Friday, April 9, 2021

"...there is foul air down there, or I am no guide."

Click to listen to the audio of this post being read by the author: Me!

The Fellowship.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the Fellowship (the group that has been tasked with protecting the ring-bearer and escorting him to Mordor) find themselves traveling through a mountain via some ancient Dwarvish mines. Though always looking to Gandalf the Wizard as their guide, they find themselves more dependent on him in the Mines, seeing as he is the only one who has actually made this particular journey.  The movies portray this moment well, but I would like to share the book's version of this part of the story: 

It was after nightfall when they had entered the Mines. They had been going for several hours with only brief halts, when Gandalf came to his first serious check. Before him stood a wide dark arch opening into three passages: all led in the same general direction, eastwards; but the left-hand passage plunged down, while the right-hand passage climbed up, and the middle way seemed to run on, smooth and level but very narrow.

'I have no memory of this place at all!' said Gandalf, standing uncertainly under the arch. He held up his staff in the hope of finding some marks or inscription that might help his choice; but nothing of the kind was to be seen.

At this crossroads they find an abandoned guardroom. After exploring it for a moment, they decide to rest, needing to catch up on some sleep. Gandalf does not sleep, still feeling perplexed about the right way to go, and decides he needs a smoke. 

'I know what is the matter with me,' he muttered, as he sat by the door. 'I need smoke! I have not tasted it since the morning before the snowstorm.'

The last thing that Pippin saw, as sleep took him, was a dark glimpse of the old wizard huddled on the floor, shielding a glowing chip in his gnarled hands between his knees. The flicker for a moment showed his sharp nose, and the puff of smoke.

It was Gandalf who roused them all from sleep. He had sat and watched all alone for about six hours, and had let the others rest. 'And in the watches I have made up my mind,' he said, 'I do not like the feel of the middle way; and I do not like the smell of the left-hand way: there is foul air down there, or I am no guide. I shall take the right-hand passage. It is time we began to climb up again.'

Now... I am sharing this snippet of a story with you because it reminds me of some key moments in my life from this last year. In fact, there is one particular moment that felt a lot like this, that I would like to share with you: a splitting of paths, a diverging of steps. It was a few months ago now, a couple of friends of mine parted ways with me. We were at this crossroads, and their course seemed to be heading along one particular path, and I wasn't sure which way to go; or as Gandalf said, "I have no memory of this place." 


This is the first time in my life that I've ever had anyone purposely separate themselves from me. (At least it is the first time that I am aware of.) I've had people that, over time, we've grown more distant, and sometimes after a move I've simply lost touch... but the choice to be separated from, for paths to diverge, was a new experience. We were headed two different ways, it seemed, and leading up to that imminent split, I was trying to decide which way would be best. (Or more importantly, which way was right.) We were still in this together, or so I thought, but their sneakers were pointed ever-so-slightly in a different direction than mine were. So far we had been able to travel together, but life issues and actual societal circumstances were bringing about this division of ways. 

I am sharing this with you because the friends who abandoned me, I had initially believed that they just had a slight practical difference in their approach, that our lives might be on opposite sides of the tunnel, but we were still headed the same direction. In other words, I assumed that we were holding onto the same basic tenets of the faith, that our hearts were in the same place, but they were simply looking for a different style of ministry to practice that faith. I assumed these things. So, you can imagine my pierced surprise when their letter to our little church ended with the statement, "...but faced with the choice between the people we love or following Jesus - we will choose Jesus every time."

Thinking the Best.

Something about me, before I go any further -- I tend to think the best about people. This can be a good characteristic when dealing with people, specifically with teenagers, as my educational career has dictated... but it can also reveal itself as a vulnerable weakness. I've experienced both the pros and cons of a view of people that assumes the best: Not only has it given me opportunities to get to know students and make connections with them, especially the ones that have a manifested history of bad choices, but I have also been duped a few times and trodden on a few more than that. Assuming the best doesn't always mean that the best case scenario is always the one in play. 

