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Posts Tagged ‘Lord of the Rings’

I read once that Tolkien wrote with the pessimism of the pagan poets [1].  They uphold honor in despair, dying well, the heroic quest at the cost of losing everything you love.  But I read Tolkien and see hope scribed into every chapter.  No light, whimsical child’s hope: Tolkien’s hope is not ignorance of all things capable of clouding the good.  It’s a “fool’s hope,” [2] where anyone can see that in all likelihood, if things go on as they are, the fool will be disappointed.  In Tolkien, the fools know themselves to be fools.

 

Elven-King Fingolfin’s story weighs on the side of hopelessness.  The Silmarillion describes him as “fey” [3] when he challenges Melkor himself, living up to the epic’s heroic virtues.  What hope has an elf against a Vala?  But the Vala ought to be contended, resisted, fought.  Though the high king of the Noldor (elves) finally fell, his fight was not without effect.  The Dark Lord Melkor limped forever after.

 

At first reading, it seems that Aragorn commends this sort of despairing courage when he instructs his friends, “There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.” [4]  But Gandalf, the wizard who knows his life-encompassing hope is foolish, lends a bit of insight early on.  Recognizing he is a fool, he embraces humility.  Do you hear it in Gandalf’s words? “Despair, or folly?  It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.  We do not.  It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope.” [5]  He acknowledges that he may not have all the facts.  Indeed, thinking that he knew what the end would be was the prideful downfall of Denethor, who let his enemy select the facts he discovered, and so turn him to despair, and madness.  Tolkien’s works regularly discourage the assumption that we know the future.

 

He also discourages despair.  I know it doesn’t seem true.  There are some pivotal scenes driven by characters that rashly pursue death and glory.  Aragorn is accused of it when he takes the Paths of the Dead, but that perspective is refuted.  Though the way had been shut for long ages, the time had come.  Such is the way of hope.  Things go on in a certain way until the due time, and then change springs upon the world.

 

Perhaps most potent is the image of grey-eyed Dernhelm.  The warrior’s silent, calm assurance going in search of death chilled Merry.  And it awakens our empathy.  Why shouldn’t it?  Who hasn’t felt that life is going from bad to worse, and decided to rush forward to the end instead of waiting to be burned with the house?  I think maybe Tolkien intended to carry us along with this character, so that we could reach the same end.  Dernhelm was proud, seeking glory before duty, though demonstrating loyal love to King Theoden by staying close to him.  And glory was achieved.  And darkness did descend on the desperate hero.  Even as Dernhelm revealed herself as Eowyn, golden hair glittering in the storm-piercing sunrise like a figment of hope; she was cast down, poisoned, and taken for dead.  [6]

 

But now we come to it:  Tolkien’s hope is the kind that stands further and deeper than all those things – than despair and darkness and loss.  He knew about a resurrection hope, about seeds bringing forth fruit after they have fallen into the ground and died.  Maybe he knew that fruit is more glorious than merely putting an end to your enemies.  His hope embraces grief.  It accepts hard things.  Good is not determined by the outcome, but by some transcendent standard.  And this hope joyfully trusts that there is someOne good who may intervene yet.

 

For Eowyn woke, and repented her destructive ideals.  Day came again.  Darkness was not unescapable.  Faramir described the moment, “I do not know what is happening.  The reason of my waking mind tells me that great evil has befallen and we stand at the end of days.  But my heart says nay; and all my limbs are light, and a hope and joy are come to me that no reason can deny.  … in this hour I do not believe that any darkness will endure!” [7]  So Eowyn moved and married, healed and tended gardens. [8]  Her story is a fuller exposition of the transformation the Fellowship underwent in Moria.  They lost their way and lost their guide.  They had descended black depths and awakened demons so that they lost hope.  But on the field high on the mountain slopes, “they came beyond hope under the sky and felt the wind on their faces.” [9]

 

[1] Hopeless Courage by Loren Rosson, III (http://www.hollywoodjesus.com/lord_of_the_rings_guest_03.htm)

