When the Russian bombing in Ukraine started, my mind went back to early on the morning of September 4, 2015. After shaving and showering, I sat down in my office with my coffee to read, pray and write in my journal.
After I closed my journal, I turned to the front page of the New York Times. There, front and center, was the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who had drowned in the eastern Mediterranean, when his family was attempting to cross into Turkey. Dressed in a red t-shirt and dark shorts and lying face down with his cheek pressed against the sand, he appeared to be sleeping, except for the waves lapping his face.
My heart dropped. “What in the Sam Hill is going on down here anyway?” I said out loud. That “theological” question is the same one I am asking now. That question never really goes away. While most mornings I am pretty optimistic and full of hope, this morning I feel despondent and sad.
With Ukraine more than 5,000 miles away, early today I sat in my office chair, staring out the window, waiting for the birds to start singing.
After writing in my journal and reading the news, I glanced at counseling appointments scheduled for today. Feeling dismay at the intractable problems of the world, I thought “Counseling appointments? Seriously?” But then I remembered a war-time sermon preached in 1939 by British scholar C.S. Lewis to students at Oxford. Lewis addressed the emotional malaise and the practical problems facing us when wartime tragedy hits and we are ready throw up our hands, declaring it all futility.
The question Lewis asked was how a scholar, a student, a janitor, or really anyone, could live with faith in times of war or other times that take life, erode hope or assault meaning. Lewis centered his thoughts on the Bible verse that says “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31).
Lewis saw 3 enemies, especially during war, that rose up to challenge that verse. He then proposed 3 ideas that can serve as defenses against despair brought on by these formidable enemies:
The first enemy is excitement. There is “the tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work,” Lewis says. In fact, Lewis reminds us that our best defense against the enemy of “excitement” is to realize that a host of pressures always assail us. Our current condition is not abnormal and “unfavorable conditions never subside, even if they fluctuate in intensity, so we must simply do the best we can at all times.”
Frustration is the second enemy. During stressful seasons, we worry that never will we complete what we started. “No time for that,” we say. This was heavy on the minds of Lewis’ Oxford students as WWII interrupted their studies for several years.
But here Lewis answers, “Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future.” The best any of us can do is simply leave the future to God, and live in the grace of today. This is the day the Lord has made. We must do what can be done today “for the glory of God.”
Finally, the enemy of fear. The tragedies of war bring our mortality to the front burner. War forces us to think about death. Lewis reminds us that the death rate stands at 100 percent. “War does not make death more frequent since 100 percent of us die,” said Lewis. And most death – natural or violent, cancer or shrapnel – is preceded by suffering.
War brings our mortality front and center, while the thought of cancer or paralysis at, say, age 85 may not bother us because we forget about them. But war suddenly makes death real to us, which Lewis says, “would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past.”
However our life unfolds – 100 percent of us die. When our time comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Still, wartime is a good time to assess our lives, asking ourselves why we do what we do.
If we “thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.”
But if we humbly take the work of our lives, offering to God whatever it is He has given us to do, we may indeed discover that as we work and live each day “to the glory of God,” even during wartime, we will approach the “Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter.”