Monday, April 11, 2011

"Painting Leaves"--by Josh Graves

Josh Graves has been a dear friend and ministry partner for several years. Before coming to Otter Creek as their preaching minister, Josh traveled and taught some with ZOE while he ministered outside of Detroit. Josh and Kara are a blessing to Sheryl and me. We love them and their awesome son Lucas. Josh has inspired me and been a cheerleader as we have navigated the rocky roads of ministry over the years. I am excited for you to hear from him today. It is a real treat to have Josh and Kara in Nashville.

J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the most important story-tellers of the 20th century (a devout Christian) captured the essence of what I’m suggesting in a lesser known story, Leaf by Niggle. The story goes like this: single guy named Niggle lives next to brutal and ungrateful neighbors. His single passion in life (“the one thing” he lives to do) is to paint leaves. He spends a ridiculous amount of time helping others, allowing himself to be taken advantage of. He’s not always happy because he wants to paint leaves. Sometimes, when he’s frustrated he even uses his emergency words—words that only make sense in the context of anger. His work was constantly interrupted. Then, as it does for every person, the great common denominator of life came knocking. Death stood at Niggle’s doorway and took him before he was ready.

Once Niggles enters into God’s heaven he realizes the profound connection between his calling on earth and his life in heaven. The leaves he painted on earth became trees, forests, and mountains in heaven. Niggle came to see that earth had been preparing him for heaven.

Because what we do now will be part of what we do then.

There’s a Jewish tradition out of Genesis that we need to pay attention to in order to faithfully embody the good news of everything I’ve just laid out. The tradition is often referred to as Tikkun Olam (tea-koon oh-luhn). In English, it simply means to “repair the world.” Though God created the world, the world is longer the exact world God created (that’s a succinct summary of Genesis 1, 2, and 3). This tradition says that something happened to shatter the light of the universe into countless pieces. Trillions of light particles became lodged as miniscule sparks inside every facet of creation. Leonard Cohen captured this truth with the lyric, “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

I have a friend who volunteers once a week to work at the Hope House in a large urban area. I asked my friend about this in light of scripture’s witness of the relationship of work and eternity. Josh first visited Hope House in March of 2009. He walked in and stood in the back of a room made up of about a dozen kids who were singing songs with a Worship Pastor who hung out with the kids every Thursday. He decided to sit down with the kids and before he could get to the ground, the kids were climbing all over me. They were touching my eyes, ears, and mouth. One kid kept her fingers on my wedding ring. As we continued singing songs, one boy sat in my lap and just stared into my eyes. He leaned over and asked, "Hey buddy, what's your name?" He said, "Timmy." He said, "Do you know what my name is?" He just continued with a blank stare. I said, "You can call me Mr. Josh." He shook his head no and said, "No. I want to call you my daddy."

Josh cried most of the way home as he was introduced to a world so foreign from my experiences...yet so close to the heart of the God who is renewing all things.

A year went by and Josh couldn't get Hope House off his mind. As a minister of a rather large congregation, it's easy to always play towards the masses, but he felt God calling him into a "smaller world...a place where there would be no recognition or approval.” So, Josh signed up for their buddy program; a program they've struggled to get people to volunteer for. They gave Josh a kid named Mario. They told him that Mario is 2 and that he curses . . . all the time. The kid’s an expert cursor.

Josh has been hanging with Mario every Friday for 6 weeks. It's a struggle to communicate with 2-yr-old from any culture, but they are working at it. Every Friday, Josh asks this question, "Hey man, can I be your friend today?" Josh wrote to me in an e-mail: “Is it weird to call a cursing 2-yr-old suffering from AIDS my teacher? How would that look on a resume?”

This reminded me of something I heard from a friend that is often attributed to Mother Teresa. "There is a light in this world, a healing Spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering - too much pain - then suddenly the Spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extra-ordinary ways."

Repair the world: our sacred vocation. Every vocation possesses this divine possibility.

Tikkun Olam is built upon the conviction that the highest human endeavor—whether you are a stay-at-home parent, CEO, or blue collar trying to keep everything from falling apart—the critical calling is to look for the original light from where we sit, “to point to it and gather it up and in doing so, to repair the world.”[1] If the Genesis story says that each person carries the name and image of God within them and that this image has been tarnished (after all, with some people, I have to squint a little harder to see God’s stamp of presence) Genesis also believes God has gifted us with the ability to create as God creates. Creation, once it is set in motion, never stops creating. God put us in the Garden. God gave us general instructions and specific rules. Because our work matters. Remember, he put us in the garden to worship (to walk with God) and to work: “to till the ground and to keep the ground.”

Let us paint the leaves God inspires in us. Let us also know that what we do matters. And let us do all to the glory of God, for one day those tasks will unfold into what God designed them to accomplish. Let us also know that our frustrations and our imperfections and our failings cause us to realize what we think God wants to do through us now will be perfect someday. Let us know, therefore, that what we do now is a gift from God and that is God’s work in us that animates the work we are called to accomplish.[2]
Creation is God’s temple. We gather in this sanctuary in a regular rhythm to remember that God is waiting for us in God’s temple. And, because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God is now alive in you by way of the Spirit. The breath of God has raised you from the dead, beyond your sins, darkness, secrets, and chaos.

This tradition starts in Exodus 31:1-11. The very first person who scripture refers to as having the “spirit of God” (the ability to bring order out of chaos that echoes back to Gen. 1:1-2) is a man most of us have never given much thought to.

Then the LORD said to Moses, "See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts- to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship. Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given skill to all the craftsmen to make everything I have commanded you: the Tent of Meeting, the ark of the Testimony with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent- the table and its articles, the pure gold lamp stand and all its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, the basin with its stand- and also the woven garments, both the sacred garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons when they serve as priests, and the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the Holy Place. They are to make them just as I commanded you."
Paul was rooted in this tradition and reveals such when he writes: “We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is good,” (Thess. 3:11). In another place, he wrote, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him,” (Col. 3:17).
Because we stand on the other side of the cross and empty tomb, we can enter into God’s big world with great joy.

Change diapers in the name of This Story.
Write great music in the name of This Story.
Balance budgets in the name of This Story.
Craft legal treaties in the name of This Story.
Counsel couples into wholeness in the name of This Story.
Help people die with dignity in the name of This Story.
Coach kids and mentor college students in the name of This Story.
Because your work matters on earth and in heaven. It Matters more than we can possibly comprehend. God’s gift to us is our very life. What we do with this precious gesture is our gift back to God. I preach and write for a living because it’s the thing that makes me most alive. It’s not easy; it’s hard work. But I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else.



Josh Graves is the teaching minister at Otter Creek Church in Brentwood, Tennessee (a suburb of Nashville). He is husband to Kara and father to Lucas (and another on the way!) Josh's book, The Feast, was published in 2009 and is endorsed by Shane Caliborne and Brian McLaren. It is available through Leafwood Publishers through this and many other websites:

Watch for Josh's new book (in draft form right now) due out soon entitled, Story of Us.

You can follow Josh on his blog at
Check out this clip of Josh talking about his book...

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