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Will we see people with greater wonder?

Streaming tears. Yes, I will own them. Each time I’ve watched Wonder—the movie based on R.J. Palacio’s award-winning novel—I’ve been ambushed by this oh-so-moving story.

Born with a genetic disorder, Auggie’s little body required multiple surgeries. He wears his astronaut helmet because his face is distorted, even after plastic surgery. Auggie and his loving family live in Brooklyn. Originally taught at home, he’s finally sent to school in fifth grade. With helmet off, Auggie faces the full range of staring, pity, mockery, and bullying by kids. This amazing story traces Auggie’s school year, along with his parents, his sister Via, and his struggling friend Jack Will. We encounter stunning twists and turns revealing how people see Auggie and how Auggie sees everyone else.

The bulk of my daily work involves seeing and serving suffering people, deeply in need of help. If you ponder your own projects and tasks, you’ll likely conclude that’s true for most of us. From financial planners to nurses and doctors, school teachers to store clerks, automotive technicians, physical therapists and pastors, we major in helping all sorts of people. Precious people with very special needs, capabilities, disabilities, heartaches, hang-ups, hopes, and dreams.

Many days, our most pressing question becomes:

How will I see the person or group of people in my path? Will I see people more deeply, beyond my face-value, knee-jerk reaction?

The local church where I serve as lead pastor aims to love others with Christ-style love. Our aim is based on Jesus’ holistic call to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). That means our planning and behind-the-scenes efforts often involve strategizing endeavors for people who are experiencing physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, and mental suffering. Then our very public, weekly events, gatherings, and services include active interface with those precious people.

Every Sunday, a host of people greet me, including multiple individuals with special needs, pressing health crises, and emotional distress. They long for encouragement, a listening ear, affirmation, prayer, a dose of genuine good news, directional wisdom, and practical help. I am regularly challenged with this foundational attitude choice: Will I see them as too different, unique, other and awkward? Will I glance their way, feel uncomfortable, and say to myself, “Yikes! Let’s move along now. Look away. Let’s shift focus to the ‘normal’ and ‘beautiful’ people!” OR will I truly and deeply see the precious people in my path?

During Auggie’s wonder story, especially poignant are the moments in Mr. Browne’s homeroom. This oh-so-wise teacher places a monthly precept on the board. September’s is:

“When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

In Palacio’s book, Mr. Browne’s May precept is from John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”

Masterfully and subtly, Wonder’s screenplay writers wove the issue of how characters truly see one another all throughout the film. Auggie’s potential new friend, Jack Will, struggles with peer pressure from other boys who don’t want to hang out with Auggie. Jack vacillates between befriending him and bullying him like the other kids do. Eventually, Jack reveals his own true feelings about Auggie: “You get used to his face . . . He’s really good at science, and I really do want to be his friend.”

Mr. Tushman, the seasoned school principal, says something so stunning during his office confrontation with the bully Julian and his haughty parents. He challenges them: “Auggie can’t change the way he looks. Maybe we can change the way we see.”

A wrap-up concept near the movie’s end nails it:

“If you really want to see who people are, all you have to do is look.”

How do you see people with whom you work? Your clients, coworkers, and employees, especially those who are suffering or just different in light of their disabilities and special needs? I am moved by the divine work of seeing people, really seeing them. At the biblical culmination of creation, right after God crafts humans, we read:

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31a).

Scene after scene during Jesus’ ministry here on earth, we read:

“When Jesus saw __________ . . .” (Matthew 5:1, 8:14, 9:22, 14:14 plus numerous others).

When Jesus saw all sorts of people with all sorts of needs, the result was always some deliberate action, instruction, or other form of loving service in response. All because of seeing people via deeper outlook.

Let’s slow our steps, fix our gaze, and savor conversation. Let’s ask better questions, hear people’s stories, and gush kind affirmation. Folks are full of hopes, hurts, special needs, and yes, setbacks, missteps, mistakes, struggles, and heartache. But they also possess such powerful potential to display wondrous love and real joy. As we really see people, we’ll recognize more of God’s image and what a wonder people truly are.

