This is the story of felt board Jesus. The Sunday School Jesus whose smile is ever so slant and subdued and whose features are so “average white male” that I could have been Jesus too— every time I bubbled in my information for a standardized test. I want to tell you the story of how I forgot about felt board Jesus and met God. The Lion.
It begins with grandma and grandpa. Each visit I begged one of them to read to me. Out on the deck, comfortably tucked into the side of the wicker chair, grandma licked her thumb every time she turned the pages of Where the Wild Things Are or The Giving Tree. When I finally learned to read they bought me books. Children’s classics. Tuck Everlasting, Tom Sawyer, Harry Potter, The Wind in the Willows, Captain Underpants. But of all those books, Harry Potter being the one that happily ruined me the most, none of them seemed so enchanting as one particular collection.
My brother and I were given the complete set of The Chronicles of Narnia as a gift from my grandparents. They came in a slick white box so shiny bright it danced light beams along the walls that our dog, had he been a member of the family back then, would of chomped and pawed at or puzzled over if the cast light was out of reach and shimmying on the ceiling above.
They really were something to gawk at. Their newness was foreign to me as usually we received books as our grandparents finished them. We placed them high on a shelf like an idol. The books became dusty. Shelved among others I couldn’t reach. If I had known they had pictures that might have changed everything. For eight years they sat, got shuffled occasionally during cleaning, lost their box, two of them vanished, and eventually ended up packaged in the garage when both my brother and I “moved out” to go to college.
As a part of the longer story I will not tell here, my grandfather died, and as he was man who marked me with life the way a river cuts deep cliffs into the hardest stone, I got in the most interesting habit of reading every book he ever read or ever left me, searching for his handwritten notes among yellow pages the way one can find a stream by listening for its voice babbling on the wind.
At his home I pulled books off his shelf, asking Grandma if I could borrow them. A peculiar thing occurred, there were books that felt like magic in my hands. Books that smelled so old and tattered that I felt the beautiful terror of earthquakes and disastrous landslides that diverted the course of my Grandpa’s life, slowing it to a trickle at times, but never stopping it from rolling on. These books, I’m a little ashamed to say, I stole in a way. I hid them in my backpack when my grandma wasn’t paying attention. I wanted their secrets. I wanted my Grandpa all to my self.
This is what brought me to Narnia. It was the hope of some ancient inscription on the inside of the cover addressed to my younger self. I desired the note of encouragement, the reason to read, how I would be altered forever, Love Grandpa.
There was none. Just the words to Lucy on those opening pages of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. But I found those words almost as if they had been written to me. The magic was real. “‘You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,'” said the Lion.”
So it began, and I admit it was not the wholly enchanting experience I would have liked it to be. I read them quickly. One after the other, with the exception of The Magicians Nephew and The Silver Chair, which as I mentioned earlier had vanished (I’m delighted to report they have reappeared. And so the magic continues). It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the books that first time, I just don’t think I was quite old enough to believe in fairy tales.
Four years later I’m spending the night at a friend’s house in Denver. It’s the end of the summer and my flight home is the next morning. I can’t sleep. I’m in his office, running my fingers along the rows of books, pretending they make the same sound as a piano. The four walls are one big bookshelf with an untidy desk crammed into a corner. I pull down and test the charm of different books, the density of their wisdom, the texture of their knowledge.
But I’m a puppy inside. The big shiny book with the cat on the spine catches my eye. I unshelve it. It’s not a cat. It’s a lion. All seven stories bound in one full color edition. The pages have that slick laminate feeling like they resist spills and squeak when you rub them. I’ll sleep on the plane.
I stay up all night turning every polished page I could, nearly completing the first two stories. I don’t remember the trip to the airport. Which was all the better. Because the next thing I knew I was awake up with a horrible ache in my neck, bent over the fold down tray in my airplane seat believing I just woke up from the greatest dream. I had been to Narnia.
Only a few months later I’m standing in a kitchen with a friend. Our conversation is running in many directions: science, tattoos, evolution, love, will and choice, God. Her words still haunt me. It’s not a frightening kind of haunting, but it’s not one that makes you comfortable either. It’s an inescapable kind of haunting. They don’t sound like much, but to my ears they are the kind of spark that lays waste to a landscape. All consuming fire.
“If I believed in God,” she said, “He would be lion.” I don’t remember my response, but I remember the internal invitation spoken from the eastern edge of the world, from Aslan’s country: Couldn’t I be?
This is how Aslan and felt board Jesus met. You can’t hold back a lion. In that kitchen my friend unleashed Aslan on my flimsy paper Jesus. She did this regularly. She brought mystery and wildness and ferocity and elegance to my God without even knowing it. I thank God for that. For her. Felt board Jesus never stood a chance. Not against a creature with claws. I must resist the impulse to stretch the metaphor. To talk about a cat shredding paper to bits in a flurry.
