Rhizomatic Faith

I fell in love with milkweeds in Kansas City. About a dozen species can be found in the fields and ditches. The bright orange of the butterfly-weed flashed like a neon light in a sea of prairie, but my delight was always the seedpods of the common milkweed. In the fall the big grey pods crack and release white, gossamer-winged seeds into the wind. A few lines from a Richard Wilbur poem helped me connect the milkweed seeds to my faith:

                                    Anonymous as cherubs

                                    Over the crib of God

                                    White seeds are floating

                                    Out of my burst pod.

                                    What power had I

                                    Before I learned to yield?

                                    Shatter me, great wind,

                                    I shall possess the field.

That plain and broken pods can release such beauty to the wind encourages me.

Recently, however, it has been the roots and rhizomes of the milkweed that have taught me. Several years ago I ordered some showy milkweed seeds. Milkweed plants are the sole food of the monarch butterfly caterpillar—one of North America’s largest and most beautiful butterflies. Their black and crisp orange wings fly high and far. Monarchs are amazing because of their north/south migration. They winter in Mexico and southern California, but their migration depends on milkweed for nectar and for reproduction, so I planted some milkweed in one of our flower beds.

In the beginning the milkweed did not impress. The first year the plants struggled and grew only seven or eight inches, so I moved them into the elevated growing beds that get full sun. There they grew a couple feet high but did not bloom. The third year they grew almost four-feet high and were loaded with blossoms and seeds. I have harvested the seeds and sown some around Myrtle Point.

Then came the rhizomes. This spring sprouts of milkweed came up throughout the growing bed even eight feet away from where the milkweed was last year. I have done my best to dig up and transplant the roots and long white rhizomes. To my dismay, I discovered the rhizomes going two to three feet deep into dirt. I could not dig deep enough to get it all out of my raised bed.

The good news, at least for monarchs, is that I now have about thirty milkweed plants growing along the back fence. The bad news is that every morning I must pull out new shoots of milkweed that are coming up in our beans and carrots. I have been persecuting the milkweed daily for weeks. The rhizomes are unstoppable.

Despite the bother, I admire these muscular rhizomes that push horizontally through the dirt and send up new plants in unexpected places. God has challenged me to have a more rhizomatic faith that pushes through the hard stuff, waits patiently for the rain, and produces new life in surprising places. More of my faith needs to be in the hidden places of deep repentance, gritty faithfulness, and earnest prayer.

Just as we can’t see the growth of the rhizomes, we can’t measure our own spiritual growth during hard times. It is the growth of the kingdom that comes from praying and believing when all we see is dirt. It is the ground-breaking faith of perseverance and endurance in the face of persecution. It is unstoppable. I don’t know if monarch caterpillars will ever find a home on my milkweed. It’s been several years since I saw a monarch fluttering across Maple Street. It is a long-shot—an act of faith. But monarchs are known as the wandering butterfly, so there is a chance. Like the rhizomes of the milkweed, they can surprise us with their beauty and hope.

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I Don’t Know What to Do

“Where’s doggy?” Ari asked again with the persistence of a three-year old. He had gone with us to the vet when we took Mira to be euthanized. Too filled with my own grief and choking on my tears, I had been vague and told him that she stayed “at the vet.” This time I just said, “She died.”

His brown eyes softened into sadness. He said, “I am sad. I don’t know what to do.” I told him, “Papa is sad too.” Sorrow furrowed his brow. I saw the wisdom of his declaration.

We have protocols and platitudes for the death of a loved one. It is hard to know what to do with the grief and loss that comes with the death of a dog. She was a big one—a Doberman—and has been a big part of our lives these last ten years.

She was first Peter’s dog but came to live with us because Peter couldn’t keep her where he had moved to Portland. Ari saw Peter weep today as we pulled away from the Coquille Animal Hospital. He asked, “Daddy sad?” Ari was worried and puzzled. His innocent and gentle question brought more tears and sharpened the grief we all felt.

