A Most Curious Tolkien Word—for your Monday-after-Easter motivation

Like most inhabitants of Present-earth, you are probably not uproariously excited about going back to work after the holiday weekend. You might take heart as you move into your post-Easter workweek by pondering one rather quirky word, unique to Tolkien’s lexicon.

Before we consider that word, it is important to know that our beloved Professor held a high and holy view of work. So robust was his perspective on the subject, his leading cast of characters in The Silmarillion includes a grand foreman, an orchestrator, leader, and teacher of all things commonly laborious. This master craftsman, one of the Valar, was named Aulë. Tolkien describes his role and influence:

“And in the midst of the Blessed Realm were the mansions of Aulë, and there he laboured long. For in the making of all things in that land he had the chief part, and he wrought there many beautiful and shapely works both openly and in secret. Of him comes the lore and knowledge of the Earth and of all things that it contains: whether the lore of those that make not, but seek only for the understanding of what is, or the lore of all craftsmen: the weaver, the shaper of wood, and the worker in metals; the tiller and husbandman also . . .”

In this early passage, we discover that the work of Middle-earth is not some willy-nilly, random activity. Instead, there is divine intentionality. And the description continues:

“Aulë it is who is named the Friend of the Noldor, for of him they learned much in after days, and they are the most skilled of the Elves; and in their own fashion, according to the gifts which Ilúvatar gave to them, they added much to his teaching, delighting in tongues and in scripts, and in the figures of broidery, of drawing, and of carving. The Noldor also it was who first achieved the making of gems; and the fairest of all gems were the Silmarils, and they are lost.”

Tolkien employs this deeply endearing, simple phrase: “the fairest of all gems.” Bordering on nonchalant, the coveted-by-everyone, quest-and-quarrel-causing stones are introduced. The Silmarils are dropped on the page, followed by the chilling clause: “and they are lost.” But take special note of a class of workers that Tolkien very deliberately includes in Aulë’s realm: “…those that make not, but seek only for the understanding of what is . . .” And some of the Noldor, based on their divine gifting, included those Elves “delighting in tongues and in scripts…”

We dare not miss this: Tolkien crafted his own craft into his story. He made certain that brilliant wordsmiths were included in Middle-earth.

Tolkien fans near and far, to there and back again, are indeed very fond of the good Professor’s oh-so-creative making of words. Grounded in the colorful familiarity of our own wonder-filled earth, he infused Middle-earth with hairy-footed Hobbits, merry singing Elves, fiery rings, courageous Dwarves, and all sorts of Shire-things.

One word stands tall in the greater backstory. Tolkien’s inventive term, eucatastrophe, is philosophically and spiritually foundational to his Legendarium. Originally devised with his famous essay, On Fairy-stories,[1] the term combines the familiar word catastrophe (meaning a downward turn in one’s life condition and feelings) with the ancient Greek prefix eu- (meaning “good,” like eulogy, “a good word about someone”). Hence, Tolkien’s brilliant concept assists in the creation of story scenes where his characters discover a “good turn” in their perspective, a “catch of the breath,” or “lifting of the heart” that can emerge in the midst of the tragedy, even while experiencing cataclysmic events that often haunt life’s stories. Amid catastrophe, characters might encounter hope and joy.

Tolkien viewed this wonderful concept as operative for our history, not just Middle-earth. He uniquely saw it as intrinsic to what he believed of the overarching, grand story:

“The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’”[2]

On a morning after Easter, we smile and say, “That sounds mighty fine, Professor Tolkien, when you are eager to find Easter hope on Sunday. But I am still dreading my post-Easter, Monday through Friday.” Why? We are all-too-familiar with catastrophes at work. They can include the nasty, inconsiderate coworker, a grumbly client, that desperate stack of paperwork to slog through, whole-person exhaustion, or a sudden market downturn.

How about carrying Tolkien’s concept into your workweek, and choosing to watch for eucatastrophe? Perhaps that extra-challenging situation might prompt you to discover a creative solution. Maybe the conflict with a coworker can actually lead to more effective communication skills. What if the oh-so-complex staff meeting forces your team to work more closely and forge stronger bonds? It might be your current catastrophe leads you to look upward and rely on someone other than yourself, to form an even better fellowship. Are you due to grow some greater tenacity? Perhaps your own heart and character could encounter resurrection out of the dark tomb of your workplace catastrophe.

