C.S. Lewis on Poetry

reflections on the psalmsFor my birthday, I was given a gift card to Barnes & Noble. It’s great to know the people in my life know me so well – coffee, beer and books. I’m pretty easy to please!

So I stopped in to Barnes & Noble over the weekend to browse the shelves to see if I might find a candidate worth purchasing with my gift card. I did find something. My choice fell to C.S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms. I decided on it because a) I’m teaching Old Testament Survey this semester, and we’ll take a whole 3-hour session to cover biblical poetry and the Psalms and b) knowing I teach at a creative-hub, such as Visible Music College, it seems appropriate to share C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on the Psalms. Here was a creative and imaginative giant. More a philosopher and story-writer, over and above being a poet. Yet still, I believe he’ll have some beautiful thoughts to offer on the Psalms.

Here’s something I came across in the Intro chapter on God’s desire to speak, or incarnate, through poetry: Continue reading

A Complement to Devotional Times

Much of spirituality within evangelical Christianity is centred around the renowned quiet time. This practice can work itself out in various ways in the lives of Christians, but, typically, most are encouraged that a few specific things be involved in the process:

  • Spend a little time in the Scripture, or possibly another devotional book like My Utmost For His Highest.
  • Possibly have a journal out to record certain things that you sense God highlight in the Scripture.
  • Spend time interacting with God through prayer, as well as many more are now emphasising the reality of not only speaking to God, but also hearing from Him.

Furthermore, most are encouraged to do this in the morning. But, thankfully, most realise that such a practice can be done at any time of the day since veil has been ripped and we have access into the holy of holies at all times through Christ’s blood. The night owls give a big hearty cheer!

While such a practice of quiet time, or devotional time, or whatever you want to call it, is usually quite instrumental in our own personal walk and growth in God, I would say that spiritual growth should not be completely summed up in such a practice.

Why? Well, let me share something that I believe will complement such devotional times, something that is on the heart of God.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in some articles over the last couple of weeks, I have slowly been reading through the Psalms. I’m not really trying to read one a day, though if I can, that would be great. I’m just reading through them, soaking up what God would highlight from these differing inspired songs.

Not too long ago it was time to read Psalm 16. This is quite a familiar psalm, at least for me, but probably for many a Christians. It’s filled with a few well-known verses even though it is a mere 11 verses long. One such passage is the Messianic promise found in verse 10:

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
Or let your holy one see corruption.

This is quoted by Peter in Acts 2:27 and by Paul in Acts 13:35.

The final verse of Psalm 16 is another memorable passage:

You make known to me the path of life:
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
At your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

And that might even be one of my most favourite Scriptures in all of the Bible. I am frequently reminded of its truth, and knowing such, I am tempted to share some thoughts on this verse. But I will restrain myself for now.

Yet, another passage my heart is drawn to, one that continually draws me into the heart of God, is embedded right in the middle of the psalm. Its verse 8:

I have set the LORD always before me;
Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

Even more specifically, it’s the first half of the verse that really speaks to me. The intimate psalmist, David, makes a beautiful statement about his desire to always set Yahweh before Him. I have set the LORD always before me. Yes, I just want to set Him right before me, in my mind’s eye, in my heart of hearts, that I might be continually drawn into His grace and love and transforming power.

The reality of the first half of verse 8 becomes even more true when we consider the second half of the verse: Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

God is truly at our right hand, or even more, as new covenant believers, He dwells within us. This was the promise of Christ in John 14:17:

You know him [the Spirit], for he dwells with you and will be in you.

So, we might even say we have an even greater advantage than David did in setting the Lord always before us since He has taken up residence within us. The One I am looking to continually set my heart on actually lives within. Just close your eyes and ponder that for a moment.

Therefore, while having set aside devotional times with the Lord is beautiful, strengthening and upbuilding, it should not stop there. When the Bible is closed, the journal is put back on the shelf and we head out the door to whatever awaits us, there is a sense in which our fellowship with God is not to stop.

Most of us know this. Most of us agree with it. It’s just simply a matter of praxis, or walking out that which we confess.

