Category: "faith/skepticism"

What I've been doing at work

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

It's been a fun couple of weeks here at Adrian Christian Church. Last Wednesday I spoke to a bunch of jr. high and high school kids at Youth Alive. If you want to read what I said, click here. I'm working on some static content for this site, like sermons, photo gallery, 'about me' page, but I'm still learning how to use Movable Type. At the last church board meeting I presented the idea of a church website. I told them that within a few months I should be able to put something together that would be worthwhile. If you come across any church websites that you think are well done, email me the URL and tell me what you like about it. I'm also working on my 3-week sermon series based on the Lord of the Rings. It starts on February 8. Yesterday I spent my afternoon watching the first disc of the Fellowship DVD. I'm also reading a couple of books that explore the spiritual themes of the Tolkien trilogy. So I'm having a good time at work. I hope you are, too.

The Lord of the Rings: Spiritual Themes Part III

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.


Today is the last in my series about the Lord of the Rings. The final chapter of the story is about friendship. I think friendship is an important part of life. Many of you are familiar with the Purpose-Driven Life. I think all five purposes could be considered different forms of friendship. Fellowship is obviously similar to friendship. Ministry is being a friend and serving people. Worship is about expressing our friendship with God, and evangelism and discipleship are basically introducing your mutual friends, "Bill, meet Jesus, Jesus, Bill," that's evangelism. "Now let's all get to know each other better." That's discipleship.

The problem with friendship is that it's hard. It's hard to find a friend and it's hard to be a friend. Proverbs 20:6 "Many proclaim themselves loyal, but who can find one worthy of trust?" We all walk around with such high opinions of ourselves and such low opinions of other people. Friendship requires two things: 1) we have to make other people higher, showing mercy and forgiveness, and 2) We have to make ourselves lower through humility and sacrifice. These are two things that God has done for us so he could be our friend.


Before Frodo was born his uncle Bilbo took the ring of power from Gollum's cave. Gollum told Sauron that the ring had gone to a Baggins who lived in the shire, then Sauron sent out the Black Riders to find the ring. So when Frodo is forced to leave his home, it's because of Gollum's treachery. When the fellowship travels through the mines of Moria, Gollum begins following them. After all of the trouble that Gollum has caused, Frodo wishes that Bilbo had killed him when they first met. But Gandalf says something that stays with Frodo till the end. [Video: Frodo: There’s something down there. Gandalf: It’s Gollum. Frodo: Gollum? Gandalf: He’s been following us for three days. Frodo: He escaped the dungeons of Barad-Dur! Gandalf: Escaped? Or was set loose? Gandalf: He hates and loves the Ring, as he hates and loves himself. He will never be rid of his need for it. Frodo: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance! Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Gandalf: Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise can not see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.]

Later when Gollum attacks Frodo and Sam in the wilderness they are tempted to kill him, but Frodo remembers Gandalf's words and he shows mercy to the pitiful creature. As they get closer to Mordor the ring begins to take its toll on Frodo. He now gets a little taste of what Gollum's life has been like. He begins to have sympathy for Gollum. As Frodo comes to understand Gollum and really feel pity for him, Sam is getting more and more suspicious of Gollum. [Video: Sam: Hey Stinker, don't go getting too far ahead! Frodo: Why do you do that? Sam: What? Frodo: Call him names. Run him down all the time. Sam: Because. 'Cause that's what he is, Mr. Frodo. There's naught left in him but lies and deceit. It's the Ring he wants. It's all he cares about. Frodo: You have no idea what it did to him, what it's still doing to him. I want to help him, Sam. Sam: Why? Frodo: Because I have to believe he can come back.]

Because he was tempted by the ring, Frodo started to understand Gollum and he wanted to help him.

When Jesus was tempted in life, it made him sympathetic toward us. Hebrews 4:15 says, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin." And Hebrews 2:18 says, "Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted." Because of his sympathy he showed mercy to us. And he wants us to do the same for other people. Jesus told a vivid story about this in Matthew 18:21-35:

21Then Peter came to him and asked, "Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?"
22"No!" Jesus replied, "seventy times seven!
23"For this reason, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. 25He couldn't pay, so the king ordered that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt. 26But the man fell down before the king and begged him, `Oh, sir, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.' 27Then the king was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
28"But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. 29His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. `Be patient and I will pay it,' he pleaded. 30But his creditor wouldn't wait. He had the man arrested and jailed until the debt could be paid in full.
31"When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him what had happened. 32Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, `You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33Shouldn't you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?' 34Then the angry king sent the man to prison until he had paid every penny.
35"That's what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters in your heart."

Jesus sympathized with our temptation and forgave us, and so he wants us to forgive other people, too. We can definitely relate to their temptations. So, like Jesus and Frodo, we should show mercy to our friends, and even to our potential friends. Sam lectured Frodo about the dangers of trusting Gollum, and people of his day were upset with Jesus for being friends with sinners. He said in Matthew 11:19, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners." ' But wisdom is proved right by her actions."" You'll also get criticized for showing mercy. People will tell you that you'll be corrupted or that you're supporting their sin but you'll just be doing the same thing that Jesus did. He loved people, he showed them mercy. He was their friend. But Christians have always wanted to judge other people. That's why Paul had to write Romans 14:4- "Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand."

