“The proper cultural strategy is faithful presence within,” he added, “not pulling away from the culture, and not trying to take it over. ‘Faithful presence within’ means being faithful; it means we’re not going to assimilate, [but] we’re going to be distinctively Christian. It’s about an attitude of service, uncompromising in our beliefs, but not withdrawing and not trying to dominate.”
It takes real (and rare) wisdom to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of dominance and withdrawal, between control of the culture through political power, which is hardly a biblical archetype, and complete cultural separatism.
Through tears and sunshine,
SPRING arrives to the beleaguered world.
The birth pangs of new creation, resurrected life,
Are manifested in the blustery brawls and flashes of
The entrance into new life is always thus.
The mind rebels at the shattering reality of truth,
And the heart throbs with the agony of thaw.
Ice, rock hard, undone by sunlight.
The revolution has begun.
Swinging from extreme to extreme,
A pendulum of paradox.
Doing another sort-through of the scraps of paper that infest my desk and copying over old writings here. This piece is not recent.
We live on the bridge between wonder and horror,
Captivated by the light, but one foot in the grave.
We hope, we trust,
That the transgressed hand of Christ will hold us fast
And keep our heads above the smothering earth.
Like the crocus, we rise at the call of the Light.
Composed while kneeling after receiving the eucharist, congregants walk past my aisle toward the feast.
With creaking steps they pass me,
Saints on their way to sanctification.
Are these legs alongside mine
On earth or in eternity?
Is it the weight of glory pressing on the floor?
Are these feet holy?
Are these the shadows of holy heaven
That cast themselves about us now?
These people will be with me in Paradise.
As the whole world knows, since I’ve squealed about it to just about everyone for the last few months, I’m leaving for New Zealand today. And by that I mean, Middle Earth. It feels like a pilgrimage. Which feels weird to say. So before you bemusedly believe me a mere super-fan, here’s a taste of why my love for The Lord of the Rings runs so deep.
More than any other fictional narrative, The Lord of the Rings is the catalyst for my spiritual imagination. Growing up, my father read the stories out loud to my brother and I, along with The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Princess and the Goblin, and many other masterpieces of fiction and fantasy. Long before I began to understand the beauties of the Word of God, its essential story of brokenness, hope, death-that-leads-to-life, redemption, sorrow-in-the-night-but-joy-in-the-morning, fellowship, ultimate restoration, and love-beyond-comprehension was made manifest in my spirit through Tolkein’s world. His story has helped me see my own more clearly and more deeply. For me, Middle Earth is the topography of the life of faith, an image that recalls my wandering heart to the truth of the Gospel.
Acting, speaking and even reflective thinking may at times be too demanding, but we are forever seeing. […] We see clearly or vaguely, but always we find something to see. But what do we really choose to see? […] Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. […] A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord.
Henri Nouwen | Behold the Beauty of the Lord
I wear the One Ring on my finger, a memento mori of sorts that we are all heading towards death. While our cause of death is beyond control, the manner of our death never is. We can choose to die all at once, or in small steps towards Mount Doom. Frodo and Sam, and the rest of the Fellowship, by repeatedly choosing their own discomfort, loss, and pain, embody the life of faith that does not go unrewarded—right when all seems lost, “here at the end of all things,” morning dawns. The weight of the ring grows heavier each day towards the grave, but co-extant with that sorrow is the joy of hope. This joy wounds like swords, more beautiful for how it has rent you of all things that made you seem small and weak, just a hobbit from the Shire. Joy that renders you glorious.
And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.
“The Field of Cormallen” |The Return of the King
As for me, I envy the clarity of Mt Doom. It may be awful and menacing, but it is always in sight. Most days, I don’t know where my Mt. Doom is. It lurks and hides, and veils itself under familiar objects or forgotten memories. Too often, I feel like Lady Eowyn, trapped by brokenness but desperate to go, to fight, to be of use. I fear a cage of my own smallness and weakness. What can I possibly do in this evil world? I long for battle, to hurl my body and soul into a clash that may destroy me utterly. Maybe then my meager and pitiful life will be of some use. But this is the belief of one living under the shadow, and that is not who I am anymore. I have passed through the Houses of Healing, healed by the Returned King. The hands of the King are the hands of the healer, and that is how I know He is the King.
Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.
“I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun,” she said; “and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren. […] No longer do I desire to be a queen.”
“The Steward and the King” | The Return of the King
To wonder over the fullness of Gospel mirrored in The Lord of the Rings will have to be a conversation we have together, if you like. For now, suffice it to say that this is my paradigm, and this is why I follow King Jesus. Because He has healed me and set joy in my heart which will forever be my strength. No other compares to Him. And every little death I die will only make me more glorious, more like the creature, the workmanship, the poeima He has said that I am. And that He said you are, too, if you will enter under His Kingship.
