A Journey’s End

I’ve now finished reading The Lord of the Rings. As I completed part 3, The Return of the King, a passage from the last chapter, the very end where Frodo leaves Middle-Earth, there is this wonderful description of what Frodo sees as he sails across the sea to the West:

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

As it happens, these words are also used in the film adaptation. There they appear on the lips of Gandalf and are said to Pippin in the moments before they meet potential doom in Minas Tirith. It’s one of my favourite moments in the film. The conversation goes like this:

Pippin: “I didn’t think it would end this way.”

Gandalf: “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”

Pippin: “What? Gandalf? See what?”

Gandalf: “White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

Pippin: “Well, that isn’t so bad.”

Gandalf: “No. No, it isn’t.”

The Return of the King (2003)

Here Gandalf describes what would be the Middle-Earth version of heaven, or so it seems.

Finishing the book trilogy is bittersweet. You really do feel like you have been on a journey with these characters with whom you have come to identify and to love and admire. Beyond that, it’s bittersweet because it’s not a fake, Disney-like, happily-ever-after ending. While couched in the narrative of fantasy, of an imaginative world of Tolkien’s making, there is an honesty and hope about the human condition. There is the acknowledgement of sorrow and death and how the truest and fullest joy is all the greater for them.

I’m sorry that the journey is over, but I am very glad to have taken it.

“Pain and delight flow together”

I’m closing in on the end of The Return of the King, and I have really enjoyed reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy again. When I last spent some time reading it, something in the text stood out. In the aftermath of the victory over Sauron and the forces of Mordor, there is a scene where a minstrel breaks out in song. Here is the description of the effect his singing had.

In the midst of the their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

After I read this, I read it again, so beautifully did Tolkien capture our experience that “pain and delight flow together.” In a very real sense, our moments of joy are all the more joyful because of the pain we’ve known. So closely connected are experiences of delight and suffering that we can scarcely understand or experience one without having experienced the other.

Putting it the other way round, C.S. Lewis speaks of the relationship between joy and suffering in this way:

The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

In this instance, he’s speaking of dealing with the loss of his wife Joy to cancer. Grief is often the result of joy and love we’ve known.

This is why Tolkien says that “tears are the very wine of blessedness.” In The Return of the King, evil has been defeated, but there have been deep and painful losses along the way. Even those who have survived the War of the Ring have been profoundly marked by their experience of it. Theirs is a joy tinged with sadness.

It goes without saying that this is true of us with our own experiences of grief and loss.

Of course, the end of The Lord of the Rings is not the end of the story of Middle-Earth. More grievous ills may well plague those who remain. I can’t say, because this is all the Tolkien I’ve read, save The Hobbit. But for us, the story does have an end. The book of Revelation describes a key part of it this way:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away.

Revelation 21:4

According to Scripture, therefore, a time is coming when God’s kingdom will arrive in its fullness, when the pain and loss we know in this life will indeed be overcome. Whether our experience of the new heaven and new earth will lack all remembrance of our earthly sorrows, I can’t say. But it seems altogether certain that even if we do have some such remembrances, the joy of being in the presence of God eternally will be so overwhelmingly profound and full that they will no longer be dampened by our tears.

Again, at the end of The Return of the King, Samwise meets Gandalf for the first time since the beloved wizard (seemingly) fell to his death in Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Upon seeing him, Sam bursts out, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” This is the promise–the sure hope–to which we are invited to cling, a hope made possible by the resurrection of the King, the Lord Jesus, and his eventual coming again. Echoing Samwise the hobbit, author Tim Keller once summarized all this wonderfully, when he said, “Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.”

Sometimes Doing Nothing is Doing Something

Yesterday early in the afternoon I finished my sermon for tomorrow. For anyone who’s a pastor, you will understand the significance of this.

A free Saturday!!

Actually, I always endeavour to finish my Sunday prep before my kids are home from school on Fridays. That’s my goal, though I’m not always successful. Because from Friday evening till Saturday evening my family and I observe Sabbath.

But since I successful was this week, it meant that even after sleeping in this morning I had no work I had to do. And so know what I did?

Brace yourself.

I read The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings Part 3) for roughly three hours.

In fact, for part of that time I read while laying on the couch in our living room, with our two dogs sleeping on top of me warming my feet.

It was great. Restful. Freeing.

Sometimes doing nothing means doing something—something important, life-giving, rejuvenating.

Sometimes it’s important to stop what you are normally responsible for doing.

Sometimes we need to stop thinking about work and obligations.

Sometimes we need reminding that when we stop, the world doesn’t end. The universe doesn’t revolve around you and me.

In other words, God’s got this.

This is why I love Sabbath.

If you were to take a Sabbath, what would you do that gives you life?

Reading to Slow Yourself Down (Or Why Spending Time in Middle-Earth is a Spiritual Discipline)

For the last few weeks I’ve been re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’m about halfway of the way through book 2, The Two Towers. Since I don’t read a lot of fiction, I’m enjoying the refreshing change from the books on theology and pastoral ministry that I usually read.

Still, there are two aspects of Tolkien’s writing in particular that I find challenging to get through without skimming. First, there are several places where a character in the narrative breaks into a poem or song. For example:

“Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.”

