On The Wanderlust

ValinorMy little brother has finally come of a suitable age to be introduced into the great and exciting story of The Lord of the Rings, which is a thing he has been anticipating expectantly for over half of his life. My sister and I have been taking turns reading it to him on Monday nights, by candlelight and with strong tea. We are only reading one chapter every week. This is an adventure in which we shall be participating until winter comes again.

Reading these books after half a decade of change and of living, I am becoming convinced that the deep and haunting theme of wanderlust is really as much a part of them as I thought it was when I was a child. In those days I was living in a land of seas and mountains and was as deeply in love with places as with people. Now that I have relocated to the big sky country, some things are different for me. But not Tolkien.

No, he is as enthralled as he ever has been by the prospect of the wide open spaces, by the magic of woods and wilds and winding water. He is as much a prisoner to his unquenchable homesickness as I remembered.

Poor old Frodo is a captive at home, where the constricted and familiar beauty of the Shire is obvious and unsatisfactory, and where the untamed, uncharted places linger just on the borders of his maps. But oh! how much fiercer the sadness of the outside world, where he is ever homesick for what he supposes to be the things he has left behind.

It isn’t, though. It isn’t the things he has left behind that make him heartsick and unfulfilled. It’s something further still, something beyond the borders of the whole known world. Which is why the seemingly half-sad ending of The Lord of the Rings had to be just as it was. Because Tolkien was writing about more things than battles and adventures and wars and fairy-tale and myth. Overwhelmingly, he was writing a story about the horrible wanderlust inside him, inside all of us. And there was only one possible resolution to that story.

Chesterton, it seems, understood Frodo quite well. As I mopped the kitchen floor a few nights ago, listening to a Librivox recording of the first chapter of A Short History of England, I was quite taken by this paragraph that he writes of the British people,

They are constantly colonists and emigrants; they have the name of being at home in every country. But they are in exile in their own country. They are torn between love of home and love of something else; of which the sea may be the explanation or may be only the symbol. It is also found in a nameless nursery rhyme which is the finest line in English literature and the dumb refrain of all English poems—‘Over the hills and far away.’

These lines describe Tolkien certainly; describe some part of the heart of the mythology he created for England. Ultimately, though, they describe us, don’t they? All of us tormented by this desperate yearning, all of us trapped and fettered inhabitants of the Island of the World?

My Song Is Love Unknown

War Kid - littleThere is this thing about children. The way they taught me half the things I know about God.

They come into the world with red faces and crinkly foreheads, stubborn as weather and as changeable. We know when we take them home and settle them into safe places that they will keep us wakeful and jeopardize our peace for many turnings of the world. We keep doing it, though.

From the start, they are like the gamin, like the fleet-footed, autonomous, defensive little toughs in the tough parts of the world. There is this sense in which every baby is a Dallas Winston with winsome, unapproachable eyes and a practiced carelessness and a code of shameless opportunism and a disgusting swagger. They can do everything all by themselves. Even plunked right into the middle of all our encircling provision, they are grasping and greedy and violent.

There is this sense in which every baby is hardened like a street tough before his feet are steady enough to take him careening through alleys, before the cruel world has touched so much as the fuzzy curls on his head. He is his own man, and he looks out for himself. You can hear it in his wild, demanding shrieks – when he wakes and is hungry – and feel it in the determination of his tight-clenched fists – when you move to take something from him that he thinks he ought to have.

We love them, though. Oh, how we love them!

Sometimes we tame them and humble them and constrain them and clear a way before them for the truth to come through like dayspring. We do this when we can. It is one of the world’s greatest joys. Like that of the inloveness that a man shares with a woman. Or like the harvesting of the fruit of many years’ work and of calloused hands.

But sometimes we come upon children who are untamed and still fierce and self-reliant and deceitful, and we love them no less. There is just this thing about children. By now the baby is older and shrewder and more capable and no longer kept prisoner by our blankets and cradles and the weakness of his legs. He begins to venture further and to find trouble for himself, as the sparks fly upward.

We know about trouble, about the sparks. We know what is at the end of all of the roads. We want to shield him, to make him strong for what is to come. We want to tell him what has been and what will be. We want to wrap our arms around all the beauty of his being and impart grace to him. There are no words for the love we have for him. It is overpowering. It is like the ocean or the hurricane of stars raging over us. We do not work for it. We just have it.

