~by Pastor Mike Middaugh
As we consider a call to care for the city, to seek justice, peace, and good for those therein, we may feel like our efforts, or even our prayers don’t make much difference. We usually don’t see the immediate result of these sorts of actions, certainly the city seems to just move along as normal. And even when we try, when we really work at it, and feel like a job was worthwhile, or a day’s work was worth the effort, it may always seem like there is more to do. It might seem like no one notices the beauty, grace or fruitfulness we are trying to bring into the world.
So today I would like to share a story. One of my very favorites. Some of you may have heard it, or remember me referencing it before, but I think it is one of the best reminders of why we do our work, and why, as God’s people, we hope to bring good into the world, through our work, through our prayers, and through our actions.
This story, though a summarization of the original, is a bit long, but I promise it is worth reading. And, the next time you find yourself wondering or questioning the work that you do, or the unfinished beauty you attempt to create, just think of this little story.
When J. R. R. Tolkien was in the middle of writing The Lord of the Rings, he came to an impasse. In his mind he held a grand story unlike anything else in contemporary literature. Tolkien himself was a leading scholar in Old English and other ancient Northern European languages, and held a fascination for the nearly-lost ancient British myths that included elves, dwarves, giants, and sorcerers.
Tolkien’s project, the Lord of the Rings, was a modern day re-creation and re-imagining of these ancient myths. It was a monumental work that required envisioning at least the rudimentary elements of several imaginary languages and cultures, as well as thousands of years of various national histories for the fictional characters – all of this in order to give the narrative the depth and realism that Tolkien believed necessary for it to be compelling.
At a certain point in writing this story, and trying to effectively weave together all the various characters and elements, he became overwhelmed. Not only that, but World War II had begun and Tolkien feared a possible invasion of his British homeland.
He began to despair of ever completing the work of his life. It was not just a labor of a few years at that point. When he began The Lord of the Rings, he had already been working on the languages, histories, and stories behind the story for decades. The thought of not finishing it was “a dreadful and numbing thought.” It was then that he woke up one morning with a short story in his mind, and wrote it down. It was a story about a painter whose name was Niggle – a word that means “to work. . . in a fiddling or ineffective way . . . to spend time on unnecessary or petty details” (Oxford English Dictionary).
Tolkien himself was a perfectionist. One who was more likely to fuss over less-important details, thereby becoming distracted from larger more-important issues. Niggle was the same.
We are also told that Niggle “had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it.” And so Niggle continually put the journey off, but he knew it was inevitable. (A “long journey” likely represents death.)
Niggle had one picture in particular that he was working to paint. He had developed in his mind’s eye the image of a leaf, and beyond that a whole tree. Beyond the tree “a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow.”
Niggle lost interest in all his other pictures, and in order to accommodate his vision, he laid out a canvas so large he needed a ladder. Niggle knew he was going to die, but he told himself, “At any rate, I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey.”
So he worked on his canvas, “putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there,” but he never got very far. There were two reasons for this. First, it was because he was the “sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, . . .” trying to get the shading and the sheen and the dewdrops on it just right. So no matter how hard he worked, very little actually showed up on the canvas itself. The second reason was his “kind heart.” Niggle was regularly distracted by the needs of his neighbors. In particular, his neighbor Parish, who did not appreciate Niggle’s painting at all, asked him to do many things for him.
One night when Niggle senses, rightly, that his time is almost up, Parish insists that he go out into the wet and cold to fetch a doctor for his sick wife. As a result Niggle himself comes down with a chill and fever, and while working desperately on his unfinished picture, the Driver comes to take Niggle on the journey he has been avoiding. When he realizes he must go, he bursts into tears. “‘Oh, dear!’ said poor Niggle, beginning to weep, ‘And it’s not even finished!’”
At some point after his death, those who acquired Niggle’s house noticed on his crumbling canvas his only “one beautiful leaf” had remained intact. It was put in the Town Museum, “and for a long while ‘Leaf: by Niggle’ hung there in a recess, and was noticed by a few eyes.”
But the story does not end there. After death Niggle is put on a train toward the mountains of the heavenly afterlife. At one point on his trip he hears two Voices. One seems to be Justice, the severe voice, which says that Niggle wasted so much time and accomplished so little in life. But the other, gentler voice (“though it was not soft”), which seems to be Mercy, counters that Niggle has chosen to sacrifice for others, knowing what he was doing.
As a reward, when Niggle gets to the outskirts of the heavenly country, something catches his eye. He runs to it—and there it is: “Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished; its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and yet had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It is a gift!’ he said.”
The world before death—his old country—had forgotten Niggle almost completely, and there his work had ended unfinished and helpful to only a very few. But in his new country, the permanently real world, he finds that his tree, in full detail and finished, was not just a fancy of his that had died with him. No, it was indeed part of the True Reality that would live and be enjoyed forever.
Tolkien’s own short story apparently helped him quite a bit. After writing “Leaf, by Niggle” Tolkien was able to get back to work and finish The Lord of the Rings.
We too can take comfort in the fact that the work we do here and now, while never complete, can still be known in a timeless way. The good we are able to bring about can have an effect beyond this life. Whatever we may work for, whether justice or peace, brilliance or beauty, order, healing, or joy, those things are real. We may only get a glimpse or a shadow of them now, but those things are a faint echo of the true reality that is to come.
Knowing this allows us to stay strong in the midst of setbacks, and to avoid pride when we achieve success. We work and pray and hope and create, and not just for this world, but with the knowledge of the next.