What Bothered Me Most About THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

Movie lovers have lauded the film. But to put it kindly, I was bothered. Certainly, there are praiseworthy elements. The story itself is captivating and keeps us coming back. How many of us have watched The Greatest Showman now how many times, primarily out of its success in supplying joyous escape? Story guru Robert McKee maintains that a superbly told story “makes time vanish.” McKee declares:

“The story power of a fine play, novel, film or TV series sweeps us through time until the entertainment spell suddenly breaks and we glance at our watch in amazed wonder: ‘Wow, was that three hours?’ Some story-goers plunge back into a much-loved classic for a second, third, or more reliving.”[1]

Such story phenomenon is certainly at work with The Greatest Showman. And of course, the musical score is breathtaking. Choreography is superb, and the brilliant colors on the tonal pallet are nothing short of breathtaking. Some scenes leave you wondering: Is this a film or a painting?

But I was still bothered.

I could readily say I was bothered by the glamorizing of Barnum’s dishonest, shyster ways. Once again, Hollywood successfully convinced us to love and root for a crooked and morally corrupt individual. His business practices were abominable, but viewers find themselves cheering for him. Nevertheless, that is not what most bothered me. Such skillful crafting of characters and a twisting of the audience’s love-hate capacity has been a hallmark of truly great story telling for centuries.

I could stomp my feet, bothered by the liberties that were taken with P.T. Barnum’s actual history. While the movie’s story line lands some threads right and tight, there are numerous points of departure and inaccuracy with the true story of this over-the-Big-Top character. For a wonderfully researched and mesmerizing rendition, read Matthew Goodman. The movie paints the picture of Charity’s family as ultra-snobby, disapproving of Phineas. Solid history reports it was actually the other way around. Mother and other relatives believed that a young man as promising as Phineas “should set his sights higher than a local seamstress.”[2] The list of discrepancies between the film and true Barnum history could go on and on. But that is not my biggest gripe. Movies have been twisting history for many moons.

My genuine, gargantuan gripe comes into play as the story’s tension crests the hill and our Showman’s crisis winds ever tighter. Barnum is wrestling with what’s truly most important. Across his life, P.T. has been constantly seeking to satiate his never-ending thirst for accolades from the upper crust, from highbrow family, from newspaper reporters, and from the ever-fickle adoring fans. Now he has the opportunity to take off on a cross-country concert tour with Jenny Lind, the breathtaking European soloist (who none-too-ironically sings Never Enough.) But could he—would he instead—choose to stay with his ever-faithful circus troupe and his lovely family?

And right here is the real rub, the issue that bothers me most with this movie. The story line strikes a raw nerve for all of us who step onto life’s stage. The issue of “what matters most” is indeed the pressing issue for every leader, every artist, every public speaker, every athlete, and every person in business large or small. At the end of the day to a very real degree, we are all show people. We are faced with the push-and-pull, tug-o-war question: Will I live my life for the applause of the audience, for their approval, for the ratings, and other people’s love?

Jesus actually worked on this issue in the Gospels when confronting the Pharisees—and really all of us. His use of the word hypocrite was borrowed from a descriptive term used of play-actors of the ancient Greek world. The great showmen of the first century wore masks. They were out to impress, to play to the crowds. Jesus’ bottom line wisdom on this issue: “Don’t be like the hypocrites” (Matthew 6:1-6).

I realize the real reason that I am bothered by The Greatest Showman. It hits a nerve; there is a little too much P.T. Barnum in me. And based on the current landscape of humanity, it seems it is true for so many of us as leaders. This is a pressing issue, whether you are the President, a powerful preacher, a top-level executive, a high school student in your first role, a big-name performer, a public speaker, or something of an emerging celebrity at any level in society.

At an extremely poignant pivot in the movie, Phineas’ wife Charity lands the clincher line:

“You don’t need everyone to love you, Phin. Just a few good people.”

It’s the cash money wisdom of the story. When she said it, I gulped. I need to deeply believe that every day. We all need to live in light of it.

And now perhaps I’m ready to see The Greatest Showman again.

[1]Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace. Storynomics. 12/Hatchett Book Group. (New York, 2018), 87.

[2]Matthew Goodman. The Sun and the Moon. Basic Books. (New York, 2008), 104.

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!

 

 

 

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).

Fire and fury, Charlottesville and antifa—Let’s work for STRONGER HATE!

I’m trying to make sense of the whirlwind. From President Trump’s blustery words with Kim Jong-un to the raging supremacists in Charlottesville, it’s been a firestorm of a week.

