The Problem of Box Elder Trees

Michael Lindvall is a Presbyterian minister in New York and a marvelous author of short stories, tales from North Haven, a fictional town in Minnesota. This particular story is about James, an overactive seven-year old who talks a mile a minute, who sleeps sporadically, and who, as Linvall writes, "would doubtless be diagnosed--if he were a suburban seven-year old."

James loves the company of Angus and Minnie, a retired farm couple in their 80s who, for the most part anyway, enjoy his company as well. They love his enthusiasm and welcome his endless conversation. It was Halloween this particular afternoon that James burst into Angus and Minnie's living room complaining bitterly that his mom had gotten him a Teenage-Mutant Ninja Turtle costume. "No one cares about Teenage-Mutant Ninja Turtle anymore. My mom should have known that! I'm going to die if I have to wear that! What am I going to do? I can't wear that costume. Everyone will make fun of me. What am I going to do?"

Minnie, in her delightfully calm, albeit somewhat detached manner, suggested that perhaps he could be a ghost. Her boys had been ghosts every year growing up. Those ghost costumes were probably still up in the attic. Angus, who adored that little boy, was quick to accompany James up the attic stairs to look for the costumes. And there they were! Not much to those ghost costumes. Just a sheet with holes for the eyes and a belt to hold it all together. Angus and Minnie insisted on a reflector belt because it had already snowed in Minnesota, and you can't see a ghost in the snow. That little boy could hardly stand still long enough to get the belt on.

He was going trick-or-treating alone, so Angus said he'd trail along behind to make sure the boy was OK. Before Angus could get his coat on, James raced out the door full speed and ran smack dab into their maple tree. Angus was rushing out to be sure he was okay, when little James picked himself up and ran full speed ahead again. This time he ran into the neighbor's box elder tree. And this time, he knocked himself out. Angus raced over to the little boy. "James!" he hollered. "James, are you all right?" When he reached the little boy and looked down, he realized that the eyes of the costume were not lined up with his little eyes - not even close. James couldn't see a thing. Angus reached down and adjusted the costume so the boy's eyes lined up with the holes in the costume. Little James opened his eyes, was surprised, and said, "I didn't know I was supposed to be able to see!"

Isn't this a familiar scene? You know, of course, we are all guilty of this very thing at times, running full speed ahead, thinking we know what we're about, thinking we know our plan in life, things are going along well as we run full speed ahead, smackdab into that box elder tree of life. And we are knocked flat. We are knocked senseless by life. Sometimes we run into the maple trees of life, and like little James, we can pick ourselves up and get going again. But when we run into the box elder trees, there isn't anything we can do but desperately wonder "Why?" and "How could this have happened?" and "How am I going to take the next step?"

I was speaking with a woman several months ago who was desperate. Her husband had died three years earlier, and she continued to struggle with his death. She did not have a job, and there were no prospects in sight. She was either over qualified or under qualified. "Where is God?" she cried. "I pray and I pray and hear nothing." She had been knocked flat by a box elder tree.

I heard a theologian once talk about the Saturdays of our lives, those desperate places in life in between the crucifixion of Good Friday and the resurrection of Sunday, those desperate places in life where what is crystal clear is the suffering and the pain and the agony, and where Sunday, the resurrection, the promise of new life, seems like a fantasy or fairytale and is certainly nowhere in sight. Living in Saturday among the box elder trees of life is a difficult place to live. That is the desperate place-that place of despair-that is the context for our lesson today. The people were in the wilderness. The Babylonians had swept in, had captured the Israelites, destroyed the temple of God, and scattered the people of God into the wilderness. In the wilderness, the people were asking that desperate question, "Where is God?"

Many have lost their faith. There were desperate cries, desperate questions in the wilderness, and it was there in the despair and in the wilderness that God came to the people of Israel. God met them right where they were, bent down through the prophet Isaiah, and adjusted their costumes so they could see. And what they could see now was quite a shock! Never could they have predicted what they heard from Isaiah and would soon see. God was using Cyrus, king of Persia, to lay the groundwork for their return home. "I will give you the treasures of darkness," says the Lord God. Cyrus, king of Persia, would capture the Babylonians. It was Cyrus that God was using, the king of Persia who didn't even believe in God. Marduke was his god. Still, God was using this surprise to make it possible for the people of God scattered in the wilderness to return home, which they eventually did.

It would serve you well not to decide ahead of time who God is going to use in your life or how God is going to work to bring about the promise of new life. The woman I mentioned earlier, the one struggling with her husband's death and not able to find a job? The grief is still there, of course, but someone in her life had suggested she look in a different direction for work, which she did, and she ended up getting a job in that new and surprising field. And she loves it. She has a new career now. More fulfilling than any job she has ever had. Surprise! God came to her in the wilderness when she was knocked senseless by the box elder trees of life. God came to her and adjusted her costume so she could see. In retrospect, she can see God's presence, even through the desperate times she can see how God was working through different people in her life, speaking for her when she could not speak, praying for her when she could not pray. God's response to the Israelites, to this woman, to you, is a response to desperate cries. God's promise of new life to you is so sure, so solid, it does not even depend on your faithfulness or lack thereof.

When you have been flattened by the box elder trees of life, when you find yourself wandering in the wilderness with desperate cries, God comes to you in Jesus Christ with the promise of the resurrection, bends down, and adjusts those costumes so you can see and, then, picks you up and sets you on your feet again. That is the promise, dear friends in Christ, that will not fail. Amen.

And now may the peace of Christ which passes all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray.

O Lord our God, we give you thanks that your presence in our lives is not dependent on us. Come to us today, God, in our joy to share it and in our despair, to kneel down beside us, straighten our costumes so that we can see you. Keep us open to your surprises. In Jesus' name we pray these things. Amen.