Tolkien deliberately set workers in “realms.” As we saw above, Aulë was over the craftsmen of the Blessed Realm of the First Age. Upon the Return of the King in the Third Age, Gandalf announced to Aragorn: ‘This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be…it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved.’ Gandalf was assigning responsibility to humans, transitioning leadership to the Dominion of Men.

May we all work in such a way that we “order and preserve” in our realms today with an anticipating eye, eager to look up in the midst of downturn, ready for the wonder of eucatastrophe!

[1]Tolkien On Fairy-stories: Expanded edition, with commentary and notes. Edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (Harper Collins).

[2]Ibid., 78.

Resurrection @ Work—the Surprising Significance

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I bet you wonder. Whether you wait tables each day, help patients at the hospital, fix cars, or juggle kids plus your in-home office—whatever you do—I bet you wonder. Does anything I do in my daily work have lasting, eternal significance? The answer to this question is surprisingly, inextricably linked to Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

People readily anticipate that Michelangelo’s marvelous Sistine ceiling might last into Christ’s final kingdom. I was first introduced to the concept of future redemption for creative works in my fine arts course in college. I shrugged. I am no Michelangelo. In recent years, more scholars have posited that redemption’s reach might not be exclusively for the artists. What if your own daily work could have lasting significance, even a literal lasting, based on Creation’s “groaning for glory” and the cosmic redemption foretold in God’s grand story (Romans 8)?

Revelation 21-22 paints amazing frescoes of the eternal…

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The Bigger Deal About the Bill Hybels Accusations

Stunned. Saddened. Angered. Grieved. Determined. Questioning.

I have this jumbled mix of emotions upon reading the Chicago Tribune article. How can this be? Who is really telling the truth? I know there are no absolutely perfect professions that get a pass on scandal. No perfect families, no impeccable churches, no spotless tribes of churches, and there are certainly no perfect pastors. (I know that first-hand.) But I find myself scratching my head and proclaiming:

“Not Bill. O Lord, not Bill.”

I am very aware that Bill adamantly denies the accusations. (I so hope he’s telling the truth!) What should I think, since the likes of Ortberg, Jimmy, and Nancy have joined their voices purporting that the accusations may carry some validity. They have been trustworthy friends of Willow Creek (and it feels like friends to so many of us as readers and listeners over the years). Whom to believe?

In the wild wake of #MeToo, the raucous flood of high-profile Hollywood accusations, as well as the skeletons in the closets of a much-too-muddy White House, we have settled into a ridiculous new normal. What we might have known a year ago as a healthy sense of disgust when hearing blasts of smutty news now gives way to a cold case of calloused numbness, a grogginess that’s settled over our collective conscience.

The Hybels accusations serve as a fresh slap to my sleepy soul. I cannot help but wake up and ask: “How can so many mature people who claim to know better act this way? Really? No! Enough is enough!”

“Not Bill. O Lord, not Bill.”

Sadly, such sickening scenarios are lose-lose-lose. Someone is lying while someone is truth telling. In the process, they each lose big-time. But there is another bigger, even sadder set of losers. No matter which side is right, the “skeptics, moralists, and long-time seekers” just grew less trusting and took another step away from the kingdom. I grieve and say to my skeptical and seeking friends, “Please, O please, I beg you to believe that there are still some good and reliable Christians left in the world. I so hope and pray at the end of the day, you remember how much we all need God’s loving grace. That includes Bill—and you and me—and every person pulsing on the planet.”

For many of us, “Me too” is no longer something that remains in the safe distance of a far-off scandal traipsed as tabloid in the Tribune, splashed across Christianity Today’s weekend headline, or blasted across a CNN banner. It hits way too close to home for that friend or family member who suddenly has to leave their job due to a previous season of sinful indiscretion. Many of us know someone not in the presidential, Hollywood, or mega-pastor limelight experiencing something that feels like collateral damage during this dreadfully punitive season. The self-centered choices and slippery compromise finally came home to roost. The pain is real.