Gusty words. Murderous vehicles. Voices cry, “Enough is enough. The hate must stop!” And now the antifa are raising their voices AND fists. “This hate must stop,” they shout, “And we know how! We’ll throw punches and obliterate such horrible hate.” Huh? I’m still trying to make sense of the whirlwind. So are you.

In the midst of the storm, I’ve been wrestling with this concept—

I think we need a stronger hatred. I’m serious. Please hear me out. Consider the Apostle Paul’s words:

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope . . . Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all! Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone . . . Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. Romans 12:9-21 (NLT)

It’s wonderfully noble to “hate well.”[1] Hating well means we despise and push back all that is evil in our own hearts and collective conscience. Starting with me, I must vehemently combat the attitudes and actions that promote rank racism, self-consumed vengeance and violence. If there’s any battle to launch, it must start in my own heart.

St. Paul insists that we all CAN work for peace. He calls for genuine love, enthusiastic service, blessings instead of cursing, real-time empathizing, intentional harmonizing, and an everyday willingness to hang out with ordinary people. In these ways and more, we actively “hate evil” and “work for peace.”

Do we grasp the deeper purpose of peace? Additional biblical passages relate the necessity of serious action for Christ-followers, even employing the language of work. Consider these:

Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it. Psalm 34:14 (NLT)

And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare. Jeremiah 29:7 (NLT)

God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9 (NLT)

Do these Scriptures have non-violence and the peaceful resolution of conflict in view? Absolutely. Are these truths applicable for both personal relationships and international affairs? Most certainly!

But do these Scriptures simply present a passive posture? Absolutely not. The core biblical idea behind peace is the robust, action-oriented Hebrew ideal of shalom. Christ’s peace includes redeemed humans actively working for other humans’ flourishing.

Richard Foster correlates: “Shalom embodies the vision of a harmonious, all-inclusive community of loving persons. The great vision of shalom begins and ends our Bible . . . The messianic child to be born is the ‘Prince of Peace,’ and justice and righteousness and peace are to characterize his unending kingdom (Isa. 9:6-7). Central to the dream of shalom is the magnificent vision of all nations streaming to the mountain of the temple of God to be taught his ways and walk in his paths.”[2]

Such Christ-honoring, grace-fueled call to “work for peace” supplies the basis for SO MUCH grace-based work. Christ’s church today is being moved toward—

Stronger collaboration

Rather than rushing to join the saber rattling on “the left” or “the right,” more churches are working harder to actually communicate and motivate for positive change. Stephen Graves affirms: “Collaboration can be a freeway system for the gospel to travel. Non-collaboration can be a disappointing dead end or stifling roadblock.”[3]

Such collaboration begins with a highly personalized, one-person-at-a-time, heart-by-heart approach. Let’s admit it. We all have an encrusted aversion toward those people who are “the others”—those souls and skins who seem so antithetical to our own likes, loves, dislikes, and preferences. In great contrast, collaboration means I cultivate a holy hatred for my personal arrogance, laziness, and disgust for “the others.” Then I move to very deliberately love those people who hold different perspectives, different skin color, and the plethora of preferences that so often fuel my prejudices. Flaming passion for Christ’s mission is a serious antidote for our pandemic of racism. We can each choose to host a meal, join “the others” for coffee, express Christ’s loving message, and intentionally respond to others’ active overtures for conversation.

Strategic innovation toward greater flourishing

More and more churches are working toward Gospel-proclamation through creative, innovative community development. Such development aims for redemptive businesses and more missional workplaces that lead toward economic growth and an overall shalom that’s grounded in Christ’s holistic saving grace. Where this is happening, both globally and in communities near our churches, such innovative work supplies a beautiful picture of counter-intuitive kindness (Romans 12:9-21). Creative discipleship groups join with brighter business plans, producing vibrant, Gospel-motivated movements in communities. Christ’s good news prompts more people to experience greater flourishing—real peace with God and one another.[4]

Herein lies the Christ-like ideal of working to evoke positive change, forward momentum in the lives of people who are in need spiritually, socially, emotionally, and financially. We dare not forget, such real need includes you and me! We are each impoverished, in need of meeting God’s grace on multiple levels. The local church with which I serve has certainly not arrived on these issues of racism, God’s mission, and innovative shalom. Like most churches, we still have miles to go. But we are actively teaching, promoting, and mobilizing for greater one-on-one peace-making as well as stronger regional mission and more thoughtful global impact. Healthier hatred of what’s wrong in our world and our more loving pursuit of peace are rooted deeply in Jesus’ kingdom agenda.

