Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Big Picture

As the spring semester draws to a close in this university town, teachers and students alike are having to make crucial choices about how they will use the tiny bit of time left them as they prepare for exams. I say teachers because I know firsthand from my friend Grace that the end of a semester brings an inevitable flurry (fury?) of grading, exam-writing and paperwork.

The other day when I asked how her work was coming along, she said, “I’m leaf-by-niggling.” Now, from the word, “niggling,” you can probably tell this means that she is paying too much attention to details... but the “leaf-by” part is a reference to a story called Leaf by Niggle by J.R.R. Tolkien about a painter who was attempting to paint a forest, but was hindered by his tendency to spend way too much time on each individual leaf. Now, as a guy who created a whole different world, complete with its own mythology, races of people and complete languages, it’s easy to see how Tolkien may have gotten bogged down in the details of Middle Earth... 

Me? I’m more a Big Picture gal, and Grace depends on me to say, “Back up and look at the forest.” As a graphic designer, it would certainly behoove me to spend more time on the details - just ask my clients! And I do try. It’s just not my natural way, so my attempts sometimes fall short. Likewise, sometimes Grace will tell ME to slow down and focus on some important detail I may have overlooked. We balance each other out that way, fortunately.

J.R.R. Tolkien –
master niggler
When I was thinking about this the other day, it occurred to me that God paints both the Big and small pictures. He made the universe and designed a lovely plan for salvation, but He also made each tiny piece. He is behind the scenes keeping the world spinning, but also catching sparrows that fall and knowing the number of hairs on every head. I know some people have a more hands-off view of God, but that’s not what it says in His book. 

For us, I guess it’s both good and bad news... I mean, if He’s watching our every move, then it matters to Him how we move through our days one scene at a time... how we treat each soul we encounter... with love and kindness? Or with irritation and scorn? Even though He's aware of every detail, He's not directing it. We get to chose how we'll behave. For me - it's some of each, sadly. On the plus side, He’s also taking care of us in small ways – so that we don’t have so much to worry about. Here’s what Jesus said about that:

Jesus came to preach the
good news to the poor.
“Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

To fit our analogy, God’s out there painting every tiny detail on every tiny leaf so I don’t have to worry about them. Instead, I’m supposed to be focusing on Him – the Painter – and His Kingdom. This is the actual Big Picture.

First of all, as a mom, it's kind of my job to see to the meals and clothes and all... But I guess it doesn't have to dominate my attention... (Consider the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10: "As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary,( who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”/ “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”) Which, I take to mean: Simplify so you have time for what's really important.

Secondly, as a person who lives a fairly comfortable life in a wealthy country, it is easy for me to put my worries about food, etc., aside... but what about of the world’s truly poor people who don't know where their next meal is coming from? Why isn’t God painting THEIR leaves? I wish I knew. Maybe it’s all part of God’s big picture... for US to help and serve the poor – to help them paint their leaves, as it were. Maybe that's one way we participate in God’s work in the world, His Big Picture.

His brother James had a lot
to say about the poor too.
The book of James says a lot about the poor... He says, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” This little blurb goes with some other stuff about how faith and deeds should go together. Now, our good deeds don’t SAVE us, but if we don’t do them, then we’re not very useful are we? Maybe faith is the Big Picture and deeds are the small picture?

Anyway... both James and Jesus held the poor in high regard. James also said, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” And Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Now, if I read this right, it’s clear that the poor have a spiritual advantage over the rich. Jesus also mentions that if we’ve fed or clothed others, we have done so for Him... That’s Big Picture stuff, that is!

The "Sermon on the Mount" has a lot
of tips about both the big and
small pictures.
I have to say, I am not good at serving the poor. If a special thing is going on - like a food drive, the shoebox thing they do at Christmas, I’ll participate... But systematically, not so much. I’m afraid I wouldn’t even know where to begin to build this kind of regular generosity into my already full-to-bursting schedule. And I know that politically, there are different views of how helping the poor is best accomplished... but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about my own personal involvement in building God’s kingdom... painting the leaves on God’s great Big Picture... 

I like to think that this "painting leaves" also broadens out to helping "your neighbor." That is, the person that is in front of you. Jesus chastises the Pharisees at one point for not taking care of their aging parents. And we should take care of our kids, of course... our actual neighbors, our co-workers... And I also think that "the poor" includes "the poor in spirit"... If we're working on God's big painting, we'll share our prayers and love with  those who haven't been given the mental or spiritual resources to help themselves... whether temporarily or permanently... I hope this stuff counts because, even though I'm not always good at that stuff either, it does cross my path more often.

And now you are getting a crazy glimpse into this crazy, peri-menopausal mind of mine... I start thinking about exam time and Tolkien and which size picture we tend to paint or should be painting and I work my way around to some kind of social justice meanderings... Bet you’re glad you’re not inside MY head about now...! The funny thing is, I'm actually kind of leaf-by-niggling this post! I can't seem to be satisfied with the flow of thoughts and how I'm expressing them, (and rightly so, you're probably thinking...!) so I keep going back over them... but if i want to hit the "publish" button, at some point I am going to have to, if you'll excuse the scatological reference, "pinch it off." How about now?

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