In actuality, accusations of infidelity and sexual misconduct are as old as some of humanity’s famous families. The stunning story of Joseph in Egypt features a season when he was rising in influence, second in charge to a powerful man’s household. Joseph was relentlessly tempted; he remarkably resisted but was framed by his seductress. (See the Hebrew Scripture’s account, Genesis, chapter 39 for more of the story.)

Sage workplace author Tom Nelson elaborates: “When it comes to sexual temptation in the workplace, we don’t have to go out of our way to look for it; it often finds us. Joseph’s wise response to sexual temptation in the workplace is a model for us to emulate. Joseph didn’t cozy up to sexual temptation, he fled from it.”[1]

What’s the big deal? Our core struggle with workplace temptation lies deep inside. Jesus’ wisdom shines his probing searchlight on our eyes and hearts (Matthew 5:27-30). Lust is sparked when we indulgently imagine how people can be used for our self-serving interests instead of genuinely loved. God’s style of selfless love aims at practically caring for others’ best interests, not using or abusing them from our own places of power and control.

How do we develop a strategy to stand strong against workplace temptation, or as in Joseph’s case, to decisively run away? In Taking Your Soul to Work, R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung urge these five strategy steps:

(1) Know that your heart’s desires are for God. Hunger and passion for God put all lesser desires into perspective. (2) Reduce exposure to erotic stimulation in your choice of movies, novels, and Internet sites. Put a plan in place that will help you avoid temptation on business trips. (3) Pray for a colleague, a customer, or a supervisor whom you find attractive. Choose God’s perspective on the person instead of treating her/him as “just a body” to be visually consumed. (4) Seek accountability partners; commit to transparently answering tough questions. (5) Identify the early beginnings of lustful thoughts. Heightened vigilance in advance allows you to be more responsive to the Spirit’s guidance.[2]

Instead of being trapped in daily rituals of workplace lust and other sexual sins, we can stand strong. We can run away, stay pure, and truly honor Christ. With such choices, we will honor others with more wholesome love at work.

What is the truly bigger deal about the Bill Hybels accusations? Upon deeper reflection, I am struck with this reality. Instead of saying: “Not Bill. O Lord, not Bill,” I need to be saying, “Not me. O Lord, not me!”

Rather than shaking our heads in dismay over such scandals, jumping on judgment bandwagons, or allowing ourselves to be further numbed by the relentless shock to any remaining thread of moral leadership compass, we must realize we are called to genuine love. After all, virtues like decency, purity, and loving respect for others are God’s high calling for all of us—not just the mega-leaders of today’s world.

New levels of loving respect must start with everyday leaders—like you and me—making those solid, everyday choices. I want to stand strong. I want to stay holy and true to my wife and children, committed through and through as a truly good leader.

Will you join me in making fresh commitments to wholesome and holy love, the kind of love that is relentlessly loyal to those with whom we live and work each day?

May we all join our determined voices: “Not me. O Lord, not me!”

[1]Tom Nelson. Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 173.

[2]R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung. Taking Your Soul to Work: Overcoming the Nine Deadly Sins of the Workplace. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010), 26-31.

 

Working through despicable disappointment

With glowing anticipation, everything inside me believed with utmost confidence that I would get the job. Multiple interviews had revealed great chemistry with the stellar slate of senior leaders. Based on my mix of strengths, I was bringing a complementary set of gifts to the team. And I was excited to learn and grow in the presence of such high caliber colleagues. It was a match made in heaven and also a tremendous next step for our family.

I had been waiting for the final details to fall into place and the offer to be extended. Seated on a warm August morning in a bustling café, I was surrounded by books and papers, deep in work while basking in the warm morning sunlight. My mobile rang. Based on a string of previous positive conversations, I knew the number on the screen quite well, and I was excited to take the call. I quickly stepped from the noisy café into the brilliant rays of sun. (With pronounced memory, I can still see the very stretch of sidewalk that I paced that day outside the café doors.)

