Sunday August 7, 2016: Redemptive Art?

6 Turning Leaves

Prelude: Amarillo by Morning – George Strait

Welcome: We gather together to face ourselves honestly, By Philip Larson

We gather together to face ourselves honestly,
to forgive ourselves gently,
to love one another fervently.

Chalice lighting: For every time we make a mistake, By Maureen Killoran

For every time we make a mistake and we decide to start again:
We light this chalice.
For every time we are lonely and we let someone be our friend:
We light this chalice.
For every time we are disappointed and we choose to hope:
We light this chalice.

Song: Gathered Here In the Mystery of This Hour (3 times)

Gathered here in the mystery of this hour.
Gathered here in one strong body.
Gathered here in the struggle and the power.
Spirit draw near.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism
Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Story for All Ages: from “Leaf by Niggle”, by J.R.R. Tolkien

{Today’s “story for all ages” was taken from a little-known story by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien says that he wrote it around 1938 or 1939, after he woke one morning “with it already in mind.” It was originally published in 1946 in the Dublin Review, then republished in 1964, joined with the essay “On Fairy-Stories”, in a small volume titled Tree and Leaf.}

Offering and Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received — and the gifts which we, ourselves, are — may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Reading: from “On Fairy-Stories”, by J.R.R. Tolkien

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or [adult] that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

Lesson: Redemptive Art?
Robert Helfer

This will probably be brief. I’ve found myself investing too much energy anxiously observing the world to think clearly, to find the words, to organize my thoughts. And while I’ve not participated in many of the arguments that should have been discussions, they have disrupted the energy I should have been putting into more worthy causes. But no matter what happens in the world, our lives go on. And I must say some things today, no matter how trivial.

The thoughts I’m going to try to express were sparked recently by my rereading, once again, a relatively little-known story by J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle”. (In these days of continuing fascination with the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, it seems unlikely that any story by Tolkien is actually “little-known”, but this one seems to be at least relatively so). I have included part of it here as the “story for all ages” – “part of it” because to fit it into the service I’ve had to shorten it drastically, dropping out words and whole paragraphs, but mostly by ending it far short of its real ending. What I did include amounts to merely setting the stage for Niggle’s redemption.

And so, to continue, Niggle sets out very reluctantly on his journey, grieving for his painting which will now never be completed – remember that his greatest concern was that he would not have enough time to finish his painting. Most of this journey involves long, empty stretches or vacant time; waiting in empty, darkened rooms; riding in trains with no notion of where they are going, all the while overhearing disembodied voices commenting critically on Niggle’s character and value. We don’t need the details here, only to know that finally he arrives at a station, a new place without a name. And here is the “turn”, as Tolkien’s essay calls it, “giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy”.

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

“It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.

Niggle sees that there is still much to do to complete the picture, and it is then that he realizes that he needs Parish.

“Of course!” he said, “What I need is Parish. There are lots of things about earth, plants, and trees that he knows and I don’t. This place cannot be left just as my private park. I need help and advice: I ought to have got it sooner.”

Parish soon arrives, his own journey having started some time after Niggles’s. Between the two of them, now fast friends, they make the picture — or is it the reality – complete, both of them “redeemed” for their past negligences.

At this point, perhaps I need to say something about what I mean by “redemption”. I’m sure it isn’t obvious. The typical Christian concept of “redemption” refers to the rescue of sinful people from the punishments, after death, of Hell; it allows them to reap the rewards of Heaven despite their unworthiness. But what I’m talking about is perhaps a little different.

John Murray, the “father of Universalism in America” (I’m sure we all remember him), recounted in his autobiography a painful encounter in his Calvinist days with an unnamed young woman who would not be shaken from her belief in universal salvation. In the 1760s, Murray was a member of a strictly Calvinist congregation in England. He had been delegated to visit a former member and persuade her to return to the “true religion.” In the course of an exchange upon the question of whether Jesus Christ was the Saviour of unbelievers as well as believers, Murray reports that the woman said:

“Then, if Jesus be not the Saviour of the unbeliever until he believes, the unbeliever is called upon to believe a lie. It appears to me, sir, that Jesus is the complete Saviour of unbelievers; and that unbelievers are called upon to believe the truth; and that, by believing, they are saved, in their own apprehension, saved from all those dreadful fears, which are consequent upon a state of conscious condemnation.”

