Yes We Can. Yes We Shall.

This summer my 11 year old has been reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As of this writing, he’s finished Two Towers and will be diving into Return of the King. I’m thrilled he’s reading these classics, but feeling a bit wistful—we began with my reading Fellowship of the Ring to him (more about that here), but he got tired of the read-aloud pace and commandeered the book on a recent trip with his grandparents. Sadness. Anyway.

Like the rest of the family, James is a big fan of the LOTR movies. I think they’re as close to perfect as a 12-hour work of art can possibly be, with the exception of the cast being painfully white. So it’s been interesting and fun to hear him critique the similarities and differences between the films and the books.

The other day, we got to talking about this pivotal scene:

To those of you saying the line, whether in your head or out loud: you are my people.

To those of you saying the line, whether in your head or out loud: you are my people.

Here we see Gandalf fighting the Balrog in the mines of Moria, basically holding off the monster so the rest of the Fellowship can escape to safety. Gandalf falls into the abyss with the Balrog, and it’s not clear until The Two Towers what has become of him. Something wondrous has become of him, but that’s another post.

In the book, Gandalf says this to the Balrog:

You cannot pass… I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.

In the movie, he says much the same thing, except the final line. There he says, “You shall not pass.”

…Actually, he says

YOU!
SHALL NOT!!
PASS!!!!

(Yaass Queen!)

In our conversation, James and I mused on the difference between “you shall not pass” and “you cannot pass.” On an aesthetic level, shall sounds WAY stronger. Substantively, the latter (cannot) implies that the Balrog lacks the ability to pass, while the former (shall not) suggests that the Balrog may be capable, but Gandalf will not permit it.

There are times in our lives when we need to call on the language of shall not: to take a stand and say what we will and won’t accept. Other times, it may be a comfort to lean on cannot: to know that, even when we feel weak or afraid or distraught, the things that threaten us are limited in their ultimate power to destroy us.

This conversation came to mind over the weekend, in the wake of shootings in El Paso and Dayton. (The one in Gilroy is already a collective distant memory, eh? Sigh.) Like my friends on the right, I believe there are moral and cultural issues that feed into the scourge of gun violence that afflicts our nation, and our nation uniquely—issues that must be addressed. I’m sure I part ways with them when I name them: toxic masculinity, misogyny, racism, white nationalism, and demagoguery on the part of the Current Occupant. And like my friends on the left, I believe we need more stringent gun safety laws. And no discussion of this issue is complete without pointing out that the overwhelming majority of gun deaths are suicides. (How’s a “good guy with a gun” going to help there?)

A healthy majority in this country supports legislation to increase gun safety, believe it or not. And yet here we are, held captive by stonewalling and monied special interests who block attempts to even study the issue. It’s hard to have any hope that things will ever change for the better.

So maybe we need to channel Movie Gandalf here, when addressing the complacency or the inertia in our own hearts, or heck, the forces that want to us to believe there’s nothing we can do: you shall not. You shall not win. We will not allow well-heeled interest groups to run roughshod on our democracy, such that we don’t even try to address this issue. People have power. We refuse to let you have the last word.

But then, maybe taking a stand on shall also leads to can. Maybe standing together and saying what we will and won’t permit helps expose just how weak and inept the other side is. (Did you know the NRA is fighting among itself and hemorrhaging money?)

I often quote Archbishop Tutu, during the deepest, darkest days of apartheid, when the government tried to shut down opposition by canceling a political rally. Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead.

That day, St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa was filled with worshippers. Outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered, a show of force intended to intimidate. As Tutu was preaching, they entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and recorded Tutu’s words.

But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one extraordinary point he addressed the police directly: You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side! With that, the congregation erupted in dance and song.

The Balrog shall not win. We do not permit it. And what’s more, it can’t.

Baggage about the Sabbath

As I continue to work on The Sabbath Year, I've been collecting a list of objections people have to the idea or practice of Sabbath. These are things I've heard personally, statements I've read in other books on Sabbath, or things I've even told myself as our family engages and resists this strange weekly rhythm we have chosen to adopt. I hope to address some or all of these in the book in some form or another. Do any of these statements resonate with you?

What would you add to this list?

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Sabbath is so legalistic.

It's not relevant for our time. Sabbath is a relic of a bygone era.

I don't have time.

I'm fine. I'm happy. I don't need to do that.

We observed the Sabbath when I was a kid. It was SO boring. I swore I'd never do that again.

I'd rather not spend a day doing faith-based activities, quietly reading the Bible, etc.

My kids would never agree to it.

My teenagers would never agree to it.

We're not Jewish and we shouldn't co-opt their practice.

I already make time to rest from my work and don't need a fancy title for it.

People who have time to take Sabbath rest obviously don't have enough to do.

The problems in the world go on---there is too much to be done already, how can you sit around and "be spiritual" while there is suffering happening that you could be a part of the solution for?

You can rest when you're dead. Life is too short.

The seven-day week is a false construct. Rest when you need to, not when the calendar tells you to.

Technology means you can work when you want and rest when you want---taking a whole day is a false construct. Be more fluid and intuitive about when you need to work and rest.

It shows a lack of sensitivity to the needs of others---face it, sometimes people need you on that day. The vast majority of the world doesn't observe Sabbath---they're just going to see you as selfish if you're not available.

Sabbath is a practice of privilege---other people have to work at those times---how can you enjoy that time of rest when other people don't have that luxury?

Sabbath just creates more work. I spend the day before getting ready for it and the day after cleaning up from it.

Of course you can do this, your kids are young. They aren't in that many activities yet.

Your kids will miss out on opportunities to play sports, do drama/speech team, marching band, etc. They won't get into college because you've had to say no to these extracurricular activities.

That's what vacation is for.

That's what retirement is for.

Kids are constant work, so you might as well embrace it. Life with kids is work no matter what you do.

My kids are very active and energetic. They'd be in all kinds of mischief if we all just sat around all day.

"We Tried That Before and It Didn't Work."

As many of us know, this is the traditional bugaboo of many churches and organizations in general. Someone offers a suggestion, an idea about change, and folks jump in with the reasons why it won't work, because it didn't work last time. I am fortunate that "we tried that before and it didn't work" isn't a common sentiment at Tiny Church. It's definitely there from time to time, but I'm excited to have a session and a transformation/discernment team that's genuinely excited about asking "what if?" questions.

But when "we tried that" comes up, here's what I say, or what I'd like to say in my better moments:

Actually, we didn't try it before. We are a different group of people now than we were then. Some folks who were with us are no longer here. Some folks who are here now weren't then. And even those who were around have done a lot of livin' in the meantime. They aren't the same people anymore. So let's figure out what our five-years-ago selves have to teach us... but let's also ask our five-years-ago selves to bless us as we seek to be faithful now.

How do you handle "we tried that and it didn't work"?