The Spiritual Lessons of Autumn
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a
single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
--John 12:24 NRSV
It’s October, but lately here n the KC metro area it has felt like June with temperatures in the high 80’s. With the pandemic and times of lockdown including kids not being in school, it has already been difficult to keep track of the passing of time this year. Why should autumn obey the seasonal norms when it’s been so disorienting this year?
I’m not a big fan of autumn. I like the cooler temperatures after the mugginess of August in the Midwest, but I’m keenly aware winter is coming. Once the leaves fall from the trees, the landscape of the Midwest turns brown and dead-looking. Sure the first snow falls are fun and pretty (if they ever come which is questionable in these days of climate change), but soon the snow turns to piles of gray slush. Spring seems to take too long in coming. Autumn, therefore, is a season of anticipatory grief for me.
I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling this way. One of my favorite authors, Parker Palmer, writes that autumn is a season of melancholy for him. He writes:
I’m a professional melancholic, and for years my delight in the autumn color show quickly morphed into sadness as I watched the beauty die. Focused on the browning of summer’s green growth, I allowed the prospect of death to eclipse all that’s life-giving about fall and its sensuous delights.
Yet, Palmer isn’t content to just feel bummed about autumn the way I do. He wrote a book about the value of paradoxes in our lives, so he has learned to appreciate that even though autumn is a season of things dying, it holds the promise of future life (this is a long quotation, but I promise it is worth reading):
Today, at age 76 — as I weather the autumn of my own life — I find nature a trustworthy guide. It’s easy to fixate on everything that goes to ground as time goes by: the disintegration of a relationship, the disappearance of good work well-done, the diminishment of a sense of purpose and meaning. But, as I’ve come to understand that life “composts” and “seeds” us as autumn does the earth, I’ve seen how possibility gets planted in us even in the most difficult of times.
Looking back, I see how the job I lost pushed me to find work that was mine to do, how the “road closed” sign turned me toward terrain I’m glad I traveled, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to find new sources of meaning. In each of these experiences, it felt like something was dying, and so it was. And yet deep-down, amid all the falling, silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.
The hopeful notion that new life is hidden in dying is surely reinforced by the visual glories of autumn. What artist would paint a deathbed scene with the vibrant and vital palette nature uses? Perhaps death possesses a grace that we who fear dying, who find it ugly and even obscene, cannot see. How shall we understand nature’s testimony that dying itself — as devastating as we know it can be — contains the hope of a certain beauty?
As Christians, we profess to believe that death is only the transition from one way of living into another way of living. This truth we call resurrection, and it is a truth available to us not just at the end of our lives but in the midst of our lives as things die and we discover new life afterward. If you’re like me and autumn feels like a time of anticipatory grief for winter, perhaps we need to shift our perception about autumn.
Autumn’s beauty offers us a chance to appreciate the glory of life in this moment. It’s lesson is that some of life’s most beautiful and even glorious moments are ones that are not permanent. If we are so busy grieving the certain and eventual end of our careers, the time when our children are home with us before the enter adulthood, and even our very lives, we never stop and take in the wonderful moments available to us in the here and now. Autumn offers us not just a lesson on future life beyond capital “D” death and lowercase “d” deaths that occur in our lives, it also offers us a lesson in capital “L” life here and now as we take in the beaty happening right now.
Whether you are able to get outside and look at the changing leaves or you can only move yourself to a window in order to look outside at the foliage, take some time to look at the changing leaves and the lesson autumn offers us. If you find yourself getting melancholy like I do, that’s okay. Take a moment, feel that feeling, then take a breath and open yourself up to something new God wants to show you about this season.
One of the daily email devotionals I subscribe to sent out this poem today by Ted Loder from his book Guerillas of Grace, it expresses well a prayer we can offer as this season changes.
O extravagant God,
in this ripening, red-tinged autumn,
waken in me a sense of joy
in just being alive,
joy for nothing in general
except everything in particular;
joy in sun and rain
mating with earth to birth a harvest;
joy in soft light
through shyly disrobing trees;
joy in acolyte moon
setting halos around processing clouds;
joy in the beating of a thousand wings
mysteriously knowing which way is warm;
joy in wagging tails and kids’ smiles
and in this spunky old city;
joy in the taste of bread and wine,
the smell of dawn,
joy in having what I cannot live without --
other people to hold and cry and laugh with
joy in love,
and that all at first and last
—Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Leave a Reply.
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.