Bourdain, Spade, and Denethor—Loving Parts Unknown and Known

He was so skilled, such a stunning character. We are so sad—so deeply sad. What more can be said?

Our collective emotion was rocked this week as more amazingly talented creators—high profile leaders—chose their own exit. We feel such sorrow together.

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 comfort and divine hope for 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 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 some 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 seen 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 has been moved with sadness. And I am drawn into a Tolkien scene and 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 deep 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 better 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!

 

 

What Bothered Me Most About THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

Movie lovers have lauded the film. But to put it kindly, I was bothered. Certainly, there are praiseworthy elements. The story itself is captivating and keeps us coming back. How many of us have watched The Greatest Showman now how many times, primarily out of its success in supplying joyous escape? Story guru Robert McKee maintains that a superbly told story “makes time vanish.” McKee declares:

“The story power of a fine play, novel, film or TV series sweeps us through time until the entertainment spell suddenly breaks and we glance at our watch in amazed wonder: ‘Wow, was that three hours?’ Some story-goers plunge back into a much-loved classic for a second, third, or more reliving.”[1]

Such story phenomenon is certainly at work with The Greatest Showman. And of course, the musical score is breathtaking. Choreography is superb, and the brilliant colors on the tonal pallet are nothing short of breathtaking. Some scenes leave you wondering: Is this a film or a painting?

But I was still bothered.

I could readily say I was bothered by the glamorizing of Barnum’s dishonest, shyster ways. Once again, Hollywood successfully convinced us to love and root for a crooked and morally corrupt individual. His business practices were abominable, but viewers find themselves cheering for him. Nevertheless, that is not what most bothered me. Such skillful crafting of characters and a twisting of the audience’s love-hate capacity has been a hallmark of truly great story telling for centuries.

I could stomp my feet, bothered by the liberties that were taken with P.T. Barnum’s actual history. While the movie’s story line lands some threads right and tight, there are numerous points of departure and inaccuracy with the true story of this over-the-Big-Top character. For a wonderfully researched and mesmerizing rendition, read Matthew Goodman. The movie paints the picture of Charity’s family as ultra-snobby, disapproving of Phineas. Solid history reports it was actually the other way around. Mother and other relatives believed that a young man as promising as Phineas “should set his sights higher than a local seamstress.”[2] The list of discrepancies between the film and true Barnum history could go on and on. But that is not my biggest gripe. Movies have been twisting history for many moons.

My genuine, gargantuan gripe comes into play as the story’s tension crests the hill and our Showman’s crisis winds ever tighter. Barnum is wrestling with what’s truly most important. Across his life, P.T. has been constantly seeking to satiate his never-ending thirst for accolades from the upper crust, from highbrow family, from newspaper reporters, and from the ever-fickle adoring fans. Now he has the opportunity to take off on a cross-country concert tour with Jenny Lind, the breathtaking European soloist (who none-too-ironically sings Never Enough.) But could he—would he instead—choose to stay with his ever-faithful circus troupe and his lovely family?

And right here is the real rub, the issue that bothers me most with this movie. The story line strikes a raw nerve for all of us who step onto life’s stage. The issue of “what matters most” is indeed the pressing issue for every leader, every artist, every public speaker, every athlete, and every person in business large or small. At the end of the day to a very real degree, we are all show people. We are faced with the push-and-pull, tug-o-war question: Will I live my life for the applause of the audience, for their approval, for the ratings, and other people’s love?

Jesus actually worked on this issue in the Gospels when confronting the Pharisees—and really all of us. His use of the word hypocrite was borrowed from a descriptive term used of play-actors of the ancient Greek world. The great showmen of the first century wore masks. They were out to impress, to play to the crowds. Jesus’ bottom line wisdom on this issue: “Don’t be like the hypocrites” (Matthew 6:1-6).

I realize the real reason that I am bothered by The Greatest Showman. It hits a nerve; there is a little too much P.T. Barnum in me. And based on the current landscape of humanity, it seems it is true for so many of us as leaders. This is a pressing issue, whether you are the President, a powerful preacher, a top-level executive, a high school student in your first role, a big-name performer, a public speaker, or something of an emerging celebrity at any level in society.

At an extremely poignant pivot in the movie, Phineas’ wife Charity lands the clincher line:

“You don’t need everyone to love you, Phin. Just a few good people.”

It’s the cash money wisdom of the story. When she said it, I gulped. I need to deeply believe that every day. We all need to live in light of it.

And now perhaps I’m ready to see The Greatest Showman again.

[1]Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace. Storynomics. 12/Hatchett Book Group. (New York, 2018), 87.

[2]Matthew Goodman. The Sun and the Moon. Basic Books. (New York, 2008), 104.

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!