Life and limb
VOICES | Escapes from death belong to God, including those from under a tree
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I would like to set this up for you Robert Altman–style, like one of his films running two separate plots simultaneously that finally converge on one fateful day.
The first protagonist in this tandem narrative is your humble servant, who woke up uncharacteristically early one morning in the middle of the July heat wave. As Christian readers you will want to recall that uncharacteristic early wakings from sleep are not coincidences but may be pregnant with divine purpose. See Esther 6:1: “That night the king could not sleep. …”
The second protagonist is the ailanthus tree, literally “tree of heaven,” an invasive species from China whose distinctive feature is its rapid reproduction and aggressiveness toward native plants in its vicinity. Reaching heights of 49 feet, it is considered a noxious weed, and if that were not enough, it gives aid and comfort to the menacing lanternfly. Its ignominious journey from the Far East took it to Europe in the 1740s and the United States in 1784.
Now arrives the fateful day in question. When I was awakened, “before one could recognize another,” as the ancient Hebrews might say (Ruth 3:14), thinking to beat the worst of the sun, I decided to head to church immediately to start my weeding assignment. It was 6:15 a.m. when I stationed myself along the property line, under the neighbor’s aforementioned ailanthus tree. After a delightfully serendipitous encounter and prayer with an early walker cutting through the parking lot, I did my weeding and returned home at 9 a.m.
About noon, my famously understated boss tacked at the end of a text requesting floor mopping of the new sanctuary: “By the way, a huge branch fell from the tree right in the area that you were working in this morning. Glad you weren’t there when it happened.” He spent part of the next day with a power saw cutting the 20-foot-long trunk into stacking logs, and the ones I could lift I hauled off to the dumpster in the wheelbarrow.
Weeks later I ran into a construction worker who had been on site, and he made a point to say: “That branch fell right where you were 15 minutes after you left. I saw it fall.” “I don’t understand it,” I said. “There was no wind that day.” “It must have been rotten,” he guessed.
You will forgive my present little obsession with all things ailanthus, for it is not every day you get to know the cause that nearly killed you, the bullet that had your name on it but for the grace of God and a decision to skip coffee. What if I had slept in and had breakfast? I find myself thinking. I’d be dead right now. And wouldn’t that be the well-deserved judgment of God?
Which is a funny line of thinking, because the opposite is what in fact occurred: I was spared from death. “To God the Lord belong escapes from death” (Psalm 68:20).
Was the great limb’s crash a warning, then? “You’re spared this time, but stop trifling with sin or else!” Note the intriguing ambiguity in Christ’s comment on freak deaths. On the one hand He seems to delink those deaths from sin: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners … because they suffered in this way?” On the other hand, He calls those deaths a warning: “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
And another thing: Why don’t all men receive “escapes from death?” Does God show partiality? He says He does not. We must presume that He is patient and merciful with all, and that we all, like so many spiritually blind and stubborn Mr. Magoos, have been spared innumerable deaths throughout our pilgrimage. We weren’t aware of them, that’s all.
“It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Lazarus died two times, poor bloke. And as for why the Lord takes some so soon and others tarry, this is not for us to know. That weeding day was not my time.
But I am warned.