A few weeks ago, I was walking through the newest leaf pile under a neighbor’s Oak, struck to stillness at the russet hill and the piercing blue above, the raining gold from a nearby maple. I paused to take it all in, to try to capture some of what I knew would never fully translate to a square on Instagram. It was one of those peak days of the season that stoke the “inconsolable secret” inside us all1, and all the more so because we know the beauty and feeling of any peak season doesn’t last.
I thought about how if Fall lasted year-round, even Peak Fall, I am not at all sure I would enjoy it to the measure of delight that I do now, precisely because of its limited nature. “How wonderful that we live in a world where there are Octobers!”2 yes, but how dreadful would twelve months of them be. The pleasures of each season are heightened precisely because they can never, will never last – and God has called this finitude “good.”
Many years ago, I contributed to the fallout from a breach of fellowship within Christian community. Everyone has suffered their own relational losses and griefs, so I don’t need to belabour my feelings here; substitute your own from your losses, and they will have been very much the same.
In the rubble of that fallout, without ever intending to, I had allowed myself to assume a posture of “never again;” I didn’t want to deal with the fallout of broken relationships ever again, not one more time. Peak Autumn Only energy and never again with Winter, y’know? I remember switching a load of wash in the laundry room and breaking down, sobbing to the Lord ‘What’s even the point of all this then? What is the point of love if it always ends with sin or death?,’ as if love ever does anything else on this side of heaven.
It is the supreme ‘workplace hazard’ of life; there is no living life with people, not as Christ calls us to anyway, without the risk of pain or loss. Someone always has the galling audacity to die on you, or to move away, or a season of ministry will end, or someone will have to obey the call of the Lord in a direction that turns your shared path into a forked one. There is no unending Peak Autumn on earth; both the ascent of glory and the descent of winter must come, because that is how seasons are shaped here.
I tell you all of this because a few months ago, I was in our pastoral care office, bringing out all my weights and measures again, trying to determine exactly how to become involved in our new church while maintaining my self-preserving posture if it all went south; if we have to move for my husband’s job, if the unexpected happens, if, if, if. How much can I love without it landing me back in the laundry room?
I was trying to figure out the impossible, which is how to be an embodied Christian within the Church on this planet while preserving myself from future pain. I share this because I have seen enough to believe that I am not the only one who may be unintentionally making this their life’s endeavor beneath the radar. The thing I was seeking in my pastor’s office was an insurance against humanity. How do you keep showing up to life when you can’t guarantee the security of your heart or the safety of all its affections? What I wanted was a guarantee that it would not happen again, that the leaves wouldn’t fall this time. What I was offered was the assurance that it would.
The real question is how do we endure even one hour on this earth doing anything else; how do we go an hour, a day, a week without unselfconsciously loving and being loved. We don’t; or we do, but we find with it all the hell that a self-preserving life can offer.
There is surely a type of safety or certitude in living a life of self-preservation; to “wrap [your heart] carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”3
But to paraphrase Lewis, Jesus Christ did not suffer and die on the cross for us to be even more self-preserving of our own happiness.4 “We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid all the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.”5
Nowhere in His Word can I find an assurance of love or life without one more heartbreak – not because I haven’t searched and researched hard enough for the perfect church, not because I haven’t plumbed the wells of Historical Theology deep enough, not because I cannot live an unerring orthopraxy, as if I tried even harder to obey the law of love perfectly and not transgress against you, I can secretly hope you are doing the same towards me – I am never finding it because it does not exist here, on this side of eternity.
It is not in a different church denomination (probably). It is not in better drawn boundaries, tighter adherence to doctrine. It does not exist here. I am kicking through the leaf piles of Autumn, hoping to find some eternal Spring underneath. It exists, but not on this side; on this side what we are promised and what we are given is Enough, more than Enough.
We are gently, gently assured that we will face many troubles on this earth.6 We will very likely suffer as we attempt obedience to Christ’s Kingly commands.7 We can expect to fail God and others, like the apostles we come after, for we are certainly no stouter-hearted than they.8 But in all of these things, and in the middle of my laundry room, what we are promised above all is the hope of our present advent; Christ with us, Emmanuel.
The gift of cruciform love is that whether we are in ecstasy or agony (and there will be plenty of both!), we are never alone. If we are in Christ, we are in communion with the living God, Who not only wipes away our tears in eternity, but offers the consolation of Himself here on Earth. He is with us now, even unto the end of the age, where all our longings for that Peak Autumn and Eternal Spring find their source and fulfillment.
The prize is not a life free from pain. The prize is the Messiah. He is the end of Love and all its means.
1 Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,”29
2 Montgomery, “Anne of Green Gables”
3 Lewis, “The Four Loves,” 121
4, 5 Lewis, “The Four Loves,” 122
6 John 16:1,33
7 Matthew 10:35
8 John 16:32, 17:1-27