Friday Feed (9/20/2019)

Happy Friday, friends! I’m back with some cool links and videos for your amusement this fine Friday afternoon. (I almost said “fine fall afternoon” but depending where you live, it may still be in the 90’s like it is in my neck of the woods. That’s not fall weather!)

Here we go!

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That’s it for this week. Thanks for your patience through some erratic posting. I’m hoping to get back to a normal schedule soon. (I feel like I say this a lot.) I appreciate that y’all keep coming back.

Have a great weekend. See you next week.

Say the words.

Last week, I tweeted out that I wasn’t doing well. Things were hectic in multiple areas of life, and I was feeling overwhelmed–not despondent, but definitely blue. Over the next few days, several people checked up on me via texts, tweets, emails, and in-person handshakes and hugs. They asked me how I’m doing, if things are getting better, how they can help.

I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. And it reminded me that I need to do that better.

I know several people struggling with different issues right now: unemployment, separation from family due to work, mental health struggles. Chronic issues that can wear down a person’s hope.

It costs me absolutely nothing to take a few moments and send a text or make a call or zip out an email saying, Hey pal, I’m thinking about you and praying for you. You matter to me. I’m ready to lend a hand however I can.

I don’t know why I don’t do that more often. I should.

The news yesterday about Jarrid Wilson’s suicide drove this point home for me. Even the people who seem to be doing okay may not be doing okay. I was reminded of this again in an exchange last night with another friend who confessed how hard the mental/spiritual battle has been for her lately.

So, my encouragement for all of us today:

If you know someone who’s hurting, tell them you care about them.

If you know someone who’s fighting the darkness, remind them that they matter.

Don’t try to diagnose them, fix them, or give them an easy answer. Often, there are no easy answers.

Just tell them how much they mean to you. Tell them they are not forgotten.

Point them back to the compassion and tender grace of Jesus, and then keep doing that.

We all need to hear that more often.

Journal like a Monk: My Thoughts on Using the “Monk Manual” for 2 Weeks.

ballpen blank desk journal
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If you do much reading about productivity or personal/spiritual growth, keeping a journal or day-planner is often recommended for daily practice. Whether it’s bounded by 5-minute timeframes, uses bullets, helps you Get Things Done, or just records your prayers or Bible-reading insights, the practice of reflection and record-keeping can be very rewarding. So I was intrigued when I heard about the Monk Manual.

Let’s go ahead and address the name: Monk Manual?

Immediately, my suspicious mind asked, “What kind of monk?” Was this journal coming from a specific religious background? Would it lead the user into certain religious practices? The answer, as far as I have seen, is no–or at least, not necessarily. I get the sense that the creator of the journal, Steven Lawson (not that Steve Lawson), has in mind some sort of mystical monk tradition (and some of the language under the “Grow in” tab of the website sounds a bit New-Agey), but the journal itself reads much more generally than that. The daily and weekly pages I’ve used do not point to any specific religious practice, either, beyond giving a space to record “what God is teaching me” or “what I’m thankful for.” Folks like me who try to be discerning about spiritual subtext and teaching can rest easy, as far as I’m aware.

The designer’s idea here is to follow some of the reflective practices used by monks and apply them to a productivity and planning context. But (at least in terms of the daily and weekly pages) they aren’t presented in a way that encourages specific religious ideas or habits. The user would have to bring that to the table, in this context.

So what’s a Monk Manual? Will it train me to be a monk?

The Monk Manual is a journal/planner system based on the idea of the PAR Method (Prepare, Act, Reflect). However, instead of focusing solely on accomplishment of tasks, the Monk Manual points the user to some bigger-picture questions, like recognizing blessings, thinking about relationships, and considering how they are really doing internally.

I admit, writing it out that way sounds a bit hokey, but it’s actually pretty refreshing. There’s still an element of GTD in the Monk Manual, and it can be useful in that regard. But the journal is designed to help you step back a bit and think about who you are as much as what you do, which may be beneficial for those who are results-driven or who feel guilty for not doing enough in general.

