Tag Archives: Tolkien

Exile, Then and Now

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Mark 16:8 (NIV)

As I have mentioned in previous posts, my local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been entrenched in the them of exile since this past September. It’s been a fascinating and challenging theme. On one hand, the theme of exile is a meta-theme of the Great Story:

  • Since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden at the very beginning of the Great Story, humanity has been exiled from the intended, eternal relationship with God. This is relationship is restored at the very end of the Great Story at the end of the book of Revelation.
  • Jesus left His “home” in eternity with the Father and Spirit, to come to an exile on Earth to live an earthly existence as one of us in order to make the way for the redemption of all things.
  • Abraham followed God’s call to leave his home and wander in exile so that he might be led by God to “a land that I will show you.” (I talked about this in the most recent Wayfarer podcast).
  • Jacob and his family left Canaan to live in exile in Egypt where they escaped famine and were later enslaved by the Egyptians.
  • The tribes of Israel escaped slavery in Egypt and spent 40 years in the exilic wandering of the Sinai.
  • David had to escape from King Saul and spent many years living in exile in the desert where he became a mercenary.
  • The major prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah warned of the coming Babylonian exile.
  • The northern tribes of Israel were taken into captivity and exile by the Assyrians.
  • The tribes of Benjamin and Judah were taken into captivity and exile by the Babylonians.
  • The prophet Ezekiel prophesied in the Babylonian exile.
  • The story of Daniel takes place in the Babylonian exile.
  • The story of Esther takes place during the Babylonian exile under the Persian empire.
  • The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah are about the return from the Babylonian exile.

What struck me in the abrupt end of Mark’s version of the Jesus Story (abrupt endings were not unusual for writings and speeches of the period) is both the irony and the exile.

What is ironic is that Jesus spent much of His ministry telling those whom He healed and delivered to keep it to themselves. In almost every circumstance the person ignored Jesus and spread the good news. Now Jesus completes His mission and does exactly what He predicted He would do multiple times. The Marys are told to spread the good news, only this time they fearfully clam up.

This represents the dramatic shift that took place during the final week of Jesus’ earthly exile. He had arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover as a celebrity. Crowds gathered to praise Him with their “Hosannas!” Jesus followers were vying for positions of prominence in what they were sure would be the Messiah’s earthly reign. “Jesus” was trending in all of the social media outlets of the day and His approval ratings were through the roof.

The Marys’ fear, trembling, and Fifth-Amendment-like silence indicate just how quickly the tables had turned. The powerful political and religious leaders of Jerusalem had successfully turned the fickle crowds against Jesus. Having executed the “Head,” the Marys and the rest of Jesus’ followers knew that their own lives had become expendable. The Godfathers of the Temple’s religious racket could very well be coming for them next. And, it wasn’t just the Jewish authorities. The power of the Roman Empire itself had hung Jesus on the cross, and the Romans were notorious for snuffing out any hint of opposition to their power.

In one week the followers of Jesus had experienced a shift from exaltation to exile. This makes the events chronicled in the book of Acts even more profound for me. If the body had been stolen, or if Jesus’ followers had not met, seen, touched, and received instructions from the resurrected Christ, then how do I explain their fearless 180-degree turn from “trembling, bewildered,” and hidden followers into fearless proponents walking boldly into the Temple courts just 40 days later to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection and face both persecution and martyrdom?

This morning I find myself contemplating a similar seismic shift that I have observed during my earthly journey. I have, in my lifetime, witnessed the waning of institutional Christianity in our world. All of the mainline denominations have fractured and imploded. I continue to witness arguably the most powerful Christian institution, the Roman Catholic church, as it suffers the consequences of its own internal corruption and deep moral failings. I observe that the current era is almost universally being dubbed the “Post-Christian” world. Even the positive contributions of Christianity and the critical role that Christian faith played in the lives of important figures over the past 2000 years are being erased from the historical narrative. In recent films such as Little Women, Tolkien, and Unbroken, I observe that the critical role that Christian faith played in the lives of the characters and protagonists has been completely removed from the narrative.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself mulling over what all of this means. Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. In the first century, many followers of Jesus fled persecution in Jerusalem and lived in their own personal exiles. Scattered across the Roman Empire, their exile became a key ingredient in the spread of Jesus’ message. Perhaps followers of Jesus are, once again, finding ourselves entering a period of social exile. Looking back at the recurring presence and spiritual purpose of exile in the Great Story, I’m not sure that what I’m observing isn’t simply part of the divine storyboard.