Sure, no doubt that intimacy with the Lord is not as regularly available in the midst of other activities of the day. There is work, kids, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and oh so much more to distract us. But the fellowship is available. [For those who have 100% conquered Psalm 16:8, please reserve your comments for elsewhere.]

I suppose it’s quite like the relationship between a husband and wife, though I am aware this imagery gets used quite frequently. Within the couple’s home, very close intimacy is available that is not as regularly available ‘out there’. I don’t just mean sexual intimacy, but conversation, physically embracing one another, enjoying a movie together, etc.

But, once the husband and/or wife head out the door into life and all its various aspects, such intimacy is not as available. Yet, there is still opportunity for expressing the relationship. A phone call during the day, thinking about the other partner at specific moments, and even an text message in these days. Or, if the two are out and about together, there is the opportunity for holding hands and enjoying conversation, even on the go. But, again, they are not involved in the very intimate closeness as was available in their own home.

And, I see this very similar to our relationship with the Lord. And, knowing such passages as Revelation 19:7 and 21:2, which refer to the corporate body of Christ as a Bride, I know the comparison is true.

Therefore, while we should be encouraged, and even challenged, in our intimacy with God, our time of stillness before Him, we should not forget the availability of relationship with Him the other 23 and half hours of the day (even in our sleep).

I have set the LORD always before me;
Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

And, even this morning, I read Psalm 26 with the first half of verse 3 really catching my eye:

For your steadfast love is before my eyes.

What a way to keep the Lord always before us: by keeping His steadfast, covenant, committed love before us! There is no other love like this, for even Psalm 63:3 teaches us that God’s faithful love is better than life itself! What a way to draw us in to the heart of God even in the midst of emails, reports, deliveries, construction, and whatever else we are involved in.

With such musings above, many might be reminded of Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. Though his Roman Catholic theology comes through, there is no doubt he was a man that wanted to know God, to simply love Him through the smallest of activities. But, in all reality, most of us do not have the opportunity of living in such a convent community. We have real life to get on with, and we want to be ‘out and about’ so we can be salt and light. Nevertheless, it is an inspiring and challenging account.

But, as I bring this article to a close, I am reminded of another contemplative Christian, one of the Quaker tradition – Thomas Kelly. In his little book entitled A Testament of Devotion, amongst the first words he pens are these:

‘Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.’

Some might be tempted to red flag these words as sounding new age. But remember these are the words of a contemplative Quaker of the first half of the 1900’s. He is referring to an inner intimacy with the Lord.

Kelly goes on to encourage us:

‘There is a way of offering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of the external affairs. But deep within behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.’

I think these are in line with the words of Psalm 16:8:

I have set the LORD always before me;
Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

So, let us keep drawing in through devotional, intimate time with the Lord. But let us also remember that the Eternal One awaits our affections throughout the day, even in the midst of our tedious work schedules. Hey, we might even start to become a little intimate Him as we are ‘out and about’.

Lord, draw us in.

A Theology of Sleep

So I am slowly wading my way through the Psalms these days, as well as reading a selection from the Pentateuch and Gospels. I shared some thoughts the other day from Psalm 1:3, particularly pointing out a phrase from the verse that had never previously spoken much to me, but God had highlighted it the other day.

Last night I was reading Psalms 3 and 4, two very short psalms. As a friend of mine had studied the Psalms a few years back, he noticed a particular theme arising in the first few psalms. In Psalms 1-6, it refers a handful of times to what God does in our sleep or on our beds.

  • Psalm 3:5 – I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
  • Psalm 4:8 – In peace I will both lied down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD.
  • Psalm 6:6 – I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.

Thus, my friend entitled these psalms the ‘sleep psalms’.

And when reading Psalm 4 last night, one particular phrase spoke to me – the second part of verse 4:

Ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.

