There I was lying in our room, listening to my wife read the Lord of the Rings aloud. It was the first time that I had heard the story. I felt warm and contented inside. The story was moving along just as all great stories should–the unlikely hero Frodo had destroyed the ring, the hordes of evil doers had been swept from the fields of battle, and the author, Tolkien, was ending this wonderful trilogy in a slow and methodical way that fits my sensibilities. Then the Hobbits reached the Shire.
I was expecting grassy lawns and pleasant gardens, perfect round doors built into little hillsides, cheerful welcomes for the returning heroes, followed by elaborate lengthy feasts, and long quiet conversations held beside warm fireplaces in Bag End, but that was not what I heard. My wife read of smoke stacks belching smog into the sky, of ugly poorly-built brick houses hugging the lanes, of greasy ill-breed hobbits and tall dirty men guarding the ‘Boss’, and as I listened, I asked myself, Why did Tolkien decide to write the story this way?
There was a temptation right then, like there is any time you read about hard things, to put the book down and stop reading for a while, but we looked at each other, and after a nod from me, she kept reading. The pages I listened to were not easy, but they were good. In the end the Shire was saved, but Bag End was lost. Some things would always be different. As I listened to Tolkien describe the process of cleaning up and starting over, I heard these words…
So Sam planted saplings in all the places where especially beautiful or beloved trees had been destroyed, and he put a grain of the precious dust in the soil at the root of each. He went up and down the Shire in this labour; but if he paid special attention to Hobbiton and Bywater no one blamed him… The little silver nut he planted in the Party Field where the tree had once been; and he wondered what would come of it…In after years, as it grew in grace and beauty, it was known far and wide and people would come long journeys to see it… (it was) one of the finest in the world.
Now that I look back at Tolkien’s words, I am starting to see what he meant. All of us fear change. When we come to the end of a long hard journey, or just a long hard day, we want permanence. We want normal quiet joys. But what do we do when the very things that seem to tie us to a place or a people are suddenly gone? Why does life, at times, set fire to all the things we feel are ‘normal’?
Though there is not one simple answer to these questions, there are truths we can cling to when they are whispered to our souls. The first truth I found in the words of our Savior, Jesus Christ:
“For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.”Mark 9:49
Every life will experience the fires of adversity, but we need not fear them. Salt stings, but it is a necessary part of preparing a sacrifice. There is no sacrifice without preparation and no preparation without some kind of suffering.
This might seem bleak and dire, but we must not forget the purpose of salt. It is the great preservative as well as the great enhancer. Just like salt, suffering and troubles have a way of helping us preserve what is worthwhile and appreciate and savor what is truly good.
The second truth I found in the epistle to the church in Corinth. Paul is reminding them that every church, every ministry, every family, and every life, must be built on something and out of something. But in the midst of our work we can get so busy that we convince ourselves that any building material will do, just as long as we are busy building.
“For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.”1 Corinthians 3:11-14
When Saruman pops up unexpectedly, when fires, floods, and world-wide plagues change all the things we think are normal, it can be hard to accept, but they can have a beautiful purpose in our lives if we let them. The loss of the Party Tree made room for something grander in the end. The fires of trouble are not meant to consume me, just prepare me. Life gets so full sometimes with wood, hay, and stubble, it takes a forest fire to clear it all out of the way. It takes hardships to make room for new growth.
There are times as we sweep through the ashes of what was, that we find the gold, silver, and precious stones that remain. But finding those little silver nuts and clutching them comfortingly in our hands is not enough. When we find them, we need to plant them. If we properly tend to the things of true value in hard times, they will grow. If we will clear away the ashes and plant in the added space given to us from these tragic events, we might find in what remains of our ‘normal life’ those things that are our reward, those things that by their very nature are a reward in themselves.
There is no human guru that can give us a list of all that is worth keeping, but we do have the Holy Spirit. As we continue to work through the tragedies facing the world right now, as we sweep up and clean up the mess that is left after its passing, He will speak. As He comforts us, He will point to the things that sparkle and shine with the eternal and He will say, “See that right there? Not all has been lost. Now that you have found it, what might you do with it?”
As the Gaffer tells his son Sam after all the hardship is over, “All’s well as ends better!”