What Bothers Me Most about Working with Porcupines

“I’ve had it with my critics!”

You’ve said it too. We’ve all had our share of feisty characters show up in our daily labors. My encounters with the species began as an aspiring leader at age sixteen. Having already served in a number of roles, friends encouraged me to run for student body president. As I stood to give my campaign speech, there were jeers and boos from the back row. The opposing candidate had a younger brother. Unbeknownst to my campaign, little brother had gathered a gaggle of hecklers.

As I began to speak, a series of signs were lifted in the air. They read: DON’T LET THIS ELECTION GO DOWN TO JOHN! Disturbance rumbled in the room. I fumbled, stumbled over a phrase, then regained my composure to deliver a less-than-compelling address. Two days later, I was defeated. The event became a lifelong leadership metaphor for an overarching reality: Back-row critics will always abound!

In every realm of service, I have regularly encountered those “prickly critters” and their heavy doses of cantankerous pushback. You know the kind of people. They’re often jaded, jealous, even belligerent—all too often verbally critical of the organization, your modus operandi, and even you personally. Admit it: those pokes feel painful.

Exceptional leadership in our workplaces means intentionally influencing others for the advance of Christ’s kingdom work. Such intentional influence necessitates prioritizing the cultivation of our relational skills. In Business As Mission, Michael R. Baer reminds us that kingdom business is relational, and he spotlights the primacy of intentional relationships. Baer urges us to value people as God does. He supplies a brief survey of biblical anthropology. Key concepts include: People are the good creation of God; People are created in the image of God; People are the highest point of God’s creation; People are fallen and in rebellion against God; People are redeemed at a great price; People will share in God’s kingdom. Such anthropological truths can motivate us to prioritize our relational skills, even with our critics.

Working in a variety of leadership realms across three decades, I have encountered plenty of self-consumed, caustic individuals. Amidst such clashes, I’ve seen two prickly problems dealing with porcupine people. And there’s one more that bothers me most of all.

First, porcupines bring out my own reaction to poke back.

The urge to fling reciprocal accusations or launch a strong defense is totally normal. Our impulse is to kick back, punch back, and set ‘em straight. 100% natural.  And that’s the problem. As kingdom leaders, we are called to a supernatural, divine style of love for people who can be very unlovely. We must never forget, Christ led the way with that style of love for us. Love is absolutely necessary, even and especially when we don’t feel like it. In his winsome relationship guide The Delicate Art of Dancing with Porcupines, Bob Phillips counsels:

“It’s not easy to demonstrate love in the face of criticism or rejection from others. But we must respond lovingly to others even when we don’t feel like it. I’ve had people tell me, “If I act loving when I don’t feel loving, I’d be a hypocrite.” No, you are not a hypocrite. Rather, you are a responsible person demonstrating responsible behavior.”

Leaders who are committed to work like Jesus respond responsibly instead of reacting with a poke back.

Second, porcupines bring out my own dark side reaction, to insist that I’m totally right!

“They simply don’t yet see how faultless, pure-motived, and Christ-like I am in both my attitude and approach.” Clad with such posture of heart, I jut out my chin, stiffen my neck, and determine that I am in the right.

You might react: “I have no responsibility here; I’ve done no wrong! All he says is unfounded. It’s really his problem!” J. Oswald Sanders tells of Samuel Brengle, leader in the Salvation Army, who was sharply attacked by a caustic critic. Brengle’s response? “I thank you for your criticism of my life. It set me to self-examination and heart-searching and prayer, which always leads me into a deeper sense of my utter dependence on Jesus for holiness of heart, and into sweeter fellowship with him.”

During my early years in leadership, one of my mentors shared this axiom for dealing with critics: Always draw the nugget from the negative. His point? Even if you know for certain you are right—and you often are—there is probably still something to learn, some way in which you can grow and change.

And right there is my deep-down biggest problem about working with the prickly ones. They often help me see more ways in which I need to change and grow in greater Christ-likeness. If I slow down to actually consider their pokes and jabs, I can sometimes see ways in which I need to lead our organization in better ways.

Doggone it! My critics’ accusations might carry a nugget of gold that can enrich my character and methodology for even greater kingdom work. Consider these three outcomes of working responsibly with your leadership porcupines:

You’ll grow thicker skin.

You’ll grow a softer heart.

You might even discover surprises.   

It’s very tempting to petrify your perspective about porcupine people, to consider your view of that person settled once and for all. “She will never change. I know it!” Go ahead, fossilize them forever. It feels good to categorize people, to dump them into the bucket with your other opponents. It’s one of the ways we deal with the hurts, hang-ups, and heartaches we face from the “trouble-makers.”

But what if a person’s criticism isn’t always the end of the story?

