Some of my (subjectively) better pieces

Forth, and Fear No Darkness!

When I last posted I was nearing the end of The Two Towers. I’ve finished The Return of the King now, and I’m working on the appendices. And yes, I’m going to write about The Lord of the Rings again. (Don’t be surprised if this ends up becoming a series.)

Something I’ve noticed this time through the books and the movies, more than before, is the theme of despair. I saw looks of despair and horror on characters’ faces time and time again, as things go from bad to worse. I saw characters lose all hope in the face of overwhelming odds—Denethor is the prime example of this. Even Sam, arguably the most courageous and hopeful character of them all, begins to doubt that, even if he and Frodo make it to Mount Doom, there will be a return journey.

Despair is a key weapon of the Dark Lord. His nine deadliest servants are masters of driving their enemies to fear and despair:

In vain men shook their fists at the pitiless foes that swarmed before the Gate. Curses they heeded not, nor understood the tongues of western men, crying with harsh voices like beasts and carrion-birds. But soon there were few left in Minas Tirith who had the heart to stand up and defy the hosts of Mordor. For yet another weapon, swifter than hunger, the Lord of the Dark Tower had: dread and despair.

The Nazgûl came again, and as their Dark Lord now grew and put forth his strength, so their voices, which uttered only his will and his malice, were filled with evil and horror. Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war; but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.

Or take the words of the Witch-king, the greatest of the Nine, to Gandalf, when they come face to face on the streets of Minas Tirith:

Do you not know death when you see it, old man? This is my hour. … You have failed. The world of Men will fall.

Cloaked in black, faceless, mounted on winged steeds, with piercing cries that drive man and beast to madness and despair, the Nazgûl are pure evil. I can think of no better picture of our own opponents.

For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12

And like the Nazgûl, one of their favorite weapons is despair. Despair that the evil in the world could ever be made right. Despair that the evil in us could ever be made right.

Take these two songs. The first is a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the Civil War. It has become the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” (By the way, the Casting Crowns version of this is awesome.) It tells the story of the competing sounds of the church bells ringing for Christmas day, and the cannons being fired in nearby battlefields. As the cannons drown out the bells, he loses hope.

And in despair I hung my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men”

But it doesn’t end there. Listen to the finale:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to men

The other is the well-known hymn, “Before the Throne of God Above.” Here is the second verse:

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied
To look on him and pardon me

In the midst of despair, hope shines through. Indeed, we have more reason to hope than the free peoples of Middle-earth did. Because we know that God is firmly in control, and Jesus already won the decisive victory at the cross and at the tomb. And while the war rages on, we await the return of the King, when he will finish the enemy and establish his reign forever.

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. … The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. …

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the world and their armies gathered together to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army. And the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who did mighty miracles on behalf of the beast. … Both the beast and his false prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the one riding the white horse.

Revelation 19:11-21

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!”

Revelation 21:1-5

Or, as Théoden says to his niece before leading the Rohirrim to the aid of Minas Tirith, “You shall live to see these days renewed, and no more despair.”

Going back to that scene where the Witch-king confronts Gandalf: Gandalf is thrown from his horse, and his staff explodes in his hands. Even as the Witch-king raises his sword to strike, a horn is heard. The horns of Rohan.

As the Rohirrim come over the hill, with the rising sun, and look at the vast army of Orcs before them, Théoden gives his six thousand horsemen a rousing speech, building to the most epic charge in movie history. One line sticks out to me, in the face of despair:

Forth, and fear no darkness!