[2] The Return of the King: “The Siege of Gondor” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 797)

[3] See etymology of “fey” at http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=fey&allowed_in_frame=0

[4] The Two Towers: “The Riders of Rohan” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 430)

[5] The Fellowship of the Ring: “The Council of Elrond” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 262)

[6] The Return of the King: “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 823-824)

[7] The Return of the King: “The Steward and the King” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 941)

[8] The Return of the King: “The Steward and the King” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 943-944)

[9] The Fellowship of the Ring: “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 323)

 

See also, The Silmarillion: “Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin” by JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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JRR Tolkien reported that he discovered his stories and the world of Middle Earth.  Bilbo’s complaint that Gandalf took him home from the Lonely Mountain by much too direct a route is perhaps a testimony of Tolkien’s own experience with the Hobbit and subsequently the Lord of the Rings.  Even though the legends of the elves were sprawling through Tolkien’s imagination long before either the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings were published, we know that Lothlorien and Fangorn – and the stories swirling and marching out of them (respectively) – were unexpected developments that Tolkien met as he traveled with Frodo and his companions to the War of the Ring.

To many people, Tolkien’s description of his sub-creation is merely a metaphor for the creative process.  An idea wasn’t in mind before and then unfolds faster than we can write it or say it aloud, as though the whole were in existence before we thought of it.  But for Tolkien, there was more literal (and literary) truth to discovering his characters and stories than I would have guessed.  Especially in the Lord of the Rings, peoples and places were dynamically inspired by meditations on words.

The lore-master of Middle Earth discovered that fantastic age in the associations and nuances of English.  English being only the top level.  He didn’t just borrow an archaic term to sound old or fantastic (as so many pretentious fantasy-novelists do today).  Involved in the study was a lot of Old English, Old Norse, Germanic and even Celtic derivations.  Tolkien hoarded word-mathoms, specimens of language passed around and hidden in old literature, buried in place-names.  Believing that language bore record of a people with creativity, wisdom, and art worth recovering, Tolkien studied and meditated on this vocabulary.  Meanings all-but-forgotten, he restored them, often telling a story in which multiple definitions took living form.  Or if the meaning really was entirely lost, like the purposes of some mathoms, Tolkien upcycled them, making all new but deeply appropriate uses of obscure terms.

One of the easiest examples may be Ent.  In Tolkien’s mythology, Ents are shepherds of the trees, ancient forest-keepers.  They do many things, but most importantly they bring down the corrupted wizard, Saruman, by destroying his stone city, Isengard.  Ent comes from an old English word from which we also get the word “giant.”  The word is also associated with trolls, the large stone-people.  Giants in old mythology were credited with writing the pre-historic epics and constructing the marvelous architecture known to the medieval people only as mysterious ruins.  Tolkien pulled all of these things together in the character and origin of the Ents, and in their stone-dominating assault on Isengard.

Perhaps Lord of the Rings was so successful because Tolkien tapped our own imaginations, our nightmares and our memories, our own ways of talking about those things.  We feel that Middle Earth is part of us because it came from the same places we did.  The Hobbit was nursery-fable, not entirely devoid of the word study that made Tolkien’s other work great, but mostly a hodge-podge of mythology and adventure.  The Silmarillion studied not only the English words and Germanic epics at the root of English and American imagination, but also delved into Greek myths, and more obscure stories (like the Finnish Kaelevala).  The Elvish languages have more to do with Celtic.  All those sources were more remote than the wights and wargs and farthings and elves that resonate with the first audience of Lord of the Rings, the English.

Enormous creativity is required to make stories – especially as complex as Lord of the Rings – out of word definitions and roots.  But it also takes genius to hold so many facts and references in mind at once, seeing comparison and contrast, projecting backwards, remembering how the ancient form of the word was used in some obscure poem.  Thomas A. Shippey’s biography of Tolkien first alerted me to this aspect of his work some years ago, but The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary goes much farther.  A word can be a poem or a story or a mythology or just a really-neat sound.  Tolkien delighted in and brought out all of these.

