My life has been very full lately. It seems as the fall winds down toward winter the pace of work and personal life has only been winding up. It’s been a blur of church events, personal appointments, child’s activities, and other obligations. In the rush, all the tasks have begun to feel both Urgent and Important, but relationships have begun to slip. And so emails have gone unanswered, invitations to dinner turned back, and close relationships set on cruise control. I haven’t enjoyed time in the back yard since last July.
So it was almost with a sense of surprise that I paused to look out at the yard the other day, with its trees and shrubs, only to notice that the leaves were all fallen, and empty branches clawed barren at the sky. The shock was followed by a hollow feeling of sadness. The leaves, with their vibrancy and life-giving energy, are gone and the land lies fallow. The trees look dead as skeletons.
But there really should be no surprise here at all. November is upon us: that in-between month which isn’t quite fall but also not yet quite winter. Dreary November, when the cold really begins to set in. Sad November when the signs of vegetal life are gone and the land is in hibernation. Dread November when we are most aware of the brevity of our lives. In November we come to know acutely the reality that the liturgy names, that we are “surrounded by evil and bordered by death.” To accentuate this awareness November begins in the church with All Saints Day, and continues in our country with Remembrance Day, both of which observances have us remembering those who have gone before us and are now at rest with God.
Yet even as nature gives us signs of the ending of life in this season, the Word of God gives us a different sign. God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples… God will swallow up death forever, proclaims the prophet Isaiah.At just the moment when nature has us clenching our bodies against the cold and hunkering in to suffer through this season of bitterness, scripture tells of feasting and merriment, tears turning into laughter, flowers emerging, and spring in the air. Death is overturned.
It is a majestic and mysterious promise.
What I think it does for us is give new possibilities to the signs we see around us of death and suffering. Snow and cold can become signs of hope and life that is to come. In the same way, the things in our lives that we usually shun and avoid as painful—maybe even signs of God’s absence—can become hopeful signs of God’s presence and love.
In the famous Beatitudes, Jesus gives us this kind of sign. Blessed are the poor, he says. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek.He takes those events and conditions of life that we usually try to avoid at all costs (but never can) and says they are signs of God’s blessing… not curses. Poverty, grief, being pushed around by others in life, hunger and thirst—these can be divine messengers to us, leading us on one hand into that which is real in this world, and yet on the other pointing beyond themselves to the promise that spring will come again. There will be an end!
So in this month of November I will give thanks for the still, and the quiet, and the long dark nights, and even the coming cold. I will embrace the opportunity to enter a fallow period of life. With gratitude I will receive these things as signs of God’s presence and promise. Spring is coming. God’s power is to bring blessing from curse, hope from despair and life from death.