Recently I read a Wall Street Journal article about a New York City Presbyterian minister named Tim Keller. The article described the dramatic growth in Keller’s church (Redeemer Presbyterian) from a few families in 1989 to over 5,500 parishioners today. Quite a success! However, at the end of the article Keller makes a surprising admission. Keller admits he often feels like he hasn’t accomplished as much as he should have, and that there is so much more to do. He uses an image to describe his feelings that captured my imagination. He says he feels like he has “barely gotten a leaf out.” As we take time to reflect during this last week of 2014, I believe Keller’s image of the single leaf can provide us with comfort, solace, inspiration and encouragement as we look toward 2015.
“Barely getting a leaf out” is phrase used by J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in a short story he wrote about a painter who spent his whole life trying to paint a very beautiful tree with snowcapped mountains and forests behind it. In spite of his continual and diligent efforts, when the painter dies he has finished painting only one leaf. The painter is disappointed, but when he goes into the afterlife he sees something in the distance that quickens his heart. As he approaches more closely, he realizes that there is the completed tree he was trying to paint all along!
Tolkien’s point in this story is that despite our best efforts to make a significant contribution to our societies, our workplaces, our families, our friends and our churches, we often accomplish a lot less than we hope for. We have high expectations, and often find ourselves disappointed, discouraged, even disillusioned, at how little we’re able to accomplish. We feel like there’s so much unfinished, so much still to be done. We’ve failed to make a meaningful dent in the work to be done. Like the painter, we feel like we’ve completed little more than a single leaf.
The story, however, provides us with encouragement. In fact, the one leaf that we paint often goes together with leaves that others paint to create a beautiful tree. The tree wouldn’t be complete unless we did our part. As a person of faith, Tolkien believes that our vision of what we want to accomplish is often inspired by God, and that in the end God can weave our leaf together with the leaves of others to create the beautiful tree. Tolkien’s story encourages us that, together with others and the help of God, we can in fact make a difference.
So this Christmas season take comfort and satisfaction in “barely getting a leaf out.” It’s not so much the size of your contribution, but rather the fact that you’re making a contribution at all. Make the best leaf that you can. Continue to make your own small mark, and together with others you may be surprised at the beautiful tree that emerges.