Archives For Military Chaplaincy

Please Shorten that Sermon

September 28, 2021 — 8 Comments

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.

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.

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.”

Saved by a Misspelling

September 9, 2019 — 7 Comments

Recently I came across a sad record from the American Civil War. It described a too-common occasion during the later years of the war—the execution of Union deserters. Yet this story was unique. One of the three men sentenced to death, was spared. And this wonder occurred because of a simple misspelling.

As we know, most misspellings are inconsequential, while others are significant, such as making a mistake with the Lord’s name.

On New Year’s Day in 1960 The Times Educational Supplement published a letter from C.S. Lewis on the subject of spelling.

Nearly everything I have ever read about spelling reform assumes from the outset that it is necessary for us all to spell alike. Why? We got on for centuries without an agreed common orthography. Most men of my age remember censoring the letters of soldiers and know that even the wildest idiosyncrasies of spelling hardly ever made them unintelligible

In the case of the Civil War deserter, the misspelled name was not significant. Everyone in the regiment knew the three guilty parties. After their initial arrests, the men had escaped from confinement, and then been recaptured. Not once, but twice.

According to the regimental history of the Sixth Connecticut Infantry, the circumstances followed a common pattern.

Volunteering having partially subsided in the State, and as the government was in need of more troops, drafting commenced in other States as well as in Connecticut. The Sixth received about 200 men in October; some were conscripts and others drafted men, as but few volunteered for the service. Their advent was not hailed with much pleasure or satisfaction by the old regiment, as they claimed that “forced” men would not fight and could not be trusted in case of an emergency.

Some were vile roughs and were frequently in the guard house; while others manifested a disposition to do their duty, and did make very good soldiers. Three of the substitutes deserted from the regiment while on picket . . . (The Old Sixth Regiment by Charles K. Cadwell)

The three deserters shared a common background, and were destined for a common fate.

[Following their first escape] they were tried for desertion before a court martial . . . found guilty and sentenced to be shot to death by musketry. They were then chained hand and foot to a post inside of the provost quarters; and, notwithstanding these precautions, together with a strong guard, they succeeded in getting away again.

They took a boat near the pier and made off; but while in Warsaw Sound near the shore, their boat grounded and they were captured by a picket boat from the gunboat Patapsco. They were very bold, ingenious men, and their skill and perseverance might have won them honor if rightly applied. The culprits were Germans by birth: privates Henry Schumaker, of Co. C, Henry Stark, of Co. E, and Gustav Hoofan, of Co. B. (The Old Sixth)

The execution was conducted in the traditional, solemn manner of the era. However, one of the condemned soldiers would survive another day.

[Two of] the prisoners were taken from their cells at about two o-clock, placed in army wagons and seated on the coffins in which they were to be buried. . . . The funeral escort, consisting of a corporal and eight men, marched to funeral music, with arms reversed.

Slowly the procession proceeded to the appointed place; the square was formed on three sides, and the victims were driven around once that all might see them and avoid their fate. They maintained a calm demeanor to all, except as they passed our regiment they took off their caps several times to their old comrades. On reaching the end of the square they were assisted to alight from the wagons, the coffins were placed on the ground, the culprits sitting down upon them while the Provost Marshal read the charges, findings and sentence.

After a short prayer by the priest they were blindfolded and their hands tied behind them and made to kneel upon their coffins, facing the center of the square. The firing party came up and were halted at six paces distant, when, at a signal from Capt. Babcock, they fired and the victims fell upon their coffins. . . . They lay just as they had fallen till the whole command marched past them on the way to camp, when they were put into the coffins and buried. (The Old Sixth)

Only two of the three deserters had perished in the fusillade that riddled their bodies. Gustav Hoofan survived. Alternative spellings in Civil War records were common. In the rosters as maintained by the National Park Service, Hoofan’s name was also spelled Hoffan and Hofen. The unfamiliarity of Hoofan’s name—combined with the mercy of a commander—were his salvation.