How many of us lie in bed pondering? Or how many of us live our lives in a perpetual state of pondering? Well, that’s me. I love to ponder. I have a friend who loves to joke with me about it. But I do really like to think and ponder. Though I am an extrovert and very outgoing in public settings, I also am one who likes to roll ideas and thoughts over and over in my mind. A window to gaze out of is an open opportunity for pondering. I am very thankful for a gigantic window in my office so, if need be, I can just sit and stare out the window, contemplating life and God. And sometimes these things end up on my blog.

But, here, in Psalm 4:4, David is encouraging us to be people who ponder in our beds.

Now, I think this is somewhat different than lying awake all night worrying about a particular situation. No doubt this happens to us at times as well. A family member or friend has gone through a tragedy, your at odds with a co-worker and you dread going in to work, your child is struggling as they grow through the adolescent years, and there is a whole assortment of other possibilities.

Yet, in Psalm 4, I sense that David is speaking of something a little different: Ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.

This seems to speak of peaceful contemplation, not stressful worry. And there is something about lying our heads on our soft pillows, face up, to consider life and all its happenings. For me, I find it hard to ponder when I am on my side. Turning over on my side means it’s time to fall asleep, and I can’t seem to sleep on my back. So, face up, my back to the mattress, opens the way for Psalm 4:4 to become a reality.

Just as in Psalm 5:3 David encourages us to interact with God as we arise in the morning, here in Psalm 4, he encourages us to interact with our Father as we are going to sleep. It’s not a legalistic measure of making sure you have two ‘quiet times’ per day, one when you awake and one before you go to sleep. Rather, these words come in the midst of poems in which David is pouring out his affections and thoughts to the One who loves Him. This is a beautiful relationship.

And, thus, what better way can a day end than just lying in our beds, on our backs and face-up, pondering life and the things of God in our hearts. The verse also says, ‘be silent’, and I don’t imagine that being too difficult for us in such a position.

It’s almost like a meditative measure of communication with God. We think back over the day, think about family and friends, think about life, and all of these thoughts lead to meditations and contemplations and prayers. I don’t suppose great intercession will happen in such a restful state, but I do believe we will interact with the one who neither sleeps nor slumbers (Psalm 121:4).

I suppose this is even possible as we face trial and difficulty, for we definitely will face such things. But, as we do, we can look to embrace the practice of Psalm 4:4 so that we might experience the ‘peace of God that surpasses all understanding’ (Philippians 4:8). The trials probably won’t go away, the difficulties might not immediately phase out. But practicing such contemplative measures will be like a healing balm to one’s wearied and worried mind.

No doubt this is not our de facto mode of operation. We would rather worry than rest. Or, if all is fine and dandy, we might just hit our pillows with the only thoughts being, ‘I’m exhausted.’ And that’s ok (the tired part, not the worrying). But I only write these words to remind us of the great possibilities available to us as we do climb into bed, slipping our feet under the cool covers, and lying our head on our soft pillows. There is opportunity for reflection and interaction with Abba.

And when one enters into such a meditative and restful mode, I can only imagine that they will find themselves drifting into a peaceful sleep, maybe even with Christ being their last thought. And then, seven hours later (or less), you might just find yourself awaking with a continued sense of His nearness, able to, in some measure or other, speak the words of Psalm 3:5:

I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.

So, be encouraged by these words of Psalm 4:4 – Ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. As we know, our God cannot be relegated to times on our knees or only in Sunday gatherings. God is just as present in the night when we go to bed. And He continues to watch over You even as you drift into the land of dreams.

Its Leaf Does Not Wither

The Psalms are truly beautiful. In them we find 150 creative poems (actually songs) of varying lengths and topics inspired by the great Creative One Himself. In regards to the Psalms, theologian Tremper Longman says:

‘Poems appeal to the whole person in a way that prose [narrative] does not. The point is that poetry appeals more directly to the whole person than prose does. It stimulates our imaginations, arouses our emotions, feeds our intellects and addresses our wills.’ (How To Read the Psalms)

Or, the famous C.S. Lewis stated it this way:

‘I think poetic language often expresses emotion not for its own sake but in order to inform us about the object which aroused the emotion.’ (“The Language of Religion” in The Seeing Eye)

It is true that we find every kind of emotion being poured forth by David and the other authors in the Psalms (yes, there were other authors, for David only wrote about half of the Psalms).

