No Zoom Today

What should we make of today? In my own past praxis, nothing much, really. It has been the immensely blah, pay-no-attention, make-no-mention day of Easter weekend. At best, it’s been a day to run-around, shop for last-minute must-haves, and finish getting ready for tomorrow, the truly monumental day, Easter Sunday.

2020 if of course, different. Very different. We are all locked down, very busy staying at home and doing a whole bunch of nothing. Well, sort of. If we’re honest, some of us feel busier than ever in our spirits. After all, there are new tasks to do. Schoolwork. Baking. Online shopping. Kids. House repairs. Care calls to make. Videos to upload. Economic trends to chart. New strategies to craft. And another Zoom meeting. Isn’t it ironic during this time of so much staying home and such a shift of our life gears, now so much of our existence is run by the word zoom?

My own Friday was full in its own strange way. I won’t bore you. Yours was too. We just did Good Friday in all its horrific glory. And as good Christians, we are quick to say: “But Sunday’s comin’!”

I am struck this morning with the reality that I have seldom pondered today, Saturday, the day in between. For thoughtful Christians across the ages and round the globe, this is holy or joyful Saturday. From the cross on Friday, Christ cried out his last words, his sixth and seventh sayings: “It is finished!” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Holy Saturday serves as a poignant reminder that his body was laid in the tomb by Joseph and Nicodemus (St. John’s Gospel, chapter 19), and there he rested.

We tend to want a busy Jesus, the sort of Savior who was still running off to do something, even in spirit. Over the centuries, scholars have debated: what was he doing in that in-between? Did he truly descend to hell, preach good news, and free the captives? Well, maybe, and maybe not. It’s a long-fought creedal debate, and since this is Holy Saturday, I am simply not feeling the compulsion today to actively engage the mental work or exert the energy necessary for full-on combat of the age-old controversy. (You can also have a pass today to not have to settle that one, if you’d like.)

What I am drawn toward is the sacred connection of Christ’s 2nd-day posture. He rested. In his incarnation, Jesus was fully inhabiting the fulfillment of the Hebrew sabbath. His body was at rest. His spirit was at home with his Father. And he rested. Full stop. Nothing more. No zoom for Jesus.

I have workaholic tendencies. I am not proud of that. Combine that with perfectionism. There’s a deadly-to-the-soul combo. So, I am extra-moved in this Holy Week 2020 when I realize that sisters and brothers across the ages have also referred to this day as Joyful Saturday. My soul is struck by the permission to do nothing today, nothing but rest in body and rejoice in soul.

That push-push, reach-for-something-more side of me as a leader, author, and speaker would typically grab two or three more books or articles and aim to craft another paragraph or two. I would consider my labor unfinished, my striving incomplete with what I am sharing right here.

And then I recall, my Lord said, “Tetelestai!” It is finished.

And so am I. Will you join me in making this a truly joyful, Holy Saturday?

Best we can, let’s do nothing, just a little bit better.

Let’s join Jesus. No zoom. Just rest.

 

Why washing feet is now a must-do during Covid-19

Following the CDC guidelines, I have scoured my hands a gazillion times and used Clorox wipes like never before. Along with friends and family, I am aiming to stay vigilant and healthy.

Amidst all the call to strong attentiveness in hygiene, I am stirred by the ancient call of Jesus Christ to his disciples.

“. . . you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).

Christ was in the Upper Room that night, just a few hours before he was arrested. He had just washed all of his disciples’ feet, including self-confident Peter. Still today, Christians around the world practice washing one another’s feet. It serves as a powerful picture, a potent reminder of risky love, of moving outside ones’ comfort zone, and of genuine, Christ-like humility.

But here’s the kicker: Jesus never intended it to stop with the mere ceremony and symbolism of loving service. Washing feet should motivate us to very tangibly care for others, even and especially during this current season of crisis.[1]

How to care, how to share

What I’ll share right here is in no way exhaustive. It’s simply a starter list of ideas—something like a toolbox. Please feel free to comment and share your own ideas for “washing feet” during this unique season:

Take good care of yourself. In a Christ-honoring way, love yourself well—so that you can love others effectively. Embedded in Jesus call to love your neighbor is the little clause “as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus expects we will engage healthy, proper self-love to undergird our selfless expressions. For a great article, applicable to more than just pastors, see Tom Nelson’s advice.[2]

When in doubt, DO. Too often under normal conditions, we are all too prone to hold back and second-guess. But ours are no longer normal conditions. So when in doubt, do. Do reach out, do give a call, or send the text. You can simply say, “Hey, how are you today? Just thinking about you and wanting to touch base.”