For more information, look to the Letters of JRR Tolkien and the History of Middle Earth (a series of books containing early manuscripts of Middle Earth stories and also containing glossaries and word-explanations for the languages of middle earth).  I highly recommend that you pick up The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner.  It contains over a hundred studies of words either invented or revived by JRR Tolkien or associated with him and his work.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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If you ever get that craving to find treasure, just for the thrill of finding, get into words.  Open a dictionary, read the definition that catches your eye first, and ask yourself questions.  What did that one word mean in the definition?  What are the root words, and where are they from?  How is that word related to other words that sound or are spelled similarly but whose definitions you never before associated?  Is there a list of synonyms?  How are they similar to the first word?  What variations do they put on it?

If you get really interested in the hunt, pick up a book about interesting words.  There are many of them.  I have been a fan of JRR Tolkien for years, and his books contain many interesting words.  In one reading of Lord of the Rings, I kept a list.  Even if the words were familiar, I listed ones that sounded good, or that had an intriguing spelling – words that stood out.  Then I started looking up their definitions and etymologies.  There is a book I’m reading now, Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary.  Over half of the book is word studies.

You can learn interesting things, like the history of “ent.”  It comes from old Germanic and Norse words for giants.  In those ancient days when the word was in common use, the writers attributed still older ruined cities and half-remembered mythologies to “ents.”

Or you can start wondering about words.  How is dwarf related to orcs and ogres?  To rocks?  Especially in mythology, and very intentionally in Tolkien’s myths, relations between words reflect relations between the objects they describe.  If the word “dwarf” derives from a word for “rock,” then maybe dwarves themselves come from rocks.

EVEN if you are wrong (as I often am) you’ve started your imagination on a great story.  And along the way, you’ve undoubtedly found some absorbing treasures of words and history.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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They loved to fight, valiant horsemen with swords and horns and arrows.  But did they fight for her?  Sitting home, left behind to wait on a king who no longer thought of anyone or anything but darkness, watched by lustful eyes fueled in all his deceit by his selfishness – what good was it for strong men to fight if their homes crumbled in their absence?  Would this be her whole life, waiting for people to die, watching decay and singing of dirges?  How could a shieldmaiden ward off the subtly corrupting whispers that truly threatened her kingdom?  An enemy manifest, however terrible, is easier to defy than ghosts in the shadows.  And she yearned, for morning and for restoration and for love. 

A brother she had, whom she loved.  A king she had, like a father to her.  A people she had, who would follow her.  They that went with the puissant soldier on the paths of the dead went because they would not be parted from him.  She stood alone weeping as she watched him go, but he from whom she could not be parted was her uncle.  Where will wanted not, her way opened.  Disregarding formation, she rode close to him.  In the battle she learned that what she wanted more than death, more than glory, was to preserve the beloved lives of her friends.  Alone she stood, facing death, shielding self and kindred from his icy blows. 

And then she wasn’t alone.  Her little companion, brought out of sympathy, stood up and began a change in the woman.  Valiantly, for no other reason than that the desperate woman should not die alone, he reached up to stab at death.  Together they brought him down.  Together these two unlikely heroes suffered, both sleeping in the triage houses in the city.  More came, not for glory or to make whole again their human weapons.  The healers came to restore the broken, to call back the fevered wanderers. 

She woke in the middle of a journey.  No healer had she been; her hand ungentle, left to fight its own battles.  And here at last beside her, appointed also to stay at home, stood a man who could outmatch any of the revered men of valor she had known.  Yet he spoke not of the love of fighting, but of love for that he defended.  He did not love being a ruler, but loved that which he stewarded.  His own glory meant nothing, but he wanted to do what was wise and brave and therefore praiseworthy.  He would forfeit his life to keep an oath. 

