Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Living the gift

My daughter gave me a gift the other day. I have been savoring and pondering it for several days.

We were coming home, and we were talking along the way. Those conversations on the road home can be important. Sometimes the important conversations just happen -- they appear like mushrooms after a rainy week. Other times you have to plant them, like tomatoes, and pack some dirt around their roots and put a framework around them to support their growth. So I planted this conversation with a question: "What story -- Bible story or other story -- best defines you?"

She pondered for a while and then offered a couple thoughtful responses. We talked fairy tales and Tolkien and a few other stories. After about fifty miles of this, she said, "Okay, your turn."

So I talked about the Gerasene demoniac from Mark 5, which has become a tremendously important story to me, a story of how I have lived among the tombs and how Jesus has set me free from my bondage to death, my bondage to myself, and sent me back to tell what God has done for me. It's a powerful story.

I had been mentally roving my way through Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I first read these books when I was about twelve, and I have lived and relived and imagined and reimagined these stories hundreds of times. My oldest brother and I used to linger over long conversations about the potential of a movie version of Tolkien's work, who we would cast in what roles, etc. (I have lots of opinions about Peter Jackson's version of the trilogy -- some places it's amazing and some places he totally misses the boat, like when the archers of Lothlorien show up at Helm's Deep ... what's with that???) So I floundered a bit, looking at a couple characters and finally settling on Strider in Bree, when the four hobbits first meet him, when he's not King of Gondor but just a Ranger out of the wilderness who is there to help them.

My daughter chewed on this for a bit and finally said, "I don't buy it. It doesn't work. You're not scary enough to be Strider." I wasn't sure at this point whether I should be offended or not. "You are too easy going, you draw people in because you're so comfortable. You like to play with little kids. I can't see you threatening them with a broken sword like Strider does -- you'd be trying not to laugh." True. Too true. Then she gave me a gift I have pondered ever since.

"I think Mithrandir. You're Gandalf. He likes to set off firecrackers with little kids and play games with them. He loves to laugh and he pulls people close to himself -- he draws people in. He goes from one group of people to the next, offering wisdom and guidance. He digs deep into ancient texts looking for the secrets that will set people free. There's a lot more to him than most people understand. I think Gandalf is a lot better fit for you than Strider. There's tremendous strength and joy in you, but so often it's hidden. And you don't want to do it, but if you have to you'll stand on the bridge and fight the balrog."

At this point my eyes had welled up and I was about to drive off the road. I would never, never have chosen this for myself, compared myself to this wizard who is probably more the hero of Tolkien's trilogy than any other character. I'm astonished by her comparison not because I think it's accurate, but because I see tiny wisps of truth in it. There are tiny parts of my life -- the parts that give me hope that someday I may do something worthwhile -- that match up to Gandalf's example. My daughter gave me an example to follow, a literary role model, a mythical mentor. A story.

Joseph Campbell once said that the function of the artist is to mythologize life. I would take it a step further and say that an unmythologized life is probably not worth living. We need to know what story we are living and how it defines us if we are to understand life and our place in it.

This is why I was talking about baptism in my last post. Baptism is the story that defines the life of the Jesus-follower. Death and resurrection. Crucifixion and new life. The flood in miniature, lived out in my life as my flesh -- my old self -- dies and Jesus in me comes alive.

So what's your story? What tale, what character, what plot defines you?


  1. Uriah the Hittite. The guy always did the honorable thing and yet he lost.

  2. Secondly, it is not fair to have your kid pick the character. You kid always knows how to get to your heart. My kids can make me tear up just about anytime they wish (in a good way)!

  3. Agreed, it's not fair -- but that's why it came to me as a gift! They certainly do know how to get to your heart, hopefully in a good way. I've always had a soft spot for Uriah as well, though I don't know that I identify with him. He's sort of a cautionary tale in my book -- in a John 16:33 kind of a way.