Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pay Attention to the Map

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

We arrive at last at the goal, the imposing and threatening Lonely Mountain. It stands alone above a desolate landscape, where no one dares live, not even most animals. Where the grand front gates of the dwarven halls once stood, threatening smoke now escapes along with foul-looking water. The dwarves' party now begins to search the side of the mountain for the secret door indicated on the map. Having found it, however, they are so eager to get it open that they promptly forget everything else:

"In the meanwhile some of them explored the ledge beyond the opening and found a path that led higher and higher on to the mountain; but they did not dare to venture very far that way, nor was there much use in it….The others who were busy with the secret of the door had no more success. They were too eager to trouble about the runes or the moon-letters, but tried without resting to discover where exactly in the smooth face of the rock the door was hidden. They had brought picks and tools of many sorts from Lake-town, and at first they tried to use these. But when they struck the stone the handles splintered and jarred their arms cruelly, and the steel heads broke or bent like lead. Mining work, they saw clearly, was no good against the magic that had shut this door."

Earlier in the same chapter, we learned that upon getting closer to their goal the dwarves began to lose most of the enthusiasm for the quest that they had displayed in Lake-town. "Now strange to say Mr. Baggins had more than the others. He would often borrow Thorin's map and gaze at it, pondering over the runes and the message of the moon-letters Elrond had read. It was he that made the dwarves begin the dangerous search on the western slopes for the secret door." In the midst of the many unsuccessful attempts to open the door, it is Bilbo again who sees the thrush knocking snails against the rocks to crack their shells and makes the connection with the map's clues.

We all become over-eager in the pursuit of our goals sometimes, and we stop paying attention to things we have learned in the past, things that just might make the task easier if we'd only listen. Like Bilbo's study of the map, however, taking the time to pray, reflect, and study the Bible means that we will be more likely to recognize the cues and remember what we have been taught in time for that information to be useful on the journey.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Pleasant Legends

But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Matthew 24:43-44)

Lake Town is a thriving, bustling marketplace. It is the successor to an earlier town built on the shores of the Long Lake but destroyed years ago, when Smaug came and took over the Lonely Mountain, driving the dwarves away (those who survived, that is). Although the dragon occasionally ventures out to wreak havoc among the men on the lake shore, most of the time they give little thought to history and its implications. Tolkien describes the scene thus:

"But men remembered little of all that, though some still sang old songs of the dwarf-kings of the Mountain, Thror and Thrain of the race of Durin, and of the coming of the Dragon, and the fall of the lords of Dale. Some sang too that Thror and Thrain would come back one day and gold would flow in rivers, through the mountain-gates, and all that land would be filled with new song and new laughter. But this pleasant legend did not much affect their daily business."

Little do they know that Thorin, son of Thrain and grandson of Thror, is about to enter their town and declare his intentions to reclaim the dwarves' treasure, and that their pleasant legends are about to become very real.

How many of us generally regard some of the more difficult teachings of the Bible, such as Jesus's second coming, as "pleasant legends," things that seem even more remote now, two millennia on? I suspect that most people would be as surprised as the citizens of Lake Town if Jesus were to walk into our churches today. I suspect also that most people would react as the lake men did, as well, thinking the visitor to be a fraud or impostor. How would we determine if he's who he says he is? How would we prepare ourselves for something that he has already told us would be unexpected?

On the other hand, he also told us that "the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 17:21) and "just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). Maybe instead of worrying about when he may come back, we act like he is already here.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Pruning and Growth

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. (John 15:1-2)

At the beginning of the dwarves' incarceration at the hands of the Wood-elves, Bilbo is unsure of his ability to rescue them and longs for the help, or at least the advice, of the wizard Gandalf. However, "he soon realized that if anything was to be done, it would have to be done by Mr. Baggins, alone and unaided." And indeed, the hobbit is eventually able to put together a successful plan to rescue his companions.

Wearing his ring to stay invisible, Bilbo watches and waits and explores until he finally sees a possible solution to their plight. He then he creeps from cell to cell in the elves' dungeon, spreading the word to his incarcerated companions. Tolkien tells us that "the other dwarves quite agreed when they got the message….they all trusted Bilbo. Just what Gandalf had said would happen, you see. Perhaps that was part of his reason for going off and leaving them."

Just like many plants bear more fruit when they are pruned, people often grow more in hard times and through difficult situations. Gandalf knew that Bilbo would never step up and reach his full potential as a burglar and trusted traveling companion if he was always there to rescue them and get them out of sticky situations, and I believe God is the same. I think that sometimes we need to look for his answers through the gifts, spiritual and otherwise, that he has already given us, instead of waiting for things to magically change without any effort on our part. If sometimes God feels absent, maybe he has just stepped back in order to teach us faith and trust – perhaps sometimes that's his way of pruning away the old fears and insecurities that keep us from reaching our full potential. It's not pleasant, but it's the only way that we'll grow.