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.

The Messy Middle—When You’re NOT Flourishing

Flourishing or not

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, my two oldest adventured for work and mission in Los Angeles, Port-Au-Prince, Moscow, and D.C. If he’s lucky these days, 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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joy at Work

Here’s a quick excerpt from my new book, Henry’s Christmas: A Story for Discovering God’s Joyous Work at Advent. ENJOY this chapter!

Back on the road, Zach was driving extra-cautious. After the incident last week, he couldn’t help but feel a bit apprehensive maneuvering through such a mix of sleet and freezing rain. He turned the knob on Henry’s old retro radio and started scanning. This required an old-fashioned, tiny turn of the knob instead of auto-scan.

“Better see if we can catch a weather update,” Zach explained. All he could find was Christmas music, so he landed the dial on one of Philly’s easy listening, pop stations.

“I find Noni’s proper manner and careful words to be so mysteriously captivating. What did you think of her?” Mags asked.

“She’s fine—very fine. It’s the great grandson I can’t stand.” Now it was out there, and not an ounce of question dangled in Mags’ mind regarding what Zach might think of him.

Mags feigned a smile. “Now, Zachary, have a little charity. He’s really not all that bad a fellow. I think you need to give him some time. Perhaps he’ll grow on you.”

“Perhaps you’re right.” Zach realized that he’d said too much. “But then even mold can grow on you.” He chuckled at his own wit but started quickly recalculating. “Anyway, his great grandmother’s description about joy was certainly intriguing. I’ve never thought about joy as a deep choice of gladness, rooted in God’s gracious work in and through us. And it just makes sense that such an attitude change is exactly what your dad is experiencing.”

“Yes, I think you’re right, Zach.” They both noticed that the wintry mix had begun to lessen in intensity. The traffic was moving at a bit steadier pace. Henry was handling the road famously.

“What’s amazing is also what Noni said about joy being contagious. It’s been true in my own life. Because your dad’s overall tone has been more joyful, my week has been more positive and productive. And this thought hits me, Mags.” Zach was speaking with excitement in his voice. “Joy is mentioned by Apostle Paul as one of the Holy Spirit’s fruits—one of those outcomes, a byproduct of living a Christ-honoring, loving, kingdom-oriented life.”

“That’s a sweet connection, awesome strands of truth weaving together,” Mags concurred. “And something else. Think about this! Oh wow—” She said it with that just-connected-the-dots, eureka tone in her voice. “Joy to the World. It’s possibly the foremost, seriously famous Christmas carol of all time.”

“Yep, great point, Mags.” Zach was nodding and still gripping the wheel very tight.

“But contemplate several of the key lines.” Mags softly sang: Let earth, receive her King…. No more let sin and sorrow roam, nor thorns, infest the ground…. He comes to make his blessing known…. far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found.” As she was singing it, Zach realized that she had inched her way across Henry’s bench seat. They were almost shoulder-to-shoulder again.

“Wow!” Zach exclaimed. “Several ideas are zinging my way. Here’s the kingdom anticipation all over again, much like Doc Ben and I were talking about in the church café. The King has arrived, so his kingdom has been inaugurated. Of course, it’s not fully here yet. There’s so much more to come! But it has begun.”

“I think I’m following, but you’re saying it like there’s more,” Mags coaxed him.

“Yes, here’s more of that impetus, a big-time motivation to reverse the curse. Doc Ben insists that it’s not simply a matter of Christ himself having come to create such a curse-reversing effect. Yes, the Father’s planning and sending of his son is certainly exceptional work. But as his kingdom citizens, it’s also now our role to work to accomplish royal new things that reverse the curse. We can be—we should be—bringing greater joy to the world as we actively lead in endeavors and serve others.”

“Oh, boy, I’m getting it!” Mags exclaimed. “I’m wondering how I’ve missed this all along.”

“Ah, don’t feel bad, Mags. We’ve all missed it. We readily enjoy the Christmas tunes, which are great, but we seldom slow down enough to actually process the biblical messages that can be seen in the lyrics.”

“So if we play this out, more people can experience this genuine, deep joy when you design really good buildings, and I care for pets and their owners with exceptional service. Right?” Mags was checking her trail of thinking. Zach was nodding and smiling.

“And the curse is reversed—more joy spreads across the world—as researchers discover new treatments for disease, as entrepreneurial farmers develop bright, eco-sensitive methods of producing even more food for the hungry world, and as teachers cultivate young minds.” Zach was on a roll.

“Of course, don’t forget, great car guys reverse the curse and bring a lot of joy when they turn wrenches, repair, and restore vehicles. Can you imagine our world today without the likes of a Henry?” Mags patted the dash, as if she were petting her favorite canine. Zach shook his head and rolled his eyes.

joyinwork-henry-ford

“It is rather amazing,” Zach reflected, “to realize that every Christmas season puts up a great big sign—a virtual billboard, really—reminding us of how the King has arrived, and we can be busy doing kingly, joy-filled, world-changing work as citizens in the kingdom.”

