While the rest of the world was living on in glorious daylight and blissful ignorance of my decimating torment, I wrestled with hard truths. I came face to face with a life that seemed to be out of the Creator’s control. After ten years of abuse and torment I was flayed open and left with nothing but an ashen mouth and scar tissue. And that was when the Spirit of God came and comforted me.
You see He couldn’t fill the void if I kept trying to fill it myself with myself by myself. His timing is perfect. He absolutely will bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. And when you don’t feel this, you just have to offer it up as a sacrifice of praise.
He waited over a decade to break through the leaden curtain that kept me from His love and His favor. And when He did break through He showed me that He had held me, my pain, AND even the curtain all in His loving embrace. And now He has brought me a helper who holds Him high above all other things, and it is for that reason that she is able to encourage, admonish, sharpen, and uphold me in a gentle spirit of Love. She lives and breathes a bravery that can only come from having lived through Hell and been restored in her Father’s love.
And she is now being used by God to comfort me. There aren’t enough years in the world that can keep the ashes from becoming beauty or the scars from healing into a new strength. I am coming face to face with a life that is entirely and unshakably in the Creator’s control. And while the world is living through a decimating torment and wrestling with hard truths, I am living on in glorious daylight and blissful eternal truth.
My children you asked me for a story, and I will tell you my least favorite one, because gray days are made for sad stories, and sad stories for gray days. They make all the other days brighter.
There once was a tree that was loved by most everyone. They knew him by his fruit, his dark green leaves, and his wide-spreading branches. His roots went deep because they were nourished and tended to when they were very young. He was alive and growing, and the wood that made up his heart was strong and filled with life.
And yet he knew that there was more love and joy available than could be had alone, so when a tree house came along the tree saw a vision of a future—a future where children could climb to higher heights and spend more time enjoying his shade, his fruit, and the life that was deep in side his heart. The tree house was also made of wood, but it was not living. It had been at one time, but now it was dried out and cut into straight lines. This allowed it to be measurable and useful, but it also made it rigid.
The tree said to the tree house, “Come and live in me and be in my branches! I will hold you high, and keep you safe. My branches are strong and my roots run deep. Together we can bring more joy than we could on our own.”
The tree house said, “Ah, that sounds delightful! But there are only certain ways I can go. You see I am straight and measured and planned. Tree, you are not made for a tree house, but you can bend and move to fit my lines, and then you will be good enough.” And so the tree house with all of its strength and rigidity locked itself into the good and willing tree.
For a while, children, it was very good. The tree held the tree house high and proud and shaded it with his dark green leaves, and the tree house held fast to the tree connecting his many branches to one another. But when the storms came the tree—who used to sway so beautifully, dancing with the wind—swayed so little because the tree house was holding everything together.
“Stop! STOP!” yelled the tree house. “I didn’t know this would happen! This is too much!”
The tree was surprised. “Did you not know that storms would come, and blow, and move things about? But do not worry! You’ve locked yourself into me, and my roots grow deep. You are safe.”
But the tree house did not like the moving and the swaying, bending and dancing, or even the laughing of the leaves in the raging of the winds. It refused to trust the tree even when the tree did everything it could to keep the tree house from moving. He shed all his dark green leaves, and he stopped bearing his fruit, and everyone who loved him stopped knowing him by his fruit, and only knew him as the tree with the tree house in it.
And with the storms came floods, but the tree held the tree house aloft. He pleaded with the tree house, “I cannot continue to carry all of your weight! Though my roots are strong and run deep, the very ground beneath us has become soft and they are drowning. Please, you need to grow or surely we will both perish!”
But as I said, dear children, the wood in the tree house was dead and rigid and unbending. The tree continued to hold the tree house aloft, and he persevered in minimizing the storms as much as he could. He desperately needed to grow, but the tree house would not let him. It had been measured and cut to its own original plan of a perfect shape. The tree, because he was living and soft, grew around the tree house, taking on its shape and form. He could not grow wide and was not allowed to grow tall. The tree house cut deep into the heart of the tree, piercing his bark. The tree became infested with fire ants who ate of his flesh and stole of his life. Carnivorous spiders roamed free, feasting on the ants and leaving palaces of webs that scared all the children away. Webs grew thick, nails rusted, and the tree grew increasingly like the tree house: rigid, measured, and scared.