How did Frodo's mercy affect Gollum? Frodo had saved Gollum's life twice. Once from Sam and once from Faramir. Then the little beast led them into the lair of the giant spider. He betrayed Frodo. They didn't see him again until they were on Mt. Doom, almost to throw the ring in and destroy it. Frodo suddenly has a change of heart. He tells Sam that he's not going to destroy it, and he puts it on. He starts to leave and then Gollum appears and springs on him. Gollum bites Frodo's finger off and then he finally has the ring. He has given in to his addiction one last time and he's so excited that he can't keep from falling from the ledge. And so the ring is destroyed. Frodo has shown mercy to Gollum, but been doubly betrayed. God must feel some of this pain when we fail him time and time again. And yet he continues to be merciful to us. This pain is part of friendship. There will always be disappointment and betrayal, but true friends never stop working toward healing. When you heal a friendship, you'll heal yourself. In the end, Frodo didn't save Gollum's soul, but he may have saved his own.


Sacrifice is an important part of friendship. It helped advance the quest several times. Gandalf gave up his life to help the fellowship escape Moria. Boromir tried to take the ring, but then he repented and gave up his life fighting to defend Merry and Pippin. When Frodo decided to leave the fellowship alone, Sam, who like most hobbits was very afraid of water, was willing to do anything to help his friend. [Video: (Frodo closes his hand over the Ring, and puts it into his vest pocket. He pushes the boat into the river and jumps in. Just then, Sam emerges from the woods. He sees Frodo paddling away and runs after him) Sam: Frodo no! Frodo! Mr. Frodo! Frodo: No Sam. (continues to paddle away) (Sam runs into the river after Frodo. Frodo, hearing the splashes, looks back) Frodo: Go back Sam! I’m going to Mordor alone. Sam: Of course you are, and I’m coming with you! Frodo: You can’t swim! Sam!(Sam struggles to swim then sinks into the water) Frodo: Sam!!!(Sam sinks deeper and deeper. He sees the sun shimmering up on the surface. His arm floats limply as he descends into the water. Suddenly Frodo’s hand reaches down and grabs Sam’s wrist. . Sam tightens his hand around Frodo’s. Frodo pulls him out of the water and up into the boat and Sam tumbles in) Sam (dripping and crying): I made a promise, Mr. Frodo. A promise! "Don’t you leave him Samwise Gamgee." And I don’t mean to! I don’t mean to. Frodo: Oh Sam! (hug) Come on. (Frodo and Sam paddle towards the eastern shore)]

Friends will go to any lengths to help each other. Aragorn and Theoden, the great kings, were on the front lines of the battles, willing to die to save their people. And Frodo himself volunteered for the most hopeless and dangerous task Middle Earth had ever heard of.

One day Jesus was talking with his friends about love and friendship. One of the things he told them was this: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) I don't think they knew at the time that he was talking about his own upcoming death. It wasn't until later that they understood what his life and his death meant to them. When you read 1 John 4:10, you can see that they finally got it. "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."

Jesus gave us the ultimate gift in dying for us. But what he told his friends still holds true for us. "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." We can still do this today. For some people that means giving up their home, going abroad and giving their life to introduce people to Jesus. For some that means giving up your career for a while to raise a child. Or you may lay down your life by constantly putting other people's needs before your own. Philippians 2:3-4 "3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." When you're thinking of other people first, you're laying down your life and showing the love that Jesus told us about.

Jesus in Middle Earth

So where is Jesus in Middle Earth? Which character is most like him? Tolkien's story is not an allegory. He was very clear on this. An allegory is when there one-to-one correlation between the story and the principle being taught. For example, in the story Jesus told, the king was God and the man who owed millions would be like us. Or in The Chronicles of Narnia, the lion Aslan represents Christ. He is always the Christ character and no one else ever is. The white witch is Satan for the whole story. But Tolkien hated allegory. He was very critical of Lewis for making Narnia so obviously Christian. I think that what Tolkien did instead is even better. His story contains little hints of similarities between his characters and Jesus. This is much more interesting and it's why his story became so much more popular than Lewis'. So where is Jesus in this story? Gandalf is a little like Jesus, because he was sent to Middle Earth to help in the fight against evil. He died to save his friends and then came back to life. Aragorn is like Jesus because he was a lowly ranger from the north who was really the rightful heir to throne. He was a humble king, whose reign would fulfill the old prophesies. He was a healer. He passed through death and temptation before he could receive his crown. Bilbo wrote this poem about him.

