On Friday morning I drove into New York to spend the day with my father. It was a surprise for him. One that he seemed to cherish. For me, it was a mercy from God.
I crossed First Avenue with a downtrodden face. An eight-dollar sandwich in my hand, and the weight of glory in my back pocket.
There is a small city park just a block behind dad’s hospital, and I thought it a good spot to eat and think. The days are warm now in New York, and the park was full of people who probably come there as a matter of habit. I had never been there before and so made some effort to fit in. Kicking at the pigeons, I observed, was the mark of a regular. Gawking over them like a tourist was not. Besides, it was a well-posted ordinance to “not feed” them. I doubt they would have gone for my chicken pesto anyway. But, being New York pigeons, you never know.
So I made threatening gestures with my shoes as they encroached on my corner bench – one New Yorker to another – and pulled out the little paperback from my back pocket and began to read.
CS Lewis is like an old friend. Renee and I uncovered a stash of his old books in our trunks from my mother’s garage when we got home. This particular one I have had since college days. It’s a faded little book in which the pages are browning and musty. The essays inside are marred by ghostly streaks of yellow highlighter, and as I flip through it I remember making those marks – where I was when I read certain bits, or when I first understood them – a moment of understanding revealed by an overzealous highlight that bled through the page. Not only is Lewis like an old friend, this very book is. I grabbed it from the apartment on my way out to visit with dad, and was comforted by it now, on this unsettling day.
The Weight Of Glory. It is a collection of essays written some time during the war in Europe, during a period when things were quite serious in war-torn England. Lewis writes about pacifism and forgiveness and things of that nature. But the opening essay is the one which gives the book its name, and it is the one I sat and read while munching on a sandwich in a park just a short walk from where my father lay helpless and fading away.
I remember first reading this essay. I was in the basement library at Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago, and I did not quite understand what I was reading. The second time I was in a mission guesthouse on the edge of the Amazon jungle in Ecuador. Even there, I wondered what it meant. The weight. And how glory could be a burden, which is Lewis’ point. All of this came back to me now in the park. As if revisiting and building upon those moments in the school library, or alone in that humid, dim little guesthouse again. In the essay, Lewis writes of a dimension of human nature that we cannot adequately explain. A longing. A desire.
“I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you… which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and believe as if that had settled the matter.”
But here on earth we feel, as Lewis explains, a “sense of exile.”
“We remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.”
He is, of course, talking about heaven. But more than just the concept of heaven, he is talking about how we are made for it. Meant for it. That there we shall be with Christ and like Christ and, interestingly, imparted with some sort of “glory.” It is this glory that takes the rest of the essay to explore.
Lewis shows the glory to mean fame, not in the eyes of other men, but in the eyes of God. Fame with God? Approval perhaps. Appreciation.
“Well done thou good and faithful servant.”
“I suddenly remembered,” writes Lewis, “that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child – not in a conceited child, but in a good child – as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised.”
There is the world’s version of glory, polluted by ambition and self-admiration, and there is a purer kind. What he calls the most “creaturely of pleasures.” – “A child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator.”
“It is written that we shall stand before him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us that really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God… to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son – it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.”
The fury of the city raced onward behind the sturdy bench from which I had been traversing the universe. I found my sandwich gone, remembering not the act of eating it. I took a moment to look about the park and observe a hundred strangers in other worlds of other books and telephone calls. The gravity of earthly burdens such as the quickly passing day and a desire to return to dad’s bedside gripped me. I bundled up my trash and took one last, friendly swipe at the pigeons as I began my walk toward to the hospital. The book crammed back into my pocket. The words, again, indelible in my mind.
Donning gown and mask and gloves, I returned to my spot next to dad. His eyes were shut, as they mostly are these days. He is overcome by exhaustion. Every movement is a chore for him and so he moves very little. He had not done much talking today, but he would look up from his serenity every once in a while to see if I was still there. “I’m just hanging out with you today dad,” I said each time. And he smiled each time. He closed his eyes again as I rubbed his legs and talked about things that begged no response of him. I noticed his face and how it had changed over these months. He was thinner. His hair was completely gone now, and he glowed. With an otherworldly glory.
For the first time since his illness, I began to fathom that our prayers for his healthy return might not be answered. Of course, that was not all we prayed for. We prayed for God’s will. And there were probably things we had not the imagination to pray for, that were silently underway. I prayed again today with dad’s swollen hand pressed between my gloved ones, “Thy will be done.” And I was for the first time in this ordeal content to accept it.
I was reading again, quietly – suspended with dad for a moment in this timeless place, and sharing a secret.
“The sense that in the universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.”
“And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”
The words, “good report with God
” struck me as I looked upon dad’s humble countenance. I wondered if God did such things as brag about us, and if so, to whom.
“Have you considered my servant Job?”
Dad struck me as one like that. Not because of his suffering, but because of what God has made of him. And of how dad’s life has, in the words of John Piper, “made much of God.” And at once I had the sense of being beside someone famous. As I listened with ear and heart I could hear more than just the dutiful hum of the climate control, or the IV pumps standing sentry above his head. I could hear a faint cheer. A whisper in the room bled over from some other world where voices stood up in a roar, shaking the ground, applauding a hero. And hidden there behind that distant celebration was the face of a Father curled up in a knowing smile, proud of his son. Delighting in him. “Have you considered my servant?” he whispered.
I saw my father as never before. In his helplessness, I saw him strong. In his humiliation I saw him the most amazing person I have ever laid eyes on. In this, his most human of days, I saw him as almost more than human.
“There are no ordinary people…”
These words which round out Lewis’ essay came back to me as I considered a man about whom God would say “I know him.”
“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it.”
For dad today, the weight of it, for once, I understood. And the burden was a comfort to me.
“There are no ordinary people. You have never spoken with a mere mortal.”