In the case of the [the third deserter] an error was discovered in writing his name, the name Hoofan having been written Hoffman by the Judge Advocate. Col. Duryee wishing to be merciful to the full extent consistent with duty, availed himself of this technical error and protested against his execution. This protest was allowed, and he was saved from death and ordered to return to duty with his regiment. The man was more than pleased at this announcement, but the Judge Advocate, a lieutenant of the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania regiment, was severely censured in general orders for his inexcusable carelessness and fatal error. (The Old Sixth)

I was unable to ascertain what eventually became of Private Hoofan. Apparently he completed the rest of this service commitment and returned to civilian life with a profound sense of gratitude.

C.S. Lewis’ Thoughts on Spelling

I shared above the beginning of Lewis’ letter to The Times Educational Supplement. The remainder of it is well worth reading. It is clear that he regarded the communication of information (i.e. the actual function of writing) to be far more important than the execution of arbitrary rules.

Printing houses will always have, as they have now, their own rules, whether authors like them or not. Scholars, who know the ancestry of the words they use, will generally spell them accordingly. A few hard words will still have to be learned by everyone. But for the rest, who would be a penny the worse if though and tho, existence and existance, sieze, seize and seeze were all equally tolerated?

If our spelling were either genuinely phonetic or genuinely etymological, or if any reform that made it either the one or the other were worth the trouble, it would be another matter.

As things are, surely Liberty is the simple and inexpensive ‘Reform’ we need? This would save children and teachers thousands of hours’ work. It would also force those to whom applications for jobs are made to exercise their critical faculties on the logic and vocabulary of the candidate instead of tossing his letter aside with the words “can’t even spell.”

It’s so refreshing to see that even a renowned scholar can exercise such common sense.

war book.png

Some would say “only a fool would bring a book to a gunfight.” That might be true if the person carried the book in lieu of a firearm, but the fact is many varieties of literature accompany soldiers to war.

When Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote “the pen is mightier than the sword,” he offered a powerful insight into how ultimate victory hinges more on knowledge and ideas than on direct violence. Of course, he didn’t mean that in a personal conflict between two combatants a quill could best a saber.

Even those who’ve never been to war realize warriors need to have their bodies, minds and spirits renewed in order to be at their best when their lives hang in the balance. Bodies are taken care of by providing healthy sustenance, swift medical attention, and opportunities to remain fit.

Minds and spirits overlap somewhat, but for the latter, most of the world’s militaries send chaplains to accompany the men and women “in harm’s way.” Spiritual encouragement often comes even more readily from their fellow military members.

Wartime is, surprising no one, an optimal time for people to consider their spiritual wellbeing and contemplate their eternal destiny. Still, that does not make true the adage “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

That said, war zones are places where the fields are literally “white unto harvest” (Luke 4).

It is no accident copies of the Bible have accompanied Christians to war since the first printed copies were available.

During the American Civil War, personal Bibles and religious tracts were widely distributed. It was not uncommon for a soldier to send a particularly meaningful tract home to his family. In addition to chaplains, numerous ministries today work to ensure no service member who desires a Bible is without one.

Reading for the Mind

It would be wrong to think religious works dominate the literature available to military members dispatched to war. Most locations offer access to numerous publications, and even the internet. The Department of Defense even provides access to the nonpartisan Stars and Stripes, which offers some of its headline articles here.

And then there are books. Books of all genres, though perhaps, tilted towards thrillers and sports subjects. Soldiers pass their books around, and for many lucky enough to serve in a garrison type of setting, there is often a library.

Yes, a real library—except that the books are typically all available for free. This is due in large part to the generosity of publishers. During the Second World War, the Council on Books in Wartime, founded by publishers and others, provided over 120 million paperbacks in their Armed Services Editions. (The classic titles sold for an average of six cents.) The Council’s slogan was, “books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

So, military folks read lots of books overseas. In fact, here is a photo of yours truly reading one of my favorite authors (David Drake) while I was on a flight between Pakistan and Afghanistan back in 2002.

