“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.” (Isaiah 9:2)
As a born and raised Michigander, I love watching the seasons change throughout the year. My favorite season has always been summer because I enjoy the outdoors and being active. As I’ve aged, though, my life has become more complex, busier, and I find myself appreciating the signals from nature that it’s time to change pace. The trees tell me when they begin to change shade that they are ready to rest, and I know it’s time for me to rest too. Even still, when they shed their last leaves, a certain sadness wells up in me every year- I feel the familiar twinge of loss. The beauty the earth holds for me has changed, and now I must look more closely to discover it and appreciate what it has to speak to me.
It was this time last autumn, all the leaves had blanketed the tired ground, and I was driving down a familiar road in my home town. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a lake I had never seen before, thinly veiled by the now bare trees. That’s been there this whole time? Maybe it sounds ridiculous, but the sudden awareness of that lake disoriented me. I had driven this road hundreds of times, thinking I knew the terrain, and suddenly here was something I hadn’t anticipated. I had been grieving the loss of summer, of warmth, of days that went on forever and laughter that continued well into the sunlit night. I was clinging so tightly to the long gone summer, refusing to welcome autumn and winter and all of their slowness and slumber. But as that leafy cloak fell away, revealing the beautiful body concealed behind it, I was struck by the raw, bare wonder uncovered there. Was it possible that, even in a season I utterly despised, there could be even greater beauty and truth waiting to be revealed?
My mind has returned to that secret lake so many times. The thing I’m most struck by is this mysterious mingling of sorrow and hope I feel when my eyes drift from the road to glance at it again. Hope, because something so beautiful as that lake has existed for so long, and I had absolutely nothing to do with it. Sorrow, because in order for me to discover it, something else had to go- had to die. And the part of me that knows how deeply connected all of creation is knows that this is true for me, too; there is deep beauty to be unveiled, and it will cost me something, just as it cost the trees their precious leaves.
The past two years have been surprisingly beautiful and dreadfully painful all at once. I’ve practiced intentional resting, opening up, loosening my clenched fists, releasing control. I grieve what’s been lost or taken, seasons that have shifted without my consent, suffering around me and within me, death in so many shades. At times, I felt like my despair was about to overtake me. Earlier this very evening, I was overcome with grief so deep all I could do was scream and pound my steering wheel, practice (again) unclenching, letting go of my anger and need for control. This shedding of leaves has left me raw, bare, vulnerable. And yet, I peer intently through all this barrenness, hoping that some beautiful, refreshing, sustaining body of water is waiting behind it all.
When the trees have rested, when they are strong and ready to give birth again, that lake will be there, like it has been all along, ready to sustain and refresh. This rhythm they have together is the rhythm of all of creation; giving-taking, dying-birthing, resting-waking. It undergirds everything around us and it is we who resist nature itself when we cling and clutch, white-knuckled striving to control everything about our existence. In this age of 24/7 working around the clock, fluorescent beams peeking into our windows even as we sleep, we do not even know what it means to fully surrender to the daily rhythm of dark and light. How then can we unlearn all of this grasping, and release ourselves to the seasons of our souls?
The liturgical calendar has been profound in teaching me to yield to these various seasons, to release my grasp and surrender to a larger story. We are in the second week of Advent, the season in which the Church anticipates the coming of Messiah. We step into the ancient sorrow and desperation that is our inherited story. We wade into this ancient stream of longing, letting its current tug on us and throw us off balance. We surrender to the darkness and sorrow, hoping for something to be born. We echo ancient cries of “O Come Emmanuel! God come and be with us!” We practice embracing this longing fervently, that we might peer through the trees and discover a lake brimming with hope and expectation. We stumble along, surrendering to the long night that we might experience with greater joy Christmas morning light and life.
Henri Nouwen in his book With Open Hands writes this prayer and meditation, and I offer it to you today in great hope that whatever opening up, shedding, and releasing your own soul is wrestling with, may your eyes be sharpened to see what is waiting for you just beyond the trees.
What am I holding tightly in my clenched fist?
What needs to be shed that I might discover a deeper truth and beauty?
I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands and to discover that I am not what I own, but what you want to give me.
And what you want to give me is love — unconditional, everlasting love.