All that is gold does not glitter,
not all who wander are lost,
the old that are strong do not wither,
deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
a light from the shadows shall spring,
renewed shall be blade that is broken,
the crownless again shall be king.(Fellowship of the Ring, 193)

Jesus was like Frodo because he carried evil on his shoulders, he bore not a ring, but a cross. He walked headlong toward death and suffering so he could save the world. That's what Jesus did: he gave his life up for the good of his friends. It was the only way. And now he is our only hope. If you want to be saved from the evil that surrounds you and the evil that you're fighting on the inside, then put your trust in Jesus.

Some of you may need to think about becoming friends with Jesus for the first time, and during our invitation song, I hope you'll make that choice. Many of us just need to think about being a better friend to our fellow humans. Some of us may need to stop thinking of other people as our projects, and start thinking of them as our friends. A friend is merciful, a friend does not judge, a friend is willing to lay down their life for others, whether that means actually dying or just laying down 30 minutes to talk with someone. Ecclesiastes 4:10 says, "If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!" Friends help each other up. And sometimes a friend is that person who just convinces you not to give up. [Video: Frodo: I can't do this, Sam. Sam: I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it'll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam? Sam: That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for. . . . Sam: I wonder if we'll ever be put into songs or tales? Frodo: What? Sam: I wonder if people will ever say, "Let's hear about Frodo and the Ring", and they'll say, "Yes, it's one of my favorite stories!" "Frodo was really courageous, wasn't he Dad." "Yes, my boy, the most famousests of hobbits, and that's saying a lot. " Frodo: You've left out one of the chief characters... Samwise the Brave! "I want to hear more about Sam. Frodo wouldn't have got far without Sam." Sam: Now Mr. Frodo, you shouldn't make fun. I was being serious. Frodo: So was I. Sam: Samwise the Brave.]

Films © 2001-2003 New Line Cinema
Books © J.R.R. Tolkien

I'm Tired of Religion

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

I used to think God was just waiting for me to mess up so he could smash me like a bug. I used to lie awake at night so afraid that I would go to hell because I wasn't good enough. And I'll bet some of you have been told that you're not the right kind of person for church. You've been told that good Christians don't smoke or drink or cuss or get mad or get sad. Well, I've been a believer for 10 years and I have yet to meet a GOOD Christian. All of the believers I know have issues. Some use colorful language. Some smoke cigarettes. Some gossip. Some pirate music and software. Some just get on my nerves. So I don't know any good Christians (I know I'm not a good Christian), but I do know a lot of people who are loved and forgiven.

Do you know what I'm tired of? Religion. I'm tired of religion. Religion is like a club. Did you ever have a club when you were in elementary school? Remember how it works? Two or three people decide to start a club and they think of a name and a place to meet and then they think of who they're going to let in. Only certain people can be members of the club. You have to be smart enough or tough enough or you have to wear clothes from the right overpriced store. Nobody ever questions whether the leaders of the club even deserve to be in it, they just are. So a club is exclusive. And then come the rules. When kids make clubs they come up with the most arbitrary and stupid rules; rules that are designed to exclude some people and include themselves. And that's what religion is like, too. Some people get into the church and then they get the idea that no one else is good enough. They take it upon themselves to make sure that people don't get into the club unless they wear a suit or a dress, know all about the Bible, never cuss, chew or go with girls who do. Those are the people who are telling you that you can't smoke a cigarette out on the church lawn. They're saying that if you drink on Saturday night, you better not show up for church on Sunday morning. Religion is about saying the right things and acting the right way. Religion is about always showing up for the club meetings on Sunday and Wednesday. Religion is about doing things and excluding people and being proud of yourself and looking down on other people and enforcing rules on other people. In a word, religion (as I've defined it) is about FEAR. And I'm tired of religion. Do you who else was tired of religion? Jesus. The religious people of his time were always ticked off at him because he didn't follow their rules. They said if you want to be in the club, you always have to wash your hands a certain way before you eat. They said if you want to be in the club you have to take Saturday off (and they had detailed rules about how much work you could do). If you want to be in the club, stay away from certain people, like hookers, crooks. But what did Jesus do? He ate with dirty hands. He healed people and did other work on the Sabbath. And those people club members avoided, he hung out with them. This is important, so let me give you an example.

Tax collectors. In the first century the nation of Israel had been taken over by the Roman Empire, so all Jewish people had to pay taxes to Rome. But the job of collecting taxes from individual people wasn't done by the Roman soldiers who were in charge. They got locals to do it. They hired Jewish people to go around and collect the money that would be sent to Rome. So when a tax collector showed up at your house, it could be someone you went to school with or a kid down the street, or it could be family. They were doing the dirty work of the Roman government. That would be enough to make you hate tax collectors, but there was one more thing. They got to charge whatever they wanted and keep the extra for themselves. So these guys would take huge amounts of money and get rich off of their own people. What a bunch of creeps. Today it would be like a crooked IRS agent or a televangelist that steals from his donors. These people were messed up and no one liked them, especially not the leaders of the religion. They had no place in the club. Enter Jesus.

Luke 5:27-32

27After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. "Follow me," Jesus said to him, 28and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.

