‘There is a Tree!’

Published June 24, 2021, 12:18 AM

by Sonny Coloma


Sonny Coloma

“A story begins when something knocks life off balance.  Then the story progresses, or the plot “thickens,” as the protagonists struggle to restore that balance and peace while antagonistic forces block and resist them.  Finally the story ends as the struggle results to either the restoration of balance or the failure to recover it.”

Thus wrote Timothy Keller in Every Good Endeavor from which the title of this column was derived.

The discovery of the deadly novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, in late 2019 and the outbreak of a global pandemic in early 2020 forced many governments to declare lockdowns and enforce highly restrictive quarantine measures. Factories and workplaces were closed, schools were shuttered, face-to-face meetings and mass gatherings including regular church worship and sports events were banned.

By late December 2020, the first emergency use authorization for an anti-COVID vaccine had been issued in the United States.  Hopes for a return to normalcy have been raised by the availability of several vaccines that have been deemed efficacious by scientific authorities. While the US, the United Kingdom and many EU countries are humming along toward herd immunity, the lack of equity in the availability of vaccines has surfaced.  Meanwhile the Delta variant has emerged as a serious threat to the further escalation of the disease.

While disrupting many business processes and practices, the rapid acceleration of digitalization has enabled people to conduct many transactions online thereby overcoming the physical limits of being quarantined.

But it has also brought on massive psychological disorientation undermining the emotional bonds between kith and kin. Working from home and home-schooling are two situations that have escalated the level of stress between husbands and wives, among parents and children.

Our main concern here and now is how to enable and empower ourselves to cope with the harsh realities imposed by the pandemic – and attain a reasonable semblance of equanimity – so that we’re able to deal with day-to-day challenges.

This probably explains the popularity gained by the Korean romance drama, It’s Okay to Not be Okay, which was serialized from June to August 2020 while the reality of a prolonged lockdown was just starting to seep into our consciousness.

Timothy Keller, a Christian pastor and Katherine Leary Asdorf, who worked in the high-tech industry before being recruited into the marketplace ministry, Center for Faith and Work, co-authored Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (New York: Dutton, The Penguin Group, 2012).

In his introduction, Pastor Keller literally “takes a leaf” from a narrative involving J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the classic all-time best-seller The Lord of the Rings.  While Tolkien was struggling to finish his epic work, he submitted to The Dublin Review a short story entitled “Leaf by Niggle.”

“Niggle” is defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as “to work in a fiddling or ineffective way” and “to spend time unnecessarily on petty details.” Niggle, an aspiring painter, could not get to finish drawing a tree because he focused too much on drawing a single leaf, “trying to get the shading and the sheen and the dewdrops on it just right.”

He was also often sidetracked by errands he willingly performed for others.  One night, after running an errand for a neighbor named Parish, he came down with chills and fever.  He never recovered. Later, his sole painting on “one beautiful leaf” was found and brought to the town museum for display. If this is all there is, observes Pastor Keller, then indeed, life is futile.

But it isn’t because there is a Tree.

Niggle earned his just rewards and on a train ride “toward the mountains of the heavenly afterlife” he heard first the voice of Justice who chided him for wasting too much time and accomplishing very little.  But the gentler voice of Mercy chimed in “that Niggle has chosen to sacrifice for others.” As a reward, he was brought before a tree with a robust trunk and flowing branches.  He exclaimed, “It’s a gift!”

Many of us are like Niggle, artists and entrepreneurs with unique visions of a world we may never realize.  Yet, it is beyond our human capacity to guarantee our own posterity.   “Every good endeavor,” writes Pastor Keller, “even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.”  As written by Paul to the Corinthians, “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”

Pastor Keller inspires us further:

“There really is a tree.  Whatever you are seeing in your work – the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing – it is there. There is a God, there is a future healed world that he will bring about, and your work is showing it to others.”