Mira had also been mother’s dog for a while. When both Teckla and I were working, Mira would keep Mom company. Mira would jump on Mom’s little bed; sometimes leaving Mom only the edge to lie on. Mira had all the protective instincts of a Doberman; she made Mom feel safe at home. She called, Mira, her “diggity-doggity” because she dug holes in the yard. After Mom’s stroke, we took Mira to the nursing home to visit.

The last few years, it is fair to say, Mira has been my dog. We hiked miles together on the beach and in the woods of the southern coast. Two years ago, we took her camping with us at Washburn State Park on the central coast of Oregon. When off the leash in the woods, her delight in the trail became my delight. She ran with long, powerful strides and a grace that was a joy to watch.

Mornings Mira would follow me into what once was Mom’s room and is now my place of prayer. As soon as I sat down, she would nuzzle her head between my knees as I scratched behind her ears and told her she was good girl. Just being with me seemed everything to her. I grew closer to God.

Mira was eleven years old and had developed some lumps and bumps, but until this last ten days had been wonderfully active and agile. But she stopped eating. Tests showed she was battling an internal infection and liver failure. Her end came suddenly.

So here we are, in a house where powerful legs have scratched and sculpted doors. A car with dog pad and partition in the back, leashes, a harness, bowls, dog food, and the fat yellow ball she loved to chase. Clipped to my day pack is the whistle I blew when I lost sight of her in the woods. She won’t come to the whistle again. I don’t know what to do.

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Rain, Seeds, and Prayer

You see the rain differently when you have seeds in the ground. The springs rains here in Myrtle Point are different than those in the Midwest. Here the rains can last all day, sometimes for several days. Lumpy gray clouds blanket the coastal range and sag into the river valleys. Therefore, a sunny day is always a delight.

But recently, the rains brought me delight because several days earlier Teckla and I had planted our garden. We pushed our beans into the soil and sprinkled our carrot seeds. The rains brought the promise of sprouts and growth. Having seeds in the ground made me grateful for the rain.

Neither Teckla nor I are great gardeners; our garden is more of a spiritual discipline than a practical source of food. I am afraid to do the cost/benefit analysis. Jesus, however, makes great use of sowing, tending, and harvesting to illustrate principles of the kingdom. My thanksgiving for the rain was instructive.

Prayers like seeds disappear. Both are an expression of faith. And in both cases, there is delay that can test our patience. Some beans get pushed too deep and don’t sprout until the second or third rain. Some seeds don’t sprout at all. There are birds, rats, and slugs.

Prayers are seeds, but so are small acts of kindness and little expressions of faithfulness. Just as planting seeds changed my attitude toward the rain, prayers and faithfulness can change our attitudes toward the future. I do not know how or when or whether all my prayers will be answered—when something will poke out of the soil, grow, and bear fruit. But I know I will rejoice in the sprouting and share in the harvest.

By word and example, I have tried to sow the truth of God’s Word into the lives of my children. I think the rain that has nourished those seeds has sometimes come as blessings and sometimes as hardships. But in either case, I rejoice when I see them turn to God and walk in His ways. I share in this harvest.

Whenever and however God moves in Myrtle Point (or the other places for which I pray), I know I share in the harvest because of the hours I have spent interceding for God’s visitation. When we have lots of good seed in the ground, we rejoice in the rain.

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Praying Large

In a crisis our world contracts. I can best compare this to a time I almost passed out. I had just gotten over a cold and decided to hit the weight room for a hard work-out. I had been sitting on a bench in the locker-room. When I stood up, I felt dizzy and everything began going dark in my peripheral vision. I could only see what was right in front of me; everything else was darkness. I carefully sat down, took slow deep breaths, and waited for the darkness to pass.

Something like this happens in a crisis. All we see is the thing we fear; all we feel is our pain. It is suffocating. When a parent fears losing a child to sickness, disease, or even sin and rebellion, it is hard to pray for anything but the child. Their cancer, addiction, or rebellion descends on our soul like a grey cloud until the ache of our heart consumes us.

