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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.

People who are wise understand that not all forms of “love” are healthy. That’s obvious with the epidemic of faux love in today’s “hookup culture.”

But even in genuine relationships, such as families, what passes for “love” can become twisted. Even the best of motives can blind us to what’s really best for our children. This sad irony is on my mind right now, since it recently struck close to home.

The title of this post suggests that just as there is a healthy version of family love, there can also be subtle corruptions of that virtue.

Parenting is complicated. We love our children, but if we make “happiness” the primary goal we are missing the mark. This pursuit of what is more often “pleasure” than genuine joy, usually devolves into letting kids do whatever they want. Some people parent this way.

Others are willing to pay the price of helping their children learn the lessons that will lead to a truly meaningful and fulfilling life. This is love. Children raised with the first objective often end up pursuing their appetites. They seldom accomplish much in life and rarely look beyond their own desires, to see the needs of others.

One prominent organization supporting the families of addicts shares the following epiphany.

When I first came to Al‑Anon, I spent a great deal of time wrestling with the term, “enabling.” I am a mother. Surely a mother’s role is to enable her children, is it not? It has been a struggle to understand, let alone accept, that the behavior I viewed as that of a good mother was actually unhealthy!

In his brilliant book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis describes how this unbalanced approach can be based in love, but results in unintended consequences.

The maternal instinct . . . is a Gift-love, but one that needs to give; therefore needs to be needed. But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift.

We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.

Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say “They need me no longer” should be our reward.

But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfil this law. The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love – a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes – must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication.

The internationally recognized Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation offers an article on the subject entitled “Five Most Common Trademarks of Codependent and Enabling Relationships.”

The concept of codependency and enabling sounds simple and straight forward – doing for a loved one what they can and should do for themselves – but it can be incredibly difficult to tell the difference between supporting and enabling a loved one.

So what’s the difference? After all, enablers want to help their loved one, too, and codependency might feel like healthy support. But enabling allows the status quo – drinking or using drugs – to continue, whereas healthy support encourages a person to address their addiction and all of its consequences.

In contrast to this indulgent version of parenting, good parents are able to say “no” to their children, when it is necessary or appropriate. Teaching healthy behavioral boundaries early on teaches kids to make their own, healthy, decisions. Letting them take shortcuts and lie leads to disaster.

God’s divine love is inexhaustible. But God’s approval and blessing are linked to the choices we make. He does not commend self-destructive actions. He still loves, but he makes quite clear the life he desires for his children and the alternative path that leads to Death. God does not prevaricate. God does not hesitate to say “no.”

In the Book of Hebrews, the writer elaborates on this truth – that discipline (not to be confused with anger or punishment) is an evidence of genuine love.

Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.

Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12).

Parental Love in Lewis’ Fiction

C.S. Lewis’ classic The Great Divorce creatively illuminates errors that can come between each of us and God’s desire to bless and redeem us, and to usher us into his heavenly presence. In an “encounter” which shows how something as wonderful as familial affection can be perverted into a grotesque distortion of true love.

You should read the entire account in Lewis’ book, but hopefully the selection below will illustrate his insight.

One of the most painful meetings we witnessed was between a woman’s Ghost and a Bright Spirit who had apparently been her brother. They must have met only a moment before we ran across them, for the Ghost was just saying in a tone of unconcealed disappointment, ‘Oh…Reginald! It’s you, is it?’ ‘Yes, dear,’ said the Spirit. ‘I know you expected someone else. Can you…I hope you can be a little glad to see even me; for the present.’

‘I did think Michael would have come,’ said the Ghost . . . ‘Well. When am I going to be allowed to see him?’

‘There’s no question of being allowed, Pam. As soon as it’s possible for him to see you, of course he will. You need to be thickened up [the unredeemed are insubstantial, thus their description as “ghosts”] a bit.’

‘How?’ said the Ghost. The monosyllable was hard and a little threatening.

‘I’m afraid the first step is a hard one,’ said the Spirit. ‘But after that you’ll go on like a house on fire. You will become solid enough for Michael to perceive you when you learn to want Someone Else besides Michael. I don’t say “more than Michael,” not as a beginning. That will come later. It’s only the little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process.’

‘Oh, you mean religion and all that sort of thing? This is hardly the moment . . . and from you, of all people. Well, never mind. I’ll do whatever’s necessary. What do you want me to do? Come on. The sooner I begin it, the sooner they’ll let me see my boy. I’m quite ready.’

‘But, Pam, do think! Don’t you see you are not beginning at all as long as you are in that state of mind? You’re treating God only as a means to Michael. But the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for His own sake.’

‘You wouldn’t talk like that if you were a mother.’

