As my wife and I drove across the border into Ohio this past week, she had a remarkable insight. She does that.
"If we were explorers or pioneers, and had no previous understanding that trees do this [she pointed at the leafless, dormant trees that lined the highway and frozen fields], can you imagine how it would seem?"
She went on to explain her question. To the uneducated eye the whole landscape, stretched in browns under a winter grey sky, looks dead. With the exception of a few pine trees and their sporadic dots of green, everything looks dead or dying. To the uninitiated, it would seem like something bad had happened. Like a bomb had gone off, or disease had swept across the whole country and all but those last green survivors were gone. And soon, you'd expect, even they'd follow. You would have every reason to believe death had had its way and you'd want out of there.
But because we don't have uneducated, uninitiated eyes- much the opposite since we grew up where there are deciduous and coniferous trees, and know almost instinctively that trees "do this" from about October through March- no sense of fear or grief followed. A vague sense of yuck (if you know Ohio in winter, you may very well know this yuck) but not despair.
Just wait. Spring will set things right. Winter's a season, not a final state.
Deciduous trees shed their leaves (the Latin decidere means to "fall down" or "fall off"). And Coniferous (cone-bearing) Evergreens are as their name implies. This is Kindergarten stuff. We know it at our core. But without this knowledge what is temporary would have the convincing appearance of permanence. We inherently assume a cycle without evening knowing we do, though a finality is better supported by the immediate evidence.
As people of faith, we would do well to show ourselves initiated into the cyclical ways of pain and grief. Discomfort and hardship can't be avoided, but neither are they final. It's naive to think a legitimate goal in life is the avoidance of falling down or off. And it's equally childish to believe that falling is the end. As people of faith, one of our unique markers is that we understand and live our lives deciduously, though others may look at the immediate evidence and live theirs like winters are the end.
We do not delude ourselves into living like difficulty can, or even should, be avoided. Nor do we let difficulty have the last word. We live in the unending cycles of joy and sorrow, of work and rest, of laughter and weeping, of faith and doubt, of life and death. This is human life. The real misery comes when we believe faith is perpetual Spring (because it isn't) or that the hardship we're currently experiencing is the end of the story (also not the case). Living deciduously is way of seeing- embracing!- the cycles, the light and the dark, as necessary components of one reality. To live trying to cling to one and avoid the other, to fear having the one and fear losing the other, or to see one as a divine reward and the other as punishment, or any other failure to appreciate the natural cyclicality of reality, is a recipe for an anxious, desperate existence.
You have some things going well in your life. The leaves will someday fall off of it. This is nothing to become anxious or fretful or clingy about. That's just how it goes. Enjoy it.
You have some things that have gone to hell in a handbag. Someday, those seemingly dead branches will look like life again. It may be a long winter. But it's still a season. Those branches will sprout again. This is nothing to escape the present over. Learn from it, fearlessly, so when Spring arrives you might initiate and educate (experientially rather than conceptually) others who think the leafless trees in their lives are forever dead.
Living deciduously is choosing to live in devout rhythm. These rhythms are reality, one crafted by God.
And so, may what's true for God's unthinking, unanxious trees be true for us.