Any talk on praying in a crisis should first declare that there are times when we can’t pray—times when we have no words. It is okay to let others pray for us or to just hurt in God’s presence. When pain and fear cripple us, it is okay to let others lower us into the presence of Jesus. We can let their faith break through the roof of our depression and discouragement.

But sometimes a crisis moves like lava creeping down a hillside. A loved one’s dementia, cancer, or series of strokes can unfold slowly over months or years. It is here where it becomes important for us to pray larger than our crisis. We can’t let our heart be shut up in our own suffering.

For me this has meant deliberately and earnestly interceding for people and things not directly connected to me or my situation. Recently, I have been praying for an outpouring of God’s Spirit in Tel Aviv, Olathe (Ks), and Kansas City. I also pray for a few people that I don’t know well and don’t see often. Praying larger than my crisis has helped me. Our pain can create a kind of claustrophobia—a creeping panic. Fear and pain can lock us in a small gray place, but praying beyond our crisis opens a window. I am not saying praying large vanquishes discouragement or fear, but it helps. It isn’t victory, but it has the fragrance of victory. When I refuse to let my heart shrivel to the size of my pain, the enemy loses. Just as resurrection robs death of its sting, love robs suffering of its bite.

When we refuse to stop loving and we pray larger than our crisis, we become more like Jesus who on the cross prayed for those who crucified him. In the midst of His suffering, injustice, and isolation, the heart of Jesus carried the whole world in prayer. If we follow the example of Jesus, the pain and fear that could cripple our prayer life can empower it.

Our prayer and declaration should be Psalm 119:32: “I shall run the way of Your commandments, for you will enlarge my heart.”

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Weak Things

Sometimes I hate being a Christian. I grew up on Tarzan, Robin Hood, and Zorro, men of action stories. Bad guys were, well, bad and always got what is coming to them. Heroes did stuff and were men of few words. They let their fists, swords, or guns do the talking. Those were the days before Clint Eastwood learned to act, but he could tell punks, “Make my day!”

Today most the punks I face down are, to be honest, demons and sin. And even worse, all my weapons are weak things. No swords, guns, or hand grenades. I have, reluctantly, embraced the weak things God offers. Here are a few of them.

Prayer: I pray regularly, and fervently, but it feels weak. Most my prayers are for those tangled and mired in sin. Some prayers are for drug addicts I know. I don’t fully understand how my agonized prayers intersect with the free-will of those for whom I pray, but I pray. I do not feel like a “prayer warrior”—more like a praying beggar. I do some of that taking authority and standing-on-the-promises kind of praying, but I often feel as if I am acting a part.

Kneeling: I need all the help I can get, and kneeling helps me. Perhaps if I were more spiritual, I wouldn’t need the help. Kneeling humbles me. Although a weak thing with no magic, bending my body towards God helps my soul bend. This weak thing is a weapon against pride and self-reliance. Even though it is the ultimate picture of weakness, kneeling has some power.

Fasting: I do not do this well even though I have done it often. I can not report any spiritual breakthrough ever happening while fasting or because of fasting. I get hungry and irritable. And my prayers while fasting are no more energized than any other time. But I give my hunger to God as a prayer and leave it in his hands. I trust Him, but do not find fasting a source of spiritual power. That may be okay, since it isn’t about me.

Kindness: Sometimes I fight for those I love with kindness. In my experience, kindness has not changed hearts or stopped destructive impulses in others. I really have no victory stories regarding kindness. But small acts of kindness or generosity feel like lighting a match in the darkness, even when I get burned.

Perseverance: This is just putting one foot in front of another. It’s praying again, giving again, loving again. It is outlasting evil. Scripture often calls this being steadfast. It isn’t flashy. I am old enough to value this more than I once did. My heart has been broken when believers, even respected leaders, give up, plunge into sin, or just walk away from God. I have also experienced the solid encouragement of those who have walked faithfully with God over the years.

