Is there really any heavenly good in our earthly labor?

My first official workplace—the kind that rendered a pay stub—was in eleventh grade after school at Woolworths Department Store. Each evening, my sundry task list included hauling heavy, sloppy trash bags from the old-fashioned lunch counter. The bag’s construction was less than hefty. They frequently burst open, leaving debris and grease across the tile floor. My capacity to grumble grew strong. (In retrospect, those wimpy trash bags meant job security!)  Within a few short weeks, I hated my job.

I never thought of anything I did at Woolworth’s as accomplishing anything truly good. I was certain such labor was far from heavenly. My perspective was: “This work stinks!” (And many nights, it literally did because of the volume of trash.) I also thought, “This is certainly not God’s ideal for me or anyone else. It must be all part of the curse that results from sin.” In slightly brighter moments, I was inspired by the realization: “This stinking job is a way to buy preppy clothes (queue the 80s music) plus juicy cheeseburgers after basketball games.”

Looking back on that first job, I wish I had grasped at least one or two heavenly threads about our human labor. Through contemplating the beautiful biblical story, we discover there truly is heavenly good in our earthly labor! Five story threads summarize and potentially motivate us for God-honoring earthly work.

First, there’s genius in CREATION.

The genesis of our work was an integral part of God’s masterpiece (Gen 1:26-28; 2:15). Made in his image, humans were called to rule and reign, to work the garden. This elevates God’s original plans for our human labors to a place of prominence and genuine creative genius. There is something so significant and wonderfully sacred about getting our hands dirty and deliberately designing goods and services with excellent creativity in mind. However, there is the unmistakable thread of

Desperate FRUSTRATION

The sweat, fatigue, and brokenness of our work arrived with the Fall (Gen 3:17-19). We see the results in everyday ways. Grabbing a cup of coffee at McDonald’s, I encountered a cashier who was experiencing her first day of training. Her trainer was being extra hard on her, and I could tell the newbie was extremely nervous. She fumbled at first to make change, and then she got it right. As I thanked her and told her “great job,” she beamed. The seasoned trainer softened and walked away. The new cashier proceeded to tell me more of her story of previous job loss. Our three-minute interchange was a micro-replay, reminding me of the frustration we all experience everyday as a result of the Fall.

When we pause to ponder, we must admit we each have days we despise—okay, probably “hate”— our jobs? We grow discouraged. Often, we drag our heals and sputter in our motivation. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s beloved character Sam Gamgee wisely recalled: “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.” Work frustration is all-too-familiar in our sin-cursed world. It’s crucial we not simply stop in our frustration, shrug, and assume we cannot experience anything better. Here’s where we need to encounter another vital thread.

Loving REDEMPTION

Our loving God set a plan in motion to redeem us from our sinful, fallen condition. This includes all Creation AND our work (Gen 3:15; 12:3; 1 Cor 15:57-58). Christ’s incarnation, his own labors, his teaching, his miracles, his death, resurrection, ascension, and empowerment all paved the way for us to know forgiveness and victory over sin. And because of his gracious work, we can approach our daily work as redeemed rhythms of daily worship (Ps 8:3-8; Rom 12:1-2). And there’s a fourth story thread:

Ultimate RESTORATION

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are unfolding the culmination of the redemption plan. New Heavens and New Earth are coming. Such cosmic restoration will renew all Creation, and in surprising ways that includes our WORK (Rev 21-22; Isa 65:17, 21-23; Rom 8).

Author Darrell Cosden stretches us to think even bigger about the scope of Christ’s gracious salvation and restoration. Commenting about Paul’s teaching in Romans 8, Cosden boldly suggests:

Creation’s salvation hope, then, its “liberation” (vs. 21), is that it will be brought or ushered “in us” into our own glory, which is our physical resurrection “in Christ.” Since nature co-inheres “in us,” our salvation and glorification become creation’s own salvation and glory. 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. Unless we want to understand work itself to be “un-natural,” a result of the curse . . . we must conclude from this biblical material that our work experiences salvation along with us.

Percolate and ponder that idea. Our ultimate resurrection will come to us in Christ, and the creation’s glorification will also come. In some unique way, this may also include our work as co-creators with God.

We might be tempted to think, “Yea, yea, yea, SOMEDAY.” But in reality, this isn’t just for someday.