With every previous conversation, the hiring leader’s tone had been warm and upbeat. This time, much to my psyche’s surprise, the leader’s voice on the other end of the call was quite different. His spark was gone. It did not take him long to get to the point. Very matter of fact, he conveyed that the organization had just decided: “We need to go a different direction than we originally thought, but we immensely appreciate your robust engagement in the process. Thank you. You have a promising future. Best of luck!” Okay, wow! I was back on my heels and suddenly grasping for a response. What to say? Total loss. I felt blindsided and desperately disappointed.

My sad sidewalk scenario happened many moons ago, but in recent days the all-too-familiar emotions have echoed in my soul. In this current season, I have witnessed what seems like a truckload of disappointment for close family and friends.

A friend is experiencing bad business breaks—what seems like one after another—and then another. He has been slammed with both loss of revenue and a groundswell of criticism from clients and associates.

A young man I know was passed over upon consideration by a prestigious sports team. He had so anticipated playing with the organization. Sadly, this represents deep personal loss. A lifetime dream now gone.

After seven years cancer-free, another friend was recently told that the cancer has returned. A new round of surgery and treatment is necessary. It’s heartbreaking.

One of my own sons received the jolting news that he was not a finalist for a major scholarship. It seemed so promising, this potential award and provision through this avenue for his education.

We’ve all known something similar. Truth be told, rather than wallowing in self-loathing, it’s empowering to embrace this stronger axiom:

Life’s disappointments can actually be appointments that lead us toward something greater, stronger, and more productive.

How do we work through such shadow seasons, those times of dark and desperate news? In the face of serious disappointments, we can take a deep breath and choose to say, “This IS indeed disappointing, but it is really only part of the story.” There’s usually much more going on, more that we just cannot yet see. We can look for the cheerful, even sillier side, to see the surprising reasons to laugh. An old Hebrew proverb says: “A cheerful heart is good medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22) (And after all, people do so often behave in goofy and comical ways when they are creating our disappointments.) We also work through disappointments in healthier ways by looking and listening for what we might deeply learn. It is often in the waiting that our patience quotient grows stronger. We stretch and learn tenacity.

Perhaps most importantly, we work through disappointments best by remembering that God is still working. Joseph of ancient Jewish history experienced a desperate pileup of disappointment. The eleventh son of Jacob, daddy’s favorite was mistreated and betrayed by his brothers. Enslaved but then rising in the ranks in Egypt, he was falsely accused of sexual misconduct while on the job. He was promptly imprisoned, eventually promoted while there, and then comically forgotten by someone who could have quite easily effected Joseph’s release. Years later as Vice Regent of Pharaoh’s affairs, this step-at-a-time, too-familiar-with-failure leader would stare into his flabbergasted, frightened brothers’ eyes and speak those stunning words: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20)[1]

In the face of disappointing setbacks, we can be encouraged by similar deep truths from the Apostle Paul: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” (Romans 8:28-29, NIV)

Take heart! God is still faithfully working through all things, even through your most devastating disappointments. I look back on that August morning on the café sidewalk and chuckle now over how desperate I felt. In reality, God was protecting and leading me. Had I taken that coveted role, I would have most likely landed smack-dab in the middle of the gigantic mess that unfolded for that organization during the next year. I also might have missed out on several amazing opportunities that emerged in the months to come, including serious appointments for God-honoring influence and mission.

It is so seriously good to know that God is still working His good, even through our most desperate disappointments!

 

[1]For a tremendous treatment of business insights from the life of Joseph, see Albert M. Erisman’s erudite book The Accidental Executive (Hendrickson Publishers, 2015).

The Most Dangerous Side to Your Most Wonderful Work

“That’s marvelous!” I’ve heard people say it upon beholding an antique oak chair I refinished. And I’ve relished the comment.

“Wow, you are delivering a beautiful product!” If you are keeping your promises for clients, you’ve heard someone say it. And you’ve rejoiced.

It is good to deliver good goods and services, especially ones of exceptional quality. We should strive for excellent, stunning products and strong customer satisfaction. Yes indeed, we the workers can enjoy the solid satisfaction that comes with a healthy sense of accomplishment. Recognition of personal satisfaction in one’s labors is enriching.

