“Welcome to Rivendell” proclaimed the road sign. Katie was bubbling with excitement and well, truth be told, so was I! Its no secret that we are fans of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. So of course it was only natural that during our time in New Zealand we explored and toured many of the locations used in the making of the films. The country has embraced being cast as the backdrop for Middle Earth, Tolkien’s name for the land in which he set the stories. The ongoing release of The Hobbit as a three part film has only served to reinvigorate the identity.
In Wellington, home of WETA (the movies’ production headquarters), the airport featured giant sized sculptures of the characters Gollum and Gandalf. The Embassy Theater, where many of the premier’s have been held is draped in a large banner that proclaims “The Middle of MIddle Earth!”. Rivendell, the home of the elves, was filmed in a park on the northern outskirts of the city, while the famous shot of the four Hobbits scrambling off a tree-lined lane in the Shire was captured on the forested slopes of Mt. Victoria, an urban park in the heart of Wellington.
Meanwhile, the high country of the South Island was used extensively for many of the wilderness and mountain scenes in both the Hobbit and LOTR films. As fans of both the books and the movies we excitedly clambered up the slopes of Mt. Sunday, the rocky outcropping used for Edoras, the capital city of Rohan. We re-enacted several scenes in the expansive pasture used for the penultimate battle on the Pelennor Fields, our tour guide providing us with movie props and costumes. Katie and I even took a horse back tour deep into Paradise to see many locations used in not only LOTR and the Hobbit like Eisengard and Beorn’s house, but we also trotted by several iconic locales used in the Chronicles of Narnia films as well.
Part of what captured my heart in these stories is the tale of friendship and love woven throughout the books. In the opening book, The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien pulls nine characters together who will serve, throughout the trilogy, as key figures in the battle against evil. There are two men, a dwarf, an elf, a wizard and four hobbits in the company that sets out from Rivendell. These nine companions are dubbed the “Fellowship of the Ring”.
Well as our little family of five exited the doors in the Christchurch airport to begin our NZ adventures we met up with our dear friends Steve and Mel Thawley and their precious children, Chester, age 6, and Verena, age 4. That of course makes nine travelers! Our own fellowship with which to explore Middle Earth, complete with four hobbit sized companions. How cool is that?!
As it turned out it was far more than cool. Our fellowship with Mel and Steve stretches all the way back to the summer of 2002 when they spent four months living in our home while we all worked at Wolf Mountain Camps. We formed a fast friendship as housemates, co-laboring together as we ministered to children and staff. We promised we’d return the favor someday and come visit their homeland. It look longer than hoped, and we were down a key member of the family, but we’d made it.
Our friendship immediately rekindled as we joined forces. They’d been part of the faithful prayer covering over Kristi and now our family as we’ve walked this path. When I enlisted their help in planning our itinerary I was hoping to spend some time at their house in order to catch up. About a month into our planning they informed me they were free to travel with us during our three week trek and were keen to introduce us to their family scattered across the islands. I was thrilled!
Chester immediately clicked in with Matt and Luke to provide a wonderful new buddy while Verena was amazing in her abilities to keep up with the older crew. I appreciated the time to share deeply with old friends and process through feelings and emotions of grief over our loss, joy in the present excitement of the trip and hope for a future full of vibrant life with my children.
Steve and Mel co-pastor a church in the town of Masterton. We were able to attend their year-end celebration service during the week we spent staying at their home. In our honor they decorated in a Western theme and invited us to play some bluegrass music and teach them an American folk dance. They even procured a quality 5-string banjo for me to play. We had packed the spoons so Matt could keep rhythm, and thus we made our international music debut with Katie accompanying Matt and me on the guitar. Luke and Megan sang as we powered through “Dark and Stormy Night” and “Old Jonah”. Then I played solo on stage while the children demonstrated the steps of the Patty Cake Polka to the sure-footed Kiwi congregation. A real American Hoedown, deep in the heart of the Wairarapa! (that’s the name of the fertile valley where Masterton is located.)
Its not often you get to dance at church but that gives you a flavor for the joy in their faith community. It was a highlight of our time together and a shining example that God’s best gifts are people. The Thawley family was another priceless treasure that the Father bestowed on my children and me. They enriched our experience, layering personal knowledge and cultural understanding on top of the amazing scenery to provide a rich context from which to appreciate the land and its people.
So when I say the fellowship was “Sweet As”, I’m utilizing a Kiwi idiom to express the fact that deeply interacting with others in the family of Christ is one of the highest forms of worship, full of joy and pleasing to not only the participants but also the Father himself.