The Monk Manual is divided into 3 sections: daily pages, weekly pages, and monthly pages. I have not seen the monthly pages yet, but I used the daily and weekly pages for two weeks, with only a day and a half missed–that itself being a minor miracle. Consistency in anything new is a struggle for me.

Taking Time to Reflect.

I found the daily and weekly pages to be a helpful and encouraging exercise because it encouraged me to consider not only what I was doing, but why. Merely the act of assigning a goal-habit and a theme for each week helped to reframe my actions and some of my decisions, so that I was able to look back on them in a slightly-different way.

The act of reflecting at the end of the day is a helpful practice that I don’t do often enough. Some of the end-of-day questions include writing down highlights of the day, times you were “at your best,” and times when you felt uneasy. Taking a few moments to consider my emotions/reactions helped me put some things in context and recognize how certain choices led to consequences I didn’t like. As someone who doesn’t really journal at all, doing that was a benefit that I want to keep going.

When it comes to spiritual matters, you get out of this journal what you put into it. As stated above, there are some vaguely spiritual prompts that a Christian can easily apply in their own worldview without concerns of syncretism. I was able to consider and track some of my personal spiritual disciplines in this journal in an effective way.

Final Thoughts: Like Any Tool, It’s Up to You to Use It.

That’s really what it comes down to: if you decide to use this tool to help improve your day-to-day life and keep you focused, it could be helpful–but it won’t “fix” you and it won’t do the work for you. There are no magical powers in the Monk Manual, and other than providing prompts for consideration, it’s paper and ink just like any other notebook. (Point of fact, I didn’t even use the actual journal that’s for sale–I printed out the free pages and popped those into a folder!)

Would I recommend using the Monk Manual? Sure, if you are interested in trying out a new type of journal and don’t already practice that daily reflection piece. If nothing else, it could encourage you develop a habit of taking a few moments to think about the day, plan for tomorrow, and pray for God’s grace in accomplishing what He’s set before you. That could be a help to you.

Here’s My Pitch

You can try the daily pages of the Monk Journal for free (as a downloadable PDF) from their website by signing up for their email list.

If you use my unique URL to do so, it could help me out by unlocking more freebies for me.

Thanks to a couple of folks who used my link via Twitter, I was able to “unlock” the weekly pages. If a few more folks use my link to sign up, I can “unlock” the monthly pages (and possibly even get a free journal myself!).

So, I’ll make a deal with you: If this sounds interesting, and you don’t mind signing up for MM’s mailing list and getting the free daily pages, once I hit the benchmark needed to get access to the monthly pages, I’ll check those out and then write a follow-up post to let you know what I think of them. Fair enough? You get to check out the daily pages, and you help me get to try out the monthly pages.

Once again, if you’d like to check the daily pages out for yourself, and help me get access to more stuff in the process, use this link to join the MM email list. 

I hope it is a benefit to you. Please come back and let me know if you try it out.

Five-minute update.

Hey readers!

I’ve missed checking in, so I wanted to give you a five-minute update (5 minutes to write, not to read!).

  • Things are busy. Just…really, just busy. Work is busy (yay, computer system overhauls!), church life is very busy (yay, church mergers!), home life with a wife and two littles is very busy (so many tantrums!).
  • I haven’t been reading much (got 75 pages into a 600-pager and stopped because I knew I couldn’t finish in time!), and I have a stack of short-story books on my shelf that I need to work through before they’re all due back at the library. What that means is you will get more #52Stories posts very soon. I’m going to finish that project, even if it’s just for me, folks. So I hope you don’t hate it. 🙂
  • I’m also thinking about starting a series of posts on Mondays where I work through what I’ve been teaching in Sunday School lately: a fly-over summary of the Minor Prophets. Basically, it’s just an overview that gives you the historical context, major themes, and some application points. If you’d be interested in something like that, let me know in the comments!
  • Coming up later this week: my thoughts on using the Monk Manual personal planner for 2 weeks. It’s been a different kind of daily-journal / productivity experience, and I look forward to sharing that with you.