Right now, there’s heavenly good in our earthly work. We experience kingdom foretastes with TRANSFORMATION. Earthly work carries good value now in deeply personal, inter-personal, and even socio-cultural transformation. In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul urges us to recognize how God’s gracious, saving work results in our good works. Flowing from grace, they are masterful works which God planned in advance for us to accomplish. In Colossians 3:23-24, Paul motivates us to pursue our daily labors with all our hearts, as working for the Lord, fully realizing we serve the Lord Christ.

Four questions might prompt us to see the heavenly good in our earthly work:

Q1: What do you really enjoy about your daily labor?

Q2: How do you seek to intentionally integrate your faith with your everyday tasks?

Q3:  What’s most frustrating, and how do you find encouragement for your labors?

Q4: How do you see your daily work carrying heavenly, eternal impact?

Because of God’s gracious, grand story, there truly is heavenly good in our earthly labor. O how I wish I had known that all those years ago, slogging through the trash bags at Woolworths.

 

 

If We Dare, A Labor Day Prayer

Throughout the years, I’ve noticed a mischievous thing about Labor Day weekend. If I’m not careful, I miss it. I can get so caught up in the sensational hoopla of picnics, yard work, or a last-hurrah-of-summer getaway that I mindlessly skip over this holiday’s true significance.

Might we dare to think, stir, and move a step or two deeper this year on the meaning and opportunity of Labor Day weekend?

Originally, Labor Day was so much more than a calendar marker for wrap-up of summer, the pool’s closing, and launch of all things flavored pumpkin spice. Call for such a day was the creation of the labor movement and dedicated to recognize the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well being of our country. The first state bill for Labor Day was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During that year four more states—Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York—created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in DC and the territories.

I’m afraid we too often forget just how meaningful and significant our daily work is in the scope of God’s original call to humans (Genesis 1-2) and his ongoing redemptive plans (Ephesians 2:8-10). For disciples of Jesus who are seeking to actively grow in holistic faith, there’s a thought-provoking, responsive prayer, originally penned by Jim Cotter and Paul Payton.[1] If we dare to pray this prayer, it might just refocus our outlook and help guide us into an even more robust, holistic perspective on the vital role our work plays in God’s great work in this world. It goes like this:

Leader: Let the sowers of seed bless you, great God, the gardeners and farmers sing your praise.

Everyone: May the fishers and foresters bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the bread from grain bless you, great God, the wine from the grape sing your praise.

Everyone: May the transformations from cooks bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the spinners and weavers bless you, great God, the designers of clothes sing your praise.

Everyone: May the salesmen and retailers bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the sounds and silences of music bless you, great God, the great composers sing your praise.

Everyone: May the improvisers of jazz bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the software and civil engineers bless you, great God, the architects sing your praise.

Everyone: May the pastors and clergy bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the marketers and advertisers bless you, great God, the entrepreneurs sing your praise.

Everyone: May the attorneys and judges bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the educators bless you, great God, the academics and authors sing your praise.

Everyone: May the doctors and nurses bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the sculptor and scientists bless you, great God, the business owners and janitors sing your praise.

Everyone: May the artists and baristas bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Amen.

We’ve prayed this congregational, responsive prayer in our church’s worship services. Might you dare to pray it personally, share it with friends, and even potentially share it in your congregation?

[1]Jim Cotter and Paul Payton. Out of the Silence . . . Prayer’s Daily Round (with changes by Mark Mohrlang and adapted here for congregational responsive prayer).

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).

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!

What Might Tolkien Teach Us About Christmastime Stress?

Are you frazzled and flustered by the season? For fast-paced workers and business leaders, this most wonderful time of the year is also our busiest. Add to your plate the shopping, umpteen school programs, as well as extra baking, wrapping, and all sorts of crafting. Later nights plus earlier mornings often equal less sleep, which too readily leads to rascally illness and flat-out exhaustion.

We wonder at times, “Is all of this holiday stress a recent-days phenomenon?” And in our most reflective moments, we might ask, “Is there any way to find some deeper joy?”

I discovered an intriguing letter by J.R.R. Tolkien from December of 1937, the same year The Hobbit was first released. Written to his publisher, Sir Stanley Unwin, the opening excerpt is tremendously insightful:

16 December 1937                                                                            20 Nonhmoor Road, Oxford

Dear Mr Unwin,

I have been ill and am still rather tottery, and have had others of the common human troubles, so that time has slipped out of my hands: I have accomplished next to nothing of any kind since I saw you. Father Christmas’ 1937 letter is unwritten yet. …. My chief joy comes from learning that the Silmarillion is not rejected with scorn. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, 2000)

‘Fascinating to consider. We might mistakenly assume that Tolkien would have been having a most magical Christmas in light of his book’s successful debut. Instead, this letter reveals one worn out, stressed out, time-crunched, regretful author. He’s even feeling very tardy about his annual tradition of writing the Father Christmas letter for his children.

