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.

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.

 

 

Bourdain, Spade, and Denethor—Loving Parts Unknown and Known

He was so skilled, such a stunning character. We are so sad—so deeply sad. What more can be said?

Our collective emotion was rocked this week as more amazingly talented creators—high profile leaders—chose their own exit. We feel such sorrow together.

What more should be said?

My reading and training on grief have coached me to say nothing. Less is more. Remain silent. Do not preach or dispense advice. Simply grieve with the grieving.

And under almost every circumstance, I concur. Indeed, we pray comfort and divine hope for family and friends. We live ever-cognizant of the heartache of mental illness and the struggle of addiction. Ours is a pulsing grief, oft best unspoken. Together, our hearts ache.

Albeit for a moment, indulge me. Perhaps lean into a shade more reflection. I am compelled to break from the normal silence of our society’s prescribed, safe decorum. When we witness such a sad avalanche of remarkable people, it seems that some further commentary might be appropriate. Perhaps, a few next level thoughts might prove helpful to someone. And we join together in confessing, there are still parts both known and unknown.

I shall not engage in diatribe against the supposed emptiness of the splendidly wealthy and the wickedly successful movers and shakers of current culture. Over my years, I have seen too much. Suicide regularly claims the upper crust as well as the best of us lower crumbs. She plays no favorites in her deceptive malice. Life’s pressure, pain, and resulting hopelessness are no respecter of persons.

In the wake of Anthony and Kate’s self-determined exits, my mind has been moved with sadness. And I am drawn into a Tolkien scene and several correlating truths. Beware. This scene happens far from the Shire but not yet Mordor. We find Gandalf and Pippin in one of the dreadful, messy middle places of Middle-earth, the Citadel of Gondor during the apex of the Battle.

He was so skilled, such a stunning character. Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, had served many years as the ruler of the city and surrounding parts, both known and unknown. Overwhelmed by the Shadow and Sauron’s dark influence, this long-time leader chose to do the unthinkable.

With great haste, Pippin desperately explained to Gandalf: ‘Denethor has gone to the Tombs, and he has taken Faramir, and he says we are all to burn, and he will not wait, and they are to make a pyre and burn him on it, and Faramir as well. And he has sent me to fetch wood and oil.’

Denethor’s son, Faramir, had been wounded in battle, a wound the father assumed to be fatal. Gandalf and Pippin raced to the house of the dead in an attempt to rescue both father and son. They rushed in, and we read: “Denethor stepped backward before Gandalf as one amazed.”

Gandalf and Denethor engaged in a volley of heated argument. Denethor declared: ‘Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer?’ The old wise guide responded, attempting with all his might to clear the crazed perspective. O if he might talk even an ounce of sense into the frazzled leader.

‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death…only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.’

Here is one powerfully germane, highly potent statement from the Wizard’s lips. Before we quickly shrug, shake our heads, and dub this as insensitive, provincial, or even judgmental, let us ponder the depth of Tolkien’s analysis.

Gandalf was drawing from the deep recesses of his memory, reaching back to ancient times in earlier ages when rulers chose to exit life of their own accord. His analysis was profound. The root cause was a dark blend of pride and despair. They allowed Dark Power to get the better of them. (Catch the rest of the story in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chapter 7.)

But notice this standout statement: Authority is not given to you…to order the hour of your death. Tolkien was very deliberately conveying through the wise lips of Gandalf his own world and life view. Humans are ultimately accountable to their Creator. From Tolkien’s perspective, to think otherwise is a misguided, under-the-Shadow, yes even arrogant perspective. When the leading persons of a culture arrive at believing they hold the authority to decide when they shall depart, they are beguiled by “pride and despair.” But Tolkien does not end with diagnosis. In typical Tolkien style, there is hope and wonderful good news.

Gandalf’s next words to Denethor conveyed so much: ‘Come! We are needed. There is much that you can yet do.’ He called the Steward of Gondor to recognize his important stewardship. He called him to humbly recognize his sacred calling and how much he was needed.

We must all remember, even in our darkest moments:

The choice is not our own. Yes, this runs contra popular, pervasive perspective, the groundswell of societal opinion. Misguided, we think we should rule our own entrance and exit. Sadly, we are now slogging through the Shadows of such dark thinking.

We are needed. There are still friends, coworkers, clients, precious children and spouses who do indeed need you to stay in the battle. Choose to stay. Please choose to stay!

There is much we can still do. There are new parts and places to go—both known and unknown. There are fresh meals to create and taste. New people to meet and bless. There are fashions to still make, meetings to lead, and products to create. There is Good News to share, bad news to battle through, and love to spread profusely.

We all battle with our own blend of pride and despair. We all have demons, addictions, and old enemies. Amidst the voices of dark despair, may we listen instead to the voice of Gandalf and ultimately our Creator. Hear him say: You are not your own. You are loved.  You are not alone. COME! You are needed.  There is much that you can yet do. There is hope!

 

 

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 Most Dangerous Side to Your Most Wonderful Work

“That’s marvelous!” I’ve heard people say it upon beholding an antique oak chair I refinished. And I’ve relished the comment.