But his ways are so furtive and his eyes so distrustful – and he lies to us. Does he know how we read his darting eyes like a book, watch him frame his piteous deceptions, all the while willing him to throw off that sad mask, all the while knowing he won’t?  And do we love him less for his lies, for his crooked heart, for his confounded egotism?

No, we don’t, of course.  Sometimes, in fact, we love him more. There is a heartbreak, a grief, a sweet, strong sympathy that injects itself into our love for him and makes it a thing of urgency, a great epic. We don’t love children because they deserve it.

That is the thing about children. We love them just because. We love them first. We hope they will love us back someday; but if they don’t, we will go on loving them all the same.

That is the thing about me.

That is the thing about the way that my Dearest Friend has loved me.

It came before everything, before I even came here at all. It was first. And I did nothing to deserve it. Like this:

“My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.”

That is the thing about love, the reason it is a sad, half-grasping affair on this planet: love is not an embracing of the darkness. It can’t be. It is an embracing – indeed, a nurturing – of the light that may come to be. Children have taught us this, also.

The roughest, wildest of them – the ones that frighten us with their impetuosity and with their boundless foolishness – when we love them, we see the brave, noble thing they may – but may not – become. We feel almost indebted to this possible future of theirs. And while they are unlovely and tough and heartless as only children can be, our love for them is all the time entangled with a vision of their perfection. It is the reason for the ache, for the bitterness of love.

George MacDonald, perhaps, says it best,

Love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected–not in itself, but in the object. As it was love that first created humanity, so even human love, in proportion to its divinity, will go on creating the beautiful for its own outpouring…Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.

I think a lot about the things that I want for the myriad of children that I love; the things I want them to do and to be and to know. It is hard to stand by and let them choose destruction and darkness and dead ends. I don’t do it if I can help it. But we can none of us be keepers of the souls of others. They do not have to listen to us. They do not have to accept the light that we pass to them reverently and with pleading. Sometimes this weighs on me, and makes love a most unbearable thing.

Then sometimes it is brought home to me that I do also run about on occasion like the wild and endangered urchins of the world, throwing back all of the gifts and the promises and disobeying flagrantly the most reasonable and beneficial orders that come to me from the hand of the Giver. How about you? Is He looking on with that unquenchable grief that our children give us?

This, I am coming to learn, is what is meant by ‘God the Father.’

All The World’s A Stage

All The World's A Stage“Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought to be aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. (…) I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way to understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God’s enjoyment, not in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart.” (Marilynne Robinson, Gilead)

On Ringbearing & Abiding & 2013

The Lord of The Rings - Bryana Johnson - Having Decided To StayYesterday was the seventh time that my house has welcomed the New Year with the sounds of the battle at the gates of Minas Tirith thundering in the living room. Yes, we watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy into the morning of every New Year’s Day. We have done it on two continents and in three houses and always heralded the event with much jubilation and adrenaline and hype and this is a practice that has blessed my life in probably more ways than I even know.

My history with Tolkien and his colossal epic goes back about nine years, to when I read the books at the age of twelve, along with my sister, and came away from watching The Fellowship of the Ring to find that the whole world felt different. And the world has never been quite the same since.

Cloak - Having Decided To Stay - LOTR - Bryana JohnsonAt first it was the sheer wonder of the story and the way that it opened doors on a world unlike and apart from this one – a fairytale of cosmic proportions. We were children, and our own world was still such a small place to us. The stories were bigger and told of a bigger world. We wanted to incorporate that world into every area of our own. We played the movie soundtracks day and night and read and reread the books. We crafted costumes and wore them unashamedly. At 6:00 AM on cold mornings we slipped out to the woods alone to walk among graceful, imaginary elves and ambush orcs. Also, we worked hard to construct a place where we could convey our experience to the world. It was all just a little ridiculous – in a delicious and enchanting way.

Later, though, those things began to change. We began to grow up and to grow into this poor, old, glory-haunted world. It was not that our love for the stories grew less, but that the love morphed into a different thing, a deeper, stronger, realer thing. We no longer loved Middle-Earth because it was set apart from and better than the world we happen to inhabit. We began to love it because it is the world we inhabit. Just as Tolkien always intended it to be. And we must inhabit it more and more and more.

As I keep growing up, walking more erect, putting away more of the childish things, I find I love these stories deeper in my marrow every year. Every year I find something new to marvel at, and every year this fictional world has something new to tell me about this very real world, every year this fictional war seems to have even greater bearing on this very real war that is closing in on every side. Every year the stories seem just a little more like truth.

Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one,” wrote the German poet Novalis. This sentence has been utter nonsense to me for most of my life. This year, though, I wish to shake the man’s hand quite heartily and congratulate him on his good sense in making such an admirable statement.

The thing about The Lord of the Rings (so I thought, last night, when we were just a few minutes into the first movie) is that it takes place in a world that looks very like the way the real world really looks.

For instance, Tolkien has crafted some people who are very much enamored of the light and of the truth and of beauty. They have strong power at their disposal, because the Ruler listens to them. We have such people in our own world also, and it is to be hoped that we are all aspiring to be among them, but – alas! – to my eyes and to your eyes they don’t all walk with a steady and measured tread and silver in their hair and a tangible grace seeping from their fingertips.

Perhaps, however, they do walk this way in the eyes of God. And the view from the eyes of God is the only definition of reality. Perhaps Tolkien was attempting to force this reality onto our own sight. Perhaps his intention was to fashion a world where the realest things are visible. Whether he thought of it in those terms or not, in some measure, at least, he succeeded in doing that very thing.

I believe it is this that makes these stories like a dream we are waking into, like a reality that is realer than all of the real around us.

In some circles it seems that New Year’s resolutions are going out of style. A number of very intelligent and godly people are writing about how they are not writing out any New Year’s resolutions this year. We are all going to stumble some this year, is part of their reasoning. We are all going to crash headlong in the dirt and fail to keep our promises and look back disappointed at the end of 2013. The important thing is to keep going forward, to keep growing stronger, to keep growing closer to Christ, to keep growing up. They have a point there.

I have been naming my new years since 2008. It is a sort of open-ended New Year’s resolution, like a flag-planting before a battle. There was the Year of Great Awakening first, and the Year of Victory came close on its heels. There was the Year of Glory after that and behind it the Year of Prayer and Shadowfeet. There was the year of Adoration. There has been a host of spectacular titles in my history.

But the only words that really matter are the ones we really live, and mostly my years have not been overwhelming successes but have been a series of little awakenings, a process of growing up, of coming to understand things, and coming to accept the fact that I cannot understand everything. And while growing up is a miracle all in its own right, it is not wrong to be dissatisfied with this sort of life, to insist on pressing in harder and to keep making promises, even though we are far too small and too frail to see them through.

We serve a God of grand promises and great expectations and the issue of our frailty is not a hindrance to Him. Indeed, it is almost a requirement.

God creates out of nothing, so until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him,” wrote Martin Luther. How much of our disappointed history is a result of the fact that we are not little enough, not helpless enough, that we must become less if Jesus is to become great?

It is all too easy to fall prey to the temptation to expect less of God, to make His promises less than they are, to forget that we who are lowly and uninitiated and powerless Halflings have been summoned to walk like Elven queens and princes, trailing glory and holding authority on our tongues. But sometimes the source of our doubting is our refusal to accept that we are those impotent and childish little hobbits, that it is only His grace which can pour out of our fingers, roll off our tongues, lift our eyes.

For this reason I am not afraid to name another year by another splendid and lavish title, to declare again that great glory shall be worked out of my days. Because the title I have chosen this year is one which I hope lowers me into the place where I belong, which invites Him to occupy preeminence.

I have named my new year The Year of Abiding.

To abide is to dwell, and I wish to abide this year, and forever after, in some things which are easily forgotten, and which the epic of The Rings always underscores with brilliance. I wish to abide in the clear and present knowledge of the war that is all around, to abide in the royalty that has been gifted to me, to abide in the dream that is realer than the world itself, the dream that is coming true.

I will not do all of these things all the time, however much I wish it at this moment. I will be stopping short sometimes in thick woods and owning myself thoroughly lost. I will be falling sometimes into puddles, lakes, and quarries. I will be sometimes huddling in a forlorn heap and saying no, I am done with this. When these things come about,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Such is my own prayer for the year we are just stepping into, like the carol over the cradle of the Christ,

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
close by me forever, and love me, I pray.

But it means something else also. The abidan, gebidan words in Old English carried a meaning of waiting, of remaining behind. To abide is to wait. And so the supplication of abide with me is a prayer that cries

stay with me, live with me, OH! might you please wait with me?

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully, even as I am fully known. (-1 Corinthians 13:12)