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More Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

More Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

Some time ago I had the opportunity for extended time away and was able to read extensively from the library of my favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien. I wrote a blog on failure and perfectionism that emerged from a careful reading of Tolkien’s work. Here are further reflections on creative work and joyful hope that were generated as a result of my reading. 

As both a meticulous philologist and a devout Catholic, Tolkien’s stories, characters, and phrases drip with the beauty and power of the language by which they are expressed and the gospel in which they are soaked. I have found Tolkien’s faith to be deeply reflected in his vocation as a storyteller.

 

A Reflection on Creative Work

The entire framework that Tolkien held around creative work was conditioned on an idea he cared about deeply called “subcreation.” Because of his Christian faith, Tolkien maintained that part of the invitation to those who bear God’s image is the invitation to join God’s creative work as “sub-creators.” The value he found in his vocation as a writer of myth and legend was contingent on this very theological reality. In Tolkien’s view, fantasy was one valid form among many arts and sciences for discovering and conveying truth, even the greatest truth of all—the gospel of Jesus.

For a while, his close friend C.S. Lewis saw things differently. Lewis once called myths “lies breathed through silver,” to which Tolkien responded with a poem he wrote called “Mythopoeia.” If you are interested in poetry, I encourage you to find it and spend some time with it. A few lines are worth quoting, as they are poignant reflection on the eternal significance of our creative, Monday work:

 

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship one he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact.
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which were made.

I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.
In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day-illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

What beautiful poetic language this is to express deep theological realities! Though we have fallen, we are not wholly lost nor wholly changed. The right we were given in Genesis 2 indeed has not decayed: we make still by the law in which we are made. As little makers, imperfect though we are, we still have part in the Maker’s art. 

And one day, we will see all as it is but made free in the new creation. Gardener and garden, child and toy, architect and architecture, musician and music, engineer and engineered—all will endure and be made free, perfect, reflecting the only True God and free from all works of evil. We will continue working creatively on into eternity, making anew as we reign together with the One who is making all things new. 

What a flawless reminder of just how much our work matters to the grand mission of God and just how much it will endure when his kingdom comes in full. As long as our right has not decayed, let us exercise it with the help of the Spirit and the hope of the gospel. We should all be thankful that Tolkien did just that, or we would be missing out on some of the greatest stories ever written.

 

A Reflection on Joyful Hope

On the subject of hope, the word of God and the writings of the Professor both have much to say. It would not be too far off to describe The Lord of the Rings as a story that is ultimately about hope in the face of overwhelming opportunities for despair. 

There is a reason we get this sense as readers and movie-watchers. In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien laid out his groundbreaking defense of the importance of modern fantasy stories for the adult imagination. This alone merits a reflection on childlike faith for followers of Jesus, but I want to focus on one particular theme Tolkien explores in “On Fairy Stories.” 

The essay closes with a discussion of what Tolkien calls “the Eucatastrophe,” which he considers to be the greatest element of any fairy tale. Listen to his explanation of this essential storytelling feature:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

I wonder if, as you heard Tolkien describe this “unexpected happy turn,” any examples from some of your favorite stories came to mind. In every good tale, as in our everyday, ordinary life, there are infinite opportunities to either give into despair or lean into hope. 

In The Lord of the Rings, we might consider the despair we find in the character Denethor. After losing his oldest son and believing his other son dead, he stares in the face of what he believes to be a losing battle against the Enemy. Denethor is thrown into a fey fit of madness and attempts to light both himself and his youngest son—who is still alive—on fire. It is a scene that captures the essence of giving into despair, and at times it is even possible to sympathize with Denethor. We, too, when life seems to be a losing battle, can be tempted to throw our hands in the air and simply give up.