Listen more than you blab. Some of us, especially those of us with “fixer” tendencies, tend to jump to solve things, dispense wisdom, and otherwise straighten out others’ thinking. Now more than ever, it’s crucial we follow the advice of Jesus’ little brother, sage James: “be quick to listen, slow to speak . . .” (James 1:19).

Yes, distance. Steer clear. But learn to say, “I love you” more. I think in the midst of all the distancing dynamics, one of the potentially dynamic upsides might be that we learn to vocalize more effectively and profusely. Tenderness and vulnerability are born by saying those three little God-like words. They mean so much to hurting, lonely, seeking souls. That includes all of us these days.

Know the basics of sharing Jesus’ loving story. Christ’s lavish grace, forgiveness of sins, abundant peace, and new purpose. Such gifts are life-changing. Watch for and pray for opportunities to share the Gospel with others. You don’t have to force anything, but you can be bold. Get familiar with key Bible truths like John 3:16, Romans 3:10-23, Romans 6:23, Romans 8, and Ephesians 2:8-10. Review how to share your own story of encountering God’s loving salvation. Think in three scenes: my life before encountering Jesus; how I came to know and follow him; what’s new, changing, and growing now in my life.

And when in doubt, do share your story. Simply share how Jesus’ story is changing your story.

What to say, even when you don’t know what to say

Here are several simple but profound things you can say with compassion and confidence:

“Yes, this all seems very hard and dark right now. That’s true. And there is even greater truth. God is still good. Christ Jesus’ light and love are bigger than all of what we are facing.”

“Things seem so uncertain, indeed. And we have the certainty of knowing his love and faithfulness.”

“In times like these, we all feel overwhelmed. That’s a normal reaction, totally typical and appropriate. It’s okay to feel sad and not okay.”

“It’s very important to determine you won’t let yourself stay stuck, endlessly thinking about how you are ‘sad and not okay.’ Tell someone when you need help. Go ahead, open up. Take the risk. Tell a friend or family member how you are feeling. Getting it out there really helps.”

In VERY dark, desperate situations

If someone reaches out to you or otherwise opens up about desperate feelings, listen, listen, listen. Let her/him just talk. Affirm what the person is saying. Don’t rush to correct what he or she is saying. Just listen and affirm. If what is being said sounds extremely dark and headed in the direction of self-harm or violence, ask the person if they will allow you to help them get some further help from someone else who can also help them.[3]

Washing feet with your prayers

The Psalms in the center of the Bible provide a plethora of solid examples of how to express heart-felt cries to God. For a very measured, engaging, emotionally and spiritually responsible approach to being authentic during this crisis time, see Tom Wright’s article in TIME. (Don’t let TIME’s headline throw you. They designed it as clickbait.) Wright actually offers very solid hope via lament.[4]

Pray simple, honest prayers from your heart. And when you have the opportunity, be bold with others. Offer to pray with someone else. During this Covid-19 crisis, every person will likely need another person to be their pastor. Don’t worry or sweat it. You really are allowed to pastor someone else, even if you’re not officially ordained. One of St. Peter’s core teachings, known as the priesthood of all believers, reinforces how important it is for each of us to re-present God to others (1 Peter 2). One way we can do that is by offering to pray—over the phone or in text—on behalf of someone else.

So consider doing this today, perhaps as you wrap up talking with a friend. Say, “Hey, before we go, can I pray for you and for all of us, in light of all that’s going on right now?” Deep breath. It’s highly likely the person will say, “Yes, please!” (So many people are really, really open to such encouragement right now.) And then simply say something like . . .

Lord, we want to thank you that you never leave us. Especially in times like these, we need you. So please help us hold on right now and trust you more than ever. Please supply for us—and others today—all we need. Please bring your comfort, your love, your peace, your healing, and your great big hope. We are trusting you and counting on you. We thank you that you are always good, even when things feel so bad and sad. We thank you that the story is not over. We praise you, Jesus. Amen.