O how I need greater doses of divine sight for all my interaction with others. Let’s see each person we encounter with fresh wonder this week!

Two Lincoln Lessons this Presidents Day

From the impeachment trial in Washington to the scandal in New York State, we continue to struggle to find solid examples of upstanding, intentional leadership. These are desperate days. We need leaders marked by thoughtful integrity, thorough goodness, and hearts deliberately set on genuinely serving others.

With so much bad news lately, I have forced myself to reflect, to search and ponder some potential good news this Presidents Day. I find myself aiming to recall more positive lessons from past leaders.

Let’s revisit two lessons from Abraham Lincoln’s leadership, insights that emerge even amidst desperately negative circumstances.

Lincoln leveraged solid self-awareness of his own dark side.

His contemporaries—those people around him during early political days as well as those surrounding his presidency—all knew his capacity to convey a glum, weighted down demeanor. He would often retreat on his own with a furrowed brow in order to puzzle over problems or brood on dilemmas. He was known for projecting heaviness and a somber tone, so much that some historians have labeled Lincoln’s malaise as depression. However, Doris Kearns Goodwin has aptly deduced his outlook as melancholy instead.[1]

And here’s what’s remarkable: Lincoln knew this dismal personal penchant. He also knew how to leverage his melancholy for the greater good. Lincoln did two things in light of such self-awareness. First, he told stories, often humorous, witty ones. In such story crafting, he was typically successful at lifting his own spirit as well as the tone and overall outlook of those whom he was leading.

Second, he allowed his melancholy outlook to fuel deeper empathy. Historians recognize that much of Lincoln’s political success came via his uncanny ability to identify with the hurts and needs of his constituents. Having deeply pondered and felt their pain, he could then plan and plot a stronger platform of service.

Lincoln was also skillful at leveraging his melancholy in order to anticipate his political opponent’s next move. Sometimes he would do this well in advance of the other party’s action and the resulting public news. Such self-awareness and skillful ability to leverage his melancholy mood for the greater good proved marvelously helpful. Lincoln actually strengthened his leadership influence with intentional use of his known tendency.

Lincoln built his cabinet largely from a list of rivals.

So many present-day leaders are prone to assembling their teams and boards only from individuals with whom they fully agree. Leaders tend to gather those who are readily “yes people,” others who are not likely to give them push-back or express alternate views. It’s remarkable to realize, President-elect Lincoln very intentionally assembled his team out of those who had already expressed differences of opinion, run against him, and even some who had openly expressed opposition to his key platforms and agenda. Lincoln saw such diversity as essential, healthy, and empowering toward genuine progress and productive outcomes during those difficult days.

I am deeply grateful for these two Lincoln insights. I long to see them employed by more of our current leaders in Washington as well as influencers in vital business arenas. And I am also stirred and equally eager to utilize them myself in my own realms of church and community leadership in the days ahead.

Let’s learn from Lincoln! Happy Presidents Day!  


[1]Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster, 2005.  

When You’re Sick of Waiting

“Will it ever arrive?”

“I’m sick of waiting!”

“Is this ever going to end?!”

You know how agonizing it feels to wait for the train.

The 2020-2021 edition of the waiting game is getting old for everyone. We all feel it on multiple fronts. There are still rampant COVID diagnoses and grieving. So many people are awaiting vaccination. Hosts of friends and family are hoping to return to the workplace, struggling to help kids with school at home, praying for a new job, and a host of other issues. Lots of precious folks are struggling to cope and find themselves swept into old addictions.

So many of us are struggling as we approach the one-year mark. I chuckle when I recall how we all thought that everything would surely be back-to-normal by Easter—last year.

The Apostle Paul expressed similar frustration in his letter to the Romans, chapter 8. The oft-quoted, oh-so-famous, standout is verse 28:

“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.”

You’re probably saying, “Yea, okay, I saw that at Hobby Lobby on bric-a-brac. So? Big deal!”