The Great Stories

I’m listening to the soundtrack of The Two Towers right now. I was just reading some more of the book. Suddenly, in the past few weeks, I’m crazy about Tolkien again. I blame The Hobbit. Since I saw a trailer for the first installment a year ago, I couldn’t wait. To return to Middle-earth, and explore it further; to be reunited with familiar characters, and introduced to new ones. So when it finally hit theaters, right before Christmas break, I was at the midnight opening—I couldn’t wait a minute longer. (Now I can’t wait for the next one.) It had been several years since I last read The Lord of the Rings, and even longer since I’d read The Hobbit, and watching the new movie whet my appetite. So at the beginning of the break I started The Hobbit, and I’m almost done with The Two Towers now. I also watched The Lord of the Rings (the Extended Editions, of course) and the accompanying documentaries in the newly-added iTunes Extras. And I listened to all four soundtracks a bunch.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I love The Lord of the Rings. In recent years, I’m more into Christian literature than novels. I’m not a huge fan of the fantasy genre, in particular. But Tolkien is the exception. And while other movies have come along that I’ve really enjoyed and would consider among my favorites, these movies stand on their own. I’ve read the book several times (and many of his other books, which together tell the history of Middle-earth.) I’ve watched the movies again, and again, and again. There’s just something about them that captivates me. Certainly, Tolkien was a genius, creating this entire world, its history, its languages. Part of what makes Tolkien’s work stand apart from all the fantasy stories that have followed is the incredible depth. He didn’t write some stories, inventing aspects of a world as needed to fit the stories. He created an entire world, and then set his stories in it. And the stories themselves are incredible.

And then Peter Jackson and his team did an incredible job of bringing Tolkien’s epic novel to the screen. The movies themselves are stunning, but also impressive is the work that went into making them—from creating the illusion of the size of the hobbits and dwarves, to recreating battles on the scale of Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields, to bringing Gollum to life. Just as Tolkien’s work is a literary masterpiece, Jackson’s work is a cinematic masterpiece.

But I think there’s a deeper reason yet. They’re so relatable, and so true—not in the sense that they actually happened. But in the sense that they offer a glimpse into reality that we miss most of the time. Even though Tolkien was adamant that The Lord of the Rings was not allegorical, there’s still so much truth in them. Like the hobbits of the Shire, most of the time we’re completely absorbed in what we see around us, our own day-to-day, mundane lives, which don’t seem all that glamorous or that big a deal, really. We live our lives completely unaware of the bigger picture, and we need a reminder of the truth. The truth that, like Middle-earth, our world is locked in an epic war, where the forces of good and of evil battle for its fate, where the evil one will stop at nothing to have dominion over all life on this earth, and seeks to destroy all who oppose him. And so much of the time it looks like he is winning. The world seems dark and hopelessly evil when we hear news of the senseless killing of children, or when, from half a world away, I watch the country I call home falling apart because of extremists and corrupt politicians.

But in the midst of this battle, we see heroism where least expected—including in ourselves. We find ourselves called to a mission of utmost importance, and even deadly peril. We find fellowships that stand with each other through thick and thin to carry that mission out. But then those fellowships are broken, as friends, though eternally bound by friendship and love, must go their separate ways. We live in a tale of friendship, and loyalty, and sacrifice. Of danger, and betrayal, and darkness. Of epic battles, and courage, and hope. Of fell deeds and heroic ones. I see myself in these characters, and the story unfolding around me in theirs. And that gives me hope, and courage, and a desire to rise up to the calling on my life. Why do I love The Lord of the Rings? The best answer comes from the movies themselves. When hope seems lost for Frodo and Sam, captive in Osgiliath, Sam nails it:

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. Those are the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding onto something.”

“What are we holding onto, Sam?”

“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

The Race

In my first post I mentioned a couple things that had come to me that would’ve made good blog posts—the problem being I didn’t have a blog. This is one of them. It has been a Facebook note since its conception in October 2010, and seeing as I haven’t posted here in a while, I decided it was time to promote it to a real blog post. I’ve resisted the urge to make any changes, so here it is in its original, unaltered, state. I also will take this chance to say I have a couple ideas bouncing around in my head for new posts. Maybe once they’ve developed further I’ll get something original up here again.

First, I’ll start with a disclaimer: this analogy, like any analogy, is not perfect. If you take it too far it’ll break down before long. It is probably riddled with even more discrepancies than I’m aware of. It is meant only to help illustrate one facet of the truth, not cover all the bases. With that said, here goes:

I love track and field. Especially victory (who doesn’t?) This morning I was remembering one of the awesomest races I ever ran: Spring 2010, the 800m. (Before I go any farther, another disclaimer. I don’t mean to brag—in fact, this probably was the only race I ever got first place in, relays aside. I’m just using the story to make my point.) The whistle blew and we all launched across the line. Immediately everyone began to merge into the inside lane. I found a comfortable pace close behind the guy in the lead—from ISOI or LAS, I don’t remember which—where I could wait for an opportunity to overtake him. Early in the second lap my chance came, when he started to run out of steam. I started slowly picking up my pace, and passed him at 600m with a little burst of speed, just as we were coming onto that last bend. I kept increasing speed on that curve (something I don’t normally do) and when I hit that last 100m stretch I kicked into a dead sprint for the finish line.

