A few nights ago, I sat down into the worn blue chair crammed into the corner of my sons’ bedroom, and opened the book. The radiator hissed softly, and Philadelphia’s night skyline stretched across the window to my right. My boys’ bunkbed lurches and creaks as they burrow into their blankets.
Over the last year or so, we’ve begun reading our way through J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, and we’ve almost finished the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. In our recent evening reading, the hobbit Frodo Baggins and the rest of the Company are on their quest to destroy the evil Ring of Power, and they’ve journeyed into the elvish kingdom of Lothlorien. While resting there briefly, Frodo meets the Lord and Lady of the elves, and Galadriel (the Lady of Lorien) tells Frodo of their long resistance to the creeping Shadow of evil. She admits that over the years, they’ve been losing their forest lands, bit by bit, to Sauron (the Dark Lord), but that they’ve gone on fighting anyway. As Galadriel holds Frodo’s gaze, she tells the Company of how “together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”
Our finest authors write so that even repeated re-readings yield new gifts, and that’s how I experience Tolkein’s work. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings several times now, but that line seized me in a way I’d never noticed before.
“We have fought the long defeat.”
This line summarized Tolkein’s view of history and the shape of Christian hope, and he himself identified with Galadriel. Describing himself once in a letter, he wrote, “Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
But sitting in that canvas chair this week, I experienced that line in a manner more close to home. Because any life in Christian ministry, any life that serves God’s kingdom, any life that follows Jesus will sometimes feel like a slow, aching defeat.
You don’t need to be a minister, or any kind of Christian, for long to experience this.
You’re a social worker, and a beloved client relapses — again.
You spend long, lonely hours preparing a sermon, praying and writing and rewriting, and deliver it to blank stares and a few yawns.
You accepted a call to a church a few years ago, and arrived with big ideas, lots of passion, dreams of what could be. But attendance is plateaued, a few congregants are grumbling, and you wonder how much difference you’re really making.
You’ve counseled a couple for two years now, but can’t figure out how to get them out of the self-sabotaging pattern afflicting their marriage.
You pray and pray for a friend, a spouse, a neighbor — and they don’t change, don’t get better, don’t heal.
You pastor a couple for years — you marry them, baptize their kids, pray with them — and then, without warning, they turn on you.
The long defeat.
Here’s the thing: as the story unfolds, Lady Galadriel and her elven kin actually provide invaluable gifts to the Company for their journey, and wind up aiding in a final victory they never would have thought imaginable when in the middle of their faithful struggle.
Being January, this is the time of year when the internet buzzes with listicles of what resolutions will reshape you into the more-fit, more put-together, more stress-free version of yourself in 2020.
If much of that rings hollow to you too right now, here’s an alternative New Years’ proposal: in 2020, resolve to fight the long defeat. Preach the Gospel, even when it doesn’t seem like anything is happening. Pray, even when answers aren’t immediate. Teach, counsel, advocate — even when you’re not sure how much good you’re doing. Love your people, even after some of them hurt you.
Because, who knows? Who knows what generative gifts you might actually have to give? Who knows what surprising glimpses of victory the strange providence of God might have planned?