Her reflection stood before her, cast in new light.  She also fought, stewarded, took pity, and offered her life.  Now she saw what it was for, and it went deeper than opposing the things she feared and hated.  As the days passed, the man grew to love her.  No more did she miss someone to stand for her, to speak for her, to plan for what pleased her.  He was there.  And her heart changed, or else at last she understood it: to be a shieldmaiden no more, but to be a healer and lover of all things that grow.  Turned from the dark battle and dirges to the life that had been crumbling, she found peace and love and bliss. 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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Marriage is like dancing with no music.  There is still an art, and still the beauty; there is also that dimension of more going on that you have in dancing.  But instead of the music being enough to give a girl an idea of where life is going, there is none; she must simply follow.  Give and take, go and come.  Trust.  Responsibility.  Cry for help.  Confidence.  Smile her delight.  Swing out, spin in.  Submit.  Dance. 
 
The hobbits watch in dreamlike fixation as a woman beautiful beyond their experience weaves her way around the table, in and out of the kitchen, gracefully dodging a man equally unique to the hobbits: big, clumpy, capering and energetic.  Styles so different, the two manage to make a fascinating dance of contrast and complement. How do they make it work?  What force prevents collision? 
 
Tom Bombadil sang about his lady when he thought no one was listening, and when he knew they were following, straining for his every word.  He praised her as beautiful and trusted her to be ready with hospitality.  Brave and free, each with few friends, the couple shared life and interests with each other.  Perhaps many nights were spent crafting a tale to spell his lady.  He gave her gifts and she did the washing.  They each remained who they had been before they met, but they sacrificed things and changed also, making a brand new life together.  When the hobbits asked Goldberry about her husband, she spoke with quiet respect, “He is the master.”  Perhaps there is no satisfying explanation of Tom Bombadil because he was a man who needed to be known rather than described.  There are no memorized steps of the dance with him.  Their house is full of the comforts of community: ready beds, generous tables, and long conversation by the fire.  Goldberry and Tom knew the value of relationship. 
 
Main characters in Lord of the Rings are unmarried.  Nine companions, the fellowship of the Ring, had the freedom to risk their lives and tramp across the world because they were not married.  A man or two was moving towards marriage, dreaming of the woman he’d left behind.  Tolkien was a real romantic, the kind who understood the pull of adventure and of chivalry, as well as of courting and of marriage.  This last is not too common in literature, that real married couples would be glimpsed in story and lifted up for their simple virtue and hard submission.  Immensely happy in marriage to Edith himself, this author did not shy away from representing marriage in his stories. 
 
Another example is found in The Fellowship of the Ring before the hobbits encounter Tom Bombadil.  Still in the Shire, they meet a hobbit couple, the honored Mrs. Maggot and her intimidating husband, Farmer Maggot.  It’s a dreadful name to inherit, let alone acquire, so Mrs. Maggot must have loved her husband, and made the most of it.  She too embodied hospitality.  Spin in.  Feeding a large working farm and family of sons and daughters, she didn’t mind at all to include three hungry strangers at her table, presenting them with heaping helpings of farm fare, mushrooms, and good homebrew.  Farmer Maggot was a good provider, a defender of his property – maybe less because of what it grew than of whom it harbored.  And when in the service of doing what was right he risked his own safety for newfound friends – this round hobbit reminiscent of the American rednecks – his wife stood at the door and cried out for her husband to be careful.  Swing out.  This isn’t just something people say.  Do you see women encouraging their husbands to do the right thing even though it is dangerous?  Do you hear people in unhappy marriages nervous about the other’s safety?  No, it comes from a heart of love, natural – yes, and common but only because the simple heart of marriage is common.  Isn’t that how it should be? 
 
There are other examples, men and women whose wedded bliss was interrupted by wars, disease, or accident.  Take Frodo’s parents.  Rumors ran wild that Drogo didn’t get along with his wife, and that she thought his girth was too large even for a hobbit.  They died together, though, out boating – and as far as the Gaffer was concerned, that was their only crime.  It left Frodo to the wildness of youth, an orphaned rascal living with an extended family too big to take good care of him and to teach him responsibility.  This again was the implication given by the sturdy gardener, who had carefully raised his own son under his eye and apprenticeship.  What an unlikely beginning for the Ringbearer, whose sense of responsibility called him into the darkness, surrendering forever the possibility of home!
 
