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?

 

 

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.

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.

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!