Amidst suicidal thoughts, one of Tolkien’s darkest tales delivers hope!

They were so skilled, such stunning characters. We were deeply saddened. What more could be said?

Our collective emotion was rocked last year as amazingly talented creators Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade chose their own exits. And we recently paused in remembrance: Robin Williams has now been gone five years.

What more should be said? My reading and training on grief have coached me to say nothing. Less is more. Remain silent. Do not preach or dispense advice. Simply grieve with the grieving.

And under almost every circumstance, I concur. Indeed, we pray for comfort and divine hope to descend in hearts of family and friends. We live ever-cognizant of the heartache of mental illness and the struggle of addiction. Ours is a pulsing grief, oft best unspoken. Together, our hearts ache.

Albeit for a moment, indulge me. Perhaps we should lean into a shade more reflection. I am compelled to break from the normal silence of our society’s prescribed, safe decorum. When we witness such a sad avalanche of remarkable people, it seems that further commentary might be appropriate. Perhaps, a few next level thoughts might prove helpful to someone. And we join together in confessing, there are still parts both known and unknown.

I shall not engage in diatribe against the supposed emptiness of the splendidly wealthy and the wickedly successful movers and shakers of current culture. Over my years, I have witnessed too much. Suicide regularly claims the upper crust as well as the best of us lower crumbs. She plays no favorites in her deceptive malice. Life’s pressure, pain, and resulting hopelessness are no respecter of persons.

In the wake of Anthony and Kate’s self-determined exits, my mind was moved with sadness. And I was drawn into a Tolkien scene in The Lord of the Rings plus several correlating truths. Beware. This scene happens far from the Shire but not yet Mordor. We find Gandalf and Pippin in one of the dreadful, messy middle places of Middle-earth, the Citadel of Gondor during the apex of the Battle.

He was so skilled, such a stunning character. Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, had served many years as the ruler of the city and surrounding parts, both known and unknown. Overwhelmed by the Shadow and Sauron’s dark influence, this long-time leader chose to do the unthinkable.

With great haste, Pippin desperately explained to Gandalf: ‘Denethor has gone to the Tombs, and he has taken Faramir, and he says we are all to burn, and he will not wait, and they are to make a pyre and burn him on it, and Faramir as well. And he has sent me to fetch wood and oil.’

Denethor’s son, Faramir, had been wounded in battle, a wound the father assumed to be fatal. Gandalf and Pippin raced to the house of the dead in an attempt to rescue both father and son. They rushed in, and we read: “Denethor stepped backward before Gandalf as one amazed.”

Gandalf and Denethor engaged in a volley of heated argument. Denethor declared: ‘Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer?’ The old wise guide responded, attempting with all his might to clear the crazed perspective. O if he might talk even an ounce of sense into the frazzled leader.

‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death…only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.’

Here is one powerfully germane, highly potent statement from the Wizard’s lips. Before we quickly shrug, shake our heads, and dub this as insensitive, provincial, or even judgmental, let us ponder the depth of Tolkien’s analysis.

Gandalf was drawing from the recesses of his memory, reaching back to ancient times in earlier ages when rulers chose to exit life of their own accord. His analysis was profound. The root cause was a dark blend of pride and despair. They allowed Dark Power to get the best of them. (Catch the rest of the story in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chapter 7.)

But notice this standout statement: Authority is not given to you…to order the hour of your death. Tolkien was very deliberately conveying through the wise lips of Gandalf his own world and life view. Humans are ultimately accountable to their Creator. From Tolkien’s perspective, to think otherwise is a misguided, under-the-Shadow, yes even arrogant perspective. When the leading persons of a culture arrive at believing they hold the authority to decide when they shall depart, they are beguiled by “pride and despair.” But Tolkien does not end with diagnosis. In typical Tolkien style, there is hope and wonderful good news.

Gandalf’s next words to Denethor conveyed so much: ‘Come! We are needed. There is much that you can yet do.’ He called the Steward of Gondor to recognize his important stewardship. He called him to humbly recognize his sacred calling and how much he was needed.

We must all remember, even in our darkest moments:

The choice is not our own. Yes, this runs contra popular, pervasive perspective, the groundswell of societal opinion. Misguided, we think we should rule our own entrance and exit. Sadly, we are now slogging through the Shadows of such dark thinking.

We are needed. There are still friends, coworkers, clients, precious children and spouses who do indeed need you to stay in the battle. Choose to stay. Please choose to stay!

There is much we can still do. There are new parts and places to go—both known and unknown. There are fresh meals to create and taste. New people to meet and bless. There are fashions to still make, meetings to lead, and products to create. There is Good News to share, bad news to battle through, and love to spread profusely.

We all battle with our own blend of pride and despair. We all have demons, addictions, and old enemies. Amidst the voices of dark despair, may we listen instead to the voice of Gandalf and ultimately our Creator. Hear him say: You are not your own. You are loved.  You are not alone. COME! You are needed.  There is much that you can yet do. There is hope!

 

 

Is there really any heavenly good in our earthly labor?