Yet in the face of the same circumstances, one also must consider the consistent character of eucatastrophic hope: Gandalf. Gandalf, who showed up at the edge of the hill at “the battle of Helm’s Deep unlooked for”, when all hope seemed lost. Gandalf, “The great mover of deeds,” whose role more than anything was to stir up hope in others. Gandalf, who would say things like this: “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

And in the end, it was the hope Gandalf stirred up in characters like Aragorn, Theoden, Frodo, Sam, and the army on whom Denethor had given up, that anticipated the great eucatastrophe of The Lord of the Rings—the ability to hold off the efforts of the Enemy just long enough for the ring to be destroyed and the Eagles to arrive.

For Tolkien, this unexpected happy ending, filled with joy and triumph, is only a small taste of what he considered to be the greatest eucatastrophe of all—the gospel of Jesus. Eucatastrophe, because who would have expected that God himself would become a human being, taking on suffering and embracing death “at just the right time,” only to rise again and overthrow the power of death for good? The greatest because, well, it is real. The truest fairy story of all is the one that we most wish would be true. “Legend and History have met and fused.”

What this should instill in us as Christians more than anything is durable, joyful hope. In many ways we do not see all ends, but dare to imagine that we at least know the end of the story. For those joined to Jesus in life and death, triumph awaits. As surely and suddenly as he came to disarm the power of evil, he will surely and suddenly return to eliminate evil once and for all, establishing an unending reign of good. As Samwise mused, everything sad will become untrue. 

This is real, biblical hope. Biblical hope is not wishful thinking to escape unthinkable suffering. Biblical hope embraces suffering because it does not have the final say. Biblical hope looks ahead to a future that is secure. A former pastor once gave me the best definition of biblical hope that I have heard yet: Hope is a confident expectation in a future reality that we lean into to give us energy to live today.

When summer break from school is on the horizon, we can lean into that future to give us energy to face finals week. When we know we get to see our family at the end of the day, we can lean into that future to give us energy to endure a weary workday. When we know the performance is coming up, we can lean into that future to do the hard work of practicing in the present. 

The same is true of biblical hope. Our future is secure when we are with Jesus. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:18, “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” That glory will be revealed—that much is certain—and in the meantime, when every earthly voice would tell us it is better to give into despair, we are energized by a hope beyond this world. The hope of the truest, best, and most beautiful eucatastrophe ever desired. 

With this reality in mind, may we be emboldened by these words from Professor Tolkien himself, who writes of an alloy of creative work and joyful hope that can stand the test of time:

The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

The Voice for a Generation Defined by Their Longing: The 1975

The Voice for a Generation Defined by Their Longing: The 1975

The 1975 is an indie pop band from Manchester, England. It’s possible that you’ve never heard of them before and you might have zero interest in their music, but what if I told you the person Taylor Swift dated before Travis Kelce is the frontman for and lyrical genius of the band, Matty Healy? If Taylor Swift was that interested in him, are you maybe a little more interested now?

 

Generational Voices: Taylor Swift and…The 1975?

The 1975 have released five albums, each to critical acclaim over the past ten years or so. Their most recent album was released in 2022, entitled Being Funny in Foreign Language. Matty Healy is a controversial and complex figure, but in the midst of his reputation for being rockstar in every sense of the word, if you listen to him speak it’s clear that under the surface is an artist dutifully keeping himself in tune with both his own proclivities, musical notes, and our time.

Let me tell you why I’m writing about them. As a person trying to orient myself as a Christian in the zeitgeist of our postmodern culture and society, I am constantly looking for resources in the humanities (visual or musical art, literature and poetry, philosophy and religion) that help me name my own complex desires, my own experiences in modern life, and offer a commentary on our postmodern world. The more I listen to The 1975, the more I’m convinced that they are the undersold voice of my generation (the “sold” voice being the new queen of Kansas City herself, Taylor Swift). The 1975 aren’t a Christian band at all but Christian aesthetics and symbols saturate their songs. Even more, their songs, not only in their lyrical play but in their musical play, offer a depth of human emotion and experience that create space for us to be concerned about what ultimately concerns us: God.