That’s it, time’s up, see you later this week!

Friday Feed (8/30/2019)

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Happy last-Friday-of-August, y’all!

Here are some useful and/or interesting links for your weekend:

Hope these were helpful. If you liked any of these links, I’d appreciate you leaving me a comment below (or hit me up on Twitter!) so I know what you find helpful.

Have a great weekend, friends!

 

 

 

52 Stories #24: “A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver

baking bread breakfast bun
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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Oh my goodness, I’m excited to talk to you about today’s #52Stories selection. This tale by Raymond Carver from his 1983 collection Cathedral was recommended by John Reid over at the GOLiverse Facebook page. What a great selection. Very grateful for this.

Let’s get into it!

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The Pitch

A family’s birthday plans are suddenly altered by an accident.

The Payoff

If you’ve never read this story, I don’t want to say too much here that would spoil it for you. Carver provides a glimpse into the souls of his main characters and draws you into their confusion and pain. This story about the fear and grief of a parent was deeply moving in a way I wasn’t expecting, and the bittersweet ending just crushed me in the best way. It’s absolutely worth your time. Go find it and read it.

The Takeaways

I’m putting up the great big SPOILER WARNING tag here, because I don’t want to spoil your reading of the story. So, please forego the discussion below if you have any intention of reading this one!

Here we go:

  • First, let’s talk about the setting, or rather, the lack thereof. I didn’t pick up on any specific identifiers of place or time period, but the vibe I got was suburbs outside a mid-sized city (somewhere like Indianapolis or Pittsburgh), anytime from the 50’s to the 80’s. There are a few details that might help you zero in on a more specific era, but they’re understated enough that the story feels more timeless.
  • Ann’s contemplation of the baker’s abruptness with her sets up the end of the story nicely without being heavy-handed. I forgot about this detail until I read the story a second time. It’s subtle and effective.
  • I had to keep track of the passage of days in my notes. While Carver does indicate when each day passes, the sections in the hospital feel like a blur, and in my first reading I lost track of how many days had passed. Scotty dies only 2 days after the accident, but it feels like much longer–the reader waits anxiously along with the parents for something to change.
  • I found myself getting frustrated with Dr. Francis and the hospital staff as the story progressed. Obviously, Francis was constantly underselling the seriousness of Scotty’s injury, and there was a point at which I started feeling like this was injurious to the parents. At the same time, I had to remind myself that doctors don’t always know what’s happening, and that doctors and nurses work such long hours and see these tumultuous events happening all the time such that they become inured to it. On the other hand, the narrative is so effective that the reader begins to resent that the hospital staff isn’t more impacted by the Weiss family’s tragedy.
  • The conversation between Ann and Franklin’s parents demonstrates that the Weiss’s are not the only ones in that building facing the pain of loss. It’s a good reminder from Carver that there are many families, each of whose stories are powerful in their own right. Grief can isolate us, making us feel as if we’re the only hurting people in the world, when the reality is there are hurts all around us (as the end of the story also demonstrates).
  • I loved the moment when Ann and Howard each admitted that they had been praying, as if they were afraid that it would sound silly to the other. Carver then comments that Ann realizes that Howard is in this with her, and it makes her grateful to be his wife. What a moving consideration of the isolating and yet uniting effects of grief.
  • The calls from the baker are frustrating and sad. The reader immediately realizes what’s going on, but there’s no way for Howard or even Ann to understand the calls in context. It becomes another layer of tragedy, when they start trying to assign meaning to these seemingly random and cruel prank calls, even wondering if the hit-and-run driver was taunting them. All they can see is the pit of worry and grief they are dwelling in, and it isn’t until after the worst happens that they are able to remember what happened before Monday morning.
  • Scotty’s death was brutal to read as a parent. I just can’t even imagine.
  • Carver takes time to describe in effective detail how each parent expresses their grief. Even though we have minimal description of their lives before this story, they still feel like fully-orbed characters.
  • Ann’s confession that she wants to kill the prank caller is a bold choice. Carver risks alienating the reader if the statement sounds too melodramatic, but the way she says this, graphically but not sensationally, feels authentic.
  • The climax of the story really is when Ann realizes the caller is the baker, and they go to confront him. They both realize that he couldn’t have known about Scotty’s death, but they need someone to blame, someone to receive their anger. However, once they lay out their anger toward the baker, the atmosphere changes, and I think it has everything to do with how the baker responds. This self-admittedly abrupt and unsympathetic man sees the anguish and confusion in these two people, and he chooses to be empathetic instead of defensive. He apologizes for his demeanor and poor communication, and asks them to sit at his table. This is both reconciliation and condolence.
  • The baker delivers the title of the story in a line that hit my heart and stayed there: “You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this.” He offers them coffee and cinnamon rolls, but more than that, he shows them that they have to push through the deep grief that threatens to overwhelm them.  His kitchen table becomes a refuge to Howard and Ann. He later offers them more to eat, saying, “There’s more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There’s all the rolls in the world in here.” The baker is able to open up as well, confessing his own hurt and loneliness and finding a sympathetic ear in this couple.
  • The final line of the story: “They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.” A beautiful and hopeful ending to an emotionally draining story.
  • All in all, this was a masterpiece. Carver is able to flesh out character and motivation with minimal exposition, demonstrating “show, don’t tell” to its fullest extent. There’s an authenticity to the dialogue and thoughts of these characters, which makes their heartache that much more affecting. The ending was unexpected. As soon as Scotty was hit by the car, I was hoping the “small, good thing” was that he would recover. In actuality, it was that kindness, compassion, and a shared table are powerful in helping to comfort broken hearts and encourage them to endure in the face of great loss.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

