By the Rev. Cara Scriven | Tacoma District Superintendent
Growing up in the heart of the Berkshire Mountains, I came to love Autumn—the crisp air, the smell of wood burning, and the beautiful colors decorating the hillsides. Each year, since the day I left, I get homesick during the month of October as I long for the beauty of mountains painted red, orange, and yellow. I know I’m not alone in this, as it was not uncommon to run into people driving through the hillsides, randomly stopping to soak in the color.
As I was driving around the district last week, I began to reflect on the beauty of this season. At the height of Autumn, all the leaves on a tree might adopt some radiant color, yet this is not their greatest achievement. I have come to believe, that the moment of greatest beauty comes not in the vitality of their original green, or in the miraculous changing of color, but rather I find it in a tree’s willingness to let their leaves fall.
By letting go, the tree ensures it’s outward beauty will continue. The leaves that remain at the base of a tree decompose and release nutrients to the topsoil which benefit the forest ecosystem throughout the year. And then with the arrival of Spring, the tree that appeared to be dead begins to blossom anew as pristine leaves reveal themselves. If the tree instead refused to let go, there would be no new nutrients to sustain the diversity of life we find in every forest and we would be robbed of the beauty of Spring.
Much like those who drive through the hillsides of the Northeast, we, in the church, often believe that beauty is found in the vibrancy of color. Many imagine that the most beautiful and vibrant congregations are those with hundreds, if not thousands of members, large youth groups, extensive programs for children, numerous educational events, significant missional opportunities, financial sustainability, and a pastoral staff that can visit all members regularly and preach amazing sermons every week. This type of beauty is more about our outward appearance and what we can provide in the form of programs and staff to members.
[pull_quote_left]If we can be as brave as trees, we’ll learn to let go of our leaves, because, in faith, we know that when we let go, something new is also birthed.[/pull_quote_left]However, Jesus spoke of an entirely different kind of beauty. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) Not long after this, Jesus prays, “Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not my will but your will must be done.” (Luke 22:42) It is in Jesus’ letting go of his desires, hopes, and dreams, and in the laying down of his life for his friends, that we discover true beauty. This is a beauty that appears to be death, but actually, in time, brings new life.
The church must learn to live into a similar spiritual practice of letting go. We must be willing to let go of programs that no longer meet the needs of our community. We have to release our recollections of the vibrancy of our past. And we may even need proactively relinquish some of the buildings that we once considered essential.
The seasons will continue to change with little regard to our preference for our beautiful Pacific Northwestern summers. And Individually, we each continue to age despite our best efforts to turn back the clock with diet, exercise, and beauty products. The same inevitability is true for our corporate life as the church but we can choose which path we follow.
We can continue to clutch onto the things that are fading and, eventually we will fail because as Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us, “for everything there is a season.” Winter comes, wrinkles increase, and the roof will inevitably leak. Or if we can be as brave as trees, we’ll learn to let go of our leaves, because, in faith, we know that when we let go, something new is also birthed.
I am reminded of Natalie Sleeth who wrote an anthem titled, “Hymn of Promise” in 1986 after reflecting on life and death. The anthem later became a beloved hymn included in the United Methodist Hymnal that continues to teach us about beauty and resurrection. I leave you with her words to reflect upon.
[pull_quote_center]In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity,
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.[/pull_quote_center]
The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989. Hymn #707