I still remember, even though I was flying down this track, there was a moment where I felt almost frozen in time. At that point I knew I was on my way to victory. There was no way the other guy was catching up to me now. And so I could close my eyes, throw my head back, and smile, and savor the moment—enjoy the wind on my face, the 90-degree sun beating down on me, the cheering, the announcer saying something about MCS and a strong finish, the adrenaline pumping through me, but most of all just running for the pure enjoyment of running the race, sprinting like my life depended on it, fixing my gaze on the finish line and pouring everything I had left in me into reaching it, knowing that in moments it would be over and I would be celebrating victory on the other side of the finish line, and even though I was more cramped than I had ever been before or have been since, it would be totally worth it.

And that image is exactly what it’s like to run the Christian life.

I’m certainly not the first to compare life to a race. Paul did a lot. Countless times he explicitly calls it a race; other times he alludes to it, for instance, in talking about a “victor’s crown”—the laurel wreath the champion of a race would receive in Paul’s day (a tradition revived at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.) As a runner myself, I’ve long thought of life as a race. So this analogy is more a matter of thinking about just what that race looks like.

Say you’re really out of shape. And massively obese. Like, 800 pounds and you’ve never run more than 10 yards in your life. And you suddenly find yourself in this race—not cause you signed up for it but because everyone who’s ever lived has to run this race. And it’s not a sprint either—it’s more like a marathon. And just to make things worse you’re weighed down by all kinds of crap that you just don’t want to get rid of even though it’s three times as heavy as you are and it keeps getting under your feet and wrapped around your legs and in your face. But you think you like all this stuff so you’re trying to run the race with it. Needless to say, you’re miles behind everyone else.

Then this dude comes up on your side (and you’re thinking, “What, there’s actually someone still behind me?!”) He offers to carry your stuff. You suddenly realize this lugging-all-your-junk-along thing isn’t working, so you begin to hand it all over. He takes all your stuff on his own back, and then he surprises you even more—he offers to give you a piggyback. (“Is that even allowed?” you wonder.) With great difficulty you try to climb onto his back. He reaches over his shoulder with a free hand and pulls you aboard. You notice his hand—both hands actually—is scarred. He tells you, “I had a brush with a tree earlier, in coming to help you.”

No sooner are you on his back, he takes off down the road, overtaking everyone, who you now notice are all carrying baggage of their own. When he is safely in the lead he puts you back down. You realize that suddenly you aren’t overweight anymore. Your legs are stronger. Your flip-flops have been replaced with the best running shoes you’ve ever seen. The guy then says to you, “You can see the finish line from here. I’ve given you everything you need to win this race. I’m going there now, and I’ll be waiting for you there. Give it your all.”

In a flash he takes off, and you’re left jogging along. You glance over your shoulder, see the others slowly closing the gap. As you look ahead to the finish line, you notice there’s a massive crowd on the sidelines, cheering your name. The dude’s standing there at the finish line, also cheering you on. He yells, “Come on man! I authored and perfected this race, and now I’ve run it. I’ve taken the hits for you. Now run this race; your life depends on it!” You’re approaching the last stretch of the race, and suddenly it all clicks. You kick into a dead sprint for that finish line.

This is where we are right now. We’re in the lead, approaching that finish line faster than ever. Even though the race isn’t over yet, we know victory is ours, thanks to Jesus. So we let out a smile and run, enjoying the moment and running with purpose in every step, towards that goal. Jesus is waiting at the finish line, calling our name and cheering us on, and we fix our eyes on Him and give everything in the last stretch of this race. We’re cramping up like never before, but we’re determined to reach the end and we’re pouring every last drop of energy into reaching that end, and we know that in moments we will be celebrating victory on the other side of the finish line, and unlike a physical race, the cramps and pain and gasping for air will be over forever. So let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.