The fact that Jesus would even talk to this guy is amazing. Asking him to follow him must have shocked everyone, including Levi. But he did it. And then what did he do? He did the same thing that he did every time he took in a bunch of money in a good week: He had his friends over and threw a party. He was excited about the hope that Jesus offered him and he wanted to celebrate.

29Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"

Then the club members hear about it, the religious people. They can't believe Jesus is hanging out at a party with these sinners! Doesn't he know that those people can't be in the club?

31Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

This is why the religious people hated Jesus. This is why they killed him. And this is why I'm tired of religion and religious people. Jesus said, "It's not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick." He didn't come to be our club president, he came to be our doctor. And the church is not a club, it's a hospital. The church is not a place for perfect people to come and all act the same. It's not a place to enforce rules on each other and judge each other. It's a place for people to come when they're sick, scared, ashamed, worried, sinful, hateful, drunk, crooked, slutty, stoned, prideful or dishonest. And all of us who are sick come so we can meet the doctor, the only one who can help us. The saddest thing is when we finally get the courage to come to the hospital and get some help and all we find is a snobby club. But don't give up on Jesus because of that. He's you're only hope. Can you imagine what Jesus would have sounded like if he said some of the things that religious people say today? [video]

I'm tired of religion and Jesus was, too. He didn't care about starting a religion, he cared about healing people. He cares about the problems that you're having in your family. He cares about the trouble you're having at school. He cares about you when people hurt you, and he cares about you when you hurt yourself. Most of all he cares about you when you're separated from your creator. And we all are. Every person is separated from God because we all mess up. We all need a doctor. And God loves us when we're separated from him. Even if you don't believe in him right now, he still loves you so much. And that's why he sent Jesus to pay for our sins. Romans 5:8 "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." When Jesus was killed his perfect life paid the price for all of our screw ups. This did something amazing. It opened the door that our sin had closed between us and God. Jesus did all of the work, and yet we still have to walk through that door. We have to put our faith in God. We have to take steps toward a better life (repentance). One of the steps we should take toward God is to be baptized. There's a lot of debate about whether this step comes before or after we're actually through the door, but I don't really care, the important thing is that you do it. If not right when you're saved, then shortly after it. Jesus opened the door, we walk through it, and then we're back with God. There's no other way to get right with God. You can't be a good enough person, you can't be religious enough, you can't just believe that God will overlook your sin.

What I want you to know is that God loves you no matter what you've done, no matter what kind of person you are. The worst thing you can do is decide to stay away from God until YOU change your life. That's like saying, "I don't want to go to the hospital until I'm feeling more healthy." If you're sick, you go to the doctor. You can't heal yourself, but he can make you better. God wants to change the things that are wrong with your life, but he has to have you first.

And if you are a believer already and you have friends that are hurting themselves, don't judge them. Don't shut them out. Love them and introduce them to the good physician. And remember that you're not a member of a club, you're a patient in a hospital, and from time to time you get to show someone else the way to the doctor's office.

The Lord of the Rings: Spiritual Themes Part II

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

In the story of the Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins was trying to destroy a ring. It was an object of unspeakable evil, created by the dark lord Sauron to dominate all of Middle Earth. Some people thought the ring could be used for good, to fight Sauron, but others thought it had to be destroyed because it was utterly evil. Whether their intentions were good or bad, everyone who came in contact with the ring was tempted by it. Tempted to steal it, tempted to use it, and tempted to make themselves the ruler of Middle Earth. How these people reacted to the temptation of the ring may just tell us a few things about dealing with temptation in our own lives.

The first person in the story to be tempted by the ring was Isildur, the prince who cut it off of Sauron's hand three thousand years before Frodo was born. He was on the slopes of Mt. Doom where he could have easily destroyed it. [Video: Elrond: Isildur took the Ring. I was there the day the strength of men failed. Elrond: Isildur hurry. Follow me. Elrond: I led Isildur into the heart of Mount Doom, where the Ring was forged, the one place it could be destroyed. Elrond: Cast it into the fire! Destroy it! Isildur: No. Elrond: Isildur!!! Elrond: It should’ve ended that day, but evil was allowed to endure.]

Isildur failed because of his pride. He wanted to keep the ring as an heirloom, a trophy of their victory over Sauron. He was so proud that he didn't believe the ring would hold any temptation for him. But everyone is tempted, and temptation is not a thing to ignore or take lightly. Proverbs 11:2 says, "When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom." Disgrace found Isildur when he tried to use the ring and he was killed. Pride can make us blind to the power of temptation in our lives. Don't be so proud as to think that it won't affect you. Take it seriously. Deal with it humbly. If you think that there isn't anything that you're really tempted with, then you're probably missing something. It may be subtle, but take a humble look at your life and see.

Isildur should have know that everyone is tempted. Even Gandalf, the wisest person Frodo knows, the one that he trusts more than anyone, even Gandalf can be tempted by the ring. [Video: Frodo: Take it Gandalf! Take it! Gandalf: No Frodo no. Frodo: You must take it! Gandalf: You cannot offer me this Ring! Frodo: I'm giving it to you! Gandalf: Don't tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand Frodo, I would use this Ring from the desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power to great and terrible to imagine.]