‘You mean, if I were only a mother. But there is no such thing as being only a mother. You exist as Michael’s mother only because you first exist as God’s creature. That relation is older and closer. No, listen, Pam! He also loves. He also has suffered. He also has waited a long time.’

‘If He loved me He’d let me see my boy. If He loved me why did He take Michael away from me? I wasn’t going to say anything about that. But it’s pretty hard to forgive, you know.’

‘But He had to take Michael away. Partly for Michael’s sake…’

‘I’m sure I did my best to make Michael happy. I gave up my whole life . . .’

‘Human beings can’t make one another really happy for long. And secondly, for your sake. He wanted your merely instinctive love for your child (tigresses share that, you know!) to turn into something better. He wanted you to love Michael as He understands love. You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God. Sometimes this conversion can be done while the instinctive love is still gratified. But there was, it seems, no chance of that in your case. The instinct was uncontrolled and fierce and monomaniac. Ask your daughter, or your husband. Ask our own mother. You haven’t once thought of her. . . .

‘This is all nonsense—cruel and wicked nonsense. What right have you to say things like that about Mother-love? It is the highest and holiest feeling in human nature.’ ‘Pam, Pam—no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.’ ‘My love for Michael would never have gone bad. Not if we’d lived together for millions of years.’

‘You are mistaken. And you must know. Haven’t you met—down there—mothers who have their sons with them, in Hell? Does their love make them happy . . ?’

‘Give me my boy. Do you hear? I don’t care about all your rules and regulations. I don’t believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart. I believe in a God of love. No one had a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to His face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, for ever and ever.’

Exercising the right kind of family love is not always easy. Due to our sinful nature, it is often corrupted. Still, striving to build a healthy (and, dare I say, holy) family is quite an adventure. A final thought from C.S. Lewis.

Since the Fall no organization or way of life whatever has a natural tendency to go right. . . . The family, like the nation, can be offered to God, can be converted and redeemed, and will then become the channel of particular blessings and graces.

But, like everything else that is human, it needs redemption. Unredeemed, it will produce only particular temptations, corruptions, and miseries. Charity begins at home: so does un-charity.

By the conversion or sanctification of family life we must be careful to mean something more than the preservation of “love” in the sense of natural affection. Love (in that sense) is not enough. Affection, as distinct from charity, is not a cause of lasting happiness. Left to its natural bent affection affection becomes in the end greedy, naggingly solicitous, jealous, exacting, timorous. It suffers agony when its object is absent—but is not repaid by any long enjoyment when the object is present. . . . The greed to be loved is a fearful thing. . . .

Must we not abandon sentimental eulogies and begin to give practical advise on the high, hard, lovely, and adventurous art of really creating the Christian family? (“The Sermon and the Lunch”).

C.S. Lewis & Karl Marx

April 19, 2022 — 18 Comments

C.S. Lewis recognized quite early how Karl Marx’s philosophy, a “potent evil,” would justify terrible crimes.

The greatest threats to humanity’s future are the two major Communist powers. We see Russia’s brazen criminal ambitions currently on display in Ukraine.

Communist China’s malevolent intentions are more insidious and far more dangerous.

Aside from its nuclear arsenal, we now recognize how vastly overrated Russia’s military has been. China, by contrast, possesses an army and navy that grow deadlier each day.

C.S. Lewis understood the evil at the core of Marxism. Communists and, to a lesser degree, Socialists, seek to strip away individual rights for the illusory betterment of the whole.

But, because human beings are sinful and self-centered, even true Marxist idealists invariably end up devolving into fascist totalitarians. That’s why every one of these so-called “people’s republics” reflect nothing of republican or democratic values.

They invariably become corrupt oligarchies, typically led by ironfisted dictators. In addition to the aforementioned regimes, consider Cuba and Venezuela. When was the last time any of these four beacons of Socialism held free elections?

Karl Marx was a very troubled man. This essay in a recent publication addresses not only his insane economic theories, but his extensive personal failures as well.

The sufferings of the Marx family, and especially of poor faithful Jenny, are difficult to describe. Though they did have a housekeeper and though Friedrich Engels spent in the course of the years at least 4000 Pounds on Karl Marx, they lived in abject misery.

The death of one child, a boy, is directly attributable to poverty and neglect. Family life must have been absolutely terrible, but Marx could not be moved – neither by entreaties, nor by tears, nor by cries of despair. . . .

Yet it would be a mistake to think that Marx suffered silently and proudly. By no means! In his letters and in his conversations he never failed to complain and to lament. He had a colossal amount not only of self-hatred, but also of self-pity, but no human feelings for others, least of all for his wife whose health he had ruined completely.

