Parable & Pantry: A Remix

There was a time when I would have completely scrapped a blog and started over from scratch if it didn’t fit with my current ideas and dreams. But I’m learning that my creative whims are fickle, dangerous things, and often lead me down rabbit-trails that I can get trapped in if I’m not careful.

So here we are again, back at Wildroot & Parable, but this time with a new look and a new purpose.

As much as I loved the weekly devotional format and felt encouraged by the feedback I was getting, the fact is that it was really difficult to keep up with, and I struggled with the feeling that I was setting myself up as some kind of “expert” in theological or spiritual matters. Besides, there were other things I really wanted to talk about but felt that I couldn’t in the context I built for myself.

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May 2 – The May Magnificat

IMG_20180428_145200_744.jpgMay is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season–

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers find soonest?

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?–
Growth in everything–

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed and strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Nature’s motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfed cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all–

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

April 24 – What Is Found

Ecclesiastes 3:9-13


20180415_152604.jpgThe search withholds the joy from what is found.

– Wendell Berry, “Boone”


To search is to be human, and to be human is to search. There is a gap in our experience, in our knowledge, in our hearts and souls that we are constantly trying to fill with whatever we think will fit.

We search for answers, for home, for a sense of fulfillment. We search for identity, for God, for love, for community. We search for wealth, for power, for fame, or simply for survival. We are a world of searchers and strivers and seekers. We are rarely satisfied. In the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes, we chase the wind.

The trouble with searching is that it implies that what we need, seek, want, or dream of is somewhere else, somewhere hidden. That if only we knew the right place, the right combination of magic words or secret codes, that we could find the treasure we’re looking for and finally be happy, satisfied, and sated.

Wendell Berry wrote The search withholds the joy from what is found, because it’s difficult to be open to joy when you’re constantly holding your breath, hoping for something that you feel is always out of reach. Often, God has already planted the things we’re looking for closer than we think, and there is joy to be found in simply recognizing what is right in front of us.

Is it wrong to seek and search? Certainly not. Seeking and searching are part of our humanity, and can lead us to great heights and incredible depths. But searching can steal the joy right out from under us if we’re not careful to rest in the gifts that are already found, right here, right now.

QUESTIONS for REFLECTION

1. What do you seek and search for? Is it something internal–identity, or a sense of home, or a feeling, or even the Spirit of God Himself? Or is it something external, like wealth or power, or even just that your life looked different than it does?

2. How does searching or striving for that thing (or things) make you feel? Do you feel driven, hopeful, inspired? Or do you feel exhausted, discontented, sad, or “itchy”?

3. What are some of the gifts sitting right at your feet that you gloss over, ignore, or have a difficult time thinking of as gifts? Why do you think God has given you these things, especially in light of what you search and strive for?

TAKING ACTION

I am not a city person. I currently live just outside of a city, in a fairly urban neighborhood, and even though it’s a comfortable life–especially compared to so many less fortunate–I have always dreamed of a different, quieter, more “meaningful” way of life for myself, preferably in a place closer to the natural world. The details of that dream have changed over time and years, but the core has remained the same: I want to live somewhere else, and lay down real roots there. I want my life to look very different than it does now.

Can you relate?

Maybe it’s not your living situation. Maybe it’s your job, or your relationships, or your level of income, or your level of education. Maybe it’s your insecurities or your feelings of boredom, or the use of your talents, or wishing you knew what your talents are, or the way we all compare ourselves to other people without realizing that they are dealing with their own trials and strivings, too.

This week, I really encourage you to pinpoint the places in your life where you feel–for lack of a better term–“itchy”. Discontented. Lacking joy. Feeling disenchanted or short-changed. Find those places, recognize that they exist. Don’t punish yourself for feeling that way; we all have those itchy spots.

The best cure for that itch is to find what is already “found” in your life and thank God for those things. Seek the good in what is already there. Change in life will come, and searching may lead to glorious things. But for now, enjoy what you have. Rest in gratitude. Feel the grace of God in the gifts sitting at your feet.

 

 

 

April 17 – Notes From the Labyrinth

Proverbs 3:5-8


IMG_20171221_102120_550I have a dear friend who has many incredible talents, and one of them is the ability to draw labyrinths, the mazelike tools of contemplation and meditation made famous on cathedral floors and in the writings of Christian mystics.

