Nothing Behind the Curtain – Reflections on a Wedding

Cross-posted at Notes from a Small Place, where I’ve had several posts related to marriage lately, hence the disclaimer below.

Disclaimer: I kinda-sorta want to apologize to people who find so many marriage posts annoying or are bothered by sentimentality. But I say “kinda-sorta” because really I want you to abandon your cynicism so you can recklessly throw yourself into the joy. So this is a half-disclaimer that is part apology and part a call to repentance for your skepticism. Sometimes there is no trick. The wizard isn’t hiding behind the curtain. He’s right in front of you. Things really can be that good.

At the end of The Last Battle as the Pevensie children join Aslan in the New Narnia the lion-hero looks at them and says, “You do not look so happy as I mean you to be.” Much of the time, that is our experience in the world: We do not look so happy as our gracious father means us to be.

And yet there are days when New Creation – wholeness, grace, and joy – come crashing into the old. When you’re standing next to one of your best friends, a guy you’ve been to war with many times over and will continue to stand by forever, and watch as the chapel doors open and his bride walks down the aisle toward him… you feel New Creation breaking in. You see the cracks forming in the foundations of a broken world and you know someday the house will come crashing down.

Describing Christian ideas about redemption can be a fiendishly difficult thing, often the best we can do is rely on metaphor and hope the listeners will let their imagination run rampant with it. But it’s tricky. As Chesterton once noted, the romantic tries to get his head into the heavens while the rationalist tries to get the heavens into his head (and it is, as Chesterton noted, the rationalist whose head splits). Trying to explain Christian redemption is trying to convert people from rationalism to romanticism. And it ain’t easy. But sometimes lived experiences present themselves to you as the perfect tangible picture of redemption. So it is with marriage.

A few years ago I was an usher in my friend Eric’s wedding. At the end of that weekend I said it was one of the best weekends of my life. As an usher, I seated most of the guests there to celebrate with Eric and Elizabeth. I got to participate in the festivities of the entire weekend – the rehearsal, the rehearsal dinner, the bachelor party (where we smoked so many cigars that the latecomers could find the apartment simply by looking for the one with smoking billowing out from under the door)… all of it. And best of all, I got to be the one to open the door for Elizabeth and her dad to walk down the aisle. It was all beautiful, all a gift and at the time I could think of few things better. Actually, I still struggle to think of too many things better than that.

But a few weekends ago I got to be a groomsmen in Matt and Ashley’s wedding. When I ushered for Eric, I missed out on being with them in the dressing room for the hour before the wedding. But this time I was in there for every moment as Matt – who never gets rattled – seemed more worked up than I’ve ever seen him, concerned about the many, many things that could conceivably go wrong over the next several hours. I got to be the one to say, “It’s OK to be nervous but it’ll be fine. You guys are ready and we’re all here with you. You don’t have to worry.” (The fact that Eric was also there, freaking out about giving his first wedding homily in front of seven pastors only added to the moment.) I got to be in there with six of the best men I know as we enjoyed our final smoke break and bottle of beer before the ceremony (don’t worry, they make Altoids for just such occasions), sang the doxology, laid hands on Matt, and prayed for his marriage. I got to stand next to Matt and watch as Ashley walked down the aisle. It was the first time I’ve seen tears in his eyes. I got to see Ashley’s face as Matt made his vows to her and I got to stand close enough to hear her barely-audible voice make the same vows to him. And I got to be one of the first people to greet them in the foyer and see the looks of relief on both their faces. (Both of them asked us to poke them multiple times at the reception to make sure they weren’t dreaming.) Like I said, sometimes there’s nothing behind the curtain. The wizard is there in plain sight, daring you to believe.

