I really struggle when I read Christian “self help” books. It seems like the author has it all together when it comes to living like Christ and I am just stumbling and bumbling my way through life, making mistakes at every turn. That feeling was made very real to me as I was working on the last blog post. I knew that it had to focus on prayer, but my prayer life is almost non-existent. So many times I started to write and stopped because I felt like a hypocrite. Neil T. Anderson warns that one of the roads to self-deception is to think more highly of myself than I should; I certainly did not want anyone to think that I had this life of prayer down perfectly when I can go for days without speaking a word in prayer to God.
One of my personal goals for this blog is to be transparent. I desperately want to provide support and encouragement; however, I do not want to inadvertently place myself on a pedestal. On that note, I felt God urging me to share an essay I wrote shortly after being diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer. I had received terrible news in regard to the cancer and it was overwhelming to try to wrap my mind around the possibilities. Cancer, to me, had always been something that happened to other people, not to me (there I go, wallowing in Louis’ “vicious egotism” again). During this time I was rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and I found a certain amount of comfort in the character of Bilbo Baggins. He had a demon knocking on his heart. He had an idol he just could not shake. I could relate, it was how the cancer was affecting me. Truth be told it was slowly becoming my “precious.”
What follows is an imperfect outpouring of my heart which I had never planned on sharing with anyone. I hope those who read it can find solace in the words and actions of Bilbo Baggins just as I have.
“It is no accident that the natural wearing of the ring
on the finger renders the wearer invisible, for when the ring masters its wearer,
it totally erases the identity of the wearer, he becomes without a self.”
“You make it clearer with every word you say.
It has got far too much hold on you. Let it go!
And then you can go yourself, and be free.”
~Gandalf to Bilbo
I am writing this after what has proven to be the worst specialist visit I have had since being diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer ten months ago. For the first time since learning I was sick, I found myself drowning in a sea of tears and feeling hopeless. The future seems incredibly bleak and I personally feel like I need Master Bilbo more than ever. Bilbo confides in Gandalf that the years have made him feel “all thin, sort of stretched…like butter that has been scrapped over too much bread” (Tolkien 32). In his heart Bilbo knows this feeling is not right and requires him to make some drastic changes (Tolkien 32). Boy, can I ever relate to that feeling right now. How much more bad news before things begin to look up? How many more tests, scans, and blood work do I need to endure before we have some answers and sense of direction? Somehow, some way, I need to find a place of peace. I need a place of rest and safety. I need a place where neuroendocrine cancer is no longer the central focus of my life.
I need to come to a place where I can surrender fully to an all-powerful God and allow him to shoulder my burden and set my heart free.
I need to come to a place where I can surrender fully to an all-powerful God and allow him to shoulder my burden and set my heart free. There comes a point in the journey where the road becomes too overwhelming, the load too heavy, and the directions incoherent. It is at this point that one needs to just sit back, admit to being lost, worsted, and in need of help. This is the place where Bilbo finds himself in his long, exhausting journey, and he finds all the help he needs in the wisdom of Gandalf the Grey.
Since returning to the Shire after his adventures, Bilbo’s life did not return to normal. Nothing was typical about his disappearance and his reappearance was causing a bit of an uproar with his relatives. His new normal now consists of prying relatives and curious neighbors ringing the bell in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the mysterious hobbit and the legendary treasure trove. All of this negative attention brings with it a heavy emotional burden and succeeds in shutting Bilbo off from the normal society of his neighbors. Bilbo begins to long for peace and quiet in order to feel normal once again. He dreams of the mountains and desires to take in their majestic beauty one more time. He thirsts for a place where he could finish writing his book without unwanted intrusions. The problem for Bilbo is that in order to realize his deepest desires he must renounce something that he has been holding on to ever so tightly. He has to release something that he has been secretly treasuring and allowing to become the master of his thoughts. It is the one seemingly insignificant treasure he picked up on his journey that is the singular source of his emotional trauma. He cannot see the problem himself, what he needs to open his eyes is the wisdom of a dear friend who recognizes the true source of his hidden pain and who loves him enough to force him to come to terms with his own inner demon.
By making the ring part of the body, this power begins to erase the wear’s identity rendering the wearer “without a self” (Chance 28). Bilbo Baggins the hobbit is slowly beginning to disappear into the substance of the Ring.
Without much conscious thought on his part, Bilbo has created an idol that is slowly beginning to rule his life. On his journey he picked up a rather ordinary looking ring. It took cunning on his part to secure this little treasure and it became a symbol of his wit and ability to survive in trying circumstances. After years of holding on to this little gem, Bilbo begins to find it a growing presence on his mind. He cannot bear the thought of losing it. Slowly, this little treasure was becoming an essential part of his identity. Just the mere mention of relinquishing this treasure sets Bilbo on edge. He is anxious. He becomes angry when pestered about its surrender. When Gandalf holds him accountable he is willing to resort to violence to protect it. Bilbo is willing to defend to his death the very thing that is making him sick. Jane Chance, in her book, Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power, makes a chilling observation. She states that there is a correlation between the wearing of the ring and invisibility. By making the ring part of the body, this power begins to erase the wear’s identity rendering the wearer “without a self” (Chance 28). Bilbo Baggins the hobbit is slowly beginning to disappear into the substance of the Ring.