Simply something like that. Put it in your own words. Nothing flowery is necessary.

Okay, this is just the start of ideas for “washing feet” in these desperate days. Please feel free to comment and share. What do you want to add to our toolbox? I have added below a few additional links to helpful, encouraging resources.

Thank you for all the ways you are already loving others, washing your own hands, and washing others’ feet. 

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html

and https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/neighbor-love-covid-19/

(Certain stat’s are already outdated, but the gist of this TGC article is very solid.)

[2] https://www.madetoflourish.org/resources/pursuing-pastoral-health-in-the-middle-of-a-crisis/?fbclid=IwAR19FWn7_zyAAzctysM24od8VBmUiSNTv594dZ2WCgzzzClJeWTtzNGxd04

[3] https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

[4] https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/

Additional helpful resources:

https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/10-ways-christians-can-exemplify-faith-and-peace-during-covid-19.html

https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/prayer/powerful-prayers-for-the-coronavirus.html

 

 

 

 

What Can Anyone Really Do About the Coronavirus?

In this past hour, the global death toll passed one thousand.

I am typically a glass half-full kind of person, even to a fault. It’s just how I roll. I lean toward hope-filled optimism.

But sadly, I must confess. In recent days, I have been haunted by anxious thoughts. I find my feelings draped in the shadow of the global epidemic. This morning’s news reported a further increase in cases across China. The weekend’s numbers were a far cry from the decline they had hoped would come with the opening of additional new hospitals.

With cruise ships full of people held at bay and college students recently returned and quarantined, I find myself vacillating. In certain moments, I feel confident the odds are very low that anyone I know, too close to home, will actually be impacted. Then in other moments, I pause and remember: “That’s what everyone thinks until suddenly an illness has become a full-blown pandemic.”

And I am swept into a tsunami of puzzling questions that reach beyond the immediate illness.

What about the psyche and stamina of government leaders who are carrying the burdens of decision-making related to public safety?

How will the researchers who are working on vaccines and treatments hold up under the pressure?

And what must it be like to be one of the masked caregivers, nurses, or doctors to the many thousands affected by the virus?

What will this mean soon for China and the global economy, for thousands upon thousands of workers, corporate executives, and their industries both large and small?

Questions and fears spin, and I wonder. Is there really anything that any one person can do? Then I am struck by the powerful reality that every one of us can pray.

Based on faith in our divine King—whose hands are hands of healing—this one thing can be powerful. We pray to the God who has promised to hear us and answer in response to our faith-filled prayers.

Just today, a global missions leader I highly respect, Craig Kordic, received this list of prayer requests for the Church in Wuhan, China from a pastor serving in the massive city. He shared: Although it’s not one of the strongest Christian provinces in China, it’s estimated that among the 11 million inhabitants of the whole Wuhan Prefecture, @ 470,000 (or 4 percent) are professing Christian believers, including 240,000 house church members and 160,000 members of government-approved Three-Self churches. There are more than 3,000,000 Christians in all of Hubei Province.

* Please pray for the peace of Christ to rule and reign in our hearts, so that we may be a witness to those who are without hope.
* Pray that through this hardship, God’s children will grow nearer to the Almighty and that the Lord will use it to purify our souls and give us many opportunities to proclaim the gospel.
* Please pray for God’s mercy upon Wuhan, and ask Him to bring peace upon our city, province and all of China at this time.
* Please intercede, asking our wonderful Savior to bring peace and healing to those who are afflicted with the illness, to provide supernatural strength and protection for the medical personnel struggling on the front lines, and to bless every official at every level, who are working to help the people of Wuhan!
* Please ask the Lord to use this pestilence for His glory, so that when it is over, there will be many more souls born-again into the kingdom of God than have perished.

Will you join me? Will you commit to incorporating these simple, profound heart cries into your prayers, starting tonight and in the days to come?

We can be confident that King Jesus will hear us and bring his mercy, his hands of healing touch, his great wisdom, breakthroughs, and powerful strength.

What can one person really accomplish? Every one of can pray!