Patience: Ugh. So often this feels like letting others use you. It often means not standing up for your rights. Patience often requires that I bite my tongue. It also means doing another weak thing—waiting upon the Lord. Waiting is not a “man of action” thing. It means resisting the urge to jump into other people’s lives and fix things. Ugh.

Blessing: I would rather smack than bless those who curse me. But Jesus says to bless them. My blessings don’t seem to change them or help them. But what do I know? To quote Hamlet, “words, words, words.” Here in the west we think words wield no power. This is not the biblical view. So I bless, and ask God to bless. For what it’s worth.

Thanksgiving: Complaining has more bite. Counting your blessings seems so trite. But I have embraced thanksgiving as a discipline. It is salve for my blind eyes. It helps me see the goodness of life and the goodness of God. It keeps me from the stupid sins of greed, envy, and selfish ambition. Thanksgiving may not slay giants, but it shuts my complaining mouth.

Scripture: God’s Word has helped. Each morning I pull out two 3×5 cards and write down a verse for the day. Some are promises, others exhortations. Teckla and I read them over, maybe talk a little about them, and then stuff them in our pocket. Nothing magic happens. The card is no talisman. By the end of the day, the cards are bent and crumpled. We now have a couple fat stacks of worn cards rubber-banded together. It seems like a weak little thing to do, but it has carried us through some dark days.

Love: Paul says, “Love never fails.” Okay. But what is it that love never fails at? Did God’s love fail to bring Israel to repentance? It seems so. Could my love fail to bring all my sons to salvation? I think so. Whether one believes in predestination or not, it seems there is no guarantee that our love and prayers will move God to save our children. Love that can’t save those we love seems like a weak thing. But I still embrace love as the best thing, the most powerful thing I have in my collection of weak things. Maybe only eternity will reveal how strong it is.

Me: By now you have probably figured out that the only truly weak thing in this list is me. It is a sign of my spiritual weakness and immaturity that all these things seem weak to me. I possess no deep revelation of how powerful prayer can be or of how it is that love never fails. I think too much like the world and lack the spiritual eyes to see how powerful the “weak things” of God really are. But I am praying for that to change.

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Loving Smeagol–and Addicts

Odd, as it may seem, reading J. R. R. Tolkien has helped me love meth addicts—of which there are many in Myrtle Point. Tom Shippey’s book, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, argues that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings addresses surprisingly modern issues even though written by an antiquarian professor of Old English. Shippey asserts Tolkien may have given us one of the most insightful studies of the nature of addiction.

It is, of course, the power of the Ring that is addictive. The Ring can capture and submerge the identity of the user. We see this powerfully in the character of Gollum. Gollum was the name others gave him when they heard him making gurgling sounds. His original hobbit name is Smeagol. Throughout The Lord of the Rings we see a battle between these two identities. Peter Jackson’s movie makes this battle come alive in several scenes where Gollum and Smeagol argue fiercely over whether to betray Frodo and Sam.

I have seen this: the drug personality at war with the God-given personality. I have eaten dinner and had polite conversation with an addict who a few months later viciously beat and robbed an old man who lived up the street. I have seen how lying and stealing to get drug money changes a person’s heart and mind. Here addicts lose their names to “tweaker or junkie”. Sadly, many meth addicts also end up looking like Gollum.

Tolkien shows the utter depravity of Gollum, while at the same time insisting that Gollum must be shown mercy. Every attempt to cure him must be made. Pity and mercy demand it. Gandalf insists Gollum is not wholly ruined, “There was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as through a chink in the dark: light out of the past.” I have learned to pray that addicts will have memories of light. Teckla and I once threw a birthday party for a local meth addict. His smile was beautiful—full of light from better days.

