October 4, 2017

When Summer Ends and You Realize All of Life is Winter

Around this time every year, there's a tree that I obsessively observe as I circle the parking lot during school pick-up. The tree is a sugar maple, not especially tall but definitely round, with leaves that seem feminine and fragile in some inexplicable way. I don't characteristically know specific types of trees, but I know this one's name, and now that I know my tree is a sugar maple, I notice its relatives all around town.
In the fall, it's hard not to notice the sugar maples. Their leaves turn a delightful shade of orange, something on the color wheel akin to tangerine or melon. But the leaves aren't just orange; they are also yellow with just a touch of neon green. Sometimes from underneath a maple tree, the leaves look one color and then you discover, upon stepping out for an expanded perspective, they look a completely different shade. This is perhaps why I love my maple. Because it plays a sort of game with me, seducing me, altering itself just when I think I've got it photographed perfectly in my mind.

My annual observation of the tree has begun. Fall's show has not yet come, but I am a watch woman on the wall, eyes peeled. The calendar, however, has already turned, the little words inside the block on September 22 having announced fall's arrival. Outside, it's still warm, not summer warm, but close. The trees' leaves remain green except for the occasional rebel leaves I spy from the highway as I whiz by going about my life.

Fall is coming--the rebel leaves whisper and the calendar stands stoic and unmovable--but sometimes the weather whispers that perhaps summer could last forever.

That's what summer does. With its fireflies and its bare feet in green grass, the season rocks us, lulls us, and convinces us there is no such thing as winter. When we're lazing in the heat of summer, we can't imagine wearing a coat or slushing through snow or needing a heavier blanket on the foot of the bed, even though we've known all those sensations before.

I know enough now. I know to embrace all summer is because summer will come to an end. And there will be a time in the dead of winter when the trees will be completely barren, the sky will turn gray, and I will be so chilled to the bone that, hard as I try, I won't be able to conjure the feel of summer.

Such is life: full on winter, trying to see and remember the hope of spring and the reality of summer.

At some point we all learn that summer isn't forever. Sometimes in the scope of a breath, or in the stopping of breath, or through the words spoken under a breath, summer abruptly ends and fall's leaves start their drift toward their death. We suddenly know pain. We realize we cannot escape what is to come; we must walk through the barrenness, the stillness, and the cold of winter--the death of a life we thought we knew.

Before that breath, we didn't know summer wasn't forever. We lived carefree, everything made sense or could be explained or controlled, everything had a Sunday school answer. We couldn't have comprehended the stark existence of winter. Even if someone had told us--and of course they didn't because they wanted to shield and protect us--we wouldn't have believed life's winter could be so cruel. We couldn't have felt in our bones what we had never experienced. And then pain came.

This summer, my husband and I discussed the breath that changed everything for us. For him, it was early, when words were spoken that fractured his life into a before and after. Suddenly fear entered in, and the knowledge of good and evil, and then the destabilizing realization that security is never quite secure. One moment he was running happily through summer's innocence and then the next he was stumbling, chilled, in dark winter. He was just a child, and though he was shoeless in the snow, everyone pretended it was still summer.

Everyone pretended it was still summer.

We Christians sing our anthem loud: "I once was blind but now I see." We, like Paul after he was blinded on the Damascus road, have had the scales wiped from our eyes by Jesus himself. But then, far too often, we put them right back on.

We pretend it is still summer, that the barrenness of sin, the harsh cold of pain, the quiet of brokenness can no longer touch us. We put words in Jesus' mouth that he never said, promising others and ourselves that Jesus will fix it here and now, that we can escape winter, that life as his disciple should be straight summer. We've been told these lies and we've loved them.

Do we not see that Jesus left the world temporarily unfixed? Do we not recall Jesus' own persecutions and death? The beautiful leaf in fall, after all, is in process of giving its life for the furtherance of the tree.

We Christians must refuse the blinders and see this world with clearest sight, for we know the Truth and the Truth sets us free from attempting to turn winter into summer. This world is showing us its one straight season; the leaves are dying and hearts are dark and cold. But with clearest sight, we can name winter and feel the chill in our own bones because we also have a real hope that all that's tilted will one day be set right. Winter will give way to the light and life of spring. If we don't have that hope, what is the point of being a Christian?

What I'm saying is that there is pain in this world, and it comes for us all. What I'm saying is that to see pain is to grieve pain with the loudest lament we have. And what I'm saying is that we Christians must run straight into the pain of others with eyes wide open and mouths wide open, too. There exists among us death and dying, injustice and oppression, hatred and slaughter. Let us call it what it is rather than pretending it's still summer. Let us weep and mourn with the weepers and mourners. Let us not throw cliches and lies at others when they tell us how cold they are. Let us do the difficult work of loving an enemy, forgiving a trespass, going into the world with the ministry of reconciliation. For we have very real, eyes-wide open Love to offer, and it's not that Jesus will fix it now; it's that Jesus will fix it later. We need to know a hope so real, we can transport ourselves to summer when we're knee deep in snow. We need to offer this transporting hope as well.

Notice the tops of the trees changing. Call fall and winter what they are: pain and death. But beyond that--you once were blind but now can you see?--spring is on the horizon. And all things will be made new.