Friday, August 30, 2013

A Hobbit's Adventure (August 25, 2013)

First Reading

The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.

Second Reading
The next day he had almost forgotten about Gandalf. He did not remember things very well, unless he put them down on his Engagement Tablet: like this: Gandalf Tea Wednesday. Yesterday he had been too flustered to do anything of the kind. Just before tea-time there came a tremendous ring on the front-door bell, and then he remembered! He rushed and put on the kettle, and put out another cup and saucer, and an extra cake or two, and ran to the door. “I am so sorry to keep you waiting!” he was going to say, when he saw that it was not Gandalf at all. It was a dwarf with a blue beard tucked into a golden belt, and very bright eyes under his dark-green hood. As soon as the door was opened, he pushed inside, just as if he had been expected. He hung his hooded cloak on the nearest peg, and “Dwalin at your service!” he said with a low bow. “Bilbo Baggins at yours!” said the hobbit, too surprised to ask any questions for the moment. When the silence that followed had become uncomfortable, he added: “I am just about to take tea; pray come and have some with me.” A little stiff perhaps, but he meant it kindly. And what would you do, if an uninvited dwarf came and hung his things up in your hall without a word of explanation? They had not been at table long, in fact they had hardly reached the third cake, when there came another even louder ring at the bell. “Excuse me!” said the hobbit, and off he went to the door. … there was a very old-looking dwarf on the step with a white beard and a scarlet hood; and he too hopped inside as soon as the door was open, just as if he had been invited. “I see they have begun to arrive already,” he said when he caught sight of Dwalin’s green hood hanging up. He hung his red one next to it, and “Balin at your service!” he said with his hand on his breast. “Thank you!” said Bilbo with a gasp. It was not the correct thing to say, but they have begun to arrive had flustered him badly. He liked visitors, but he liked to know them before they arrived, and he preferred to ask them…

Already it had almost become a throng. Some called for ale, and some for porter, and one for coffee, and all of them for cakes; so the hobbit was kept very busy for a while. A big jug of coffee had just been set in the hearth, the seed-cakes were gone, and the dwarves were starting on a round of buttered scones, when there came—a loud knock. …Bilbo rushed along the passage, very angry, and altogether bewildered and bewuthered—this was the most awkward Wednesday he ever remembered. He pulled open the door with a jerk, and they all fell in, one on top of the other. More dwarves, four more! And there was Gandalf behind, leaning on his staff and laughing.

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

Bilbo Baggins is a most unlikely hero. He is short, and a little plump, and loves nothing more than a quiet day at home, smoking his pipe, having a cup of tea. This is a protagonist I can identify with. “He liked visitors, but he liked to know them before they arrived, and he preferred to ask them.” How I empathize with Bilbo when 13 uninvited guests tumble in at tea time. In most stories of epic adventure the hero is not bewildered and bewuthered by something as ordinary as unexpected guests, or the prospect of running out of seed cakes. Most unlikely indeed.

For those of you who haven’t read the book, or who read it many years ago, Gandolf and all those dwarves are just about to embark on an adventure to reclaim the mountain that was their ancestral home (and all the treasure therein, from the dragon that stole it generations ago and who has hoarded it ever since. They have come to Bilbo’s hobbit hole to hire him as a burglar. Gandolf, the wizard, tells Bilbo: 

“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” To which Bilbo replies: “I should think so—in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them”... “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water.” By this he meant that the conversation was at an end.
I recognize myself in Bilbo. I love my snug home, I love to have things planned just so, and if I had to choose between a long adventure into the mountains to steal gold from a dragon, or a morning curled up with a book infront of the fire, I feel confident I would respond just as Bilbo did “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you.”

I also admit that this is kind of an unlikely text for a service in this historic Sheshequin Universalist church. So I ask you to enter into this text with me as a metaphor for our own life’s journey, not only physical but also spiritual. Generally speaking folks tend to build themselves a theological hobbit hole, one that is comfortable and safe, and settle in for the duration. Religious educator Gerome Berryman calls this a “theological circle” and there is no reason to venture outside of this theological circle unless it is broken. There are, he tells us, two ways such a circle can be opened. One is by tragedy- something happens to us that just cannot be explained and supported by the theology we have been dwelling inside of; our circle of beliefs is ruptured. But sometimes we make the choice to go on a theological adventure, to consciously open our circle and enter the wider world.

But Bilbo is right- adventures are “disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” It is counter-intuitive to leave your comfort zone, whether a cozy hobbit hole or a system of beliefs. It is inherantly disturbing and uncomfortable. Right at the beginning of his journey, when Bilbo first rushes out to join the dwarves on their adventure, he has a shocking realization:

“I’m awfully sorry,” said Bilbo, “but I have come without my hat, and I have left my pocket-handkerchief behind, and I haven’t got any money. I didn’t get your note until after 10.45 to be precise.”
“Don’t be precise,” said Dwalin, “and don’t worry! You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end."
To go on an adventure we have to give up not only our metaphoric pocket- handkerchief, but also our precision, our mastery of the little world we usually inhabit. Adults hate this. We worked so hard and long to grow a mastery of our lives, and we are just not used to being unprepared, being imprecise, being without our tools. By the end of the first day of journeying, Tolkein writes that: “just at that moment [Bilbo] felt more tired than he ever remembered feeling before. He was thinking once again of his comfortable chair before the fire in his favourite sitting-room in his hobbit-hole, and of the kettle singing. Not for the last time!” Bilbo, the reluctant hero, gives us a new model for approaching adventures that tumble in our front door. He illustrates how even one who loves the quiet life, who would naturally choose bacon and scones over dragon’s gold any day can still have an adventure. So my thought here this morning is not to convince you that adventures are “all pony-rides in May-sunshine” but to inquire whether an adventure might be worth it, even for respectable hobbits.

