journey post 10: You don’t have to check your brain at the door
Say the name “C.S. Lewis” and you’ll likely conjure up images of a magical place called Narnia and the stories of “Aslan” and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Ask about the author, and most will know that he was a Christian and that “Aslan” is a Christ figure. Ask a Christian, you’ll probably hear that Lewis wrote some books about Christianity like The Screwtape Letters, a delightfully thought-provoking story/conversation in which a devil named “Screwtape” is coaching his nephew on how to steer a human away from “the enemy” (God).
Lewis’ name does evoke Narnia to me now, but I didn’t experience Narnia for myself until I read the stories as a dad to my own children when they were home from school in Senegal. Beyond that, the name C.S. Lewis brings to mind some delight-filled memories of my own: the context in which I first heard the name, the very seeds of faith sown in my heart and mind and the shoot and blossom that would emerge in the summer of ‘71….
1962 brought a new minister to our church, Rev. Roland F. Hughes. I was in junior high and 14. My dad had died in April of ’61, and our previous minister had left later that year.
“Roland” is how we got to know him—even us kids. Roland was a shock to our still formal culture of early 60s America—a complete reversal of expectations from what I had come to expect in a pastor, especially in a Presbyterian church where some things are “just not done.” He was in his early 30s and brought his new bride Harriet, in her mid 20s. To us highly mature teen boys, a minister of God just would not have a babe as a wife. But Roland also brought his tall, manly, muscular frame— and his surfboard. My mom had been part of the pastor search committee, and one of the first things she told me before he came was that he loved young people and surfing. That’s all I needed to hear. The “Beach Boys” had just made their splash on the American rock scene, and everyone was goin’ surfin’!
As we got to know Roland, there were other things that stood out about him as a minister. He really did care about young people, and even when we had a youth intern, Roland was our pastor, what we’d call today a “youth pastor.” You could see it in his heart. He’d take us to mountain snow retreats and to surf camp in the summer. He really was enthusiastic about surfing and other sports. He was even enthusiastic about his sermons—and he memorized them, which did not seem to be the “page turning” norm. Roland always had one ready to replay, whether in his Sunday morning suit (he often didn’t wear a robe), bundled up at snow camp, or standing over the campfire in his swim trunks. He was passionate about what he had to say. Roland was legendary among us young folks for one particular message: “Jesus Christ, the Man’s Man.” Roland himself was probably as close as anyone I ever knew to a man’s man. He made some people in the church uncomfortable by his political stands because he spoke out—even at community meetings—for civil rights, fair housing, and other issues, although his sermons were mostly about Jesus and spiritual topics.
Roland Hughes, 1986, a characteristic pose–using his hands to make a point. (Here, as Pastor of Monte Vista Pres in Newbury Park CA. I don’t know who took the pic.)
By the time I was in high school, our youth group was meeting every Sunday night at Roland and Harriet’s. We always had a large group—generally over 20 as I recall—and Roland would talk with us very personally about the importance of living for Christ. He’d bring in speakers and take us to Billy Graham crusades. In those days, I assumed I was a Christian. Meeting in a smaller group one night, he wanted to go through some evangelism training so we could learn how to share our faith. He asked us to role play explaining how to become a Christian. When my turn came, I remember feeling fretful. I stammered out that I didn’t think I could explain it well, but I “had a friend”—referring to Roland—who could, and would take the person to meet him. I didn’t know it, but I was developing my hiding skills….
Roland was also fond of quoting two well-known Christian scholars, Karl Barth and C.S. Lewis. Barth was an erudite, intellectual theologian and very controversial. Lewis was a medieval scholar at Oxford, a poet, a writer of children’s stories—I’m not sure if I was aware of that back then—and, while not a “minister,” wrote a lot about Christianity, either directly or in story form. I could not tell you a single quote that Roland made from Lewis or Barth, but I did come away from that time knowing that they were important to Roland and therefore somehow important to us.
Sometime after Michelle and I were married in September 1970, my friend Andy gave me a copy of a book, Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, saying I should read it. Lewis, of course, needed no introduction, and I would need no pressure to read it, thanks to Roland Hughes. I knew he was a certified smart guy held in high esteem worldwide, a man who didn’t check his brain at the door when moving from atheist to Christian. I don’t think I knew anything specifically about the book except that Roland spoke highly of Lewis and my school drop-out friend thought it would be worth a careful read. I considered myself pretty smart in those days, and if an intellectual academic like C.S. Lewis bought into Christianity and identified himself as a follower of Jesus, then I wanted to know why. My friend, I think, knew I still had questions about the resurrection and other stuff, but I doubt he recognized any of the deep fear that was holding me back from being more open about those questions. The struggle I would face in the coming months would concern so much more than facts and faith…it would also be about overcoming fear…. Lewis would serve as the catalyst to help me push past the fear threshold.
Thanks, Roland. I owe you.