Mucking Through the Middle (by Alan Ward)
I recently saw the director’s cut of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This film is the middle of an epic tale, and the director pointed out in his opening remarks that this made it the most difficult of the three movies to capture the essence of on film. The beginning (Fellowship of the Ring) and ending (Return of the King) seemed more contained and easier to put on screen.
That comment reminded me of the process of creating. Most creative projects (e.g., writing books) have a beginning, middle, and end, and the middle tends to be messy. Sometimes in the middle, we writers become so bogged down in scripting the action that we can lose sight of where we’ve been and where we are headed. The middle has lots of conflict and unresolved plot threads that will get resolved in the end—but they aren’t resolved yet and that causes tension within. We want to know how the story will end? We know these things need to be resolved, and have some sense that they will, but often in the middle of the action we’re not at all sure how?
The characters in The Two Towers find themselves in the middle of the story—and things are messy for them. Take Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee for example. They are far from their beloved Shire where they started their journey, but nowhere near the end of the journey at Mount Doom. (Frodo must go there to destroy the Ring of Power through which the evil Sauron seeks to take control of all of Middle Earth.) Faramir (Captain of Gondor) has taken them captive and threatens to take Frodo’s ring and use it himself. The forces of evil assault the city. War rages around them; it seems to them like the very fabric of the world is coming unraveled. How in the world did two little Hobbits ever end up in this predicament? How will they possibly escape it?
Perhaps my favorite movie quote of all time is uttered toward the end of the messy middle of this epic tale. Frodo, the ring-bearer, is worn out from the long journey and ready to throw in the towel. He needs the encouragement of a friend to remind him that he’s part of something larger than himself. Lucky for him he is not on this journey alone; his faithful friend Sam is there to give the perspective he needs. As scenes of battle play out on the screen, this dialogue unfolds.
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 will 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.
How many of us who are involved with trying to create new ministries (or even revitalize existing ones) can’t empathize with Frodo in this scene?
In the messy middle it can seem like things are going nowhere fast. Like Frodo, we work tirelessly day after day to achieve our goals. Along the way, we can lose sight of what we’re “fighting” for. At some point we became convinced that something is trying to be born and that God had called us to join as co-creators. Our core convictions haven’t changed, but now we find ourselves bogged down in the messy middle of the “birth” process and things are more complicated then at the beginning. If God wants this new thing, why does the “birth” have to be so long and painful? And what we find even more disconcerting is that, even after going through all this pain and effort, there are no guarantees that we will get to experience the joy of “holding God’s newborn” at the end.
The truth is that the messy middle feels very frightening and uncertain—and at times that fear and uncertainty threatens to overwhelm us. We definitely feel Frodo’s pain in the scene above. Sometimes as leaders, it can literally feel like it’s on our shoulders to figure out how this will all work out. If we fail, some will conclude it’s our fault; we must not be an effective leader. So we tend to be conservative and stick with what we’ve been doing in our own church and we know works. We don’t want to risk disrupting the status quo too much and losing what we already have. We may at times start to teeter on the edge of despair as Frodo did. I can’t do this anymore!
When those moments come—and they will—we need to find our Sam. (Or we need to be Sam for someone else.) Find the person(s) journeying with you who can give you perspective that you badly need at this juncture. Let them remind you that you are part of something larger than yourself and why you’re doing what you’re doing—because there’s good in this world and it’s worth fighting for! Let them remind you of the great stories of the past. Stories where God called ordinary people to do great things, heroes of the faith who could have turned back, only they didn’t. They “stayed the course” on turbulent seas so that there might be a church for you to attend—see Hebrews 11 for some good examples. Yes, you do have a vital role to play in this tale, but you’re most certainly not alone. You have friends on this journey that can help. Your story is but one of many that God will intertwine to accomplish God’s purposes here. Ultimately the success or failure of this enterprise doesn’t rest on your shoulders alone. God is in control, and God is working to orchestrate all of the stories together so that good wins in the end—Romans 8:28.
Let your Sam’s hope become contagious; let his/her bright presence pull you back from your flirtation with dark despair. Be confident, to play on Sam’s words, that when the Son shines he will shine out all the clearer. Trust in God to navigate you through the messy middle and lead you where you need to go!
Alan Ward writes about Science for NASA, but his true passion is to write to further God’s Kingdom. Many of his articles discuss aspects of discipleship and spiritual formation — in particular how our life experiences shape the person we become. He is husband to Laurie (a United Methodist pastor) and father to Brady and Becca. Read his blog at: http://bigalscorner.blogspot.com.