In a 1946 essay entitled “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought,” C.S. Lewis discussed the atheistic core of Communism. He noted that its advocates can use “religion” as a puppet to bolster their power. Read here about the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the sad fact that “Patriarch Kirill is a staunch ally of Mr. Putin.”

Such is the fruit of the Marxist mind. Here is C.S. Lewis’ description.

Proletarianism, in its various forms ranging from strict Marxism to vague “democracy” . . . [is] self-satisfied to a degree perhaps beyond the self-satisfaction of any recorded aristocracy.

They are convinced that whatever may be wrong with the world it cannot be themselves. Someone else must be to blame for every evil.

Hence, when the existence of God is discussed, they by no means think of Him as their Judge. On the contrary, they are His judges. If He puts up a reasonable defence they will consider it and perhaps acquit Him. They have no feelings of fear, guilt, or awe.

They think, from the very outset, of God’s duties to them, not their duties to Him. And God’s duties to them are conceived not in terms of salvation but in purely secular terms – social security, prevention of war, a higher standard of life. “Religion” is judged exclusively by its contribution to these ends (“Modern Man and His Categories of Thought”).

As destructive as Marxism is wearing its true, secular garb, it becomes far more calamitous when it infiltrates the Christian Church. As C.S. Lewis observed, Marxism can use and abuse the Church, but that is done from an external position.

When actual members of the Church are deceived to the degree they adopt this error, it is beyond tragic. In 1940 Lewis warned of this danger in a letter to a Roman Catholic priest with whom he corresponded.

Fascism and Communism, like all other evils, are potent because of the good they contain or imitate. Diabolus simius Dei.* And, of course, their occasion is the failure of those who left humanity starved of that particular good.

This does not for me alter the conviction that they are very bad indeed. One of the things we must guard against is the penetration of both into Christianity-availing themselves of that very truth you have suggested and I have admitted.

Mark my words: you will presently see both a Leftist and a Rightist pseudo-theology developing – the abomination will stand where it ought not.

C.S. Lewis was an honest man, who was capable of acknowledging his own shortcomings. Thirteen years after the previous letter, he wrote to another priest in the wake of massive suppression of Christianity in China.

After lamenting the persecution, he acknowledges the failure of the Church to live according to its calling. To this failure he attributes the rise of “other evils” such as Communism.

At last, dearest Father, there has come to hand that copy of . . . your article on that Chinese disaster. I used myself to entertain many hopes for that nation, since the missionaries have served there for many years not unsuccessfully: now it is clear, as you write, that all is on the ebb.

Many have reported to me too, in letters on this subject, many atrocities, nor was this misery absent from our thoughts and prayers.

But it did not happen, however, without sins on our part: for that justice and that care for the poor which (most mendaciously) the Communists advertise, we in reality ought to have brought about ages ago. But far from it: we Westerners preached Christ with our lips, with our actions we brought the slavery of Mammon.

We are more guilty than the infidels: for to those that know the will of God and do it not, the greater the punishment. Now the only refuge lies in contrition and prayer. Long have we erred.

In reading the history of Europe, its destructive succession of wars, of avarice, of fratricidal persecutions of Christians by Christians, of luxury, of gluttony, of pride, who could detect any but the rarest traces of the Holy Spirit?

Christians, I encourage you to join me in repenting of our failures. We must still challenge the lies, such as those of Karl Marx. But, we should never do so without remaining conscious of our own failures which too often provide fertile soil for such deceptions.


* Diabolus simius Dei means “the Devil is the ape of God.” This refers to Satan’s attempts to imitate or counterfeit divine actions and principles. The observation was first made by Tertullian, and echoed by Augustine and others.

Jesus died on a cross. So why in the world would his followers choose the image of a cross to identify their faith?

The answer comes via a paradox. The cross is about two, superficially-contradictory realities. (1) Jesus bled, suffered and died on the cross. (2) On that very cross, Jesus purchased for all who call upon his name, eternal life.

This seeming paradox between simultaneous truths is sometimes referred to as a theological dialectic.

C.S. Lewis brilliantly illustrates this dynamic in his description of Death in his book Miracles.

On the one hand Death is the triumph of Satan, the punishment of the Fall, and the last enemy. Christ shed tears at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane: the Life of Lives that was in Him detested this penal obscenity not less than we do, but more.

On the other hand, only he who loses his life will save it. We are baptized into the death of Christ, and it is the remedy for the Fall. Death is, in fact, what some modern people call “ambivalent.”

It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon: it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered (Miracles).

Thus, the grim suffering of Good Friday . . . becomes Good. It is not an accident. Nor is it a mistake. It was the necessary consequence of humanity’s fall and our costly, divine rescue. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:

He creates the universe, already foreseeing – or should we say “seeing”? there are no tenses in God – the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. . . .

Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.

Of course, this truth is only recognizable to those who have knelt before Jesus the Messiah and received his grace.

To unbelievers, “the world,” the cross makes no sense at all. Those in spiritual blindness reject it as the epitome of Christian absurdity.

Just such claims were made from the very beginning. Not long after Christ’s resurrection, these challenges were addressed by Paul, the Pharisee turned Apostle. Proclaiming the miracle of the cross, he reminds the young church in Corinth how they cannot expect the lost to comprehend its glory, its untainted goodness.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . .

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians).

The crucifixion and resurrection of the only begotten Son of God are the sole means by which you and I may be cleansed, healed, and restored to the unending life for which our Lord created us.

Good & Bad Memories

April 6, 2022 — 12 Comments

We humans are fascinating creatures. Our capacity to remember both the good and the ill from our past, exerts a powerful influence on the course of our future.

I’ve been reflecting on this contrast since our lectionary readings from worship this past Sunday. (I’ll note the particular passage that triggered my thoughts in a moment.)

The question I’ve pondered is whether good memories are more powerful than bad memories. By bad, I’m not referring to horrific experiences which our minds sometimes actively suppress or bury.

I’m thinking of unpleasant, disappointing memories. Things that we regret having happened, either to us, or because of us.

When I use the word “powerful” in my question, I’m referring to the ability of a given memory to continue actively impacting our lives.

In too many lives, it seems the joy and light emanating from positive recollections is often shaded or eclipsed by the clouds of painful memories.

Perhaps our lives would be happier if we consciously spent time recalling good experiences, and taught ourselves to reject – rather than dwell upon – negative thoughts when they force their way onto the stage?

C.S. Lewis provides a curious insight into the nature of memories. Their overarching essence often seem to magnify as time passes. Listen to his words, penned after a vacation in 1921, in which he describes how the joyful memories will grow ever sharper as they are recalled in the future.

I still feel that the real value of such a holiday is still to come, in the images and ideas which we have put down to mature in the cellarage of our brains, thence to come up with a continually improving bouquet.

Already the hills are getting higher, the grass greener, and the sea bluer than they really were; and thanks to the deceptive working of happy memory our poorest stopping places will become haunts of impossible pleasure and Epicurean repast.

Sadly, though, even glorious memories can sometimes fade away. This is the grimmest tragedy of many forms of dementia.

Memory in the Chronicles

C.S. Lewis does some curious things with memory in his Chronicles of Narnia. While the Pevensie children grow to adulthood reigning over Narnia, they end up forgetting about their earlier lives. Only when they stumble upon the Lamp-post, do they recall the land of their birth.

“By the Lion’s Mane, a strange device,” said King Peter, “to set a lantern here where the trees cluster so thick about it and so high above it that if it were lit it should give light to no man!”

So these Kings and Queens entered the thicket, and before they had gone a score of paces they all remembered that the thing they had seen was called a lamp-post, and before they had gone twenty more they noticed that they were making their way not through branches but through coats.

And next moment they all came tumbling out of a wardrobe door into the empty room, and they were no longer Kings and Queens in their hunting array but just Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in their old clothes.

It was the same day and the same hour of the day on which they had all gone into the wardrobe to hide. Mrs. Macready and the visitors were still talking . . . (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

In Prince Caspian, a wise advisor, Doctor Cornelius, secretly informs the heir to the Narnian throne that the old stories were not simply myths. The evil Telmarines had actively labored to erase all memory of Narnia’s true nature.

“Listen,” said the Doctor. “All you have heard about Old Narnia is true. It is not the land of Men. It is the country of Aslan, the country of the Waking Trees and Visible Naiads, of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants, of the gods and the Centaurs, of Talking Beasts. It was against these that the first Caspian fought.

It is you Telmarines who silenced the beasts and the trees and the fountains, and who killed and drove away the Dwarfs and Fauns, and are now trying to cover up even the memory of them. The King does not allow them to be spoken of.”

I find the following description of a renewed memory particularly picturesque. It takes place after the Pevensie children return to Narnia years after their initial visit.

Everyone except Lucy went to sleep at once. Lucy, being far less tired, found it hard to get comfortable. Also, she had forgotten till now that all Dwarfs snore. She knew that one of the best ways of getting to sleep is to stop trying, so she opened her eyes.

Through a gap in the bracken and branches she could just see a patch of water in the Creek and the sky above it. Then, with a thrill of memory, she saw again, after all those years, the bright Narnian stars. She had once known them better than the stars of our own world, because as a Queen in Narnia she had gone to bed much later than as a child in England.