I’m convinced that The 1975 is one of many cultural markers that demonstrate that my generation is growing in articulating the spiritual need they know they have. Even more, they are at the forefront of a movement making room for the growing awareness that the postmodern and digitally modern society does not meet the depth needed to answer the desires of their soul. This is explicitly called out in the cry for help in the song “Love It If We Made It,” with the lyrics: “Jesus save us, modernity has failed us. I’d love it if we made it” (note that if you listen to this song, there is explicit language). The longing for something more, even if it is ironic, is directed where? To Jesus.

 

Faith and the Chaos of our Age

We are bombarded with a hairball of complex realities from secularism, political agendas and war, to relational hardships, new Netflix shows that are therapy, and children encountering new realities. Every day our age of anxiety gnaws at us: it might be our own anxiety and it might be the anxiety of our world. From staring at a screen for eight hours plus, news programs firing off information that might be misinformation, the steadiness of information overload, dating apps, social media trends, and mind-numbing scrolling to get some peace. Digitally we find no relief, only more concerns to compound our own, and just a facade of connection to match our loneliness. In all of this, we feel something tugging at us. Longing. A longing for more.

The 1975 gets at this complexity in their album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. In their song “I Like America & America Likes Me” they capture the nature of the generation left longing for more in the midst of their digital isolation, their wrestling with the nature of life, and their apathy as a way to cope with their lack of answers. All of this is grasped by sporadic and punchy lyrics: “Is that designer? / Is that on fire? / Am I a liar? / Oh, will this help me lay down? / I’m scared of dying / It’s fine / Being young in the city / Belief and saying something.”

Did you notice how the lyrics jump from one thing to another, almost like scrolling through your TikTok feed? One question rings out through the song, and it’s existentially louder than the loudness of the beat of the bass. “Oh, will this help me lay down.” What kind of laying down is Matty Healy after? A good night’s sleep? A way to numb when the apathy doesn’t work any longer? Or maybe something deeper? Perhaps what Matty dares to mention is that he needs some real rest from the anxiety of being tangled in the complex hairball of a world.

He decides to venture into the explicitly faith-based conversation in the song, “If I Believe You.” The song, with noticeably gospel undertones demonstrating that Matty Healy is a student of music itself, wrestles with not just existential realities of modern existence but with the epistemological reality of Jesus being actually real: “And if I believe you / will you make it stop? / If I told you I need you / is that what you want? / And I’m broken and bleeding / And I’m begging for help / And I’m asking you, Jesus, show yourself / If I’m lost then how can I find myself?”

 

Relationships in a Lonely World

The 1975 songs run the topical gamut, but like any good band, there’s no shortage of relational heartbreak in their songs, which is in and of itself a direct parallel to our world. “Somebody Else” is their most famous hit, and the song captures the rawness of heartbreak at the end of a relationship. Matty cries: “I’m looking through you, while you’re looking through your phone, and then leaving with somebody else.” He continues, “Our love has grown cold / You’re intertwining your soul with somebody else.”

Notice that the language here is not only about bodies…it’s about souls. There’s a veiled recognition, if only metaphorically, that there’s something more at play than just bodies intertwining in relational intimacy. Instead, it’s the heartbreak of a relationship not only ending with only a separation of bodies but with pain that can only be explained by the ripping apart of souls. And the torture when that body moves onto someone else’s body is that their soul is now intertwined with someone else. One only writes and sings these lyrics out of a profound sense of loneliness.

To a thoughtful listener, these lyrics suggest there is perhaps a better strategy for relational intimacy other than using our bodies as an immediate answer to our felt loneliness and our beautiful need for intimacy. In my mind, this lyric suggests that our other needs for security, safety, acceptance, and commitment, must also be cared for. Our souls need to be cared for beyond our need for intimacy. The Christian faith has something to say about this. Intimacy is designed to be experienced only after entering into a covenant relationship of safety, acceptance, commitment, and security.