I was delighted recently when rereading C.S. Lewis’ autobiography to see that I was following in his footsteps. Lewis is discussing how actual books, and not merely periodicals, can accompany us on our journeys. He refers briefly to his war experiences.

Soon too we gave up the magazines; we made the discovery (some people never make it) that real books can be taken on a journey and that hours of golden reading can so be added to its other delights.

(It is important to acquire early in life the power of reading sense wherever you happen to be. I first read Tamburlaine while traveling from Larne to Belfast in a thunderstorm, and first read Browning’s Paracelsus by a candle which went out and had to be relit whenever a big battery fired in a pit below me, which I think it did every four minutes all that night.) (Surprised by Joy)

I would not equate our two situations. After all, a comfortable C-130 (even when making “combat” landings and take-offs) can hardly be compared to a muddy WWI trench.

But, like nearly all of Mere Inkling’s audience, I do share C.S. Lewis’ joy at knowing books need never be far from our hand. Whether it be on holiday, in the hospital, or even in prison (God forbid), we can always find some pleasure and peace in reading.


Postscript:

During Desert Storm, I helped ship thousands of donated books to troops on the front lines. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the clothing worn by most of the women on the covers. We learned the Saudis were destroying some of the books, deeming them pornography.

As a result, our book processors began tearing the cover off of every book featuring a woman. As a compromise, I offered to become an informal “Saudi censor.” With a large black marker, I was able to suitably cover up elements of the female anatomy that would have presumably offended our Middle East allies.

Despite my misgivings about “defacing” the covers, I felt it was less destructive than removing the entire cover. I’ll leave it to you to be the judge.

polyps

These two great Oxford giants were good friends. As such, they accepted each other’s eccentricities. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t find humor in those peculiarities.

The Inklings were notorious for their candid critiques and their not-so-subtle teasing of one another. That’s what we all do with our good friends, right?

It’s humor offered not to wound, but to gently discombobulate our companion. And it’s success is measured in the laughter generated among colleagues who share goodwill.

I recently came across a reference, however, where Lewis may have transgressed the bounds of propriety. I leave the assessment of that fact to you.

In a 1947 letter to Margaret Douglas, who had recently lost her mother, Lewis offers warm words of consolation. In addition, he briefly references two publications that she had apparently alluded to in her own letter. The first was his Preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, which he refers to as the memoir. The second is Tolkien’s sequel to The Hobbit, which would become The Lord of the Rings.

Dear Miss Douglas, Accept my deepest sympathy on the death of your mother: for I think the bond between you was unusually close. You have one great consolation which few bereaved people have—a clear conscience towards the dead.

It was apparent that you were spending yourself largely upon her. I remember her very vividly, and much admired that blend of the playful and the stately, of which only old ladies have the secret.

I am so glad that you approved of the memoir. Professor Tolkien’s second Hobbit is still unfinished: he works like a coral insect you know!

With all good wishes, yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis

Just How Unflattering is the Comparison?

To compare Tolkien to a minute sea creature of sedentary nature may not, at first read, seem offensive. One might wonder though whether it is quite so innocuous as it might appear.

The National Ocean Service, here in the U.S. provides an answer to the frequently posed question, “are corals animals or plants?” Like Lewis, we already know the answer to that—“a coral insect you know!”—but their colorful description illuminates said insect in a curious manner.

Corals actually comprise an ancient and unique partnership, called symbiosis, that benefits both animal and plant life in the ocean. Corals are animals, though, because they do not make their own food, as plants do. Corals have tiny, tentacle-like arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep it into their inscrutable mouths.

I wasn’t aware that they had tentacles. And I don’t think I want to know what makes their mouths “inscrutable.” However, the description adds one more element that I certainly don’t recall from my childhood science classes . . . it’s what the tiny creatures that create such lovely exoskeletons are called.

