In a previous life (or so it seems) I worked at a wilderness residential treatment center for troubled boys for two years. It was ‘wilderness’ in the sense that we were outside in tents made of mostly raw materials 365 days a year. It was ‘residential’ in the sense that we lived there.
Most weeks I’d work a 110 hour shift before I then had 48 hours off. Then I’d go back and do it all over again.
It was one of the most rewarding jobs in terms of immediate gratification. One could easily track the growth of the boys who were sent to us. They came ‘tough’ and they left tender and respectful.
As my supervisor once said, our job there was to ‘save lives.’ He was right.
One of the things we’d do with a boy who was having particular trouble that day, was go ‘stumping.’ The school was on over 300 acres of mountainous woodland.
So, there were plenty of stumps.
This wasn’t ‘punishment’ as much as it was an opportunity. The boy didn’t have to ‘do anything’ other than work at the stump. He didn’t have to say anything. He just had to keep the axe swinging.
Often, the grueling work would serve as a mechanism for opening up the boy’s emotions. The stump would ‘work out’ whatever needed to be ‘worked out.’
And, at the end of the day – after using an axe, a maul, a maddock, a shovel, a tamp bar, and our bare hands – we’d both have the emotional high of finally uprooting the stump.
We’d turn it on its side, and chuck it back into the hole it came out of. We’d cover it up with the dirt that had come out of the whole. And, a few weeks later you’d never know that a stump, and tree, were once there.
At night our hands would hurt. Our back would hurt. Our shoulders would ache.
But, it felt so good.
I have fond memories of ‘stumping.’ Full-time pastoral ministry just doesn’t provide the same opportunities for physical and emotional exertion. (Except, maybe Holy Week?…)
Having such ample opportunities to be so close to stumps, I have some observations.
They are, practically useless – unless you’re looking for something to sit on. They are worthless – There’s a reason they are usually just ground into the ground today. They are incredibly stubborn. Some of the largest roots that hold them to the ground are as hard as iron, and as flexible as rubber. Hitting them repeatedly with an axe hurts, because the axe bounces off. They clamp onto dirt, clay, and rock with such skill, it is as if an engineer or physicist built them. Removing them is painfully difficult.
And, usually, they are dead. Their life as a tree is over. Thus the ‘useless’ ‘worthless’ observations.
And yet, in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, we are told that a shoot will come out of one such stump, and will inaugurate a Kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness. Isaiah tells us that all will be ok with the world. Prey will lie down next to predators, and children will play with poisonous snakes with no consequence.
And who shall lead this Kingdom? A little child.
All shall be well.
And, it shall all come from a humble, seemingly worthless, seemingly useless stump.
This grand vision from Isaiah is ridiculous in it’s reversals, and it is ridiculous from its origin. Wolves don’t lie down with lambs. Babies don’t play with snakes. Children don’t lead, adults do.
And nothing good has ever come from a stump.
And, this grand vision from Isaiah is all about the coming of the Messiah. This is as much an Advent text as we’ll find in the scriptures.
The Lord is coming. He is near, and he is on the way. And, when he comes, great and wondrous things will happen. And, when he comes, the humility of the means of his arrival will not only be shocking, but will be missed by most. If not all.
Why do we need to drink in this vision from Isaiah this Advent?
Because our world needs righting. Because we need peace, justice and righteousness – and because we need to know that it’s Jesus who brings these things.
And, if we understood the enormity and radical nature of the Kingdom that Jesus inaugurates on earth – we wouldn’t have the gumption to gush at the cuteness of the babe in the manger.
But, we’d be searching the stumps for a shoot. For a sign of Life. For a child that would lead us through pastures of wolves, lions, lambs, snakes, and infants.
Come, Lord Jesus. And bring your Kingdom.