So, true confession time. I’m a bit of a nerd. Some of you are like, “Duh.” But for those of you that don’t know this side of me, I’m here to tell you, it goes deep. I’m not just a jump on the bandwagon, Dr. Who fan. I’m not one of those that thinks the kids in Stranger Things are cute and likeable. I, seriously, am one of those kids. I’m pretty sure I would have named my street Mirkwood, just like they did. I loved D&D, even though it was highly controversial for a little 6th grade Christian kid to play.
And I’ve always loved Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings. I started with the Hobbit and the Narnia books when I was young, but progressed to LOTR when my dad would read it to me as a kid. It was a bit over my head at the time (all that history and elvish poetry), and it was maybe a little too suspenseful for my 10-year-old emotions at bedtime (black riders chasing Hobbits through Bree kept me up more than once), but I was hooked from day one. I loved the immersive world Tolkien had created, with all the languages, history, races, ages, and depth of mythology. To read Tolkien is to be ushered into a magnificent story, in a world so vast and real that the story itself is a mere glimpse into the greater whole of Middle Earth.
My good friend, Bret, gave me a beautiful map of Middle Earth in a wonderful barn wood frame. It hangs on my office wall and is one of my dearest treasures. As a pastor, I suppose it ought to be Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, or maybe Grünewald’s Crucifixion, but honestly Tolkien’s Middle Earth has as much spiritual significance for me personally.
This is probably worth explaining a bit. As a child, when I would read these stories, something deep in me would stir. Something not only real, but more real, more true than the world around me. I was moved by emotions that were familiar and yet were being awakened for the first time. A longing for depth and nobility, for a life of glorious deeds done without need of recognition, and for depth of character that refused to turn back or look away in despair when seemingly hope was lost.
The rest of the world spoke words of caution, of sobriety, of critical reality. Give it up, kid! But my heart knew better. When I read that scene (spoiler!) where Boromir dies, but confesses his betrayal of Frodo and swears allegiance to Aragorn as king…I would fall apart in tears of admiration. That scene is beautifully redemptive, courageous, and true.
When I read about Aragorn protecting the Shire and yet being held in suspicion by the cautious little hobbits (they refer to him distrustfully as Strider) I would find myself longing for the same humble valor. And when he is asked to step into his calling as king, I would share in his reluctance.
I love that the main character of the story is a hobbit. Not Frodo, but Sam. Sam’s story is one of radical transformation. The little gardener goes on to become the bearer of the ring bearer. He literally carries his master and his master’s burden up the side of Mt. Doom.
As I would read, I would find myself desiring to be the very best version of myself. Because I see in the characters not only characteristics I long to possess but a quality of life that feels big enough to contain my heart. Something about the mythical and heroic speaks to our truest callings in life. And that calling is glory. Not fame. Not success. But glory.
The Hebrew word for it captures it best. Kavod. It means weighty. Solid. Heavy. We are made to live lives that are big enough for eternity. To walk in a manner that the world is not worthy of.
Lewis writes this about Tolkien’s masterpiece, “The imagined beings have their insides on the outside; they are visible souls. And Man as a whole, Man pitted against the universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale?”
Which is why the map remains proudly displayed in my office. It cautions me against letting life become too familiar. It inspires me to choose the bigger story when I grow weary or insecure. And it reminds me that the beauty and depth of life await those with eyes to see that,
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”