Until, finally the tree house said, “These storms keep coming, and you move too much. Your growth has split my planks and overwhelmed my lines. You let ants and spiders in to eat at your heart and infest my flesh. You have ruined yourself so that no one enjoys you any more. Especially me.” And it left.
And while the tree was bruised and cut and had his heart-flesh exposed by the removal of the tree house, he was once again free to grow. So he did. While he wept for the loss of his friend, with whom he’d weathered many storms, he grew bark back over his wounds. The fire ants now had nowhere to hide, and the spiders had nothing to feast on. His dark green leaves sprouted afresh and the people once again knew him by his fruit, and they were happy. And the tree finally understood the heights of the love and joy for which he so long ago had a vision.
What’s that my children? What became of the tree house? In truth we do not know. But living things grow and get stronger and weather many storms. And though it is wounded and gnarled, those scars are covered over and become the strongest part of that tree. The dead, rigid, measured wood can only return to be a part of the earth and feed everything that is living.
I told you it was not my favorite story, but it is a good story. The dead feed the living, and the living grow and give glory to God, even on a gray and cloudy day.
‘Twas the week before finals and all through the school
All the students were panicked and losing their cool.
The deadlines flew by because no one would heed
The dates in the syllabi no one would read.
The children were buried nose-deep in their studies
While visions of failure plagued them and their buddies.
But I with my grade book and papers and tests
Had just settled in to put grading to rest.
When out in the halls there arose such a clatter
I rose from my desk to see what was the matter.
Apparently someone who thought they were leaving
Had just failed their Math class, and now they were grieving.
Turning back to my office I started to think,
“It’s still really early, but I need a drink.”
When what in my over-filled inbox appeared,
But mountains of emails all smelling of fear.
With sobs and excuses my ears they anoint.
I knew in a moment they must want more points.
More rapid than eagles their stories they came,
But I’ve heard them before so they all sound the same:
“I can’t buy the textbook.” “I’m not feeling well.”
“If I fail this class now my Mom will raise Hell.”
“I didn’t think you really meant what you said.”
“If my coach finds out that I’m failing, I’m dead!”
So for hours I answer them all with one line:
“Why didn’t you do what I’d asked the first time?”
And now they want me to come up with a plan
To get them a good grade while holding their hand‽
And then as I sat there I heard by the floor
The sound of soft weeping just outside my door.
As I swung the door open I saw a limp pile
Of a student who smelled like he’d been there a while.
He was dressed all in sweats from his head to his socks,
This ensemble completed by smelly blue Crocs.
A folder and notebooks splayed out like some joke.
In his backpack his laptop was seeming to smoke.
His eyes—oh, how blood-shot. His skin—oh how sallow!
It seemed to me even his breathing was shallow.
His weak little mouth was drawn down in a frown.
He looked like an alley rat someone had drowned.
I could see there were Cheetos still stuck in his teeth.
A cap held his greasy mop safe underneath.
How long had he been there? How long had he waited?
My normal frustration was quickly abated.
I helped him up ‘til he leaned on my bookshelf,
And I laughed when I saw him in spite of myself.
A wink of my eye and nod of my head
Soon gave him to know he had nothing to dread.
I told him, “Hey, look, not to sound like a jerk,
But you didn’t turn in nearly half your homework.
And I know that this doesn’t sound all that exciting,
But you have seven days to do 12 weeks of writing.”
He sprang to his feet, and he ran out the door
On his way to start typing a novel, I’m sure.
And I heard him exclaim as he slipped out of sight,
“I WILL FINISH IT ALL!...once I’ve beaten Fortnite.”
As many of you know, this has been a crazy year for me. Last Spring I got shingles, then our home flooded in August, and I've spent the bulk of this year working on rebuilding my home. It's crazy to go to work full time as a college professor with all the curricular and extracurricular demands, then go home (not my home, mind you) and work for hours on putting together spreadsheets for insurance companies, and scheduling visits with field adjusters for insurance companies, and visits with contractors for insurance companies...
Jesse is a professor at Houston Baptist University. He also directs the school's theatre club, does handyman projects on the side, and produces features and short films. A Pastor's kid/missionary kid, his view of life is at the very least unique. And hopefully helpful.