Elrond’s marriage does not appear to have been happy.  His wife early (well, thousands of years into their relationship) grew weary of their home and left.  Why didn’t she stay for him?  Why didn’t he go with her?  Should he have gone, the Halfelven whose work was so large in preserving the Middle Earth for which his father had risked much more than happiness and comfort?  Should she have stayed, enduring without music, just for the following?
 
Many characters seem to have lost their mothers or fathers early, including Samwise, Frodo, Aragorn, Boromir & Faramir, and Eowyn & Eomer.  It was a hard time, and even marriage did not guard against sorrow and loss.  This is evidence that Tolkien’s ideal of marriage was not unrelated to the real world in which he moved.  His stories exemplify love and commitment in the midst of the hard times to which we can relate. 
 
Another splendid example of the exertions of marital love and the roles each person takes is the marriage of Earendil and Elwing.  Earendil, on behalf of his people, sought to reach the undying lands and plead for the help of the Valar.  He was lost at sea, hopeless, when his elven wife flew to him in the form of a white bird with a silmaril at her breast, and, lighting the way to Valinor, saved her husband and delivered his mission from doom.  He initiated risk, and she accepted the separation and the danger.  In this story the husband led the way on a mission to save the world (as all husbands should), and she supported him with strength of her own and encouragement.  I believe the story goes that the couple now above Middle Earth sails till time ends, in the heavens, her silmaril doomed to light the way for all men as the evening star. 
 
Many people in Tolkien’s tales are related to Luthien and Beren, who stole that silmaril from the crown of Morgoth.  Luthien was the daughter of Thingol (a high elf, one of the first to see Valinor) and Melian (a Maia).  Their marriage is another inspiration.  King Thingol loved Melian and worked his whole life to make her happy.  But he also respected his bride and took her advice.  This position Melian wielded to moderate her husband’s temper, thereby making him the best man, father, and king that he could be.  Ruling together, they preserved and protected a kingdom of peace, beauty, and, until fate started to unravel the spell of protection Melian had woven around Doriath, of justice. 
 
Thingol and Melian’s marriage is somewhat reminiscent of Celeborn and Galadriel, both strong and wise, with strong claims to the leadership of their people.  Yet they ruled peacefully side by side, together attending councils of the wise.  Again they both offer hospitality, but are cautious to protect their country against harm, for love both of land and of friends inside.  All the wives in Tolkien are beautiful, and all the husbands are valiant.  But not all the men are wise, nor are all women hospitable.  Celeborn and Galadriel represent together the best of Tolkien’s ideal.  They are happy and sad, serious and celebratory.  They are wise and strong, beautiful and kind.  People love them and follow them, not only in war, but also in peace.  Memory is important, and yet there is always curiosity to meet new things.  And so it ought to be in marriage.  Such I believe was Tolkien’s experience. 
 
My favorite marriage in Tolkien is one that hadn’t yet taken place.  Eowyn was independent; she was not free – not because she was a woman at home, but because she wanted things impossible for her to have.  Faramir pushed, and she took a small step away.  He pulled and she came close.  Before she knew what was happening, the simple steps were increasing in difficulty until she cried out, “My hand is ungentle!”  The princess grew frightened in the face of love and submission, though she had stood proud as the shieldmaiden of her king even against an enemy as terrible as the Lord of the Nazgul.  She cried out to one who seemed to know what he was doing, who was leading her into a place where she was less confident, where her only choice was to follow.  And the crying out was trust.  Her heart changed, or at last she understood it.  She chose freedom, stepped willingly away from her independence, and chose to love, like her partner, to see things grow well.  “Then I will wed with the White Lady,” he laughed.  She smiled her delight, and on the wall of the city their hands met and clasped, and they faced darkness and light together. 
 
To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn 

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Sets of four?  Sounds like rummy!  I love being asked questions.  For one thing, answers are so much easier then. 