Gandalf says, however, that Gollum “hated the dark, and he hated the light even more: he hated everything and the Ring most of all.” Frodo asks Gandalf why Gollum didn’t just get rid of the ring if he hated it so much. Gandalf explains, “He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself.” Like Frodo, I am baffled why drug addicts, who hate their addiction, don’t just stop using. But like drug addicts, Gollum “could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter.” Addicts, I have discovered, love and hate themselves. Heaping shame on them doesn’t help.

It is easy for us to just want to be rid of addicts. Frodo’s initial response to the story of Gollum is “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature when he had a chance!” Frodo goes on to insist that Gollum deserves death. Gandalf agrees: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? The do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.” Later Frodo remembers these words of Gandalf and shows pity and mercy to Gollum—hoping to bring him back to Smeagol.

It becomes easier for Frodo to show mercy to Gollum after Frodo has worn the ring and has felt its power. He understands the power of addiction and the bondage of the will. As much as I may not understand physical addiction to a drug, I understand sin—especially my own. I understand Jesus’ declaration, “Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” My Ring and my drug of choice is what Paul called his “old self.” When he looked at Gollum, Frodo saw himself—or at least what he could become. But Frodo also saw Smeagol—the young hobbit Gollum once was.

The tweakers and junkies that wander the streets of Myrtle Point may not deserve much. Neither do I. And they all have names—given by those who love them—sometimes given by God. Under the deformity of each Gollum is a Smeagol. Mercy and pity should move us to seek their cure. We must learn to love the Smeagols who were once happy hobbits.

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Kingly Gifts

Re-reading The Lord of the Rings while going through the darkest year of my life has led me to think about the kingly gifts that have sustained me. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is in many ways a story of gifts. Some gifts are simple and others astounding in their power and beauty. These gifts sustain Frodo in his quest and help him through the darkest times and places.  When Frodo visits Bilbo in Rivendell, Bilbo gives him two important gifts: an elven sword (named Sting) and a coat of mail made of mithril. The sword glows whenever orcs are near, and the coat of mail is light, beautiful, and strong.  

Other members of the fellowship don’t know Frodo is wearing this light coat of mail under his humble hobbit clothes—the gifts aren’t obvious. When explaining the value of the mithril mail, Gandalf says, “I never told him, but its worth was greater than the value of the Shire and everything in it.” Gimli declares the coat of mail a “kingly gift.” Frodo is “staggered to think that he had been walking around with the price of the Shire under his jacket.” And indeed, the coat of mail, nearly forgotten by Frodo, saves his life. Here I remember some kingly gifts that have saved me.

My father gave me a love for the church—God’s people. My father, a Church of the Nazarene pastor, had enough hard times with congregations and mean folks to sour forever his attitude toward the church, but he just kept loving and serving. His heart broke for God’s wayward people, and sometimes those people broke his heart. It was often what he didn’t say that revealed his deep love for God’s people. He taught me not to pull away—to be unoffendable. The love, prayers, and practical help of the Church have strengthened my heart and given me courage. I have been less alone.

My mother gave me a passion for Jesus. She would often pray, “God, help us to have radical obedience to your Son, Jesus.” Mom believed in complete surrender to God’s will, radical obedience to God’s Word and the voice of the Holy Spirit. If I had been, lukewarm, double-minded, or a half-hearted Christian, my faith would not have survived this last year. Anger, despair, and grief would have crushed me.

John Wesley Adams, who I met at Mid-America Nazarene College in 1980, gave me an absolute faith in the authority of God’s Word. Sometimes Teckla and I would come by his office and ask him questions about the book of Acts. Wes, a professor of New Testament, would carefully explain the most hermeneutically sound interpretation of the passage—no matter how much trouble it would cause. We asked, “Do you think the account of the church in the Acts is just history or is it normative? Should the church and evangelism depend on the power of the Holy Spirit today like it did then?” His declaration that Acts is normative has changed my life and defined my quest. Wes, by word and example, taught me to have the courage to trust God’s Word.

