I hate not finishing things! I rarely leave a book unfinished. I don’t like to leave food on the plate. And I like to finish a job that I start. Yet one of the things I’ve become increasingly conscious of as I get older is that some of the things I’ve dreamed of–whether my dreams for campus work, for our organization, or for the impact of Christian thought in the part of the world where I live–I will likely live to see only glimmers of the things I’ve dreamed of. Until the end of history and the return of Jesus, the day comes for each of us where we lay down our work, and ultimately our life in this world–always with things undone, always with more that we know could be done.
I think of great “unfinished” works of music. There are Schubert’s Eighth Symphony, Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, and Edward Elgar’s Third. What must it have been like for those composers to have music in mind that was never realized on a score?
I’ve just begun reading Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor. In one of the early chapters he recounts the little story J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, Leaf by Niggle that tells the story of an artist, Niggle, who has a vision of a scene with a beautiful tree in the center. Try as he might, Niggle can never capture the whole tree, only one very perfect leaf. Then Niggle goes on the long journey of death until he comes to a place where he sees the tree of his vision and realizes that his creation was part of a much larger Creation of a greater Creator. Keller notes that this story was written at a time when Tolkien doubted that he would ever complete Lord of the Rings, and that Tolkien was in fact Niggle!
Keller draws from this the idea that for the Christian, in the words of 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (NIV) Paul’s hope was not that our work would be complete in this life, but that there would be a resurrection to a new creation, where somehow our creations would carry over into the final Creation.
What that says to me is that the prospect of unfinished work need not be a cause for despair. Our work will matter and somehow we will see the realization in some purified form of our deepest hopes and dreams. And so I can keep giving myself to pressing toward those goals, to pursuing the good, the beautiful, and the true. I don’t need to finish because my trust is in the one who said, “It is finished.”
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