Be most careful, then, how you conduct yourselves, like sensible men, not like simpletons.
Use the present opportunity to the full, for these are evil days.
So do not be fools, but try to understand what the will of the Lord is.
Ephesians 5:15-17 (New English Bible)
Have you ever had a hero? Was it Zorro? Superman? Sherlock Holmes? There was something about hero-stories that rang with truth, because it seemed that the darkest hour would be the point at which a great transformation would take place. I’d like to tell a story about a hero, an unlikely little guy, who made a big difference to his friends and to his world. His name is Samwise Gamgee.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, two heroes, Frodo and “Sam,” are in a desperate situation. They’re in Osgiliath, the capitol city from the early days of the mighty country Gondor. Their quest to prevent the One Ring from falling into the hands of the Dark Lord seems lost. The countries of Gondor and Rohan have gathered their people to Helm’s Deep, Rohan’s mountain fortress, expecting to battle and to die. Sam and Frodo have lost communication, information, and hope of their seven other companions.
Frodo fears the task too much for him. He tells Sam, “I can’t do this.” But Sam, through the simplicity of faith, recalls his own childhood heroes as he encourages Frodo to carry on with these words:
I know...I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here, but we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing.
It is times like these that make a hero great. Sam, the humble, everyman character, is bold here, encouraging Frodo to continue. Through that straightforwardness of faith and the quest for his purpose, he carries on in spite of great odds.
It is my belief that the greatest heroes, men and women, since the inception of the church, have not been recorded in church history textbooks. The vast majority of those people were, like Sam, of modest means, unsung heroes of the faith who pressed on in those dark hours. They weren’t really noticeable, yet they clung to the hope that God had given them. They would not make a humanly visible mark on this world, but they knew that God had called them for a purpose and that size has nothing to do with the importance of that purpose. These aren’t people who gave in or begged God to make life go their way; they are those who persevered in trials, knowing that what was in store for them was much better than any wish they could ever dream.
We can look at the small spot we occupy on this earth inside this enormous galaxy in our unimaginably large universe and be overwhelmed with awe or even fear. But our size seldom has anything to do with our importance. Just ask Samwise Gamgee.
In some respects, it’s very easy to see that we are on a planet that may be in its darkest hour. There is a Dark Lord that threatens us. Yet, instead of persevering in hope, it is easy for us to fail to hear the messages; life in the immediate is so loud. “Now” can be so overwhelmingly frightening or painful that we lose our long-term perspective and become incapable of hearing any voice of warning or wisdom. Or “now” can become so enjoyable and so compelling that we become distracted from our eternal perspective and begin to lay our hope on things that cannot bear its weight.
A luxury liner was traveling across the Atlantic as a massive party took place in its ballroom and a massive storm raged outside. As a result of the storm, an accident occurred, leaving the ship critically damaged. But the people were unaware of the damage, and the captain (seeing that everyone was having such a great time drinking and dancing) didn’t believe the reports and didn’t allow notice of the accident to be broadcast over the speakers inside. So the party and the journey (and the storm outside) continued.
“The ship is fatally damaged; you must come to the lifeboats.” It blared over the PA system and rescuers shouted the message to the passengers, one by one. But most of the people were very caught up in the festivities. The band played loudly as the ship was sinking, and the people were really enjoying themselves, but a few who ventured out did notice that the ship actually was leaning toward the starboard side.
Interestingly, some of the people became confused. They put on their lifejackets, but the party had been so much fun that they went back to try to squeeze in a few more minutes. Others rushed past the rescue workers to their quarters. Once inside their cabins, they were gripped with fear of what was now a clear reality. Some began to fall down and pray. “God, something is terribly wrong. We are willing to follow you...if you will please just stop our ship from going under.” But it became evident that he wasn’t changing his plans. So these got up off the floor and returned to the ballroom. When asked where they had gone, their reply was that they had believed the earlier report. They had prayed to God, and it didn’t work.
So the ship eventually sank. Yes, right before the final plunge, there was a last-minute rush to the lifeboats, and frantic searching for life vests. But the boats were gone, and it seemed like there were just enough life vests for those who had left when the rescue team called them. No comments were heard about continuing the party as the ship was engulfed by the rolling waves.