1. 4 movies you can always watch: Wives and Daughters, While You Were Sleeping, Two Towers, Pride and Prejudice with Kam Heskin (no, I’m not Mormon)

2. 4 bands you can never get enough of: Bands aren’t my think, but oh, I like Boyz In the Sink  After that we’ll have to do singers: Michael Card, Steve Green, (stealing one from Woven and Spun) Beauty and the Beast Soundtrack

3. 4 towns you lived in: Blue Springs, MO; Aurora, CO; Farmer’s Branch, TX; Garland, TX

4. 4 shows you like to watch: Pushing Daisies, Leave it to Beaver, Numbers, Joan of Arcadia
5. 4 websites you visit daily: WordPress, Biblical Womanhood Blog, Amy’s Humble Musings, Elect Exiles

6. 4 favorite foods: chocolate, pizza, hamburgers, strawberries
7. 4 places you’d like to be now: Chicago, Scotland, the mall, Israel
8. 4 songs that really move you: Christmas Shoes, Held, We Will Dance, Beauty and the Beast

9. 4 books you will always love:The Walk by Michael Card, Lord of the Rings, Passion and Purity, That Hideous Strength
10. 4 colors that will always be in your closet: navy blue, white, black, green

11.4 authors you’ll always love: Jane Austen, Elisabeth Elliot, Michael Card, Dr. Henry Morris
12. 4 favorite actors/actresses whose talent you honestly respect: Gerard Butler, Cary Grant, Sandra Bullock, Bill Paterson
13.4 languages you’d love to be fluent in: Hebrew, Old English, German, French
14.4 other countries you would like to live in: Scotland, Israel, New Zealand, Ecuador
15.4 skills you would like to improve: sewing, teaching, writing, cooking

16.4 items that are “a few of your favorite things”: white curtains, soft throws, my trifle dish, fog

17. 4 items you actually use like they’re your favorites: laptop, car, tiny hair clips, denim skirt

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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“Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart.”  ~ Gimli    

“Or break it.” ~ Elrond

I’m not saying resolutions are wrong.  They scare me, though.  If I commit to something, I want to mean it.  If I promise even to pray for you, I intend to do it – for a very long time.  A thing that is on my heart deeply I will resolve to do, almost because I know I won’t be able to help myself.  Isn’t that the easy way out? 

Dennis Prager says the way he fights his own laziness is by making outside commitments.  Accountability is huge.  For example, when I commit to lead a Bible study, I do study the Bible, and get a lot out of it.  Just for myself I would never have studied those words, asked those questions, or looked at those cross references. 

We like to think of resolutions as the lighthearted decision to diet after the New Year.  I know from experience that deciding to write or read a book by a certain time doesn’t even work.  I get distracted.  Doesn’t God by His grace give us the will to do… 

Where was I going with that?  At first I was going somewhere that would make the answer, “no.”  God doesn’t enable us to do whatever we decide to do, however much diligence and perseverance are good things.  God gives us the strength and grace to do what He wills. 

Maybe I should not shirk resolutions if I know they are the will of God: if they’re in the Bible, at least.  So to resolve to pray would be good.  Making a resolution to be more kind might have a chance. 

I get so tired of failing.  The fear is that once a resolution is broken, the call to start over is too intimidating. 

In the background I’m hearing the chant, “Grace, grace, grace.”  Resolutions humble me.  They always point out that I can’t.  Failing needs repentance. 

To not make a resolution on something I know God expects of me, isn’t that just covering for myself?  Then when I fail I could conceivably argue that I hadn’t reached that level of maturity; I wasn’t aware of that expectation.  Excuses, especially false ones, don’t get very far with God.  The repentance should come when I fail to please Him, not just when I break a resolution. 

And now we’re happily back to no need for resolutions, because the expectations and consequences are the same.  Jesus said “Let your yes be yes, and your no, no,” for a reason. 

Or was Gimli right all along?  Does a vow strengthen a faltering heart?  Is a broken heart worth the risk?  Brokenness isn’t entirely bad; it reflects reality better than our pretense of competence. 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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