It’s stunning to realize: the Prince of Peace calms the storm and accomplishes his royal work today through us! Let’s thoughtfully hate what is wrong in our world and overcome that evil with love-motivated good works—all for Christ’s glory. And remember—it can start today with just one warm conversation over coffee!

 

 

 

[1]Life guru Henry Cloud expounds this concept in 9 Things You Simply Must Do to Succeed in Life and Love. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 139.

[2]Streams of Living Water (New York: Harper One, 2001), 171.

[3]The Gospel Goes to Work: God’s Big Canvas of Calling and Renewal (Fayetteville, AR: KJK Inc, 2015), 122-123.

[4]For a regional example in south-central PA, see celebratecolumbia.com and on the global scene, explore the amazing work of hopeinternational.org.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Cheesy is Your Job?

I love cheese! In our kitchen, cheese is often employed at all three meals of the day (Yes, even at breakfast on my bagel with an egg and pepperoni). Cheese makes everything taste better! Apparently unbeknown to many of us, we have been sprinkling our spaghetti and meatballs with a bit more than the green and red canisters claim.

Stunning news broke last October. The president of Castle Cheese in Slippery Rock, PA was sentenced to two hundred hours of community service, a five thousand dollar fine, and three years probation. The offense? Her company was caught selling Parmesan cheese that was not fully cheese.

Both the U.S. FDA and IRS raided Castle Cheese’s facility in early 2013 and discovered their products included substitute ingredients such as cellulose, an additive produced from wood pulp. The problem of adulterated cheese is not limited to Castle’s plant. A Bloomberg News report in February 2016 cited broad-based, nationwide test results of various companies claiming to sell 100 percent grated Parmesan. An independent lab found cellulose levels as high as 8.8 percent.[1]

What’s the big deal, besides my gag reflex at the thought of digesting wood chips with my pasta? Why such public outcry and legal proceedings? Two correlating issues are in play, issues that actually hold big personal implications for our own jobs every day.

First, integrity in business is at stake. What do we expect to be produced by a cheese company? Well, um, cheese please. (And though some cellulose supposedly serves as a non-clumping agent, our collective conscience demands that what they say on their label will truly be what they are really selling.) Before we get too high and mighty, judging the cheese makers’ false blend, let’s take stock of our own work products and services. Our customers and clients expect nothing less of our ingenuity, time investments, and relational focus.

Will we step up as leaders, to design and deliver our most creative, thoughtful, and empowering goods and services? We are amazingly created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28) and whatever our daily tasks, we are called to serve the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:23-24). With such divine identity motivating us, there can be an ever-growing uptick in the quality and integrity with which we work.

Second, there’s a crucial link between such authentic excellence and our witness for Christ. Tom Nelson urges us: “The excellence of our work often gives us the credibility to speak of the excellence of our Lord Jesus and to share the good news of the gospel with our coworkers.”[2] We want to be sure that with both our words and our goods, we are serving up beautiful, deliciously genuine helpings of the gospel!

Bottom line: No wood filler in our work.

Let’s make certain our jobs are very cheesy!

 

 

 

 

[1]https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-11/cheese-executive-gets-probation-fine-for-fake-parmesan

[2]Tom Nelson. Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 96.

Paperwork OR Peoplework? You’re probably PARALYZING your productivity!

I was first asked the insidious question many years ago as a student in a leadership workshop: “Which are you?” I naively assumed it was a valid question, a thoughtful call for leadership categorization.

HGTV’s hit show insists their contestants “Love it OR List it.”

People are commonly either “dog people OR cat people.”

As a passionate coffee lover, I often encounter folks who are either “coffee lovers OR tea lovers.” I rarely meet someone who claims allegiance to both beverages. (And anyway, how could a tea lover also appreciate coffee? I say you’re either strong OR wimpy.)

So which are you? Tasks and details-oriented OR people-oriented and more contemplative?

Either-or thinking flows naturally in so many arenas of life. BUT when it comes to work life, I believe our productivity often suffers from such either-or attitudes and actions. We say things like:

“I thrive on relationships and time well-spent with others. C’mon, pour more coffee. Let’s chat, build trust, and bask in the process. But please, I don’t do the administrative stuff.” The result? There’s usually great talk with others, but little if anything actually gets produced.