Those who embraced life in the ballroom lost their lives, while those who heeded the warning and boarded the lifeboats did not. But there is a second story here, the story of those who, even in a time when they were totally powerless, most in need of help from an all-powerful saving force, demanded that God change his concept of life. When those people returned to the ballroom, they would see that ballroom life had lost something; but refusing to be saved, they, nonetheless, lost their lives. The only people who would be saved were the ones who heeded the message and stepped out into the unknown, to lifeboat life. They would save their lives and eventually enter into a new quality of life, one much better than the diversion of life on the ship.
As we dig deeper into what choosing a worldview means, it becomes clear that it’s not going to be easy and that it’s not a one-time decision. There will be times when we hurt so much that we might prefer the distraction of the ballroom, and there will be times that are so good that we find ourselves praying to God to let us stay there. These times will force us to make our choice again: Either we will view all of our life in light of the eternal, or we will cling to the temporal, all the time trying to modify the eternal to conform to our desires.
The latter is a terrible blunder. It is foolishness to try to persuade God to modify his great plan only to get on board with our personal agenda; but there are many who are trying to do this very thing. They’re not interested in lifeboat life, but they will unwittingly allow themselves to be lured into the water by the sirens that call them to their deaths.
In Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, young Emily, who dies in childbirth, is allowed to go back and observe a single day of her brief life. The stage manager, her guide, advises her, “Choose the least important day of your life; it will be important enough.” She makes the mistake of choosing her 12 th birthday. And she is so overwhelmed by the experience that she concludes:
“I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on, and we never noticed. Take me back up the hill to my grave, but first wait, one more look. Goodbye, goodbye world. Goodbye Grover’s Corners, Mama and Papa, goodbye to clocks ticking and Mama’s sunflowers, and food and coffee and new ironed dresses and hot baths and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth! You’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
She looks to the stage manager through her tears, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” The stage manager answers, “No. The saints and poets, maybe. They do some.”
If we really pursue Christ, will we become saints and poets too? Will we begin to see life more creatively? Will we begin to see its goodness and all its possibilities? Rather than living in the future, will we savor this moment as if it we’re all there is? Will it make us grateful? Instead of wasting time in the ballroom, will we become careful about how we conduct ourselves? Paul advises we do this “like sensible [people], not like simpletons” (Ephesians 5:15-17). But how do we live with care and live the present to the full, knowing the days are evil?
It has been said that a person can become “so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” I do not believe this is so. People who develop an eternal perspective place value on the present, treasuring the passing opportunities of this life and becoming more alive to the moment, not less. They are not looking ahead to what they can gain or accomplish, but savoring everything for what it is. From this perspective, rather than being overwhelmed by the pain of this life and seeking to avoid it, we begin to understand that it will pass, and that in our enduring is great reward. As Paul says in Romans 8:18, “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
The Apostle Paul knew something about suffering. In the year 67 AD, after completing a life of outrageous faith, he was beheaded on the Ostian Way, just outside of Rome. In his final epistle, a letter to his young associate, Timothy, he says, “I’m already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith” (4:6-8).
We all want to finish well, but we never will unless we’re willing to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Paul said there was waiting for him a “crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that day - and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8) And we are those who long for his appearing, or at least we are becoming them.
This kind of kingdom living is upside down, according to the world’s point of view. So while we live here, our faith leads us to accept a great deal of paradox:
We’ve got to lose our lives to save them. We must be last in order to be first. We must die in order to live. We must serve in order to lead. We are strongest when we are weak, and we are weak when we think that we’re strong. We died in Christ, but we’ve never before been so alive. We become like a child to grow wiser. We are sitting in heaven while we are walking in earth. We lose our life to save it. We are humble and need no more, but when we’re proud, we’re poor. We should love this earthly country, but not love the things in it. We are sinners; but we are also saints. We are cleansed from sin, but in our flesh is no good thing. We are the reason why Christ died, but we are still the apple of his eye. We fear God, but we’re not afraid of him. We’re overwhelmed by his presence, but drawn to be close to him. We love supremely one whom we’ve never seen. We are pessimists regarding the world but live as serene optimists, because we know what God’s going to accomplish. The powers of darkness are vanquished by Christ, but the final conquest is in the future. When this life is over, we expect to live forever.
