I have a great deal of respect for Tim Keller.
I’ve read several of his books. I’ve listened to many of his messages. I turn to him often to refresh my perspective on life and ministry and what it means to be “gospel centered” there.
Awhile ago a friend sent me a link to an interview with Keller in the Wall Street Journal. I jumped on the chance to hear more from this man.
I wasn’t disappointed. As the the interviewer asked questions about the history of his church and efforts in Manhattan, I was once again reminded of how much I enjoy the way Keller thinks.
The clincher, though, came at the end of the article.
He’s cheerful, but the way Mr. Keller describes his own efforts proves what he preaches about the emptiness of seemingly fulfilled ambitions. He admits readily that he can get discouraged, with more ideas and less time. “I very often feel like I’m barely getting a leaf out, in spite of the fact that Redeemer is vastly more successful than I ever thought it would be,” he says.
The author went on to explain the idea of “barely getting a leaf out.”
“Barely getting a leaf out” is a reference to a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien about a painter named Niggle who spent his whole life trying to paint “a tree, a beautiful tree, and behind it snowcapped mountains, and forest marching off,” Mr. Keller says. When Niggle dies, he’s only finished painting one leaf. “He’s going into the afterlife, and he sees something off in the distance and jumps off the train, runs to the top and there’s the tree, his tree, that he had always felt.”
I had never heard of this short story but really connected with this idea. I often feel this way, like I haven’t scratched the surface of what I want to do, long to do. Like I haven’t even touched the impact I want to have, dream to have. In the face of this reality, I am left wondering, much like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” if I have just screwed up and missed the life I was intended to live.
Keller’s explanation of the story gave great perspective:
What Tolkien is getting across, Mr. Keller says, “is that we have a vision for justice, a vision for beauty—and as artists, lawyers and city planners, in this life we can only ever get out as much as a leaf, but we are actually being inspired by some vision that God’s going to make it a reality.”
“What you’re working on, and what you’re hoping to get, in the resurrection, in Christ, you will get. But you need to be willing to live with the reality that in this life you’re probably only going to get a couple of leaves out.”
This caused me to take a breath. I found myself willing to rest in this reality and realization that my “uncommon” experience is not so uncommon and work toward getting my “couple of leaves out,” hoping for the day when the tree appears.