It’s comforting indeed, reassuring for sure, that God is working in all things. Even in our agonizing and waiting. That brings us renewed confidence. But because biblical context is vital for greater clarity of understanding and accurately creative application, we do well to look at what’s around these beloved lines. Right before this, Paul employs dismal words like:

Suffering

Waiting

Expectation

Frustration

Subjected

Bondage

Decay

Groaning

Weakness

He utilizes these terms in both micro and macro ways, descriptive of both our personal attitudes and in the larger cosmos, all of creation.

But he also shares bright words like:

Glory

Eager

Hope

Freedom

Spirit

Adoption

Redemption

Help

Pray

And Christ’s Spirit intercedes for us.

Paul’s upside verbiage feels intentionally stronger. We can sense it! He is hopeful and anticipatory. But it’s not mere sentiments of sunshine or some short-term, rosy change of circumstances. For Paul, reflection runs much deeper and far-reaching. With vs. 29-30, Paul actually describes the good work.

“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. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

There’s some serious upside, seriously divine work! Note, God’s impressive foreknowledge and predestination. These are rich concepts reinforcing vital truth that he powerfully knows and plans. He is sovereign; he’s seriously in control. In Romans, Paul is emphasizing the gracious good news, the Gospel of God’s salvation, his righteousness for us in Christ Jesus. We can assuredly trust him. Even with all the evil happenings and sinful people, his good purpose will not be thwarted. Take that to the bank. He is sovereign. We can trust him.

But what is his good purpose? That we will be conformed to the image of his Son and there will be more brothers and sisters. More family!

What’s that about? It’s our re-creation. Recall how in Genesis 1, we saw the very good creation of humans “in God’s image.” But in Genesis 3, the fall into sin happens—the insurrection against the loving King—and so the image of God was marred, mangled, fallen because of sin. The creation was subjected to frustration, starting right here.

But God, in his love and grace commenced his salvation and redemption plans, to bring King Jesus, our Savior, our Redeemer. He is the firstborn (an old way of saying “first in rank, supreme, the preeminent one”). And notice: “among many brothers and sisters!”

Here’s the amazing deal. By the Father’s good plans and gracious purposes, we get conformed to Jesus’ image, re-made in the image of our Creator. Paul was also declaring that this redemptive work positively affects all creation. And the overflow of God’s good work is that more and more people in turn become his children. It’s stunning good work that he accomplishes. Jesus’ life, love, and work flow through our lives, love, and work, and even more brothers and sisters are conformed to the image of Christ!

It’s really moving to realize the real scope of Romans 8. Just like that original good and blessed intention back at Creation (Genesis 1), our salvation and gracious recreation into Jesus’ image leads to us doing good. Really. We do good works. Others are blessed and join his family!

What train are you waiting for right now? Are you weary? Frustrated? You are not alone!

Think on Paul’s bigger view of how God is working, why he’s working, and what he is bringing to fruition. Even amidst all the waiting and weariness, you can take heart. Be encouraged. He is working so much good, so that each of us looks more like Jesus, so that more people join his family!

Nothing is wasted in God’s workshop. He’s working in our waiting, even when it feels so frustrating.

Even when we can’t see it, he is still working. Especially amidst ugly pandemics, nasty politics, struggling economies, so much groaning and grieving. We can trust him. Think anew! Because of Jesus, you are called. You are justified. And based on his precious promises, he is working his plans for greater glory.

We are all still waiting, still weary, but full of hopeful expectation!

Capitol violence, MLK, and the Gospel of Peace

In the wake of the rioting and insurrection on January 6, I’m still trying to sort through the melee. My own soul needs calmed related to the unrest and violent actions. On this day as we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, we all hope, long, and pray for cooler heads, calmer hearts, and a peaceful inauguration week.

Plenty of people are denouncing what transpired at the U.S. Capitol and saying, “Enough is enough. The hate must stop!” Voices are gathering and calling for more voices of peace.