“Wow, you are delivering a beautiful product!” If you are keeping your promises for clients, you’ve heard someone say it. And you’ve rejoiced.

It is good to deliver good goods and services, especially ones of exceptional quality. We should strive for excellent, stunning products and strong customer satisfaction. Yes indeed, we the workers can enjoy the solid satisfaction that comes with a healthy sense of accomplishment. Recognition of personal satisfaction in one’s labors is enriching.

BUT there’s a very sneaky, slippery, dangerous side to your best products and services, those times you are at the top of your game and “killing it” with your most wonderful work.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s foundational masterpiece, The Silmarillion, Fëanor, the firstborn of the renowned leader, Finwë, was remarkably gifted in multiple faculties of both mind and hands. This precious son Fëanor excelled in the design of lingual letters, Elvish script as well as the crafting of precious gems. Tolkien’s ancient tale reveals a brilliant, ambitious young man who was also stubborn, fiery, and self-absorbed. Today, we would sum up his sad family-of-origin by saying he was a spoiled-rotten, doted-on-by-daddy brat. (Tolkien conveyed Fëanor’s headstrong condition with much grander, loftier literary language, of course.)

The zenith of Fëanor’s craftsmanship was the famed Silmarils, three great jewels. Their outer body was a mysteriously strong substance, “like the crystal of diamond it appeared.” But there was more to these gems, a quality that set them apart as most marvelous: they possessed an inner fire. Tolkien explained: “…Fëanor made [that inner fire] of the blended light of the Trees of Valinor.” His clients and contacts loved his work. “All who dwelt in Aman were filled with wonder and delight at the work of Fëanor.”

Such public acclaim was indeed wonderful. At times, the gifted young craftsman would bring out the gems to show them off, even wearing them on his brow at great feasts. But many other times, they were locked away in his deep chambers.

The slippery-of-soul portion of this oh-so-talented young man’s story comes in Tolkien’s poignant explanation of his behavior: “For Fëanor began to love the Silmarils with a greedy love, and grudged the sight of them to all save his father and his seven sons.”

And the deeper Tolkien revelation of the golden boy’s dark intent: “…he seldom remembered now that the light within them was not his own.”

As the story continues, Fëanor’s reactions impacted his closest family and the wider community in devastating ways. There was a train wreck of epic proportions.

Herein lies a flaming, pervasive issue, not exclusive to this ancient, most-renowned worker of the Elves. Perhaps you cringed upon reading Tolkien’s narrative critique of Fëanor’s heart. I personally winced because one-too-many times, deep inside the darkest chambers of my soul, I have indulged in similar slippery self-aggrandizing:

  • “Wow, that was an amazing project. People showed up and applauded. Am I good, or what?!”
  • “Our team is delivering in remarkable ways, and it’s because of my brilliant leadership. What would they do without me?!”
  • “Those were certainly dang-good lines I just wrote in that story—high take-home value for folks. Man, the light I just shed on that topic, wow. I’m so good.”

You can likely fill in your own “fiery light of my Silmarils” moments, those times you’ve soaked up a bit too much of the glory and lost sight of the source of the light.

How can we counteract such over-estimation of our own wonderful works?

First, remember that it truly takes a team to make something wonderful. Spread the thanks!

If Fëanor had recalibrated his own thoughts, he might have remembered that during his youth, he honed skills for his craft from his father-in-law, Mahtan. Mahtan was “among the Noldor most dear to Aulë.” Aulë was the leading Valar from whom originated “the lore of all craftsmen.” If Fëanor had engaged his memory, he would have also recalled that Aulë’s wife, Yavanna, was the singer and maker of the Two Trees of Valinor—those trees that supplied the precious inner light of the Silmarils.

G.K. Chesteron famously said: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

If we each slow down to take stock, we will realize that we always stand on others’ broad shoulders, both now and in the past. Someone trained you. Someone poured into you in your early days. Several current team members have burned the late-night oil to help bring that product or project to fruition. So, remember them. Speak up and spread your gratitude! Send the note. Express words of thanks at the next party. To whom do you need to say greater “thanks” today?

Second, recall the ultimate source of your fire. Offer up praise!

Yes, Fëanor forgot that the brilliance of the Silmarils came from those shining trees. Ironically, Fëanor’s name meant “Spirit of Fire.” We might conclude that his most dangerous amnesia was this: He forgot that his own fire for creative crafting was a gracious, primal gift from his Creator, Ilúvatar. Long years before, regarding the first created beings the Ainur, Ilúvatar said, “And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers…” Many years later during the Noontide of the Blessed Realm, Tolkien explained: “Fëanor grew swiftly, as if a secret fire were kindled within him.”

When we have produced our own “Silmarils”—that stunning new house, the published and praised poem, a game-winning touchdown pass, or a record month of sales—it is crucial to recall the Creator from whom our fire and creative spark originated. When we intentionally praise our Creator, we stay healthy, rightsized, and ready to produce even more wonderful works in the days to come!

 

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!