Last month I had a whirlwind trip to southern California to help my sister and her family move. Almost as fantastic as being in CA with my sister and her family was travel itself. Between driving, multiple flights, and layovers, I spent over 8 hours each way traveling. Traveling by myself. Getting coffee when I wanted coffee. Listening to playlists, journaling, reading, talking only when I wanted to talk and being allowed to ignore everyone around me. Even more amazingly, I had window seats on each of my four flights.
After landing in San Francisco, Bakersfield, and Phoenix, coming into Seattle was a breathtaking explosion of color (gray skies aside). It was the first week of November and the ground was covered in shades of orange, red, and browns. Music cranked up and fingers cramped from the frantic writing of the previous hour, I paused in awe.
Then the thought, they’re dying. All those trees, those vibrant leaves falling off to be raked and trampled. All of it is death and it’s stunning. A little irritation crept in and I wondered to the Lord, “Why do you give these trees such grace and beauty in dying?” Dying is so ugly. I’m admiring trees about to be stripped and naked, but I can say from firsthand experience that when I’m stripped down there’s nothing lovely to speak of, no shiny glory reflecting.
I began taking inventory of losses. Not only my own, but around me. There have been deaths within our church that have been very hard losses this year. Close friends of ours who have been obedient to the Lord in pursuing adoption for years have had the door close and will not be adding those specific children to their families. Whether it’s been literal death, death to dreams, to plans that we even thought were the Lord’s, to relationships, to having a lifeline of a sister move states away… I ticked them off thinking none could be compared to the glory of dying trees.
Well Lord, I suppose it’s not the same anyway. The trees are dying this year but next year they’ll have new life. They die to give way to new life, which really isn’t the same as the losses and forms of death I’m complaining about.
The conviction came quickly… before landing, in fact. Why did Jesus come, Shilo? What makes you think death and loss ends at the point of death and loss? Isn’t this Christianity 101 here?
Oops. But then again, sometimes new circumstances bring new light to basic Truth.
When we’ve trusted Jesus, surrendered to Him, we can trust that death will give way to life. Always.
I know, I know. But when God is stripping me and I’m dying figuratively, it’s ugly. It involves struggling to get out of bed, puffy eyes, either weight gain or weight loss, and major wrestling. Typically also resisting the urge to punch holes in walls.
Sitting there, coming into Seattle, I smirked (sorry, person next to me on the plane watching the thoughts flit across my face) as I imagined somehow my floundering could look like the pretty floating leaves on the Japanese Maple in my yard. Maybe more like the windstorm that took the remaining leaves and threw them angrily on the neighbor’s yard.
I realized (kind of against my will) that the ugly part is me getting in the way. I recalled times in my life where I’ve been dying; miserable, kicking, and resisting. Then by the grace of God He wins the round of wrestling and a measure of peace comes… along with new life and beauty.
It happened that first time when I was fourteen, in my room, curled up under a sunflower blanket. Torn between wanting my own desires, asking God if somehow I could party a little, eat lunch with my old friends, turn my head, give enough compromise to not give up what I wanted to cling to. Then the ugly- the wrestling match where God taught me what He means about losing your own life to save it. Essentially, letting the leaves fall off and in the nakedness of losing myself and my desires, He assured it would give way to life. He was faithful and it did give way to life; hearing His voice, confidence that my identity was secure in Him, peace where there had been restlessness, my Savior as closest confidant.
It translates. In watching our friends stare at the closed door of adoption, I’ve witnessed death to a dream, wrestling, leaves and tears falling. Yet as that dies there is something else: I’ve heard vulnerable hearts break open in prayer. I’ve watched those hearts soften in a way that broken hearts can in the hands of Christ, the desire forGod’s will not only in adoption but in their very souls- grow. Even in dying there are moments of beauty. I’ve seen these little buds of green, sweet sprigs of hope and awe inspiring transformations. Death of one thing giving way to life of another kind.
I’ve watched it unfold in friends when the husband passed away this year after fighting leukemia for over a decade. Oh, Lord- speaking of excruciating death… and yet sitting in an overflowing worship center listening to testimony after testimony about how God can use a life, singing of God’s faithfulness and watching our friend’s daughter stand in front of hundreds to share that God used her Dad’s illness to bring her back to Christ, how can I say death is only ugly? No one needed to say the obvious: Christ can redeem it all. Every form of death. Bright, vibrant colors even in the process. God used the wilting, falling leaves for redemption, healing, and work that will stand in eternity.
As friends tuck away belongings for kids that aren’t coming, as a new widow worships through tears, I am reminded that the way Christ ushers in new life is often not the way we’d pick.
Then again, His biggest redemption I wouldn’t have picked… as a baby? Then on a cross? How many others have rejected His offer to turn death into life? How often on a smaller scale do I allow forms of death and loss to turn me bitter, to pout as a victim, to withdraw and wallow? That is ugly. It’s only in the hands of Christ that my losses and deaths give way to life.
Who am I to say there isn’t beauty in dying trees? In an offering with puffy, bloodshot eyes? In a memorial service where ashes turn to beauty before me?
I returned home from my trip to find piles of drenched leaves in every shade covering the grass. The trees greeted me in new nakedness. I sighed at the cold and the needed raking. It’s death now and it’s a mess. I see no green, no buds of hope. Thankfully I don’t stake it all in what I see. My stake is in my experience, my belief, my faith that the Lord continues to be faithful to turn death in my hands… into life.
Just throwing myself out there a bit...