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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2]Ibid., 78.

Dishes and Crosses—Is your work ever done?

My wife, Nancy, is oh-so-creative in the kitchen. The delectable dishes she concocts are scrumptious, but the resulting piles of dishes sometimes seem insurmountable. Occasionally, one of our three boys pitches in, but they frequently have right-after-dinner plans. (Hmmm. I wonder why?) Consequently, Nanc’ and I wash a lot of dishes. There are times when my attitude is A+ positive. I put on music and flirt with the chef. But I must confess, there are many days when my do-the-dishes mood is not so stellar. I hang my head and think to myself, “Why does it feel like this job is never finished?” You ask the same exhausted question regarding your own most dreaded chore, whether it’s dishes, laundry, floors, yard work, or _______________.

That dreadful day at Golgotha, Christ cried out, “It is finished!” (John’s Gospel, 19:30) What did he mean? We might assume Christ was so profoundly exhausted that he was exclaiming, “The cross has been agonizing, and now, it’s OVER!” Perhaps. But perhaps he meant even more. Throughout Christ’s time on earth, he worked. He worked hard. In Mark 6:3, people recognized him as the carpenter. A tekton engaged in hands-on work with wood and/or other sculpting and building materials. Prior to assuming his role as Rabbi-Miracle-Worker, Jesus plied the trade of his father, Joseph. With Christ’s baptism and inauguration of his kingdom initiatives, his Heavenly Father’s mission-business shifted into a next phase of implementation. Jesus taught crowds; he trained disciples; he touched the suffering; he transformed lives by his grace. In a real sense, his hands were still sculpting. Like most jobs, he had to work around the haters and cynics. On one such feisty occasion, he replied, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” (John’s Gospel, 5:17)

The language of Jesus’ cry from the cross was ripe with significance. Tetelestai. “It is now fully accomplished, totally completed. The plans have come to fruition. It’s paid in full. Redemption has fully arrived!”

How might Christ’s decisive cry, “It is finished!” impact our daily work?

We can affirm the value of long-term planning and implementation. Much of the Father’s work—and then his Son’s work—involved establishing and working out the ancient prophecies. Christ’s life work demonstrated marvelous fulfillment of those plans, culminating in extra-dynamic ways with the cross, resurrection, and ascension. Consider this: when we make strategic plans and work hard to implement them, we are more fully living out the image of God, matching his very character and transformative intentions for us. As we work with him, relying on his plans, we actually find deep rest in his finished work on our behalf.

We can infuse our daily work with his redemptive aims. Christ’s loud personal cry, tetelestai, declared the complete arrival of redemption. This should motivate us to make sure our own work keeps redemptive purposes in view. How does what I do today serve with humble sincerity, bless the mess, clear the confusion, and bring truly Good News to people who experience too much bad news everyday? With both our daily actions and our daily words, we can share Christ’s hope-filled redemption. My attitude starts to improve as I deliberately pray over those greasy plates and spoons, thanking God for the mouths and hands that have touched them. Dish towel in hand, I can boldly ask the Lord to nourish, cleanse, use, and encourage those dear ones in his service.

We can work hard, relying on God’s grace. The Apostle Paul, after rehearsing the creed—Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection—insisted that he had worked harder than all the other apostles, “—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10) In like fashion, it is the grace of God that confidently propels our own work today. We can fully trust him and praise him for such grace!

We can intentionally plan to finish strong. What does it take to finish strong in your life work? How do you keep from burning out with exhaustion? In their discussion of a strategy for entrepreneurs planning to finish well, Richard Goosen and R. Paul Stevens lend five insights: (1) Keep articulating your life goals, not just when you are young, but throughout life; (2) Constantly refresh your sense of calling; (3) Engage in an accountability group; (4) Practice thanksgiving day and night; and (5) plan on lifelong learning, blending study, work, and play all along the way.[1]

‘Ever wonder what Christ felt on certain days in the carpentry shop, especially when working on tough projects? Did his work feel exhausting? Probably. After all, he was also human. How often did the skin on his hands get dry-cracked and calloused? What expression crossed his face when a splinter snagged him? And I wonder what words crossed his lips when he wrapped up an especially challenging project? I have a hunch I know, and you probably do as well. After all, there was the day his hands held rough-hewn beams, and they felt the ugly work of nails. And on that day, Christ cried out, “It is finished!” That cry was for you, for me, and for countless others who find much-needed rest in his gracious work on the cross.

Take heart. Such finished work and triumphant word supply all the grace we need to press on, work hard, and finish strong.

