King Frank and Character Formation

September 9th, 2012

Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn

I met a man this summer named Frank.  He was a king and a London Cabbie and the year was 1900.  It was the year that Frank’s life took an abrupt turn, beginning one day when his cab was hailed by a man and a strange woman, who requested he drive them to several places in London. One was a restaurant, the other a jewelry store, both of which the lady robbed. At some point, she hijacked the cab itself, ousting Frank.  By this time, several policemen and storeowners were in angry pursuit.  Frank joined them, trying to save his anxious horse, Strawberry.

As you might have guessed by now, Frank is a character from the past, actually a fictional character who I met in the pages of CS Lewis book The Magician’s Nephew  .Frank captured my imagination, and maybe he’ll capture yours if I tell you a little more about him.

You see, once the cab was stopped, a fight broke out, initiated by the woman who declared herself “the Empress Jadis.” (The White Witch in The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe)Frank, in an attempt to keep peace tried to persuade Jadis to gently to come down from the horse, and have a cup of tea. She responded by trying to hit him with an iron bar she broke with her bare hands off a lamp-post. Frank evades her blows even as he calmly tried to settle his poor horse.

Then, in the middle of the fight, by feats of magic, Digory and Polly, the two children who are at the center of this tale ,drag Frank, Strawberry, Jadis, and Digory’s uncle Andrew into another world.

It is pitch-black, and Frank thinks they all dropped through the street into an underground sewer.  But Polly suspects they are dead, to which Frank responds, “if we’re dead – which I don’t deny we might be – well, a chap’s got to die sometime.  And there ain’t nothing to be afraid of if a chap’s lead a decent life.  And if you ask me, I think the best thing we could do to pass the time is sing a hymn”  (Magician’s Nephew, chapter 8).

And the hymn Frank starts to sing is the hymn we’ll sing at the Offertory today, Come Ye Thankful People Come. Frank may be fictional, but the hymn is real, made more real as we lift it off the pages in a common voice.

For me one of the most memorable events of this summer was listening to all seven books in the Chronicles of Narnia series with my son Desmond. I was inspired by Jonathan Roberts’ CS Lewis lecture last year, and I wasn’t the only one.  So back by popular demand Jonathan is leading a CS Lewis seminar this fall based on two books: The Screw Tape Letters and The Great Divorce.  It should be excellent and you can find out more about it in the Formation Book at the back of the Church.

This is the book we put together twice a year in an attempt to answer the question…What forms us as Christians?

A character in a novel, a worship service, a hymn or poem?  What forms us? Maybe a parable or part of a Psalm… Maybe it is studying the life of a saint, or reading the insights of a great theologian.  Maybe it is a work of art seen, or an aria sung.

All these things have the capacity to form the content of our character, and so are things we pay attention to at Epiphany. Because character matters, in fact it is probably the most import thing.  Frank becomes the first king of Narnia, near the end of the Magicians Nephew– not by the strength of his arm, or the speed of his mind, or the size of our bank account, or the lineage of his name, but by the content of his character.

Character is the essence of who we are in those moments when we are least conscious of our actions, or when we smack up against some unexpected twist of fate, as Frank did on that hot summer day in London.  His response, reflected the content of his character, to sing a hymn of thanksgiving.

In the same situation, what would you have done?

Now maybe we can disregard Frank, after all his life is only lifted from the flat pages of a novel.  It is fiction.  It is art.  And who really has ever had the content of their character changed by art?  Who has ever really had their eyes opened and the ears unstopped by a truth revealed in the art of a story, or song, or poem, or painting?  Knowing you as I do, I suspect just about all of you.

Character matters, I know you know it matters, and I know you know character is what changes the world

I’m reminded of the man whose character, changed the life of one small boy in South Africa, and in turn changed the direction of the entire country.

It happened one rainy day when Desmond Tutu, as a small boy, was walking hand in hand with his Mother down the boardwalk of his hometown Klerksdorp.   Ahead they noticed a white man coming toward them, so as was their custom, and as was the law, they moved to step off the boardwalk to let him pass.

But he beat them to it.  And as they self-consciously walked by the man standing in the muddy streets tipped his hat.  Desmond turned to his Mother, and whispered, “Who was that?”  To which she replied, “The Anglican priest, Desmond.”

Habits of the heart change the world.  And yet habits of the heart can also be mucked up by the world.

The content of our character will be formed one way or the other by something, the question is are we managing the process, or not?

Now we know how formation works…by practicing something over and over again until it becomes second nature.  In the old days, they use to call this learning something by heart.  That is what London Cabbies do.  To be a cab driver in London today one has take a test called the “Knowledge Test.”  It is a thousand questions asking street names  and traffic patterns during different times of day and seasons of the year.

A research named Maquire, a few years ago, thought it might be interesting to look at the brains of cabbies before they took the test, and then a while after they had passed it.  What he found is what we’d expect, that the size of that section of their brain that manages spatial relationships had become larger (NT Wright, After You Believe, p 38)  Driving a cab in London, it turns out actually change the shape of one’s brain.  Just like lifting weights changes the shape of one’s body.  Just like what we do at this church, I prayer, changes the shape of one’s character- carefully, intentionally, toward the ends of synchronizing our lives with God’s greatest hopes for the world.

Which brings us back to the character of Frank.

As he and the children and Jadis and Uncle Andrew and Strawberry were standing there in the dark Frank and children began to sing Come Ye Thankful People Come, and as they did they heard a sound, a note, a single note, so beautiful, so pure that they stopped and listened.  And Frank said, “Glory be! I’d have been a better man all my life if I’d know there were things like this” (Magican’s Nephew, chapter 8).  For as the note rang out they saw before their very eyes the creation of a new universe coming into being.  Out of the darkness there was light as Alsan, the Lion, sang a new creation into existence.

After the entire world was made, Jadis and Uncle Andrew fled in terror of the Lion, but Frank and the children were drawn to him and made their way to meet him.  As Frank and Aslan spoke face to face, Frank began to lose the harsh Cockney accent acquired during his days as a London Cabbie and returned to the plain-spoken country brogue of his youth.

In the presence of Christ, ones truest, best character comes through.  And there is restoration; there is liberation; there is transformation; there is healing, like we hear in today’s Gospel, like we hear in the words of the prophet Isaiah…

“the blind eyes will be opened, the deaf ears unstopped and the silent tongues start to sing.”

But maybe this too is just poetry, just a story, just fiction.  Maybe the words of scripture are more art than fact, more imagination than information.

But as a seminary professor of mine, a retired Bishop, once said: “Even if we find the body of Jesus, and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he died and decomposed in the ground, that wouldn’t for a second negate the transforming power of the resurrection.

The resurrection, after all, is not about facts, it is about truth; the truth that God is with us, and knows us, and has plans for us, and will never leave us.  And believing this deep down inside in the deepest recesses of our hearts, gives shape to our character, and forms us into the kind of people who not only can, but are compelled to sing songs of thanksgiving in the darkest moments, knowing fully and completely with every fiber of our being that a new creation will most certainly break forth right before our very eyes.

Glory be! I’d have been a better man all my life if I’d know there were things like this.