The Hobbit: A Hero's Tale

"It's a dangerous business... going out your door... You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."  [Frodo, remembering the advice of his uncle Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring, chap. 3] For the next two Sundays at Westside we want to exercise our imaginations. We are going to look at the story of Jesus through the lens of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. With the release of the movie version this Christmas season, we have decided to let Tolkien’s tale saddle up next to the Nativity. We think that there are new wrinkles to consider by doing so. In these next two devotionals I want to offer two aspects of the Christmas story which we can learn to live into. This week I want to talk about adventure, and next week I want to talk about providence.

The Hobbit immerses us in this theme of adventure by first revealing the comfortable world of one Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, a creature whose love of comfort knows no bounds. Bilbo loves his home, his food, and his life of relative quiet. He also prizes his respectability, that he does nothing to upset the expectations his fellow hobbits have of him. He seems to be typical of the unmovable sort, set in his ways and happy to be so.

If that was all there was to Bilbo there would be no story to tell. And this is a story, says Tolkien, “of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected”. Bilbo does have an adventurous side to him, at least when he allows himself to dream. But for the most part his fearfulness overcomes him, and he shrinks back. Bilbo lives in the tension we know all too well: comfort seems to be at odds with significance. The possibility of being part of a really good story carries too steep cost, we think.

Bilbo’s story starts with a disruption, a kind of unexpected barging in. Gandalf, the old wise wizard, comes to him with an invitation to be part of an adventure. Gandalf loves stories, loves to tell them, and obviously loves to initiate them. And Gandalf has chosen Bilbo to be part of a really great story involving far travel, menacing dragons, and captured treasure. It won’t be easy, but it will be adventure, and profitable in ways one could hardly now imagine. Along for the ride will be a company of loud and bothersome dwarves.

Lets leave it there, the whole twisting-turning tale ahead of us. But have you already considered the basic tension at play? I am quite sure you have faced it, and perhaps you are thinking about it now. Perhaps The Hobbit will act as a catalyst for personal reappraisal. Its the age-old dilemma of comfort versus significance. And it all begins when the unexpected pops over for a visit. That is how almost all moments of significance -- what we call “good stories” -- begin.

Christmas begins with an unexpected intrusion doesn’t it? Joseph and Mary are thrust into their own discomfort, discovering divine intention mysteriously mixed in. And on heaven’s side, the divine Son leaves comfort to traverse the dusty roads of Palestine until his journey leads him, inevitably, to that steepest and most challenging of all roads, the road to his cross. Christmas is about how the Son of God leaves comfort in order to make a story. He allows himself to be impinged upon, travels far from home, follows the winding trail of tears mixed with hope. He does all of this in order to make a new story, a story in which all things become new, a story which has now taken in me and you. Significance.

While I stand in awe of this as a worshipper -- and that is the first thing I am to do -- I also see that there is a pathway for me to follow. But it involves that basic tension doesn’t it? I must decide between comfort and significance.

Over this past year, I have been musing on what it means to be renewed in adventure at this middle stage of my life. I recently read Paul Tournier’s, The Adventure of Living (1965) where he muses on our deep human need for meaning, on how we can try to satisfy this need with adventure-substitutes (things like sexual affairs, or gambling, and on it goes), but how there is no substitute for full life-engagement. This hunger for what I would like to call “happening” is large in us. He recounts the words of his then fourteen year-old son who broke his leg skiing. Surprisingly, his son was almost happy about it, saying “my life has been boring until now, but finally something has happened to me”. On one level that might sound like a strange thing to say, but on another level you might resonate with that statement.

The Christmas story is about God’s willingness to enter the happening of life. Or put this another way: there is a calling to adventure that God models in himself, showing us the way to live into the story that he has written but continues to write in the stories of ordinary hobbits like you and I.

We have an idea for you. We are calling it Movie with a Purpose and it goes like this: go see the movie with friends and then talk about it with this devotional in mind. Talk about the life of adventure, what true adventure looks like, why we might be reluctant, what Christmas means to our possibilities. There awaits one more piece I will write on next week: as you begin living God’s adventure, rest assured that your life is secure in the providence of God. For this story has a subtitle that must be taken seriously: There and Back Again. There is a promise inherent in the beginning.

You have been called to the great adventure. Don’t shrink back. For there is another kind of comfort to be gained: the comfort of a life well lived, the comfort of a life that has been deeply part of the great story God is telling.

Bob Osborne

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