Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Camp Fire, Suffering, and St. Clive

The Camp Fire
These are this morning's statistics about the Camp Fire, centered in the next door town of Paradise (or what is left): 35% contained with 138,000 acres burned and 56 deaths. It is the most destructive and deadliest fire in California history. The smoky air, which is “hazardous” for health, presents a continual, oppressive atmosphere to those who live here and mirrors the weight of suffering of this area.

As a result of the fire, my class last night on C. S. Lewis at Chico’s Bidwell Presbyterian Church was cancelled. And the topic was Lewis on suffering—how did his writings speak to times like these? And maybe that’s a good place to go today. Because I often look to the Wisdom of St. Clive at times of stress… 

Why is that CSL can speak in times like this? We often think of Lewis as the Christian Answer Man, his Oxford-trained brain spinning out responses to life’s most difficult questions. So it’s worth saying that Lewis, even if he never (to my knowledge) experienced a raging fire, nonetheless faced significant crises and suffering—his mother’s death when he was nine; being shipped off soon after to a series of boarding schools that he detested; being wounded in World War I; living through the Great Depression and World War II; caring for an alcoholic and beloved brother; and, finally, the death of his wife, Joy. This man knew pain.

Here are the three points from Lewis on suffering.

Suffering calls us to be the response to others' pain
This is where we in Chico live right now. In Lewis's introduction to the heady Problem of Pain, which seeks to solve intellectual questions about suffering, he admitted that many things are more powerful than intellectual solutions: 
“When pain is to be born, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.” C. S. Lewis
On a related note, this blog is frequently about science and faith. And I’m also going to have to admit that, at times like this, we want all the science and technology available  for those people fighting the fires. And yet right now, science by itself seems quite cold. We also want stories and companionship and rituals. That’s what our lives of faith and Christian community bring. 
Blankets for those who had lost their homes
Speaking of Bidwell Pres Monday I was with volunteer for the church’s pop up store downstairs where they were distributing clothing, blankets, etc. for people devastated by the fire. Worth noting is that not all volunteers, by any means, were BPC members. I was struck by how these tragedies are terribly powerful, but human compassion is greater still. We want to give and care. (This is something I learned during 9-11 when I was in New York City. In fact, this whole experience is very similar for me.) 

Human community is so important—a gift of God. I noted that Monday when I had a birthday beer with a friend at the Handlebar in Chico, and well, speaking of beer, a similar moment last night with some dear friends who lost their house in Paradise. Both times I felt like people around us were gathered there just wanted to be in a place where other human beings were alive and celebrating life. It's such a basic human need and, in many ways, the essence of religion (if I may use the category) and religious community. 
Bidwell Presbyterian's Pop Up Store

Suffering can lead us to hope
I remember when that a good friend Jim was in his final days. He knew that I loved Lewis (as he did) and that St. Clive had some amazing writing on heaven. So he asked me in the final weeks of his life: 
“Greg, can you give me some good stuff on heaven?”

Here’s one piece of Lewis that was good then and remains so in light of his impending death and this current devastation.
“The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.... The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God.... Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” C. S. Lewis
It doesn’t get much better than that.

Suffering can form us.
In my book on C.S. Lewis and crisis, I wrote this, and thankfully, even after a few years, it still strikes me as accurate, 
“Lewis will not dwell on the abstract why question: Why does a good and powerful God allow for evil; instead he looks at how God uses suffering for a purpose—to make us better. This, given that God is omnipotent, seems to suggest that God causes suffering. Lewis instead emphasizes that the cost of freedom is that the world has suffering. God does not create it, but will use it for our good.”
Maybe in these times we can become better people as we reach out in compassion. I’ve found that the tragedy is profound and scary, but human compassion is even more powerful.

A profound prayer
There’s a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (not C. S. Lewis) that I heard at the end of the sermon Sunday and that I’ve been meditating on daily. It so beautifully summarizes the kind of people God wants us to be become.
Lord make me an instrument of your peace

Where there is hatred let me sow love

Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life

A question, an offer
I'm working on my list of subscribers who'd like to hear more from me about how to flourish in faith and life in our contemporary technological and scientific age. If you send your email to, I’ll send you my book on spiritual discernment, A Time for Yes: Enjoying What’s Best in Life, Work, and Love.


Julie Hilton Danan said...

Thanks so much for your post. At times like this the religious vessels of community, ritual, prayer are what we need to hold us and our experience.
I just heard Saint Francis' prayer a couple of times in recent days and it is so resonant for me. I have a card with it (someone translated to Hebrew, too) and I plan to display it. Also it was very interesting that you used the Hebrew Phrase "Tikkun Olam" (repairing the world) on Facebook. I saw that Mr. Fred Rogers used it, too! I have been studying that concept so much and just taught a course this summer at the Chautauqua Institution on how the understanding of Tikkun Olam evolved over the centuries, from the Rabbinic Sages to Kabbalists to modern Social Activists and interfaith use. (Happy to give a talk sometime when I'm out your way...) I was in Chico about a month ago and continually in touch with our daughter there. Trying to help from afar as I can. May God watch over all of you and help you find the strength to renew yourselves and your communities.

Greg Cootsona said...

Thanks for this. It is an amazing prayer. And the phrase "tikkun olam" was brought back to mind by the recent movie on Rogers.