I happen to be reading two very different books right now for two different reasons. The first is Ray Johnston’s Jesus Called He wants his Church Back and the second is C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Both of these books strike at a very important thought, “What is the real world”.
Ray Johnston tells a story in his book about golfing with unchurched businessmen, he says, “I spoke last and gave my usual answer to spark a conversation: “I pastor a church for people who don’t like church.” Everyone laughed. One guy said, “Must be a big church! Let’s admit it, nobody wants to go to church!” To which I said, “It is, and you’re right.” He wasn’t being rude—he was just being real. We’re the ones who have disconnected from real people like him.” Johnston, Ray. Jesus Called – He Wants His Church Back: What Christians and the American Church are Missing (p. 53). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
Johnston’s comments had gotten me thinking when I re-encountered Lewis’ first letter from Screwtape to Wormwood in which he says, “Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it “real life” and don’t let him ask what he means by “real”. Lewis, C. S.. The Screwtape Letters (Enhanced Special Illustrated Edition) (p. 2). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Here’s what I saw, (and I do not mean to demean Johnston’s book because I am learning things from it) Johnston echoes so much of modern Christianity in looking at the world outside of the Church as somehow “the real world”. Lewis is right the devils are trying to convince us that the real world is the place of violence and greed we see everyday outside the walls of the Church. And we buy it; and we bring it into the Church, like so many children tracking mud onto mom’s freshly cleaned carpet. The carpet (the house) is where we are meant to live, and the state of cleanliness is how we are supposed to live. God means for us to wash ourselves completely clean and come in and enjoy the house (see Jesus’ words to Peter in John 13:1-17). Rather, it seems that we only kick off one particularly pesky glob of mud before walking into the room. This makes the carpet resemble a bad parody of the mud hole outside. Hence the confusion. We forget we are meant to live in a clean room and think the place more honestly muddy is our home. We look around at the others sharing the room with us and mumble, “At least out there people can see all of the mud covering them and aren’t so proud about one little clean spot.” We forget that for some little Pigpens that one clean spot may be the only one and one which took a great deal of time to achieve (let them celebrate the one as you patiently help them expand the cleanliness).
In Johnston’s defense what he appears to have meant is that it was nice to hear an honest word from someone outside the Church, but we cannot confuse the matter. God is the only real entity and we derive our existence from God. We become real only as we attach ourselves to God. If the Church is the family of God, then it is an entity which emulates God and becomes real through its connection with the Real. If we somewhat artificially clean up our shoes before walking into the Church, it is because we recognize that is how the real world operates and we do not want to spoil it. In fact, one might say we participate in a somewhat artificial cleaning simply to help make it real. We are trying to help become worthy of living in mother’s clean house.
Lewis masterfully reveals this between the lines when the Screwtape talks about focusing on the no. 73 bus. That is “life”, at least as we understand it, and there is nothing greater or more real than that no. 73 bus. We focus on necessities like food, clothing, paying rent, relieving stress and suddenly our lives are more caught up in the 9 to 5 than in Church. People even in the Church are more worried about Monday than Sunday. Rather than focusing their attention on worship, rest, family, and true life (Sabbath), many focus on packing what they can into the 48 hours between Friday and Monday. We focus on the physical world around us and call it real without noticing that it derives its reality from following the path its creator laid out for it.
The New Testament sums all of this up in the phrase “eternal life” (see John 10:28-30 and a host of other verses). Jesus and the New Testament authors were saying that Jesus was bringing real life to earth. He was not simply talking about living forever (that may be a small part of it), he was telling us that through him the real world has truly entered into this space and that we can hear and now receive it.
Going back to Pastor Johnston’s illustration, his golf partner was being honest by stating his own understanding and that is refreshing because honesty itself part of reality. In that instant that man connected to reality through his honesty. In that instant he too wiped some mud from his shoes. What gives Christians a bad name is that so often we do not acknowledge what is going on within us. We are like little children who look at one small part of our shoes and pronounce them clean when they are in reality caked with mud in every place but that one spot. Or else, we do not show those around us how much God is helping us to clean our shoes and how if they will consent to sitting still a moment God will also wipe theirs.
If we in the Church continue to live like we are in the mud hole or continue to perpetuate the false notion that the mud hole is reality we are never going to see the eternal life God has in store for us. We must honestly strive to live out the real lives Christ has planned for us and honestly help others to do the same.