Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hats and Handkerchiefs

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25)

After spending an entire evening playing host to a troupe of dwarves who seem to think he is a burglar that is going to help them reclaim their treasure, Bilbo awakes late in the morning, hoping to find that it had all been a bad dream. When Gandalf finds him, he is finally sitting down to second breakfast after having washed up the breakfast dishes left by his guests in their haste to depart (proof that it hadn't been a dream, after all) and setting his hobbit hole back to rights. The wizard has come to see what is keeping Bilbo, because the dwarves are expecting him to meet them very soon – in fifteen minutes, actually. Bilbo rushes out the door to get to the inn in time, and once he arrives and meets up with the dwarves, he realizes that he is completely unprepared for the journey – he has no walking stick, no money, no hat, not even a pocket-handkerchief. "You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey's end," Dwalin tells him. 

Dwalin also helps him out, though – he loans Bilbo his spare cloak and hood so that he has something to cover his head. Later, Gandalf joins them, bringing Bilbo not only a supply of handkerchiefs but also his pipe and tobacco, a creature comfort that Bilbo hadn't yet realized was lacking.

This is a relatively minor episode in the book, but it demonstrates a truth I have seen in many different situations: God provides. When something is needed, someone shows up with it. If someone doesn't show up with what is needed, they show up with something else that ends up filling the bill even better than the originally-hoped-for item. Sometimes, people even show up to help with something just before the need makes itself known. It is something that I have seen happen over and over again, and I pray that I will remember this when I start to doubt that God will help me through the difficult situations in my own life.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Parallel Journeys

When I began re-reading The Hobbit for the purpose of blogging as I go, I had not noticed how appropriate that would be for this time of year. It is yet another lucky coincidence, like those that happen to Bilbo throughout the novel, that for the next six weeks or so my posts about Bilbo's journey to the Lonely Mountain and back again will correspond to the Christian journey known as Lent.

Lent is a time to reflect on the life of Jesus and on his ultimate sacrifice for the good of all people. During these forty days, many people make personal sacrifices and  go on a spiritual journey of penitence, reflection, and reconciliation whose end is the joyous celebration of Easter, when Christ conquered death and made eternal life possible for all.

Bilbo and the dwarves experience many instances of hardship, peril, and sacrifice on their way to their destination, and some even lose their lives. In the end, however, the quest is successful and Bilbo journey ends with his return to the Shire with a load of treasure and a life forever changed by his adventure.

May it be the same for all of us who undertake the Lenten Journey, that we will emerge on Easter Sunday reborn and enriched with new spiritual insights!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Right Man for the Job

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

In the first chapter of The Hobbit, while taking advantage of Bilbo Baggins' hospitality, the dwarves begin to discuss their strategy for reaching the Lonely Mountain and vanquishing the dragon. Thorin describes a possible route that will take them up to the front gates of the dwarves' former stronghold, but Gandalf quickly nixes that idea:

"That would be no good," said the wizard, "not without a mighty Warrior, even a Hero. I tried to find one, but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighbourhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found. Swords in these parts are mostly blunt, and axes are used for trees, and shields as cradles or dish covers; and dragons are comfortably far-off (and therefore legendary). That is why I settled on burglary – especially when I remembered the existence of a side-door. And here is our little Bilbo Baggins, the burglar, the chosen and selected burglar."

The dwarves have a job that needs doing, and they trust Gandalf to find the right man for that job. When he can't find the warrior or hero to lead them to Smaug's front door, he finds an even better solution: a burglar to help them get in the side door that he has just found out about.

God has given everyone gifts that allow them to do a certain job. When the task at hand requires someone to bring compassion and care to people in need, he calls the healer. When someone is needed to teach others about his love, he calls the teacher. When he knows that there are many who need to hear his word, he calls the preacher. Whatever the task, someone has been given the ability to take care of it – even when the person best-suited is not the one we had in mind to begin with. Fortunately, though, when someone with vision and foresight and the ability to think creatively is needed to recognize this, God calls that person, too.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

The title of the first chapter of The Hobbit is "An Unexpected Party" and the subtitle of the first installment of Peter Jackson's upcoming two-movie adaptation of the book is "An Unexpected Journey." With these titles, Tolkien and Jackson both are emphasizing that what happens to Bilbo Baggins is a drastic change from his normal Hobbit state of utter predictability. Tolkien tells us right off the bat that the thing that made the Bagginses respectable in the eyes of their neighbors, even more so than their wealth, was that "they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him."

That all changes, however, when thirteen dwarves and a wizard show up, unannounced, on his doorstep one day at tea time. Bilbo fulfills his duty as host, but the whole time he is flustered and upset with the intrusion into his quiet routine. To make matters worse, they are all calling him a burglar and expecting him to join them on a difficult journey to the Lonely Mountain, where he is to help them vanquish a dragon and reclaim their treasure. He keeps protesting that he is not a burglar, and he is certainly not eager to leave the comforts of his hobbit hole to travel who knows where into danger. He is acting much more fearful than a burglar probably should, too, and this causes the dwarves to begin to doubt Gandalf's choice of Bilbo as the one who can help them.

Gandalf's response is quick and authoritative: "I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself."

There are two things in that statement that leap out at me. First, the qualifier that Gandalf adds on to his assertion about Bilbo's abilities: he may not be something now, but he will be when the time comes. Second, Gandalf sees beyond the conventional, predictable Hobbit exterior and recognizes abilities and potential in Bilbo that not even Bilbo himself realizes he possesses. 

I imagine God to be somewhat like Gandalf in this instance. He presents us with challenging tasks or allows us to be in challenging circumstances because he knows exactly what we are capable of, even when we aren't so confident in our own abilities, and he prepares us in all sorts of ways to have the experiences and abilities to do what he needs us to do, maybe not right now, but when the time comes. It's both comforting and scary, all at the same time – and it's so exhilarating to come to the end of a situation you didn't think you could handle, having passed the test with at least flying colors, if not wagon-loads of treasure liberated from the dragon's hoard.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Very Good Place to Start

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (John 1:1-3)

"Once upon a time…"

"Long ago in a galaxy far, far away…"

"In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit…"

What is it about the opening words of a good story? You read them and instantly you are pulled into another world, eager for the tale to unfold before your eyes. They cause a sense of excitement for the adventure to come, whether it is a brand new paperback or an old volume worn out with many past readings. 

The opening of a story raises many questions: What is a Hobbit? Why does he live in a hole? Is something going to happen to this Hobbit or to his hole? Even though I know the answers to all of those questions, I still love to read that first line. I can't wait to find out what the story is going to tell me this time around, the details I'll discover that I've never noticed before or the little things that I had forgotten about since the last time I read it.

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…"

"In the year King Uzziah died…"

"And it came to pass in those days…"

The Bible contains its share of great story openers, too, and just as with The Hobbit, I can always discover something new or rediscover something forgotten every time I go back to its familiar tales. I confess, however,  that I don't do this nearly as often as I should. I pray that I may never forget to approach the Bible as a favorite story, ready to be comforted by its familiar words and challenged by its truths. I pray that I will become engrossed in the wonderful adventure of God's love and read it over and over again, until it becomes as worn and tattered as a beloved novel.