“Light & High Beauty” in the Shadow of Mt. Doom – Brad Jersak

In February of 2020, I had the great privilege of hiking the Tongariro alpine crossing, site of Mount Ngaurunoe, New Zealand’s third most active volcano, made famous as the image of Mount Doom in the Lord of the Ring movies. My guide (or Sam Gamgee, if you will) was my dear friend Clinton Sanford, who trained me for the 12-mile, 9-hour trek, which included a 90-minute grueling climb up “the devil’s staircase.”

Good fortune or divine providence granted me the unexpected company of Brian and Peri Zahnd, whose travels coincided briefly with mine. We were also accompanied (and fed) by Sarah and Bruce O’Brian (from El Rancho Camp).

At first I had doubts whether I could make such a journey without succumbing to old injuries (knee stuff) or emotional despair (head games), but while the path was rugged, I endured and experienced joy throughout the entire day. This was thanks in part to the incredible landscape but also, to Clinton’s conditioning (two weeks of daily six-kilometer hikes featuring hundreds of stairs) and the inspiration I drew from Peri Zahnd, who kept pace despite recently cracked ribs!  #IronWoman! Here was our route:

In this, I saw the wisdom of the extra-biblical proverb that says, “Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.” In other words, we never earn the grace of God … it’s a gift. But on the other hand, Grace (the indwelling and transforming presence of God’s Spirit) frequently guides the people of God along difficult paths, such as self-giving love, radical forgiveness and others-centered service. We don’t traverse the Jesus Way to merit God’s favor or secure our salvation. Rather, Christ calls us to follow, empowers us to endure and brings our faith to completion. That Way is identified with cross-bearing for a reason, but there’s joy in the journey as the Spirit of God energizes us with the life of Christ and the company of faithful friends … on that path we find fulness of life or eternal life, as Jesus describes it in John.

But now let’s turn our attention to the citation from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings embedded in the photo. He uses some semi-archaic terms (they aren’t typos) but the quote refers to Frodo and Sam’s harrowing incursion into the dark kingdom of Mordor toward the fires Mount Doom. As Boromir puts it, “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” We read,

  • “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”  

Without much commentary, I will just say that while we seem to live in dark and fearful days, Sam’s vision reflects the Johannine hope found in these two Scriptures. His words lift our eyes to the transcendent and unquenchable Light of Christ:

  • “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
  • “For the darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

John seems incredibly optimistic considering the hostility of Roman empire, the dominance of pagan religion and the opposition of Synagogue Jews who had driven the Jewish Christian sect out of their assemblies. Nonetheless, he doesn’t seem daunted because he knows the Bright and Morning Star is Christ, not Lucifer. The darkness is already being pushed back and the true Light Who is Love Incarnate is already inexorably, gloriously dancing forward across the world and across history. Whether through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (Psalm 23) or through the Shadow of Mt. Doom, he invites us to fear no evil for Christ our Good Guide leads this company and his perfect love drives out fear.

A friend of mine wrote me this week, feeling quite rattled by the news of the world (climate change, fires, wars, virus outbreaks, political turmoil, etc.) and also by a certain trembling in his personal faith (fear of divine wrath, judgment and hell). “What if…?!” I understand, honestly. But I also know this fearful and familiar path, having crossed it more than a few times myself. Here was my suggestion. I responded to his questions this way:

  •        These are good questions in that they expose the real theme issue, which is fear, triggered by fearful events and energized by a host ‘what if’ questions. But remember the story of Jesus walking on the water and Peter has the guts to try it too? When he took his eyes off Jesus, he looked at the waves (the virus, global warming, hell questions, etc.) and began to sink. For now, could you start by reading prayerfully out loud 1 John 4:17-19 (NIV):“This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.”

I suggested he focus on that one passage and nothing else for the next month… Read it, reread it, pray it, memorize it, meditate on it, journal about it. In a case like his, we sometimes do need to resist frantic urges and instead, stand firm and auger down deep in one spot until we hit the spring of Living Water. It’s not about earning our peace back, but we know by experience how lifting our eyes from the tossing seas up into the gaze of Christ can involve some grace-infused effort on our part. Fear has its own strange magnetism but Grace is greater.

Ironically, our effort is not actually boot-strapping at all. Instead, it’s the inverse ‘effort’ of surrender to Grace! In a nutshell, the Good News (gospel) is that our willing surrender to Abba’s loving care results in fulness of life. The only striving involved is to surrender or as the author of Hebrews put it, “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11). Perhaps Sam Gamgee would simply say, “Look up, Mr. Frodo! The night is dark but the True Light goes on shining!”

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