 

 

 

Remembering Kobe, comforting kids, and the work of grieving

We were driving through West Virginia, headed back from visiting our middle son at college in Kentucky. Our youngest, Josiah, suddenly called. “Mom, Dad, did you hear? Kobe Bryant just died in a helicopter crash.” Similar to everyone, we were stunned. I must have said “Oh no, Jos’—that’s so sad” at least a dozen times in the next two minutes. In the hours to come, we learned further details, including the horrific loss of his daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

Such moments are surreal for everyone. When we got home mid-evening, our family conversations continued, including prayers for the Bryant family. Such a tragedy is so much for a sports-loving fourteen-year-old and his friends to process. (Good grief, it’s a lot for parents to process as well.) So many feelings, so much sorrow and heartache.

I’m struck by the reality: there is a collective work about grieving that we do better together. Perhaps you remember 9-11, or the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion, or even JFK’s assassination. In our shock at such events, we abruptly pause. We inhale the sudden sting and exhale our angst with tears. I am moved in such moments that we always have the opportunity to either duck and hide, push away the conversations, run from the pain, or we can collectively work through it and let something new and good happen inside us. I am convinced that if we boldly, courageously embrace the work of such collective grieving, we can actually grow stronger.

When facing grief, both our own and others’, it’s important we resist every urge—both self-induced and pushed by others—to rush our responses. Quick fixes and pithy spiritual platitudes are rarely productive. Don’t hurry yourself to get over your grief, and be very careful what you say to friends and family when they are experiencing loss. H. Norman Wright cites a number of our well-intended but too-often unhelpful, potentially even pain-producing clichés.

Big boys don’t cry.

You’ve just got to get ahold of yourself.

Cheer up.

Time will heal.

Life goes on.

This is the work of the devil.

Count your blessings.

God never gives us more than we can handle.

I know just how you feel.

If there is anything I can do, just call me.[1]

We dare not hurry ourselves and loved ones to quickly process grief, to “just get over it,” and get on with life. But we can choose to get back up, step forward, and trust God with bigger hope. When you are ready, you can choose to walk a fresh path. You can focus on God’s provision for your brighter future. You can boldly embrace your fresh start toward a deeper faith—an overcoming, hope-filled trust to match your deepest grief.

Blocking and shoving

In their original, sidesplitting blockbuster, Shrek and Donkey are camping outside, guarding Princess Fiona as she sleeps in the cave. Staring at the stars and moon, Donkey decides to play therapist and confront Shrek about his threat to build a wall around his swamp to keep everyone out. In their terse, back-and-forth interchange, Donkey makes the now famous and oft-quipped statement (at least it’s quoted often in the Pletcher house), “You cut me deep, Shrek. You cut me real deep!” With a sullen face and folded arms, Shrek abruptly rolls to his other side. Donkey gets in his face. “You’re blocking.” “No, I’m not!” Shrek adamantly denies as he rolls to his other side. “Yes, you are!” Donkey retorts.

Remembering Kobe serves as a healthy reminder for us all. Grieving can and should be cathartic. How often do we self-protect, block others, or otherwise try to hide what we’re really feeling, unwilling to let others see us grieve? Especially with our kids or at the office, in the shop, or out on the production floor—how preposterous would that be, to let others know you are grieving?

Kristin Brown courageously ponders four principles for better grieving. She urges—

Don’t feel ashamed to show your grief. You may be worried about crying at odd times, like in the middle of a meeting. Give yourself permission to be a little less poised.

Avoid making major decisions while grieving. Some decisions may be unavoidable. But for those that seem optional, it’s best to wait until your thinking is less clouded.

Don’t interrupt or abbreviate your season of grief, but productive work is healthy. Both hope and joy can co-exist with sorrow and sadness. Putting your hand to the plow with tears coming down your face is not a bad thing.

Share in the sorrow of those who are grieving around you. People in grief want to know that others are, in a sense, carrying some of the sorrow that they are experiencing.[2]

Catharsis at work

A dusty Hebrew proverb says: “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (Proverbs 14:10). Here is the salty, sincere mix, those raw reflections on the fragile nature of our human hearts. For the hours and days to come, there will be a bitter-sweet, ongoing work in remembering and grieving Kobe.

