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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flieger and Anderson supply commentary:

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Catching Fresh Creativity Amidst Fall Colors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make time for story time!

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

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

Go play!

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

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

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

Take big cues from your Creator!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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).

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.

 

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).

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!