© 2016 Lynn Abbott
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster made the list of childhood favorites in my home. Perhaps, the author’s propensity to pun captivated my son.
Or maybe, like so many children’s stories, its magical and imaginative story-line appealed to both of us. Milo’s drive through the magical tollbooth via a toy car, and then, his resulting adventures certainly deserve a place in the annuls of popular, children’s literature.
More than that, though, the novel contains pragmatic wisdom regarding subjects such as the dangers of “jumping to conclusions.”
Undoubtedly, The Phantom Tollbooth follows the allegorical tradition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
Discontent and curiosity prompt Milo to drive through the tollbooth and embark on journey that will change his life’s course and grant him purpose. One particular challenge that Milo encounters on his pilgrimage occurs as he seeks the princess duo, Rhyme and Reason.
Before he can restore Rhyme and Reason to their rightful places, he must conquer the Mountains of Ignorance and the demons who dwell there. As Milo and his friends climb the mountain pass, they meet a variety of characters in the darkness.
For me, the most unforgettable of these was a dapper gentleman who stood against a dead tree. Although dressed in fine clothes, the man’s face drew a complete blank. Nothing. No expression. Not even the possibility.
Indeed, the gentleman had no eyes, nose or mouth. A complete blank. Even so, he appeared a charming personality, and Milo and friends were relieved to find a friendly voice in such a dark and foreboding place. Thus, when the gentleman very politely asked for help, Milo immediately volunteered.
The tasks delegated were odd: a pile of fine sand to be moved with the aid of tweezers; a water well to be emptied with an eye dropper; and a hole in a granite cliff to be dug with a sewing needle.
After working for some time, Milo began to ask questions. And it becomes apparent to the reader that Milo’s charming new “friend” is no friend at all, but rather a demon… When confronted, the gentleman admits that he is a demon named Terrible Trivium, and is the promoter of “petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”
Milo and his friends make their narrow escape. Their encounter, however, leaves the reader with much to ponder.
Trivium offers a comfortable detour, a distraction from God’s best. And like Juster’s fictional demon, our very real enemy is a master of deterrents, the prince of never-ending detours and aimless wandering.
His deterrents often appear as sensible or favorable opportunities. The majority may even be charmed by the detour’s “wisdom.”
Definitely reminds me of the book of Exodus. Despite their miraculous release from slavery, the enemy threw a variety of diversions in their path. And they unfortunately listened to his soothing deceit whenever they encountered huge obstacles.
Of course, he offers no genuine comfort. Instead, he offers inadequate tools or substitutes for God’s presence and guidance. Such detours inevitably end in tedious wandering…
Like most of us, the Israelites should have known better. But the enemy often disguises himself as an angel of light…and in the midst of fear and darkness, the charming yet empty voice initially appeared friendly.
Israel’s spies confirmed it. The men returned not only with a glowing report of all the wealth they found there, but also a sampling of the bounty.
“‘We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit,'” the spies said.
But Trivium also noted the dangers and offered a safe, familiar but pointless alternative to following God’s daring plan.
Fear reigned that day. The majority of the spies supported an unequivocal retreat. Ten spies warned that “the people who live in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large…”
They also spoke of giants, (Numbers 13:32). In fact, they recommended turning back from God’s plan. They advocated the seemingly safe tedium of desert nomadic life. Their concerns probably sounded reasonable; although the Promised Land was all that God had said, the ten believed it to be too risky a venture.
I can almost hear that majority listing the nation’s military inadequacies. After all, Israel had recently left behind 400 years of Egyptian slavery. From a human perspective, they were ill-equipped to engage the Canaanites.
Only Joshua and Caleb spoke in favor of God’s plan. As Caleb addressed the people, he likely appeared the eternal optimist: “We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it,” (Numbers 13:30).
Even so, the people balked. The measured calm of the blank-faced demon prevailed that day.
I’ve unfortunately been there, too. Sometimes, it’s easier to embrace the diversion–to exchange certain peril for a detour suggested by the charming stranger.
Mañana sounds so reasonable an alternative. And I put off the journey I fear.
As a result, I wander aimlessly in the empty desert rather than venture into the unknown, yet Promised Land. I move sand with a pair of tweezers.
“Stop awhile; the journey is too long and dark. You are not strong enough. Instead, stay and help me with the seeming good,” the smooth-talking stranger coos.
Obviously, the people’s refusal to enter the land was not the first time fear overcame faith. “Retreat” seemed to be their default setting.
Finding themselves in a difficult place, God’s people constantly looked for comfort from the likes of the Terrible Trivium. Moses undoubtedly had his hands full leading a people who continually pined for Egypt.