And there they were – at least, three of the summer constellations could be seen from where she lay: the Ship, the Hammer, and the Leopard. “Dear old Leopard,” she murmured happily to herself (Prince Caspian)

Forgetting the Past

Every one of us has made mistakes. And far too often we allow those poor decisions and choices to haunt us the rest of our lives. That delights the Devil, one of whose titles is Accuser.

He wants us mired in the past, thinking there is no way we could ever earn God’s love.

The simple fact is that we don’t earn our Creator’s love. It’s a free gift. It is pure grace, and utterly unmerited.

Once we have confessed our sins, God washes them away and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

To emphasize how God no longer holds our past sins against us, consider some of the ways he expresses his capacity to permanently forgive our confessed sins.

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities… so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us (Psalm 103).

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression..? You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18-19).

And now, for the verse which inspired my thoughts. It struck me as particularly helpful for our Christian lives, given the fact that God does not keep a permanent record of our sins. Wouldn’t our lives be better if we followed the Lord’s example?

Not that I… am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).

“Forgetting what lies behind,” our past failings which have been forgiven, liberates us to live the life to which God calls us.

That’s seldom easy to do, but knowing how “far [God] removes our transgressions from us,” makes that possibility much more likely. Let us press on.

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.

If you would like to join C.S. Lewis in one of his Lenten experiences, read on, because I have the perfect suggestion for you.

During Lent, the forty days preceding Easter, many Christians undertake special “disciplines.” This practice is different from the familiar exercise of “giving things up” for the season.

These disciplines often include fasting and devoting more time to reading the Scriptures and inspiring Christian literature.

Two of C.S. Lewis’ letters mention that he was rereading, as part of his Lenten pilgrimage, two ancient classics that have inspired believers for nearly seventeen centuries.

In 1936, he wrote to Dom Bede Griffiths, a regular correspondent who was a Roman Catholic priest.

I re-read St. Augustine’s Confessions during Lent, and found it better than I remember, tho’ still it is the explicitly devotional parts that edify me least.

The following year he wrote the following in a letter to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves.

I have been progressing all this lent through the first volume of a v[ery] nice edition of St Augustine’s City of God only to find that the other volume has been so wrongly bound that it begins and ends in the middle of sentences. What a tragedy this would once have been!

Lewis’ regard for Augustine lasted throughout his life. In 1961, Lewis responded to a correspondent who asked what books he would recommend to a recent convert. He included Augustine in that list, writing “St. Augustine’s Confessions will give you the record of an earlier adult convert, with many v. great devotional passages intermixed.”

Saint Augustine was a bishop in Hippo Regius, a city in north Africa. Augustine was a brilliant scholar who desperately sought the truth, and intently studied many religions and philosophies before finding Truth in the person of Jesus Christ.

His life is fascinating, in part because he lived during the turbulent era when Rome itself was sacked by the Vandals, who went on to conquer North Africa.

Augustine was a native African, a member of the Christian Berbers, who along with the Romans in the regions were destined to be overrun by Islamic armies.

Augustine was a prolific writer, and due to their spiritual value, many of his works are readily available today.

If you would like to read one of the volumes mentioned by C.S. Lewis, you can download copies of early translations at Internet Archives. Here are the links, with two biographical studies thrown in for good measure.

Confessions

The City of God

Lives of the Fathers

Saint Augustine and his Age

If you choose to follow C.S. Lewis’ example of reading one of these works for Lent, you will have the added joy of sharing with him a Lenten discipline which he found rewarding.


If you prefer listening to the Confessions, you can download a free Librivox version here.

Gambling, Sin & C.S. Lewis

February 14, 2022 — 10 Comments

Gambling has become pervasive in modern society. It is so endemic that people rarely spend a moment wondering whether it is morally good, bad or indifferent.

This past week numerous articles appeared about multi-million dollar bets and the stunning amount waged on the final game of the NFL season. And, a day after the game is played, the odds for next season’s winner are already online.

The Super Bowl is traditionally the biggest annual sports betting event in the United States. But it’s only one of many events where the legally gambled totals are stunning.

It is estimated that Americans wager over $150 billion dollars per year on sporting events, and even more is bet on legally [on events] around the world.

Naturally, the World Cup – with its global audience – trumps the sum gambled on American football.

In the United States, opportunists created state-sponsored lotteries, presumably to fund worthy causes like education. Today most of these are taken for granted as a stable revenue stream (not always for their promised purpose).

And we haven’t even factored in the casual or unsanctioned gambling that takes place.

In many gambling situations, wagers are made between friends, for minor amounts. In such cases there seems to be little reason for concern. Perhaps it is about willpower and moderation.

However, there are some cases where people wager large amounts – far beyond what they can “afford” to lose. And in such cases, something dangerous is afoot. In the worst cases, people can lose everything they own. Even worse, innocent members of their families frequently suffer.

