Friday, November 22, 2013

The Beginning of the Real Story

It was an unseasonably warm November day.  I was ten years old, sitting in a crowded fifth grade classroom with scuffed linoleum floors and black boards lining the walls.  I watched the back of the science teacher as she wrote out in loopy script letters the homework assignment for the weekend.  It was a few minutes after 1.30, and the Friday afternoon countdown had begun.  Just two classes left until the bell rang, and we would board the buses for home. 

Home, at the time for my family, was a cramped two-bedroom unit on the eleventh floor of an apartment building in suburban New Jersey where we had just moved halfway across the country, the night before school started.  There were seven of us living in that space, my mom and dad, arthritic grandmother, three lively brothers, myself, and our dog. We were all homesick for what had been and what could be, out of our comfort zone like clarinets in a flute section, and our dog was crazy too.

Suddenly, that Friday afternoon, a voice on the loud speaker in the corner of the room, interrupted the lesson with the words, "President Kennedy has been shot.  I repeat, the President has been shot."  Fifty years later, I can still hear that voice crackling over the speaker. The teacher dropped her chalk on the floor.  No one knew what to say.  It was the first Presidential assassination since 1901.

Today, I watched that old television footage of the assassination.  I remember that film clip played in the following days, over and over again.  Nothing else seemed to matter.

And yet, on the very same day, fifty years ago, as seems to be the habit of the humble, a saint slipped away to the other side of life without any recognition at all.  Few were even aware he was gone, no dramatic announcements, no breaking news, but a grand Homecoming, nonetheless.  A curious little boy with a great imagination had grown up into C. S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia and other endearing tales.  Lewis passed away on that very same day as Kennedy, the news of his passing largely ignored.

I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was a graduate student, living in a small cell-like room in the YWCA in downtown Washington D. C.  I dove in headfirst and read all seven books in less than a week.

Some twenty years later, my husband and I read the Chronicles to our youngest daughter, starting when she was in kindergarten, every night a few chapters, drawn so deeply into them, we all couldn't wait for bedtime to come.   Jesus portrayed great spiritual truth in parables that people could understand.  Lewis did the same, clearly depicting the Gospel through the story of four children and a crowd of talking animals. "Aslan is just like Jesus," our young daughter whispered out loud one night.

And when Aslan was killed and the White Witch celebrated, I stopped reading in the middle of a sentence, realizing for the first time in my life that when Jesus was crucified, Satan thought he had won.

In 1973, a woman at a yard sale near London, purchased a large piece of furniture and donated it to Wheaton College near Chicago.  It is the very same old wardrobe in which Lewis played as a child and memorialized in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  The first time I saw that immense wooden wardrobe with its heavy dark doors, I was mesmerized.  "Go on," said the library clerk. "Open it."

The heavy door squeaked a bit on its old hinges.  Inside, hung old wool and fur coats, just like the ones the children wore in the Chronicles.  And then, I saw a typewritten index card, yellowed with age, attached to the inside of the door.

"Enter at your own risk."

I am sure that it was meant to elicit a chuckle.  But I reached far into the ancient wardrobe.  The pungent musty smell of old coats seemed to pull me in.  And I wondered, for a moment, if there was a back to the wardrobe after all.

That is what great literature can do to a child or adult -- to be embraced by truth and the desire for the story to never end.  And so, on this day, we can rejoice for this esteemed professor at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities who left behind children's stories that still resonate the truth profoundly fifty years later. 

It was just like this humble man to slip off, I am sure, chuckling on his way out, the whole world unaware, knowing that there is something more, as he wrote in the last book of the Chronicles:

"All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read; which goes on for ever; in which every chapter is better than the one before."

He knew the pain of death, having lost his wife Joy, the love of his life.  But having become a follower of Jesus Christ at the age of 32, he also knew that death is unnatural, not what God intended, and on the day of cruxifiction, the evil one did not win after all.
"We know that we were not made for it;  we know how it crept into our destiny as an intruder; and we know Who has defeated it.  Because Our Lord is risen we know that on one level it is an enemy already disarmed..." 

Once crossing a busy street in Oxford where he was an esteemed professor and close buddy of J. R. R. Tolkien, he called out to a friend:

 "Christians don't say good bye.  They just say see you later."

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