I confess it. I think I may be the only person left who has not seen Peter Jackson’s latest rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic tale The Hobbit.
Usually I would be among the first at the theater. I made the midnight showing for The Return of the King — the sound cutting out during the scenes in Mount Doom made it especially memorable. I’ve watched the DVD versions of The Lord of the Rings countless times with my children.
I’ve read Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga multiple times, even reading it now to my children — a journey that has itself taken quite some time. And I’ve read a lot of the reviews of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey so I know to expect cinematic wonders with a plot that feels “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Of greater concern to me than the theater experience in the new year is the life question raised by a common theme in Tolkien’s stories — the unexpected journey. This first installment of The Hobbit spotlights that theme as Bilbo answers the call to take an unexpected journey. A generation later, Frodo and Sam wrestle with how they’ll respond to a similar call, the beckoning of another unexpected quest.
It is their decision to embrace the challenge of the unexpected journey that defines their place in history.
I humbly suggest that it is the same way for all of us. Your willingness to respond to unexpected opportunity and your courage to take the unexpected journey will go along way toward determing your legacy.
What Would You Do?
Examples abound throughout Scripture of those who took an unexpected journey that defined their future — and ours. Moses and the burning bush. David and his encounter with Goliath. Daniel and his diet proposal. Joseph’s encounter with a lonely woman and then a needy Pharoah. Rebekah offering to water Isaac’s camels at the well. Jesus’ call to some fisherman along the Sea of Galilee. A blinding light that knocked Saul to the ground and resulted in his name and mission being dramatically changed. Just to name a few.
All of these encounters involved someone stepping away from the conventional wisdom of safe living and onto a road that probably scared the living daylights out of them. As Tolkien warned in The Hobbit:
There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go.
My Own Unexpected Journey
I know a little about taking an unexpected journey myself. About a year ago, I began sensing a new call to step away from my own perception of safety and security as a Christian school administrator. Not that there was anything wrong with what I was doing. In fact, it would be tough to find a nobler life work.
But I sensed a call, a restlessness within that was stirring me, quite unexpectedly, to embark on a new journey to use my gifts more intentionally to equip Christians to think, live, and lead with abundant faith. As I told my incredible faculty team, I answered the call a bit like Abraham of old, not knowing exactly where I was going. I have learned that such unexpected journies are, in fact, to be expected:
Most of us will have no idea where we are going most of the time. And I know that is unsettling. But circumstantial uncertainty also goes by another name: Adventure. ~ Mark Batterson, Wild Goose Chase: Reclaim the Adventure of Pursuing God
I’m not suggesting that my path is the best one or that it is the model for anyone else. The truth was that no one would have ever known the difference if I had ignored the call to step out of my comfort zone. But that is precisely where success is often found.
In his book Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose Through the Power of Words, Kevin Hall points out that “much of what we want and seek in life that is meaningful and significant is just beyond the edge of our comfort zone.” Perhaps that is why “the road goes on and ever on.”
The Sirens’ Call to Settle
It is all too easy to settle into our comfort zones because just about everyone else has settled. Thus when we settle for less than what might have been, we can count on almost everyone else to smile, nod, and affirm our own lack of faith. Only we will know that we stopped short of what God was pulling at our hearts to accomplish. If that’s the choice you make, you can actually purchase a hobbit home of your own.
For me, it began with a committment — call it tying myself to the mast — to press forward toward the goal, no matter how slow the pace or the barriers to achieving it. It was on May 10, 2010, that I jotted down this quotation and determined to take the journey, whatever that might mean:
The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would come his way. ~ William H. Murray
As I look back now, I certainly see that to have been true. I could never have predicted the course I’ve taken or the help I’ve received.
Apparently, ideas do have consequences. Good ideas can have awesome consequences. So why are we so hesitant to embrace them?
Why We Don’t Take an Unxpected Journey
In a word: comfort. An unexpected journey is anything but comfortable. Leaving the perceived safety and security of our own Hobbiton is a scary thing. As Tolkien famously expressed, walking out our front door can be a dangerous business. Better to hide out. Play it safe. Go with the flow.
John Maxwell wisely noted the problem with that approach: “You can’t reach for a dream and remain safely mediocre at the same time. The two are incompatible.” All too often we remain trapped by the fear of what if instead of being liberated by acting as if. We tend to quit before we start:
Safe living generally makes for regrets later on. We are all given talents and dreams. Sometimes the two don’t match. But more often than not, we compromise both before ever finding out. ~ Richard Elder
Our Missing Margins
Another reason we hesitate when offered the chance to explore an unknown road is that we’ve left ourselves very little margin to do so.
Our hectic lives leave little room to maneuver because we have not been intentional about creating space to grow and explore. We run our financial affairs so that we think we couldn’t afford to miss a paycheck or two. We take on debt that restricts our ability to follow a new call. We fill our schedules with so much to be done that we don’t have time to think about such things, let alone actually take an unexpected path.
Truth be told, we haven’t taken the time to get clear on what is important. Consequently, it all feels important. But if it’s all important, none of it is important.
So What If You Don’t Go?
We know what the One Ring did to Gollum. What we don’t know is what would have happened to Frodo had he chucked the ring away and burrowed deeper into his hobbit hole. Certainly, no other hobbits would have badgered him about his decision. They likely would have praised his wisdom and invited him to endless parties.
However, I suspect that although he wouldn’t have been stabbed by ring-wraiths on Weathertop, a poison of a different sort would have begun pumping through his soul. I doubt he could have lived contentedly knowing he had walked away from his destiny to clutch ever more desperately to his perceived security.
And Middle Earth would have paid a very high price indeed for his decision.
What’s Required of Unexpected Travelers
I’ve learned that there are at least three things required for a hobbit — or any one of us — to take an unexpected journey.
- Clarity. We must at least have a goal in mind or there’s no point in stepping out. Usually discomfort with our present condition isn’t enough. We need both a push AND a pull to get the wheels turning. If you haven’t gotten clear on your destination, you might want to take some time to do just that with these 5 Resources to Help You Discover Your Strengths and Life Purpose. As John Maxwell put it, “Unhappiness is not knowing what we want and killing ourselves to get it.”
- Courage. You’ll need it to do the unexpected. My friend Hugh Hewitt says of his own path to success, “Of such chance conversations — and the wilignness to act upon the hint of opportunity — are careers made.” No doubt about it, though, there will be trolls on the journey. Big ones. But Emerson’s words ring true here:
Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Conviction. Call it faith if you will. You need confidence that what you believe to be true is a worthy goal. Most of all for Christ-followers, you’ll need assurance within that the calling is of God. For that peace, there can be no substitute for close communing with God through His Word and prayerful fellowship with Him. E. M. Bounds warns that “when faith has a telescoping, far-off vision of God, prayer works no miracles, and brings no marvels of deliverance. But when God is seen by faith’s closest, fullest eye, prayer makes a history of wonders.” When your conviction is certain and renewed daily, the gates of Mordor cannot keep you out. A few trolls? Not a problem.
What about you? Have you taken an unexpected journey lately? Is The Hobbit inspiring you to tackle an unexpected course in this new year? Share your thoughts with a comment so we can all grow.