When we taught preschool together she would draw labyrinths in sidewalk chalk on the playground and the children would carefully walk the lines and squiggles, following each other single-file, until they reached the heart of the maze and cheered for themselves and each other. And even though they could see the end of the maze, they still followed the lines and each other all along the twisting, turning path until they reached the center.

There are few symbols of the faith more effective and moving to me than the labyrinth, a beautiful metaphor for the Christian life. Historically it has been used as a tool for meditation and prayer, a path to walk while you ponder the beauty of God and the journey of Christian pilgrimage. Some–like myself–wear versions of it on pendants and beads as a constant reminder.

I think we are all aware that life doesn’t follow a straight and simple path, but it is overly simplistic to suggest that life is therefore “chaotic”, “messy”, or “zigzag”. The truth of the labyrinth is that life looks chaotic from within, but not from without. When inside the maze you cannot see the whole picture. It just looks like a series of turns, dead-ends, and mismatched pathways. But when viewed from above, through the eyes of God, everything has a clear order and pattern to it. A design.

And we do not walk alone. Like the giggling children running through the mazes of my preschool-teaching days, we go through life surrounded by others. No matter how neat and tidy the lives of others may seem from our personal experiences of the labyrinth of existence, we are all following the squiggles and twists as best as we can, and no one except our God can see the ultimate purpose. This should make us compassionate, open, and understanding of each other’s journeys.

Labyrinths are a human symbol, but an important one. They can teach us that the things we are going through–from tragedy and trauma to stress, busyness, boredom, or anxiety–can and do have a design, even if we cannot see it. We can have faith in the Creator who sees all things, a God of Order, who crafts our days without a single misplaced moment.

QUESTIONS for REFLECTION

1. Where are you in the maze of life right now? Do you feel stuck in a dead-end? All turned-around? Happily meandering? Successfully progressing? Or somewhere else altogether?

2. Do you often find yourself comparing your experience in the maze to the experience of other people? Why or why not?

3. Is there another symbol for the Christian life that speaks to you, either manmade or in nature?

TAKING ACTION 

I wear the labyrinth, both on a set of prayer beads around my wrist and as a pendant on a necklace. Both of these pieces of jewelry, while not holy on their own, often lead me to remember the holiness and presence of God, especially when I am busy or stressed or anxious.

This week, think about the objects in your life that bring you closer to God. It is not wrong to have items like this, only to worship these items as God. Do you have a piece of jewelry that reminds you of God? Maybe something you picked up outdoors, or a book, or a gift from someone you love or admire? It can be anything. Think about why these things mean so much to you, and what about them brings you into God’s presence.

If you don’t have an item like this, I would encourage you to think about the symbols in life that mean the most to you, remind you of God. It could be a quote or verse, a physical object, a song, or a piece of art. Anything. Think of a way to keep that thing close to you throughout your day so that you can be reminded of God’s constancy in the midst of life.

April 10 – The Fairylands We Build

Psalm 46


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Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
             than you can understand.

– William Butler Yeats (excerpt from The Stolen Child)


Some of you may know that I am currently in the midst of writing a novel. Part of my novel is set in a sort of fairyland, visited by humans and populated by otherworldly creatures, and as you can imagine I have been doing a fair bit of research lately on the stories, poems, and folklore about the more insidious and manipulative types of fairy-folk with ancient origins and bad reputations.

Why would I bring up fairies in a devotional? Well, I blame it on Yeats.

William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet with a flair for the mystical, especially early in his career. He is known for writing poetry with a significant supernatural leaning, often about fairies and druids and fauns and other figures from Irish folk stories. It stands to reason that if I am writing a story about fairies I would have to become well acquainted with Yeats, at some point or other, and The Stolen Child has always been a poem of his that gives me pause, because it is largely a poem about the loss of innocence. In the poem, the fairies try to convince the child to follow them into an eternal childhood, because the world “is more full of weeping than you can understand.” Better to live forever in a false reality than live a life of grief in this world, or so goes the fairy-logic.

I think, on some level, we can all hear the argument of the fairies with some empathy, and we all have our own fairylands to escape into. For some it is actual fantasy–virtual reality, TV shows, movies, books, daydreaming–but for others it is a release found through other activities, some more destructive than others. One can make a fairyland out of almost anything, from exercise, over-indulgences, and shopping sprees to smoking, drugs, and drinking to excess. Humans are particularly adept at seeing the suffering and sadness of this world and running away from it toward the fortresses we build ourselves out of mist and imagination.