Already last night, Josiah and some of his baseball friends were reflecting. Over the years, they have commonly recognized Kobe’s GOAT (greatest-of-all-time) status with a fun ritual. During practices, they gather up dozens of stray baseballs and throw them into the coach’s bucket. As they throw them, they shout “Kobe!” It’s been their ongoing expression of adoration for the legend. Last evening, a number of the boys—including several of us big-boy coaches and dads—were lamenting how that toss of baseballs toward the bucket will never be the same again. Down deep we chuckle, and then more tears roll.

What if we allow remembering Kobe to do a good work in us? Perhaps we’ll talk more openly together—big kids and little kids—about what it means to grieve and also find fresh hope. Maybe we’ll talk more deeply together about what it means to truly live life to the full. Let’s squeeze our kids tighter. Let’s hold each other—family and friends—even closer. Let’s listen well and even more intentionally affirm our kids, friends, and coworkers. We all need listening ears and encouragement.

Go ahead and cry. Oh yes, cry tears. That’s healthy. But don’t stop with tears. Let’s encourage each other to choose a bigger and better hope. May we all be more tender and caring with one another. We live in such divisive, hate-mongering, quarrelsome times. Perhaps such care, tenderness, and hope in the face of grief might propel us into an ongoing love and stronger civility.

What if we deliberately work toward more genuine love, that depth of selflessness and others-orientation that our loving Creator intended from the start? Let’s remember Kobe, and let our collective grieving lead us to both receive and give God-like love more deeply and freely.

[1]Wright, Helping Those Who Hurt, 32–33.

[2]Brown, “Why We Can—and Should—Grieve at Work.” The Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics blog. Tifwe.org

Will You Join the 2020 Challenge?

January is not yet over, so it’s not too late. Really! Several weeks ago, you were pondering them. How are you doing on your big aims? Are you still full of gusto? Maybe you are still trying, but you’re running out of energy. Or perhaps you’re still pretty cynical?

Down deep, underneath 2020’s road of resolutions, many of us traffic in tremendous cynicism. We secretly think: “Yeah, right! New Year, New You. What a joke!” Truth be told, who can really know what the New Year brings, whether we will soar high or miserably crash in our best endeavors? And many of us are already saying: “Just as I suspected, 2020 is proving to be more of the same!” Some of us were eager to drive a new road and be so done with last year. But deep down you wonder if something can possibly feel—and truly be—wonderfully new in a life-giving, glorious sense. Even if last year was pretty good overall, you likely set some aspirations for 2020 that still seem daunting. Three weeks into the year is a great point to revisit the pondering.

Know this: All your best aspirations for 2020, if they are growth-oriented and Christ-honoring, are amazing and motivating. Author and speaker Andy Andrews says: “Every good thing that has happened in your life happened because something changed.” Maybe 2020 is your year to

Start a new endeavor.

Read more.

Exercise more. Eat less.

Kick a bad habit. Start a good one.

Go back to school.

Drink more water. Drink less mood-altering, wisdom-killing elixirs.

Invest in new friendships.

Plan to ____________ (fill in your own noble aim!).

It’s all very good! But what about progress in new character, the kind of personal development that can propel your momentum in all your good aims for 2020? How about starting the year with a passionate focus on substantive virtues flowing from a renewed and growing faith? Such focus will inform and embolden all your other new efforts.

The aged sage, Saint Peter, winsomely encourages us in his second letter:

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires.  (2 Peter 1:3-4, NLT)

You already have everything you need. Now go for it!

Here is encouragement that’s grounded in Christ-focused motivation. Peter says we do indeed have everything we need to live up to our full potential of living a godly life. Our source is Christ Jesus himself. We receive such divine power, not of our human effort, but by his grace. And notice how we access such power and the resulting character virtues. We plug into his power and promises, so we can participate in the divine nature—his character and actions. Jesus’ power and promises can propel us into holy, unique ways to rise above the world’s corrupt and debilitating influences. Peter continues:

In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone. The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8, NLT)

With Christ’s power and promises, growing disciples build with Peter’s eight subsequent character-building blocks. We intentionally grow in knowing our Lord Jesus Christ. Such knowledge is much more than an intellectual road trip. Yes, it involves gathering right truth. Absolutely! But this robust knowledge is a deeply personal, experiential knowledge. Here is winsome know-how born of tangible, deliberate practice. It’s like learning to drive an automobile. You study your state’s driving manual, the laws of the land, as well as the technical details for maneuverability. But you also really need to get behind a steering wheel and try it out (preferably on a back-country road, a safe distance from the rest of us). God’s knowledge is holistic, a blend of knowing information and skillfully using it.

