822) Stuck in the Middle (part one of two)

     Walking by her son’s bedroom, a mother was astonished to see that the room was clean and the bed was made.  She had not seen that for a very long time, so she figured something must be wrong.  Then she saw an envelope, propped up so it could be easily seen, and addressed to “Mom.”  With a good bit of uneasiness, the mother opened and read the letter.  It said:

     Dear Mom, I am very sorry to have to write you this letter.  I won’t be coming home tonight.  I won’t be coming home at all anymore.  I had to elope with my new girlfriend because I wanted to avoid a scene with you and Dad.  You never met her, but I have been finding real love with a girl named Tonya.  She is very nice, but I knew you would not approve of her because of her pierced ears, nose, and tongue, her tattoos, tight motorcycle clothes, and the fact that she is much older than I am.  But it’s not only the love.  Mom, she is pregnant.
     Tonya says we will be very happy.  She knows of a little cabin in a forest in Canada that we can live in with another couple.  They have a stack of firewood for the whole winter, so we are prepared for the future.  We share a dream of having many more children.  Also, Tonya has opened my eyes to the fact that marijuana is not at all harmful.  We’ll be growing it ourselves and trading it with the other people nearby for cocaine and other things that make me feel good.
     In the meantime, we will pray that science will find a cure for AIDS so that Tonya can get better.  She deserves to be well.  Don’t worry Mom, I am 17 and know how to take care of myself.  Someday, I’m sure we will come back to visit so that you can get to know your grandchildren.
Love, Mark
P.S.  Mom, none of the above is true.  I’m over at Tommy’s house.  I just wanted to remind you that there are worse things in life than a bad report card, which you will find in my center desk drawer.  I love you.  Show the report card to Dad, and call me when it’s safe to come home.

     What an abrupt change in perspective comes in the P.S. part of that letter!  Just when your heart is going out in sympathy to that poor mother, you read that ‘none of the above is true,’ and you experience a complete change in emotion.  In a moment, you move from sympathy to the relief that mother was surely feeling.  I remember some unpleasant report card days with my kids, and a letter like that one would certainly serve to set one in a different mood by providing a different perspective.  Instead of wondering what’s the matter with her son and why he can’t do his homework and study for tests, that mother was probably thanking God for her wonderful boy who was just down the street at Tommy’s.  We have all experienced how fast one’s perspective can change.  One’s day to day problems and frustrations can be quickly forgotten by a phone call that there has been an accident or by a doctor’s bad news.

     I Kings 17:17-24 tells a story that also contains such a sudden change in emotion:

Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill.  He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing.  She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God?  Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”

“Give me your son,” Elijah replied.  He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed.  Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?”  Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!”

The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived.  Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house.  He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!”

Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”

     This story also describes a mother’s grief over her son.  But in the Bible story the situation is even worse.  The son has not run away, but has died.  And in both stories there is, at the end, a quick change in mood and perspective.  In I Kings 17 God gives the boy’s life back in response to the prayers by Elijah.  This hopeless story of death is turned into a time of great joy, as grief and separation is turned into the happiness of a joyful reunion.

     You can read through these stories quickly, each in less than a minute, and within seconds of hearing about the grief, you read about the happiness.  But in order for the story to have its full impact, you have to slow it down.  You need to not only read the story, but also imagine yourself being there and living it.  You have to feel yourself “stuck in the middle of it”  in order to feel the pain of what was going on there.  The widow in the Elijah story had a sick child.  Many of you know what that is like.  The temperature goes up and will not come down no matter what you do.  The child won’t eat or drink anything and is getting dehydrated.  Eventually, the crying stops, and the child is still, listless, and staring off into space.  Now what?  It is the middle of the night, and you rush to the emergency room.  The doctor does his bit, and then says you just have to wait and see if it works.  More waiting.  Seemingly endless waiting.  Finally, the child looks a little better and the doctor says you can go home.  But in a few hours the temperature is up again.  Back to the hospital, and on and on it goes, and it seems like it will never end.  You might know the feeling.  That’s what is all in the middle of the story of Elijah and the widow’s son.  And the son does not get better, but dies; and then there is the grief and regret and weariness and anger.  All of that is described very briefly in the printed story, but it is all a very big part of the lived story.  We read quickly through to the miraculous and happy ending of the story, but we must not forget the uncertainty and pain in the middle of the story.  

     This is important, because as you know we are not yet at the happy ending of our own story, but in the middle of it, perhaps even feeling like we are “stuck in the middle.”  And that “middle time” can be filled with sorrow and trouble and grief and worry and pain.  (continued…)

Rembrandt’s depiction of Elijah raising the widow’s son

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Lead me on, O Lord, for the night is dark and it is a long way to home.  And when the strife is over and the journey is done, we can rest in the warm glow of eternal life.  Amen.  

–Professor Roy Harrisville in a prayer before class at Luther Seminary

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