I’ve been wrestling with an antithetical concept: I think we need a stronger hatred. I’m serious. Please hear me out. Consider the Apostle Paul’s engaging 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)(emphasis mine)

Here is a foundational concept on our way to peace. It’s essential to “hate well.”[1] Hating well means we despise and push back all that is evil in our own hearts and in our collective consciences. It means starting right here in my chair, I vehemently combat the attitudes and actions that promote rank racism, self-consumed vengeance, and violence toward those of a different political persuasion. If there’s any real war to be waged, it must start in my own heart, to push back my own self-consumption.

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 is some passive posture all they have in view? Absolutely not. The core biblical idea behind peace is the robust Hebrew ideal of shalom. Christ’s peace is vitally related to the idea of actively working for human 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 that is happening already. 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 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 more deliberately love those people with different perspectives, different skin color, and the plethora of different cultural preferences that so often fuel my prejudices. We can each choose to host a meal, join others for coffee, and intentionally respond to their active overtures for mutual togetherness.

Strategic innovation toward greater flourishing

More churches are working toward Gospel-proclaiming and innovative community development. Such development aims for redemptive relationships leading toward economic growth and an overall shalom that’s grounded in 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 12:20). Through creative discipleship groups, brighter business plans, and expanding social justice in communities, Christ’s gospel is helping more people experience greater flourishing—real peace with God and peace with one another![4]

Herein lies the vibrant, 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 need includes you and me! We are each impoverished, in need of God’s grace.

The local church with which I serve has certainly not arrived on these issues. 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 impact and more thoughtful global impact. After all, such healthier hatred of what’s wrong in our world and more loving pursuit of peace is rooted deeply in Jesus’ kingdom agenda for Gospel work.

Let’s hate what is wrong in our world and continue overcoming that evil with grace-motivated good works—all for Christ’s glory. On this historic week and in the wake of the so-sad events at the Capitol, we can all take steps to work for peace.


[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 just one regional example, see http://www.celebratecolumbia.com and on the global front, see the amazing work of www.hopeinternational.org

The Extraordinary Strategist of Christmastime

I face plenty of confounding, confusing, utterly puzzling situations, especially right now. Don’t we all? Christmas season 2020, questions loom large. All is not automatically merry and bright, right? What do we do about family gatherings? How do we make already-stretched dollars stretch even further? And advance planning for 2021, is that even possible?

Amidst my own wondering, I’ve found lately that it’s really good to simply, boldly pray:

“Please King Jesus, come meet with us. Show us the way. Lend your wisdom, please Lord.”   

Headed into a board meeting and wondering, “What in the world? How will we address that?” Or a tangled situation for one of my still-maturing sons and asking, “Where’s the wisdom? What’s the right way to go?” Or trying to encourage a friend but honestly grasping at thin air: “Is there something, anything I can really say to help.”

Here’s where I find myself more and more these days just tossing out the gutsy, on-the-fly, hurry-up heart cry, “Please Lord Jesus, come meet with us. Show us the way. Lend your wisdom, please.”

We tend to think of Christmas as the magical miracle time. But I think this year, more than ever, we need the wisdom of Blumhardt: The work for God goes on quite simply in this way; one does not always have to wait for something out of the ordinary. The all-important thing is to keep your eyes on what comes from God and to make way for it to come into being here on the earth. If you always try to be heavenly and spiritually minded, you won’t understand the everyday work God has for you to do. But if you embrace what is to come from God, if you live for Christ’s coming in practical life, you will learn that divine things can be experienced here and now . . .” (Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas)

If you’re like me, you might be saying, “Okay, okay, but what about those times when I just don’t see it, or no answer is landing, no insight cometh, and all still feels utterly confusing?” I think that’s where we must come back to the confidence that comes from the babe who already came. The prophet Isaiah foretold:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.  Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV)

One name really stands out for me this week: Wonderful Counselor. I love how The Passion Translation renders “Counselor.” TPT says his name is “The Extraordinary Strategist.” There’s a wonderfully fresh and encouraging way to think of your wonderful Christ. Even when I don’t yet have the answer for the puzzling family conundrum or know a solution to the board room dilemma. When I’m still not sensing how to work out a snarled situation or have a word of encouragement for my friend. It’s in those moments I can turn to my Extraordinary Strategist and say,

“Please King Jesus, come meet with us. Show us the way. Lend your wisdom, please Lord.”

