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February 26, 2017

The brief story I am about to tell happens near the end of the C.S. Lewis children's bookThe Silver Chair. Old King Caspian is dead. His body lies on the golden gravel of a creek bed, “the water flowing over him like liquid glass.  His long white beard sways in it like water weed.” Nearby is an enormous lion named Aslan, who rules that world, but often is away. With the lion are three children, friends of Caspian and his. All are weeping including Aslan. Aslan tells a boy named Eustace to break an enormous thorn from a nearby bush, then orders Eustace to drive the thorn into Aslan’s own paw. Eustace knows he cannot disobey. “Eustace set his teeth and drove the thorn in the lion's pad.” Then this happened:

There came out a great drop of blood, redder than all redness that you have ever seen or imagined. . . .  .It splashed . . .  over the dead body of the King.

Caspian began to change.

His white beard turned to grey, and from grey to yellow, and got shorter and vanished altogether; and his sunken cheeks grew round and fresh, and the wrinkles were smoothed, and his eyes opened, and his eyes and his lips both laughed.

Caspian had been dead and now he was alive. A drop of Aslan's blood had brought him back. His form was changed. He looked neither young, nor old, nor in between.  The children thought he seemed both young and old at once.

That is a taste C.S. Lewis’s made-for-children retelling of the gospel.

In Gilead, a made-for-grownups story, Marilynne Robinson gives us two old pastors, good men, whose thoughts sometimes turn to heaven. Calvin had taught them to tread softly on the subject, because when we are ready to see that truth then God will show it to us. One of the pastors, Ames, is keeping a journal for his young son to read when he grows up. Ames writes: “This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it.”

But with due respect to Calvin Ames does have some ideas about what heaven must be like. He strongly feels it must be true we’ll remember earth in heaven, including memories of sorrow. “I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking.” The whole big history of life on earth will be sung in heaven like Homer told the Iliad and Odyssey. There is so much to tell Ames is filled with wonder:

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

Ames’s friend Boughton says he has more ideas about heaven every day:

Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two. I’d multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy. But two is much more than sufficient for my purposes.”

So he rocks in his porch chair multiplying “the feel of the wind by two, the smell of the grass by two.”

C.S. Lewis had a similar notion. In his children’s stories, the next world very much resembles this one but with greener greens and redder reds. Love, music and adventure are intensified and purified: Mozart x 2; the Buffalo River x 10. What we will not find there, he says, is sorrow. “God shall wipe away the tears,” as we are assured in the book of Revelation, “for the former things are passed away.” Caspian finds “it is no longer possible to feel afraid, even if one wants to.”

Also gone is the pain of moral conflict. After Caspian returns to life, he wants to ask Aslan for another gift but hesitates to name it. He is not sure the thing he wants is the kind of thing a man should want in heaven. He makes the request and in the next breath asks if his wanting this was wrong. I read this story fifty years ago and still remember Aslan’s reply: “You cannot want wrong things anymore now that you have died, my son.” So heaven is where desire itself points us only to the good—true north. No more misguided choices in the search for happiness.

Those C.S. Lewis children's books have fed my faith and imagination through all these years. By reading those books to me my mother and father spread out for me a rich banquet of hopes upon which my faith continues to feast.

Returning to earth and the life we presently inhabit, Lewis’ name for was “the shadowlands.”  Here in the shadowlands, curly heads of youthful hair grow bald; fresh smooth faces grow yellow beards, which turn to gray, then white; full rosy faces sink and fade to white; in the shadowlands, we are often afraid; anxiety simmers until it boils. Laughter brightens life, but is challenged by anger, ridiculed by cynicism, and may not penetrate depression; in the shadowlands, the thing we want is sometimes wrong.

In the great epic of this shadowed life on earth, this morning’s gospel tells us of an exhilarating moment:

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became as white as light.

For a moment, Peter, James, and John see life x 2. This is just a glimpse, and when they come down the mountain they plunge head first into a scene of anxiety and moral conflict. So it is with mountaintop experiences in shadowlands.

Churches are institutions of the shadowlands, but with open windows through which streams of light pour in. Even the simplest of churches will expose the people of the shadows to the light—the ancient story of the Lion of Judah who cast out anxiety and fear; whose touch brought health and hope; whose love drew love from crowds and helped them want what's right; whose blood will bring the dead to life. I am not now speaking metaphorically. The decay and death we expect in life are not metaphorical; nor is our hopeful expectation of their cure in life eternal.

That final change is the end towards which we move through life. St. Paul calls it the prize, while inviting us to embrace the pain of getting there. “I want to know Christ,” he writes, “and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Then he says this: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

“Forgetting what lies behind.”

Have you done wrong? Without a doubt.  Is it serious? Perhaps it is.  Have you wanted what was wrong? Of course you have, and do, and will.  We all have, and do, and will. Such is our nature in the shadowlands. Sometimes we simply fail to see the right, even when it is just before our eyes, and there is damage done.

How can we forget that? Our sins cling to us like a shadow.  The history of slavery and Jim Crow is an example. So is the damage of a drug addiction, an embezzlement, or an illicit love affair. When candidates run for office or are appointed to positions that require congressional consent, we scrutinize their past intensely—and a slip or two can do them in.

In shadowlands, this makes good sense as public policy. Either we hold people accountable for past actions that seem pertinent to the nature and importance of their work, or we diminish the standards of the law, the force of right and wrong, without which society would fall to pieces. We cannot escape from making judgments on ourselves and one another.

“Forget what lies behind.”  It seems impossible.  So here is another camel poised at the threshold of the eye of a needle, seeking passage. About such camels, Jesus remarked that what is impossible for us is possible for God. Christ calls us forward. The Holy Spirit is within us answering the call. Lesser spirits haunt us: of animosity, regret, anger, guilt, feelings of betrayal—all insisting we look back. The Holy Spirit answers by infusing memory with hope; and with love for people we have damaged; and trust in Christ and the power of his resurrection. This Holy Spirit gives us strength to embrace Christ’s suffering, becoming like him in his death.

Now comes the metaphor: this change is our transfiguration. The moral wear and tear of life—old man’s beard, sunken cheeks, and pallid skin, are touched by the blood of Christ, and we are morally restored to youth and vigor. That does not mean that we escape our past and consequences of our actions. It means we have the hope in faith and strength in love to bear them honorably and bravely—accountable but unashamed.

It is an old saying and it is true: the church is not a museum for saints; rather, it is a school and hospital for sinners. That is why our forebears built this beautiful Cathedral. Here camels poke their snouts through needle’s eyes and miraculously pass through.

Don’t let what lies behind deter us. Even now the Spirit narrows that divide between what is right and what we want that so often gives us trouble—until that bright new day when a drop of blood from Aslan’s paw will touch our hearts to make them pure, smoothing out our wrinkles physical and moral, turning our old white hair to red, brown, black, or blond times two, or ten.