J.R.R, Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

That’s one of many stanzas. I confess, I’m not a big poetry reader.

The other aspect of Tolkien’s style that I’m often tempted to skim are his descriptions of landscapes and locations. For example, from The Fellowship of the Ring, there’s this passage:

“To the east the outflung arm of the mountains marched to a sudden end, and far lands could be descried beyond them, wide and vague. To the south the Misty Mountains receded endlessly as far as sight could reach. Less than a mile away, and a little below them, for they still stood high up on the west side of the dale, there lay a mere. It was long and oval, shaped like a great spear-head thrust deep into the northern glen; but its southern end was beyond the shadows under the sunlit sky. Yet its waters were dark: a deep blue like clear evening sky seen from a lamp-lit room. Its face was still and unruffled. About it lay a smooth sward, shelving down on all sides to its bare unbroken rim.”

J.R.R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Both of these elements of his storytelling feature all through The Lord of the Rings.

That I am tempted to skim these bits is not a criticism of Tolkien. What it shows, rather, is my impatience. And perhaps my lack of imagination. I want to get to the action, to the more interesting and exciting parts of the tale. I’m anxious for the story to get going. This is a sign of a mind far too influenced by visual media, more likely to watch Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy than to read Tolkien’s novels. This is not necessarily a good thing.

For this reason, it occurs to me that taking the time to read Tolkien’s poetry and vivid prose means forcing myself to slow down. Deliberately paying attention to the words I would rather skim might have value beyond enjoying the book in my hands. So even if I never come to appreciate Tolkien’s poems (much less love them) as others do, actually allowing my eyes and my mind (and perhaps my heart?) to flow leisurely over them means entering a process that anchors me in the moment.

You see, my thoughts—my internal world of reflection—can be subject to anxiety and impatience. Anxiety and impatience, in turn, are not about the present. Being impatient or anxious means dragging our feelings of what might or what will happen into the present. Therefore, in the present a part of me is experiencing my desires for or the pressures of the future rather than being in the moment.

Imagine reading, say, the Bible this way. Indeed, there is a lot of poetry in the Scriptures of the Old Testament especially. Psalms, prophets, and wisdom books are largely poetic. Do I skip these books? Do I merely skim the verses in order to say that I’ve read them? Isn’t impatience of this sort an impatience with God, an unwillingness to slow down and allow his revelatory words to penetrate my consciousness more deeply? Shouldn’t I instead let these words slowly dissolve like a lozenge? Certainly God chose to reveal his truth through poems as well as prose.

Speaking of reading the Bible, the late pastor, professor, and author Eugene Peterson says this about reading and writing in his book Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading: “All serious and good writing anticipates precisely this kind of reading–ruminative and leisurely, a dalliance with words in contrast to wolfing down information.”

Sadly, there are times when I’m tempted to wolf down a book, even the Bible, as if it’s a cheeseburger and I haven’t eaten all day.

Even writing this blog post is an act of intentional and patient reflection, forcing me to slow down. I didn’t write this quickly and easily. It’s taken several days to figure out what I’ve wanted to say, of allowing the quiet, gentle yet insistent whispers at the back of my mind to work their way into the foreground of fully formed sentences and paragraphs.

You see, I think the very act of reading patiently and leisurely forms us. This is also why reading a book, an article, or a blog post that stretches my patience with the act of reading itself is valuable. Maybe because what I’m reading is hard to understand. Perhaps because it forces me to consider another point of view–at least to understand if not agree to it. It gets my brain working in ways it wouldn’t otherwise. Just as lifting weights challenges physical muscles by stretching them, so too our imaginations and our thinking require the challenge of being stretched in order to be healthy and strong.

By and large we live in an impatient world, one strewn with quickly spoken words and lacking in extended reflection. Sound bites, obviously, are not at all congruent with nuanced, careful thinking of the sort cultivated in part by the willingness to slow ourselves down to consider the words right in front of us. Slowing down to read requires attention, removing myself from distraction, sidestepping the immediate dopamine hit of seeing likes on my social media posts.

Applying this to our Bible reading means allowing the very words of God to have their way with us. It means, in one sense, reading the Bible like any other book. Now, before you cite me for heresy, let me explain. Often the chapter and verse divisions, while helpful in their own way, actually prevent us from reading the Bible well. We chop up the prose and poetry into bite-sized pieces, effectively disconnecting them from their larger context and treating them as pieces or advice or promises written directly to us. The Scriptures become a reference manual for doctrine and moral principles, not a grand story spanning all of creation and history with Christ ultimately at the centre of it all.

One interesting development in recent years that addresses this head-on are all of the reader’s edition Bibles out there now. Almost every major translation publishes a version of the Bible without headings and chapter and verse divisions. Read the narratives as narratives. Read the Psalms and prophets as poetry. Read the apocalyptic literature as . . . well, you get the picture.

Heck, you can still read the Bible a few verses at a time, but do it slowly, deliberately, prayerfully. Read it patiently. Let the psalmists capture your imagination. Let Jesus’ parables penetrate your heart. Let Paul’s exposition expand your thinking. Don’t worry about getting something out of it. If you’re a preacher, don’t worry about finding a three point sermon.

