Reflection: Heaven and Friendship

Grafitti by Bansky A thought came to me the other day. Large portions of our lives are spent enmeshed with the transient. So much of this life is fading away, receding from view, as we approach the horizon, moving through time’s inescapable passage. We leave things behind. And many of us won’t have the chance to return to precious memories. Friendship too can fall into that abyss of antiquity. Towards the end of my fourth year in Cape Town I noted that all the special times spent with friends were not only unrepeatable but also numbered, one less jointly juncture we would own: one less hike, possibly our last coffee, or a penultimate theological discussion. We live in the shadow of the end and we are running out of moments together.

A very good friend of mine, wise beyond her years, once told me: ‘saying goodbye creates one of the most unnatural feelings.’ The people we spend our lives with will not always be around, or even on the other end of a phone line. In Stevenson’s classic Jekyll and Hyde, Utterson says to his dear companion Lanyon, who wanted nothing more to do with Dr Jekyll: “We are three very old friends, Lanyon; we shall not live to make others.” Our lives as fraught with loss and full of the unrepeatable; we forever long for something or someone that has been.

Writing these reflections down brought another thought to mind. Towards the end of last year I went away with the leaders and boys from my youth group. For part of an evening we shared some encouragement from the year past along with what would strengthen us in the year(s) to come. I told them it was glory. The sure hope that I would see my brothers again in eternity, beyond the horizon and free from time’s relentless march. Glory is the absence of goodbyes. Each and every precious moment will not fall beneath the shadow cast by uncertainty and temporality. Our fondest memories actually provide a pattern for the future. For there will be more like them shared with the friends we have not lost.

Listen to David Brainerd’s diary entry from the 19th of August, 1742: “I prayed with [Mr Bellamy] and two or three other Christian friends, and we gave ourselves to God with all our hearts, to be His for ever. Eternity looked very near to me while I was praying. If I should never see these Christians again in this world, it seemed but a few moments before I should meet them in another world.” Brainerd understood that the world to come was resplendent with relationships, unending friendship in the undying light cast by our eternal God, the one who gives us into communion with himself and each other.

I often catch myself joking about glory, talking casually about it being an opportunity to meet and spend time with great Christian figures from the past. It very well might be. But upon reflection I cannot imagine leaving those who were dearest to me on earth for those I barely know in heaven. Now I realise this is beginning to sound quite speculative, so I will finish off. Is it not a marvel that our hope enmeshes the transient with the eternal? Friendships will continue into heaven. And while it is sometimes hard to imagine, glorified friendships will be more magnificent in the unadulterated presence of our God.

Author of Gilead, RobinsonTo close, here is a fitting quote from John Ames, in Gilead: “We know nothing about heaven, or very little, and I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us…but I believe Boughton is right to enjoy the imagination of heaven as the best pleasure of this world” (p189). What pleasures surpass real friendship?

Doodle: An Interpretation of C.S. Lewis’ Lizard

the-great-divorceIn his small masterwork, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis tells the peculiar story of a Ghost being confronted by an Angel. Sitting upon the Ghost’s shoulder is a small lizard, incessantly whispering in his ear. The Ghost is heading back to whence he came because the lizard, who promised to remain silent, repeatedly disturbed the silence of the liminal plain, separating the dark lands and the effervescent mountains, heaven. This is where enlivening conversations take place and the prospect of becoming complete people is presented to comparatively frail and insubstantial ‘Ghosts’ from far off. I really hope you read the entire book. If not then the chapter concerned can be found here.

The Angel offers to free the Ghost from the lizard, who has a powerful hold over him. Despite being embarrassed by it and having to limp away from the splendidly hopeful mountains, back to the dislocated and desolate place he came from, it is unthinkable that the Angel must kill the lizard in order for him to be free. It is an odd event in the narrative. But what is it about?

When the Angel begins to uncouple the lizard and the Ghost it is agonising for the latter. Amidst the dialogical fireworks, the lizard furiously pleas for its life and swears it will be obedient in the future. The Ghost doubts he can endure the hurt, of losing his little companion, or going through with the painful parting that he knows will mean restoration. The Angel needs permission from the Ghost before removing the lizard and giving the Ghost his freedom. Though his suffering feels like dying the Ghost realises, “It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”

red-lizardThen, “the Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.” Before the eyes of the narrator the Ghost begins to grow “solider”, “brighter” and “immense”. But something happens to the lizard too. Far from dying, it grows bigger and is transformed, becoming a splendidly silver and white stallion. He who was previously a mere Ghost, leaps onto the horse’s back and together they ride like a shooting star towards the mountains, “into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.”

What does it mean? Why did Lewis devote a whole chapter to tell this story? Is he explaining the desperate difficulty of conversion, dying to our self? Is it a picture of mortification, the agony of stripping away the old nature? Perhaps it is an example of the tension between human responsibility and God’s gracious salvation. Could it be the prolepsis of a prevalent theme in Till We Have Faces, as Rowan Williams puts it, “The impossibility of forcing any person to accept love and the monumental and excruciating difficulty of receiving love when you are wedded to a certain picture of yourself”? While these are fascinating interpretations I am going to suggest something else: a thought I had reading David VanDrunen, Living In God’s Two Kingdoms (especially p43-44).

The cultural mandate, given to Adam and Eve, was to rule and exercise authority over creation. They were to protect the Garden’s holiness, as faithful and obedient custodians. Their covenant with God meant that any challenge or attempt to usurp the Creator’s rule and his imprinted authority on them was to be destroyed. But they, as well as us today, are not the creaturely sovereigns he intended us to be. For the serpent, both a tempter and an intruder, was allowed to defile God’s pure Eden through Adam’s failure in exercising his kingly dominion. The regrettable result of this is highlighted by the author of Hebrews, who says we do not see everything subject to man, as it was meant to be (2:8). So presently the natural world is outside our sphere of control; we are at odds with its formidable force. This is not what the Creator intended. We were created to rule. But Adam’s careless inversion of the created order, placing himself under the dominion of the serpent, would have lasting and disastrous effects for his heirs.

MountainSunrise_0The picture that Lewis paints in this chapter is of wondrous restoration, reclamation of the Creator’s order. What was undone and reversed in Eden is put right. The Ghost no longer cowers beneath the lizard’s persuasive weight. He is not entrapped by its subversive whisperings. He now towers over the glorious stallion as a more magnificent ruler. Lewis’ picture forces our gaze to that everlasting morning. Despite standing somewhere in between, we are not stranded but hopeful, sure that God is making all things new; he will re-invert what Adam wrecked. This is one of the things Lewis does so vividly in The Great Divorce, and throughout his other works; he enlarges our view of glory and God’s restoration.