BUT there’s a very sneaky, slippery, dangerous side to your best products and services, those times you are at the top of your game and “killing it” with your most wonderful work.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s foundational masterpiece, The Silmarillion, Fëanor, the firstborn of the renowned leader, Finwë, was remarkably gifted in multiple faculties of both mind and hands. This precious son Fëanor excelled in the design of lingual letters, Elvish script as well as the crafting of precious gems. Tolkien’s ancient tale reveals a brilliant, ambitious young man who was also stubborn, fiery, and self-absorbed. Today, we would sum up his sad family-of-origin by saying he was a spoiled-rotten, doted-on-by-daddy brat. (Tolkien conveyed Fëanor’s headstrong condition with much grander, loftier literary language, of course.)

The zenith of Fëanor’s craftsmanship was the famed Silmarils, three great jewels. Their outer body was a mysteriously strong substance, “like the crystal of diamond it appeared.” But there was more to these gems, a quality that set them apart as most marvelous: they possessed an inner fire. Tolkien explained: “…Fëanor made [that inner fire] of the blended light of the Trees of Valinor.” His clients and contacts loved his work. “All who dwelt in Aman were filled with wonder and delight at the work of Fëanor.”

Such public acclaim was indeed wonderful. At times, the gifted young craftsman would bring out the gems to show them off, even wearing them on his brow at great feasts. But many other times, they were locked away in his deep chambers.

The slippery-of-soul portion of this oh-so-talented young man’s story comes in Tolkien’s poignant explanation of his behavior: “For Fëanor began to love the Silmarils with a greedy love, and grudged the sight of them to all save his father and his seven sons.”

And the deeper Tolkien revelation of the golden boy’s dark intent: “…he seldom remembered now that the light within them was not his own.”

As the story continues, Fëanor’s reactions impacted his closest family and the wider community in devastating ways. There was a train wreck of epic proportions.

Herein lies a flaming, pervasive issue, not exclusive to this ancient, most-renowned worker of the Elves. Perhaps you cringed upon reading Tolkien’s narrative critique of Fëanor’s heart. I personally winced because one-too-many times, deep inside the darkest chambers of my soul, I have indulged in similar slippery self-aggrandizing:

  • “Wow, that was an amazing project. People showed up and applauded. Am I good, or what?!”
  • “Our team is delivering in remarkable ways, and it’s because of my brilliant leadership. What would they do without me?!”
  • “Those were certainly dang-good lines I just wrote in that story—high take-home value for folks. Man, the light I just shed on that topic, wow. I’m so good.”

You can likely fill in your own “fiery light of my Silmarils” moments, those times you’ve soaked up a bit too much of the glory and lost sight of the source of the light.

How can we counteract such over-estimation of our own wonderful works?

First, remember that it truly takes a team to make something wonderful. Spread the thanks!

If Fëanor had recalibrated his own thoughts, he might have remembered that during his youth, he honed skills for his craft from his father-in-law, Mahtan. Mahtan was “among the Noldor most dear to Aulë.” Aulë was the leading Valar from whom originated “the lore of all craftsmen.” If Fëanor had engaged his memory, he would have also recalled that Aulë’s wife, Yavanna, was the singer and maker of the Two Trees of Valinor—those trees that supplied the precious inner light of the Silmarils.

G.K. Chesteron famously said: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

If we each slow down to take stock, we will realize that we always stand on others’ broad shoulders, both now and in the past. Someone trained you. Someone poured into you in your early days. Several current team members have burned the late-night oil to help bring that product or project to fruition. So, remember them. Speak up and spread your gratitude! Send the note. Express words of thanks at the next party. To whom do you need to say greater “thanks” today?

Second, recall the ultimate source of your fire. Offer up praise!

Yes, Fëanor forgot that the brilliance of the Silmarils came from those shining trees. Ironically, Fëanor’s name meant “Spirit of Fire.” We might conclude that his most dangerous amnesia was this: He forgot that his own fire for creative crafting was a gracious, primal gift from his Creator, Ilúvatar. Long years before, regarding the first created beings the Ainur, Ilúvatar said, “And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers…” Many years later during the Noontide of the Blessed Realm, Tolkien explained: “Fëanor grew swiftly, as if a secret fire were kindled within him.”

