I posted this originally on the Spring Arbor University MSFL micro-site. I also wanted to share it here. Join me in either place and we’ll talk Tolkien among other stuff…
In a conversation with Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo Baggins, elder statesman of Bag-end in Hobbiton, anxiously complains that he is feeling “thin, like butter spread over too much bread.” Uncharacteristically, Bilbo had been the first hobbit ever to venture outside the safe, recognizable confines of the Shire. There, life was well planned, neatly cropped and decently fitted to those more inclined to an afternoon of tea and scones than giants, goblins and dragons. How distasteful.
“Butter spread over too much bread”, I quite relish cryptic statements like this. There are any number of ways to parse his meaning. Bilbo might just have easily said that he needed less bread upon which to spread his limited butter. It means basically the same thing, doesn’t it?
His original statement suggests that there isn’t enough of Bilbo to accommodate all that life throws at him. He was verbalizing the fact that, under any circumstances, he was always the same person; a hobbit of limited emotional and physical resources (the latter being especially true of Shire folk). For hobbits, adventures are unsightly, unnecessary inconveniences. What had changed were the additional demands his world imposed upon those limitations. Sound familiar?
As we consider Pentecost, this should invite the question, “is the Spirit-empowered life intended to prep us for a world that makes no allowances for the spiritual needs of its inhabitants? In other words, do we, by God’s strength, bend to suit the frenetic nature of the world around us? Conversely, is the Christian life designed to provide us with the tools necessary for us to discern such demands and, in response, live counter-culturally? That is, do we, by that same grace and power, embrace a just-say-no policy to insane living?
Mindy Caliguire, founder of Soul Care, a spiritual formation ministry, (and committed non-hobbit) places we Pentecost people into two broad categories: jet-fuel drinkers and candle lighters. At first glance, I envision those type-A, scale the world with bare hands types to be drawn to the former option. They already tend toward a win-through-perseverance philosophy in most things. Thus, they might be more inclined toward the more is better motif – praying, believing and living in ways that hint at the deeper well from which the Christian may draw. Pentecost to them means that we are given more than adequate resources to meet the challenges imposed by a frenetic culture. More butter to meet the demands of much bread.
The second scenario might be considered more the domain of the candle lighters. They are those who see the inherent dangers to an integrated wholeness within the prevailing culture and risk either apathy or antipathy in their subversive, counter-cultural response to that same milieu. They seek freedom from the imposed insanities rather than power over them. In this ideology, Pentecost provides the inner sensitivity that allows for careful discernment of our crazy predicament. Less bread given our limited butter.
What then is the biblical alternative for he or she who seeks to live as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ? As I read the scriptures I am forced to concede that the best answer is…both. From the Bible’s earliest pages, one discovers jet-fuel drinkers and candle lighters dwelling together in a veritable stew of divergent sojourners.
Matthew, the greedy, upwardly mobile corporate yes-man intent on being all he needs to be to dominate the system: jet-fuel drinker.
Intimately acquainted with the rhythmic beating of the Savior’s heart and writer of the most mystical Gospel, John: candle lighter.
Gideon, the mealy-mouthed Mama’s boy who ultimately becomes a savage warrior: jet-fuel drinker.
Samson, more aptly named Testicles, a small-minded man whose thoughts are more guided by testosterone than thought: jet-fuel drinker.
Mary, the simple (Martha might suggest, lazy), young lass intent on soaking up the warmth of Jesus’ intoxicating presence without thought of consequence: candle lighter.
Peter, run-at-the-mouth-foot-in-the-mouth-has-a-big-mouth, and yet ever repentant, never enervated follower of Jesus: jet-fuel drinker.
Elijah, self-pitying purveyor of God’s power over pagan parlor tricks: candle lighter in a jet-fuel drinker’s body.
So, what does all of this have to do with Pentecost? My original query was whether or not the promised Spirit sent to those expectant, wondering disciples was primarily for the purpose of preparing ill-equipped weaklings to become stronger than their environments. Or, is the Spirit’s primary purpose to help discerning disciples say no to the soul-killing environment in the first place and build the new society of love envisioned by Jesus?
Jesus enjoyed company with all manner of strangely broken, frustratingly naïve individuals. The hand of God extends to all who are found clinging to the hem of the Savior’s garment. The chill-out, be happy, hippy version of faith together with the git-er-done, live like ya mean it suit ‘n’ tie types.
How does Jesus’ example help us interpret Bilbo’s complaint? Does Jesus, by the Spirit, primarily present the victorious life of the jet-fuel drinker, thereby modeling the ideal spiritual life as the power-to-rise-above? Conversely, is Jesus, by that same Spirit, to be viewed more as the perfect version of Martha’s whimsical sister, whose strength for service came at the feet of her Savior and friend, the candle lighter? Was Jesus drinking jet fuel or hot wax?
Yes. Any questions?
To follow the Pentecost road with Jesus is to live rightly and well. It guarantees that our butter will last and that the constant stream of toast demanding our butter will never be more than our butter can manage. Let us rise to thank Bilbo Baggins for his good, but unintended, spiritual counsel.
I need a sandwich.