In praise of simple solutions.

white flush door
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Sometimes, simplicity beats sophistication.

Part of my day job involves creating, revising, and maintaining documents across different platforms, using a variety of templates. These templates often include a series of broken lines for signatures and dates.

One of my colleagues spent some time creating a specialized two-column template feature with specialized margins, lines as embedded objects, the whole nine–and plopped that into our template. It works great–as long as you don’t touch anything.

My preferred approach? Typing a line of underscores, tabbing over a couple times, and then typing a smaller line of underscores.

Sophisticated? Obviously not. But the simplified approach works for me because it’s easy to create, easy to explain, and easy to fix if you accidentally “break” it with some errant copying and pasting. I’ve lost quite a bit of time trying to un-break sophisticated template formatting over the years.

Obviously, if you have more sophisticated needs or complex procedures, you should use the tools and techniques that are appropriate. But too often, I think we assume that the most sophisticated and complex tool or approach is always the best choice for the task.

A question we should consider instead is: How complicated does this solution really need to be? And how simple could it be and still do the job I need it to do?

Friday Feed (8/23/2019)

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Happy Friday, friends!

I need to take a quick breather from the #52Stories sprint, so here’s a list of updates and interesting links for your perusal:

  • First, a quick sneak peak for what’s next on #52Stories: Lately, I’ve been reading stories by Phoebe Gilman and Wendell Berry, as well as working on notes for stories by Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, and Flannery O’Connor. I’ve got a big stack of short story collections on my shelf from the library, as well, so we are set and ready to go. I hope you’ve been enjoying these entries–I sure have!
  • In addition to short stories, I’m currently still reading through Dr. Al Mohler’s new book on the Apostles’ Creed (and really enjoying it), and I’m a little ways into Jocko Willink’s Disclipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual. With other obligations ramping up in my life, I’m having to dial back my long-form reading quite a bit for the next month or so.
  • Speaking of Dr. Mohler, his annual list of recommended summer reading is always worth a look. Of course, his definition of “summer reading” may be a bit different than everyone else’s.
  • I found this Washington Post article about the challenges of student journalism at Liberty University quite fascinating. The issues described aren’t just limited to universities with presidents currying presidential favor. Some elements of this sounded a bit like my own minimal experience at a private Baptist university.
  • We’re entering an exciting and challenging season at my church, as we’re contemplating merging with another congregation and reforming as a new body. (We would appreciate your prayers on this issue over the next several months!)  This story about a successful church merger was an encouragement to read at such a time.
  • I forget at the moment who recommended the webcomic Wondermark to me (Amanda? Matthew? One of you lovely people…), but if you’re not reading it, it’s a hoot. This recent entry hits a little close to home, if you’re an expert procrastinator like I am.
  • This admonition from Tim Challies is a good reminder that creative work (especially things like blogging) are best when they’re focused on doing good by the audience.
  • Great writing advice from the king of pithy posts, Seth Godin.
  • And finally, a few videos I dug recently:

Ben Kenobi has PTSD–this one’s heavy:

Childish Gambino covers Chris Gaines (Garth Brooks’ pop start alter-ego):

I love “How It Should Have Ended,” and this is another homerun entry:

That’s all I’ve got. See you next week, gang. Stay outta trouble, okay?

52 Stories #23: “The Go-Getter” by Peter B. Kyne

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Happy Wednesday, friends! Today’s #52Stories selection is actually a novella published back in 1921 that was recommended to me by my old pal Cory Robinson on Facebook. Was I sufficiently motivated by this inspiring tale? Let’s find out!

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The Pitch

A highly-motivated war veteran pursues a job in a rival corporation and faces unusual challenges to win his would-be CEO’s approval.

The Payoff

This novella is what you might classify as “fict-spirational” or, more plainly, didactic writing: a story that is meant to teach a specific lesson. The Go-Getter was around 60 pages long, in the edition I read, with another 25+ pages of commentary by the author on the various lessons the reader should take away. It was a quick read, rather plain and obvious in parts, but pleasant enough. I’m not sorry I read it, but it didn’t make much of an impact.

The Takeaways

So, what can we learn from Peter Kyne’s early-twentieth-century fable? Let’s find out:

  • The basic plot of the story can be boiled down to this: Cappy Ricks, the CEO of a multi-national lumber corporation, is discussing with his 2 trusted lieutenants his concerns about the head of their division in Shanghai, when a bright young man asks to see him. This salesman, Bill Peck, is a veteran of the Great War with physical disabilities resulting from combat, but his can-do attitude and refusal to take no for an answer impress Ricks, who decides to give him a job. He instructs his division head to give Peck the “skunk lumber” accounts, as a challenge to see if Peck is all talk or if he can follow-through. Once Peck bests those challenges, Ricks gives him one final challenge to test his mettle. The climax of the book is Peck’s frantic and somewhat humorous efforts to complete this impossible task–but at this point in the story, the ending is all but guaranteed.
  • It doesn’t take a graduate degree in English to pick up on the types and stock figures with which Kyne populates this story: the untrustworthy steward, the faithful follower with no confidence or initiative, the bitter middle manager, and of course our protagonist, the go-getter, Mr. Self-Motivated and Results-Oriented. The twenty-page recap of the lessons learned seems pretty unnecessary, but I wonder if part of my cynicism is that there have been an avalanche of business and productivity books written in the last 100 years, such that so much of this feels like old hat? Is this my chronological snobbery at work?
  • I guess the real question is, does it motivate the reader? And the answer is…sure? Maybe I’m not in the right reader for this type of motivational literature, though it’s funny that I have of late found myself drawn to books about self-improvement, productivity, and business/marketing skills. This one felt a bit hokey to me, but I don’t know if that’s a fair assessment. I think my problem is that this story was very paint-by-numbers, and from the moment Bill Peck walks in the door, you know he’ll end up with the Shanghai manager job. The ordeal of the Blue Vase was an entertaining, if circuitous, way of getting there, but it was no surprise at all when Ricks explains himself to Peck.
  • Maybe that’s the problem. The story was too obvious for its length. The Blue Vase adventure felt like a foregone conclusion. If there were a way to cut down on some of the unnecessary dialogue, or perhaps introduce different challenges for Peck to overcome, it wouldn’t have felt so rote. Also, Peck was too perfect of a protagonist to be a role model.

