Old Sai was a farmer, old and well respected in the village for his wisdom, and his ability to prosper. Recently he acquired, at great expense, a fine draft horse to use in his fields. He had not had the mare very long when it ran away. His neighbors gather to and his neighbors console him in his bad luck. Sai, however, simply says, "What makes you so sure it isn't a blessing?" His neighbors think he must be getting a bit senile.
Then, a few days later, the horse returns with a stallion by its side. This time the neighbors gather to celebrate and congratulate him on his good fortune. Sai simply says, "What makes you so sure that it isn't disaster?" The neighbors look at him quizzically, as if he simply can’t make up his mind.
Several days later, Sai’s only son is riding the horse into town and he gets bucked off and breaks his hip. Again the neighbors gather to console him and again Sai simply says, "What makes you so sure that it isn't a blessing?" 3 months later a large force of raiding nomads come across the border. The army comes to the village and presses every able-bodied man into service. In the ensuing battle, the Chinese army loses 9 out of 10 men. Nevertheless, because the son was still recovering from his broken hip he was not called to war, and so the father and son survived to care for each other.
We’ve had a bit of an “Oh that’s bad….No that’s good!” the last couple of weeks. Let me try to outline it for you.
My wife got into a car accident.
Oh that’s bad.
No, that’s good. Nobody was hurt.
Oh. That’s good.
Well, not really. The insurance company declared the car a total loss.
Oh. That’s bad.
No, actually that’s good. They gave me a pretty good settlement for it, and we got a much newer car that I won’t have to make payments on for at least a year.
Or there’s this one…
It snowed a LOT this year.
Well, not so good. The snow and ice really built up on our roof.
Oh, that’s bad.
Not too bad. Fortunately we have a very steep pitch on our roof.
Oh, that’s good.
Actually, not so much. It all came crashing down a few weeks ago and crushed our back deck.
Ohhh. That’s pretty bad.
It looks like it’s going to be good. The insurance is going to buy us a new deck to replace the old one. We’ve been wanting to replace it for a few years, but didn’t have the money. Now we can.
Those are true stories. Makes me wonder about all the other stuff that’s going on. Who can really tell in the middle of any given event what the ultimate outcome or purpose will be?
This theme is pervasive throughout Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Remember this speech by Sam as he contemplate what he has learned about adventures.
We shouldn’t be here at all [Sam says to Frodo], if we’d known more about it
before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way the brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually -- their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on -- and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same -- like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?"
Then there is that wonderful exchange at the end where Gandalf puts everything into perspective.
"What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature [Frodo declares] when he had a chance!"
"Pity? [Gandalf replies] It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that [Bilbo] took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity."
"I am sorry" said Frodo. "But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum."
"You have not seen him," Gandalf broke in.
"No, and I don’t want to," said Frodo. ". . . Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death."
"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, or good or Ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many -- yours not least."
What part do I have to play? What drama is being played out in the minutiae and broad strokes of my life? I am not quick to deal out death in judgement, but I am often quick to deal out judgement on the circumstances of my life. There is more to my life than cars and decks. There is business, a marriage, a church, and all manner of accounts. A wife, children, friends, colleagues, clients and patrons. These and many other parts fit together but all of it is always changing. Some of it is easy, and some is not so easy. Pleasant and unpleasant – it’s all mixed together, but I can’t really always tell what is GOOD at the moment. Sometimes not even some time later.
Is this an element of faith -- to wait on events without judging them? To trust somehow that it's all OK, even when it seems strange to think that?
If I recall correctly, my Buddhist friends say that life is suffering and that suffering arises from desire or attachment. When one comes to understand that the meaning of an event can change in a moment, is this a step toward enlightenment? We must be careful about attaching ourselves to strongly to the meaning of any event, for it’s ultimate meaning may be inscrutable. We may simply be wrong.
On the other hand, the Apostle Paul encourages us the be content in whatever state we find ourselves in. Crushed deck? Be content. Smashed car? Be content. Ilness? Surgery? Poverty? Be content.
Not an easy place to cultivate, but I think we are learning. It’s a strange road with an unclear map and many curves around which we cannot see. What is around the next bend? Is it good? We shall see.