Bilbo feels something of a fraud as he first sets out with this band of mostly strangers. He has been hired as a burglar, a job with which he has no experience. He must, very quickly prove to his party and to himself that he can do the job he has been hired to do. But as they encounter trolls, or goblins, or wolves, dark forests, huge spiders or tall mountains, and eventually a dragon guarding a pile of gold, Bilbo begins to learn what his talents are- he can be very quiet and stealthy, is clever in a pinch, and eventually emerges as a leader of the group. By the time they reach the mountain where the dragon hordes the stolen gold his comrades “had come to respect little Bilbo. Now he had become the real leader in their adventure. He had begun to have ideas and plans of his own.” Bilbo found a role in this adventure that was truly his own- one that none of his companions could play.

When I first read the book, I assumed that, like in most adventure stories, Bilbo would be the one to slay the dragon (because really, you can’t steal a pile of gold out from under a dragon who has already destroyed a dwarf stronghold to get that hoard in the first place). I was quite surprised when it turned out that (spoiler alert) an archer from the port town across from the mountain aims the fatal arrow. No, Bilbo’s role is not that of the usual hero. But when the dwarves and men and elves begin to fight over the treasure, as is so often the way, it is Bilbo who decides to give up the valuable “arkenstone” he had stolen from the dragon:

“This is the Arkenstone of Thrain,” said Bilbo, “the Heart of the Mountain; and it is also the heart of Thorin. He values it above a river of gold. I give it to you. It will aid you in your bargaining.” Then Bilbo, not without a shudder, not without a glance of longing, handed the marvellous stone to Bard, and he held it in his hand, as though dazed.
Though Thorin, king of the dwarves, is initially furious at this duplicity, as faces death, he says to Bilbo: “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

This the crux of the whole thing I think. First, that there is “more in you of good than you know;” Unitarian Universalists tend to think this is true of each one of us. We have this great potential for good that often goes untapped. If we didn’t have to face goblins, spiders, dragons or the very real trials we face in our real, human lives, we might never have a chance to see that good, that courage, that wisdom in ourselves.

Moreover, there are some things in this world that can only be done by the very particular person that we are. In this case those very traits that made Bilbo an unlikely hero, are the ones that allowed Bilbo his special role in this story; valuing “food and cheer and song above hoarded gold.”

But wait, some of you are undoubtedly saying, what about the ring? Because while the ring our burglar Bilbo steals from the strange creature Gollum plays only the role of a useful tool in this book, it is the crux of the whole battle for middle earth in the “Lord of the Rings” series. In the same way that Bilbo has no idea of the role this ring will play in the fate of middle earth, when Tolkein wrote “The Hobbit” in 1932, he had no idea it would become so popular, nor that he would be asked to write a sequel- the epic story “the Lord of the Rings.” Sometimes our paths are circuitous and strange. The sparkle we stoop to examine on one adventure (or win in a riddle contest- depending on which edition you read) can lead to unimaginable future adventures. Whether you believe in fate or chance, way leads on to way, one journey leads to another. One adventure can change us, can change the world.

Because the other thing about adventures, is that when you finally come home again, you are changed:
“It is true that for ever after [Bilbo] remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way; but he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighbourhood to be ‘queer’—except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders. I am sorry to say he did not mind. He was quite content; and the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party.”
This reminds me of a recent article by my seminary professor Jeremy Taylor who writes that with

“the dreamer's increasing awareness of the deeper, non-material sources of meaning and value in waking life, (which is one way of defining "individuation") … it is not at all unusual to find that these increasingly conscious understandings lead to less interest in "small talk" and "cocktail conversation" - that which lubricates the wheels of social acceptance… This can look like loneliness and separation from those we are close to in waking life.” Taylor describes an “archetypal separation which is very often one of the inevitable… consequences of increasingly successful individuation. At the same time that …[we] celebrate the achievements and joys of deeper spiritual awareness, they can also remind the dreamer of a price that such developments so often require - a loss, or at least a lessening of the "barn warmth" of the "puppy pile."
Perhaps this is why we gather together these Sunday mornings in religious community. Because sometimes the understandings, the experiences of our adventures, be they physical or spiritual, change us, and we want to be with others who are willing to engage with us “the achievements and joys of deeper spiritual awareness.” At its best, this community is one where even when we return from our adventures changed, we are still welcomed home.

It occurred to me as I was watching the new “Hobbit” movie, that our valley maybe a little like the Shire. It is not often a destination for world travelers, like Paris or San Francisco. It is not a center of Fashion and finance like New York City. But I see a little of this congregation in those words “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoard gold, it would be a merrier world.” Though not all of us can slay the dragon, each of us has a special role to play in this adventure. There are a lot of epic stories happening in the world right now: the struggle to preserve wild places and species, the adventure of preserving true democracy, the venture to end hunger, the journey towards ending oppression. And there are private adventures in our own lives- finding meaning in tragedy, forgiving betrayal, triumphing over addiction, the journey of living with authenticity and integrity.

So when the unexpected visitors show up at your door inviting you to join them in their adventure, consider doing as Rumi suggests and “meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.”