It is October and autumn is officially upon us — creating great joy for those of us who despise the heat and a sense of impending doom for those who hate to see it go.
Let’s face it. Winter isn’t Ohio’s best season. It’s cold (the icky, damp kind), it’s barren, it’s gray for days, and it’s usually brown, not white. There’s a reason why many people dread it—because it feels (and looks) like everything is dead.
But here’s the thing about fall and winter—they remind us that our greatest growth happens in our hardest seasons.
Trees—the selling point of this season—play a significant role in scripture. In fact, they’re mentioned in the Bible more than any other living thing except for God and humans. There's a tree on the first page of Genesis, the first Psalm, the first page of the New Testament, and the last page of Revelation. Every major event in the Bible has a tree marking the spot. So, we're obviously meant to pay some attention to them!
What can trees teach us, then, in a time of apparent death, that will point us to the promise of new and greater life?
First, they remind us that we, too, are governed by seasons. Just as Ecclesiastes reminds us that everything has its season, the Psalmist reminds us in Psalm 1:3 that a righteous person is like a tree planted by the water that bears immense fruit exactly when it's supposed to and at no other time. Just as an apple tree won't give us Ohio apples in January, we, too, are bound to our current season.
Second, trees remind us that there comes a time when we must shed what we don't need. Trees sense the change in daylight and temperature and immediately begin to slow their growth and purge their leaves. In fact, from the time the leaves began growing in the spring, they have been preparing for the time at which the tree must drop them to conserve their energy for the winter. In addition to the casting off of leaves, trees remind us, just as Jesus did in John 15, that there are things that need to be pruned in order to relieve any stressors and keep things growing in order to bear good fruit in our next season. When we remove that which is unhealthy or unnecessary, only the strongest parts remain—trunk, branches, bark—leaving us with a structure that can safely tolerate the cold and winds of our spiritual winter.
This reminds us as well that we need to stay put when a rough season is upon us. Trees, of course, are quite literally rooted in place and have no choice but to weather whatever the season brings their way. In order to do so, they strengthen themselves in preparation by allowing their living tissue to "harden" so it can withstand any potential damage from sub-freezing temps. That's not to say, of course, that we become "hardened" people, but that we "stand firm" in our faith, as both Paul and Peter repeatedly encourage, when the season we face is difficult and inescapable.
We learn next from trees a lesson that many of us don't like—that a season of rest is necessary for healthy ongoing growth. Just as Jesus in Matthew 11 calls all of us who labor and are heavy laden to come to him for rest, as fall progresses, trees must begin a transition into dormancy—a time of God-given respite after the previous growing season. During this time all non-essential functions shut down and they do essentially nothing but live off stored food until spring.
Nothing except, of course, expanding their roots, which is our final arboreal lesson. Cooler fall and winter weather, combined with ALL THAT COLD, MISERABLE RAIN, actually stimulates root growth, helps new roots establish quickly, and gives them time to grow strong because all their energy is going to their foundation. This important winter growth at their very base is essential to their lasting health, just as taking the time to become deeply “rooted and established” in God and his love is essential to ours.
Be encouraged, then, my friends, as we enjoy these cooler days and begin to turn our hearts and minds toward the advent of something new. Hard seasons do not last forever. Just as the author of Psalm 104 reminds us that the Lord made the moon to mark the seasons and the sun to know it's time for setting, He has likewise made ALL things seasonal in nature. So, when you feel discouraged, as if your life right now is a long, gray, Ohio winter—look out your window.
And remember that the branches that are now becoming bare will be once more filled with new, green buds in God’s perfect time.