Friday, November 22, 2013

A Rude Awakening

Today is the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination. It is also the 50th anniversary of the death of my favorite author, C. S. Lewis.

C. S. Lewis
News of Lewis' death was eclipsed (understandably) in the papers by the JFK assassination, but both of these events, as it turns out, played a significant role in my life.

The assassination itself was the only of the two events I remember from that fateful day. At 6 years of age I don't think I would have recognized the name "C. S. Lewis" yet. I was just beginning to be an avid reader at this time, but I don't think Lewis' works were yet on my reading lists.

But, I do remember in stark detail the events surrounding JFK's assassination. I had just begun the first grade at Osceola Elementary School in Sylmar, California. We lived just a few blocks down the street from the school. My teacher's name was Miss Mendenhall. I have a visual memory of the classroom, the students, and Miss Mendenhall on that fateful day ... but mostly of Miss Mendenhall.

She had gotten called to the office and was gone a few minutes. We were laughing and joking and doing all the things a classful of students was wont to do when left to its own devices. But when Miss Mendenhall re-entered the class, there was sudden and stark silence. For she was visibly very upset, and crying.

And she didn't tell us what was wrong ... just shared through her tears that we were all being given early release that day, and were to go immediately home.

This was startling, and unusual, but in and of itself wasn't yet enough to rock my world. We had done a number of unusual things in first grade, including the "duck and cover" drills where we would scoot under our desks at a certain signal and huddle with our hands clasped over our necks. In case of nuclear attack, was the reason we were given. I remember this was vaguely disturbing, but not really yet having a full understanding of the horror of a nuclear attack (and the true futility of trying to hide from one under your desk), I did what most first graders are wont to do ... make a game out of it, then not really think any more about it.

But, when I arrived home that cool November day, and opened the side door into our small streetcorner home, I was suddenly confronted with something very much bigger than my view of the world, and quite difficult to explain. For there was my mom, bent over the washing machine.

And she, too, was weeping.

An event big enough, and serious enough, to cause both my first-grade school teacher and my mom to both cry must be very serious indeed. And as my mom slowly and tearfully explained to me what had happened on that fateful day in Dallas, I began to get a rough sense for how dangerous of a place this world really was.

You might ask, "So what does this have to do with C. S. Lewis?" If I began, as a young man, to be truly awakened to the fact that we live in a world where almost unthinkably horrible things can and do happen, C. S. Lewis was the one who gave me the most useful perspective on WHY they happen ... and what our attitude should be about them.

First, there is the very important principle that God must use pain to truly get our attention. And, believe me, our attention needs to be got: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."*

About the existence of sin and suffering, Lewis' razor-sharp logic concludes: "Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself." He helped me to see that tribulation was a necessary element of redemption. Therefore "we must anticipate that it will never cease till God sees the world to be either redeemed or no further redeemable."

One other principle which Lewis drove home, and it's embodied in the words of the old hymn, "This world is not my home ... I'm just a-passin' through." ...

“Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

God has created us for something much greater than this earth, in all its decaying corruption, has to offer. This "something" is hinted at in "All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul ... tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest — if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say "Here at last is the thing I was made for."

Ancient philosophers called this the "God-shaped hole," the thing He created us for, which can only be satisfied by Himself.

Most people my age can recount a series of additional "rude awakenings" since that dismal November day in 1963. Things (like 9/11, and the wars that still follow in its heels) that make us realize "this world is not our home" and put contrast to our deepest longings for "Peace on earth, good will to men." I guess the truly good news, for me, is that today I am exactly 50 years closer to the day when I will finally cry "Here at last is the thing I was made for!" than I was on November 22, 1963.

* All Lewis quotes from "The Problem of Pain."

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