And here’s one of the biggest paradoxes of the Christian faith, one that I have not seen many in Christendom embrace: being is more important than doing and must precede it. Oswald Chambers says that we count as discipleship what we do for Christ; but he counts as discipleship who we are to him. If our focus is on who we are and who we belong to, the doing will follow. I’m convinced that being (living in intimate relationship with God now) should precede all that we do and should become our empowering force. “But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it— he will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:25) We can’t have the being without the doing. This applies to every component of our lives.
If we will seek his kingdom first, he promises the rest of our needs will be supplied (Matthew 6:33). But if we, instead, pursue only the work of our hands, we will craft a false self, based upon having and doing. Intimacy will energize and empower activity; but activity will not necessarily lead to intimacy. Pascal said that our biggest problem is that we don’t know how to sit quietly in our room, by which he meant that we cannot stand being still. This is what retreats are about, about being somewhere in solitude, away from phones, computers, even books. If we choose to invest in solitude, being alone with God in the present, we would probably learn more about ourselves than we could in a year of activity.
“[I]t is easier to become a Christian if one is not a Christian than to become a Christian if one is already supposed to be one.”
In his last book, Attack upon Christendom, 19 th Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard denounced the state Lutheran church declaration that all Danes were born Lutherans and were therefore Christians. Kierkegaard said there was a radical difference between Christendom (those born into a “Christian” nation) and Christianity (true faith). An externalized Christianity does not reflect the gospel at all. In Kierkegaard’s desire to wake people up, he would say that one must cease being a “Christian” in order to really become a Christian. If we are Christians by birth and by going through the motions, we are not Christians by our will, not to mention by our broken will. Kierkegaard made his point by use of strongly provocative language as well as by stories.
One of these stories, An Eternity in Which to Repent, is a parable about a pious, elderly couple who, being very poor, were contemplating how they would live out the rest of their days without starving to death. They would often pray to God about the matter, and one day, there came what seemed to be a solution. That morning, when the wife went out to the oven, she found on the hearth a very large and precious stone. She brought it to her husband, and he concurred that they were now set for life. But, pious as they were, and seeing that they already had enough to live at least one more day, they decided to wait until the following day to sell the jewel.
That night, in a dream, the woman was transported into paradise. There, amid all the glories that she could behold, was a great hall. The hall was full of chairs which were adorned with beautiful stones. An angel showed the woman to her chair, which was dazzling. However, as she looked at the chair more closely, she realized something was missing. There was a hole in the back of it about the size of the stone she had found on her hearth. When she asked the angel about the hole, he answered her, “That was the precious stone you found on the hearth. You received it in advance, and so it cannot be inserted again.” The woman woke up! She told her husband about the dream. Together, the couple agreed that it would be better to continue to trust in God for what they needed to live rather than sell the precious stone. They also decided to ask God if he would return the stone to where it came from. That evening, they bravely laid the stone out on the hearth and asked that God would take it back. In the morning, sure enough, it had vanished; and they were quite sure of where it had gone.
These two elderly people were happily married, and this woman was sensible. Still, Kierkegaard says, “[e]veryone has within himself that which more artfully and more urgently and more persistently than any woman is able, to make a man forget the eternal and lead him to measure falsely - as if a few years, or 10 years, or 40 years, were a prodigiously long time, so that even eternity becomes something very short in comparison.”28
I think this is what many of us do. We frequently act and invest our days and years as if our satisfaction with life here were what mattered most and as if eternity were not a prodigiously long time. Kierkegaard’s words shake the complacent Christian:
You may perhaps be cunning enough to avoid suffering and adversity in this life, you may perhaps be clever enough to evade ruin and ridicule and instead enjoy all the earth’s goods, and you may perhaps be fooled into the vain delusion that you are on the right path just because you have won worldly benefits, but beware, you will have an eternity in which to repent! An eternity in which to repent, that you failed to invest your life upon that which lasts: to love God in truth, come what may, with the consequence that in this life you will suffer under the hands of men29.