Ironically, in that very moment, Josh Groban’s version of Joy to the World began playing on Henry’s classic, silver-knob radio. “Okay, what are the chances of that? Is that cool or what?” Mags chimed in enthusiastically. “Gives me goose bumps!”

“Odds are actually pretty strong that someone’s rendition of that song would be played during our hour-long trek out of the city, when you consider that after all, it IS Christmastime, Mags.” It was Zach’s extra-realistic sarcasm, at his finest.

“Okay, you don’t have to be such a killjoy, Zachary David. You, ever the rational, uber-analytical, would of course insist on ruining my moment.” She smirked and pushed away from him just enough to slug him in the arm. But then she moved even closer and put her head on his shoulder for the final stretch of the journey back to Valley Forge. In that moment, Zach concluded without a doubt that this evening was ending with immense joy.

There’s still time to get your copy of the full story, Henry’s Christmas—including reflection questions! It can be purchased through Amazon, CrossLink Publishing, Hearts and Minds Bookstore, and other favorite booksellers. For inquiries on purchasing multiple copies at a quantity discount for a class, small group, or gift bundle, please contact me directly at johnp@manorchurch.org. Big blessings & joy for your season!

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Discover your most joyous Christmas ever!

henryschristmaslargefront

My new book, Henry’s Christmas, is rolling off the press in the next few weeks!

It’s an adventuresome Christmas tale—destined to carry you beyond the daily work stressors, relational turmoil, financial fears, and family feuds so typical during this season. Take a marvelous journey with Zach, Maggie, and old Henry.

Join an action-packed, insightful journey with this set of colorful, current-day characters. Meet the original cast of biblical characters from the ancient Advent scenes, and discover faith-filled courage, kingdom anticipation, jubilant joy, and gracious generosity. Suspense, romance, theology, and mystery combine in this compelling story, helping us discover God’s greater purpose and mission in our workplaces and families during the Christmas season.

Designed for personal inspiration, family Advent reading, or use in your small group or Sunday school class, this story is conveyed through twenty-five fast-paced chapters, grouped into four weeks, with a set of discussion questions and recommended exercises included with wrap-up of each week’s section.

Official release date is November 14, but be watching for pre-order links, being posted during the coming week.

Grab this engaging resource and encounter your own joy-filled transformation in your workplace and family life this Advent!

Gobbling Leaves and the Work of Gratitude

Thanksgiving—Leaves

Our Golden Retriever, Brody, does the goofiest dance while outside walking on blustery fall days. Gusts of wind toss leaves up the road, and my crazy canine chases them—as if they are squirrels—snapping at them, as if to eat them up. Brody is a leaf gobbler. He has munched leaves since he was a puppy. People told us he would grow out of it. He’s now six years old, and he still chases and chomps on fall foliage. When not gobbling, Brody loves to leap in large leaf piles that line our street. (Did I mention he also chases and chews on his own tail? Yes, we’ve affectionately dubbed him the dingbat dog.) Whether it’s gobbling or leaf pile jumping, Brody delights in the leaves.

While the dog is totally thrilled with the leaves, it’s a different story for the humans. The neighborhood is abuzz these days with a cacophony of blowers, rakes, and mowers. We’re handling the leaves with backbreaking labor, often necessitating a hearty dose of Advil at evening’s end.

Honestly, if I’m not careful, all of the fall cleanup can easily leave me grumpy, leaning way more in the direction of a grumbling heart instead of a grateful-as-a-Golden, joy-filled soul. Under the burden of such tedious tasks, I can allow my attitude to downward-spiral into disgust, discontent, and overall disgruntled feelings. Instead of glowing with Brody-like delight and gratitude, I can wallow in deplorable grumbling.

Deep down inside, you probably realize it. These attitudinal issues are not unique to the fall season’s yard work. They creep into our everyday workplaces, meetings, and projects. Our offices, corporate road trips, and bustling stock rooms can become the breeding grounds of sour moods, discontent, whining, and griping. We can slide into self-talk that is utterly dismal:

“So much to do, so little time.”

“Why do I have to work with these Debbie Downers?—what a negative environment!”

“If only I had a better team . . .”

“If only I made a bigger paycheck . . .”

“Why can’t I work different hours?”

“If only I could land my dream job . . .”

“If only the boss really knew how much I’m worth . . .”

“If only I received a surprise inheritance or won the lottery . . .”

We seldom set out to deliberately adopt such pervasive and debilitating outlooks, but they soak into our psyches, take deep-reaching root, and end up holding a pervasive sway that keeps us from flourishing in attitudes and actions.

‘Top of this decade, Charles Shelton of Regis University wrote The Gratitude Factor[1], winsomely encouraging people to give thanks for their work, recreation, relationships, and other everyday experiences—recognizing that all our daily events actually flow from God’s grace. Shelton encourages a disciplined exercise of thankfulness, including a “daily gratitude inventory.” Great progress can be made in our perspective when we orient our thankfulness toward others, their gifts, and their unique contributions within our community.

“Gratitude is the antidote to the ‘grumpies’, the ‘gimmes’, and the ‘gotta-haves’!”

