The God who redeems the gap

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God-- through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25)

I have been trying to pay closer attention to my emotions lately. When I find myself feeling anxious, or sad, or angry, my tendency can be to try to push those emotions away. But a book I have been reading through lately, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero, has challenged me to listen closer to what my emotions are communicating to me.

During this past Sunday’s sermon, I found myself getting choked up as I read from J.R.R. Tolkienn’s short story Leaf by Niggle. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Tolkienn wrote Leaf by Niggle when he had reached an impasse while writing his most famous work, The Lord of the Rings. He was afraid that he would ever finish the book, and out of his despair, he wrote Leaf by Niggle. The story is about a man named Niggle who was an unsuccessful painter, in part because he would spend forever on a single leaf, trying to portray it perfectly, and would never move on to paint the rest of the landscape that was in his mind: the tree, birds, forest and mountains. He was also routinely getting interrupted by the need to care for other people. And sometimes, he was just idle. In the end, he was never able to finish more than one leaf, and that corner of his canvas ends up hung in a museum with a sign which reads “Leaf by Niggle.”

There is much more to the story, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll skip ahead to the end. Eventually a driver arrives to take Niggle on a long journey, which is a metaphor for death. Niggle boards a train for a far-off country, and as he gets off the train and hops on a bicycle and rides through the landscape, it begins to feel familiar to him. As Tolkienn writes:

“A great green shadow came between him and the sun. Niggle looked up, and fell off his bicycle. Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. “It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally. He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever labored at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.”

So why did I want to cry as I read this passage? I think it is because the hardest part about being a pastor, in my experience, is living with the gap between what God deserves and what I am capable of. God has saved my life, and I owe everything to Him. He deserves a pastor who gives Himself fully to the work He has for him to do, who is devoted to prayer and to discipling others, who loves and leads his family well. It is very difficult, at 46 years old, to see how my sin, the sins of others, and the hard reality of life in this world has prevented me from being that man and giving God what He deserves. I have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). As Paul laments in Romans 7:21, every time I want to do good, evil is right there with me.

And yet… there is grace. In my weakness, God is strong (2 Corinthians 12:9). Somehow, I have to trust that just as Jesus took the little boy’s loaves and fishes and used them to feed the multitudes, God is able to take my meager, imperfect offering and use it for His glory. And, if Tolkienn is right, then somehow, when all is said and done, there will be redemption. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is never in vain.” My labor, my efforts, my attempts at holiness and living for His glory are never in vain. They matter, both now and forevermore. And that combination – my inability to be the man I so desperately want to be, and the undeserved gift of God’s grace – is what brings me to tears in a mix of heartache and gratitude.

Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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