I was talking with a friend the other day about our mythos, the long and many-chambered narrative that undergirds our lives. The belief that our lives are continually part of a larger story, although we may not always know or perceive what that tale is. I believe this is the gift of faith. Keeping your hand on the string of the plot, even if you are walking in darkness. Remembering that the string was with you in the steps you just took, and trusting in its tautness as a sign that it must continue on ahead of you as well.
The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
I despise the path of obscurity, but I am learning to love it. Goodness is small, and mighty deeds are only accomplished in the pursuit of insignificance. We are most definitely too small to comprehend or handle this world on our own. The twin gifts of Fellowship and Faith are given to see us through.
I’m going there and back again. (Unless I find Faramir. Then all bets are off.)
It is 3:39 AM. We have just opened a major touring production at one of the largest theaters in town, and I am wakeful with gratitude. But not because of the work.
Of course, I am unspeakably grateful for the gift of this show, this team, this story, this theater. Like any act of grace, they are unearned, undeserved, and unquenchably joyful. Thank you.
But I am grateful for my people.
Almost exactly four months ago, I broke down. My personality suffered a severe fracture, and I came to the startling realization that life is not about work. Since then, I’ve been on a journey of prayer, rest, and rejoining the human race. This past week, the fruits of those months began to bud in rapid succession. Some of the fruits were mundane, though no less welcome or praiseworthy: better and more affordable housing became immediately available and work opportunities fell open. Yet the sweetest and most precious of the fruits came in human form.
Like so many people, the amalgamation of souls that are my “loved ones” are scattered far and wide. My biological family is in Washington State, Oregon, New Mexico, and New Zealand. My oldest and dearest friends are in Illinois, Washington State, and Virginia. Most of my church and theatre families are here in DC.
And yet, over the last week, I have dined with one of my best friends, called/FaceTime-d/texted with the others, spoken to all three members of my immediate family, worshipped with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and hugged my dearest local friends. I am surrounded by love and fellowship.
“We do not live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for one another.”* I think I believe that now. And I think I love it more than I fear it. Thank you all for being here with me as we muddle along, shifty shadows in pursuit of eternal glory.
Words fail the rest, and this actor knows when to let superior authors speak for her. So I leave you with Psalm 116, the cry of my soul:
“I love the Lord, because he has heard
my voice and my pleas for mercy.
2 Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
3 The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
4 Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!”
5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
6 The Lord preserves the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
7 Return, O my soul, to your rest;
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
8 For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling;
9 I will walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
10 I believed, even when I spoke:
“I am greatly afflicted”;
11 I said in my alarm,
“All mankind are liars.”
12 What shall I render to the Lord
for all his benefits to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his saints.
16 O Lord, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the son of your maidservant.
You have loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving
and call on the name of the Lord.
18 I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of the house of the Lord,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!”
*J.B. Priestley, An Inspector Calls
Once more unto the breach these old, familiar tunes lead me.
These strains of glory,
These pains of glory.
Familiar the melody, familiar the days
When I have called out Your name
Through the bars of each refrain,
Freed by the remembrance of mercy the repetition brings.
These hymns hold the memory of griefs past
and victories still to come–
A lexicon of Love, a fractal of Faithfulness.
In every act of beauty there’s a grief:
A wake for what it cost to make the soul;
A pang that the beauty cannot fill the longing in the heart.
When you whiff of Paradise,
All you want is the Feast.
To see but never touch,
That’s the hope I like the least.
When you are shattered,
And all your pieces are scattered,
All you can believe of (of yourself)
Is a shard.
You cannot see that wedge of truth,
that sliver of courage,
that fragment of beauty
lost in a dark corner.
God restores us to ourselves.
His people bring back the lost fragments from their spillage
and rebuild the luminescent soul.
The trouble with Love
is It cannot be starved.
Deface Its object, and It will only return zeal redoubled,
rising to the challenge of defending Its Beloved.
Reason with It, and It will only stare, blank-faced
at a language It neither understands nor recognizes.
Starve Its sight, Its affection will only grow,
inflated by the fumes of Longing.
Ignore It, and It will pester every waking thought
and beleaguer sleep.
Wait It out, and It will only ambush the unsuspecting
once all appearance of Love has faded.
Despise It, and It will agree,
making the pangs of unrequited despair only too exquisite.
Pray, Wrangle, Moan, Tease, Beguile, Endure, Assault, Decry, Appease, Indulge, Tantalize, or Flee,
you are powerless to a force that neither compassions your lot nor eases your pain,
but unrelentingly and mercifully calls attention to your human heart.