Saturday, September 8, 2012

Joy: The Serious Business of Heaven

(A shorter version of this, sans pictures, originally appeared in the February 2010 installment of the now defunct "Bethel Bit" church newsletter.)

C.S. Lewis: 
I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this “valley of tears,” cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzling, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous. For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order—with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate, and beautiful order? How can you find any image of this in the “serious” activities either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? Either in our precarious and heartbroken affections or in the Way which is always, in some degree, a via crucis? No, Malcolm. It is only in our “hours off,” only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for “down here” is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of heaven.”
 -- Letters To Malcolm Chiefly On Prayer, 92-93

I used to view this quote as interesting and entertaining – I smiled when I read it – but I didn’t take it very seriously. It was a rare instance with Lewis as teacher, when I patronizingly patted him on the head and thanked him for his “interesting” thoughts.  Then I watched my children play one morning and I was rebuked. I returned to this quote with new humility, wanting to learn what he knew when he penned these words. I realized he was on to something much truer and deeper than I first gave him credit.

It was MLK Jr. Day, 2010, and the older kids were in school. The church office was closed and I took the morning off.

I sent Beth off to have some time alone and then walked with the little ones to Dunkin Donuts for a special breakfast.

On the way back from DD, we stopped in the field by the church and I watched as Lily and Jonathan climbed on the rocks and played hide-and-seek. It was so simple. Most of the time they knew before “seeking” where the other was hiding. Once or twice, Jonny even wanted to tell Lily where to hide before he went off to count. And yet they were perfectly satisfied. I wanted to offer advice on how to make it more exciting or less predictable, but it was altogether unnecessary for their enjoyment of the game. 

We later went to Rockford Manor with our backpack full of books and snacks and drinks. (Of course, I was the one who was bored and antsy in the hide-and-seek field and wanted to get on to the next thing!) I walked them in the stroller along the Rockwood paths to a little stone shelter that sits by the stream. As we unpacked our lunch, both Jonny and Lily were delighted to see the stream and wanted immediately to go down by the water. 

After we finished eating, we went to explore the stream. There were lots of rocks strewn about and they started throwing them into the water – little rocks plopping in and splashing little splashes, fistfuls of little rocks making shotgun spray splashes, bigger rocks making bigger splashes. It was all delightful to them and, if not for my need to get to work and Jonny’s naptime “need,” they could have stayed there happily throwing rocks, presumably, for hours. They were happy simply to be with me and to have me watch them. They wanted me to observe their joy and their play. “Daddy, watch this one!” “Daddy, look at this!” “Daddy, how about this?!” Later that night, as Beth was tucking Jonny into bed and asking him about his time by the stream, he said, “And I wanted to keep throwing rocks, but Daddy said we had to go home.”

All of this got me thinking about Lewis’s quote. I started thinking about it during hide-and-seek in the field and the truth of Lewis’ words were only further confirmed as our time together went on. Little children are usually the ones most blissfully ignorant of the effects of the Fall. They are the ones who are least aware of or affected by “this “valley of tears,” cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzling, and anxieties.” And so they are free and satisfied simply to play. So content. So happy.  Their simple play yields such simple (in the old sense of ‘pure’) and full delight. We are the ones who foolishly try to (over)stimulate them with variety and change, most often because we ourselves have gotten bored or grown weary. It is usually the busy and harried parent who ends the game because “we have things we need to do.” Getting bored of simple fun seems to be the plague of growing up. Young children seem to be obliviously free from this malady. They can be wonderfully satisfied and repeatedly amused by the same simple fun. 

Now I do believe that the New Heavens and New Earth will be filled with industry and creativity and mind-blowing newness and variety and excitement, but it just might be more “simple” than my over-stimulated recreational taste buds anticipate. Have you ever eaten – no savored – a carrot after fasting for a few days? The carrot didn’t change. Your palate was cleansed and awakened to the true tastiness that was always there. 

When all the spiritual and personal and physical and emotional and interpersonal and vocational and political and national and international wars have been fought and peace becomes our overseer (Isa. 60:17), when “this “valley of tears” cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzling, and anxieties” is turned to a garden of free and peaceful delight, how perfectly pure and intense will be the “simple” pleasures on our eternal Playground?! Or, to look at it the other way around, I think we can pretty well guarantee that Heaven will not be a Cosmic Chucky Cheese or Celestial Disneyland.

Matthew 18:3: 
Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Come, Lord Jesus, and give us childlike faith! Not childish faith that blindly ignores the ruin and pain of life in this Fallen world; not childish faith that shrinks back from the trouble and sadness, trying to fake an ignorant bliss; but childlike faith that is humbly satisfied with God himself as chief (or should I say, “simple”) Joy and End.

Come, Lord Jesus, and bring us home to our Eternal Playground! How long, Oh Lord, must we walk through this valley of tears? Help us wait in hope, believing that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Help us wait with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God, believing that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:18-21).

Oh, how happy we will be to simply be with Him, and to have him watch and smile on our “serious business” of playful joy. We need this joy en route to heaven. We need this joy in preparation for heaven. Lord, make us childlike pilgrims-in-progress that can’t wait to “enter into the joy of their master” (Mt. 25:21).

If "joy is the serious business of heaven," then “Come, Lord Jesus!" so we can get down to business!

I love the way G.K. Chesterton makes a similar point:
A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.
But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.
It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun: and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.
It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.
It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.
—”The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter 4 in Orthodoxy.

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