Opening to the the very first psalm we find what theologians have termed a ‘wisdom psalm’. It almost seems like it belongs with Proverbs. Here are the words from the anonymous psalmist:

1 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

3 He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

As I read these words this morning, words I have read hundreds of times, one phrase particularly jumped out at me from verse 3 – ‘its leaf does not wither’.

That phrase has never spoken much to me previously. I had underlined other phrases in verse 3 before, but never this one. Yet, today, God wanted to communicate something to me.

The full teaching of verse 3 compares the righteous to a tree, one that is firmly planted by streams of water, yields fruit in season and its leaf does not wither. That is the imagery coming forth from Psalm 1. And as I pondered that phrase, ‘its leaf does not wither,’ one I had never given much thought to in my 12 years as a Christian, I got a taste of the refreshing of God.

Life gets busy, right? Right when we check a few things off the list we find that we can add another handful right back on that same list. You know what I’m talking about. We have work and we have family, and that keeps us busy enough without all the other things that could be weighing on us such as part-time studies on the side, activities with our church community, small group one night a week, a second part-time job to help ends meet financially, shuttling the kids to and from their activities, and so much more.

Life gets busy and we get……tired. Yeah, that’s it, and we know it all too well. The super-spiritual will probably not ever want to recognise they are tired, for as the Psalms also say:

He [God] will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. (Psalm 121:3-4)

And if God never sleeps, then we should at least learn to get by with as little rest as possible, right? We have a lot to accomplish, all in the name of Jesus. There is too much to do for God!

While there are actually some people who hold to such a philosophy, I don’t think it is the heart of God. Sure, God never sleeps nor slumber, but only when we have reached the status of Divine Creator ourselves can we, then, try and live life in such a way. And we know that will never happen, so why would we ever embrace such a lifestyle? In the age to come, it is possible that we might not ever need rest, but I wonder about this since Adam and Eve probably needed rest before the Fall. But anyways, back to the point…

‘Its leaf does not wither.’

Why do we feel as if we are withering all the time? I think we could safely assume it is because we are so busy and we keep running ourselves into the ground until we have nothing left. That seems to be the motto of the American life, maybe all of western life in general, and even throughout the world.

But God has called His people, His new creations, to be people that are like a tree planted by streams of water. And we know what water represents in the Scriptures – refreshing from God’s Spirit (see John 7:37-39; Isaiah 41:17-18). And we are to be people who yield fruit, with our leaves not withering, and we are even to prosper in all that we do – see the end of Psalm 1:3, though I do not believe this encompasses an overtly prosperity gospel.

Interestingly, it is John that gives this description about the new Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)

Verse 2 sounds very, very similar to Psalm 1:3. Hmmm?

Consider that this imagery teaches that our leaves are to provide healing for the nations. But how can we do this when we can’t even keep our leaves from withering? It does become difficult, doesn’t it? Everyone shake their heads up and down. And the weary and withered only end up living lives of frustration and bitterness, as I can testify to this.

But the point is not that we beat ourselves up for, once again, running on fumes and lacking refreshment from God. The point is that we be encouraged that God has called His people to be ones with leaves that do not wither, even having leaves that provide healing for others. It’s actually quite beautiful. It’s quite Christlike.

Therefore, let us be encouraged to refresh ourselves in God, for He does have an abundance of water to provide restoration for our souls. Let us repent (change our mind to think like Him) and let us embrace the words of Psalm 1:2: ‘His delight is in the instruction of the LORD and on his law he meditates day and night.’ Let us sit before the Lord, go on a walk in a park, or consider some other activity that will help us engage with God and His words without so many distractions. And this might mean you never open up your leather-bound Bible because His presence is so real you actually hear Him speak.

This is the call of the ones whose leaves are to not wither. And even as we draw near, we know it is only grace upon grace upon grace that is drawing us in to the Father’s bosom. So let us come…come and be refreshed in Him.