The power of the ring would corrupt Gandalf, but he resisted it. Power can corrupt us, too. Why do you think the Bible talks so much about submitting? Submit to the authorities, submit to God, submit to each other. Submission is the opposite of power. Why do you think the Bible says that the love of money is the root of all evil? Because money is basically a form of power. To love money is to love power and to love power is to be corrupted by it. We have to be very careful about this. Power corrupts, that's why it was one of things that Satan offered to Jesus in the temptation in the desert.

Matthew 4
The Temptation of Jesus
1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread."
4Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6"If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written:
" 'He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"
7Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9"All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me."
10Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'"
11Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

When he was offered power and wealth by the devil Jesus, like Gandalf, knew that all the power in the world wasn't worth compromising with evil.

I want you to notice something here that is important to our understanding of temptation. Being tempted is not a sin. We know that Jesus never sinned, but he was tempted. I don't know how many times I've been tempted to do something wrong, I start thinking about it, and then I go ahead and give in because I feel like I've already sinned just by considering it. But temptation is not the same as sin. Temptation is a moment of choice, an opportunity to do the right thing. And that's what Jesus did.

He showed us a great way to resist temptation. He quoted scripture. When you hear the lies of Satan in your ear you can respond with words from God's truth. Of course, you've got to have a few things memorized to be able to do this effectively.

Along their journey through Middle Earth the fellowship of the ring stays in the elf-realm of Lorien. The queen of that realm is Galadriel, one of the most beautiful and wise elves in all of Middle Earth. Frodo talks with her about his quest and then offers her the ring. That scene in the movie is a little scary, so I'll read you the passage from the book.

'You are wise and fearless and fair, Lady Galadriel,' said Frodo. `I will
give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.'
Galadriel laughed with a sudden clear laugh. `Wise the Lady Galadriel may
be,' she said, `yet here she has met her match in courtesy. Gently are you
revenged for my testing of your heart at our first meeting. You begin to see
with a keen eye. I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what
you offer. For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the
Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! it was brought within my grasp. The
evil that was devised long ago works on in many ways, whether Sauron himself
stands or falls. Would not that have been a noble deed to set to the credit of
his Ring, if I had taken it by force or fear from my guest?
`And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of
the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful
and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the
Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than
the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair! '
She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a
great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood
before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond
enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light
faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender
elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
'I pass the test,' she said. `I will diminish, and go into the West and
remain Galadriel.'
(Fellowship of the Ring Page 410)

Galadriel is using another great method for resisting temptation. She makes herself aware of the results of her sin. She knows that if she takes the ring she will become a dark queen, just as evil as Sauron. I use this method a lot. Something comes up, I'm tempted to do something that I know I shouldn't and I think about what the consequences will be. And that helps me fight it. For example, just this week I was about to say something really sarcastic and mean to someone and I thought for a minute about all of the times that I've done that and then had to wonder if they're mad at me, then apologize, then feel like a jerk for a couple of days, so I just kept my mouth shut. Think about your weak spots. What are the negative results when you give in to that temptation? Now keep that in mind when you face the temptation and it may help you make the right choice. If you need some help on this, consider this passage: James 1:14-15 "Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." The final result of giving in to temptation is death. But there is hope. Romans 6:23 says "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." There is hope for us when we fail, and we all will, but considering the results of our failure can help us make the right choice.

One of Frodo's companions was the human prince Boromir. He suggests that the ring should go to his country, Gondor, where it can be used to fight Sauron. His idea is rejected, but he keeps thinking about the ring until it drives him mad. [Video: (Frodo looses his footing and falls, rolling down the slope towards Aragorn) Aragorn: Frodo! (helps him to his feet. Frodo searches himself for the Ring. Finding it missing, he looks back up the slope. Boromir, sees the Ring on the snow and picks it up by its chain) Aragorn: Boromir. Boromir (looking at ring): It is a strange fate we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing... such a little thing. Aragorn: Boromir! Give the Ring to Frodo. Boromir: (hands it to Frodo) As you wish. I care not. . . . Boromir: None of us should wander alone, you least of all. So much depends on you. Frodo? I know why you seek solitude. You suffer; I see it day by day. You sure you do not suffer needlessly? There are other ways, Frodo, other paths that we might take. Frodo: I know what you would say. And it would seem like wisdom but for the warning in my heart. Boromir: Warning? Against what? We're all afraid, Frodo. But to let that fear drive us to destroy what hope we have. Don't you see that is madness? Frodo: There is no other way! Boromir: I ask only for the strength to defend my people! If you would but lend me the Ring... Frodo: No. Boromir: Why do you recoil? I am no thief. Frodo: You are not yourself. Boromir: What chance do you think you have? They will find you! They will take the Ring and you will beg for death before the end! Boromir: Fool! Boromir: It is not yours save by unhappy chance. It could have been mine! It should be mine! Give it to me! Boromir: Give it to me! Frodo: No! Boromir: Give me... Give me the Ring! (Frodo slips the Ring on and disappears. He kicks Boromir and runs away)]

