“Down by the Water”
(c) Geoff Brookes 2014
My purpose in writing this is to reach out with that most nebulous gift, “hope”.
The word seems to have been watered down to the point where it can mean two completely different things, depending on the context and the tone of the writer or speaker. It can either be pejoratively spoken, casting shame on “foolishness”, or it can be said with conviction. In “The Return of the King” [movie], Gandalf captures both perspectives in one line, with his conviction spoken through the tone of his voice, and a warm smile:
PIPPIN: “Is there any hope, Gandalf, for Frodo and Sam?”
GANDALF: “There never was much hope….[smiles]…. Just a fool’s hope.”
In the story, Frodo and Sam (with the approval of the wise, at the Council of Elrond) have chosen the most outlandish plan imaginable – walking on foot past the fortresses and sentries of the evil spirit, Sauron, past his armies, right into the very heart of Mordor, to the place where Sauron created the rings of power. There, they will cast the great ring, the “one ring to rule them all”, into the fiery pit, where it was made. They have no idea how they would accomplish this.
But, as Gandalf explains elsewhere in the story, this is the genius of the plan – that the enemy would not expect this. Sauron, who bases his plans on “power”, would expect the forces of good to use the ring to augment the “power” of their forces. Sauron’s thoughts are nearly correct. The wizards and elves fought the temptation with difficulty, and Boromir (the archetypal man) could not resist it. Among men, only Aragorn and Faramir found the strength to let Frodo and Sam carry on their quest unimpeded. And so, the “foolishness” of the plan was indeed its wisdom, and its improbability was its best hope.
“Despair” is the the opposite of “hope”. In the Council of Elrond (in the book, the Fellowship of the Ring), Gandalf says “despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed…”.
You can see the relationship between “hope” and “faith” in this definition – “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1, NASB]. Gandalf’s faith is implied in his confidence in choosing the correct path, even when it seems to be “folly”.
But the characters also teach us another virtue – they are prepared to follow this path because they believe that it is the “right” course of action. They would choose it even if it was not ultimately successful, because they believe that it is their calling and their duty.
And beyond that, there is a kind of faith that undergirds the characters’ resolve. In the chapter “The Shadow of the Past”, Gandalf says to Frodo:
‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.’ [italics are the author’s, J.R.R. Tolkien, as are all LOTR quotes, with the further acknowledgement of the movie in the first dialogue quote].
Tolkien’s use of the passive voice strongly implies another force at work in the story. This force is only very obliquely referenced in the Lord of the Rings. The greater context of a benevolent “Iluvatar” is set out in other Tolkien writings, including the Silmarillion.
My own journey considered the nature of people, and our world. If we are nothing more than the largely random collision of particles, then there is no reference point, and no reason to hope. I chose to believe that there are other forces at work in our world, and in our lives. And yes, this is a premise based on my faith – my choice to believe this. As such, I can only present my point for the consideration of others – respectfully, and without argument.
But I also wish to briefly share two experiences in my life, in which I felt the immediate presence of God. I wish to state this in neutral terms, because my desire is simply to offer hope.
My first experience, as a teenager, was walking in the extensive shallow water on a bay at Victoria Beach, on lake Winnipeg. It was a beautiful, calm summer morning. On this weekday in cottage country, there was no-one visible for a great distance, to the limit of my sight at the far, rocky point. I stopped, hesitated, and listened. It was one of the most still moments that I can remember. In that moment, with the beauty of this world surrounding me, I heard (or felt) God, speak to me, not in words, but as an invitation or calling. I spoke out loud in return – simply “God, I will follow you.” As I said the words, my heart and chest quickened, and I shivered. I felt the presence of God.
Please understand that I’d had only a few Sundays at church in my entire life to that point. I was not making this profession at anyone’s suggestion. This was God speaking to me, and I to him. That was my first experience.
My second experience was not solitary. It was shared with my wife, as we walked down a hallway at Health Sciences Centre. Our second daughter was struggling for her life in the neonatal intensive care unit. She had been born at 29 weeks (not 40), with many issues, despite the excellent care at the hospital. She had already suffered significant brain bleeds (hemorrhages). Technically it’s brain damage (grade 4 bleed on the left- and grade 5 on the right), although we learned that the young brain can sometimes recover in amazing ways. Now she had “necrosis” of her intestines, requiring some of them to be surgically removed. The worst part was the potential infection in the bowels, and she was treated with strong antibiotics. The doctors had told us that the next few days would be very important, as the infections could cause severe issues or death.
As we walked down the hallway, talking with each other, we both felt that same God-presence. We both stopped walking and talking, and turned to each other. “Did you feel that?”, I asked, and she looked at me seriously, and nodded, “Yes, I did”. We talked for a while about what that might mean, and we felt that the God-presence was likely related to people praying for Hillary. We both felt that God was telling us that she was going to be OK.
We’ve had many issues in our lives, as well as many blessings. Hillary has been one of our great blessings, along with our two other children. But that moment, as well as my moment on the beach, are my “Red Sea” moments, where I felt God’s presence in a way that was impossible to miss. I will carry those moments in my mind for the rest of my life – along with any others that God may have in store for me.
I’m sharing this because I don’t think we talk often enough about these things – and again, I’m not intending to be preachy. I just think that we can all use an encouraging word, especially when we have our dark days (and we all have them, although I know some people suffer from depression, which is another thing altogether). But, like Guy Montag meeting Clarice in Fahrenheit 451, we crave the contact with the real human world – the essential “stuff of life”. And I believe that sharing these “God moments” might help others, who are wondering if there is anything more than molecules colliding. I realize that my experiences could be interpreted as my own emotional reactions – and they could be, theoretically. But for me (and my wife), that was the real thing – and maybe that’s what you need to hear today.
Hoping this helps someone out there!
PS – for your thoughts –
“Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’” Genesis 28:16
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:2
Preview YouTube video Lord of the Rings – Just a fool’s hope
Lord of the rings – Just a fool’s hope