I had the honor and privilege of preaching at Truett Chapel yesterday. The message is entitled, “The Friends.” The readings are from Exodus 33:7-11 and John 15:9-17. Thanks to my friends Adam Jones and Michael Liga for serving as readers.
We tell stories. We live by them. And we’re part of one.
Human beings are story-bound. We rely on stories to give us meaning, identity, and purpose. As our lives unfold, we see ourselves as part of a narrative and expect the plot to make sense. We often assume that we are driving the action, writing the next chapter. While we do have agency, there are moments when the story gets away from us, when suddenly we’re at a loss. We do not know where things are going next.
C. S. Lewis addressed this notion, that we are story-bound. He observed that our controlling story is that things get better, for a time. Then, things fall apart. We emphasize the part where things get better, and act as though that is all there is to the story. Lewis calls this the myth of progress. This story remains with us. And Lewis names how certain overarching stories (like progress) can keep us from tending to the story of God.
No one is looking at world history without some preconception in favor of progress could find in it a steady up gradient. There is often progress within a given field over a limited period. A school of pottery or painting, a moral effort in a particular direction, a practical art like sanitation or shipbuilding, may continuously improve over a number of years. If this process could spread to all departments of life and continue indefinitely, there would be “progress” of the sort our fathers believed in. But it never seems to do so. Either it is interrupted (by barbarian irruption or the even less resistible infiltration of modern industrialism) or else, more mysteriously, it decays. The idea which here shuts out the Second Coming from our minds, the idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. And it is a myth which distracts us from our real duties and our real interest. It is our attempt to guess the plot of a drama in which we are the characters. But how can the characters in a play guess the plot? We are not the playwright, we are not the producers, we are not even the audience. We are on the stage. To play well the scenes in which we are “on” concerns us much more than to guess about the scenes that follow it.
– C. S. Lewis, via Bible Gateway
Lewis’ observation that we are only characters, and not the playwright, producer, or audience, is indeed a powerful one. He writes, “We are on the stage.” Our challenge is to play our part now, for in our present moment, we are “on.” We may have a sense of where the story is going, but the twists and turns, highs and lows, they remain hidden from us. Yes, we have agency. We have responsibility. We even have power. But knowing what kind of agency, responsibility, and power is what enables us to play our parts well.
This past week I read “Act III, Scene ii,” a poem by Madeleine L’Engle, which turned my thoughts to Lewis. She writes:
Someone has altered the script.My lines have been changed.The other actors are shifting roles.They don’t come on when they’re expected to,and they don’t say the lines I’ve writtenand I’m being upstaged.I thought I was writing this playwith a rather nice role for myself,small, but juicyand some excellent lines.But nobody gives my cuesand the scenery has been replaced.I don’t recognize the new sets.This isn’t the script I was writing.I don’t understand this plot at all.To grow upis to findthe small part you are playingin this extraordinary dramawritten by somebody else.
– From The Weather of the Heart
This reflects my theological journey. Once, I believed myself to be an author. Then, I discovered I was a character. I was playing a part, and God was the playwright. My part is very small. The story however, is very large, far larger than anything I can envision or imagine. But it is a glorious honor to have been placed on the stage, to have been written into the play.
That’s the view of my desk from today as I’m developing curriculum and studying the Gospel of John.
But, as you might guess, this isn’t all I’ve been reading. I continue to make my way through James Montgomery Boice’s Foundations of the Christian Faith at a pace of one sermon per day, and I’ve begun Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (one of the Kindle deals below). With Merton I’m not as measured in my pace–more starts and stops. Merton’s autobiography is beautifully written, and I wish more Christians would write with his level of insight and artistry. In the CSB, I am now two-thirds of the way through Psalms.
Yesterday I began Robert Alter’s The Art of Bible Translation and I will soon begin a book by J. L. Collins, The Simple Path to Wealth. I’ve recently completed Jen Pollock Michel’s Surprised by Paradox, which you should pre-order, for as with all her work thus far, it is excellent. I also finished reading The Federalist Papers, which I am so glad that I read. Why? It boosted my confidence in the ideas undergirding the American experiment. This happens to be a wonderful place to live, which, if we uphold and build upon our founding principles, can be even more wonderful.
Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness was tedious for me, but I turned its final pages knowing I had encounter a tremendous woman of faith. After Day, I’m on to Merton. Another book I enjoyed: Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. A book that has value, but didn’t thrill me: Scott Rieckens’ Playing With Fire: How Far Would You Go for Financial Freedom?
As for May Kindle deals, I’ve noticed:
- Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain ($2.99, though I’d encourage you to consider the mass market paperback for a few dollars more)
- Henry Cloud, Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality
- Humphrey Carpenter, J. R. R. Tolkein: A Biography
- Martin Luther, Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional
- Faith that Matters: 365 Devotions from Classic Christian Leaders
- Gordon Fee, How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour
- Scot McKnight, One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow
- Robert Benson, In Constant Prayer
- Robert Plummer, Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Anglicanism
Lastly, here is a boxed set of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stories in hardback that is marked down.
Reading anything good? Leave a comment.
Today I went shopping at a local thrift shop and spent less than six bucks on five CDs, one DVD, and four books. My best find: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I paid fifty cents for a hardback edition of the best novel I read in 2017.
Earlier in the week, on another bookstore visit, I bought a signed and dedicated copy of William Brackney’s A Genetic History of Baptist Thought for nine dollars. Why was I excited about this one? It was dedicated to Herbert H. Reynolds, who was President of Baylor University from 1981 to 1995.
I just finished reviewing Amazon’s Kindle deals for the month of January, and have chosen to link those I find notable. I’ll offer a sentence or two on each selection.
- Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
This is one of my favorite novels, so at $3.99 as an eBook I think it’s a steal. I’d go so far as to recommend this one as an actual book for your shelves. Berry’s depiction of a barber in the small town of Port William, Kentucky shows the meaning of vocation, community, gentleness, love of the land, and simple faith.
- A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals and A Year with C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works
These are both $1.99, and either could be used as a daily devotional resource. Merton and Lewis are both insightful and worth allowing into your thought-space on a regular basis.
- Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Sermons from Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Rutledge has a gift with words, and she is a fantastic preacher. I have many of her books on my shelves.
- Amy Hollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor
I haven’t read this book, but I love Fred Rogers.
- Brennan Manning, The Furious Longing of God
Brennan Manning has taught me a tremendous amount about God’s grace, and this book is only $1.99. Manning makes it clear that God’s love for us is far grander than we’ve imagined and that it is for everyone, even you and me.
- Les and Leslie Parrot, Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts: Seven Questions to Ask Before–and After–It Starts
For about the first ten years of my marriage I made it a goal to read at least one book annually on how to be a better spouse. There is another book out there by Gary Thomas that is more about those who are not married but open to be married that is also on sale, which might be of interest to some.
This week I finished Jeff Tweedy’s memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). Tweedy is a singer/songwriter, and leads my favorite band, Wilco. I also finished Ursula K. LeGuin’s So Far So Good, her final collection of poems.