Frodo escapes and then Boromir is killed in the forest by a band of orcs. Later Frodo and Sam meet up with Faramir, brother of Boromir. Faramir has a chance to take the ring. It would make his father proud and it could help him save his country. [Video: Faramir: So, this is the answer to all the riddles. (He advances on Frodo who backs up to the cave wall.) Here in the wild I have you, two Halflings, and a host of men at my call. (Faramir lifts the ring on its chain with the tip of his sword.) The Ring of Power within my grasp. A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality. . . . Faramir: Take them to my father. Tell him Faramir sends a mighty gift. A weapon that will change our fortunes in this war. Sam: You want to know what happened to Boromir? You want to know why your brother died? He tried to take the Ring from Frodo. After swearing an oath to protect him, he tried to kill him! The Ring drove your brother mad! . . . Faramir: I think at last we understand one another, Frodo Baggins. Madril: You know the laws of our country, the laws of your father. If you let them go your life will be forfeit. Faramir: Then it is forfeit. Release them!]

He was able to learn from his brother's mistake. Other people's mistakes can teach us a lot, too. 1 Corinthians 10:6 says that the stories of the Old Testament can teach us what not to do. "Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did." We can even learn what not to do from the people that hurt us.

Now we come to Gollum. He has spent 500 years saying 'yes' to temptation, and it has nearly destroyed him. He is a good example of what happens when we habitually give in to temptation. It begins to take over our lives, demanding more and more of our attention until we can think of nothing else. Today we call this addiction. Gollum was addicted to the ring and he wasted away physically and emotionally. He learned the hard way that sin is progressive. Ephesians 4:19 describes this: "Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more." A continual lust for more. When we start to give in to a small sin, it's exciting for a while and then we get bored with it. So we try something a little worse, and a little worse, giving in gradually until we've lost all self-control. If we don't do something to stop the progression of sin it will destroy us. There are ways to overcome addiction. If you have a serious problem with addiction, whether it's pain-killers, pornography, heroin, alcohol or eating, don't be afraid to get help. Addictions are tough to beat, and almost anything can become an addiction if it gets a firm hold on us. But there is hope. There was even hope for Gollum. We'll explore these things more in part III.

All of these people dealt with the allure of the ring, but the one who bore the most temptation was the simple, ordinary hobbit, Frodo. He is constantly tempted to put it on. In time it begins taking hold of him like it did with Gollum. Every step Frodo takes toward Mordor is a choice. He chooses to humble himself and realize that the ring is tempting him. He chooses to give up the power that the ring could give him and destroy it rather than use it. He chooses to learn from what happened to those that gave in to the ring, especially Gollum. And then when he finally reaches the mountain of fire and looks down into the pit where the ring can be destroyed . . . I won't give it away right now. I'll give you one more week to see the movie if you haven't, and then I'll tell what happened. I'll just say that Frodo discovers the truth of 1 Corinthians 10:13, "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it."

God always makes a way for us to stand up under temptation. This doesn't say that God keeps us from ever being tempted, but that he always gives us a way out, the ability to choose what's right. This is a great thing to remember when you're in a moment of temptation. There is a way out. I hope these ideas from the Bible, illustrated by Tolkien's story can help you overcome some temptation in your life, but we also need to understand that we all fail. None of us is capable of winning 100% of these battles. We all mess up, but Jesus made a way for us to be right with God anyway. Roman 3:23 says, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came through Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood." Put your faith in him, it's our only hope.

Films © 2001-2003 New Line Cinema
Books © J.R.R. Tolkien


This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

Friday and Saturday I was at Dare2Share with 8 students and 3 other adults. On Saturday afternoon the groups at the conference went all over the city collecting canned goods for City Union Mission. We went door-to-door in an Overland Park neighborhood asking for cans and then asking if we could share our faith. I was really nervous about this and a little unsure if it was even a good idea (does it just turn people off? does it really do any good?) But the approach they told us to use was really nonconfrontational and friendly. When people weren't interested, we just moved on. When people were interested, we were very brief and simple. Doing something that made us uncomfortable was a good growing experience. I'm proud of the kids; they were really brave and kind.