So you learn greater facts about Jesus’ manner of love as you explore the Gospel accounts, and then you practice his love in selfless, sacrificial ways by serving others. You learn greater facts about Jesus’ manner of pure, holy, faithful living, and then you practice it by making good, wholesome choices in your everyday entertainment and social interactions. You learn more information about sharing Jesus and the life-changing Good News of his kingdom, and you practice proclaiming it with family, friends, and coworkers.

Will you take the 2020 challenge?

I am personally moved by the power of 20s for the big year ahead. I am making a list of 20 good, stretching, growth-oriented endeavors and aims. My 20 include character development, habits that involve discipline, relational cultivation, as well as skills and abilities to hone. Some of my 20 are already regular rhythms of my life that need continued practice, but 7 to 10 represent new—and yes, even difficult—vistas of life development. And I am realizing that in order to make progress in all 20, I am utterly in need of knowing Christ more and more.

Will you join me in taking the 2020 challenge? What’s on your list? Go ahead and make your own list of 20.

Will you apply yourself 20 minutes at a time?

Here’s something you might find shocking. Life experience demonstrates that at least 7 to 10 of your good endeavors can be achieved through just 20 minutes a day. Yes, just 20 minutes a day. You can learn a new musical instrument by committing yourself to practice for 20 minutes a day. You can read a bunch of books this year by reading one at a time, just 20 minutes a day. You can pour into your middle schooler by more intentionally talking—all devices put down—with a starting point of 20 minutes a day over a meal or on a car ride. The list goes on and on. Certainly, one can argue that it takes longer in certain life areas in order to wonderfully excel. But the point is to aim for greater intentionality. In Live in Grace, Walk in Love, Bob Goff encourages us: “We never regret following through on the commitments we’re passionate about and the activities that last. Figure those out and let the rest fall away.” A lot can happen toward conquering and achieving your list of 20 when you commit to the discipline of applying yourself for 20 minutes.

How about 2020 related to God’s Word?

So many Christians say they want the New Year to be their year to really get to know Christ Jesus through truly being in the Word of God every day. This is a marvelous aim! How about dedicating yourself to reading 20 chapters in the Gospels every week? An average reader can read approximately 4 chapters each day across 5 days of each week. Start in Matthew. Read in Matthew all of January. Spend February in Mark’s Gospel, March in Luke, and April in John. By Holy Week and Easter, you will have journeyed many miles with Jesus in his story.

The aim is to truly, deeply, and practically know Christ more. As you read each day, ponder these two questions and jot down your responses:

Q1: What do I learn of Christ, his heart, his history, his real-life example, and his teachings?

Q2: How will I seek today to follow Jesus’ heart, to love others, to work with excellence, and to live out Christ’s powerful new life in my everyday endeavors?

Your responses to each of these questions can be turned into prayers of praise, gratitude, resolve, and commitment. And of course, the big key is making commitments and following through based on Christ’s power and motivation in you.

Okay, I confess. I am still a bit cynical about stereotypical resolutions and where 2020 will take us. But I am also hopeful about 2020 in light of this reality. In Christ, we already have everything we need!

January is not yet over. It’s not too late.

Will you join me in taking the 2020 challenge?

 

 

 

 

Aspiring to Greatness—a lesson in leadership creativity from a dusty Tolkien letter

What makes leaders truly great? Can power and influence ever emerge as something healthy and life giving? Is greatness only destined to be self-serving and ugly?

Leaders are readers. Voices commonly clamor: “Tolkien was brilliant.” “He was the literary giant of the twentieth century.” “The Professor was the most prolific artist of fairy and fantasy.” “None will ever compare, nor even come close in prowess.”

These and many other superlatives have been employed regarding Tolkien’s genius. His characters, plots, and scenery have inspired millions to rise higher and grow stronger. While the above statements of stature indeed ring true, we should not be so surprised by the greatness of Tolkien’s life work. There is a primal reason for such greatness. Remarkably, it has very little to do with the cause to which we normally attribute an author’s remarkable accomplishments.