So good to know, I can trust he will accomplish that, because he already came. Based on the ancient prophecy and Jesus’ arrival, I can know with confidence, he’s on it. He’s working. He’s got this! Why? He is the Extraordinary Strategist of Christmastime.   

No Zoom Today

What should we make of today? In my own past praxis, nothing much, really. It has been the immensely blah, pay-no-attention, make-no-mention day of Easter weekend. At best, it’s been a day to run-around, shop for last-minute must-haves, and finish getting ready for tomorrow, the truly monumental day, Easter Sunday.

2020 if of course, different. Very different. We are all locked down, very busy staying at home and doing a whole bunch of nothing. Well, sort of. If we’re honest, some of us feel busier than ever in our spirits. After all, there are new tasks to do. Schoolwork. Baking. Online shopping. Kids. House repairs. Care calls to make. Videos to upload. Economic trends to chart. New strategies to craft. And another Zoom meeting. Isn’t it ironic during this time of so much staying home and such a shift of our life gears, now so much of our existence is run by the word zoom?

My own Friday was full in its own strange way. I won’t bore you. Yours was too. We just did Good Friday in all its horrific glory. And as good Christians, we are quick to say: “But Sunday’s comin’!”

I am struck this morning with the reality that I have seldom pondered today, Saturday, the day in between. For thoughtful Christians across the ages and round the globe, this is holy or joyful Saturday. From the cross on Friday, Christ cried out his last words, his sixth and seventh sayings: “It is finished!” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Holy Saturday serves as a poignant reminder that his body was laid in the tomb by Joseph and Nicodemus (St. John’s Gospel, chapter 19), and there he rested.

We tend to want a busy Jesus, the sort of Savior who was still running off to do something, even in spirit. Over the centuries, scholars have debated: what was he doing in that in-between? Did he truly descend to hell, preach good news, and free the captives? Well, maybe, and maybe not. It’s a long-fought creedal debate, and since this is Holy Saturday, I am simply not feeling the compulsion today to actively engage the mental work or exert the energy necessary for full-on combat of the age-old controversy. (You can also have a pass today to not have to settle that one, if you’d like.)

What I am drawn toward is the sacred connection of Christ’s 2nd-day posture. He rested. In his incarnation, Jesus was fully inhabiting the fulfillment of the Hebrew sabbath. His body was at rest. His spirit was at home with his Father. And he rested. Full stop. Nothing more. No zoom for Jesus.

I have workaholic tendencies. I am not proud of that. Combine that with perfectionism. There’s a deadly-to-the-soul combo. So, I am extra-moved in this Holy Week 2020 when I realize that sisters and brothers across the ages have also referred to this day as Joyful Saturday. My soul is struck by the permission to do nothing today, nothing but rest in body and rejoice in soul.

That push-push, reach-for-something-more side of me as a leader, author, and speaker would typically grab two or three more books or articles and aim to craft another paragraph or two. I would consider my labor unfinished, my striving incomplete with what I am sharing right here.

And then I recall, my Lord said, “Tetelestai!” It is finished.

And so am I. Will you join me in making this a truly joyful, Holy Saturday?

Best we can, let’s do nothing, just a little bit better.

Let’s join Jesus. No zoom. Just rest.