Years ago, I landed in a new leadership role. I needed to lead change endeavors for the organization. As I led, my list of critics grew exponentially longer. One senior gentleman really did not appreciate the fresh directions. “We’ve never done it that way!” The all-too-familiar mantra was his battle cry. In several meetings, he shared hard words, some of them aimed at me. It was so tempting to conclude: He will never come around. I almost tossed him in the bucket . But to my amazement, a few months later he informed me that he and his wife were praying for me and our family. We sent them a Christmas card that year, and I learned it was on their refrigerator. In the months to come, I began to hear words of encouragement and buy-in about the fresh momentum in our organization. We were changing. I was changing. And my critic was actually changing for the good and for God’s glory.

I still cannot say I enjoy the painful pokes, but I can say I am grateful for how Christ uses my prickly critics. Thicker skin. A softer heart. And sometimes even a stunning surprise.

 

Pies and Hubcaps—In Praise of LOCAL Business

With four drivers in our family, we delayed the extra purchase as long as possible. Finally, I caved into the impassioned teenager pleas. We purchased the third vehicle. It’s used, an oldie but a goodie. We were barely off the car lot before our firstborn was declaring his aim to improve the look of the wheels with new hubcaps.

Our quest for the right new look began online, but we soon found ourselves saying, “’Just wish we could really see and feel what we’re getting before we buy.” In the midst of our hunt, I discovered the Hubcap Barn in Manheim, PA. It’s less than five miles away. Placing a phone call, I was immediately wowed by the personalized interaction and quick mental recall of inventory. Later that afternoon, my son and I were climbing the barn steps and picking out four original, matching hubcaps. We got a great deal including details about how to make them shine. As we drove away, I reflected. “There’s something so unique about buying local, a tangible intangible you just can’t get when buying online.”

I’m struck once again with the realization that Jesus’ own business approach was very local. As the God-Man, he certainly had the wherewithal to make his carpentry business much bigger, even global had he desired such an instantaneous reach. Instead, “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, MSG). Jesus’ down-to-earth incarnation included his work-a-day business.

After the formal start of his Messianic ministry, he returned to his hometown as guest speaker at the local meeting place. The townsfolk first praised him but then scoffed. “He’s just a carpenter . . . “ (Mark 6:3). Such critique serves as sturdy evidence. Jesus was well known by the locals as the neighborhood carpenter way before he was recognized as the traveling preacher and miracle-worker.

With our current-day buzz about “being the church” in our communities and living more missional and incarnational, how deliberately diligent are we in cultivating local business that’s God-glorifying? Do we more intentionally shop local businesses with the aim of fostering relationships, stimulating the local economy, and sharing gospel witness for the glory of God?

My life is enriched and our local region is oh-so-blessed because of places like Hearts and Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, PA. (Yes, owners Byron and Beth Borger are oh-so-kind to carry my books!) The Borough of Columbia is much stronger because of a great place like Café 301 (301 Locust Street, Columbia PA).

Pies Galore and More of Mount Joy, owned and operated by Donna and John Alexander, has been serving up delectable pies for over five years now. Our local community is much sweeter because of such Christ-honoring business impact!

Vintage & Co. is a fantastic shop on Marietta Ave, Lancaster. Shoppers encounter marvelous antiques, refinished tables, Country Chic paint, and all sorts of wonderful treasures of yesteryear.

Zack Erswine winsomely reminds us: “In order to follow Jesus we have to go through a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth” (The Imperfect Pastor, 2015). I am grateful for Jesus’ down-to-earth, close-to-home, person-to-person business practices. And I’m motivated in fresh ways to applaud, frequent, and encourage local business for the sake of God’s kingdom. Here is an especially wonderful perspective and practice to carry into Christmastime.

Yes, Jesus’ great commission takes us global, but I am also praying we follow in Jesus’ local missional steps with even greater frequency and passion.

Where will you shop this weekend?

 

 

My Big Dilemma in Voting Christian

One of my neighbors recently vocalized his desire to place two political signs in his yard. However, he expressed his deep dilemma. One of his chosen candidates is a thoughtful Democrat. The other is a creative Republican.

“Each of them reflects my deep-held values,” my neighbor expressed with genuine passion. “But the yard signs will just get my house egged, and probably from both sides.”

We laughed, but he was serious.

Tis the season for yard sign battles. I cannot recall a time in recent history when a midterm election carried such high-pitched press and stress. Certainly, the stakes are sky high. Amidst divisive upheaval over super-charged issues like racial violence, immigration reform, and Supreme Court appointments, we find ourselves readily wrestling. And here’s my big dilemma:

Which side is right, good, upstanding, and worthy of my vote? How do I vote as a Christian?