But the truth is, our fairylands are not a refuge, and they cannot save us. They are a false reality, made up of dreams. The child in Yeats’ poem may live forever if he takes the fairy’s hand, but that doesn’t mean he will live a fulfilled life with all the joy and pain that comes with it.

The only refuge in this world of frightening news headlines, bombastic rhetoric from all sides, threat, argument, and pain is the one given to us by the Creator who loves us. He alone has arms wide enough to hold us, words deep enough to calm us, and truly fulfilling work for us to do.

Temptations to run away will always exist, but we may find, if we refuse the temptation to live in fairyland, and if we take the Creator’s hand instead, that peace and joy and fulfillment can be found even in the midst of this reality.

QUESTIONS for REFLECTION

1. What is your fairyland? Where do you tend to retreat to when life gets scary, or difficult, or anxious? Do they truly work to shield you from pain?

2. In what situations do you hear the temptation to retreat to your fairyland most loudly? Is it when you are faced with personal conflict? Community issues? Worldwide fears?

3. What might hold you back from believing that the refuge God offers is better and more effective than the ones you make for yourself?

TAKING ACTION

It should be noted that taking a break isn’t a sin, and entertainment isn’t, either. These are gifts from God given to us for use to please us, for our enjoyment. But the problem arises when these things become idols, and grow so big in our lives that they eclipse God. When the first thing we run to in the midst of hardship is our social media accounts, or our binge-watching (hey, we’ve all done it), or our favorite foods, something is wrong with our relationships with these things.

This week, see if you can spot your fairylands. Maybe they aren’t hard to spot, or maybe they are pretty deeply ingrained in your habits. Pray for God’s wisdom to see these areas of your life that you run to instead of Him. Know that He is ready and willing to forgive, that His arms are open for you, and that He is always ready to show you what true shelter and love look like.

 

 

April 3 – Easter People

1 Corinthians 15:12-19


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As it passes us by, I find I don’t quite know what to do with Easter.

It’s uncomfortable, because now that the feast of Easter is behind us I find myself more thoughtful than ever about my unquestioning preference for her sister, Christmastide, the weight of one side of the church calendar making it lean precariously in my heart. What is it about Easter and Christmas that make them so different, to me?

I could fill a book with all the personal and historical nuances between these two holy days–and maybe someday I will–but for now, for this space, I think it’s best I sum it up thus:

I believe that Christmas is all about the story. As a storyteller, I am comfortable with story. I revel in it. I don’t feel the need to argue the details and historicity of the Nativity because the details and historicity are less important to me than what the story means to people both past and present, and what it will mean in the future. As my mom movingly put it, Christmas is the thread that–once pulled–wrinkles the cloth in a direct line all through the garment of history. You can see the ripples and the provenance. The beautiful truth of Advent and Christmastide for me is in the songs we sing–some of them incredibly ancient–the traditions we hold, the stories we tell one another, and the deep mythological power of Jesus’ birth. Mythological here used not to mean untrue, but to mean deeper than true, even if the trappings of the story have been embellished or romanticized over the years.

Easter, on the other hand, is less about the story than it is about the reality of what happened. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundation of our faith. Without it, as the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, [our] faith is futile and [we] are still in our sins. That is weighty, less comfortable. We don’t necessarily speak of the virgin birth that way, or the presence and identity of the three wise men, or many of the details of the Nativity. But the resurrection of Christ is paramount, the apex of history. From that seeming-ending was birthed a lasting beginning. It is in a way less romantic, less sentimentalized–we don’t have easily recognized “Easter carols”, for instance–because it is as unyielding and resistant to nostalgia as the cross on which He hung, as solid as the rock of the tomb in which they laid Him, and as true as His hands and feet, pierced, as touched by Thomas, who doubted no more.

The Christmas story fits neatly into its human-designated season because it is a story of darkness giving way to light in the middle of the darkness of winter. But Easter is difficult to contain in a period of time–a vigil, a feast, a season–because the reality of it is all around us, all the time. We are alive every single day because–miracle of miracles–Christ is alive, every single day. We have hope because He secured it for us and, like a seed sprouting from the dark soil, He emerged from the tomb with eternal life in His hands, all of it to share with those He loves. And though our hearts be ice and stone, He thaws them with His greening warmth. Every day.