My brother Larry, a religion and philosophy major, taught me that I did not need to put my mind on a shelf to follow Jesus. Much of this gift was indirect: conversations about metaphysics at the dinner table, books left at the house left for college, and his example. By reading widely and exploring ideas boldly, Larry made me intellectually unafraid to go to graduate school at Washington State University. Yes, I was coming from a Christian college, but because of Larry I had already read Samuel Beckett, Allen Ginsberg, and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. I followed Larry’s example, and took two years of philosophy from a famously demanding professor. Because of Larry, I became intellectually unafraid.

My brother, Stanley, gave me a love of nature. Although ten years older than I, he would take me on nature walks around Milton-Freewater. He was a birdwatcher but knew the species of every tree and flower as well. Stanley was never about checklists or bragging rights; he loved nature for its own sake. Knowing the names of everything was just friendship with God’s creation. He taught me to see, know, and love nature. This delight in the natural world has enriched my life and made me at home wherever I go.

Far more precious than anything I inherited from my parents is the Holy Spirit—my inheritance in Christ as an adopted child. In this earthen, hobbit-like vessel is something more valuable than mithril. It is God himself living in me through the gift of the Holy Spirit. I have often wanted to cry out, “I can’t take anymore!” But God’s Spirit assures me that I am not alone and that it is not by my strength that I stand. When all the arguments of despair wash over me, the Holy Spirit speaks hope.

Like Frodo, I am staggered by the kingly gifts I have been given. And too often I forget them. In the midst of darkness and hardship, we might be surprised to discover the gifts we carry under our ragged hobbit clothes.

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Lauren Daigle, Mushroom-pickers, and Church as Staging Area

Recently I was listening to Lauren Daigle’s song “Rescue” on the radio (K-Light). As can happen with radio, her beautiful song was juxtaposed with news of the ongoing search for a lost mushroom picker. On the southern coast of Oregon, we have deep woods full of mushrooms: boletes, chanterelles, even pine mushrooms. Mushroom fever can easily lead pickers over one ridge and then another until they are lost and need to be rescued.

Daigle sings, “I will send out an army to find you in the middle of the darkest night.” We have experienced search and rescue teams that will quickly set up a staging area for the volunteers who show up to help with the search. Like the words of Daigle’s song, we send out an army to rescue the lost mushroom picker, child, or patient from a nursing home. We do whatever we must to find the lost. Daigle’s song speaks powerfully of how God hears our “SOS” and relentlessly pursues and rescues us in the darkness of our sin and unbelief.

Her song, and the news about a search for the mushroom picker, challenged me to think about ways that the local church should be more like a staging area for the search and rescue of the lost. I know it is an imperfect analogy and certainly doesn’t define every part of the church’s mission, but the comparison can be instructive.

First, search and rescue teams have a sense of urgency that the church often lacks. When temperatures are dropping, rescuers know they are on the clock and must rescue the lost before they succumb to hypothermia and exposure. Here in Coos County we have high rates of domestic, child, and drug abuse. We have high rates of depression and suicide.  We can not be casual about rescuing the lost. Urgency should muster an army and our resources.

Second, the search is intentional, united, and organized. People come together and work together to find the lost. A search is laid out on a grid so that available resources and people are used effectively. People are often paired up so that none of the searchers are at risk of getting lost or hurt.  In this county, however, it has been difficult to get churches to work together to reach the lost. If we could ever get all the pastors in the same room, we would discover there is no organized city-wide strategy for reaching people for Christ, addressing the homeless crisis, or setting free those enslaved to addiction. We are haphazard and that puts both the lost and the rescuers at risk. Our urgency should compel us to set aside our denominational and territorial differences and work together to rescue the lost and bring them into relationship with Jesus Christ.

Third, rescuers go. They don’t set in the staging area hoping that the lost wander in on their own. Occasionally this does happen, but it can never be the strategy of a search and rescue team. The staging area is important—it is where the rescuers are equipped with lights, maps, whistles, blankets, radios, and first aid kits. But if having a great staging area becomes our goal, we have missed the point. We must go.