My first official workplace—the kind that rendered a pay stub—was in eleventh grade after school at Woolworths Department Store. Each evening, my sundry task list included hauling heavy, sloppy trash bags from the old-fashioned lunch counter. The bag’s construction was less than hefty. They frequently burst open, leaving debris and grease across the tile floor. My capacity to grumble grew strong. (In retrospect, those wimpy trash bags meant job security!)  Within a few short weeks, I hated my job.

I never thought of anything I did at Woolworth’s as accomplishing anything truly good. I was certain such labor was far from heavenly. My perspective was: “This work stinks!” (And many nights, it literally did because of the volume of trash.) I also thought, “This is certainly not God’s ideal for me or anyone else. It must be all part of the curse that results from sin.” In slightly brighter moments, I was inspired by the realization: “This stinking job is a way to buy preppy clothes (queue the 80s music) plus juicy cheeseburgers after basketball games.”

Looking back on that first job, I wish I had grasped at least one or two heavenly threads about our human labor. Through contemplating the beautiful biblical story, we discover there truly is heavenly good in our earthly labor! Five story threads summarize and potentially motivate us for God-honoring earthly work.

First, there’s genius in CREATION.

The genesis of our work was an integral part of God’s masterpiece (Gen 1:26-28; 2:15). Made in his image, humans were called to rule and reign, to work the garden. This elevates God’s original plans for our human labors to a place of prominence and genuine creative genius. There is something so significant and wonderfully sacred about getting our hands dirty and deliberately designing goods and services with excellent creativity in mind. However, there is the unmistakable thread of

Desperate FRUSTRATION

The sweat, fatigue, and brokenness of our work arrived with the Fall (Gen 3:17-19). We see the results in everyday ways. Grabbing a cup of coffee at McDonald’s, I encountered a cashier who was experiencing her first day of training. Her trainer was being extra hard on her, and I could tell the newbie was extremely nervous. She fumbled at first to make change, and then she got it right. As I thanked her and told her “great job,” she beamed. The seasoned trainer softened and walked away. The new cashier proceeded to tell me more of her story of previous job loss. Our three-minute interchange was a micro-replay, reminding me of the frustration we all experience everyday as a result of the Fall.

When we pause to ponder, we must admit we each have days we despise—okay, probably “hate”— our jobs? We grow discouraged. Often, we drag our heals and sputter in our motivation. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s beloved character Sam Gamgee wisely recalled: “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.” Work frustration is all-too-familiar in our sin-cursed world. It’s crucial we not simply stop in our frustration, shrug, and assume we cannot experience anything better. Here’s where we need to encounter another vital thread.

Loving REDEMPTION

Our loving God set a plan in motion to redeem us from our sinful, fallen condition. This includes all Creation AND our work (Gen 3:15; 12:3; 1 Cor 15:57-58). Christ’s incarnation, his own labors, his teaching, his miracles, his death, resurrection, ascension, and empowerment all paved the way for us to know forgiveness and victory over sin. And because of his gracious work, we can approach our daily work as redeemed rhythms of daily worship (Ps 8:3-8; Rom 12:1-2). And there’s a fourth story thread:

Ultimate RESTORATION

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are unfolding the culmination of the redemption plan. New Heavens and New Earth are coming. Such cosmic restoration will renew all Creation, and in surprising ways that includes our WORK (Rev 21-22; Isa 65:17, 21-23; Rom 8).

Author Darrell Cosden stretches us to think even bigger about the scope of Christ’s gracious salvation and restoration. Commenting about Paul’s teaching in Romans 8, Cosden boldly suggests:

Creation’s salvation hope, then, its “liberation” (vs. 21), is that it will be brought or ushered “in us” into our own glory, which is our physical resurrection “in Christ.” Since nature co-inheres “in us,” our salvation and glorification become creation’s own salvation and glory. That this salvation of the natural world includes our work follows logically. Work, which has further shaped nature, is now just as much a part of nature as what God made originally. Unless we want to understand work itself to be “un-natural,” a result of the curse . . . we must conclude from this biblical material that our work experiences salvation along with us.

Percolate and ponder that idea. Our ultimate resurrection will come to us in Christ, and the creation’s glorification will also come. In some unique way, this may also include our work as co-creators with God.

We might be tempted to think, “Yea, yea, yea, SOMEDAY.” But in reality, this isn’t just for someday.

Right now, there’s heavenly good in our earthly work. We experience kingdom foretastes with TRANSFORMATION. Earthly work carries good value now in deeply personal, inter-personal, and even socio-cultural transformation. In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul urges us to recognize how God’s gracious, saving work results in our good works. Flowing from grace, they are masterful works which God planned in advance for us to accomplish. In Colossians 3:23-24, Paul motivates us to pursue our daily labors with all our hearts, as working for the Lord, fully realizing we serve the Lord Christ.

Four questions might prompt us to see the heavenly good in our earthly work:

Q1: What do you really enjoy about your daily labor?

Q2: How do you seek to intentionally integrate your faith with your everyday tasks?

Q3:  What’s most frustrating, and how do you find encouragement for your labors?

Q4: How do you see your daily work carrying heavenly, eternal impact?

Because of God’s gracious, grand story, there truly is heavenly good in our earthly labor. O how I wish I had known that all those years ago, slogging through the trash bags at Woolworths.