Friday, 11 January 2013

Post House Party: On the Mountain Top and in the Low Country

Earlier this week, we had the annual OICCU (Oxford Inter-Colligiate Christian Union) retreat or "House Party". We had an awesome time spent in worship and prayer and hearing from God's word as we prepared for the term ahead and sought his will for how we should be serving him in Oxford as we planned for the mission week that will be held later this term. The post below is an edited version of something I wrote a few months ago on a passage from one of The Chronicles of Narnia. I hope it will be an encouragement to my brothers and sisters who were on House Party. The message and challenge is for me as much as anyone else.
Remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night … Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take care it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look when you meet them there. That is why it is important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.  - Aslan in The Silver Chair by CS Lewis
The passage above comes from the beginning of the The Silver Chair. Jill Pole has followed her classmate Eustace Scrubb into Narnia. Eustace had been there before and after telling her about it the two hoped to get back into the magical world and thus escape from school bullies. Their "wish" is granted, though they later learn that it was not their desire to come so much as Aslan's need of them which brought them to Narnia. Instead of arriving in Narnia proper, they actually find themselves on a high mountain top which turns out to be part of Aslan's country (a place symbolic of heaven though with a more real physical presence in that world than heaven has in ours). Jill (partly though accident and partly through her own fault) finds herself alone in Aslan's country and has to face Aslan, the ruler and Christ-figure of Narnia on her own. He gives her instructions for a mission by which she and Eustace must search for and rescue Narnia's lost prince and heir. He tells her four signs which she must memorise that will guide them to the prince. After making her repeat them till she knows them off-by-heart, he gives her the warning above.

The most obvious "lesson" in this passage is that we should constantly immerse ourself in God's word and commands (pointing also to the importance of memorising scripture by heart), lest we forget what we know and believe about life and faith. But I think there is a secondary important point that Lewis teaches us here. Many of you will be familiar with the metaphor of “a mountain-top experience.” This refers to a point in time where everything is going well and we feel like we are “on top of the world.” In the Christian life, we use the phrase to describe times when we feel as though God has spoken to us clearly (not necessarily audibly, but in a manner which is unmistakeable). This very often happens on Christian camps or retreats, or in our case, House Parties. The sense of purpose, God’s purpose in our lives, is strong, and we feel like we could never doubt. We recommit our whole lives to God and vow to live wholly for him from now on.

But House Party is over, and as we find ourselves thrust back into the reality that is Oxford life, the "spiritual high" is likely to fade and all our convictions and resolutions with it. I’ve experienced it enough times to know this is inevitable. Someone wise once pointed out to me that this is both normal and healthy. We would not be able to function in everyday life if we were continually on a spiritual high. It would drain us and be unhelpful to both us and our service for God.

When I read the passage above a few months ago, where Aslan speaks to Jill on the high mountains of his own country, I couldn't help but see it as symbolic of the kind of mountain-top experiences we have from time to time, especially on occasions like House Party. I don't know if Lewis intended that metaphor but I do believe he was trying to impart an important lesson - especially when we read Aslan's warning to Jill:

"Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia."

Isn't that true of the spiritual life? When we find ourselves in "the mountain tops" we hear God speaking to us clearly - but that is unusual and for most of life it is in more subtle ways that God communicates with and guides us. I think this is probably both part of his method of dealing with us, and because we let the business of life, like the "thickness of the air", confuse our minds.

Aslan’s warning to Jill was prophetic. Though he gave her every warning he could, when she got to Narnia she did allow the thick air to confuse her mind. The message and warnings of Aslan were not clear any more, and she allowed the cares of the road and their travel to distract her from “the only thing that mattered”.

By the time Jill and her companions (with whom she is tasked with sharing Aslan's message) find themselves at their first destination in the North, they have all but forgotten the signs that Aslan had given Jill for their mission. She had given up repeating them and they find themselves walking through the very place they are searching for completely unaware that they have found it. They are so taken up by rumours of a warm place to spend the night and hot baths and food that they not only miss the sign, but walk into what is almost a death trap. They had allowed their physical desires to interfere with remembering why they were there.

I think we are all aware of the danger as we get wrapped up in the stress of Oxford to forget the mission we felt God giving to us at House Party. But we are not without hope. As the antidote for Jill and her friends forgetting their mission was to repeat the signs daily, so we can remind ourselves of what God has called us to do by daily spending time in his word and prayer. I think another mistake that Jill and her friends made was that she tried to remember the signs on her own. While it is true that she had a better chance of remembering them well, as Aslan spent a good deal of time making her recite them over and over, had she only gotten her companions to join her in reciting daily, they might have stood a much better chance of remembering the signs together. And that is why Christian community is a good way of reminding ourselves of God's call on our lives. As we meet in college CUs and prayer meetings and take part in church activities, we are able to encourage one another and less likely to forget the clear calling we felt before.

This is also the reason we we need mountain top experiences (times when God speaks clearly to us) every now and again. But he does not do so all the time. The rest of the time it is our responsibility to make habits of spending time in God’s word, talking and praying to him, and reminding ourselves of his promises and commands. Or else the thickness of the air in the “low country” will confuse our minds and we will forget.

Thank God that in his grace, even when we are forgetful, he is still faithful and will nudge us back in the right direction. Aslan says to Jill, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia,” and he keeps his word. Just when all hope is lost and the children have completely “muffed” the signs, Aslan appears to Jill in a dream to nudge her back in the right direction. In the same way, God does not always speak to us clearly as he does in “mountain top experiences”, but he will still speak to us in subtler ways, reminding us of what we have forgotten.

And so the lesson we can learn is this: God gives us moments of clarity when he speaks to us in an unmistakeable way. But for most of life, we live by faith and it is, in part, our responsibility to remember what he revealed on those mountain-tops by reminding ourselves daily. At the same time, God, in his grace, also speaks to us subtly. As a gentle father, he gives us hints to put us back on track when we have strayed. As you begin the term ahead with the memories of House Party still there but fading, do not despair. The emotional clarity might fade, but we have much opportunity to remind ourselves and be reminded by God and others of the mission he has given us.

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