It is true; many don’t know they are lost and do not want to be rescued. But many do know that things in their life are dark. Many have lost hope and direction. Many are crying out—but don’t know they are really crying out for God. Believers need to be a light in the darkness, warmth in the cold, a friendly voice to broken by loneliness. Sometimes we withdraw from the search thinking we searched everywhere and have cried the names of the lost until our voice fails. But with Lauren Daigle’s song, we need to declare, “There is no distance that cannot be covered over and over.” Our search and rescue mission needs to be as persevering and unswerving as God’s search for us.

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Nietzsche, Tom Bombadil and the Stronger Song.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously said of the church: “They would have to sing better songs to make me believe in their Redeemer.” Although wrong about much, Nietzsche is right about framing belief and salvation as contest of songs. J.R.R. Tolkien also understood this truth and embedded it in his stories. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s cosmology, all of creation is sung into existence. Even the evil song of Melkor that challenges the song of Iluvatar is blended into the over-powering song of creation. God, the creator, has a stronger song.

The contest of songs appears again in the story of Tom Bombadil.  Tom was excluded from the movies, so many may not remember this story from The Lord of the Rings. Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry had fled the Black Riders by heading into the Old Forest where they were soon lost. They came under the spell and song of the rotten-hearted Old Man Willow. Tom Bombadil, by accident or providence, came to the rescue.

 Everything about Tom, his bright blue jacket, his yellow boots, and his singing, are filled with joy. Desperately, Frodo explains that the Willow has trapped his friends. Tom replies, “That can soon be mended. I know the tune for him.” Tom sings his song into the Willow until the tree releases Frodo’s friends. Tom leads the hobbits out of the woods to his house.

The house of Tom Bombadil and his wife Goldberry is full of light, song, joy, and good food.  Singing becomes the common language. The hobbits “became suddenly aware that they were singing merrily, as if it was easier and more natural than talking.” The tired hobbits are refreshed and strengthened, their ponies fed. Before they leave, Tom gives them a song to sing if they face any danger:

            Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!

            By water, wood and hill , by the reed and the willow,

            By fire, son and moon, harken now and hear us!

            Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!

Before they go to bed, the hobbits all sing through the song after Tom. The next day they leave Tom and head off along the edge of the barrow-downs. The weather is warm and sunny, so they eat lunch in the shade of a standing stone where they fall asleep. When they awake, fog presses in on every side. They become separated from each other in the fog. Soon Frodo finds himself and his friends captured by a barrow-wight.

The barrow-wight sings a terrible song over them: “Strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable.” Frodo summons all his courage and with his sword hacks at the hand of the wight. Then in the darkness of the barrow, Frodo remembers and sings the song of deliverance Tom had taught them. Frodo soon hears the song of Tom Bombadil as though it were coming from far away:

            Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,

           Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow,

            None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master;

            His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.

            Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,

            Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!

            Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!

The barrow in which the hobbits are trapped falls open and stones roll away. The light of day breaks in. Tom then sings a song of exorcism:

            Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!

            Lost and forgotten be, darker than darkness,

            Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

The wight leaves with a long trailing shriek. Tom’s song was stronger.

Nietzsche has sung a sad and empty song that has influenced a lot of modern thought. He is, of course, famous for announcing the death of God in the modern area. Nietzsche was not declaring a literal death of God or even making a statement about God’s existence or non-existence. It was more a claim that God had become culturally and philosophically irrelevant. To some extent, this has become the case for the secularized West. However, in much of the developing world the Church is seeing extraordinary growth. God’s song is proving stronger.

Tolkien heartily disliked allegory, so you will find none here. However, he did allow that good stories can be applicable in many ways. We are all, I think, caught between two songs: the song of death and the song of life. We must make certain that we are listening to the song God sings over our life. In this story Tom Bombadil is not a Christ figure. However, Jesus, like Tom, sings a stronger song: one of love and adoption.

