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Finishing the Last Battle
The night before her final day of fifth grade, we arrived at the concluding chapter of The Last Battle. In the morning, our daughter Rae would receive reading and math awards from her principal, and walk out the door into the summer sunshine a proud graduate of Timber Trace Elementary School.
And as happenstance or providence would have it, the evening before, we’d cross another major mile-marker with her: reading our way through all seven books in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s stories.
While she brushed her hair and wriggled onto my lap beneath her loft bed, I looked at the book I held in my hands. The cover was now water-stained, the spine fraying, the pages yellowed after more than a decade of continual use. This was it: tonight, I’d finish these fantasies with one of my children on my lap for the third and final time.
For our family, reading with the kids constitutes a serious part of the parental task. Monica and I read Genesis and Exodus to our children, and Matthew and Mark and Luke and John, yes. But we also impart to them C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Rudyard Kipling and J.K. Rowling and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Madeline L’Engle.
I’ve done a thousand things wrong as a father, I’m sure of it; but I’m just as sure that reading literature to Brennan and Kuyper and Rae is one thing I’ve managed to do right.
Here’s why: night by night, one bedtime after another, Monica and I have observed those three minds stretch and expand, a bit at a time. Their imaginations have sparked and ignited. Their capacity for wonder has come alive. And especially as they’ve entered the worlds of Lewis and Tolkien, Rowling and L’Engle, those tales have illumined and allured them to the Gospel, the True Story to which all the best stories point.
Farewell to Shadowlands
The chapter that closes The Last Battle is entitled “Farewell to Shadowlands,” and I’ve never made it through a reading of it without getting choked up. Lucy and the rest of the Pevensie children travel “further up and further in” to Aslan’s country. As they do, they’re reunited with many of the Talking Beasts of Narnia, as well as the great lion Aslan — the Christ figure — himself. The Lion informs Lucy that they’d no longer be sent back and forth between their native England and mythical Narnia — hey’d died, and would now be at home with Aslan forever: “The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
Lewis then concludes The Last Battle:
…as [Aslan] spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. 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: who goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
As I wiped away the swelling tears, I thought of Tim Keller, who had died just a few days before. I didn’t know Tim personally — we’d only met in person on one or two occasions — but he’d been a theological and missiological hero to me and to so many who care about faithfully engaging the West with the Gospel. Himself a great student and lover of Lewis, Keller, at the precipice of his own death, told his family, “I’m thankful for the time that God has given me, but I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.” This was a man ready to enter the Great Story, which goes on forever.
Some time ago, Tim Keller preached at the funeral service of another pastor, theologian, and global church leader — John Stott. Near the conclusion of his sermon, he observed how Christians ought to draw strength, comfort, and life from contemplating the present benediction and bliss of those we know and love who’ve died and now share God’s presence.
My mind wandered to others I know and love who’ve concluded what Lewis called the “dream” life — this present one. As I read, I wondered at what they who have now finished the “title and cover page” of our true destiny are presently experiencing as they share the presence of the King…
Ultimately, here’s what I hope: that those yellowed pages, and all those bedtime reading sessions, open to my kids — and to me — a window into the things so great and beautiful that they can’t really be written, into “inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1.8). That, night by night, we’d become the sort of people ready to one day live the Great Story, our real story, which goes on forever.