 

Remembering Kobe, comforting kids, and the work of grieving

We were driving through West Virginia, headed back from visiting our middle son at college in Kentucky. Our youngest, Josiah, suddenly called. “Mom, Dad, did you hear? Kobe Bryant just died in a helicopter crash.” Similar to everyone, we were stunned. I must have said “Oh no, Jos’—that’s so sad” at least a dozen times in the next two minutes. In the hours to come, we learned further details, including the horrific loss of his daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

Such moments are surreal for everyone. When we got home mid-evening, our family conversations continued, including prayers for the Bryant family. Such a tragedy is so much for a sports-loving fourteen-year-old and his friends to process. (Good grief, it’s a lot for parents to process as well.) So many feelings, so much sorrow and heartache.

I’m struck by the reality: there is a collective work about grieving that we do better together. Perhaps you remember 9-11, or the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion, or even JFK’s assassination. In our shock at such events, we abruptly pause. We inhale the sudden sting and exhale our angst with tears. I am moved in such moments that we always have the opportunity to either duck and hide, push away the conversations, run from the pain, or we can collectively work through it and let something new and good happen inside us. I am convinced that if we boldly, courageously embrace the work of such collective grieving, we can actually grow stronger.

When facing grief, both our own and others’, it’s important we resist every urge—both self-induced and pushed by others—to rush our responses. Quick fixes and pithy spiritual platitudes are rarely productive. Don’t hurry yourself to get over your grief, and be very careful what you say to friends and family when they are experiencing loss. H. Norman Wright cites a number of our well-intended but too-often unhelpful, potentially even pain-producing clichés.

Big boys don’t cry.

You’ve just got to get ahold of yourself.

Cheer up.

Time will heal.

Life goes on.

This is the work of the devil.

Count your blessings.

God never gives us more than we can handle.

I know just how you feel.

If there is anything I can do, just call me.[1]

We dare not hurry ourselves and loved ones to quickly process grief, to “just get over it,” and get on with life. But we can choose to get back up, step forward, and trust God with bigger hope. When you are ready, you can choose to walk a fresh path. You can focus on God’s provision for your brighter future. You can boldly embrace your fresh start toward a deeper faith—an overcoming, hope-filled trust to match your deepest grief.

Blocking and shoving

In their original, sidesplitting blockbuster, Shrek and Donkey are camping outside, guarding Princess Fiona as she sleeps in the cave. Staring at the stars and moon, Donkey decides to play therapist and confront Shrek about his threat to build a wall around his swamp to keep everyone out. In their terse, back-and-forth interchange, Donkey makes the now famous and oft-quipped statement (at least it’s quoted often in the Pletcher house), “You cut me deep, Shrek. You cut me real deep!” With a sullen face and folded arms, Shrek abruptly rolls to his other side. Donkey gets in his face. “You’re blocking.” “No, I’m not!” Shrek adamantly denies as he rolls to his other side. “Yes, you are!” Donkey retorts.

Remembering Kobe serves as a healthy reminder for us all. Grieving can and should be cathartic. How often do we self-protect, block others, or otherwise try to hide what we’re really feeling, unwilling to let others see us grieve? Especially with our kids or at the office, in the shop, or out on the production floor—how preposterous would that be, to let others know you are grieving?

Kristin Brown courageously ponders four principles for better grieving. She urges—

Don’t feel ashamed to show your grief. You may be worried about crying at odd times, like in the middle of a meeting. Give yourself permission to be a little less poised.

Avoid making major decisions while grieving. Some decisions may be unavoidable. But for those that seem optional, it’s best to wait until your thinking is less clouded.

Don’t interrupt or abbreviate your season of grief, but productive work is healthy. Both hope and joy can co-exist with sorrow and sadness. Putting your hand to the plow with tears coming down your face is not a bad thing.

Share in the sorrow of those who are grieving around you. People in grief want to know that others are, in a sense, carrying some of the sorrow that they are experiencing.[2]

Catharsis at work

A dusty Hebrew proverb says: “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (Proverbs 14:10). Here is the salty, sincere mix, those raw reflections on the fragile nature of our human hearts. For the hours and days to come, there will be a bitter-sweet, ongoing work in remembering and grieving Kobe.