We may conclude on solid grounds that just like other authors, Tolkien developed. He grew over time, and this made him a marvel. No doubt about it, his craft increased in profundity of both depth and breadth as he moved into the mid-twentieth century. Simply read The Lord of the Rings. Then revisit The Hobbit. While the reader is impressed and delightfully entertained with young Bilbo, Frodo and the Fellowship reveal a remarkable level of personal literary development. Authorial growth literally leaps from the pages.

Something much hairier is afoot than simply “Tolkien grew up and created more complex hobbits.” This issue for consideration emerges in one of Tolkien’s earliest letters. John Ronald was still in his early 20s. His close companion, Rob Gilson from King Edward’s School and a member of their semi-secret society, “The Tea Club and Barrovian Society,” had been killed in the Great War. It was July 1916. Several weeks later, Tolkien received sad word via a letter from Geoffrey Smith, one of the other Society members. Also serving in battlefield trenches that summer, Tolkien went into the nearby woods to reflect. Amidst his responses, he said:

I now believe that if the greatness we three certainly meant (and meant as more than holiness or nobility alone) is really the lot of the TCBS, then the death of any of its members is but a bitter winnowing of those who were not meant to be great—at least directly. God grant that this does not sound arrogant—I feel humbler enough in truth and immeasurably weaker and poorer now. The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in God’s hands—a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things.[1]

Tolkien proceeded to express the greatness he believed their departed friend had now found in the courageous sacrifice of death. Deeper insight regarding aspiring to greatness may be gleaned from Tolkien’s posture in this poignant moment. He was indeed wrestling with the full mix of personal grief and the struggle to find purpose to move forward. It seems instructive that he fully admitted this small band of young scholars had aspired to future greatness.

What might prove doubly enlightening and revelatory of Tolkien’s grander greatness to come? Such aspiration to greatness was grounded in humility, born of personal realization of working for one’s Creator. Take special note. He was humbled by the current circumstance upon the loss of their friend. And he saw the potential of being an instrument in God’s hands and all that might unfold as “a mover, a doer, an achiever.” He and his fellowship aspired to greatness, but it was grounded in humility and a full recognition of God’s working through them.

During the bridging years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien delivered his essay On Fairy-stories. His concept of humans serving as sub-creators burst on the scene:

We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such ‘fantasy,’ as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.[2]

Flieger and Anderson supply commentary:

With its partner term sub-creation, sub-creator expresses Tolkien’s profoundest views on the creative process, that the Prime Creator is God. His creation is the world of humankind who, following in God’s creative footsteps, both make and are made in God’s image, using—again, like God—the Word as the primary creative instrument.

Brilliant? No doubt. Oh-so-gifted with capacity for literary genius? Absolutely. Ever-developing, improving, and growing in his craft? Tolkien improved like fine wine. Year by year, his flavor and tone seasoned. His primal posture set him apart and set him up for stunning achievement.

Audaciously aspiring to greatness can blend with confident humility. Fully recognizing one’s role as a sub-creator can generate a generous, genuine genesis—growing from the Creator’s gracious image in us.

May we each aspire to such greatness in all of our creative endeavors!

 

 

[1]Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. Letter 5 to G.B. Smith, pp. 8-10.

[2]Tolkien On Fairy-stories: Expanded edition with commentary and notes, pp. 41-42.

Catching Fresh Creativity Amidst Fall Colors

This is a re-post, originally shared in Fall 2015. ENJOY!

Call me ridiculous, but I must confess childlike delight. On my morning run, I caught brilliant glimpses of seasonal beauty breaking through on the landscape. It’s late October so I should not be surprised, but I’m still a kid in serious awe each autumn. Slowly descending a hill, there I spied it. Just atop a cluster of trees, an explosion of burnt-orange leaves. Within the next ten hours, I began seeing similar deep hues dusting other tree lines, including a fresh blast of golden mums and pumpkins, now gracing ground level in flowerbeds everywhere. Harvest orange has arrived for the season, in all its amazing glory.

Most of us love fall colors and find ourselves in awe at the creativity that emerges with the season. And it’s not just the leaves and overall fall decor. We experience it via multiple sights, sounds, and flavors. (Did I mention pumpkin spice coffee and salted caramel mochas?)

With such applause for fall creativity, there are moments I wonder . . .

