Yesterday morning it was cold. I walked the gravel path, hands tucked up into my sleeves to stay warm, hood up and framing my face against the late fall morning. I walked because I could – because I was in a place where, slipping out early enough, I would see no one else and hear nothing else but the rustle of leaves, and my shoes on the path. I walked because I needed the clarity of prayer that sometimes it seems only movement can bring me. I felt full to the brim of conversations that bring life, and glimpses of joyful hope. Yet I felt stripped by sin, by shared grief, by the weight of love of those I prayed for as I walked. I felt like the leaves under my feet.
Familiar words drifted across my mind, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies…” Sure, the parable is easy to see when we’re speaking of seeds, but trees don’t grow from their fallen leaves. They just bloom and grow to fall and die again, year after year after year. In my state of heart it almost seemed cruel, a purposeless cycle of nature.
Walking along the path I turned to the right to see a quiet cemetery nestled away just down a hill – its edges rimmed by trees of every imaginable color, and a blanket of red and orange coating the ground. Walking down the hill and crouching near to the ground as the sun began to fight its way through the clouds and trees above me, my restless heart was silenced, as I desperately hoped it would be, by the reminder of a deep, simple, truth: yes, the leaves die, and they fall. But in their process of dying and of falling, they make the world more beautiful.
The process of death requires much change in the leaves. When they hold on, staying on the tree and embracing a process which can only lead eventually to falling, when they allow the change to be visible, it is stunningly beautiful. Sometimes the wind rattles the trees, more vehemently it seems as the season increases, as death comes closer. And so often the leaves must withstand much wind before they fall. They cannot help being moved by it, but they are beautiful both in their moving and their holding on. Sometimes, it is that last, hard, cold blast of wind that causes them to fall. But often they fall when there is no wind at all, or the gentlest of breezes. Have you ever watched a leaf fall on a still day, all the way from the release from the tree, with seemingly no logical explanation? It doesn’t so much fall as float, in graceful arcs and swoops and turns, bending willingly to unseen movements of air, beautiful even in the surrender of falling. And then it lands, seeming to settle into the ground with a sigh, and it is still. And the stillness is beautiful. It becomes a part of coating the grass with color, and then it dies.
Of course, these are trees. They don’t think about anything like this, not do they have a choice in their surrender. But somehow the Lord still finds it purposeful to repeat this pattern again and again, maybe more for us. For the reminder that while most of the time we long for similitude, we are mostly called to change. That while most of the time we may wish for beaches of endless summer, narrow roads are usually found in rough terrain, subject to the effects of seasons. We are continually somewhere in our own cycles of dying and new life, and perhaps we could learn something from the willingness of the trees.
I have a friend who is walking through a long process of dying. Not a physical death, but a death nonetheless, with the grief which surrounds it: the dying of a dream, a career, a ministry, a decade of work and seeming worth. I had been praying for her as I walked that morning, and it was her real-life example I saw paralleled in the fall leaves. As clear and vibrant as the red and oranges around me, she is making the world more beautiful in her process of dying and of falling. And not only the world, but my own life, as she allows me to walk beside and watch. Her openness to allow the Lord’s changes to be visible in her is stunningly beautiful. And the coming of winter is slow, and sometimes uncertain, and no doubt it would be easier to shake the leaves free and be done with the tension of this active process of dying while still being asked to live. But willingly she waits, a picture of beauty to who knows how many passing eyes, clinging hard through some strong bitter winds, up and through the moment only the Lord knows. It may be a few months or a few years, but she will have to surrender, let it fall, and let it die. And when that day comes, I have no doubt the stillness in which it settles will be the hardest, but most beautiful of all, as it reflects the stillness of a heart which knows we are rooted in the One who conquered the grave.
How I long to die so graciously as I am privileged to watch in her. It is a death that trusts in the promise of new life. That trusts that barrenness comes only for a season. That trusts that even when she cannot see or understand it, there are those who are being blessed by the colors of the change of dying who could not have been in the season of lushest life. It is a death that trusts that we are created to make beautiful things, and enrich the world, and then die to them. Their beauty was never our own to hold.
The process of dying will never be easy. Never. Sin brought it into the world, and in it we are constantly reminded that this is not as it should be. We are reminded that we are not as we should be, and that that is the very reason that death is required, a letting go of even beautiful and good things, because our life does not consist in them, and because for whatever reason this is the time that the Lord has decided we will be more beautiful, and more glorious, and shaped more into His image, by the process of a season of dying. And in that knowledge, and that trust, we can understand how it is that we can be both stripped, and oh so full. Grieving all that is not as it should be, while filled with joyful hope in the glimpses we have seen of what can. Life is lived most often in both of those realities held together. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. Dying, and yet we live.
How thankful I am for the strength the Lord has given my sweet friend, and that it comes from the strength of Christ. How I long to, in the slightest measure like Him, make the world ever more beautiful by the process of my dying.