Building on this thought, Gandalf, by asking the right questions, reveals a disturbing reality for Bilbo. The conversation begins innocently as Gandalf asks Bilbo if he has left Frodo the ring as he had agreed. This sends Bilbo into a downward spiral beginning first with a defensive posture, moving to accusation, and culminating in the threat of violence. During this verbal bander, Bilbo makes a startling statement in regard to the ring. He yells in anger, “It is mine, I tell you…My precious…my precious” (Tolkien 33). The heart of Bilbo has been unveiled. He has made the ring the most important thing and is now willing to do whatever it takes to keep it safe, including threatening a dear friend with an act of violence. Gandalf, in his infinite wisdom, counters this threat of violence with the greater threat of his anger and makes a very pointed statement. He tells Bilbo:
“You make it clearer with every word…it has got far too much hold…Let it go…then you can go…and be free” (Tolkien 33).
Gandalf’s willingness to confront Bilbo and not back down causes him to do some serious soul searching and opens his eyes to the truth. He is now able to admit how queer he has been feeling, how much the ring has been growing on his mind, how it felt like a penetrating presence, and how desperately he wanted to just put it on and disappear (Tolkien 34). It took the loving confrontation of a friend to make Bilbo aware of his painful condition and to come to terms with voluntarily letting go of the ring. Once he let it go, he is able to walk away unburdened and completely free.
I am finding this to also be true of life after the diagnosis of neuroendocrine cancer. It has become my sole focus. I am incredibly in tune with my body (not necessarily a bad thing per se) and obsessed with any perceived changes. I am constantly on the look out for new symptoms and I can lay awake in bed at night pondering the day and making a mental note of anything that was out of the ordinary. When I notice the least bit of pain setting in, I completely revise my plans to make sure I am fully prepared for the coming storm. I cancel plans. I fail to make plans. I make excuses for not making plans. Secretly I long for the next round of testing because it gives me an excuse not only to avoid making plans, but also provide myself with an interesting topic to fuel my self pity. Poor me, I have an incurable disease, has become my mantra and I am beginning to cherish the thought. I have even found myself becoming irritated with people who challenge my isolation and try to persuade me to get out and socialize. I am not too sure I would be willing to fight it out to the death, but I do fear that I might be close to harboring the sentiment. In a twisted turn of events, neuroendocrine cancer has become my precious and I am willing to do anything I can to keep it safe from harm. I worry about it all the time. It has become the central focus of my life. What Ms. Chance said is true; by putting on neuroendocrine cancer, my identity is being erased and I will eventually be left without a self.
It has become the central focus of my life. What Ms. Chance said is true; by putting on neuroendocrine cancer, my identity is being erased and I will eventually be left without a self.
Honestly, I think that the core of the problem becomes even more serious. There was so much more in Bilbo’s longing for the ring that can apply to life with neuroendocrine cancer. For Bilbo, the ring had become a source of incredible power and the thought of giving up that power was terrifying (Chance 31-32). I find the same to be true. I feel as if I am empowered by the cancer. It has given me a new position in life by providing me with convenient excuses, eliciting sympathy, and giving me a reason to wallow in self pity. If I surrender this cancer to a higher authority, what will I have left? The cold, hard truth is that, like the ring’s hold on Bilbo, neuroendocrine cancer is an enabler (Chance 31-32). The longer I allow my health condition to be the dominate force in my life, the more likely it will cause my real self to disappear. If I want to have an abundant life I need to follow Gandalf’s advice and let it go. In the words of Jane Chance “renunciation is the final gift” (32). I am so thankful that there does exist a real life Gandalf who will help me to renounce that which has a hold of me and allow me to walk away unburdened and completely free. This real life Gandalf is the person of Jesus.
I want to share some final thoughts. It is incredibly important for the Church to surrender her burdens. The children of God cannot experience the freedom that Jesus paid for unless we cast our cares on him. Jesus, through the words of Scripture, pleads with his people to unload their burdens on him. Consider the following verses:
“Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for you souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” Matthew 11:28-30 ESV
“For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.” Jeremiah 31:25 ESV
”Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary, and young men stumble and fall, but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:28-31 NIV
“In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” Psalm 4:8 ESV
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV
The moment I realized what I was doing to myself by allowing neuroendocrine cancer to define me to the loss of self opened my eyes to how incredibly important it is for me to surrender it all at the foot of the cross. Jesus did not die for me to be weary, over-burdened, and depressed. He died to bring me victory over this life and provide hope in the next. This is what it truly means to be free. By casting my disease and all its worries on Jesus, I can now walk in freedom. Life is now full of abundant possibility because Jesus holds the burden of my illness in the palm of his hand, and what is in his hand cannot be snatched out (NIV Jn 10.29). This is one of the greatest gifts bestowed at the cross. Now is the time to surrender and experience true freedom.
Biblegateway. Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles. 2001. Web. 26 July 2016.
Biblegateway. Holy Bible, New International Version. Biblica Inc. 2011. Web. 26 July 2016.
Chance, Jane. The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power. Lexington: University of Kentucky. 2001. Print.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1982. Print.