Already last night, Josiah and some of his baseball friends were reflecting. Over the years, they have commonly recognized Kobe’s GOAT (greatest-of-all-time) status with a fun ritual. During practices, they gather up dozens of stray baseballs and throw them into the coach’s bucket. As they throw them, they shout “Kobe!” It’s been their ongoing expression of adoration for the legend. Last evening, a number of the boys—including several of us big-boy coaches and dads—were lamenting how that toss of baseballs toward the bucket will never be the same again. Down deep we chuckle, and then more tears roll.

What if we allow remembering Kobe to do a good work in us? Perhaps we’ll talk more openly together—big kids and little kids—about what it means to grieve and also find fresh hope. Maybe we’ll talk more deeply together about what it means to truly live life to the full. Let’s squeeze our kids tighter. Let’s hold each other—family and friends—even closer. Let’s listen well and even more intentionally affirm our kids, friends, and coworkers. We all need listening ears and encouragement.

Go ahead and cry. Oh yes, cry tears. That’s healthy. But don’t stop with tears. Let’s encourage each other to choose a bigger and better hope. May we all be more tender and caring with one another. We live in such divisive, hate-mongering, quarrelsome times. Perhaps such care, tenderness, and hope in the face of grief might propel us into an ongoing love and stronger civility.

What if we deliberately work toward more genuine love, that depth of selflessness and others-orientation that our loving Creator intended from the start? Let’s remember Kobe, and let our collective grieving lead us to both receive and give God-like love more deeply and freely.

[1]Wright, Helping Those Who Hurt, 32–33.

[2]Brown, “Why We Can—and Should—Grieve at Work.” The Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics blog. Tifwe.org

Will You Join the 2020 Challenge?

January is not yet over, so it’s not too late. Really! Several weeks ago, you were pondering them. How are you doing on your big aims? Are you still full of gusto? Maybe you are still trying, but you’re running out of energy. Or perhaps you’re still pretty cynical?

Down deep, underneath 2020’s road of resolutions, many of us traffic in tremendous cynicism. We secretly think: “Yeah, right! New Year, New You. What a joke!” Truth be told, who can really know what the New Year brings, whether we will soar high or miserably crash in our best endeavors? And many of us are already saying: “Just as I suspected, 2020 is proving to be more of the same!” Some of us were eager to drive a new road and be so done with last year. But deep down you wonder if something can possibly feel—and truly be—wonderfully new in a life-giving, glorious sense. Even if last year was pretty good overall, you likely set some aspirations for 2020 that still seem daunting. Three weeks into the year is a great point to revisit the pondering.

Know this: All your best aspirations for 2020, if they are growth-oriented and Christ-honoring, are amazing and motivating. Author and speaker Andy Andrews says: “Every good thing that has happened in your life happened because something changed.” Maybe 2020 is your year to

Start a new endeavor.

Read more.

Exercise more. Eat less.

Kick a bad habit. Start a good one.

Go back to school.

Drink more water. Drink less mood-altering, wisdom-killing elixirs.

Invest in new friendships.

Plan to ____________ (fill in your own noble aim!).

It’s all very good! But what about progress in new character, the kind of personal development that can propel your momentum in all your good aims for 2020? How about starting the year with a passionate focus on substantive virtues flowing from a renewed and growing faith? Such focus will inform and embolden all your other new efforts.

The aged sage, Saint Peter, winsomely encourages us in his second letter:

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires.  (2 Peter 1:3-4, NLT)

You already have everything you need. Now go for it!

