Enchanted Dragons

Last week I realized it had been quite a while since I had ventured into the enchantment known as Narnia.  The discovery and subsequent exploration of Tolkien’s Middle-earth has taken precedence over the known world of Lewis’ Narnia for three years now, and though I am constantly finding new books to delight my soul, I know I also need to draw comfort from the familiar at times.  And certainly Narnia is familiar – and beloved.

Unlike my introduction to Middle-earth, I do not remember when I first encountered Narnia. I do remember hearing several of the Chronicles read aloud by my dad during my childhood bedtimes – his favorite was The Horse and His Boy, and the most memorable was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (thank you, Eustace Clarence Scrubb – “who almost deserved it”).  I know that “Aslan!” was a part of my vocabulary from a young age.  The idea of beautiful clothes that are also comfortable is a Narnian concept that I unconsciously attempt to put into practice in my daily life, and the image of Aslan (or Christ) as not safe and yet good has informed my thoughts on theology since well before I could label them as such.

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At various stages of my healing journey, I have repeatedly turned to one particular metaphor from the Chronicles.  It is the one I find most hopeful when I grapple with pain and change and the ugliness I face in the dark places of my heart.  It has to do, of course, with Eustace.  Early in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace is a spoiled prig who wants nothing to do with magic, Narnia, or sailing – or his cousins (King) Edmund and (Queen) Lucy, for that matter.  His presence aboard the Dawn Treader is most unwelcome simply because he does everything he can to make a nuisance of himself.  Yet his actions ultimately bear fruit that causes even Eustace to rethink everything: he becomes a dragon.  Naturally, it is not a comfortable thing to become a dragon (who cannot speak) when one’s whole company is either human or of the Talking Beast variety.

In the lonesomeness of dragon-ness, Eustace begins to change for the better.  But his own efforts are insufficient, and the dissolution of the dragon-spell must come from one far mightier than Eustace himself.  In the dark of night, Eustace-the-dragon finds himself led to a mountaintop bathing-well by Aslan.  The desire to be clean – and rid of his dragon-ness – launches a process much like peeling an onion.  Laboriously, Eustace attempts to shed his dragon skin by peeling one layer at a time.  He soon recognizes that his efforts are getting him nowhere, and the only way to be truly free is to allow the Lion to rip the scales off.  Though the pain is excruciating, Eustace willingly submits to the ordeal because he yearns for both mental and physical relief.  Once he steps into the pool stripped of the external dragon, he becomes human again.

I am the same way.  Obviously, I have not assumed the physical form of a dragon, but there have been times when my behavior or mental state is best described as dragon-ish.  Only when I come to the end of myself do I have any hope of finding relief.  Only One who is mightier than I can peel away layers of dirt, fear, pain, and brokenness to reveal His creation of humanity beneath.  So each time I despair of moving forward, of making progress, of healing, I remember Eustace and the dragon.  And my hope is renewed.

Rebuilding Forgotten Mountains

If there’s one passage of Scripture I could avoid for the rest of my life, it would probably be Matthew 5-7 – the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters were the shape of my early life, and my existence now very often includes undoing damage that was done in the name of “education” or “character” in those days. “And seeing the multitudes…” used to launch a rapid-pace recital of the Beatitudes and all that follows, complete with memory-aiding hand motions. I knew every word, because every word had been carefully dismantled for me, torn asunder from context, and presented as the answer to any problem I would ever encounter in life. Over a dozen years of hyper-in-depth study of one passage proved to be a sure-fire way to kill truth. Because I was taught the passage meant everything, it came to mean nothing.

So when my pastor announced last month that he was taking a hiatus from a multi-year exposition on the book of Isaiah for a “brief” series on the Sermon on the Mount, I was not enthused. Although I have put some distance between myself and the years of Scripture-by-rote, there are still a few nerves that are easily exposed – and Matthew 5-7 was one of those nerves. Spending ten weeks in my least-favorite passage of Scripture seemed like a perfect setup for yet another spiritual crash.

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While I knew in theory that my experience of the Sermon on the Mount was not mainstream, I still feared revisiting the passage that had formed the roots of my old life. I am not alone on this particular journey; the community of Recovering Grace has proven that to me. Yet even though I could give mental assent to the idea of “Post-It Notes on a Work of Art,” I did not think I was capable of finding healing in wounds that went so deep.

How easy it is to forget God’s grace.

From that first sermon six weeks ago, I have been captivated anew by truth – and how truth brings freedom. There are many things in my life that have met a dividing line at my church; I shouldn’t be surprised that the Sermon on the Mount is now on that list. Yet I am surprised, again and again and again, that things I took for granted – under which I groaned in anguish – these things were not truth! How amazing it is to me, week in and week out, that Christ does not bring drudgery nor despair, but rather joy and peace! The law that bound and gagged me had already been fulfilled!