  • How could I personally be more creative in my approach to projects?
  • Are there ways to gather more and better ideas?
  • How do I inspire our team in order to increase our skills in creative thinking?
  • ‘Any chance we can move out of “stuck in a rut” and “bored stiff?”

Here’s an arena where I’m constantly aiming to stretch and grow. Throughout my leadership experiences, I’ve found these ideas are extremely useful in exponentially increasing creativity.

Make time for story time!

I had heard of this practice, but rarely ever actually practiced it. So this past year, I have started to more regularly storyboard. It’s proving to be simple, profound, fun, and amazingly productive. I gather oversized whiteboard paper and various colors of Sharpie markers. At the top of several sheets, I label the various sections, breakdowns, chapters, or pivotal movements. Then, I just start splashing thoughts—somewhat color-coded—and brush stroking ideas under each heading. Along the way, we constantly push the envelope by asking “what if” questions and otherwise challenging assumptions.

I LOVE to use the “what if” question. It opens new doors, breaks through stereotypes, keeps people dreaming, and stretches the boarders in extra-good ways for leaders. When I’m done, I usually have six to ten sheets hanging on a wall, full of fresh ideas from which to choose. Such an exercise can be done either on my own or with our team. This past year, we’ve used storyboarding to deliberately design big initiatives, a fresh series of talks, and other exciting projects.

Go play!

Richard Allen Farmer urges: “The person who would be authentically creative must not despise the power of play. In our fun we see parts of ourselves we do not normally see; we get a different perspective on an old problem. We grab hold of images to which we would otherwise not have access.”[1]

In the 1990’s, Nissan was attempting a fresh breakthrough in design for their popular Pathfinder SUV. Jerry Hirshberg, head of Nissan’s U.S. design studio at the time, sensed one afternoon that his team was bogging down in frustration and blocked conceptual creativity. His solution was nothing short of genius. He led the company’s entire staff, including the shop, secretaries, and maintenance crew in playing hooky to go to the movies for the afternoon. Hirshberg delightfully reported: “Upon returning from the film, there was much chatter among the staff about how delicious it had been to leave . . . knowing we had been ‘baad’ together. As everyone returned to their work . . . tension in the building began to dissipate. Within days the ideas again started flowing, knotty problem areas unraveled, and the design began to lead the designers, a sure sign that a strong concept was emerging.”[2]

Here’s a must-do on a regular basis with your team, especially when you sense you might be stuck in a deep rut, paralyzed by group-think, or otherwise experiencing a serious case of no-new-idea-itus.

Take big cues from your Creator!

The opening pages of God’s story demonstrate the magnificent collages and cadence of creation (Genesis 1). We are wondrously treated to an encounter where God is the most creative design worker ever. With completion of his oh-so-deliberate, colorful accomplishments each day, he pauses to reflect and celebrate. “And it was good!”

At the culmination of Day Six, humans were created in God’s likeness, his very image. Consider this: the imago Dei included our commission to be “fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth”—to “rule and reign” over it all. ‘No doubt about it, we were called to be creative workers, just like our oh-so-creative God.

When our boys were young, we took them to the circus. One of my favorite features was watching the elephant tricks. The crowd roared in laughter and thunderous applause. You have to admit, an elephant is a sure sign that God possesses a sense of humor as well as one mighty creativity quotient. But then ponder how the humans tamed and trained, “ruled and reigned” over the massive creature, so as to wildly entertain a tent full of other humans!

We can draw abundant motivation by remembering God’s amazing original designs, and then get motivated by the realization: we each possess the imago Dei. His very image and his call have come to you and to me.

What might happen? What if we hear God urging us in fresh ways?

“Create with panache. Work with style. Rule your domain with generous imagination. Make things wonderful. Organize with flair. Be boldly intentional. Design beautiful things. Make life healthier, humorous, holistic, and holy. Above all, mimic me and be lavishly redemptive. And when in doubt, choose orange!”

 

[1]Richard Allen Farmer, It Won’t Fly If You Don’t Try OR How to Let Your Creative Genius Take Flight. (Portland, Multnomah) 1992, p. 68.

[2]Jerry Hirshberg, The Creative Priority: Driving Innovative Business in the Real World. (New York: Harper Business) 1998, p. 87-89.