 

Longing in a Postmodern Age

The 1975 puts language to a generation that if they know anything, they know great longing. Longing for more than mind-numbing screen scrolling. Longing for more than lackluster online relationships. Longing for more purpose than collecting material items. Longing for more than a warm body to lie next to at night. Longing for more than political agendas and political theater. Longing for systems that care and value instead of control and oppress.

Secularism and postmodernism leaves us with a longing. Some have said that in the loss of faith in this age, all we have to long for is longing itself. Is longing all we have? Well, the 1975 gives me a different perspective. Matty Healy, the rebellious figure he is, sees the Christian faith and Jesus as a concrete reality that could potentially offer a healing balm to the open wound of longing. And this means that with this type of longing, the longing can lead to real hope.

 

A Real Hope for Real Longing

As Christians, we need to continue to demonstrate, in our lives and with our words, how Jesus is the hope that meets a generation defined by their longing. This is nothing new…it has been done throughout the history of the church. Augustine once talked about his longings and how Jesus meets them:

“What do I love when I love my God?…
It’s not physical beauty or temporal glory or the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, or the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, or the gentle odor of flowers and ointments and perfumes, or manna or honey, or limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God.
Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God – a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.”

Augustine says our longings reveal that we are concerned by (and longing for) that which concerns us (and we long for) most: God. And he also says more directly: Jesus is the one answer to all our longings. Indeed, may our longings lead us to him, and may a generation defined by their longing become a generation defined by their longings met in Jesus Christ.

Two Tools to Fight the Darkness

Two Tools to Fight the Darkness

The world is a dark place. I could prove it by asking you to open your news app of choice and scroll a few headlines, but I don’t even have to do that. We know that the world is a dark place because we’ve lived it. Experienced it. Felt it closing in upon us. 

There is nothing quite like that, is there? The darkness closing in, squeezing us, suffocating us. 

I’ve felt that, and I don’t think I’m alone. It’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful for the beautiful promise of hope we receive in the prologue of the Apostle John’s brilliant gospel.

John 1:5 “The light (Jesus!) shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”

I know there are times where it feels as though darkness has won. Times where it looks like the light of Jesus has been snuffed out like a candle that is no longer needed. Times where all indications are that the darkness has actually extinguished the light. I know that’s true, but John 1:5 is a promise of God. It’s his Word. And what God says, he does. 

Later in John’s gospel, Jesus plainly and boldly declares himself to be “the light of the world” (John 8:12), and as such, he is our ultimate hope and resource in the battle against darkness. 

When you are in the deepest, darkest valley, remember that Jesus, your good shepherd and the light of the world, is WITH you, his rod and his staff protecting you, keeping the light from going out. 

Do you need that good news encouragement today? I know I do. 

And there is more good news, too. Even as Jesus — the true light of the world — is our ultimate resource against the darkness, he is not our only resource. No, indeed, God is a good father who desires to give good gifts to his children, including multiple resources to wage war against the darkness.

Here are two of them, and they are a bit unique, so stick with me. God gives us the gift of friendship and music as resources to help push back the darkness. 

I’m going to be honest: I stayed up WAY too late earlier this summer for two nights in a row binge-watching volume one of the fourth season of Stranger Things. Now I know that show isn’t for everyone, but even if you’ve never watched one minute of one episode, everyone needs to know that it is one of the most beautiful depictions of sacrificial friendship in modern media. 

The theme of friendship is fleshed out in every season in many different characters, relationships, narrative arcs, and more. None were as compelling to me as a young girl named Max and her journey to realize how badly she needs her friends. 

The villain in season four zeroed in on young people with different types of dark, painful trauma in their past, convincing them that they were nothing more than these dark moments. Max’s friends  discovered that music (one of the resources, remember!) helps break this villain’s hold on their friends. Max’s narrative arc powerfully coalesces with the beauty of friendship and music, helping her push back (and escape!) the darkness.

 I so want to provide a link to the scene… but it’s just a bit too intense.

