“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit — fruit that will last.” ~John 15:16
J. R. R. Tolkien, who had one too many middle names, wrote a short story about an artist named Niggle. He was a painter. And Niggle wants to paint a tree, a perfect tree, “a beautiful tree,” he says, “and behind it, snow-capped mountains and a forest marching off.” And so Niggle began painting the first leaf. Painstakingly. With excruciating attention to detail. He painted slowly. Every line had to be perfect. Every color and shade had to be just right. Every single leaf on this beautiful tree would be exquisite.
And Niggle would get interrupted and distracted. He’d grumble from time to time and lose his temper and maybe even cuss, mostly to himself. But he kept at it. Working and painting and laboring over this beautiful tree. And when Niggle dies, he’s only painted one leaf.
Tony Morrow made it his mission to move to Eastern Ukraine to house and feed and train and minister to orphaned kids who have aged out of the government programs. The Central church has partnered with Tony. We bought him a van last year. Some in our church have made Tony’s mission their mission. They’re sending him money and cards and emails, they’re planning to visit Ukraine and minister alongside him themselves. The truth is, there are still thousands of street kids in Ukraine. Tony’s not even making a dent.
For four years Central has been providing weekend meals for Bivins Elementary with the Snack Pak program. 84 children a week. They’d go hungry without it. A lot of our folks work in that important mission: picking up the food, sorting and stuffing the backpacks, delivering it to the school. Yet, more than 32-thousand children in the Panhandle still go hungry every week.
Some of our church family have gone on a Let’s Start Talking trip. Some are planning to go this summer. That’s their mission: teaching people the English language through the Bible. And we believe in it. We train them, we plan the trips, we schedule the whole thing, we help them pay for it. But I’m not sure any of them have witnessed one single baptism.
Loaves & Fishes. Martha’s Home. Another Chance House. We’ve partnered with them for a dozen years and there are just as many homeless men and abused women in Amarillo today as there were when we started.
For nine years, maybe, you’ve poured your life into your next-door neighbor, trying to form a holy relationship that’ll lead her to Christ. So far, nothing.
You’ve spent seven years, maybe, trying to keep a Bible study going at your workplace. It’s sporadic at best. Nobody seems that interested.
For three years, maybe, you’ve given money and brought groceries and bought Christmas presents for the single mother who happens to be your cashier at Toot ‘N’ Totem. She never came to church. Last week she moved to Colorado.
We’ve been doing “4 Amarillo” for more than two years now. But lots of churches still have nothing to do with each other in this city. Division among Churches of Christ is still a huge problem.
Central has been on a mission in downtown Amarillo for 107 years. Good ministry. Gospel ministry. Powerful ministry. And there are still many, many dark and godless places in this city.
Sometimes it feels like we’re only getting a leaf out. We have a beautiful picture in our hearts. And we’re painting that perfect tree with everything we’ve got. And when we die, maybe we’ve only painted one leaf.
In Tolkien’s story, when Niggle dies, he’s going into the afterlife and he sees something way off in the distance. He jumps off the train and runs to the top of the platform and there’s his tree! His tree! His beautifully perfect tree, the one he had felt, the one he had worked on his whole life. In the afterlife, Niggle’s work has become an eternal reality. In heaven, his life’s mission has been made complete, not on canvas, but in the everlasting stuff of new creation.
We spend our lives working on the painting, but it’s only going to be completed on that day in glory. We know that eventually all our work is going to be made perfect because our Christ is returning and he’s bringing heaven with him. Scripture says on that day our work will be shown for what it is. That Day will bring it to light and it will survive. Revelation 14 promises us that the dead who die in the Lord will be blessed and they will rest “for their deeds will follow them.”
Sometimes mission seems like a losing battle. For those who are serious about justice and mercy and peace and love; for those working to bring God’s will to earth just as it is in heaven; it seems like we’re only getting out a couple of leaves. But in the end, the masterpiece that God has placed in your soul, the picture you have in your heart, becomes an eternal reality, far more beautiful and perfect and everlasting than you could ever ask or imagine.