These are the people for whom Gamblers Anonymous exists. The organization “is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from a gambling problem.”

Recent brain research has confirmed a genetic element and that “gambling addiction triggers the same brain areas as drug and alcohol cravings.”

The grim truth, you see, is that gaming businesses are not the fun, innocent entertainment industry they claim to be. Gambling enterprises don’t rely on casual bettors for their profits. It’s the people who cannot resist making just one more bet, who fund their rich coffers.

And, while technology may make some gambling more appealing, it’s dangers were recognized centuries ago.

By the time George II came to the throne in 1727, Britain was a nation addicted to gaming. The capital was fit to burst with gaming houses, where play continued round the clock . . . A game named Hazard was one of the most popular games, and also one of the most aptly named, since there were hazards aplenty in playing.

Squeezed around a large, circular table, a player could easily win or lose an entire fortune in a single night, since large stakes were wagered on each throw of the dice, and four-figure losses were not uncommon. No amount of skill could improve the odds of winning at Hazard, either. . .

It was a highly addictive game too; payouts and losses came quickly, and so the atmosphere around the table was always one of fevered anticipation.

But is Gambling a Sin?

The fact that gambling can destroy families and lives suggest that it is not morally ambiguous. But, is it a matter of degree, rather than a right or wrong?

To answer that question, people of Christian faith look first to the Scriptures. The Bible speaks a great deal about money, but very little that relates directly to gambling. Most people are well acquainted with the biblical warnings that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” The rest of that verse describes the troubled state of people who have surrendered to its power.

It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (1 Timothy 6:10).

Beyond the cautions about being tempted by money, gambling is not expressly addressed. Nevertheless, this essay offers a thorough discussion of the subject, and is worth reading.

What did C.S. Lewis Think?

C.S. Lewis had an excellent hermeneutic, or approach to interpreting the Scriptures. He believed that Jesus’ disciples should do what God’s Word tells us to do, and avoid what it instructs us to avoid. Pretty simple, right? Too bad we find that model so challenging to follow.

Because the Bible is essentially silent on the practice, Lewis applied his reason, and his personal experience to the matter when he was asked about it. In a collection entitled “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” he offered a very practical response.

Gambling ought never to be an important part of a man’s life. If it is a way in which large sums of money are transferred from person to person without doing any good (e.g., producing employment, goodwill, etc.) then it is a bad thing.

If it is carried out on a small scale, I am not sure that it is bad. I don’t know much about it, because it is about the only vice to which I have no temptation at all, and I think it is a risk to talk about things which are not in my own make-up, because I don’t understand them.

If anyone comes to me asking to play bridge for money, I just say: `How much do you hope to win? Take it and go away.’ (God in the Dock).

An Inkling Postscript

J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate faced an ethical challenge when Warner Brothers, one of their licensees, abused their rights and created “online games, slot machines and other gambling-related merchandise based on the author’s books The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings.”

Tolkien’s estate had accused the defendants of violating a 1969 agreement allowing the sale of “tangible” merchandise, by associating the books with the “morally-questionable (and decidedly non-literary) world of online and casino gambling”.

It said this “outraged Tolkien’s devoted fan base” and irreparably harmed the legacy of the English author, who died in 1973 at the age of 81.

Since the Chronicles of Narnia were written for children, they are less susceptible to such abuses. But, wherever a dollar can be made (or won) the possibility exists they could also be misused to that end.

To Pray or Not to Pray

January 29, 2022 — 14 Comments

I’m in the midst of a health issue, and it has sharpened some thoughts I have long held about prayer.

I welcome prayer. From anyone, pretty much.

That’s because I believe despite the pray-ers beliefs’, it could possibly help, definitely can’t harm, and may simply possess a positive sociological element, even when the prayers are not efficacious. More on that in a moment.

The Current Concern

I think I’m coming off of a bad cold. Early in the week I experienced a cough, a moderate temp, and a couple other symptoms (minus the scratchy throat) I’ve associated with the Rhinovirus for decades.

I’m vaxxed and boosted against the Coronavirus, but being a super-conscientious pastor (who counts a fair number of seniors in his congregation) I decided it would be best to know whether or not these few sickly days have been caused by omicron, I got tested yesterday. Results are due in today or tomorrow.

Testing is never so easy, of course, as we would like it to be. In my case, my primary medical care provider was referring people like me to other facilities. The one which was the least inconvenient proved to still involve major time and effort.

The hassle came from having to fill out a fistful of forms to verify everything from my insurance providers to my current gender identification. One sheet was an extensive questionnaire about who they could speak to in regard to my health. It was more thorough than ones I’d encountered in the past, and raised an existential question at its end.