I think this is what C.S. Lewis was talking about when, again in The Last Battle, Aslan tells the children that Heaven is simply moving further up and further in, pressing deeper and deeper into the unspeakable wealth of God’s pleasure. If you grew up evangelical and heard the typical 1990s evangelical take on Heaven, you’ve understandably had a hard time getting real psyched up for it. Author Jerram Barrs loves to tell the story of a child who once told him, “I don’t want to go to Heaven, I want to go to Narnia!” Jerram said, “If heaven is what so many people say it is, me too.” It’s hard to get real excited about an ethereal existence of cloud-floating and harp-playing. Thankfully, that image of Heaven is completely wrong.

Lewis nails it when he tells us how to respond to people that read Revelation that way: “The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them… People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.” The language is meant to communicate something deeper – the idea that the riches of God’s grace, the pleasures of living in right relationship to him in his created world, are inexhaustible. And after being in a few weddings, I’m starting to understand that idea in a very small way.

Three years ago, I could imagine nothing better than being an usher in my best friend’s wedding. Then this past May, I went further up and further in to the mystery of marriage, picking up on many of the small precious moments that are so easy to miss.

But this time I know that I haven’t exhausted the riches of marriage – someday I will go still further up and further in when I’m the groom watching my bride walk down the aisle. And still the riches won’t be exhausted because, Lord willing, someday I’ll be the father walking my daughter down the aisle. Then maybe someday I’ll be the grandfather watching one of my grandkids get married. With each new role I am confident I’ll discover new riches, new joys that I’d never previously imagined. And with each new role, I learn again why the Scriptures lean so heavily on the image of marriage as an explanation of the Gospel and how God relates to his people.

When you understand joy and pleasure in this way, you can throw yourself with abandon into the moment of pleasure as it hits you. Drink it all in, observe as much as you can – but know that there’s always more to see. There’s more beauty hiding and the wonderful, glorious truth is you’ll never find it all. Keep exploring, further up and further in.

In his song Hymn #101 Joe Pug says he’s “come to be untroubled in [his] seeking.” So, Christian, be untroubled in your seeking, take in as much of the world’s beauty as you can bear. Say with Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Oh world, I cannot get thee close enough.” But know that there’s always more. And the only way you’ll find it is through humble gratitude for God’s grace, which will enable you to keep climbing… further up and further in.

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  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Christopher Benson

    Jake: Aslan’s words are so true. I don’t look so happy as God meant me to be. Chesterton’s words are also incisive. What’s the reference? Do you regard yourself as more of a romantic or rationalist?

    Of this friend, you said “you’ve been to war with many times.” Do you care to elaborate? The word choice (“war”) threw me off.

    Are you a social smoker or chain smoker? Ha, ha.

    Be more specific about “the typical 1990s evangelical take on Heaven.” Who proffered the view that you describe? I’m indebted to N. T. Wright’s treatment of heaven in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

    Thanks for the lovely meditation on the inexhaustible pleasures of the new creation.

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Jake Meador

    Christopher – It’s a line from Orthodoxy, but I don’t recall the exact page. Actually… *goes off to check Google Books* It’s from the first chapter. Except Chesterton doesn’t use romantic and rationalist, he uses poet and logician. For some reason I remembered it as romantic and rationalist. Chesterton’s taxonomy is better, unsurprisingly. In any event, in the sense Chesterton means it, I’m a total romantic, but my goal is to get to a place where I can enjoy the strengths of each. I don’t know many writers that manage to be coolly logical and have fits of romanticism, though Lewis seems to pull it off quite well. Otherwise though I’m not sure who else does it.

    Def. a social smoker.

    The view I describe mostly comes from the Left Behind/Dispensational crowd that plagued American evangelicalism for the better part of the 20th century. (And, having grown up dispensational, I don’t think “plagued” is too strong a word.) And yes, Wright’s book is must-reading. Al Wolters’ Creation Regained is also a very important book on this topic.

    Oh, and the friend: I thought about that, but decided to keep the language as is. Basically, anytime one of us is struggling w/ something on a real deep-seated, personal level, we know we can go to the other for advice and support. It’s friendships like that one that enable me to function in the midst of significant challenges. That’s what was meant in the statement, but I do realize it could be ambiguous.

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