It will take time – time and love and patience – to find the truth and let it settle in my life, ousting doubt and fear. But I am unspeakably grateful to be in a place where I am encouraged to seek answers outside the four walls of a particular building, outside the mental walls of a particular idea, even outside the bounds of specific teachers. I am encouraged to question, to read on my own, to discuss and form my own opinions of what is presented to me. I need not agree simply to keep the peace. There is truth to be had for the asking!

Thinking and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Learning to think was not a process that came naturally or quickly for me.  In fact, thinking for oneself was tacitly discouraged throughout my growing up – mostly because thinking would inevitably lead to disagreement, but also (and this was never said in so many words) because I was a girl.  Oddly enough, whenever I exhibited a tendency to reason logically, my dad would reprimand me and point out that “logic doesn’t work on people.”

So I spent the first 21 years of my life blindly trusting those “God put in authority” over me.  I trusted them to think for me, protect me, and direct my every decision.  Though my parents were passive about the authority they exerted over my life, I was determined to live by the rules – to earn God’s blessing, naturally – and thus wholeheartedly “gave up my right” to think for myself.  I was raised in a culture where this was the “godly” thing to do.

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I still remember the day when the first real fissure appeared in my mind.  It was, fittingly, a bright, hot summer day, and I was sitting in the membership class of the church my family had been attending for just a few short months.  I had my green membership notebook and my Bible open on my lap, and I remember soaking up the discussion of Reformed Theology as if I’d been handed the moon.  In an unconscious effort to protect us from overtaxing our minds, my parents never discussed theology, philosophy, literature, psychology, or major portions of world history, so I had never been exposed to the idea that theology is actually the study of God – and how belief in and about God affects everyday life.  It was the first time I had encountered theology outside of a male argument (I had overheard enough to know that theology was a reason to fight about God), and I was enthralled.  Theology was for me, too?  And it wasn’t about fighting?!

Oh, and my pastor said that grace was a free gift – unmerited favor, he called it.

I had never heard of such a thing.

Until that day, all my information and instruction about faith had come from essentially one source.  And I had believed all of it.  And – until that day – I had never questioned it.

One shaft of light, and suddenly my entire existence shifted.  Once darkness had been banished and sight had come, it was impossible for me to envision a world where one person had all the answers.  My beginning may have been slow and it may have been “late” by contemporary standards (I was 21 and had finished my junior year of college – and college, incidentally, had nothing to do with learning how to think, though both in and out of the classroom I encountered plenty of “new” ideas), but I took the concept of using my own brain quite seriously once I had begun.

“When you listen and read one thinker, you become a clone… two thinkers, you become confused… ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice… two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your voice.”   ~ Tim Keller

I’m developing my voice, and I do not intend to stop.

 

Renewal Prayer

My faith has been wobbly for more than a year now.  It is a strange, painful, gladsome realization when things once believed immovable become giant question marks instead.  At times it feels like the floor has opened up into a yawning abyss, and at times it seems the sky has been punctured, letting in a glimpse of a deeper reality beyond what is visible.

I was quiet at first about my own wobbliness.  I have continued attending church, continued experiencing the physical grace of Communion, continued sharing life with my brothers and sisters in Christ.  But I could not voice the doubts that alternately whispered and shouted in my day-to-day life.  I have listened to great thinkers, read great authors, and sat perplexed in the midst of prayers and sermons and Bible studies that no longer made sense to me.  What was the point?

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Scripture used to feed me.  Then I began to see how much it had been twisted to control me, and suddenly I couldn’t open my Bible without my heart racing and my hands shaking.  Now when I am alone, the most I can manage is a verse or two in Latin; I chose the Vulgate as an antidote to mis-comprehension in English.  I am grateful for a pastor who encourages doubts and questioning, because I now have space to meet the Real Jesus.  And what I found in the Real Jesus is grace, love, and mercy.

On Sunday mornings, I still find myself with hundreds of others, gathered in seeking, worshipping, learning, questioning, doubting, finding.  The pews are as familiar to me as the opening Doxology, and the lilting Scottish accent of my pastor is comforting whether or not I can digest what he says.  My heart usually settles into patient, uncertain hope by the time we recite the collect as a congregation.

O God our Father and King, forgive us for thinking less of you than we ought; for we think your truth too high, your will too hard, and your power too remote; but they are not!  We pray that you would resolve our confused minds with your Word, redirect our divided wills with your law, restore our troubled consciences with your forgiveness, and revive our anxious hearts with your presence, for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave Himself for us.  Amen.

And so, despite my wobbliness, I still hope.  Despite my doubt, I still believe.  Despite my questions, I rest in mystery.  What is that but grace?