It began by asking if they could talk to my spouse (I think they called her a “partner”). I checked “yes” and wrote in her name. Next it asked about other family members. Triple check; I inscribed the names of my three children. After that it asked about sharing information with my other medical providers. Fine (although getting different medical caregivers to communicate on my behalf in the past has proven quite challenging).

I was surprised the form didn’t ask whether I wanted the results made available to the People’s Republic of China, but immediately realized that was a moot question since they have access to every American’s most personal data. And due to their earlier breaches of Department of Defense systems they probably already have my DNA code.

The final question on the form was not surprising. Still, in the (literal) Friday morning fog, I considered responding rather than simply passing on to the next sheet. “Is there anyone else we can speak to about your condition?”

I had an answer to that, and even I doubt anyone will ever read it once the paper is filed, I decided to write it down. “You have my permission to speak to God on my behalf.”

The Theological Ramifications of My Invitation

Being a Lutheran, especially a theologically trained one, means you can never take something simply at face value. You have to critically analyze it to the point where each of the statement’s innate flaws is stripped bare. I’m sure some readers are doing that right now with my words.

The question boils down to whether or not it is a “good” thing to have people from alien worldviews or faiths pray for you. I’ve met people in the past who were quite clear about not wanting Christians, for example, to pray for them.

A few of these were atheists. In such cases I tried to give them the benefit of not desiring to be seen as a hypocrite by “welcoming” such prayers during a crisis – but I sometimes thought they were actually afraid of the turbulence that would result from God showing his divine hand in the pristine secularity of their lives.

Returning to my case, I have never consciously rejected anyone’s offer to silently pray for me. The following ideas guide my thinking on the subject.

1. It could well mean absolutely nothing. The offer to pray is frequently just a reflex. Many people say “I’ll pray for you” the moment they hear about a need, and I think we’d all be disappointed to discover how many actually follow through. While this sort of thinking is not healthy for those who manifest it, it causes no harm to the intended recipient of the prayer.

2. Non-Christians who might be called “spiritual” want to wish others well, and I don’t see any benefit in preventing them. This sort of person may use prayer terminology, but some are more self-aware and say things like “I’m sending you positive thoughts.” To be gracious, they are attempting to communicate their empathy. To be accurate, they are wasting their time. I know I don’t have telepathy, so any thoughts they may be able to transmit in my direct won’t be received at this end. Likewise for the new age trope “positive energy.” That’s the immaterial stuff that gurus have supposedly been harnessing for centuries to make our world a more peaceful place. Since I’m pretty sure it’s 100% sentiment, it doesn’t hurt me, so I don’t mind having it launched toward my vector.

3. Adherents of other religions will sometimes offer to pray for each other. In this too, I find no problem. Those who know me, understand without a shadow of doubt, that I believe Jesus Christ’s declaration that he is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him.

But if they wish to offer me the sincere expression of their friendship by offering to pray for me, I regard that as an honor. Not something that will result in a positive intervention by a deity which does not actually exist.

(By the same token, when I offer to pray on their behalf, I do not expect them to believe in the faith I profess, or even the existence of God himself.)

So, this sort of prayer does me no harm, does not compromise my Christian witness, and can strengthen bonds of friendship and shared humanity with other individuals for whom Jesus died.

4. People who worship real entities. Now, this is really “out there,” as they say, and so uncommon as to be something none of us are likely to ever experience. But let’s discuss it theoretically, since it falls under the umbrella of having “anyone” pray for you. In this scenario, we have a person who worships an actual supernatural entity. Let’s ignore the lower echelons of the “principalities and powers” and skip right to their boss, the broken-winged Lucifer. Let’s also ignore the fact no true Satanist would be inclined to intercede for a Christian who ridicules their Master. But, let’s assume someone did mention my name in their conversations with Screwtape’s “Our Father Below.” It would mean, and accomplish, nothing. Christians, you see, have nothing to fear from Satan. He is powerless against the Holy Spirit of God himself who lives within us.

Update

So, as it turns out, I just got a call from a nurse at the clinic and . . . yes, I do have a case of covid. It was mercifully short, with no temp now and decreasing nasal congestion. Basically back to “normal,” with a future “natural immunity” added to my “vaccine-induced immunity.”

Adding new T cells to my body’s arsenal will be a beneficial consequence of this week’s sickness.

The dangers of covid for people (like myself) possessing so-called comorbidities, are real. I pray regularly for medical breakthroughs in battling the viruses, bacteria and cellular aberrations that plague human life.

But I recognize all too well that life is fleeting, as the Scriptures say, like “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”

As Larry Norman used to sing, we’re “only visiting this planet,” on our way to a new and unfallen world like the one the Lord first created for us.