Another coworker might declare, “Bring on the tasks, strategies, and lists. Divide and conquer! But please, oh please, don’t make me work with other people!” Such go-getter leaders insist: “I push, drive, and accomplish. I’m HIGH D, baby! That’s me. So cut the relational crap. Let’s just get ‘er done!” And what’s the outcome? Great accomplishments abound, but there’s usually a serious body count in the process. (Even if it’s not right away, the carnage happens over time.)

“Tasks and deets” OR “people and contemplation?” Workplace assessments, personality profiles, and job satisfaction surveys often force people into such categorical buckets.

What if God’s view is much more integrated? When we analyze three of Holy Scripture’s hallmark work scenes, we make a unique discovery.

Work Scene 1: In the biblical book of Genesis, chapters 1 and 2, we find a detailed, poetic, methodical list of day-by-day accomplishments. There is no doubt about it—God is orderly and very strategic in sequence. AND in this same report, humans and our subsequent relationships—both with God and one another—prove to be the apex of the Creation encounter (Gen 1:26-2:3). God’s work cannot be tightly filed into either-or folders. God does BOTH.

Work Scene 2: When instructions are given for the building of the Hebrew Tabernacle during the Israelites’ wilderness wandering (Exodus, chapters 25-30), the Lord supplied a serious task list. (Admit it, many of us have lost it right here, our best Bible read-thru momentum has gone up in flames. ZZZZZZ.) We dare not miss the beautiful reality that God’s tedious tabernacle details culminate with a passionate focus on the skilled craftsmen named Bezalel and Oholiab. It was God’s oh-so-personal impartation of his Spirit that empowered them to accomplish their tasks. God’s work cannot be tightly filed into either-or folders. God does BOTH.

Work Scene 3: The Gospel accounts reveal God’s Son, Jesus, working with similar modus operandi. Christ remarkably blended accomplishment of tasks, his focus on details with his priority for people and relational/contemplative cultivation (See Mark’s Gospel, chapter 6, verses 30-44 for Jesus’ both-and blend in this story. Five thousand+ people enjoy an amazing picnic!). The God-Man did both.

If you’re more of a task-oriented person, marvelous! Bridges would collapse without the engineers and code enforcers. Cars and trucks would not make it down the road one mile if we lacked auto designers and mechanics. You rock! Local and global economies would crash without the pencil pushers and number crunchers. God’s work in this world needs you. We need you and your penchant for spreadsheets and schematics. We applaud you!

And there are those of you who are all about the conversations, extended times of deeper contemplation, and fostering dynamic connections. You lunch meeting experts and relational gurus, thank you! You keep us caring, encouraging, feeling, healing, networking, learning, and growing. God’s work in this world needs you. We need you and your bent toward conversing and flourishing with others.

But over the years, I’ve observed: Most of the most effective leaders deliberately develop a skillful blend. They’ve learned to do the dance between details and people. They resist the bog-down and paralysis that often comes with either-or thinking. How can we do that in our own businesses and workplace leadership?

  • Push back against your own either-or thinking. You’re seriously limiting your own potential and the productivity of your business when you willingly decide it has to be either-or. Instead, embrace attitudes and daily patterns that involve both strategic tasks AND loving conversations with people. Dare to embrace this bolder, image-of-God reality. You CAN do both!
  • Don’t aim for perfect balance in this crucial leadership choice. Balance is a ridiculous pursuit. Instead, shoot for a God-like blend, skillfully choosing between people and tasks as opportunities emerge. Since the Lord is our ultimate example of a creative leader and flourishing worker, let’s dare to cultivate such a tasks-people blend in our workplace approaches.
  • If you’re more task-oriented, deliberately schedule more people time. Hans Finzel warns us about “putting paperwork before peoplework.” (The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make, chapter 2) When you create greater margin for relational cultivation and reflective contemplation, you’ll likely see an exponential increase in your quality of connectedness with others and subsequent productivity in teamwork.
  • People sometimes ask me how I get so much done while being strongly relational in my approach. I smile and tell them my secret weapon. I make aggressive task lists. Now because I personally bristle at the thought of being too task-oriented, I label my uber-full weekly list as “OPPORTUNITIES this Week.” (You’re probably chuckling and calling me out: “Okay, Pletch is crazy—just playing a semantics game.” But hey, it works for me. Really!) And the silver bullet is this: My “OPPORTUNITIES” list always includes more people with whom I’m aiming to connect, equip, and cultivate.

What have you found best helps you push back the either-or approach and more fully live out God’s beautiful blend of details and people?  

