Let me tell you a story, the story of a painter. The story was written by JRR Tolkien, Tolkien is the famous author of the Lord of the Rings series, and he wrote this small little book entitled Leaf by Niggle. I came across this story book while reading Tim Keller- 'Every Good Endeavor'. Tim recount the story of Leaf by Niggle to illustrate to us, that everything in our life is 'a work in progress' and 'an already and the not yet phenomenon', It means that whatever we do we may not be able to finished them in this very life time, and it is OK because we will find in the book of Isaiah 65:17,20-23:
A new and perfect world and the former things shall not be remmebered or come into mind, there is only gladness and joy in Jerusalem and no more weeping and distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die in a hundred years old shall be accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat of the fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit, they shall not plant and another eat; for like the day of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy thh work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain or bear children in calamity for they shall be the offsprings of the blessed of the Lord, and their descendents with them; Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, the lion shall eat straws like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food.They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.
This will be that perfect place where our work of painting the tree will come to reality and a place God will prepare for us to see, for we will find the perfect tree that was once imagined by Niggle.
The painter name was Niggle, The Oxford English Dictionary, to which Tolkien was a
contributor, defines “niggle” as “to work … in a fiddling or ineffective way …to spend time unnecessarily on petty details.” Niggle was of course Tolkien himself, who knew very well this was one of his own flaws. He was a perfectionist, always unhappy with what he had produced, often distracted from more important issues by fussing over less important details, prone to worry and procrastination. 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.” Niggle continually put the journey off, but he knew it was inevitable. Tom Shippey, who also taught Old English literature at Oxford, explains that in Anglo-Saxon literature the “necessary long journey” was death.
Niggle had one picture in particular that he was trying to paint. He had gotten in his mind the picture of a leaf, and then that of a whole tree. And then in his imagination, behind 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 had 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.”
Niggle's was obssesed with the details of his painting. So he worked on his canvas, “putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there,” but he never got much done. 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 constantly distracted by doing things his neighbors asked him
to do for them. 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 he 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 put off. When he realizes he must go, he bursts into tears. “‘Oh, dear!’ said poor
Niggle, beginning to weep, ‘And it’s not even finished!’” Sometime after his death the people who acquired his house noticed that 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.” His work is not appreciated much, 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 (see the vision of Isaiah 65:17.22-23). No, it was indeed part of the true reality that would live and be enjoyed forever- the work of our hand which seems to have been started in the old world and through faith we will see it again in the new world.
Niggle was assured that the tree he had “felt and guessed” was “a true part of creation”. and that even the small bit of it he had unveiled to people on earth had been a vision
of the True. That is the nature of our work if it is link to the faith, for there is something we can look for , a hope of seeing our real tree.
Everyone of us has visions, often very big ones, of a world they can uniquely imagine. Few realize even a significant percentage of that vision, and even fewer claim to have come close. Those of us who tend to be overly perfectionistic and methodical, like Tolkien himself, can also identify strongly with the character of Niggle. But really—everyone is Niggle. Everyone imagines accomplishing things, and everyone finds him- or herself largely incapable of producing them. Everyone wants to be successful rather than forgotten, and everyone wants to make a difference in life. But that is beyond the control of any of us at times. If this life is all there is, then everything will eventually burn up in the death of the sun and no one will even be around to remember anything that has ever happened. Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavours, even the best, will come to naught.
Unless there is God. If the God of the Bible exists, and there is a true reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good work, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever. That is what the Christian faith promises. “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain,” writes Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 58.