This pilgrimage entails many challenges. And, although I know my Savior will see me safely through everything I face, you have my permission to pray for me.

An Evolutionary Fluke

January 11, 2022 — 19 Comments

Did trees evolve from apes? An odd question, to be sure, but one humorously posed by C.S. Lewis in a letter to his father.

While this column does discuss the theory of evolution, it’s not doctrinaire. So, whatever your opinion of Darwin’s notions, read on, and you may enjoy a pleasant surprise.

C.S. Lewis, the brilliant Christian apologist was not an ironclad “evangelical” in the American sense of the word. Here in the U.S., that typically requires adherence to a handful of doctrines, usually including the affirmation of the infallibility of the Scriptural autographs and of the creation of humanity in the persons of our first parents, Adam and Eve.

As important as these matters are, very few Christians would deem them salvific, in the sense that people holding less “vigorous” views on these issues will be excluded from heaven.

C.S. Lewis was one of those who focused on the core of the Christian faith, rather than secondary doctrines. He referred to this as “mere Christianity,” and it was based on a trusting relationship with God through the Person of Jesus, God present with us in the Incarnate Word.

As for doctrines per se, like all good defenders of the faith, C.S. Lewis preferred not to get bogged down with secondary matters. This is consistent with the spirit of Paul’s advice to the young pastor, Timothy.

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. . . . Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . . (2 Timothy 2:14, 23-24).

Lewis’ 1927 Evolutionary Conversation

In March of 1927, C.S. Lewis wrote one of his eclectic letters to his father in Northern Ireland. As usual, he commented on his father’s previous correspondence and shared about his current health and activities. While his relationship with his father grew strained after his mother’s untimely death while he was still a child, Lewis’ letters to his father exude familial respect framed in the context of early twentieth century British sensibilities.

That said, Lewis was always eager to share curious or silly experiences he knew would amuse his solicitor father. He takes a humorous approach, for instance, to advising his father to consult a more skilled doctor to diagnose an ailment, rather than suffering with the incomplete work of the physician he has always known, he will simply be “offer[ing] up several months of pain as a sacrifice on the altar of an old acquaintance.”

At the same time, he acknowledges his personal inclination toward doing the same, stating that “if I lived at home [I] would continue to use Gillespie all my life.” Gillespie, it turns out, ran a taxi service long favored by the family despite his bumpy transportation. “I have never regretted Gillespie and his hexagonal wheel,” Lewis shares.

He returns to his argument, however, by saying his father’s health demands the attention of a competent physician rather than relying on past ties. He concludes with an illustration based on his own brother. “Hang it all, even you wouldn’t suggest that because I’ve known Warnie a long time I ought to trust him as an interpreter on a holiday in Spain.”

C.S. Lewis proceeds to share with his father current events at Magdalen College (“we are putting up a new building”) and a recent nightmare (“it was the sense of being on the moon . . . the complete desolateness, which gave the extraordinary effect”).

The letter includes other fascinating elements, but it is time now to consider the reference to evolution.

An Absurd Age

I absolutely love the way C.S. Lewis invites us to experience the following moment. His story is so vivid, it still lives a century after the described events transpired.

We live in the most absurd age. I met a girl the other day who had been teaching in an infant school (boys and girls up to the age of six) where the infants are taught the theory of Evolution. Or rather the Headmistress’s version of it.

Simple people like ourselves had an idea that Darwin said that life developed from simple organisms up to the higher plants and animals, finally to the monkey group, and from the monkey group to man.

The infants however seem to be taught that ‘in the beginning was the Ape’ from whom all other life developed – including such dainties as the Brontosaurus and the Iguanodon.

Whether the plants were supposed to be descendants of the ape I didn’t gather. And then people talk about the credulity of the middle ages! À propos of this can you tell me who said ‘Before you begin these studies, I should warn you that you need much more faith in science than in theology.’ It was Huxley or Clifford or one of the nineteenth century scientists, I think.

Another good remark I read long ago in one of E. Nesbitt’s fairy tales –‘Grown ups know that children can believe almost anything: that’s why they tell you that the earth is round and smooth like an orange when you can see perfectly well for yourself that it’s flat and lumpy.’

Ironically, immediately after this, Lewis introduces his next subject with the words: “Almost the only interesting thing that has happened to me lately was a visit from a young German.” You see, I wasn’t misleading you when I said his letters are filled with fascinating material.

One must assume that times have changed, and that English children are no longer being taught such simplistic distortions of actual theories. But that’s not the theme of this current post. Rather, I wish to show how wonderfully entertaining a simple family letter can be – especially when it comes from the pen of C.S. Lewis.