My husband was in the thick of studying for his licensure exam, and at eight months pregnant, I was in no condition to keep up with our yard’s summer growth. We were contemplating hiring a neighborhood teen to tame the jungle around our house when my dad volunteered to come over one day to help clean it up.
He mowed the lawn and trimmed the edges. He sprayed weeds and killed ant hills. I helped as much as my burgeoning belly would allow—sweeping up stray grass clippings and picking up sticks. My last request of him was to trim back our bushes that now obscured the view from our living room window. I left him with the hedge trimmers while I went inside to prop up my swollen feet. An hour later, I went back outside to see a large pile of branches at the end of our driveway. I thanked my dad profusely as he showed me his work.
“I noticed a branch on the tree out front was hanging too low,” he added. “So I went ahead and cut it back, too.”
Turning to face the lone tree in our suburban front yard, I recognized the empty space immediately. My pregnancy hormones took over, and I began to cry. “You cut off Karis’ branch.”
For the previous five months, that single tree had been my two-year-old daughter’s best play friend. Without playgrounds, zoos, museums, or even church, we had spent most of our days outside. I would rest my exhausted pregnant body in a patio chair on the front porch; she would play in the shade of a low tree branch.
I have dozens of photos of her beneath that tree. Karis in a neon pink t-shirt and rainbow shorts shaking a bubble wand. Karis wearing her favorite Baby Shark dress inspecting leaves and dandelions. Karis dressed in the first day of school outfit she would never wear in a classroom, sitting at the base of the tree and watching neighborhood kids play across the street.
That tree, that branch, defined our pandemic experience. And now it was gone, like so many other certainties from everyday life.
My dad apologized for not asking permission before pruning the branch, and he assured me it would grow back healthier. But I still mourned the loss of her tree branch—the loss of everything that had changed in the preceding few months. The pandemic had worn my hope thin, and I struggled to believe something beautiful could come from the brown stub now sticking out of the tree. I struggled to believe something good could come from brokenness all around us.
As soon as her brother Lazarus fell ill, Martha had called for Jesus, her beloved friend and Lord. She had seen his miracles, heard his teaching, and believed that he could heal her brother. For days she waited, watching her brother grow weaker and weaker, waiting for Jesus to come to lift Lazarus up by the hand.
But Jesus didn’t come. Lazarus died.
Four days later, Martha saw Jesus coming down the road. She ran out to meet him, and in her grief, she blurted out her faith mixed with confusion, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She wanted to know why Jesus allowed the death of someone they both loved dearly.
I’ve asked similar “why” questions to God this past year. Why disease? Why racial injustice? Why this hatred? Why would our God of healing, unity, and love allow such suffering?
Jesus didn’t tell Martha why he delayed, why Lazarus had to die, but he did remind her who he was: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). And he has reminded me time and time again as I have brought my fear, anxiety, and pain to him, that he is sovereign and good, omniscient and omnipotent, merciful and gracious.
And he is resurrecting life out of this death.
Martha didn’t know that Jesus would soon raise her brother from the grave. She didn’t know that in few weeks Jesus himself would die. And she didn’t know three days later Jesus would also walk out of the grave. It was while she was still grieving, still not knowing, that she responded in hope, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God” (John 11:26).
I don’t know why so much had to die this past year. Our plans. Our jobs. Our health. Even our loved ones. But Martha’s faith shows me that hope that is seen is not really hope. When we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:24-25). I may not understand how life will come out of the rugged stump on my tree, but I believe my dad when he says it will. I may not understand how the suffering from this past year can bring about any good, but I have hope because God is faithful to his promises.
Because Jesus—the shoot from the stump of Jesse—was cut down, we can have fruitful life.
I’m washing dishes when I see my (now almost three-year-old) daughter frozen in front of our glass front door. Thinking she sees one of the many Amazon deliverers who frequent our front porch, I ask “What are you looking at?”
“Purple,” she whispers. Then louder, “Purple! Our tree is purple!”
She comes running into the kitchen to deliver the good news, “Spring is back!”
She holds out her hand, and I put down the dish I had been scrubbing. We walk outside and look up at the new life erupting from the brown branches we’ve watched the last six months. Tiny flowers are sprouting out of the limbs my dad had pruned. I pick my daughter up so she can get a closer look at the violet buds. She tenderly touches the petals, and I remind her to be gentle because they’re still growing.
I didn’t see it happening in the barren winter months. But while I was grieving death, God was creating life deep inside the branches. He was growing hope deep inside of me.
The past year has brought more pruning than I could have imagined. God has cut away my comfort, my plans, my pride, and so much more. But I’m beginning to see the fruit of his work, and I have faith that he is continuing to bring about fruitfulness in my life.
In a week we’ll observe Good Friday, the day when God the Son humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. But we celebrate knowing that Resurrection Sunday is right around the corner, reminding us that God is always bringing life out of death.