So instead, let’s conclude by reflecting just a bit more on the idea of beauty. Why is friendship a resource against the darkness? Why is music? There are lots of reasons, but one is because true friendship and excellent music are both such pure expressions of beauty. And beauty leads us to light, not darkness.

Isn’t that true of Jesus, too? Who is more beautiful than Jesus? Not in physical form (Isaiah 53:2), but in life lived. Track with me: Jesus is the beautiful light of the world who was an incredible friend (John 15:13) who I’m sure also loved excellent music. Probably, anyway. 

So the next time you feel the darkness closing in, whisper a prayer of “help!” to Jesus, the light of the world, schedule a coffee meet up with a good friend, and on the drive over, listen to “Running up that Hill” by Kate Bush.

Afflicted, But Not Crushed

Afflicted, But Not Crushed

I am weak and weary. In the last two months, we almost had a house fire, sickness, grief on both sides of extended family, weird medical issues, multiple unexpected bills, no AC during the May heatwave…I think that’s the complete list! The last two months have been rough. Well, the last 13 months have been rough. Okay, actually the last two years and three months have been rough.

I know I’m not alone in feeling that it’s been a tough season. This is a theme for many of us. Since COVID turned the world upside down, anything else on top of that feels heavier. Then there’s the awful turmoil in the world, the shootings, the accidents, and the unending heartaches that remind us that our world is broken.

We will have troubles in this world, and Jesus himself reminds us of that truth in John 16:33. As followers of Christ we are not promised protection from loss, death, or crushed dreams. We will feel sadness and grief. We will feel the weight of the unknowns. We look forward to heaven when everything sad will come untrue and pray with great desire “Come, Lord Jesus.”

But what about today when the weight of it all is so very heavy?

2 Corinthians 4:7-10 offers beautiful hope for us when we feel like we have nothing left. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

There are many pieces of good news here! Let’s break it down:

1) The treasure is Jesus and his power, not me or my abilities. Imagine a clay jar with a little candle inside. Put the lid on, and that light is dimmed. Now imagine there is a crack in that clay jar. Even when you put the lid on, the light shines brightly through that crack. That is me … an imperfect, broken clay jar. It is his power that does anything good in me and through me, not because of anything I do. When I am at my weakest, his power shines through the broken vessel that I am.

2) We are afflicted, perplexed (oh my goodness, yes), persecuted, struck down … but NOT crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed. Wow! I am so much more hopeful when I live in the tension that we will have hardships, but it won’t take all from us. What is our all? Well, that leads to another point in this little passage.

3) We carry with us the death of Jesus, SO THAT the life of Jesus may also be manifested in us! Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection is our hope in life and death. Every day we can live as free sons and daughters because of what he did for us, and absolutely no one can take that away. And WE are doing this together! As a family of believers, we come alongside and cheer one another on to live for Christ. We support one another when life is joyous and when life is rough. We are the body of Christ and we carry these burdens together (Galatians 6:2).

How do we get rooted (and stay rooted) in Christ? First, we cling to Jesus. Read the Bible (ask a pastor or community group leader how to do this!) and pray daily. Second, say yes to being part of a community of believers. Do this by committing to going to church weekly and get into a Bible study or community group. No one is meant to follow Christ alone!

My last suggestion is one that I learned from my sweet Grandpa. Pray that the Lord would give you a verse or a song in your heart each day. Especially in moments when we are weak we need to repeat truths to ourselves. Pray back the Scripture to the Lord or sing the song to him. Proclaim it! Some excellent verses to start with are Psalm 62:5-6, 1 Corinthians 15:58, and Romans 8:28-29, and, of course, 2 Corinthians 4:7-10. Keep the verse close by writing it on an index card and keep it in your back pocket throughout the day. And some favorite hymns are “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” and “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.”

This world will try to take our joy and our hope, and it will if we are not rooted in Christ and allow him to be our only hope. So, my dear brothers and sisters, let’s give our weak and tired selves to the One who offers life, and allow his light to shine through. Without him we will be crushed. With him, we have hope!