Most structures that we call “coral” are, in fact, made up of hundreds to thousands of tiny coral creatures called polyps. Each soft-bodied polyp—most no thicker than a nickel—secretes a hard outer skeleton of limestone (calcium carbonate) that attaches either to rock or the dead skeletons of other polyps.

Either I never knew the zoological definition of the word polyp, or it’s been pushed aside in my mind by the more common pathological meaning of the word. It just makes the association of someone with these “columnar bod[ied] . . . mouth and tentacles” oddities seem even more disturbing.

Fortunately, it’s obvious Lewis wasn’t equating the creator of Middle Earth with invertebrate coelenterates. The creator of Narnia was simply likening Tolkien’s publication pace to the secretion rate of the polyps that populate the corals themselves.

Over the years, some of my best friends have labeled me in what an outsider might regard as an unflattering way. While I taught at USAF Chaplain School, my teammates called me “Lemming.” (On occasion, they still do.) The reference had nothing to do with me following the crowd . . . and everything to do with being directed to march off any number of cliffs.

I doubt that Lewis ever shared this association with Tolkien himself. It’s likely that he freely associated the idea at the moment he wrote it, and never thought about it again.

That was one of Lewis’ gifts, being able to use creative analogies to make his points. It is simply one of his talents I would love to share.

And, as for Lewis’ use of the word “insect” here, he is obviously alluding to the polyp’s small size. It would not surprise me to learn that there is an archaic British precedent for such usage. Or, is it just possible that he knew the proper word for the creature, and was too cultured to use it in this context? Perhaps we will never know.

coralpolyp.jpg

home guard stamp

If you were going to enlist in the military, which branch of the armed forces would you choose? And why?

The choice would have great consequences. The simple fact is that despite their similar charters, not all branches are created equal. Your choice will influence countless aspects of your life, including your post-military employment options and even the likelihood of whether or not you’ll survive your enlistment.

Gallup recently completed research into which branch of the armed forces most Americans would encourage someone to join. The Air Force came out on top.

Americans hold all branches of the U.S. military in high regard, but that does not necessarily translate into a desire to see their loved ones enlist. Fewer than half would be likely to recommend joining the Coast Guard (48%), Marines (43%) or Army (41%) to their children or grandchildren, while a majority would be likely to recommend the Navy (53%) or Air Force (64%).

As a chaplain, I heard some amazing reasons for people’s choice of service. One Army NCO told me, “I was leaning toward the Air Force until the Army recruiter pulled out this huge poster covered with every imaginable weapon, and said, ‘we’ll teach you how to use all of these.’” Not a bad technique for persuading testosterone-fueled eighteen-year-olds to sign on the dotted line.

One young woman who had served a tour in the Marines told me she didn’t even consider another option. “It was the Corps or nothing,” she said, before shouting “Semper Fi!” The USMC has the advantage of requiring fewer recruits and has brilliantly fostered a reputation as “the most prestigious of the military branches.”

A common motivator for Navy recruits seems to be the exotic locations of many of their installations. Can’t argue with that. Most of them are located on or near coasts, while the Air Force strategically places its bases where a falling aircraft would have the smallest chance of injuring someone on the ground. Places like Lubbock, Texas, where I served my first active duty tour at Reese AFB. [The people in Lubbock are amazing patriots.]

The Coast Guard, a sometimes-military organization, attracts people interested in their search and rescue ethos. This despite the fact that most of their mission involves enforcing laws and protecting the nation’s borders.

The Air Force draws lots of recruits who are interested in pursuing technical fields. The other services have similar career paths, of course, but the clear perception is that the Air Force offers the most. Still, it’s a bit embarrassing to share here the reason one friend of mine chose the USAF. Actually, it was his reason for choosing the chaplain assistant career field in particular. “I told them at basic training that I would take any job where I worked in a climate-controlled environment.” He was serious, but the last laugh was on him. When we deploy to the field, chaplain assistants are not only responsible their own safety, they have to protect their noncombatant chaplains as well (in any weather).