Here is encouragement that’s grounded in Christ-focused motivation. Peter says we do indeed have everything we need to live up to our full potential of living a godly life. Our source is Christ Jesus himself. We receive such divine power, not of our human effort, but by his grace. And notice how we access such power and the resulting character virtues. We plug into his power and promises, so we can participate in the divine nature—his character and actions. Jesus’ power and promises can propel us into holy, unique ways to rise above the world’s corrupt and debilitating influences. Peter continues:

In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone. The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8, NLT)

With Christ’s power and promises, growing disciples build with Peter’s eight subsequent character-building blocks. We intentionally grow in knowing our Lord Jesus Christ. Such knowledge is much more than an intellectual road trip. Yes, it involves gathering right truth. Absolutely! But this robust knowledge is a deeply personal, experiential knowledge. Here is winsome know-how born of tangible, deliberate practice. It’s like learning to drive an automobile. You study your state’s driving manual, the laws of the land, as well as the technical details for maneuverability. But you also really need to get behind a steering wheel and try it out (preferably on a back-country road, a safe distance from the rest of us). God’s knowledge is holistic, a blend of knowing information and skillfully using it.

So you learn greater facts about Jesus’ manner of love as you explore the Gospel accounts, and then you practice his love in selfless, sacrificial ways by serving others. You learn greater facts about Jesus’ manner of pure, holy, faithful living, and then you practice it by making good, wholesome choices in your everyday entertainment and social interactions. You learn more information about sharing Jesus and the life-changing Good News of his kingdom, and you practice proclaiming it with family, friends, and coworkers.

Will you take the 2020 challenge?

I am personally moved by the power of 20s for the big year ahead. I am making a list of 20 good, stretching, growth-oriented endeavors and aims. My 20 include character development, habits that involve discipline, relational cultivation, as well as skills and abilities to hone. Some of my 20 are already regular rhythms of my life that need continued practice, but 7 to 10 represent new—and yes, even difficult—vistas of life development. And I am realizing that in order to make progress in all 20, I am utterly in need of knowing Christ more and more.

Will you join me in taking the 2020 challenge? What’s on your list? Go ahead and make your own list of 20.

Will you apply yourself 20 minutes at a time?

Here’s something you might find shocking. Life experience demonstrates that at least 7 to 10 of your good endeavors can be achieved through just 20 minutes a day. Yes, just 20 minutes a day. You can learn a new musical instrument by committing yourself to practice for 20 minutes a day. You can read a bunch of books this year by reading one at a time, just 20 minutes a day. You can pour into your middle schooler by more intentionally talking—all devices put down—with a starting point of 20 minutes a day over a meal or on a car ride. The list goes on and on. Certainly, one can argue that it takes longer in certain life areas in order to wonderfully excel. But the point is to aim for greater intentionality. In Live in Grace, Walk in Love, Bob Goff encourages us: “We never regret following through on the commitments we’re passionate about and the activities that last. Figure those out and let the rest fall away.” A lot can happen toward conquering and achieving your list of 20 when you commit to the discipline of applying yourself for 20 minutes.

How about 2020 related to God’s Word?

So many Christians say they want the New Year to be their year to really get to know Christ Jesus through truly being in the Word of God every day. This is a marvelous aim! How about dedicating yourself to reading 20 chapters in the Gospels every week? An average reader can read approximately 4 chapters each day across 5 days of each week. Start in Matthew. Read in Matthew all of January. Spend February in Mark’s Gospel, March in Luke, and April in John. By Holy Week and Easter, you will have journeyed many miles with Jesus in his story.

The aim is to truly, deeply, and practically know Christ more. As you read each day, ponder these two questions and jot down your responses:

Q1: What do I learn of Christ, his heart, his history, his real-life example, and his teachings?

Q2: How will I seek today to follow Jesus’ heart, to love others, to work with excellence, and to live out Christ’s powerful new life in my everyday endeavors?

Your responses to each of these questions can be turned into prayers of praise, gratitude, resolve, and commitment. And of course, the big key is making commitments and following through based on Christ’s power and motivation in you.

Okay, I confess. I am still a bit cynical about stereotypical resolutions and where 2020 will take us. But I am also hopeful about 2020 in light of this reality. In Christ, we already have everything we need!

January is not yet over. It’s not too late.

Will you join me in taking the 2020 challenge?

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flieger and Anderson supply commentary:

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Catching Fresh Creativity Amidst Fall Colors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make time for story time!

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

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

Go play!

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

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

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

Take big cues from your Creator!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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