For the record, I did ask them if that statement they made was what they actually meant. (Assuming the best again.) I mean, it sounded like they were saying that they were following Jesus and we weren't. "We love you guys, for sure... but we really love Jesus, unlike you... So, I guess we need to go over here. I mean... Our path is headed to Jesus. Its too bad that yours isn't headed that way as well." I kept thinking, surely we were simply at a mere philosophical crossroads... but no. When I asked if they were actually saying what it sounded like, the answer came back plain and simple: yes. 

In those cases where I've thought the best, but eventually learned -- not the worst, but definitely not the best -- I was usually presented with the opportunity, when all was said and done, to take a step back and re-evaluate the situation with eyes that are a little more clear. With focused eyes and unfogged glasses, I usually find that there were pieces of evidence that could have pointed me toward a more accurate assessment of the situation beforehand. This case was really no different, but I kept clinging to hope... a hope that with a seemingly mutual dependence on an inspired, inerrant word from God (the Bible), that we would be able to navigate this crossroads together. We would be able to navigate it, or I was no Guide --  or at least not their Guide.

"... or I am no guide."

In the Tolkien story that I shared, the fellowship followed Gandalf. They followed him, even though this decision was based on the feel of the middle way and the foul smell emanating from the left path. They followed him, not because they were convinced in themselves of the choice, but because his ordained role was guide.

Please don't misread this. I am definitely NOT saying that we ought to have a blind allegiance to any pastor... but I am saying that you ought to "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith." (Hebrews 13:7 ESV) and "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you." (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)

I quote these passages, not to offer up a definitive explanation of the way pastoral ministry works, but to point out that in God's economy, people are called for these purposes, and they are gifts from God to his church (see Ephesians 4:11-14). And when a group of people come together to affirm their God given guide and ordain him to ministry, that ought not to be taken lightly. I say all of this, knowing that I speak of myself, but I am banking everything on 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. The middle road just felt all wrong and the left hand passage didn't smell right. That is all I had to go on, initially, and if I was wrong about this, then again, I was no guide. 

In the days and weeks since I've headed down this path, I've become increasingly convinced that it really was the right choice. My confidence comes not from the quality of all the others on this path... there are some that don't belong here, and they will split at the next divergence... no, my confidence comes from two things - One: those who have taken the other way, have abandoned more and more the way of truth and long-held, oft-wrestled-over hard-realities of this Bible that we cling to, are being discarded along the way. Some even saying that Doctrine (the teachings of the Scriptures) are not to be held onto when they lead to other people's perceived insults, traumatic confrontations, or individual judgments. (In other words, preaching against homosexuality ought not to happen because it is leading to trauma for homosexual people.)

Please understand, I would never wield the sword that pierced my own soul with glee as it pierces another's. There is pain when confronted with the scriptures, but though it is a pain that leads to death, it is a death that leads to life. (See 1 Corinthians 15:36 and John 12:24-25.)

Because I'm also learning the marching hymn echoing from those other tunnels, I also know that I need to say that there is nothing in here... nothing I've said... that is any way supporting abuse, defending abuse, protecting abusers or excusing abuse. Abruptly telling my own children not to touch the hot burner on the stove, may have startled them, but it wasn't abuse and neither is telling someone that if they don't repent that it will be better for the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than it is for them. 

The other reason why I am becoming more confident in my choice are the humble beggars that are linking arms with me along this journey.  It is a rough path, for those of us who have headed this way for the right reasons. It is full of insults, accusations, and rejections. It feels lonely, but when the lonely come together - true fellowship ensues.

A final note.

If those who have left read this: I love you. I am worried about you. I am not angry with you. Your rejection has hurt, but I am ready to throw a feast at your return. I know that you believe that you are doing the right thing, but as your one-time guide, that path smells foul. Please don't reject the path to the cross simply because Simon the Magician is trying to go this way as well. He won't be here much longer, I see another split in the tunnel coming. 

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