Last night Jonathan and I had a fire for the first time this season. It’s such a simple thing (well, simple for us because we just press a button on our gas fireplace) but it made me feel so full and content, snuggling under a blanket with a fire crackling nearby. We have had a couple beautiful days lately; the weather has turned truly crisp and the leaves are nearing their peak colors, so there are splashes of bright red and orange all around.
It is my favorite time of the year. Since I moved up north from Louisiana, where seasons come in ‘hot and humid’ and ‘cold and wet,’ and the weather could be incredibly similar whether you are starting school or celebrating Christmas, I have loved actually being able to see the world around me change with the cycle of the year. And my absolute favorite part of this annual rhythm is fall, with its glorious colors and crisp air that makes blankets, sweaters, and fires feel so wonderful.
The first year I moved to Princeton, I remember watching the palate of colors appear as I ran through the woods and reflecting on the parts of me that were drying out and falling off as well. I had just arrived at a “liberal” (as some thought) seminary after years of feeling bound in my evangelical and Southern Baptist environments and went through a breakup of a serious relationship in my first weeks, so there had been many changes and endings for me, but the death of those parts of my life made room for new life.
I remember watching the palate of colors appear as I ran through the woods and reflecting on the parts of me that were drying out and falling off as well.
And new life was all around me. I was in the presence of so many new ideas. And I think the most freeing thing that first year was not how much some people there knew, but how much they were willing to admit they didn’t know. I wanted to cry with joy when our Old Testament professor talked about the tensions inherent in what she had given her life to studying, yet she breathed the beauty and life I still believe are transpired in these writings. After years of feeling that tension as a lack of faith, there was so much comfort in sitting with others in a place where we could admit that there was so much we did not understand. I think many old ideas had died in me before then, but now I was able to even shed the last vestiges of things kept only to save me from being exposed in a hurtful environment. Yet being exposed was absolutely worth it because it gave room for new growth. There was definitely pain and struggle that fall, yet when I think of it I am overwhelmed with the feeling of an uncaged bird, exhilarating freedom.
Four years ago this week, I wrote about these memories for the first time, and began, “Now it is the beginning of that time of year when we begin to be astounded by the beauty of death… I wonder if death is really beautiful.” I was referring to the death of leaves, of course, but less than 48 hours later, a whirlwind of days began that forever changed my knowledge of death.
Four years ago today, I stood with classmates as we watched our chapel burn down at Virginia Theological Seminary. Over the course of the next four days, I held a friend while he cried after receiving crushing news that effectively ended the ordination process to which he had given 5 years of his life and I learned twin boys of friends 20 weeks along in a pregnancy were born and died in the same day. On the fourth night, as I sat with a heavy heart trying to take in the events of the past days, I received a call that told me that my father had been killed in a car accident, and I was suddenly immersed in a journey of grief I had never before known.
My words about death haunted me through that time. They seemed ridiculous and terrible – how could any of this be beautiful?
Fall is more complicated for me now. The colors still amaze me and I still love snuggling by a fire in the cool air, but twinges of sadness flicker in the beauty. I cannot see the colors without knowing that they are a reminder that everything around us changes, and everything can be lost, and that our relationships with all of those who we love can be changed in that most dramatic way at any moment.
In grief, I knew myself to be loved more than I had ever known, and new life has grown in me as the loss of those days changed me. And for those things I am grateful. But I would give them all up to have my dad back, so despite all the new life and love that I have come to know, I cannot separate death from the consuming loss that it brings.
I cannot think of death sentimentally – but I’m actually grateful for that as well. Not thinking of death sentimentally also means that I will not settle for a saccharine, cheapened version of new life.
As I look out my window today, the colors of fall do remind me of death, but in them I also catch glimpses of the resurrection.
As I look out my window today, the colors of fall do remind me of death, but in them I also catch glimpses of the resurrection. Each day I am more convinced that this is the story we have to share, the message of hope for which our world is longing. This is the heart and soul of being followers of Christ, of being the Church. We are people of the resurrection, and we can proclaim that where there is mourning, there will be dancing, where there is grief, there will be joy. When we can least imagine it, when we are most sure all is lost, when we cannot see any other reality, we know that where there is death, there will be life.