There is no perfection to be found this side of Heaven, but perhaps to be Easter People is to be aware of the shift from winter to spring, from death to life, from fear to hope, and to keep the door of our hearts open in the change of every season.

QUESTIONS for REFLECTION

1. If you had to choose between Christmas and Easter, which celebration are you more comfortable with? Do they both hold discomfort for you, or are they both beloved, or is one more than the other? Why do you think that is?

2. Imagine if you were to hold the weight, power, joy, and truth of the resurrection in your heart every day–something that would take a lot of discipline, certainly. How do you think that would change the way you live in small ways, and in big ones?

TAKING ACTION

Easter is passed (unless you’re more orthodox and celebrate Easter until Pentecost–if so, Happy Eastertide, to you!), but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily over. As humans we like holy days, holidays, and feasts. We like giving important dates their own power and then checking them off a list as we travel through the year. It helps us mark time, understand our own growth, and create memories and milestones through life.

But Easter doesn’t fit into a day, very well. Easter is about a reality that we truly should hold close to us every single day. I confess that that is a real difficulty for me, and I would argue it is a difficulty for everyone. But it is something to aspire to, something to cling to, because it is both beautiful and life-giving. Without the story of the resurrection, hope is a strange and slippery thing. The resurrection of Jesus is an anchor to hope.

This week, I encourage you to read through the story of the resurrection again–or watch a film version of the events, or just meditate on the story as you know it–and pick one passage or piece of the story that brings you joy. Write it down or draw it out, type it into your phone if that helps you, and put it in a place to remind yourself of it. In the car, by your bed, on your desk, etc. How does it change the way you live your life to remember the truth of Easter not on one day, but every day?

March 26 – Of the Lion and the Stone

Luke 24:13-35


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The rising of the sun had made everything look so different–all colours and shadows were changed–that for a moment they didn’t see the important thing. Then they did. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.

“Oh, oh, oh!” cried the two girls, rushing back to the Table.

“Oh, it’s too bad,” sobbed Lucy; “they might have left the body alone.”

“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it magic?”

“Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad.

“Aren’t you dead then, dear Aslan?” said Lucy.

“Not now,” said Aslan.

“You’re not–not a–?” asked Susan in a shaky voice. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word ghost. Aslan stooped his golden head and licked her forehead. The warmth of his breath and a rich sort of smell that seemed to hang about his hair came all over her.

“Do I look it?” he said.

“Oh, you’re real, you’re real! Oh, Aslan!” cried Lucy, and both girls flung themselves upon him and covered him with kisses.

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards. […]

– C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe


In the fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four siblings step through a wardrobe and find themselves in a magical land full of danger, adventure, and prophecy. When one of the siblings, Edmund, betrays both his family and this magical world by siding with the villainous White Witch, his life is threatened by his choice, even when he wants to be reconciled. Enter Aslan, Narnia’s king, who offers his life for Edmund’s in a glorious act of sacrifice. But–as we can see in the excerpt above–that is not the end; not of Aslan’s life, nor of the children’s adventures.

When C.S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he wrote it to reflect his own faith and his own deep-seated belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Lewis was a scholar and a very wise writer, but most of all he was a self-proclaimed sinner saved by grace, and this is powerfully depicted in the sacrifice of Aslan for the traitor Edmund, and how this sacrifice cracked the Stone Table of ritual law and ushered in a new miraculous era in which Death itself works backwards.

We have arrived at Holy Week, the tumble of history toward the cross, and during this time it can be difficult for us in our modern world to fully grasp what transpired all those hundreds of years ago. But stories like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe can help. They remind us that we were all traitors to the God of love, once. We betray Him for our own comfort, gain, and pride every day, in ways big and small. But our Creator-God–portrayed symbolically by a kingly lion of compassion and grave justice and incredible joy–stepped into the “Deep Magic” on our behalf, was killed in our stead, rose again, and Death itself is, truly, working backwards.

It is mystery. It is magic. It is true.

Sometimes, fantasy and gospel reach out and touch hands in the most astounding ways. And sometimes we learn the most beautiful lessons from worlds beyond our own.

QUESTIONS for REFLECTION

1. How is your heart at the start of this Holy Week? Do you feel ready for Good Friday, for Vigil Saturday, for Easter? How has Lent felt for you?