The different branches of the military go to war against their nation’s enemies—but they also maintain intense rivalries with their sister services. This competition is usually fun to observe . . . as long as alcohol is not in the vicinity.

C.S. Lewis’ Military Service

In the United Kingdom, the Navy is the senior service. Seems fitting for an island nation. That doesn’t mean that the Army traditions, which date back to historic militias, lack prestige.

During the First World War, C.S. Lewis was exempt from the draft. This, because he was from Northern Ireland. Despite this, he followed his brother Warren into the Royal Army.

Warnie was a career officer, graduating in 1914 from an expedited course at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Jack, in contrast, was one of many young college students who were subjected to a far more rapid training regimen, commissioned, and shipped off to the front.

In 1918 C.S. Lewis was severely wounded. One writer summarizes this event quite effectively.

The Lewis who crawled away from the carnage was not yet the C.S. Lewis of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. Then, he was like so many others who fought in World War I—just another wounded soldier desperate not to bleed to death.

Eventually Lewis would wear another “military” uniform during the Second World War—that of the Home Guard (originally called the “Local Defence Volunteers”). But that is a curious story for another day. Lewis patrolled Oxford in a uniform similar to those portrayed in the photos on this page.

Lewis did not have formal personal ties to the Navy, although his maternal grandfather, a Church of Ireland priest, had served as chaplain in the Royal Navy.

During WWII Lewis developed a warm relationship with members of the Royal Air Force. He offered lectures at a number of installations and taught at the RAF Chaplain School. Although his first lecture began rather inauspiciously, his work with the airmen proved extremely fruitful.

Lewis is a fine example of the man of gentle demeanor who “does his duty” when called upon by his country. Had his lifetime not overarched two global conflicts, he would have been utterly content to remain a civilian and wear the “uniform” of an Oxbridge professor.

home guard

 

C.S. Lewis’ Wedding

July 6, 2016 — 7 Comments

jack & joyC.S. Lewis put his priest in an awkward position, relying on him to perform a wedding ceremony that was contrary to church rules—for at least two reasons. (More on this below.)

I performed a wedding this past weekend. Clergy commonly say “I married so-and-so,” but that phrase sometimes leads to confusion, and occasionally elicits snickers.

At any rate, I’m marrying fewer couples now that I’m semi-retired. Serving as a military chaplain, with a youngish population, I sometimes got weighed down by the number of requests to conduct wedding ceremonies. That’s no longer the case, although ironically both bride and groom in this case are on active duty in the United States armed forces (the Air Force and Army respectively).

The reason I allude to weddings being a bit of a burden, is that—for the conscientious pastor, which I strive, imperfectly, to be—they involve far more than the ceremony itself.

The majority of pastors I know require premarital counseling . . . and that requires time. It may come as a shock to some, but pastors don’t schedule those counseling sessions for their own benefit. Pastors provide them (and even require them) for the benefit of the couple. It’s called “pastoral care,” and decently done, it can only enhance the chances for a marriage’s success.

This was one of those wonderful weddings where I am quite confident the couple will live happily ever after. I really don’t mean to be trite, but they have the qualifications that strongly influence marital success, e.g. emotional maturity and a shared faith in Christ (who will be the cornerstone of their union, just as he is of the Church).

They understand, insofar as our finite minds are capable, that God truly has accomplished the miracle of making of the two of them a single flesh. And now they are living out that adventure.

So, as I write this post my thoughts are not about Independence Day (although it is the fourth day of July). Instead I’ve been rereading the story of C.S. Lewis’ two weddings with Joy Davidman. Their initial union was a sham, in the sense that it was a legal act conducted for ulterior reasons (circumventing immigration laws).

And this fact, that they were not married with the intention of truly being husband and wife, is one reason to validly question the validity of the very act.