Central to our work in this world is this important business. We must take seriously our responsibility to engage in the social—yes, political—arena. (Keep in mind that “politics” comes from the ancient Greek term polis, meaning the city and that city’s people.) What a joy to realize that people and the work of their gathering places matter immensely to a loving God.

But precisely how should a Christ-follower vote? Debate rages beyond the yard signs and our knee-jerk, raucous taking of sides. I offer three foundational ideas.

First, choose to courageously engage.

No doubt about it. Politics can feel scary and overwhelming. Don’t simply shrug or bury your head in the sand. A person’s active faith in Christ will work for greater good in every arena, not just church on Sundays or soup kitchens on Saturdays. Our faith must be included in the work of society and politics. As our resurrected and ascended King, Jesus is Lord of all life arenas (Colossians 1:9-20). A developing faith will recognize the importance of societal engagement as intrinsic to growing in Christ. Our active involvement is essential to both living good lives for Christ and proclaiming His Good News in the public arena.[1]

Second, think and pray. Pray and think.

I am personally in a season of life where I confuse the heck out of people. I very rarely post anything that has even a whiff of something political. (It’s rarely productive for pastors to do so. Even this piece will generate some fan mail.) But on the rare occasion that I do become so moved that I feel I have to say something, it’s intriguing to watch people’s reactions.

There are plenty of Christians who assume that as a Bible-believing Christian leader I must be a “right wing, conservative” Republican. There are other Christians who just know that I certainly must be a “liberal, hug-everybody” Democrat.

I can confidently tell you, such categories no longer serve God’s good purposes for my soul. (And I am growing more confident those categories do not serve God’s good purposes for our collective societal soul either.)

I am working to vote as a praying Christian. Very practically and profoundly, this works itself out in a bold prayer like this: “Lord, grant me your wisdom to discern the issues and to vote for the person who will truly serve well in addressing healthy, necessary changes, the kinds of changes that reflect your heart, Lord, in this realm.” Perhaps it sounds overly simplistic, but I am confident he will answer that sincere prayer for wisdom every time (James 1:2-8).

I am also aiming to work at voting as a thinking Christian. Very practically, this means I choose to set aside a previously assumptive, one-side-is-right, partisan approach. A truly Christian vote requires knowing the issues, knowing the candidates, and possessing a solidly grounded, biblical worldview to inform your deeply held values.

Where might a Christian start to gain biblical grounding? Immerse your mind in foundational places like Genesis, chapters 1-4, Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 1-7, and Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians. These passages teach core themes of God’s call and divine purposes for humans and for creation at large. They also emphasize the faith implications for social responsibility and for heart-and-soul, whole-person implications of the Gospel.

In this season of my life, I want to vote for candidates who most closely align with truly good foundations for the advancement of life, peace, hope, and flourishing. Certainly, debates rage over precise interpretation of the most critical issues and their nuances. However, as a base minimum, I want to be thinking, evaluating, and sorting my votes through such a biblical lens.

Third, speak and act with Christ-like kindness.

Our mothers did not raise us to be nasty, mean, and ugly. As people who claim to be changed by the Gospel, Christians need to be very, very kind. We should be big boys and girls. Let’s be mature enough to agree to disagree and be joyful as we debate. We can do that! People have done so at other pivotal points throughout history. Let’s be generously kind.

This approach to the work of voting is certainly not for everyone. Perhaps you are in a place of life where you prefer to still simply “select all” and punch one box for one party or the other. Perhaps you just really need to yell your point with vitriol ugliness all over your face. God bless you. I mean that sincerely. Our family has simply arrived at a place where we believe it’s very important to do the work of voting Christian.

Now where are those two yard signs? I better get ready to clean up eggshells.

 

[1]For an insightful treatment of this topic, see ch. 5 in Richard Foster’s classic Streams of Living Water.

Beyond Walls and Borders—Working to Bless Foreigners

immigrants

(Special Note: This was originally published in January 2017. Perhaps it still conveys some contribution for the current controversy. Much of the original content was crafted in book creation two years prior—WAY before the political turmoil and raging debate of the current landscape. My aim was/is to help advance a more Christ-honoring posture—not to add gasoline to the fiery political debate. Blessings!)

Ten days into a new presidency, the media is abuzz with controversy. (I know, shocker! Did we really expect anything less?) What are we to make of declarations like “America FIRST!” and executive orders aiming at exclusion and long-term consequences for refugees, immigrants, and others seeking a homeland in our midst? No matter where you fall on the political landscape, every Christ-following leader must boldly seek to explore the issues through the lens of King Jesus’ redemptive plans for the Gospel. How will our allegiance—whether to Trump or to King Jesus—create healthier rhythms of mission, including strategic choices for treatment of others in our workplaces?