In the final summation, I think The Go-Getter is clearly a book of its era that suffers by comparison to other short stories as well as other inspirational business texts. Perhaps it should get more credit for being an early example of the genre, but that doesn’t save a straight-forward and predictable story from being much more than window dressing for the author’s moral lessons. It wasn’t a bad book, so I wouldn’t dissuade you from reading it. I’d just caution not to expect too much from it.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #22: “Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today’s #52Stories selection is a religious allegory/fable by arguably the greatest fantasy author of the 20th century, the architect of Middle Earth himself, J.R.R. Tolkien. (Thank you to Matthew Marks on the Goliverse Facebook page for the recommendation!)

So, does Tolkien’s genius extend to his short fiction? Let’s take a walk together and find out!

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The Pitch

A would-be painter struggles to finish his masterpiece before taking the long journey that awaits all flesh.

The Payoff

This one turned out differently than I expected! In a few theology books I’d read in the past, I came across summaries of this story, but those summaries (at least how I recall them) were quite different from how the story itself actually resolves. It seems that Tolkien, who was famously negative towards allegory, couldn’t help himself when writing this parable–and readers familiar with that other famous Inkling’s writing will see similarities. It’s a pleasant journey with a decidedly theological flavor, and definitely worth the trip.

The Takeaways

So what was it about “Leaf by Niggle” that I found so charming? Err, um, just–okay FINE, hang on a moment while I put down my writing… I really need to get back to that soon, but if you MUST know, let the Seurat-style spoilers (i.e. in “pointilist” prose) commence!