No matter what, I come to the conclusion this morning that my role remains the same. To follow, to love, and to press on one step at a time.

Have a good week, my friend. Thanks for reading.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

The Implosion of Evil

The Ammonites and Moabites rose up against the men from Mount Seir to destroy and annihilate them. After they finished slaughtering the men from Seir, they helped to destroy one another. When the men of Judah came to the place that overlooks the desert and looked toward the vast army, they saw only dead bodies lying on the ground; no one had escaped.
2 Chronicles 20:23-34 (NIV)

In our modern, twenty-first century enlightened world we rarely talk about the nature of evil. I find that, even among those who are followers of Jesus, there is a reticence to even think of the concept of evil. Jesus quite regularly referenced evil. The word or variation is used seven times in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Over the years Wendy and I have noticed a theme among epic stories regarding the nature of evil: evil eventually destroys itself from within. Sometimes, left to itself, evil naturally implodes. Tolkien used this device multiple times in his stories and it came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter. As Merry and Pippin are captives of the Orcs it is an internal fight between factions of Orcs and Grishnakh’s lust that ultimately allow for their escape. Likewise, as Frodo and Sam attempt steal their way into Mordor through the stronghold of Cirith Ungol, a massive fight between two companies of Orcs destroy one another and allow the Hobbits to escape.

In today’s chapter we find a similar story from Judah’s history. A coalition of enemy armies are gathered to march against Judah and Jerusalem. King Jehoshaphat assembles all the people to seek the Lord. They pray, they fast, they humble themselves. God speaks through the prophet that the battle belongs to God and He will deliver. The people respond in praise. The coalition of enemy armies turn on each other and destroy one another so that when the army of Judah arrives, they find a field of dead bodies.

This morning in the quiet as I mull these things over I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ admonishment about the two mistakes one can make about the exploration of evil. One, he said, is to ignore it. The second is to get too deep and take it too seriously. The people of Judah didn’t ignore the threat facing them but focused their energies on seeking after God, trusting, and following. Before the threat could become a battle, the evil had imploded within. I never want to be naive, ignorant, or blind to the reality of evil that exists in our world. Neither do I want to give into fear or be overwhelmed by it:

This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.

Apocalypse, World View and Work

So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time?
Matthew 24:44-45 (NIV)

Whether we know it or not, each one of us approach life with a certain ingrained perspective. It’s called a world view and we each have one. Our world view determines how we perceive and react to events and circumstances around us. If something happens that doesn’t fit neatly into our world view, it can be rather disconcerting.

I thought a lot about world view this past November when Donald Trump unexpectedly won the Presidency. It was an event that most of us never could have imagined happening. We know that anyone can run for President, but we’ve come to expect from history that the winner is always going to be a member of the political establishment.

The election results definitely shook things up, and with it came all sorts of apocalyptic thinking. I still feel it simmering beneath the surface of news articles, posts, and current events. Along my life journey I’ve noticed this pattern in human behavior. If we’re rattled hard enough we go into doomsday mode.

As I sat in my hotel room on election night at 1:00 a.m. swapping text messages with Wendy and Taylor I got to thinking about world views. Among followers of Jesus the prevailing world view has been a predominantly medieval one in which things are going to get worse and worse and worse and worse until the very end when Jesus returns in a eucatastrophic moment.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a teacher of medieval literature and his epics reflect this world view. Saruman is a great example of how Tolkien viewed modern man felling the innocence of the trees to fuel his machines of war. (Interesting to think how serving in WWI and living through WWII may have affected his world view. ) Darkness grows and spreads until the forces of good stand on the field of battle outnumbered and hopeless. Then at the darkest moment something happens to miraculously bring about unexpected victory. That’s what he called eucatastrophe.