The Holy Spirit Points Me Back, Even When I’ve Lost My Way

The Holy Spirit Points Me Back, Even When I’ve Lost My Way

I’m a runaway. When I accepted Christ at the age of thirteen, I recall the pastor celebrating my decision and describing its impact on my life. He spoke of how my heart would long to hear from God. The pastor told me that I would seek God in the Scriptures and that my kindness, forgiveness, and thoughtfulness would reflect Jesus. The pastor’s words should have given me confidence and hope about my relationship with God.

 

However, his words fueled me to fear disappointing God and meeting His expectations. I was not trained in spiritual disciplines, and my faith was immature. Sunday school stories made God feel angry and judgmental to me. As I entered the baptism waters before our congregation, I tried to put all of my worry behind me and clung to the promises the pastor described. I had barely made it through the car ride home after church when bickering and frustration with my siblings bubbled into anger that burst from me. Immediately, I was so full of shame and grief over not pleasing Jesus that I ran away. Ran away from my family. Ran away from God. Ran away from believing there was anyone who could guide me. 

 

This was the first of many times I would run away from my faith because I felt alone, lost without understanding spiritual disciplines, and lacking guidance to draw me home to the Father.

 

The twist and turns of the human heart are filled with our ancestors’ amnesia for forgetting our God knows our hearts and paths. His plan is for the Spirit to help us, intercede for us, and bring us back to the Father.

 

Never Alone

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever.” John 14:16

 

We are never alone. The world applauds autonomy, but God designed us for dependence. Maturing followers of Christ must be aware of modeling dependence on God when we put on display seeking God with the Spirit in prayer, the study of Scriptures, handling our emotions around disappointments, or supporting others. We can counter the world’s celebration of being self-reliant and independent, where Satan can stir up glory in our minds and greed in our hearts. 

 

Jesus knew his apostles and followers were anxious to be left alone. So he spoke the words of John 14:16 as a promise that through the Spirit, we have a helper and guide on God’s narrow path.

 

Word Warrior

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Romans 8:26

 

When we lose our way, we can also lose the words to describe what is occurring in our hearts and minds. Romans 8 is a powerful reminder that the Spirit intercedes where our words and emotions fail. We can find it hard to process our feelings and frustrations into words. The Spirit takes the raw groanings of our hearts and emotions and communicates to God on our behalf. I’ve learned to create stillness before God by repeating aloud, “Be still and know I am God.” I focus on my breathing and drop one word from the phrase each time I repeat it until only the word “Be” is left. Then I sit and let the Spirit comfort and speak to me.

 

Abba Father

“And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Galatians 4:6

 

The Spirit leads us to move toward God, our perfect Father. We know we have arrived at the destination at the end of most paths because there will be a home, park, marker, or person who lets you know you made it.  

 

The first time I ran away, I recall crying so hard that sobs caught in my throat. Words couldn’t escape, and my mind raced with distorted thoughts of being unlovable, unseen, and unworthy. I was messy, dusty, tear-stained, and worn out from imagining God’s disappointment when I knocked on the door of the house at the end of the road. 

 

The Spirit never left me in my sadness. Instead, it directed my feet to a path that my mind didn’t recognize until the door opened. Blinded by the sun and eyes almost swollen shut from crying, I was welcomed inside, invited to sit, and given a cup of water to refresh me. A cool washcloth softly wiped away my tears as my grandma whispered, “Child, you have walked a long way.” My grandma comforted me, listened to me, and prayed for me in the minutes that followed. Then, I was surprised as my mother came through the door with a suitcase and sat in the chair across from me. I could not have anticipated what happened next.

 

She laid the suitcase down, opened the locks, and revealed clothing packed for her and me. She knelt before me and took my hand, saying, “Wherever you go, I go too. I have been searching for you and love you. We can continue on this path together or go home.” 