What might happen if we each more strategically applied the gratitude factor in our daily work? What if we chose to say, “Immense thanks, Lord, for this current job. Right now, it’s very challenging, but I’m trusting you to grow my tenacity and character.” Or if we honestly reflect, “I’m often easily frustrated, Lord, by my quirky coworkers and ferociously feisty clients, but upon further reflection, my life might be rather boring without them. Seriously, I am choosing to thank you for them! AND I thank you for opportunities to bless them and help them encounter your grace.” Or perhaps you’d say, “Father, I’ll admit, I wish I made more money, but there are thousands of people ‘round the globe who would love to earn what I do. I am so grateful I have work and an income!”

The Apostle Paul urges us: “Be joyful always . . . give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

So, this evening as I’m raking, I’m going to intentionally switch it up. I’ll aim to be invigorated in the gusts of wind and to joyfully dive into my leafy labors. As I do, I’ll be joining God’s will—what he so deeply wants—my more intentional movement toward a grateful heart!

With a Brody-like outlook, gratitude can work greater joy and more confident faith in each of us. Let’s go gobble and dance in the leaves!
Brody and Leaves

[1]Charles Shelton, The Gratitude Factor: Enhancing Your Life through Grateful Living. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2010.

Brighter Bulbs for Christmas Busyness

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‘Frazzled and burned out by holiday business’ busyness? Perhaps the long string of tasks on ye ‘ole yuletide list has you feeling less than merry and bright. Consider these concepts to brighten your season!

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“A steal of a deal—just five bucks!” Dad heralded his find with great triumph. “But Ken, it looks like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.” Mom voiced honest disappointment. Christmas 1978—money was tight, so even the five dollar tree was a splurge. Mom did her best to brighten the dismal tannenbaum, banishing its sparse side to stand in the corner. For filler, she crammed our entire ornament collection onto the branches. Along with stapled construction paper chains, we wrapped the sad stick with every last string of lights we owned. It was brilliant—vintage, old school, multi-colored, glass bulbs—fat, bright, and most certainly a fire hazard. Mom was apprehensive so I was tasked with fastidiously checking each bulb. Some light strings shot sparks, so they got pitched. Strands that merely flickered were retrofitted. Looking back, it is nothing short of a Christmas miracle that our house did not go up in flames.

Amid Yuletide’s stress of extra deadlines, the rush and push to deliver products, and the craziness of added customer expectations, we can all feel frazzled. Perhaps you sense your personal “light strings” are flickering, sparking, or even going dark. Consider these brighter bulbs for the busyness of your Christmas business.

Joyful Bulbs

In whatever field you work this season, consider anew the heart of Christmas. The heavenly messenger’s declaration to Bethlehem shepherds at work that eve included “good news of great joy, for all people.” God was thinking of us, you and me in the “all people” to experience this business of joy. On any given day, we cannot control our circumstances, but we can choose our attitudes. We can slow down enough to pray prayers of peace, both for ourselves and for others. Take a deep breath. You can plug into Christ’s deep and jubilant joy.

Excellence Bulbs

Under pressure, up against deadlines, it seems easier to settle for second best. What if instead, you determine this will be the season you and your coworkers serve up the greatest care and most stellar products for your customers, to the glory of God? Wayne Grudem uses shoe production as one example: “When we produce pairs of shoes to be used by others, we demonstrate love. . . If we do this, as Paul says, working heartily, ‘as for the Lord and not for men’ (Col. 3:23), and if our hearts have joy and thanksgiving to God . . . then God delights to see his excellent character reflected in our lives, and others will see something of God’s character in us as well. Our light will ‘shine before others, that that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 5:16).”[1]

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Brighter, Difference-making Bulbs

Attitudes, speech, and ethics can run amok in busy seasons. Writing to the first-century Philippians, the Apostle Paul urges: “Do everything without complaining or arguing . . . as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people” (Phil. 2:14-15). Michael Baer explains: “Christians live in a dark world that is filled with corruption, sin, and unethical behavior. Their presence is to be in bold contrast to their surroundings. In place of darkness, they are light; in place of corruption, they are purity; in place of immorality, they are brilliant reflections of the moral character of God.”[2]

The season’s rush, fatigue, pressure, and over-the-top expectations have a way of evoking our most critical outlooks and caustic spirits. Instead, Christ’s workers aim to be extraordinary for Christ’s glory. We resist the tantalizing temptation to cheat, slouch, slime, or cut corners of any kind. As difference-makers, we trade grumbles and gripes for the radiance of grace.

Our family still chuckles over Dad’s tree of ‘78. Despite its misshapen branches, gaping holes, and flickering lights, it now magnificently glows in our fond memories. No matter how frayed, pushed, fearful, or stressed your Christmas seems this year, you can choose joy, plug in excellence, and make a brilliant difference for Christ!

[1]Wayne Grudem, “How Business in Itself Can Glorify God,” On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions through Entrepreneurial Strategies. (Crossway Books: Wheaton), 133.

[2]Michael R. Baer, Business As Mission: The Power of Business in the Kingdom of God. (YWAM Publishing: Seattle), 133.