If we can learn to read the Bible with patience and prayer, without being anxious to find what we need, and feeling guilty if we don’t “feel” something or “get” something, we might just become more and more able to hear God himself speaking through his word. More than anything our reading of Scripture is about forming and directing us to the God who reveals himself in the mess and beauty of everyday life, about having our thinking so steeped in the words of the prophets and apostles that we eventually begin to experience life biblically. The Scriptures become like coloured lenses in a pair of glasses; they colour everything we see.

And as it happens, through this process we also become more patient, deliberate people all around. Reading to slow ourselves removes us from the hurried, busyness for its own sake, nature of our surrounding culture, with its constant and often unnecessary and unreasonable demands on our time and attention. Reading to slow ourselves down helps to free us from the tyranny of the urgent. Charles Hummel, in his book Tyranny of the Urgent makes this comment: “There is an insidious tendency to neglect important tasks that do not have to be done today—or even this week.” Among these important tasks, Hummel includes waiting on God: “When we fail to wait prayerfully for God’s guidance and strength, we are saying with our actions, if not with our words, that we do not need him. How much of our service is actually a “going it alone”?”

Reading to slow ourselves down ultimately means learning to wait on and listen to God through his word in a posture of prayer in dependence on the Spirit. It means learning to live a life that is not subject to the whims and worries of the moment, but instead rests in the presence of the God who has never himself been in a hurry.

For Such a Time as This . . .

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book (and film) in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a hobbit by the name of Frodo has volunteered to be the one to take the ring of power to Mount Doom in the land of Mordor so it can be destroyed once and for all. The journey from his home to Mordor would prove to be perilous and at one point early on in the story he says to Gandalf, a wizard and guide, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

I suspect all of us have felt like Frodo at different points in our lives. Circumstances come our way unexpectedly, and of a kind that we’d rather not have to face. The tide has turned, and plans we had made must be re-worked to accommodate new factors. What do we do when things don’t go as we’d hoped? How do we respond when life throws up roadblocks and detours? What do we do when circumstances demand sacrifices we’d sooner avoid?

Responding to Frodo’s lament, Gandalf, through eyes wise with experience, looks at him and says, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All that is left for them to decide is what to do with the time that is given to them.” I must confess, I’ve always thought that Gandalf’s words were quite profound, and that they speak truthfully to the experience that we never have as much control over our lives as we might like to have or even as much as we sometimes think we have. Instead, much of our lives consist in deciding how to handle what comes our way.

In the Old Testament book of Esther, the Jews were exiles in the land of Persia. And the king of Persia, Xerxes, was looking for a new queen. A young Hebrew woman named Hadassah was chosen—probably unwillingly—to become the new queen to King Xerxes. To hide her Hebrew identity, she used the Persian name Esther. Given that her ascendancy to the position of queen was not willing or voluntary, such a turn of events would not have been a pleasant experience. Already her life had taken a dramatically unexpected turn. But that isn’t the end of her story.

Upon discovery of a plot by one of Xerxes’ advisors to slaughter all the Jews, Esther’s cousin Mordecai pleads with her to approach the king in order to save her people. Doing so would put her own life in danger—first, because if the scheming advisor were to find out she was a Hebrew, he might very well take action against her; and second, because to approach the king without first being called could result in execution. Either way, standing up for her people meant risking her own life.

The upshot of all this is that Esther wasn’t sure she wanted to do this. She was afraid for her own life. She was a young woman thrust into circumstances beyond her control. Her life had gone in a direction she’d never imagined or wanted. But when she let Mordecai know this, his response, I think, demonstrates a wisdom much like Gandalf’s. He says to her, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Centuries later, Tolkien would echo this same thought. So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All that is left for them to decide is what to do with the time that is given to them.

Mordecai’s words suggest that perhaps if our circumstances are beyond our control, that they’re not altogether beyond control. He’s saying to Esther, “Maybe this is the reason why you’ve become queen, so you’d be in the position to help your people.” He’s saying to her, “Even if you wish none of this had happened, all that is left for you to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.” Without ever mentioning God overtly, Mordecai is telling her that though this is not the life she imagined, that there could be divine purpose at work here.

Whatever comes our way, our choices matter. Even if we can’t control everything around us and we’re faced with choices we’d rather not have to make in the first place, maybe that’s part of the point. As a person of faith, the first and most important choice for me is in trusting that not only is there a God but a God who, according to the Christian tradition, has a purpose for each of us.

Frodo was willing to risk his own life for others, to see that the ring of power was destroyed. Esther, in the end, was willing to risk her life to save her people. Both are examples of the kind of sacrifice we ultimately see in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the Christian tradition, it is believed that God himself—in the person of Jesus—was willing to suffer and die for the sake of the whole world. Those who follow him are called to do likewise. Such a life is one lived for the sake of the other, using the time that is given to you not for yourself but for your neighbour. Therein lies the life-purpose that is before each of us. Trusting that this is so means that whatever unexpected circumstances fall upon us, we can trust that perhaps we are where we are for just such a time as this.