If you’ve never read about Joy, or at least viewed the film Shadowlands, you are missing out on a fascinating story . . . and you lack familiarity with one of the most important elements of C.S. Lewis’ life. I’ve briefly discussed Lewis and Joy at Mere Inkling in the past, including “Dating Like an Inkling” and “C.S. Lewis and Women.”

When the two of them married, it was in a purely civil ceremony, on 23 April 1956, in Oxford. Naturally, they continued to live separately.

Only after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer did Lewis realize he had fallen in love. He accordingly sought to make of their fiction a true marriage. This meant, for Lewis and Joy, marrying “in the church.”

Unfortunately, the Church of England would not sanction the marriage, since Joy was divorced. (The fact that her husband, William Gresham was a serial adulterer did not excuse that fact.)

And thus we arrive at the focus of my reflection.

Since the church could not officially bless his marriage, Lewis turned to an Anglican priest who was a former student and a personal friend. His name was Peter Bide.

Pastoral Flexibility

I suspected that the Reverend Bide needed to give the request some prayerful consideration. After all, a pastor does not “bend” the practices of the church (and faith) he represents without serious reflection. Still, Christian ministers do possess what is referred to as pastoral discretion.

The concept is already developed in early Christian theology. In the Orthodox churches, it is referred to as pastoral economy (οἰκονομία, oikonomia). It relates to the pastoral principle of following the spirit, rather than the strictest letter of the law.*

Joy’s death was thought to be imminent when Bide joined them in marriage at her hospital bedside. Yet, they were blessed with a three year remission of the cancer, and enjoyed some precious time together before its grim return. Bide had initially been asked by Lewis simply to come and pray for her.

In a fascinating letter to Dorothy Sayers, written on the 25th of June, Lewis alludes to this concept while relating his special news.

I ought to tell you my own news. On examination it turned out that Joy’s previous marriage, made in her pre-Christian days, was no marriage: the man had a wife still living. The Bishop of Oxford said it was not the present policy to approve re-marriage in such cases, but that his view did not bind the conscience of any individual priest.

Then dear Father Bide (do you know him?) who had come to lay his hands on Joy—for he has on his record what looks very like one miracle—without being asked and merely on being told the situation at once said he would marry us. So we had a bedside marriage with a nuptial Mass.

It is interesting that Lewis uses the words “without being asked.”

That’s not quite how Bide recalls it.

Fortunately, Bide provided an account of this event, published under the title “Marrying C.S. Lewis.” (The title provides a prime example of what I said earlier about how pastors talk about weddings.) It appears in C.S. Lewis and His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society

When I got there, up to the quarry where he lived, Jack said, ‘Peter, what I’m going to ask you isn’t fair. Do you think you could marry us? I’ve asked the Bishop, I’ve asked all my friends at the faculty here, and none of them will.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t seem to me to be fair. They won’t marry us because Joy was divorced, but the man she married in the first place was a divorced man, so in the eyes of the church, surely there isn’t any marriage anyway. What are they making all this fuss about?’

Well, I must admit that I had always thought that the Church of England’s attitude to marriage was untenable. They rested everything upon the promises given in the marriage service, and said that they couldn’t possibly be repeated elsewhere. However, there was one exception. If the man turned out not to be able to consummate the marriage, then a Decree of Nullity would go through the courts and be recognized by the church. This made the whole thing collapse in my view. I mean, if you promise for better or worse, and non-consummation isn’t for worse, I don’t know what is.

On the other hand, I went to a minor public school, and a public school is a terrible place not least because it gives you a lasting fear of authority. ‘The headmaster wants to see you.’ And that lasts all through life—I’ve never got rid of it totally. And so the fact that there were church laws by the dozen which forbade me to do anything of the sort really worried me. I mean it worried me because it wasn’t something that I just thought was a superficial thing, something I could just push to one side. I wasn’t in my own parish, I wasn’t in my own diocese. What right had I to go charging into a situation like this which everybody else had refused to have anything to do with?