That is, all are saved, in the sense of being rescued from Hell – this is the doctrine of universal salvation. But belief remains important. The unbeliever is saved from fear of that condemnation by believing that he or she is saved.

Well, I think I mean something like that. Perhaps redemption is a person’s release from the anxiety and fear of his or her own condemnations of self.

But there’s something else here. Niggle’s attention to detail drives him as he works on his painting, as he tries to put on canvas what he sees in his imagination. He knows that his efforts are not appreciated by anyone else – although to be fair, he rarely lets anyone else see what he has done or explains the vision he’s trying to capture – and he fears that he will never complete his work. Perhaps Niggle’s redemption comes when he finds that, despite his faults, his painting has become real at the end of his journey.

Now, as I was looking at various details about this story, I discovered that Tolkien actually viewed it as an allegory, a reflection on his own life and ambitions. At the time he wrote this story he was in the midst of writing his major work, The Lord of the Rings. He later said of “Leaf by Niggle”:

“I should say that, in addition to my tree-love (it was originally called “The Tree”), it arose from my own pre-occupation with the Lord of the Rings, the knowledge that it would be finished in great detail or not at all, and the fear (near certainty) that it would be ‘not at all’. The war had arisen to darken all horizons. But no such analyses are a complete explanation even of a short story…”

Like Niggle, Tolkien was deeply concerned with the details of his masterpiece, was constantly annoyed by events of the world that prevented him from working on it, and afraid that it would never be finished.

And then I realized why this story strikes a particular chord with me.

For a large part of my working life, I labored to create a vast, complex computer system. It was both my job and my consuming passion, and I was constantly immersed in its details. And at the same time I constantly dealt with interruptions, interruptions that often seemed far from necessary. And although I labored bravely, I knew the project would never be completed, and that no one else was likely ever to appreciate the beauty of the system. In fact, it was not finished when I retired, and it remains still as I left it.

Similarly, when Lisa and I retired and moved to Clarksburg, we bought an old house, one that had been badly neglected for some years, both the house itself and the large yard that surrounds it. And over the past seven years we have spent considerable time and effort planning repairs and improvements, and, most of the time, doing the required work ourselves. And we have planned and labored on changes to the yard. We have chosen not to maintain the yard in the usual fashion, with closely mowed lawn and a few flowers, but instead to pack it with as many flowers as possible, trying to have flowers in bloom from the earliest spring through the beginning of winter. This is a bit like Niggle’s painting, and we are always involved in the details. Of course, we’ll never “complete” this project, but maybe we’ll come as close to completion as Niggle did, and perhaps that will serve as our “redemption”.

Getting back to Niggle – at the end of the story, some of the important men of his village come to talk about him. It’s clear that few saw any value in the man, or in his paintings. His major work, the one he focused so much time and energy on, had been used to patch the roof of Parish’s house once Niggle was gone.

“Of course, painting has uses,” said Tompkins. “But you couldn’t make use of his painting. … Private day-dreaming. He could not have designed a telling poster to save his life. Always fiddling with leaves and flowers. I asked him why once. He said he thought they were pretty! … Silly footler.”

“Footler,” sighed Atkins. “Yes, poor little man, he never finished anything. … You remember that large one, the one they used to patch the damaged house next door to his, after the gales and floods? I found a corner of it torn off, lying in a field. It was damaged, but legible: a mountain-peak and a spray of leaves. I can’t get it out of my mind.” …

“Oh, poor little Niggle!” said Perkins. “Never knew he painted.” …

Atkins preserved the odd corner. Most of it crumbled; but one beautiful leaf remained intact. Atkins had it framed. Later he left it to the Town Museum, and for a long while “Leaf by Niggle” hung there in a recess, and was noticed by a few eyes.

And maybe that is enough to count as redemption.

Music: The Fool on the Hill – Paul McCartney

Joys and Sorrows
(Please save announcements and comments until the end of the service)

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;
or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation
Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation

Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing: A Power at Work in the Universe, By Tom Schade

My friends,
There is a power at work in the universe.
It works through human hands,
but it was not made by human hands.
It is a creative, sustaining, and transforming power
and we can trust that power with our lives
[and with our ministries].
It will sustain us whenever we take a stand on the side of love;
whenever we take a stand for peace and justice;
whenever we take a risk.
Trust in that power.
We are, together, held by that power.

The chalice has been extinguished.
Go now in peace.

Announcements, Comments, Shameless Self-Promotions, Etc.