2. When you think of the story of the gospel–the story we celebrate this week–what comes to mind? Does it feel like an “old” story, or rote, or rehearsed? How long has it been since you felt the details and what they mean?

3. Are there other fictional stories that help you to feel the gospel story more deeply? Characters that reflect you, or the sacrifice, or God Himself in some way?

TAKING ACTION

It is Holy Week. Similar to Advent and Christmas, Holy Week is a time to surround yourself with the sights, sounds, and stories of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Whether you’ve heard it all thousands of times before or whether it’s still relatively new to you, it is human to lose the power of a story over time.

This week, in the possible hustle and bustle of Easter preparations or even just in your everyday working life, consider the details of the gospel story. If reading stories like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe helps you, then by all means, read away! It is a beautiful and worthwhile allegory. Perhaps find music that reminds you of the beauty of this time of year, or even a film that brings the message home to you. There are so many powerful films out there about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, for all different ages. Surround yourself with the Story, this week. Feel the reality of, as Lewis called it, the Deep Magic, and the magic deeper still.

 

March 19 – Of the Bear and His Boy

Matthew 18:1-4


IMGP0003_2Christopher Robin came slowly down his tree.

“Silly old bear,” he said, “what were you doing? First you went round the spinney twice by yourself, and then Piglet ran after you and you went round again together, and then you were just going round a fourth time–“

“Wait a moment,” said Winnie-the-Pooh, holding up his paw.

He sat down and thought, in the most thoughtful way he could think. Then he fitted his paw into one of the Tracks…and then he scratched his nose twice, and stood up.

“Yes,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.

“I see now,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.

“I have been Foolish and Deluded,” said he, “and I am a Bear of No Brain at All.”

“You’re the Best Bear in All the World,” said Christopher Robin soothingly.

“Am I?” said Pooh hopefully. And then he brightened up suddenly.

“Anyhow,” he said, “it is nearly Luncheon Time.”

So he went home for it.

– A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh


Children and adults the world over know all about Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends, either from A.A. Milne’s books or from dozens of movies and TV adaptations featuring the cherished characters. From their original publishing in 1926 to the present-day they have become symbols of childhood simplicity and imagination, friendship, and wordplay.

Pooh, a stuffed bear, always seems to get into some mischief, usually based on his being not the cleverest of characters, but being very motivated by a kind heart, a desire to be courageous, and a strong greed for his favorite food: honey. He is usually rescued from the worst of his scrapes by his owner and close friend, a little boy named Christopher Robin (based on the author’s own son).

In the scene above, Pooh and his friend Piglet–a stuffed pig–have been following a fearsome beast around in a circle by tracking its footprints in the snow. This fearsome beast is an imaginary creature they both staunchly believe in, called a “Woozle”.

In the end, Christopher Robin, who was watching from up in a tree, reveals that the footprints they were following were their own, and that there was no Woozle after all. Pooh feels very foolish until Christopher Robin’s assurance gives him back his simple pleasure, and his excitement for Luncheon Time.

As we grow up, it is tempting to be very Adult and Complicated about our relationships with God. Countless books take apart intricate theologies, argue various points of interest, and analyze Scripture from cover to cover. And none of these things are inherently bad; knowledge can be a very good thing, and can lead to a deeper understanding when applied as wisdom.

But in the example above from Winnie the Pooh, which I had the great pleasure of reading again to a pair of children over the weekend, I was struck by the simplicity of a few things. First, Pooh’s admission of foolishness. Second, Christopher Robin’s admission of love and admiration for Pooh, despite his superior understanding of how silly Pooh really is. And third, Pooh’s acceptance of that love and his excitement for something new.

If only we could all be Pooh, right?

In a way, though, that is what our Creator invites us to. In the verse from Matthew at the top of this post, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Children are not stupid, but they are simple; their devotion is based on an extraordinary trust that they take to naturally. Pooh doesn’t question the motives of the little boy who owns him and loves him. He doesn’t ask Christopher Robin to explain himself, or refuse to accept the compliment, or outline the reasons why Christopher Robin is wrong in his analysis of Pooh. He doesn’t even puff up with Christopher Robin’s words and allow them to make him vain. Pooh simply accepts Christopher Robin’s words at face value and allows them to brighten his spirits and set him on a course for joy.