The grumbling began early in the flight from Egypt. Caught between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea, the people turned on Moses.
“‘Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? … Is this not the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness,” (Exodus 14:11-12).
Yup. For humanity, safe often trumps significant. It’s easier to procrastinate than to risk the unknown. After all, mountain passes, especially dark ones, can be dangerous.
Yet, God worked an incredible miracle that day at the Red Sea. He rescued His people from the Egyptians once more.
You betcha. Abba does not ask us to face mountains alone. He goes with us. And He provides all we need for life and godliness, (2 Peter 1:2-3).
With God, all things are possible…not only passing through the Red Sea but also the crossing of a vast desert.
He provides all His children need to follow Him.
Israel discovered this at Marah. Although the people could not initially drink the water there, God miraculously transformed it. In addition, God led the people to Elim where there were twelve springs of water. Uh, huh. One well for each of Israel’s twelve tribes.
Undoubtedly, God cares about the most detailed aspect of our lives; in stark contrast to the Terrible Trivium, our heavenly Father genuinely provides us with all that we need to follow Him.
God does not ask us to fight a battle or complete a task without giving us the proper “tools,” (Ephesians 6:10-18). In addition, He grants rest to the weary, strength to the weak, and His presence to His fearful children, (Isaiah 41:10; 40:31).
Shortly after the miracle at Marah, just two months after leaving Egypt, the people grumbled once more. For them, slavery seemed a small price to pay for full bellies.
“‘Would that we had died by the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger,'” they whinged, (Exodus 16:3).
The “blank but charming” beckoned them to turn aside from the journey. Return to Egypt, the voice whispered. Egypt wasn’t so bad. It was a lovely stop-over on a difficult journey. Why not make it your permanent residence?
And the people hesitated; they longed to pick up the tweezers, eye-dropper and needle… to make bricks and gather straw for the glory of Pharaoh. By comparison to Abba and His potentially perilous voyage, Trivium seemed a safe and comfortable companion.
Even so, YHWH-Yireh (or translated Jehovah-Jireh–the LORD provides) bestowed great grace. He sent bread from heaven. We know it by its nickname, “manna.” (Exodus 16:4).
Significantly, God sent only one day’s worth of bread at a time. No more, no less…and those who attempted to stock pile quickly discovered that the “manna” would not keep. Thus, even for their day-to-day needs, they depended on Jehovah-Jireh.
Manna daily reminded them of their significance to their Sovereign-Shepherd. And through manna, God enabled their obedience to Him.
But there’s more.
As I recently reread the Hebrew’s Exodus story, I noted that God’s provision extended further than I ever imagined. Although most of us are very familiar with the history of manna, I have often skimmed over the details, and as a result, I have missed an extraordinary example of God’s vigilant care.
God had instructed the people to rest on the Sabbath. Yet, the bread from heaven did not keep. It would seem that work on the Sabbath would be necessary. Had God given them a command that would be difficult if not impossible to obey? Was the mountain pass too great?
Not so. Again, as Peter notes, our God, “has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness,” (2 Peter 1:3).
God sets our feet on His path and then, provides for our obedience.
The people gathered double portions of manna on the sixth day before Sabbath. And Scripture tells us that the manna did not “sour.”
Our God is Jehovah-Jireh. And He calls us to a life so much greater than anything that might be falsely promised by Trivium. The road sometimes grows dark, but at just the right moment, Abba provides the light we need (Psalm 119: 105).
That’s right. As a pillar of fire by night and as a cloud by day, Yahweh lead His people through difficult terrain.
He reminded His people, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself,” (Exodus 19:4).
And Abba has brought you and me out of “Egypt” as well… We do not serve blank Tedium. We are no longer caught in the kingdom of darkness; we now belong to the kingdom of God.
Abba calls us to lives of eternal significance. He has placed our feet on an incredible path. Certainly, we encounter danger along the way.
But when God calls you and me to complete a task or to travel over rocky ground, He does not leave us without the power or tools to obey Him (Acts 1:8).
There is nothing that we face that He cannot handle, (Mark 10:27).
He gives great grace. He is faithful despite my fears, (2 Timothy 2:13). The Exodus of Israel proves it beyond doubt. You might say that Israel is God’s Q.E.D.–a proof for the grace equation.
Yes, we sometimes walk through the wilderness; on the way to the Promised Land, we may even encounter dark mountain passes.
But as we travel, we can be absolutely sure that Abba will provide all that we need to fulfill His calling.
“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence,” ~ 2 Peter 1:2-3