I find some sense of comfort in the reality that even a highly successful individual such as Tolkien was battered by Christmastime stress. Perhaps it’s not exactly the new-to-our-generation development for which we are too readily prone to accept heaping doses of blame.

But I’m also stirred by the realization that in the midst of his exhaustion, seasonal trouble, and time pressures, he was intentional to discover some glimmer of joy. The Silmarillion was Tolkien’s collection of writings, material totally foundational to The Legendarium. This robust body of work supplied stunning backstory, crucial keys for a fuller understanding of Middle-earth. In 1937, The Lord of the Rings was not yet even a twinkle in Tolkien’s eye or a wispy puff from his pipe. But The Silmarillion, well those tales of the early ages already danced as quite elaborate smoke rings. They were Tolkien’s driving passion and delight. He had recently pitched the collection to his publisher. With this letter, he was simply finding joy in the fact that Unwin and company had not resoundingly rejected it.

Throughout years to come, they would stall Tolkien off again and again on his quest to have his magnum opus placed in print. In fact, The Silmarillion would not be published until after Tolkien’s death forty years later, and only then through the earnest of his son, Christopher. Of course, Tolkien went on to craft and see the Rings trilogy successfully published as well as other masterpieces. But each of these works had their grand basis in Tolkien’s pride and joy. How fitting that in this dusty old letter from 1937, our beloved professor discovered some joy related to his masterpiece, a joy that buoys his otherwise flustered spirit.

I am moved in the midst of my own hustle and bustle of the season with these two rich realities.

First, there is something life-giving and rejuvenating about slowing down enough to celebrate simple goodness in projects you are accomplishing—yes, even the potential good that others might see. Such reflection on The Silmarillion brought Tolkien delight amidst his hectic Christmas of 1937. And I am reminded that similar reflection brought the original Creator great delight at the wrap up of each day of his creating (Genesis 1).

What have you been creating this year? Amidst all of the challenges and setbacks, what has proven productive? What product line is making some progress? Is there a group of leaders or students in whom you are seeing real growth? What project have you been bringing to life, perhaps one you sense is starting to take shape? Amid the Holiday rush, take intentional time to pause, celebrate, see the good, and rejoice!

Second, I am encouraged to realize I am not alone in the rush and push. Neither are you. Tolkien was acquainted with feeling overwhelmed at Christmastime. And don’t forget, so was that holy family over two millennia ago as they wearily entered the gates of Bethlehem. Winsomely, Mary found time to ponder and treasure all these things in her heart (Luke 2:19).

I am stirred to intentionally make time in the midst of the stress and exhaustion, time to reflect and encounter greater joy. May we all!

 

 

 

If You Dare, A Labor Day Prayer

Throughout the years, I’ve noticed a mischievous thing about Labor Day weekend. If I’m not careful, I miss it. I can get so caught up in the sensational hoopla of picnics, yard work, or a last-hurrah-of-summer getaway that I mindlessly skip over this holiday’s true significance.

Might we dare to think, stir, and move a step or two deeper this year on the meaning and opportunity of Labor Day weekend?

Originally, Labor Day was so much more than a calendar marker for wrap-up of summer, the pool’s closing, and launch of all things flavored pumpkin spice. Call for such a day was the creation of the labor movement and dedicated to recognize the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well being of our country. The first state bill for Labor Day was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During that year four more states—Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York—created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in DC and the territories.

I’m afraid we too often forget just how meaningful and significant our daily work is in the scope of God’s original call to humans (Genesis 1-2) and his ongoing redemptive plans (Ephesians 2:8-10). For disciples of Jesus who are seeking to actively grow in holistic faith, there’s a thought-provoking, responsive prayer, originally penned by Jim Cotter and Paul Payton.[1] If we dare to pray this prayer, it might just refocus our outlook and help guide us into an even more robust, holistic perspective on the vital role our work plays in God’s great work in this world. It goes like this:

Leader: Let the sowers of seed bless you, great God, the gardeners and farmers sing your praise.

Everyone: May the fishers and foresters bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the bread from grain bless you, great God, the wine from the grape sing your praise.

Everyone: May the transformations from cooks bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the spinners and weavers bless you, great God, the designers of clothes sing your praise.