Well, I know you’ll probably find this a rather corny thing, but after long cogitations—and it took me the best part of an hour—I said to myself, ‘What would He [Jesus] have done?’ and then there wasn’t any further answer at all. Of course He would have married them, wouldn’t He? Would He have regarded the law and everything else above the expression of love which this woman had made both towards the church and Himself and to her future husband? And so I married them in the hospital, with Warnie and the ward sister as witnesses.

Bide continues, expressing his frustration at how differing versions of the story have proliferated, while the truth of the matter has been left unexplored.

I don’t understand this, I never have . . . but that is the story, and what you see in Shadowlands has little or nothing to do with it. It made me very cross that there have been about six different treatments of this episode in the course of the last ten years and nobody has ever come and asked me what happened. It strikes me as absolutely extraordinary.

A.N. Wilson went all the way to America to talk to somebody who had talked to me: an expensive journey, when he could have walked down the road and found me himself. It’s a very odd thing, but now you know what the truth is.

Reverend Bide died in 2003, and his obituary includes some fascinating facts. I had not realized that, like Joy, in his early and foolishly idealistic years he too became a communist!

The article in The Telegraph describes his reprimand by the Bishop of Oxford, and the gentler correction offered by his own bishop. And it uses a word rarely seen in the United States to describe the episode.

A year at Wells Theological College was followed by ordination at Chichester in 1949 and appointment to a curacy at Portslade with Hangleton, near Hove. His dynamic ministry there led to the creation of a separate Hangleton parish, with himself as its first vicar since the Middle Ages. Then came the contretemps over the Lewis/Davidman marriage and his move to Goring-by-Sea in 1957.

It is interesting to note that Bide was no child when he chose to conduct the marriage ceremony. Although he had only been ordained for eight years, he was a veteran of WWII and MI6 before attending seminary.

A Sad Postscript

Lewis and Bide shared the pain of losing their wives the same year. Immediately after learning about Bide’s wife’s death, Lewis wrote the following letter. It provides a fitting conclusion to our reflections on the subject of the contretemps of Lewis’ wedding.

The Kilns, Headington Quarry, Oxford 20 Sept 1960

My dear Peter I have just come in from saying my morning prayers in the wood, including as always one for ‘Peter and Margy and Joy and me,’ and found your letter. I hope they are allowed to meet and help one another. You and I at any rate can. I shall be here on Wed. next. If you could let me have a card mentioning the probable time of your arrival, all the better. If not, I shall just ‘stand by’. Yes–at first one is sort of concussed and ‘life has no taste and no direction.’ One soon discovers, however, that grief is not a state but a process–like a walk in a winding valley with a new prospect at every bend God bless all four of us.

Yours Jack

_____

* Several New Testament passages refer to the “letter of the law,” including Romans 7:6-7 and 2 Corinthians 3:5-6.

The photograph above was created by combining images of the real couple with a transparent image of the couple as portrayed in Shadowlands by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

ggfI have never been more glad to have a birthday than I was this year. After all, at a mere sixty, I would have been far too young to become a great-grandfather. Now, at sixty-one, I feel adequately prepared for the momentous event which transpired just under an hour ago.

Tobin (meaning “God is Good”) is the child of my grandson and his wife, who currently reside in Texas where dad handles munitions for B-1 bombers.

Age and offspring do not always line up the way that we ourselves would plan. Yet every precious child is a miraculous gift from God.

Our grandson was born to our precious daughter-in-law while she was in high school. We didn’t get to meet him until he was ten, but we’ve done our best to make up for lost time. Our grandson, early on began calling us his “great grandparents.” That didn’t make us feel old, just special.

When my wife worked in a residential care facility for severely handicapped children, one of the aides arrived one morning with joyous news. “I’m a great-grandmother!”

Because the woman seemed too young, Delores responded, “Congratulations, you look so young for being a grandmother.”