Wise leaders cultivate profitable business for greater job creation that leads to poverty alleviation—marked by marvelous dignity on behalf of every worker. A very deliberate aim for blessing-focused, workplace leaders is to strategically express God’s love to the outsiders—the foreigners, the marginalized, and those previously outside the faith community.

With such focus, we embrace God’s global mission—to welcome and enfold others. We discover a model leader in an Old Testament business owner, Boaz. Leading man in the Ruth narrative, he very intentionally lived out Leviticus 19:34: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Recall Ruth’s label; she was readily known among Judah’s inhabitants as “the Moabite.”

Here is the thick, loving thread of God’s mission, to reach the nations, to intentionally include the outsiders, those from other people groups (Gen 12:1-3; Matt 28:18-20). Action-biased love for the foreigner is a phenomenal method of applying the second greatest commandment, the others-oriented portion of our calling: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39). When Boaz welcomed Ruth and supplied work in his field, he was demonstrating the faithful life of a God-follower. In a real sense, he was a gospel-centered, mission-driven, disciple-making business owner.

Our daily business and work endeavors can leave a definitive, emotional-spiritual impact toward others’ redemption, especially people who are not yet a part of God’s family. Don’t forget, Ruth was previously an outsider, riffraff from Moab. Boaz and his team took a risk, included her on their labor force, and very deliberately embraced God’s mission (Ruth 2).

Ralph Broetje had a dream one night as a teenager. Ralph explains: “The dream was that I would own an apple orchard and use the money we made to help feed kids in India.” In 1968, Ralph and his wife, Cheryl, bought a cherry orchard in Benton City, Washington. During the first three years, the orchard was plagued by a deep freeze, excessive rain, and treacherous fruit flies. It appeared the fledgling enterprise was ruined and ready to fold. Providentially, help arrived when the Broetjes received the immense blessing of financial backing from a dream team of friends. As a result, they were able to persevere and see stable progress across the coming decade.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Broetjes purchased hundreds of acres of sagebrush land in the Columbia Basin of Washington State. This was not previous apple orchard territory. It was risky, but they began to plant apple trees. The trees grew and the orchard began to thrive. In 1984, the Broetje family embarked on a mission trip to Mexico. Their trip proved to be transformative for their business’ entire focus. Ralph explains: “That mission to Mexico made me realize how hard it was for people there to dream about achieving anything, because the opportunities did not exist. I understood that they were coming to the United States for better opportunities for their families. It gave us more insight into what their needs are, and it reminded me of why we had this orchard. It wasn’t so we could keep building things for ourselves. It was so we could try and give back to the families we worked with as much as we can.”[1]

In the wake of that trip, the Broetjes have not only developed numerous additional full-time jobs, but a large complex of single-family homes and apartments, available to rent at low cost to year-round employees. In addition, the New Horizons Preschool and Vista Hermosa Elementary (K–6) were founded. The Vista Hermosa Foundation supports local initiatives for families and reaches out to partner with underserved communities around the world. Such partnerships exist in over thirty countries, including Mexico, India, Honduras, Colombia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Chad, Haiti, Jamaica, Romania, and the United States.

In recent years, the Broetjes’ work has continued to thrive and flourish. They have developed additional endeavors, like CASA LLC and Mano a Mano, supplying further focus on housing and community building. These endeavors contribute to educational outreach and on-farm seasonal housing for workers needing temporary shelter. Today, the Broetje Orchard in Washington State stands out as a blessing business, accomplishing God’s mission in amazing ways, both locally and globally.

Workplace leaders dare to risk, step outside their comfort zones, and develop holy anticipation for what God might accomplish with each of their relational opportunities. In Workplace Grace, Bill Peel and Walt Larimore encourage us: “Whether we work on a factory floor, in a cramped cubical, or in the corner office, each of us is significant and every gift is important in God’s master plan to draw people to him. He has given us the privilege of being part of the world’s redemption. Never forget small things—a word of encouragement or a simple act of kindness—can be used by God to accomplish big things.”[2]

In whatever daily work we do, when both our actions and words are carried out in the character of Christ, we can reach others with Christ’s redemptive love (Col 3:17, 23–24). In the days ahead, let’s join Boaz and the Broetjes. Will you wonderfully welcome and creatively employ the foreigners, the refugees, and other outsiders in your daily work? We must remember, this goes beyond the partisan chatter over walls, the President, and his executive orders. It’s a serious matter of allegiance to King Jesus and his missional orders—to keep our hearts and borders open, to bless the foreigners with His loving Good News.

This post is adapted from chapters five and eight in EmotiConversations: Working through Our Deepest Places, coauthored with Holly Hall-Pletcher. EmotiConversations is available from Wipf and Stock Publishers and other favorite booksellers.

 

[1]Broetje, http://www.firstfruits.com/company-history.html.

[2]Peel and Larimore, Workplace Grace, 79.

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!