So today I’m finishing a blog series that has meant a lot to me. And I’ll do it with one of the best stories I’ve ever heard.
J.R.R. Tolkien had worked on Lord of The Rings for almost a decade when it dawned on him that he was getting old. He had spent the past ten years working on this epic story, and he hadn’t even written a page down. Instead, he had been creating entire worlds and cultures and languages so that the story would have a universe to live in.
But then he realized he had been so obsessed with the details that he had not been writing any of the actual story down. He began to think that he was going to die before he was able to complete his dream of writing these epic novels.
He thought that he was going to die and they would come in and find his body and all the scribblings of Middle Earth, and they would just write him off as a crazy old man. Kind of like he was the worlds first Star Trek fan.
Leaf by Niggle
Now you probably already know that Tolkien did indeed finish his book. But before he sat down and actually wrote it, he wrote a short story called Leaf By Niggle. It’s about a little man named Niggle who’s life mission is to make a painting of a tree.
Niggle is actually an English word meaning someone “obsessed with the details.” And when we meet Niggle, he is living up to his name. While he really wants to paint the tree, he keeps obsessing over the first couple of leaves. He can’t move past them. He just keep paying attention to getting the leaves of the tree just perfectly.
But Niggle is old, and getting older.
And people keep swinging by his house and asking him to help them.
So it begins to dawn on Niggle that he may not be able to finish his life-long dream of painting the tree.
He keeps working hard on it, but sure enough, Niggle winds up being right.
He dies before he finishes his work.
Now it doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to know that Tolkien is writing about his own life here. He wrote this short story right after it dawned on him that he might not live to make his own masterpiece. Tolkien, the worlds best modern story teller is telling us about the anxiety of his own work, by telling us a story.
A story about a guy who wants nothing more than to get out this dream in his head, and who ultimately fails to do so.
So back to Niggle, when they find him dead at home, someone notices the partially finished painting. It was just a basic sketch of a tree, with a leaf or two filled out on the canvas. The leaves were exquisite and very intricate, and so they put the painting in the museum, and for a while people came and saw it.
A few people were impressed by the incredible detail of the leaves, but most of them just saw a painting that wasn’t finished. Niggle’s life work blessed a few people, but ultimately was forgotten.
J.R.R. Tolkien doesn’t stop his story there.
Because Niggle goes to Heaven, and the first thing he sees, Is the Tree.
I can’t tell you how many times over the past year, I’ve told people that story. I can barely do it without choking up. I tell everyone I know who is frustrated with their work, or the lack of work. I tell it to people who care deeply about making the world different, about making it better.
Because even the best of us, are going to be incredibly frustrated with our lives and our work. We have a picture inside of us a better world, but at best we can only get out a leaf or two.
We will live lives of both incredible frustration and joy, but we will surely not accomplish all we wish we could. We are only human. But that vision, the one that you have for your life, for this world, is not in vain. It is in fact, from God.
Trees Of Life
In Mozambique a few years ago, there was a civil war raging. Eventually both sides called a cease-fire. But it was still a cold war, people held onto their weapons and everyone lived in deep distrust of one another.
A Group called the Christian relief aid came in and tried to think of a creative way to deal with this problem.So they said to everyone, if you will bring in your weapons we will give you farm equipment in exchange.
And it worked.
But now the Christian group had a problem, they had all these weapons and not a violent bone in their body. So they did something that I think is brilliant.
They took all of the weapons, and made them into a sculpture. Of a tree.
And they called it the Tree of Life.
They literally beat their swords into plowshares. All because some Christians got a vision for the world could be like and acted accordingly.
They saw the future of God, and the lived into it now. They brought a bit of Heaven to earth.
My work is frustrating from time to time, I have so much I want to do with my life, to make the world a better place. And there are days where I feel like I’m just painting the same old leaf.
But in my better days, I know that my work, that all of our work, matters more than we could ever imagine, because there is a new day coming that won’t be like the previous ones. There is a world that is breaking into this one that is full of the glory of God, and in that world there will be no more suffering or pain or cancer. So I’ll paint the leafs of my life as well as possible, because I believe in the best parts of my heart…
There is a Tree.