The Lord of the Rings: Spiritual Themes Part I

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort." Haven't you ever heard of a hobbit? Hobbits are little creatures that love comfort. They're about 3'6'', they eat 6-8 meals a day, they love to have parties and give gifts and they love things that grow in the ground. Respectable hobbits never go on adventures. One day Bilbo Baggins, a very respectable hobbit, was about to have his afternoon tea when he heard a knock at the door. It was a group of dwarves about to go kill a dragon and get their treasure back. Gandalf the wizard had told them to take Bilbo, since he might be of some help. So Bilbo reluctantly set out with them for the Lonely Mountain where the dragon lived. On the way they fought spiders and goblins and trolls (the trolls almost ate them for supper). And they were helped by elves and giant talking eagles and men. Along the way Bilbo got lost in a tunnel and found a magic ring that could make him turn invisible when he wore it. He met the ring's owner, Gollum, a pitiful little creature who was wasting away in the caves. Finally they killed the dragon and Bilbo came home with loads of treasure, not to mention his magic ring. At times he was excited and at times he was very scared, but what he learned later was that the story he was in was part of a bigger story, and even though he didn't know it at the time, his small role was important. And we're just like Bilbo. Your life is like a story; sometimes fun, sometimes boring, sometimes scary. But your little story is also part of the big story, and God is the author. The choices we make affect his story. And though we'll meet bad characters, it's nice to know that God is taking care of us.

What you've just seen is what I want to do for the next 3 Sundays. We're going to look at a made-up story and see what we can learn from it. We don't do this very often, but it's a time-tested method. Parents have always used fairy-tales to entertain and teach their children. Jesus made up stories to teach people lessons. We call them parables, which makes them sound more serious, but the truth is that they're just stories that he made up. And it was an ancient practice even when Jesus was on earth. The prophet Nathan used a fictional story to confront David about his sin. Fantasy and fiction is a great way to communicate important truths. Even if there was never a prodigal son who left his father and then came back to open arms, the story teaches us something that is deeply true.

So for three weeks we're going to look at a modern fairy-tale, The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the books in the 50s, and Peter Jackson made them into movies in recent years. But why pick this story over other works of fiction? Good question. We could look at the truths taught by Forrest Gump, The Chronicles of Narnia, Open Range, Harry Potter, the Simpsons or any number of fictional works, but there are a few things that set the Tolkien story apart.

1. Tolkien was a Christian. The messages that he buries in his story are firmly rooted in a Biblical worldview. We'll talk more about this author's faith in a minute.

2. It's a great story. Some stories are better than others. This is one of the best. It won an award for the most popular novel in the 20th century. This is due to Tolkien's great skill and the amount of effort he put into it to make it feel more real. For example, he invented two complete languages to be spoken in Middle Earth, his created world. It's true, at some schools you can actually take Tolkien's elvish as a foreign language class. He made up all the words, the alphabet, the grammar, the pronunciation, even the history of these languages. That kind of effort makes a story feel more real. Tolkien was a great story-teller.

3. It's a great movie. How many times have you read a great book, then gone to see a movie adaptation and it's terrible? I still think the books are better, but these movies are incredible. Peter Jackson and all the writers and actors worked so hard to be faithful to the books, and the result is a great set of movies, which have all been nominated for best picture Oscars.

4. And that's the fourth reason for using this story: It's relevant to our time. It's been one of the most watched movies of all time. When Jesus taught with stories, he used ideas that people understood and that made them feel the truth deeply. I believe this story does that.

Let me summarize the story for those of you who haven't read the books or seen the movies. I won't be able to do this justice; we're talking about 1500 pages of book and 9 hours of movie, but I'll give it a shot.

This is all taking place in a fantasy world called Middle Earth. You should know something about the different types of people in Middle Earth. There are the mysterious elves who have pointy ears, never get old or sick and mostly stay hidden in the forest. There are dwarves, short folks with beards who love to mine for treasure. Then there are hobbits: even shorter than dwarves, beardless, hairy-footed, curly-headed, gentle, homebodies. There are a handful of wizards, like Gandalf, who were sent to fight the powers of evil. There are orcs, bred by the evil forces to hate and destroy. The most common, of course, is humans. The humans of Middle Earth are a lot like the humans of our world: They have a great potential for good, but they are capable of being corrupted, especially by power.

The dark lord Sauron has been trying to conquer the world for thousands of years and he created a tool, the One Ring to enslave people. But he lost the ring and he was vanquished. Thousands of years later the ring is found by humble Bilbo Baggins and he doesn't even know that he has the most powerful weapon ever created. He gives it to his nephew, Frodo, and in time the wizard Gandalf discovers that it is the One Ring. A small group sets out to destroy the ring, the only hope for Middle Earth to be rid of Sauron. And the only place it can be destroyed is in Mt. Doom, a volcano in the middle of Sauron's realm: Mordor. That's the quest that the story centers around: Frodo trying to destroy the ring in Mordor. He's helped by his friends and pursued by evil, but in the end he finishes his task.

The characters in the story have to come to terms with three facts. These are also the three truths that I want the story to teach us today. 1) The old tales are really true, 2) Evil is real, and 3) Good is real.

[Video: "Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth, and for two and a half thousand years the ring fell out of all knowledge."]

At the end of the third age, when Bilbo found the ring, most people had forgotten the evil that once dwelled in Mordor. Thousands of years had passed since Sauron was defeated and his ring was lost. This line from the film sums it up well. To people in the third age, the story of Sauron was just a story. You might have told it to your kids to keep them from misbehaving, but you would rarely think of it as something that really happened in history, something that might still affect the world.