Everyone: May the salesmen and retailers bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the sounds and silences of music bless you, great God, the great composers sing your praise.

Everyone: May the improvisers of jazz bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the software and civil engineers bless you, great God, the architects sing your praise.

Everyone: May the pastors and clergy bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the marketers and advertisers bless you, great God, the entrepreneurs sing your praise.

Everyone: May the attorneys and judges bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the educators bless you, great God, the academics and authors sing your praise.

Everyone: May the doctors and nurses bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the sculptor and scientists bless you, great God, the business owners and janitors sing your praise.

Everyone: May the artists and baristas bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Amen.

We’ve prayed this congregational, responsive prayer in our church’s worship services. Might you dare to pray it personally, share it with friends, and even potentially share it in your congregation?

[1]Jim Cotter and Paul Payton. Out of the Silence . . . Prayer’s Daily Round (with changes by Mark Mohrlang and adapted here for congregational responsive prayer).

The Messy Middle—when you’re not flourishing

My three sons are now enjoying the zenith of their youth. With thick hair on their heads, they readily revel in highlighting their dad’s graying, thinning, Friar Tuck up top and his less-than bulging biceps. I remind them that I can still take them any day in a wrestling match. They grin and sport a “We wouldn’t want to hurt you; we still need your paycheck” look.

This summer alone, my two oldest are adventuring for work and mission in Los Angeles, Port-Au-Prince, Moscow, and D.C. If he’s lucky, their father might trip off to New Jersey some evening if there’s a little gas remaining in a vehicle. Sure signs of my own middle age on Middle-earth.

That’s all tongue-in-cheek. Really. I’m seriously thrilled my boys are flourishing. And there’s our beloved buzzword. It’s everywhere these days, zooming about in the titles, texts, subtitles, and subtexts of the latest, greatest, brightest, and mightiest of current thinking on the good work and Good News for our desperate world.

“God wants humans to flourish.”

That’s true. I concur that from the earliest pages of the Gospel story to the final shout of Revelation’s victory, God is working for his humans and all creation to experience redeemed flourishing—all for his glory.

But my heart is aching these days for the messy middle where most of us spend so much of life. What about the hard-working entrepreneur whose best-made strategies seem to produce zilch in profits five years in a row? What about the uber-creative, aspiring artist who can’t land an agent or garner more than fifty followers on Twitter? What about my beautiful friend from high school who’s passionately checking off her bucket list as she battles cancer? And there’s my friend serving in that stifling hot, undisclosed location on the other side of the globe, laboring to learn a new language, to make new friends with Muslims and somehow make ends meet—all for the good of Jesus’ kingdom work.

I’ve been reminded lately that this messy middle—the graying, not-so-flourishing places where most of us live most of life—can actually be a very good place. Dusty words from the old prophet Habakkuk supply some beautiful ugly perspective:

“Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.

The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.” —Habakkuk 3:17-19 (KJV)

Such vivid description of NOT flourishing! But right there, Habakkuk made the choice to rejoice and find his strength in the LORD God.

How do we become such joy curators & joy carriers, especially when it feels like we are not flourishing? Here are 7 ideas you might find empowering in the messy middle:

Create more holidays! Recall that holidays were originally HOLY days, like Sabbath and festivals. Why such intentional plans? God himself celebrates, delights, and gushes joy, even at the end of each day of Creation (see Genesis 1-2)!

Celebrate thanksgiving daily, not just in November. Deliberately make lists of situations, people, and provisions for which you are grateful. It’s tough to stay stuck in doom and gloom, pessimism and skepticism, when you are reflecting thanks.

Laugh on wholesome humor. If you need a kick-starter, go watch a couple clips from Michael Jr. or Tim Hawkins on YouTube. Get ready to laugh.

Hang out with joyful people. They are contagious!

Break from your devices. Sometimes, we think we’re not flourishing because we’re stuck playing comparison games with everyone else’s stunningly beautiful lives as portrayed on Fakebook and Instacram. Admit it; you might need a break.

Bless and serve others! There is something SO uplifting, therapeutic, Jesus-like, and joy-producing about deliberately focusing on other people’s needs, interests, and opportunities.

Start now. Choose joy in the present! Psalm 118:24-25 motivates us: “The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad. Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success!” (NIV)

Even in such messy middle, those seasons when it seems like our work and overall life is not flourishing, we can make our bigger discovery—this choice to rejoice. We can find fresh strength in Christ. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll discover there’s actually something new beginning to flourish in our souls!