It is possible, even with our very Adult and Complicated lives, to do something similar. When we are faced with our own foolishness–something that happens more than any of us care to admit–we can cling to the knowledge that we have a God who doesn’t pay us empty compliments or mock us for being stupid. He loves us with a fierce love, despite our flaws and our endless questioning of ourselves. He covers us with loving words to fight our insecurities. And, when we take His words and His love at face value, we can refocus our hearts and our minds on joy. Even if it isn’t Luncheon Time.

As I’ve tried to make clear in this series, none of these stories is a perfect picture of the relationship between God and human beings. Pooh and Christopher Robin and the tales they represent are sweet fictions with truths at their core. But, as with most stories, I believe there is much we can learn from the example of a silly old bear and the boy who loves him.

QUESTIONS for REFLECTION

1) When you do or say something foolish, what is your first response? To punish yourself, or rationalize it away, or try to hide or run from it?

2) When you think of approaching God like a child, how do you picture that? What images from your own childhood does that conjure up, whether good or bad?

3) If God were to give you encouragement right now–straight from His lips to your ears–how do you think you would respond? Would you accept what He says? Would you be tempted to argue, or turn away? Would you want to puff up or be vain about it? Why do you think you would respond that way?

TAKING ACTION

Childhood can be a fraught subject for many. It is often the foundation upon which some of our greatest joys, fears, sorrows, and pleasures were built. But the stories we hear in childhood often shape the way we think about the world and about God later in life. The more accustomed we are to hearing something, and seeing ourselves in it, the more it becomes part of our psyches.

This week, try to think of other stories that formed your worldview as a child. It could be books, movies, TV shows, stage plays, or tales from oral storytelling. What were the narratives from childhood that you can trace back to your understanding of how the world works, either for better or for worse?

March 12 – Of the Road at Nightfall

Matthew 16:24-26


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“[…] The further you go, the less easy it will be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road.”

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,” said Gimli.

“Maybe,” said Elrond, “but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”

“Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,” said Gimli.

“Or break it,” said Elrond.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring


The epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings is a long-beloved story about a simple soul who must embark on a journey–aided by a company of friends and haunted by an army of enemies–to destroy the grip of evil on the world he holds dear. It is remarkable for its depth, its description of the conflict between good and evil, and its cast of colorful characters.

But all the more fascinating is the way Tolkien deftly weaves truth and philosophy and, yes, even theology into his work of fiction and magic.

In the exchange above, the journey is about to begin, and the wise elfin lord Elrond warns the travelers of what they are about to get into. Or, rather, that they have no way of knowing what they are getting into. One of the companions, a dwarf named Gimli, tries to argue for their courage and fortitude. But Elrond is not convinced. Some things are dark and scary enough to make even the most loyal friend flee in terror, he believes.

In this brief conversation I have always seen a warning and a benediction to the pilgrim who follows the Creator-God, the Father of the crucified and risen Jesus, who told His own followers, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

There is nothing tame, safe, or easy about any journey to further the good and defeat evil. When we follow God expecting comfort and human contentment we often find ourselves terribly disappointed, and sometimes completely disillusioned. The road invariably darkens. We have not seen the nightfall. Not yet. The cross is heavy, and we are asked to lay aside the life we crave.

When the darkness arrives, and the night falls, and the cross weighs us down, where will our hearts be? Strong, and singing? Or quaking and fleeing?

Elrond and Gimli, it turns out, are both correct. Elrond points out that the way gets dark, and horrors hide along the road. We cannot know the way before we come to it, and we cannot promise that we will be courageous when we don’t even know what we will be facing. But Gimli calls the ones who say farewell faithless, and this is the right word. Faith is what keeps our feet on the path, even when the shadows draw in. Faith is what holds us to our God, even when we cannot see His face. Faith is the light that chases away the horrors and illuminates the hands of the Creator who holds us.

We are not promised an easy journey, but we are promised a faith-filled God who only asks of us that we trust Him in return. No matter how dark the night gets.

QUESTIONS for REFLECTION

1. Think of a moment in your life that you expected to be easy, and it turned out to be much harder than you thought. How did you respond? Who or what did you turn to? Did you see it through, or did you flee the path?

2. When you think of following God as a journey, what comes to mind? Beautiful hillsides and meadows? Mountains and valleys? Deserts and jungles? Or if this metaphor doesn’t appeal to you, how do you picture following God?

