There were two things spinning round in my head last week. One, was a sermon on sin, the second J. R. R. Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle which I heard at Eden Court on Friday in a skilful piece of dramatic storytelling by Edinburgh-based actor Richard Medrington of the Puppet State Theatre Company.
The sermon, specifically, was about our responsibility to recognise that ‘sin’ damages us, and to lovingly encourage one another to turn from it. Now, I absolutely understand that it’s the responsibility of Christian leaders to ensure that churches are safe places where vulnerable people are protected. Anything which threatens that safety must be confronted and not, as has sometimes happened, be ignored, excused or concealed.
If I personally am doing something which is damaging my life and hurting other people then there is nothing I would want more than for a friend to take me for a coffee and put his arm round my shoulder and challenge me in love, but as firmly as it takes: ‘John, don’t you see what you’re doing?’
|Richard Medrington in Leaf By Niggle|
My issue is simply that it’s hard to pin down what ‘sin’ is. We have the 10 Commandments in the Bible. But we also have our own, internalised list of what constitutes a sin. I may regard something as a sin simply because it was frowned on in the church culture of my youth. You may see grey areas in moral decision-making, where I see only black-and-white. We both may be blind to sinfulness we’re complicit in as members of a society where, for example, there is a growing divide between rich and poor. And so we draw up our lists of sins, and criticise and judge each other.
Niggle, in the mythical landscape of Tolkien’s story is a man in a hurry. He’s an artist (of sorts) and has one great canvas to complete. A picture of an enormous tree, which began as a single leaf (Niggle was good at detail) and then grew and grew as branches and foliage burgeoned, and roots reached deeply down. In the background Niggle sees, and tries to capture, a landscape, forests, distant mountains. He hurries and frets because soon, at a time unknown to him he must make an inevitable journey.
But he doesn’t spend as much time on the canvas as he’d like to. He fritters hours away; he’s distracted by visitors from the town, and especially by his neighbour Parish who is always at his door seeking help, and criticising his weed-filled garden.
And then the Driver comes and summons Niggle. He must go. The tree is not finished, but he is finished with it. After a dreamy train journey, Niggle finds himself in a strange institution where, under a strict regime he becomes much better at timekeeping and at finishing what he’s started. There’s a strange tribunal when the voices of justice and mercy agree it’s time for him to move on.
And thus he is taken to a place he recognises. It is the place he saw in his painting: the tree is there, and the landscape behind it. And the tree is finished – every part of it glimpsed, be it ever so faintly is there, and the parts he’d have seen had he had more time to think. ‘It’s a gift!’ he said. And soberingly, he realises that some of the best bits were in fact collaborations with the arch-interrupter, Parish.
|'It's a gift!'|
It’s a powerful story, driven by Tolkien’s Christian faith. It tells me that I am called, in all my living, to be creative, to glimpse something in another spiritual dimension, and seek however feebly, to reproduce it in space and time. I want the tree of my life to be a tree of joy, love, grace, blessing, wisdom. There will be many flaws in my realisation of this vision, and I will learn that what I might see as the interruptions of my Mr Parishes actually contribute to the great work I (like each of us) am called to.
And when the Driver comes and I arrive that dimension beyond I will discover, as Niggle did, that the creative work of my little flawed life is there, somehow perfected, a gift, yes, all of it a gift, and yet still my work. We are God’s co-workers in creating a corner of eternity.
And sin? Not a list of dos and don’ts and grey areas. ‘Sin’ is simply losing sight of this wonderful vision we’re called to, or seeing it but subverting it in acts of hatred, fear, ungrace, joylessness.
Jesus summed up all the Commandments ‘Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.’ Open your eyes to the vision! Glimpse leaves, branches, landscapes, the alluring horizon. The brush is in your hand! For God’s sake, paint!
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 9th June 2016. The Puppet State Theatre Company is here.)