When we have produced our own “Silmarils”—that stunning new house, the published and praised poem, a game-winning touchdown pass, or a record month of sales—it is crucial to recall the Creator from whom our fire and creative spark originated. When we intentionally praise our Creator, we stay healthy, rightsized, and ready to produce even more wonderful works in the days to come!

 

Could WORK really be worship?

At the ripe old age of eight, circa 1977, I earned this mighty sum for taking out the trash, washing Sunday dishes, feeding the dog, and tackling anything else that Mom or Dad dubbed a pay-worthy chore. Fifty cents a week was my starting salary. (Okay, so Dad called it an allowance.) Eventually, my responsibilities increased, as did my wage—to one full dollar. Then by the age of eleven, I was pulling down two dollars a week for doing all of those original chores plus feeding our brood of chickens, goats, and hogs. Eventually, this included chopping wood, shoveling very deep snow, and mowing two acres of grass—often by push mower, uphill both ways.

I learned to love payday and hate my work. (Repeated studies reveal this is a pervasive attitude, not isolated to those in the eight-to-eleven age category. Shocking, I know.)

Big blessing for me, ours was a home where the Bible and Jesus were talked about frequently. We integrated spiritual correlations about all sorts of life issues and current events. My mother and father were exemplary. And yet this one thing we lacked. (Alright, perhaps a few others, but this one stands out.) God’s robust perspective on work was not aptly addressed. At best, work was understood as a necessary evil, something to endure—grit those teeth—so as to make a living. I learned that work was harsh because of the fall and the curse of sin, and I pretty much learned that it was just going to have to be that way for all of my existence.

Sweat, toil, and tears. We’re all doomed. “Doomed!” they said. “Get used to it. You won’t get over the blasted agony this side of heaven. So work hard, suck it up, Son, and someday you’ll go to heaven and be done with work.” Now, I’m pretty certain this was never blatantly declared as gospel indoctrination from my father, but that is a pretty accurate summation of what I most definitely surmised.

What if instead, work is actually a primary avenue through which we worship the Lord? What if God’s original creative intention for us (Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:15) included “working the garden” in His image? And what if that word work is also translated as serve—and even worship—across the rest of God’s Grand Story in the sacred Scriptures?

What if our daily work is actually an amazing way to serve the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:23-24)?

Well, that might just change a thing or two! Right? That could deliver a serious sense of fresh calling, even awe and wonder in our daily tasks, especially on those days we feel less than motivated and far less than our best. We know we need regular attitude adjustments, even a perspective tune-up from time to time. But where do we encounter such recalibration?

If you find yourself too often agreeing with my dismal view of work as an eight-year-old, how about joining others for the Work As Worship Retreat on Friday, February 23, 8:30am to 3:30pm at Manor Church (530 Central Manor Rd, Lancaster PA, 17603)?

Eleven influential business leaders and pastors will discuss what it looks like to connect faith and work. This live event in Dallas is being live-streamed to Manor Church along with other satellite sites across the country. The day will be filled with real-life stories, biblical teaching, and practical wisdom that will equip you to see your daily tasks in a brilliantly different light.

Learn more and register here: http://www.manorchurch.org/workasworship

Registration is just $25 and includes lunch! I hope you’ll join us and discover more about this revolutionary concept of Work As Worship!

The Work of Kings—the work of presence

PresenceWhen I was growing up, my Grandpa Hall distributed the gifts on Christmas morning around the tree. Many Christmases, just when we thought all the presents had been given out (adults had left the room to get more coffee and kids were playing amid the piles of crumpled paper), Grandpa would exclaim, “Say, wait a minute. What’s that I spy back here?” He’d chuckle and reach behind the tree to pull out some final surprise presents for the grandkids, bonus gifts that we didn’t see coming! (One year, it was cap guns. Grandma was none too pleased with Grandpa as all the kids ran about the house, firing their cap guns and stirring up smoke.)

