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Feeling Stumpy?

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

When I was a teenager, I enjoyed buying sentimental gifts for my parents, especially gifts that might bring a tear to their eyes. Although my motive may have been misplaced, my intention was to use those gifts to express my affection for them. When my parents sold their home a few years ago, I inherited one of those gifts: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. In a typical burst of sentiment, I had given this children’s book to my mom and dad on the occasion of their joint February birthdays, when I was eighteen years old; my dedicatory message to them is inscribed inside the front cover.

This poignant story recounts the relationship between an apple tree and a boy. The young boy climbs the tree, swings from the tree’s branches, and even carves a heart into its trunk to signify his relationship with the tree. Later, he carves another heart into the bark with the initials of himself and his young sweetheart. Ultimately, the boy grows into manhood and sets off to make his way in the world. When he needs money, he sells the tree’s apples; in need of a home, he uses the tree’s branches for lumber to build a house. Throughout this tale, the tree persists in referring to the aging man as “Boy” and continually waits in expectation of his next visit. Ultimately, the “boy” asks the tree for her trunk to construct a boat. The tree lovingly acquiesces and is consequently reduced to an old stump in the ground. The story closes with the boy’s return as an elderly man; the tree welcomes him but explains that she has nothing left to give him. He responds that he only needs a place to sit and rest. The tree invites him to sit down and rest on her, as an old stump is indeed good for that. He accepts her invitation and takes a seat on the old, barren stump. The last line in the book reads, “And the tree was happy.”

The image of the old stump suits the way I have regarded myself this year — barren, depleted, isolated, and exhausted. At times, I have felt abandoned (although I could not exactly say by whom) and alone (despite a loving family surrounding me). I have felt increasingly useless and have speculated whether I have anything left to offer anyone. Such thoughts have plagued me during this pandemic season complicated by spiritual and political unrest in our culture.

Nonetheless, as Christmas approached, the promise of the “stump Scripture” somehow rang in my spirit: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1 ESV) From the apparently dead stump of Jesse — a stump defeated by sin and affliction — God visited humankind and caused the Messiah to spring forth. Indeed, in God’s mysterious economy, hope arises in seemingly impossible circumstances.

As the holidays approached and I meditated on this verse, my very beloved ninety-year-old father contracted COVID and was hospitalized. After an initial rally and predictions of recovery after physical therapy, extreme weakness overtook him, and pneumonia set in. Our children and grandchildren were scheduled to join us a week ahead of Christmas to celebrate the holiday, and I sensed I should read The Giving Tree at our gathering. Deeply sorrowful at the prospect of losing my father after his heroic fight against the virus, I searched our stash of children’s books, to no avail, and consequently dismissed my intention of reading that book as maudlin and focused on preparations for the family’s arrival and the inevitable phone call from one of my sisters about my father’s worsening condition.

Our youngest son and his family arrived first, and the toddlers raced upstairs to play with their toys. During the course of the afternoon, I ran to their play area to retrieve something and, to my astonishment, discovered The Giving Tree lying on the floor of the game room. Our three-year-old book lover had apparently rifled through the book stash and happened to pull out that very book! Of course, I snatched it up and opened it to re-read my inscription to my parents: “To Mom and Dad, who never stop giving.” With a sense of wonder, I placed the book reverently on my bathroom counter, in case it should merit an official reading the next day.

That next day, all the children and grandchildren arrived, and one of my sisters called to report that our father’s breathing had become more labored, but that he was awake and could hear. She kindly offered to hold the telephone for him as we each spoke our final words of love and thanks to him. After that final tearful phone call, only a few minutes transpired before she called me back to report that our father had taken a final deep breath and transitioned into eternity.

My father was a hero in every sense of the word, a man of impeccable integrity, unparalleled wit, humor, and insight. He loved people and mentored many (albeit unwittingly). Even in death, he left a rich legacy of faith and faithfulness, honesty, authenticity, and humor.

What happened after that phone call? We celebrated Christmas, six days early, as the entire household had planned (not knowing the Lord had appointed that very day to call my daddy home to Himself). What a comfort it was to be surrounded by all our children and grandchildren! After everyone’s gifts had been opened and admired, I read The Giving Tree aloud, with our three-year-old grandson voluntarily clambering into my lap (particularly meaningful, as he was named in honor of my father) to follow along with the story’s illustrations. As I explained about new life springing from stumps and seemingly dead places, the message of Jesus Christ springing from the stump of Jesse increased in poignancy and vibrance for me, as God had truly given me a righteous legacy through Messiah, in parallel with the heritage given me by my earthly father — who now lives with Him and whose legacy lives forever with our perfect heavenly Father.

Where we are experiencing death and barrenness, we can be confident that the Lord is able to cause new life to spring from that stump. Just as the ancient olive trees in Israel, though gnarled and consumed, serve as the source of saplings full of new life, God is able to make His grace and power abound to us and transform our ashes into beauty. Indeed, He delivers us from destruction!

Yet if even a tenth remains there, it will be burned again. It will be like a fallen oak or terebinth tree when it is felled; the stump still lives to grow again.  Now, the “stump” is the holy seed. (Isaiah 6:13, TPT)

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