The Death Of Us All

In December of 2001 I drove my car to see the Fellowship of the Ring.  I bought a tank full of gas and a full price admission for $22.85.  I was cautious yet hopeful because the year in film had not been kind.  Sure kids got the 1st Shrek, 1st Harry Potter, and Monsters Inc, but adults got The Mummy Returns, Hannibal, Jurassic Park III, Pearl Harbor, and wait for it… Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.

It was the summer of patriotic bombs, Indiana Jones rip offs, brains for dinner, and Aperham Lincoln.

If it’s surprising that the first film in Jackson’s Rings Trilogy will be 10 years old this year, consider how much has changed since The Fellowship was released 3 months after America was reminded that the world was still a dark and dangerous place:  Gasoline and milk are now roughly the same price per gallon, everyone owns an iPod, and Peter Jackson’s weight is more Gollum than Gimli.

I think the change is quite fitting, since change is a major theme of the Lord of the Rings.  Change is such a powerful agent in Tolkien’s writing that the filmmakers chose to begin the series with a monologue:

“The world is changed… I can feel it in the water… I can feel it in the air…

With Tolkien, how each of the story’s characters embraces change becomes the harbinger of their fate.  Are they willing to accept what is happening around them?  Are they willing to do anything about it?  Consider King Theoden of Rohan, paralyzed by the loss of his family and security:

“Alas, that these evil days should be mine. The young perish and the old linger. That I should live to see that last days…”

Theoden was immobilized by his refusal to accept that change had altered his life for the worse.  His inability to make beneficial decisions for those around him was compounded by the false wisdom fed to him by the turncoat Wormtongue.  Standing fast became the watchword for Theoden’s leadership, a style built around the belief that change can be outlasted by passive resistance.

If Theoden’s kingdom was paralyzed by his leadership, then the Kingdom of Gondor was actually in collapse due to the leadership of Denethor the Steward.  Denethor’s response to change wasn’t passive, it was active defiance:

“I would have things as they were . . .  in the days of my longfathers before me. . . . But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”

In the face of deadly change and its accompanying peril, Denethor’s response was to face backwards and pine for the “glory days”, before change brought his life and kingdom to ruin.  His insistence upon regaining what he had lost, or having nothing at all, is what led him to the place of despair that brought about his suicide.

The greatest change of all came to the simple hobbit Frodo Baggins who, through no desire of his own, was thrust into the center of the story.  Forced to flee his home and his companions, Frodo voiced the same concern we all do when faced with the terrible prospects of change:

“I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

The contrast between Frodo and Denethor is one that illustrates what can happen when the challenge of change is met by good leadership.  While Denethor refuses the advice given by the wizard Gandalf, Tolkien’s emblem of wisdom, Frodo takes the wisdom of Gandalf to heart:

“So do all who live to see such times Frodo. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world… besides the will of evil… and that is an encouraging thought.”

Tolkien rightly points out that while none of us wants to experience the difficulties that progress brings us, we still must face it.  Each of us does our own part to adjust and adapt to change regardless of whether that change is for good or for evil.  To resist or to ignore change is to succumb to it, because neither action overcomes it.

Humanity fears change because it is essentially the death of what we have and, to some extent, enjoy.  Children embrace change easiest because in change they have the least to lose and the most to gain.  With age we begin to understand how quickly time passes and how easily structure deteriorates.  We learn that change erases the things that we’ve built for, then burdened with, the expectation of future enjoyment.

As we age we begin to understand that life’s only constant is change, and that change will be death of us all.  The question becomes, “What will we do with the time given to us?”

For leaders, the answer is usually helping others navigate the difficulties that are produced by growth and progress, both of which are agents of change.

As a pastor I’ve watched and participated in churches that prayed for growth and progress, only to resent its arrival because of the drastic changes that large numbers of people demand.  Most people, leaders included, have no idea that the growth of the large church means the death of the small church and it’s familiarity and comforts.  Many pastors are unable to accept that other leaders need to be trained and set free to lead.  For a singular leader, the multiplication of leadership positions often feels like a demotion.

Leaders and congregants find themselves in the place of Frodo, wishing that the difficulty and danger that comes with change had never come to them.  Many of them become like Denethor, stubbornly resisting the changes and growth that roll forward.  Angry about what they’ve lost, they decide they’ll regain their position, or influence, or significance… or they’ll have nothing at all.  They slowly die of despair.

Others suffer the paralysis of Theoden, hoping that if they wait long enough, the changes will stop and everything will return to normal.  But unfortunately, not all change is the product of growth.  While change is always the product of time, sometimes change is the result of time and decay.  Holding firm in the face of decay hastens the onset of failure.  Decay becomes death by neglect.

How do we accept the wisdom to move forward, to accept, to adjust?  Tolkien’s faith in God’s sovereignty shines through in the line, “There are other forces at work in this world… besides the will of evil… and that is an encouraging thought.”

We take courage in the fact that God is the most powerful agent of change in our world, and that God is good.  When we understand that God’s change is good for us, we begin to play a role in God’s plan to renew this fallen and broken world.

Sadly, I’ve often found myself in love with the way things are.  Humanity believes that the world is how it should be.  We believe in “catastrophe”;  that evil comes suddenly, disrupting the good things in life.  In the Lord of The Rings Tolkien displays a belief in just the opposite; the ring is destroyed when it is finally reclaimed by Gollum, the Black Ships appear bringing life not death, and so on.

Tolkien is telling us that the world is fallen, but that God interrupts it with sudden good as he renews all things.  He called it the “eucatastrophe”, something beautiful emerging from a tragedy… like Salvation rising from the crucifixion, or Resurrection springing from the grave.  His belief that God is breaking through sin, as an agent for renewal, is displayed in the texts as clearly as the inevitability of change.

To suffer from despair in the face of change is to believe that change is evil and that the death of what we have is harmful to us.  In truth however, the death of what we cling to is the eucatastrophe that calls us to the renewed life that God is consistently presenting us with.

It is our duty as leaders to call others away from fear and away from finding their security in the present.  It’s in the forward progress of time that we find our hope and salvation as God regenerates his new creation.  Godly leaders help their charges understand that statements like, “I just don’t do well with change” are actually our way of saying, “I’m just not very good at trusting God with my future” and, “It’s easier to be selfish”.

Joining God in the renewal of all things is actually the death of us all… with the promise of life resurrected.

Have you led others successfully through difficult changes?  How did God change bad to good for you?  Through you?


“I would have you smile again, not grieve for those whose time has come. You shall live to see these days renewed. No more despair.” -Theoden








2 Responses to “The Death Of Us All”

  1. Brian June 22, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    Great post, Jon. I love the fact that in the end Theoden rode out to face change, even with little hope of victory, and in doing so inspired others and turned the tide of the battle. BTW, great pic of Bono in your photo roll!

    • Jon June 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm #

      He became a catalyst for change… even with little chance of it. That U2 show was so money!

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