There is another world view among followers of Jesus, however, that holds that things are actually getting better [cue: The Beatles’ It’s Getting Better All the Time]. It’s the “glass is actually half-full” world view. This world view holds that despite the headlines and 24 hour news channels skewing our perspective by bombarding us with the latest tragedies from around the globe, the situation world-wide is actually better today than at any point in human history. There’s less disease, life spans are the longest they’ve ever been, things are safer than they’ve ever been globally, and food production is the highest it’s ever been around the globe. Poverty world-wide is lower than its ever been in history and what we would call “poor” in today’s world is far different (and better) than our definition just a generation or two ago.

In today’s chapter Jesus gives his followers some generalities about what’s to come in the future. It reads like the medieval world view with wars, famines, false messiahs, and Jesus returning when no one is expecting it. Even in the description Jesus admits that He does not know the exact timing of events.

These things are fascinating to think about, and many people dedicate much of their lives to studying eschatology and all the various theories of the end times. Google it and you’ll find all sorts of charts, graphs, opinions, and theories about what’s to come.

I found it interesting that Jesus concludes His apocalyptic overview with a parable of a servant in charge of feeding his master’s servants while the master is away. When the master returns the only question was whether or not the servant was found doing what he was supposed to do. Jesus’ message is clear: Don’t worry about these ordained events that I cannot control. Worry about being faithful to do each day those things I am called to do. Actively love God. Actively love others. The rest will take care of itself.

On election night our daughter asked me to text her something wise. I don’t know how wise my message was, but I gave her my perspective at that moment. Donald Trump may be President, but the next morning I was going to get up, go to work, and do the things I do everyday. Just like I did when Obama was President, and Bush 43, and Clinton, and Bush 41. Life goes on. My job is to focus my time and attention on my spheres of influence and doing the things I’m called to do to the best of my ability.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some work to do 😉

Faith, Faery, and The Artist’s Way

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
Matthew 11:25 (NIV)

Many years ago I picked up a book called The Artist’s Way and embarked on its path. The Artist’s Way is a course designed to help anyone tap into spiritual, creative flow. It was a life-changing journey for me, and God is still leading me back to its principles over and over again.

There are two foundational activities required of pilgrims on The Artist’s Way. The first is called morning pages, and it’s the simple act of waking each morning, immediately sitting down and writing three pages, long hand, stream-of-consciousness. Morning pages help empty the mind and spirit of all the crud that we didn’t even realize were gumming up the works. The second required activity is called the artist’s date. It is quite simply letting your adult self recapture the act of playing; Giving yourself permission to indulge, explore, imagine, touch, smell, taste, and see whatever it is your spirit finds fascinating. As the morning pages make way for fresh flow, the artist’s date begins to “fill the well.” It is a simple two-step process. And, it works.

This morning I was reminded of The Artist’s Way as I read the chapter. Jesus reminded His listeners that the things of God are hidden from the “wise and learned,” their minds gummed up with important things; Their spirits shriveled and sucked dry by the urgent cares and anxieties of the world. The things of God are revealed to children and to the child-like spirits whose minds are open and tapped into God’s flow, their willing hearts open to the wonders of faith.

I’m also reminded that the learned and wise C.S. Lewis first experienced what Jesus was talking about one day after a walk and conversation with his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. What was the subject of the conversation that led to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity? Tolkien’s belief that Faery stories are “real.”

Eucatastrophe and Resurrection in a Thin Place

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 1 Corinthians 15:54

I am a geek at heart. Exhibit A is my life-long love for the works of Tolkien. I recently finished listening to the entire audiobook version of The Lord of the Rings and am now reading The Silmarillion again. They call me back again and again, an my appreciation only deepens each time I pick up the adventures.