 

[1]Richard J. Goossen and R. Paul Stevens. Entrepreneurial Leadership: Finding Your Calling, Making a Difference. (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013) 176-179.

 

How Can Earthquakes and “Zombies” Motivate Our Daily Work?

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It’s a plaguing question that haunts us all.

Does my daily work actually have any lasting, eternal value? (Let’s keep it real. We all ask this from time to time.)

And let me complicate the issue with one further annoying question: Might the Easter season hold clues or help us in any way answer this question of our daily work’s meaning and motivation?

First, let’s be clear. We are including the everyday, down-to-earth stuff like landscaping, making cereal, spreading manure, and running repetitive, tedious lab tests. Yes, the messy, sometimes bloody, dirty stuff. Most of us are quick to assign some greater, lasting value to arenas like teaching children, caring for patients, preaching sermons, creating works of art, or leading a not-for-profit. But what about changing diapers, changing oil at the garage, changing hair color in the salon, or changing light bulbs in a warehouse? ‘Just want to be clear. The question is pertinent for every task, especially and including this often mind-numbing, mundane stuff.

Next, it’s important to grasp work’s original ideal. Work was originally portrayed in God’s grand story as very earthy, dirty, creative, tactile, and marvelously full of worship. Genesis 1 presents God as the original earth-worker. The first man was formed from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7). The LORD called and commissioned humans to “rule and reign” in his image (Gen 1:26-28). In Genesis 2:15, he assigned Adam “to work” and “take care” of the garden. This same word for work, when surveyed across the broader scope of Scripture, conveys rich ideas of working in various fields, serving in a full mix of arenas, and even worshiping.

Thus, work and work’s outcomes were blessed and beautiful. However, humanity’s rebellion and the resulting curse sent everything topsy-turvy, horrifically including human work (Gen 3:17-19). Here is at least part of why we now find work tedious, exhausting and sweaty, extra-conflicted by relational stress, and all-too-often perplexing. Yes, we readily encounter daily work as unfulfilling.

SO, what in the world does Easter have to do with our quest for greater motivation and meaning? Tucked in Matthew’s account are two potentially puzzling, curious events. Matthew 27:51b-53 recounts

“The earth shook, rocks split apart, and tombs opened. The bodies of many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead. They left the cemetery after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city of Jerusalem, and appeared to many people.”

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Why do earthquakes and zombie-like people appear as Jesus is dying? Consider this. Jesus’ gruesome, glorious death evokes an immediate response for the previously cursed creation. Earth quakes. Rocks split. Tombs break open as dusty bodies with brittle bones rejoin (compare Ezekiel 37). New spirit enters long-dead heroes of the Hebrew faith. Eventually, once Christ is raised, these holy “walking dead” come into the holy city, Jerusalem, and appear to many people. This had to feel stunningly apocalyptic.

If your head is spinning with curiosity, ponder the potentially divine reason. God was seriously showing off, displaying a preview, early signs of what is yet to come. Dodson and Watson explain: “Tied to the bodily resurrection is also the idea that the world will be renewed and restored to its state of wholeness as a garden paradise . . . it involves the renewal of what has been destroyed—cities, the land, and all of creation (Isaiah 60; Ezekiel 36) . . . The end of the world would bring about a resurrected creation.”[1] What breaks open at Christ’s death and resurrection is like a movie preview supplying glimpses into scenes that will fully flood the screen at the culmination of history in Christ’s final victory (1 Corinthians 15).

Darrell Cosden posits: “That this salvation of the natural world includes our work follows logically. Work, which has further shaped nature, is now just as much a part of nature as what God made originally . . . we must conclude from this biblical material that our work experiences salvation along with us.”[2] Thus, Cosden links such consummation of Christ’s resurrection, our human resurrections, and the subsequent redemption of Creation (Romans 8) with eventual redemption of our work and work’s outcomes.

As present-day workers, we can find far-reaching hope! Even our most mundane, treacherous tasks—like plowing endless expanses of field, making the umpteenth sales call, or engaging in one more boring board meeting—might actually hold eternal value. When done to serve the Lord Christ, for the good of others, such rough and tumble, everyday, earthy jobs can actually bring him great glory and end up emerging as work that’s included in the shocking, death-defying, restored New Creation at Christ’s triumphant return. No wonder the Apostle Paul closed 1 Corinthians 15 by saying: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.”

With such earthshaking potential for holy renewal, let’s get motivated in today’s work—with greater enthusiasm—and all for his glory!

[1]Jonathan K. Dodson and Brad Watson. Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014, p. 24.

[2]Darrell Cosden, The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work. UK: Paternoster, 2006, p. 71.