Dishes and Crosses—Is your work ever done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Bigger Reason You Should Be Worked Up About Beauty and the Beast

I heard all the hoopla leading up to its release. Segments of conservative Christianity were crying, “BOYCOTT!” because of the inclusion of a gay character. I’ve never been one for blindly joining anti-cultural bandwagons, so naturally I concluded I would need to see for myself. “What’s the big scuttle? Is there actually reason to be worked up?”

I went curious but prepared for some level of humdrum. I anticipated saying to myself, “They took the oh-so-familiar story and dressed it with ultra-realistic techno wizardry. Okay. That was kind of cool. And oh yea, they pushed the gay agenda.” I expected to be underwhelmed.

Instead, as our family settled in for the late-afternoon show, I found myself marvelously entertained, enthralled by the amazing cinematography. I was thoroughly captivated by characters, color, musical score, and brilliant pacing. Yes, a character was portrayed as ever-so-subtly gay, but I found myself wondering, “Would I really pick up on that if I wasn’t looking for him?” In actuality, this 2017 version seemed less sultry in male-female interaction than the old cartoon. I thought, “Wow! Less cleavage and sexual innuendo—why weren’t Christians applauding this cleaned up rendition?”

But there’s actually a bigger issue that deeply disturbed me. I’m stunned no one has yet cried out about such a pressing, flagrantly obvious theme.

All across this “tale as old as time,” the castle’s one-time-workers—now cursed household furniture, décor, and dishware—have been actively serving to orchestrate true love, attempting to reverse the curse, both for the Beast and their own existence. Toward the climax, the final rose petal has dropped, the Beast has been shot, and the great castle’s curse is culminating. Very soon, all will be permanently immobile and forever lifeless. The scenes are heavy, dark, and sad with regret. Love has not been found. The characters will be trapped, frozen in place, and lost forever.

With just moments remaining, Cogsworth the Clock and Lumiere the Candlestick realize the end is near. All along, they have been gradually losing their humanity, becoming harder, less functional and life-like. As they are about to lose all mobility and their ability to speak, Lumiere proclaims, “It’s been an honor to serve with you, Cogsworth.” In the next beats, every character stands still. All faces and motion vanish. The Beast has died, and his entire household is now still as stone.

Must confess, I was gushing tears in the theater’s darkness. (Yes, I can be a sentimental schmuck if a story deeply grabs me.) Truth be told, my soul was ambushed by the parallels, having said goodbye to several close family and friends in recent years. Such depiction of the solemnity of the curse caught me off guard. Suddenly, I was crying all over again about losing Dad, losing Grandma, as well as just recently saying farewell to Sherilyn and Bob in our church family. And I was also deeply soul-moved—extremely worked up by something bigger. I knew what was coming.

So do you. As Belle weeps over the Beast and confesses her true love, Agathe the Enchantress revives the rose. Love wins, blowing the mighty winds of change. The Beast rises and is marvelously transformed into the Prince once again. Then one by one, every character including Cogsworth and Lumiere come back to glorious life, now fully human once again. People who had been estranged for many years are reunited, now fully alive and joyfully dancing.

In the theater’s darkness, I was bawling once again. As tears gushed, I felt my chair shaking. These were tears of triumph, born of oft-forgotten, albeit vitally important workplace theology. Truth be told, this scene marvelously portrays a dusty concept known as transformatio mundi. It’s Latin for the eschatological belief that with the end-times arrival of New Heavens and New Earth, all will be cleansed, fully transformed. All of “the house” will be renewed, gloriously redeemed—all of Creation, including the servants, believers in Christ Jesus along with their grace-motivated, God-glorifying work (Ephesians 2:8-10; Romans 8). Very closely related is the marvelous concept of resurrection. Christ rose in his new, physical body, fully alive. His own work of gracious salvation and bodily resurrection supply the first taste and the precious promise of such bodily resurrection for every human who by faith trusts in Him (1 Corinthians 15).*

Gracious, selfless love. The curse reversed, resurrection, and powerful transformation. Please tell me again why conservative Christians cried, “Boycott!” Hours after seeing the movie, I’m still gloriously disturbed. Instead of sporting a grumpy outlook over a possible gay character, I wish we would be worked up by the resurrection message so marvelously portrayed by such a movie. We could be motivated to persevere in our daily good work in God’s kingdom. After all, we know what’s coming. The house and servants will not stay cursed. It’s Gospel. Gracious love wins. There’s glorious transformation yet to come.

But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. (1 Corinthians 15:57-58)

*For further reading on these provocative concepts, grab a copy of Darrell Cosden’s The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work.