Tolkien himself coined the phrase eucatastrophe to describe the moment when the tide turns and victory is gained amidst in the moment when defeat seems a sure thing. Eucatastrophe would be a theme that he used again and again:

  • Most famously, the arrival of the eagles both at the Battle of Five Armies in The Hobbit, and at the Battle of the Black Gate in The Return of the King.
  • Gollum’s final treachery that is the salvation of Frodo
  • When Gandalf arrives with Erkenbrand at the battle of Helm’s Deep
  • When the Ents and Huorns rise up unexpectedly against Isengard
  • The arrival of Aragorn upon the Corsairs of Umbar

Tolkien loved the dramatic moment when the light of hope springs unexpectedly in the deepest darkness. In his personal letters (which I have also read; behold Exhibit B of my geekiness), Tolkien explains that the model of eucatastrophe, and its greatest example, is the incarnation of Jesus Christ and His resurrection.

In today’s chapter, Paul argues for the resurrection of the dead against those in the city of Corinth who were teaching that there is no life after death. Paul, who had a life-changing encounter with the resurrected Jesus (read Acts 9), now explains that if there is no life after death then the whole of Christian belief is null and void. If there is no life after death, then his life-changing encounter was nothing more than a hallucination; His work to share the message of Jesus to the world a huge waste of time and energy.

It is Paul’s description of resurrection in today’s chapter that brings Tolkien’s eucatastrophe to mind:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

This morning I sit with my cup of coffee at the lake and watch the warm sun coming up over the back of the cove, where bald eagles often roost. Staring back at the treeline I, from time-to-time, get to shout “The eagles are coming!” This is, for me, a thin place; An earthly location where the impermeable veil between the mortal and immortal becomes sheer. Eucatastrophes of various shapes and sizes are experienced here. In this place my faith in resurrection takes shape and mass. 

Fill in the Blank

Source: Doug Floyd
Source: Doug Floyd

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
     my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,

    my shield and the horn of my salvation.
He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior—
    from violent people you save me.
2 Samuel 22:2b-3 (NIV)

Anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time knows that I’m a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. If you pick up a copy of the final book of his Lord of the Rings trilogy and quickly page through it, you’ll find something rather interesting. There are hundreds of pages of supporting documentation and appendices at the end. These aren’t necessary to the main storyline, but provide those who want to explore the world of Middle Earth with a ton of extra information. For example, in the Lord of the Rings films there is a romantic storyline between Aragorn and Arwen that is only hinted at in Tolkien’s narrative. The story of Aragorn and Arwen is actually found tucked into the appendices at the end.

The final few chapters of 2 Samuel are similar in nature to the appendices at the end of Tolkien’s trilogy. David’s storyline starts in 1 Samuel, continues in 2 Samuel and basically ends with the restoration of the kingdom after Absalom’s rebellion. For the next few chapters we are given some supporting documentation including, in today’s chapter, a copy of the lyrics to one of David’s many songs.

As I read David’s song lyrics I wondered why this one was chosen for the appendix to David’s story. I asked myself in what ways this song is a good summation of David’s life and experience. One of the things I noticed about it was the way David bookended the song with the metaphor of God as rock, fortress, stronghold, and refuge. So much of David’s life journey hinges on those many years living in the caves in the wilderness of southern Israel and, in particular, in the cavernous fortress known as the Cave of Adullam. For David, the word picture of God as rock, fortress, stronghold, and refuge is very personal to his own journey and experience.

But what about me? I appreciate David’s word picture, but rocks, caves, fortresses and strongholds have not been party of my personal journey living in Iowa. If I were writing a song and wanted to paint a word picture of God that is personal to my own journey how would I fill in the blank at the end of the lyric “God is my __________” ?

That’s what I’m pondering today. Check back with me in a day or two and I’ll tell you what I came up with. (Feel free to think of your own and share it with me, btw)

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