Like Tom, we are called to be singers and overflow with joy. Paul expresses this idea in his letter to the Ephesians: “But be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another, in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” Historically, every moving of God’s Spirit in revival has resulted in new hymns and stronger songs than those sung by the world. Songs have been both fuel and the fruit of revival. Prayer for revival is prayer for God to give the church a stronger song—one that transforms our communities and our nation.

But the song of death is powerful. A few years ago one of my students killed himself. He had made several attempts before but supposedly was getting help and getting better. He wrote an essay about it for my class but presented his struggle as something he had overcome. Then one day when I called his name, there was silence. After I marked him absent, a student quietly told me he had killed himself the night before.  I know it is common for people to blame themselves when someone they know commits suicide. I have tried to avoid this, but I can’t help asking how I might have done or said more to help.

I do know this. I want to be more like Tom—full of joy and a stronger song. I want my words to affirm the value of my students and the goodness of life. I know death is singing its merciless song of despair, so I need to hear and learn to sing God’s song of hope. But our song must be more than good words; it is a life lived in the power of the Spirit. It is irrepressible joy that sings the kingdom of light into the darkened world. Through us we must let the Spirit sing Christ’s victory over sin, Satan, and death.

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“Pajamas!”–A Hobbit Battle Cry

Of course, the actual battle cry of hobbits was “The Shire!” This cry, like “pajamas,” does not summon visions of military or urban grandeur. The memory of fat cabbages in well-tended gardens and fat hobbits in cozy holes are what stiffened the spine of hobbits about to fight. Hobbits fought not for glory or even adventure, but for the simple goodness of life in the Shire. Hobbits fought for coziness and second breakfasts, so I am sure “Pajamas!” is a fitting hobbit battle cry.

When I scoop up my grandson Ari in his flannel  Batman pajamas, I hold in my arms all that I fight for in the battle against sin and spiritual darkness. As a battle cry, “Pajamas!” declares the goodness of the order and peace that gives us time for goodnight kisses, pajamas, and being “tucked in”.

It is a cry against the selfishness, sinfulness, and strife that set mothers and fathers against each other. It is a cry against the enemy who seeks to divide and devour families. It is a cry against the drug addiction and depression that fills the night’s streets with people who should be in their pajamas.

“Pajamas!” is also a cry for peace and justice. Many years ago Teckla and I hiked into Chel, a beautiful Ixil village in the mountains of Guatemala. We were with a church group there to build a small pharmacy where medicines could be safely stored and distributed. When we awoke, we discovered the little village square was filled with 20 to 30 people who had fled a guerilla attack on their village about a mile up the river. They had fled with nothing except the clothes on their backs. I will never forget a little girl in shorts and tank-top holding a turkey she carried through the night. The believers in Chel, who themselves were desperately poor, handed out corn meal and clothes to these refugees. Guatemala was war-torn in the eighties and there was no time for pajamas.

“Pajamas!” is a cry for kids to grow up without fear or trauma— to grow up knowing Mom and Dad will always be there to keep them safe. It is cry against all the war and strife that displaces people and forces them to flee in the middle of the night. It is a cry for the refugee to have a home. Too many people sleep afraid—ready to run from violence or ethnic cleansing.

The peace and security of a child’s pajamas days pass all too soon. But while they last such days are one of the greatest gifts we can give children. It is the experience of being treasured, tucked-in, blessed, loved, and perfectly safe. It is an imperfect foreshadowing of a future homecoming when we will enter the safety of our heavenly Father’s presence. Our pajamas days prophesy of that future day when the Prince of Peace will reign—when all is right and all is safe.

We must fight the battle in our own families and neighborhoods. Our weapons are spiritual but powerful: goodnight hugs and kisses, Christmas lights, prayers at bedtime, forgiveness for the sinner, healing for the broken, hope for despairing, and super-hero pajamas to take away the evening chill. And Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us.  

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