pratt and Deacon Albert Adams. Was condemned by the church unheard. She was reduced to poverty by Deacon William Wallace. When an exparte council was asked of the Milford Baptist Church, by the advice of their committee, George Raymond, Calvin Averill, and Andrew Hutchinson They voted not to receive any communication on the subject. The Rev. Mark Carpenter said he thought as the good old Deacon said, “We’ve got Cutter down and it’s best to keep him down.” The intentional and malicious destruction of her character And happiness as above described destroyed her life. Her last words upon the subject were “Tell the Truth and The Iniquity will come out.”

C.S. Lewis’ Epitaph

Lewis wrote a moving epitaph for his wife, Joy Davidman. It was based upon one he had written for his good friend Charles Williams. The phrase “Lenten Lands” was used by his stepson David Gresham, as the title of his story of his parents’ marriage.

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In Lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

To adorn C.S. Lewis’ own grave, his brother Warnie opted for simpler verse. It was taken from a passage in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

“Men must endure their going hence.”

C.S. Lewis wrote another noteworthy epigraph. It was in a poem by that very name. It was originally published in 1949 in Time and Tide magazine. It has been included in the collection of Lewis Poems as a stanza in “Epigrams and Epitaphs.” He shared it with his fellow poet, Ruth Pitter when it was first written, writing “I append my latest Short, your most obliged C.S. Lewis.”

My grave my pillory, by this blabbing stone
Forbidden to rest unknown,
I feel like fire my neighbours’ eyes, because
All here know what I was.
Think, stranger, of that moment when I too
First, and forever, knew.

In 2013, C.S. Lewis received the great honor of having a memorial stone placed in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription was chosen from one of his talks.

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen,
not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.

I began with the question of what each of us might hope is inscribed as the legacy of our life. In truth, I don’t care if my marker even bears my name, since the Lord knows me as a member of his flock. But what I would like to see gracing my passing, are the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).


The photograph adorning this post comes from side-by-side monuments for two Yale chemists. You can read the curious story about them, and the reason for the “Etc.” that adorns the second. Apparently it was added by the family at a later date, since they regarded “Nobel Laureate” as insufficient.

* The most famous epitaph in Arizona’s Boot Hill Cemetery reads “Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a 44. No Les. No More.”