 

Home. The work of the Spirit can feel so mysterious, but reflecting on this memory, I see the beauty of God in the person of the Spirit. A faith journey toward God is through the power of the Spirit, who is always with me. The Helper guides me toward God, whether the path is through valleys or on mountain peaks. And Abba Father receives the prodigal wanderer at the end of the journey.

What Psalm 131 Teaches Us About Humility and Rest

What Psalm 131 Teaches Us About Humility and Rest

My heart is not proud, Lord,

    my eyes are not haughty;

I do not concern myself with great matters

    or things too wonderful for me.

But I have calmed and quieted myself,

    I am like a weaned child with its mother;

    like a weaned child I am content.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord

both now and forevermore.   Psalm 131:1-3 NIV

 

There is something about Psalm 131 that has spoken to me over the past few years. It’s a psalm for those Brennan Manning describes at the beginning of his book The Ragamuffin Gospel: “It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker. It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.” It’s a psalm for me.

Psalm 131 isn’t for the super spiritual…it’s a psalm that guides the Christians who need the help returning to a place of humility and rest in God over and over again. It’s also a psalm that reminds us to reorient all of our hopes and center them around a different kind of Hope. 

There are a total of 15 psalms of ascents, which were to be sung as the Israelites ascended or made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for annual festivals. Psalm 131, one of four psalms of ascents attributed to David himself, is the second shortest psalm in the book of Psalms. Here’s how David starts this tri-versed song:

Verse 1: “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; 

When I first read this verse I was confused. It’s almost that David is proudly declaring that he’s not proud! Well, that’s in fact what the early church father Jerome thought; in essence, he figured David was proud of himself for being humble. The church fathers typically have lovely insights, but in this case, to be puffed up about one’s own humility is an oxymoron. You can’t be prideful about being humble; that’s just pride, too. 

I don’t think that’s what is happening here. David is not prideful about being humble. Instead, what David is doing is speaking to his own heart. He’s telling something to his soul, and at the same time, vocalizing it to God. Ultimately, he’s recognizing that his heart has adopted an inner posture of humility. 

This becomes more clear as David keeps going: “my eyes are not haughty.” This isn’t haughty like a hottie. Haughty means puffed up. Vain. Arrogance. David is really just saying, “I don’t look down upon others. I don’t feel the need to be better than others anymore. I don’t feel the need to compare myself to others to make myself feel better anymore. I don’t feel the need to compete for attention anymore.” David is putting words to an inner disposition. For whatever reason, whatever the circumstance, he’s been pushed out of a posture of pride and into a posture of humility. 

He goes on. “I do not concern myself with great matters…”

Great matters. When I think of great matters, I think of the big questions of life that we all have. Why does this happen and not this? Why does this person get cancer and this person doesn’t? Why does this person get promoted or get this chance, and this person doesn’t? Big questions. These questions take a toll on us because life is not fair. We can’t predict life, and therefore it befuddles us. We can’t come up with a reliable pattern. 

What David is saying here encompases the big theological questions, too. How is it that I can have a choice, and yet God holds me accountable for my choices? Nothing surprises God and at the same time everything is in His sovereign will…how can that possibly be? 

Christians have been studying these things intensely for hundreds of years, and so for some theological questions we have helpful answers. Simultaneously, what David is effectively saying is something very simple: “I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have all the things figured out and you know what? I can’t. I can’t explain everything.”   

In the past few years of my life, I’ve resonated with this verse. Sometimes it’s a relief to not have to explain the world. Sometimes it’s a relief to not have to try to make sense of everything. Many times I have tried to make sense of everything to the point it just wears me out. But, I’ve gotten older and experienced more of life, I’ve come to realize that we really do live in a fractured world. It’s a broken world, and you know what? I don’t need to be perpetually surprised by that. 

David continues: “or things too wonderful for me.” This really means, “things beyond myself.” Things beyond yourself. 