Over the next few months I read and read again the series. I now have a devotional, A year with Aslan, that brings me daily to the world of Narnia. Although this is not quite how I see it. I will share with you the preface to A Year With Aslan to better explain what I mean:
“Some books are fun to read. Rarer are those volumes that still delight us upon reading. And then there are those rarefied species of books, those that we read, read again, and again, and keep reading. In fact, a part of us never really leaves the story.”
I don’t visit Narnia; I have yet to leave the wardrobe. My prayers are often to the lion. When I’m awake and dreaming I’m often wandering through new places unexplored by other Narnian’s and humans, Aslan at my side. We talk a lot these days. He is difficult to spot sometimes when you’re in the desert. He runs like a mirage, golden and blending in with the hot earth. But he comes at night, to whisper with me and tell me stories about the forest and the rocks and what the trees had for breakfast and how Puddleglum isn’t so glummy any more.
Some times I imagine he is walking with me in the forest, in the city, or on campus as I stroll to class. I pretend I catch a flash of his wide flanks or the sweep of his tail. I like to imagine him here in our world. And then I smile with a little secret on my face. Couldn’t I be?
Now that you the reader have learned the tale of how felt board Jesus was torn to little white pieces by a great ferocious beast named Aslan, I would like to share with you a story from Narnia. It is not recorded in the original Chronicles. It took place long after Caspian X was king and the last battle raged. It is the story of one boy and a lion that loves him. They spend every day together. They still do.
We were curled beneath the curving blanket of the open night. My tired head held up by his warm belly and his fierce paws on both sides gathering me up against him. We laid on the warm dust at the edge of the cliffs, smelling the waterfall mist escaping on the heaving breathes of upwind from down below.
Our heads were drawn heavenward for what felt like forever as the lion’s stomach rose and fell innumerably with the rhythm of the sun and moon. Our voices filled the valley with the crescendo of another world entire. The pipey questions of a human speaking in the tongue of a forgotten garden like an ancient wind babbling through the reeds. The long replies from a lion, his words mysteriously human— but not.
And then it was silent for a long time. And the breeze rose up and howled at the naked moon.
“And what about that one Aslan?” I finally asked, pointing at a star in the east, “the one flickering with the last fumes of life.”
The lion lowered his head gravely and spoke in a voice more hushed than that which was still faintly resonating in the valley below us. “That, my child, was made special for this night and this night alone, that you might ask and that I might answer you about the stars.”
“Really?” I said, with a voice excited, looking up into the lions face and trying with all courage to meet him in his stare.
His eyes which were usually infinitely deep became full and the slants of light that shadowed his face disappeared as he bent out of the darkness with a tricky smile. The epicenter of his laughter came from some place deep in his stomach and as it grew its vibrations rattled along my body and I felt their origins escaping from his wide jaws and along with his mirth was a guttural half roar.
“No, my Son.” He said, with the gentle notes of a lambs bleat. “As special as you are, these stars were nailed to the sky for all to see.”
“But why?” I asked, feeling a little silly about my selfishness.
The lion raised his head towards the sky and off of the bending half spheres of his wet eyes the world above was reflecting brightly, glittering with the allure of mirage.
“Because child,” he said, “since before the beginning, it was known that man would need the light to talk about if all around him was only darkness.”
A note to the reader:
There was a conversation that continued between Aslan and I after he muttered these words and it went on for some time. But I have thought it the wiser to remove the majority of that part of the story for the sake that it continues to unravel my brain. Aslan was both difficult to understand and difficult to hear as each word was purred seriously in the hush of a whisper.
You see, I had continued to question the lion. Mainly on the presence of storm clouds and pollution and the grey wash that always seems to hang over lazy days which blot out our views of the majestic lights that Aslan was teaching me so much about.
He tried for some time to explain. Telling me of city’s crammed with towers higher than trees, blocking the grand views of mountaintops and the stars that hugged them. He spoke of man’s cold candles that cast an orange glow into the air that paled the presence of what lingered above. He whispered about the clouds. How they float far away from human hands and gather darkly and heavily and boom and rattle with hot light. They indeed look a fright. But they are nothing, he said. Just mist. And if you hold the hand of the one who knows the way through to the other side you will walk out a bit wet but completely unharmed.
None of this I understood. So, I imagine if you are like me then you don’t either.
Then he did something curious. With his big nose nearly touching mine, His smoking nostrils steaming against my cold cheeks beading them with perspiration, he whispered, “do you understand?”
I shook my head no and he grinned again that tricky smile, a little like a hyena.
A small grey cloud formed above my head, shuttered with lightning and burst with clods of heavy raindrops, drenching me from head to toe. Alsan was in an uproar of laughter and I was beginning to shiver in my knees and chatter in my teeth.
And then, before I could catch a cold, he overcame me with his shaggy mane. Nuzzling and wrapping himself about me like a housecat smoothing its fur down along your pant leg. With his tongue he licked me dry and my whole body loosed and tingled with warmth.
“What was that for?” I asked from my dreamy daze.
“For the little storm I soaked you with,” he said.
“Oh, yah. I forgot.”
I welcome your comments!