We gain surprising joy in a gift that is tucked behind the tree in the original Christmas story. Just after the Wise Men had worshipped the Christ Child by giving him their presents, these Magi were warned by God in a dream to not return to King Herod. They obeyed God and took another route home. What was going on? Herod was one VERY bad King. History reveals that Herod, the regional ruler appointed by the Roman Emperor, was paranoid about his throne. He readily murdered people to protect his kingship. He would stop at nothing. Herod was evil incarnate, one VERY bad king. But God was working to bring His Son, Christ, love incarnate, the VERY good king. Now, this new king’s life was in jeopardy. Herod was out to crush him.

After the Wise Men left, Joseph was warned in a dream to take Jesus and Mary and head to Egypt. The angel explained, “Herod is going to seek to destroy the Child.” So, middle of the night, Joseph wakes everyone and off they go to Egypt. (Moms, you are shuddering as you imagine Mary’s emotions, all the fright of a sudden flight by night. And you NEVER wake a sleeping baby, right?!)

Why Egypt? It was not a new place for God’s people to run for protection. There was actually already a large population of God’s people living in exile in Egypt during Joseph and Mary’s time. And hundreds of years before, the fledgling family of God’s people, Jacob’s brood, had run to Egypt to survive a famine. Four hundred years later, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in the Exodus. The story in Matthew’s Gospel sees this as prophetic fulfillment, an echo of previous Holy Writ. “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Part of Matthew’s story is showing Jesus to be the new Deliverer, an even “better Moses.” God’s new Deliverer has come!

But now the unthinkable happens. It’s so ugly and treacherous. Herod found out he was tricked by the Magi, and he was furious! He dispatched troops and they put to death every male child, two years old and under, living in and around Bethlehem. It’s SO ugly. The weeping and wailing are outrageous. Again, Matthew captured this as fulfilling an ancient prophecy by Jeremiah, “Great wailing in Ramah; Rachel is weeping for her children, because they are no more.” It’s SO sad. Here was the work of one very bad king, trying to crush the very good king, and the outcome was so heartbreaking.

Perhaps this Christmas, you can relate to the mommas of Bethlehem. Maybe you feel more like crying than singing carols. You are not alone. Amid a season that pumps the glitz and glitter of twinkling lights and joyful songs, the rugged reality is that many of us are facing deep sorrow and pain. For some, this is the first Christmas without a precious loved one. For others, there is the agony of having lost a job or having passed through a year that felt filled to the brim with failures. Some families are too busy battling cancer to even think about being jolly. And some of you are just dreading the after-Christmas clean up, taking down ye ol’ tree, going back to work, and the doldrums of post-holiday blues.

BUT there’s something else at work in this scene, behind the tree, and still at work in God’s story today. Here is where the Good News of God’s grand story is SO good. God the Father saved his Son, so King Jesus could save you! This baby, born to be King, would grow up to work hard in this world, teach truth, work miracles, then go to the cross and shed his blood for us. He would be buried and rise again for us. He would commission us on a mission in this world, promise us his presence for that work in this world, and then ascend back to the Father. And there’s this amazing promise that King Jesus, who is love incarnate, will fulfill. Revelation chapter 21, verses 3-5 tell us that he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. No more death, or sorrow, pain, or crying. And King Jesus says, “I am making everything new!” That’s a promise that he starts fulfilling today as we trust him and encounter his joyful presence. And it will be fulfilled fully someday upon his return to finally rule and reign.

In Tolkien’s The Return of the King, the oldest of the women serving in the House of Healing, Ioreth, wept over Farimir. And she declared: “Would that there were kings in Gondor . . . For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known.” In the scenes to come, with Aragorn’s arrival, the old lore proves true.

And with King Jesus’ arrival, such renewal work proves oh-so-true.

Though there was treacherous murder and weeping in Bethlehem, the evil work of King Herod is not the end of the story. God the Father saved His Son, so King Jesus could save you. It’s still true today! Will you trust King Jesus? Will you trust His presence in the here and now, for forgiveness, for new life? Will you trust his promise that he has come to end your weeping? Yes, we still know ugly tears in the here and now. That is part of still living with the likes of Herod haunting our world. But the whole story is not yet told. There’s more behind the tree! There is more to come in the final restoration. Will you encounter His presence after the presents?

When all is said and done, the Renewer will fully complete his work of presence and powerful healing. Such an astounding present “tucked behind the tree.”

Let’s rejoice this Christmas. Our King has come!