If we want to distort the message of Christianity, we can choose to go through life this way. We can be Christians with a temporal paradigm, professing Christians but practical atheists; however, the result of that choice will be that we are seduced by the wrong voices. We will measure our years here as if they were a long time and eternity as if it were nothing . Our lives will reflect this decision. In the end, we will have earned for ourselves “an eternity in which to repent.”
However, if we are committed to Christ, we cannot behave as if our Christianity is of “moderate importance.” As C. S. Lewis said, if it is true, then it is infinitely important, and our lives ought to reflect this belief. Unfortunately, the average churchgoer we bump into is a person who seeks to make Christianity moderately important; that is to say he fails to tease out the obvious implications of what this means for eternity.
If we really trust Jesus, we are assured that we will have trouble (John 16:33), and that the world is going to hate us (John 15:19, 1 John 3:13). We must practice our faith every day, expecting that Jesus’ promises are true, both the ones we look forward to and the ones we find most difficult. This day could be our last. We are in a battle. The Dark Lord is here and works among us. We must pick up a sword, we must expect to battle and to die. God has not promised to make us comfortable; but he has promised to forge a Christlike character in us (1 Corinthians 1:8, Philippians 1:6), and he has promised that now is not forever.
God sees each of our lives like a treasure, like a gem. He desires to separate the gem from the material in which it was found, clean it from the debris that still surrounds it and then polish it. Still, an amorphous stone is not brilliant. Faceting is the process by which the jeweler cuts his stones. The more of these facets, the more beautiful a stone becomes. But imagine being that stone! If God makes us beautiful by a faceting process, we’re going to have to imagine there will be quite a bit of pain involved. After the faceting, though, we become brilliant; and like any good jeweler, God sets us in a black velvet background to show us off.
We live in that black velvet background now, a “crooked and depraved generation,” in which we must “shine like stars in the universe.” We do this by refusing to grumble and complain, so that we may “become blameless and pure, children of God without fault” (Philippians 2:14-15). I believe this may be even more necessary today than it was in the first century, when it was written. God’s people are like stars in that black background, like gems that God has crafted. And, through pain, he’s polished us and faceted us so that we have become more brilliant. This is how he mediates his incarnational presence through his people, and this is why our perseverance is essential.
Let us revisit Frodo and Sam in Osgiliath. As far as they are concerned, all hope is lost. Even while Sam boldly reminds Frodo of those heroes in stories that “really mattered,” Frodo battles with his own desire to keep the ring. But unbeknownst to either character, while Sam speaks in faith, their fate actually reverses. Hopeless situations are transformed. Though neither character is aware of it, it happens. Isengard is destroyed, and Gandalf returns. Victory is nearly theirs. And in the midst of this triumph, Sam continues, unaware. He says...
This shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. Those are the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now, folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding onto something.
A shipload of people dances while their destinies are played out in the icy water of the Atlantic. A wise woman almost trades her heavenly treasure for a few more meals. A ring-bearer tries to hold onto the ring.
What are we most interested in holding onto? Our happiness or our holiness? Our comfort or our character? We know well in which God is interested. So we struggle. We’re not home yet, and this is painfully obvious. But in seeking to relieve that pain, we must not deceive ourselves into supposing that this world is enough or even close to enough to heal it or that this world can sustain the deepest longings of our lives, because it never will. Do we have the courage to step out into lifeboat life, to appreciate the insignificant over the great celebrations, to hold onto something not-so-tangible?
When the question is asked, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” I hope our Stage Manager answers, “Yes, my children do. They are poets, saints, and heroes. They understand. And they will have chances to turn back, but they won’t.” And even as He speaks these words in faith, our deserved fate reverses. Victory is ours. And while He is in the midst of His triumph, we continue in our most joyous moments and in our darkest hours, often unaware. But that is just fine. We keep going, because we’re holding on to something.
28 Soren Kierkegaard, “An Eternity in Which to Repent” in Attack Upon “Christendom” (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 246-247.