3. Has there ever been a time when someone stayed with you, even when the road got dark? Or did you stay with someone else in the midst of their nightfall? What was that like? How did it make you feel?

TAKING ACTION

When things are going well, it can be nearly impossible to picture things going poorly. And when things are going poorly, it is nearly impossible to see them going well. Where are you, right now? On a sunlit path, or one bathed in nightfall? And where is God in the midst of the journey? Can you see Him? Are you looking?

This week, I encourage you to ponder God’s faithfulness, and our faithfulness to Him. None of us are perfect at the terrible beauty of taking up the cross and following Him, no matter what. But consider: how are you taking up your cross, today? And in what ways does God cling to you, even in the midst of the dark paths?

Tolkien understood that stories teach us what we otherwise would never learn. Consider the journey of following God. Consider what the road is like. Consider other stories of journeys (humans have told many throughout history), and how they might inspire your walk with God.

 

 

 

March 6 – Of the Beast in the Castle

Romans 5:6-8


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[…] I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. […] There is the great lesson of “Beauty and the Beast”; that a thing must be loved BEFORE it is loveable. […] But I am not concerned with any of the separate statutes of elfland, but with the whole spirit of its law, which I learnt before I could speak, and shall retain when I cannot write. I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts.

– G.K. Chesterton (emphasis mine)


It is surprising and, I think, wonderful, to think of how many famous and learned theologians studied and found God’s character in fairy tales. Like parables, fairy tales carry truths within them, even if the details of the stories are fiction. Seen through the lens of parable, even a fairy tale can be a lesson in faith.

Long before Disney turned it into an internationally-recognized animated film–one of my childhood favorites–Beauty and the Beast was a French folktale, one of a long line of stories in a similar genre found all over the world in some form or another in which a beautiful, virtuous woman is courted by a monster or creature. Every one of these folktales ends in its own unique way, but Beauty and the Beast is unique.

For those unfamiliar with the story, one of the more recognizeable versions–published in 1756–can be read in its entirety here.

You see, we all have a beast in the castle of our own hearts, who turns from God in despair and hides its face from Him in shame. When God arrives at the castle in unexpected beauty, the beast struggles with how to approach Him. It stumbles over itself. It acts the fool. It pines, and it bribes, and it cajoles. It lashes out, and it tiptoes in shame. But with time, and with love, the beast emerges from the shadows, ready to accept a fundamental change.

The folktale is not a perfect metaphor, of course. Unlike Beauty in the story, our God does not need to be convinced to love us, does not need time to get to know us, to see beneath the beast’s mask. Instead, it is we who need to be convinced of God’s love for us, constantly, every day, every moment, all the time.

But Chesterton’s words about the moral of the fairy tale are true: “…a thing needs to be loved BEFORE it is loveable.” God’s perfect love transforms us, just like Beauty’s eventual love for the Beast transforms him at the end of the story. We cannot break the spell of doubt, and fear, and self-hatred, and shame all by ourselves. We need a singular kind of magic for that.

In fact, we need a miracle for that.

And the miracle arrives like spring in winter, stepping firmly up the castle steps, knocking upon the locked door of our hearts, and announces itself: our Creator-God has arrived, cloaked in beauty, and He invites the beast within us all to dance with Him.

QUESTIONS for REFLECTION

1. When you read, watch, or hear Beauty and the Beast (the folktale, the movie, the stage play, whichever version you prefer), what images stand out to you? Do you like the story? Does it bother you? What about it do you like or not like?

2. What beast is living in the castle of your heart? In other words: what parts of yourself are hiding away from God, avoiding His gaze, and hoping He passes by without noticing?

3. What would it take for that beastly parts of yourself to accept the love of God and transform into something else? Have you felt that invitation from God? Have you asked for it to be revealed?

TAKING ACTION

As you consider the tale of Beauty and the Beast this week, in the context of God’s transforming love, I invite you to consider the things in your life that you believe are not able to be transformed. It could be something in your heart or your circumstances, your neighbhorhood or community, or even in the nation or the world. Think about the things that you have given up on, the things that you have decided are “just the way they are”.

The God we serve, who loves us with a fierce and miraculous love, is in the business of transforming. Turning a beast into a man is nothing new for the Creator of the universe. This week, consider what it would take to open yourself up to His transforming work in your life. Remember that the love by which you have been made loveable is already acting, already moving. Pray to see your Creator’s transforming work in your life, and the lives of those around you.