The lady laughed and said, “No, a great-grandmother!” It turns out she was not yet forty . . . having been 13 when she had a daughter who was 13 when she had her own daughter who now had birthed her own baby. (I don’t recall the gender of the child.)

As I wrote this, it dawned on me that this all took place thirty-seven years ago, so it’s quite possible there are now several more generations in that particular family tree.

Some people will scoff at the thought of celebrating such early and assumedly unintended pregnancies. But, that caregiver knew the truth—every young life is a gift from God.

As an imperfect parent and grandparent, I recognize all too well that I won’t be the great-grandfather Tobin should have. I do pray, though, that God would grant that my mistakes with him would be few, and the memories forged during this life will help this little one grow into the finest man that he can become.

Most importantly, I pray that he will see Christ in my life and recognize the value of faith. Only the Lord knows what the future will bring, and I will not be here to share too many decades of life with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But my hope is that the time we do have will leave a lasting legacy of encouragement, faith, and compassion.

The letters of C.S. Lewis provide insights into the influence of his grandparents on his young life.

In a 1905 letter to his brother Warnie, he describes family festivities on Halloween. They even persuaded his grandfather to join in.

On Halow-een we had great fun and had fireworks; rockets, and Catherine wheels, squbes, and a kind of thing that you lit and twirled and then they made stars. We hung up an apple and bit at it. We got [his paternal] Grandfather down to watch and he tried to bite.

In a 1916 letter to his father, he refers to his grandmother’s declining health. (She died two weeks after he wrote.) Lewis refers to the common sentiment that we should have tried harder to spend time with family while they were with us. “I am sorry to hear what you say about [Lewis’ maternal] Grandmother: I feel that we ought to have seen more of her, but it was not easy.”

I should dearly love to get away for a bit, but, as you say, for so short a time, the expense and the interruption of work is hardly worth it. The Colonel must have had an unpleasant journey: I wish he would keep a diary which we could compare with that of Grandfather Hamilton in the same waters. Two generations of sub-tropical Atlantic and Hamilton temperament would be worth studying!

The diaries left by C.S. Lewis’ grandfather, and by his brother Warnie, provide a reminder to us that a written legacy will outlast our voices. If we have something important to say to our descendants, perhaps that is something we should keep in mind.

Getting Fresh

September 18, 2014 — 8 Comments

freshenIt’s possible for blogs to get stale. That’s no surprise, to regular readers.

Like everything else in life, same old same old (American slang) gets old.

I’ve never been one to desire change for its own sake. C.S. Lewis satirizes such notions in his poem, “Evolutionary Hymn.”

Lead us, Evolution, lead us

     Up the future’s endless stair:

Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.

     For stagnation is despair:

Groping, guessing, yet progressing

     Lead us nobody knows where.

Still, for some time I have felt like I wanted to freshen up the look of Mere Inkling.

I’ve taken the plunge and purchased the package where I can tailor colors and fonts. I’ve also decided to move some of my old websites here to Mere Inkling.

First of all, I have added The Odes of Solomon. If you’re interested in learning about the most ancient Christian hymnal, check it out. I have included paraphrases of five of the Odes.

Next I will either move my C.S. Lewis Chronicles pages here, or the information that I’ve assembled online for two of our family’s ancestors who served in the American Civil War. I have also added a link to the military chaplaincy journal I edit.

Those will all be static pages, of course. The main feature of Mere Inkling will continue to be the regular columns, or posts.

I hope you enjoy the new format. I think it is an improvement, and enabling me to get all of these efforts under a single digital “roof,” will certainly help me stay better organized.

In expanding the offerings of Mere Inkling, I have maintained the valued past and am importing material that will be of interest to some. My goal has been to have the site “grow,” in the sense used by C.S. Lewis in “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem.”

Mere change is not growth. Growth is the synthesis of change and continuity, and where there is no continuity there is no growth.