Job says something very similar at the end of the book that carries his name. After everything happens, after all the hardship goes down, Job finds himself wanting to put God on trial for the things he has experienced. In a wild turn of events, God shows up to court, and He has some questions for Job. Job’s response to those questions goes like this: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me.

There is something in this verse about embracing our limitations. Can we embrace our limitations? Or is that shameful for us? 

In the United States, we aren’t comfortable with limitations. We are always supposed to take on more and do more….more is always better. We really like the passage, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” We get tattoos of that one don’t we? How many people are getting tattoos of this verse in Psalm 131? 

Again, I’ve been put in situations when I’ve had to learn to understand that I have limitations: emotionally, physically, and even intellectually. I was always a really good student and I got into the number one ranked university when I graduated from high school. However, when I got to seminary, I remember sitting in a classroom with other graduate students and thinking that I was not the smartest person in the room and I couldn’t even pretend that I was. For whatever reason, I felt ashamed about that. Over time, I had to learn to ask myself an important question.  Can I embrace my limitations and actually be okay with them? 

Can you embrace your limitations? Are you constantly comparing yourself to those around you? Are you competing with your friends or coworkers? Are you looking on Instagram and Facebook, seeing the lives of some of your friends, and feeling jealous about their ability to travel or have the freedom they do? Can you embrace the limits of time you have in one day? 

There’s relief and joy found in embracing who we are, how God has gifted us, where He has placed us, and what He has given us. All of those are bound with some limitations…and there’s a recognition here that these limitations are actually good.

David has learned to choose this posture of rest, and he says it like this: “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”

He carries on in the second verse: “I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” 

I’ve never had a child (shocker…I’m a 30 year old man living in a one bedroom apartment in River Market). But from what I know about it, weaning is a long, painful process. Weaning is basically teaching the child that their mom isn’t just a giant milk machine, which can result in the child just crying and crying incessantly. But it’s a process that ends in the calm, resignation of the weaned child and its mother. So the image we are supposed to get here is the image of an exhausted, calmed, trusting child, resting on its mother’s chest. 

Here’s the jump. In our dependence on God, we tend to see Him as a giant milk machine in the sky. Sometimes we say oh God I just wish you’d do this. Just change this for me. If only you’d make X happen, then I’d be ok. I think at times those prayers are totally fine. But there also comes a point in our lives where God says to us:

“You know that thing that I’ve given you before, well I’m not going to give it to you anymore. It’s time to grow up. You have to learn to let go of that. Why? Because I want something even better for you. I want you to want me for me. I don’t want you to want me only for the stuff I give you.” 

This maturation process is always difficult. There are times my prayer life has looked like crying, complaining, and just a lot of frustration. These times, painful and long as they can be, always end up with me in calm resignation. I once again find myself resting in the arms of my Father. 

What David is getting at here is a bit of what I think St John of the Cross writes about in The Dark Night of the Soul. The dark night of the soul is a period that feels like abandonment but is actually a progression into the fellowship of God. This is a part of what it looks like to mature as Christians. When God doesn’t meet our immediate need in the way we want, or our plan A doesn’t work out, we are challenged to learn a new kind of dependence and hope. 

The journey of the Christian faith always comes back to hope, and our psalm ends with a call to hope, too. 

“O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.” 

For David, hope is only found in one place. In the Lord. There is a hope that will never fail us. Our plans will fail us. Our jobs. Our friends. Our own bodies. But there’s one place that we can put our hope that will never fail us. 

We have limitations, but there is One who doesn’t have limitations. We try to make sense of the world and can’t, but there is One in whom and for whom all makes sense. We are the ones who struggle with self-centeredness, pride, self-pity, and all that comes with trying to do things completely on our own, but there is One, who is always waiting for us to return and rest our heads on His chest. 

Friends, our hope is in the Lord. David reminds himself, and the people of God not to forget where real hope lies. 

“O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.” 

Where’s your hope? Do you need rest? There’s Someone eagerly waiting for you to rest your head on His chest. He’s always there, and He always beckons you to himself.