I’ve written previously about the passage below from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain:
“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
I love Lewis’s word picture of the “pleasant inn.” The world is not our home–we are pilgrims en route to a better country–but the Lord in His kindness still gives us countless pleasures in this life, experiences of refreshing that strengthen us for the journey ahead. These experiences don’t have to be expensive or exotic. For me, one of the pleasant inns that most refreshes my soul is the simple act of reading a good book outdoors on a sunny day. (You can add this to the list of reasons why my life’s story will never be made into an action movie.)
Last summer my favorite spot was beside a small lake near our home in Wheaton. This summer I have broadened my horizons. I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Riverwalk in Naperville, Illinois, about a half hour away. The Riverwalk is a public park that runs along a branch of the DuPage River. It boasts nearly two miles of walking trails; lots of artwork, flower beds, and fountains; covered bridges, a small lake, and a 160-foot-high carillon tower. It’s a gorgeous setting, and on weekday mornings it’s not even very crowded. I love it.
If I have most of the day, I organize the occasion like one of the “progressive dinners” my church used to sponsor when I was young, changing locations with each “course.” I normally begin near the “Dandelion Fountain,” reading there until too many kids show up or my rear end starts to feel numb.
From there I go across the river to a bench next to “Dick Tracy”–or more precisely, a nine-foot tall, 2,000-pound bronze sculpture of the old comic-strip detective. (Yeah, I think it’s pretty weird, too, but it’s a little less weird if you know that one of the long-time contributors to the strip is a Naperville native.) Detective Tracy stands a bit off the main walkway, and he and I often have the landing behind the town hall to ourselves. I find him my ideal reading companion–reassuringly present but not too talkative.
I typically end up a couple of hundred yards away, on a bench near an old stone quarry that has been converted into a lake for paddleboats and kayaks. If my time is limited, though, I start there, for it’s at the same time the most beautiful and the most secluded spot in the park. My bench is in a little alcove several steps below the main walkway. It is screened by bushes, and when I sit there I have a sense of solitude–or what passes for solitude in such an urban setting.
Friday morning before last I spent two glorious hours at the Paddleboat Quarry, lingering over a cinnamon and raisin bagel and the pages of Political Sermons of the Founding Era, vol. II. It was 76 degrees (my smart phone told me so), the sky was relentlessly blue, there was a whisper of a breeze, and there was almost no one in sight. It doesn’t get much better. “Every good and perfect thing comes down from the Father,” the books of James tells us, and in my heart I was grateful. But because I was pretty sure that this would be my last Riverwalk reading of the summer, I was also wistful, even a little sad.
Grateful but longing for more. If I understand Lewis, I think that’s how it is with “pleasant inns.” The experiences that he mentions are not merely respites from the stress and strains of life. They re-energize us, giving us strength to continue the journey by granting a glimpse of what awaits us when our journey’s done.
That, I think, is what I experienced as I sat and read on that Riverwalk park bench: a glimpse of heaven. I mean that literally, knowing full well that it may strike you as more than a little strange. After decades of talking with Christian young people about the afterlife, my Wheaton colleague Wayne Martindale has concluded that, “aside from hell, perhaps,” heaven “is the last place we . . . want to go.” This is surely so, in large part, because of how comfortable our lives are. In His kindness, God showers us with blessings meant to encourage us in our journeys: loving relationships, rewarding occupations, beautiful surroundings. In our fallenness, we tend to convert such foretastes of eternity into ends in themselves. This dulls our longing for God and causes us to rest our hearts in this world.
One of the ways to combat this tendency, I believe, is to cultivate greater mindfulness with regard to pleasant inns. This means being more intentional about seeing the pleasant inns that God places along our path, recognizing them for what they are, and allowing ourselves to feel deeply the tension of pleasure and longing that they create. Recently I’ve been trying to figure out what made my experience on the park bench a foretaste of heaven, and here are three features I’ve come up with:
First is the sensory component. The physical surroundings matter. After twenty-two years in Seattle, I never take sunshine for granted. After four winters in Chicago, I treasure warmth as a rare commodity. We will be embodied beings in heaven, and the combination of light and color and water and sound that summer morning played an important role. It was luxurious, but also fleeting–for now.
More important was the element of contemplation that occupied my thoughts. The reading I was engaged in was deeply satisfying, but it was not entertaining in the common sense of that word. It was hard. My goal was to be challenged and changed. In Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, Mark William Roche reminds us that contemplation is an important way of drawing close to God. Both Aristotle and Aquinas recognized that it as an activity that sets human beings apart from the rest of God’s creation. Animals eat, sleep, work, mate, and even play, but as best we can tell, they don’t spend a lot of time wrestling with the meaning of the universe. When we engage in contemplation, Roche observes, we engage in “the activity that most mirrors the divine.”
Finally, there was also an important aspect of communion in my park-bench experience. I was reading 18th-century sermons, after all–figuratively entering into a conversation with Christians from another time–and in that sense I was participating in that fellowship of believers across the ages that the Apostles’ Creed refers to as the “communion of the saints.”
I may be wrong, but I don’t think we evangelicals give much thought to the temporal dimension of God’s church. When it comes to our musings about heaven, we may acknowledge that the “sacred throng” that will gather around the throne will include representatives of “every kindred” and “every tribe,” as the hymn writer put it long ago. But I don’t think it much dawns on us that the saints will represent a vast range of times as well as places. The “communion of the saints” is a fellowship that spans centuries as well as cultures. We forget that truth, in part, because we are “stranded in the present,” to use Margaret Bendroth’s haunting phrase. What is worse, as Bendroth points out, we tend to think of people from the past as inferior to us, even as “not really real.” In heaven we’ll see otherwise.