But then the ring is found and suddenly the myths and legends seem much more interesting. Of course, there were people who knew all along, people who had been preserving the history and preparing for the day when it would return to the world's attention. The sword that cut the ring from Sauron's hand, though broken, was still kept in Rivendell, for the day when the heir of the king would take it up and fight Sauron once again. So when myth is recognized as history, some were not surprised, and some had to adjust to it.

Middle Earth at the end of the third age is a lot like our world at the beginning of the 21st century. We tell the stories of our origins, God's dealing with humans and that strange fellow from Nazareth who was executed and then came back to life. But are they just fairy-tales? Tolkien believed that they were fairy-tales, but fairy tales which came true:

"The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels – particularly artistic, beautiful, and moving: 'mythical' in their perfect, self-contained significance; and at the same time powerfully symbolic and allegorical . . . But this story has entered History and the primary world . . . Because this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused" (Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader, 88).

The old stories are true! What an incredible realization. All the longings we have for meaning and goodness are fulfilled in these events from history. Tolkien shared these thoughts with a college of his: and atheist who was considering the Christian faith. After talking with Tolkien the man spent the whole night thinking about this concept and eventually decided to put his faith in Christ. That man became one of Tolkien's best friends. He also became one of the greatest defenders of the Christian faith in the last century. His name was C.S. Lewis.

He came to his faith by realizing that Jesus is the fulfillment of everything we have dreamed of. John 1:1 says that the "word became flesh." The dream, the concept, the ideal became real. 1 John 1:1-2 says it even more vividly: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it."

So the gospel is the fairytale that came true, and the little stories of our lives are part of the bigger tale that God is writing. Instead of the central character in a small story, you're a supporting character in the big story that encompasses everything and flows from the mind of God.

The citizens of Middle Earth had to understand that the legends were true, and that meant that the legendary evil was, in fact, real. Mordor wasn't just an imaginary land out of the old stories, it was a place on the map, a place that you could get to, a place that could get to you. Sauron wasn't just a bogey man you talk about to frighten your children, he was a real being, who hated all free people and wanted to destroy them. The same is true for us today. 1 Peter 5:8 says, "Be self­-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour."

Evil is real. How are we going to deal with this fact? We could try to ignore it. We could try to go to a safe place where it can't reach us and just pretend that life can go on like it always has. Frodo's friends Merry and Pippin had this option. They were told by Treebeard to go back to the Shire where they would be safe from evil. [Video: Merry: You must help. Please! You must do something. Treebeard: You are young and brave, Master Merry. But your part in this tale is over. Go back to your home. Pippin: Maybe Treebeard's right. We don't belong here, Merry. It's too big for us. What can we do in the end? We've got the Shire. Maybe we should go home. Merry: The fires of Isengard will spread, and the woods of Tuckborough and Buckland will burn. And all that was once green and good in this world will be gone. There won't be a Shire, Pippin.]

We can't ignore evil. It will find us. We can't walk around pretending that we're invincible and incorruptible just because we go to church. But we also can't compromise with evil as Gandalf's former friend Saruman suggests [Video: Saruman: You did not seriously think that a hobbit could contend with the will of Sauron? There are none who can. Against the power of Mordor there can be no victory. We must join with him, Gandalf. We must join with Sauron. It would be wise, my friend. Gandalf: Tell me, "friend", when did Saruman the wise abandon reason for madness?!]

To ignore or compromise with evil is to be overcome by evil. Romans 12:21 says, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Frodo's quest has evil behind it and evil ahead. It seems to be hopeless, yet at several points along the way, the hand of providence gives him a nudge in the right direction. When the Ringwraiths are about to overtake him in the village of Bree, Aragorn intervenes and leads the hobbits to safety. Just before Frodo dies from his poisoned wound he reaches Rivendell where he is healed. When Sam and Frodo are hopelessly lost after leaving the fellowship, Gollum arrives to guide them. These things could have been coincidences, or as Gandalf explains, they could be something much better. [Video: Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened. Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, 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 Frodo besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.]

God doesn't always make himself obvious. Very often he works in the subtlest of ways and allows us to go on dangerous adventures, not because he couldn't accomplish the task himself, but because he wants us to grow and he wants to use us. It may not be obvious or even what you expect, but God is always working in your life, even if it's just keeping you alive and safe. 2 Thessalonians 3:3 "But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one." Even when we're surrounded by enemies and betrayed by our friends, God is that constant source of good and love in our lives. Romans 8:31-32 "What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" An that is a very encouraging thought.

Next week we'll consider the ring, which becomes a symbol for power, temptation and addiction, but for now I want you to think about these ideas: The legend is true, evil is real and there is good. God is guiding this world and providing a way for you make it through. He doesn't promise that we'll always be safe or comfortable. He doesn't promise that our closest friends won't betray us, but we are told that we can travel a road that is based on truth, beset by evil and ultimately guided and protected by a good and loving God. That is a very encouraging thought.

Go to Part II

Films © 2001-2003 New Line Cinema
Books © J.R.R. Tolkien

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