  • Note: Okay, so what follows ended up being essentially a summary of the full story with commentary. It’s longer than I had planned. I don’t normally like to summarize these stories in their entirety, but I just found this one so interesting and pleasant that I can’t help myself. So, again, if you haven’t read the story, the following will spoil everything for you. Please seek it out and read it on your own, and then come back. 
  • First paragraph: “There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go; indeed, the whole idea was distasteful to him, but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start some time, be he did not hurry with his preparations.”  From the outset, the reader can see the obvious metaphor Tolkien establishes. The “journey” is referring to death–but much more than that, to the world-to-come. Niggle, like so many of us, knows it awaits him but does his best to busy himself with other things rather than prepare for the inevitable.
  • In the summaries I’d read before, Niggle was presented as someone who selflessly put aside his own desires to pour out for others. Yet, as it’s actually written, Niggle is like so many of us: frustrated by interruptions of his own plans, irritated by the thoughtlessness of others, yet softhearted enough to at least feel bad that he doesn’t do more to help. In this, I really appreciate how Tolkien doesn’t describe his main character as an alabaster saint. Niggle does indeed help others, but does so with grumbling, sighing, and some muttered curses. His heart, while somewhat tender, is not completely bent toward loving others. There is still some soul-work to do.
  • Niggle’s neighbor, Mr. Parish, is the greatest source of his distraction and frustration. Parish is a constant source of need, often requiring Niggle’s assistance due to his infirmities. He critiques Niggle’s failure to maintain his garden well, but yet ignores or secretly mocks Niggle’s paintings, which are the joy of his life. The fact that the neighbor is named “Parish” is noteworthy here, as a “parish” is also the word for a district that is under the care of a specific church and priest. I’m sure there are many in ministry who at times find their own “Parish” to be a source of criticism and neediness, with little thanks or praise. (Not me, certainly, but others, I’m sure…)
  • As his days run out, Niggle realizes that his great masterpiece is not going to be finished as he likes. His best laid plans have gone awry, and in the end, he embarks on a rain-soaked bicycle ride to get a doctor for Parish’s wife, knowing it may well cost him the last of his productivity. It does; Niggle “recovers” in time for the House Inspector to arrive and inform him he failed to help his neighbors properly with their house, and for the Driver to pick him up for his long journey.
    • Two notes here: I’m not sure if the House Inspector is meant to be metaphorical in the context of the story, but I’m inclined to think he is–a representative of the Law who weighs Niggle’s life and finds him wanting.
    • Also of note is that the Driver comments how little luggage Niggle has prepared for his expected-if-unplanned journey. All Niggle finds he has in the bag he grabbed are his paint box and sketchbook, representative of the thing he loved most. But he has failed to store up treasures for the life to come, and this will come back to haunt him.
  • Here’s where the story takes a sharp turn from what I was expecting: I had heard the story related that Niggle then arrives at his “destination” to find the perfect, beautiful Tree that he’d always been trying to paint but never could because he kept stopping to help others–in other words, his “masterpiece” is the life of service he lived.  But that’s not how it goes at all! (Could I have misread them so badly?) Instead, Niggle is taken to what he describes as a prison or work camp, where he is forced to labor for what seems like hundreds of years. In the context of the allegory, Niggle ends up in Purgatory!
  • In this purgatory, Niggle is left to his thoughts as he is force to do “work” that echoes the works he failed to do properly or speedily in life: digging holes (gardening) and building (repairing his and Parish’s house). This period of confinement results in regret over his failings as a neighbor. His heart softens to Parish’s natural infirmities and limitations. His past selfishness becomes a point of sorrow and repentance.
  • As Niggle’s “case” is reviewed by unseen Voices (which reminded me of conversation between the “angels” Joseph and Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life), it is noted that Niggle’s heart was in the right place but hadn’t functioned as it ought, and that his “head wasn’t screwed on properly.” Yet, despite being a “little man,” his sacrifice at the end stood in his favor, as does his current disposition toward Parish. Niggle graduates to the next level of purgatory. No longer confined to a prison, he is given stewardship of a house and property with a view of The Tree and The Mountains that had so filled his dreams and imaginings in life. This is Niggle’s do-over, in a sense–but he won’t be alone. Parish has made the journey and joined him. Now, Niggle and Parish become friends, and learn how to be good companions and neighbors as they share this place and build their adjacent cottages. Finally, the time comes for Niggle to move “further up and further in,” heading to the mountains (following a shepherd, it should be noted), while Parish waits at their pleasant plot of land (which comes to be called “Niggle’s Parish”) for his wife to join him.
  • The final scenes of the story provide a dual-ending. There’s a conversation on Earth between a school master and town councilor about Niggle’s estate being sold off and the pitiful legacy he left. (This section seemed a clever twist on the “Christmas Future” scenes of A Christmas Carol.) The greedy councilor is dismissive of Niggle’s “foolishness” but the teacher is taken by a fragment of Niggle’s painting, which he keeps and later displays in an art gallery: “Leaf, by Niggle.” Meanwhile, in the Other Place, “Niggle’s Parish” becomes a convalescent home for souls making the journey to the mountains, and it is noted that this caused the home’s namesakes to laugh until the mountains rang with their joy.

In the final tally, Tolkien’s religious parable is really about a man who struggles to value the things that matter most in this life and whose heart must be reshaped before receiving his final rest. Tolkien’s Catholicism shapes this narrative, as he takes Niggle through a few stages of “purging” before he is ready to ascend the Mountain of the Lord.

Even for Christians who don’t hold to this doctrine, the story is still a good reminder that, no matter what other plans or pursuits we have in this life, there are some things that matter most and have eternal impact. Our days on earth are limited, so if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus, we should be about our Master’s business while there is yet daylight.

I was surprised by this story (and by its overtly Catholic nature) and enjoyed reading it very much. After reflecting on it, I find myself thinking about what I value most and how I can spend my days pursuing things with lasting impact. That alone makes this a worthwhile read.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!