I’m sitting in front of my computer in my home office. Just a foot above the screen is a small window that looks out into our backyard. The crepe myrtle, which in spring and summer explodes in glorious magenta, is nearly all I can see through the window. It has lost all its blossoms, but the foliage remains. The branches are mottled with morning mist; the leaves, dropping gently, are a chorus of amber.
I love this time of year. It’s as much of a seasonal change as one gets in Southern California. We don’t have winter snowstorms to dig ourselves out of, nor do we have the kind of fall panorama one might see when the trees turn color in the Shenandoah mountains. But it’s finally clear that the long summer is over and the cooler and wetter winter is coming. And here and there, we’re treated to warm splashes of color, a last hurrah before the skies go grey and the branches go bare. Our street is lined with Liquidambar trees (American sweet gum). For some strange reason, they don’t all turn at the same time. One tree is still mostly green; the leaves on the one next to it have nearly all gone burgundy; and the next one in line is a jumbled profusion of every color in between.
These are the leaves that embody the season to me. For years, I would go out and collect them in various shades, trying to capture their essence in a photograph. I was never satisfied with the results; the leaves still looked like inert, dead things, lacking the life they still seemed to possess while clinging to the tree. Finally, last year, I created the photograph above–which was more or less the one I wanted. No, the leaves didn’t fall that way; I had to collect a few showier specimens and arrange them to catch the late afternoon sun, which was slanting into the base of a tree in the little park near my home. The leaves themselves seemed to come alive and glow like fire.
That photograph, and the view this morning out my window, stir something vital in me. It’s a sense of gratuitous wonder that God would paint with such a palette. The birch tree next to my garage is a source of concern–it has grown like a weed and was planted too close to the house. But right now, it’s also a source of delight–a brilliant and billowy golden cloud. I hadn’t even noticed it until my wife pointed it out. I would leave for work in the morning, and return home in the afternoon, driving out, driving in, oblivious to the transformation of color happening right next to me.
I gave a rather impassioned lecture about Sabbath yesterday; I think I surprised even myself with how forcefully I argued for our need to regularly cease our striving and rest in God. I’m still learning that lesson myself, having been thoroughly indoctrinated in the professional gospel of salvation by productivity. My wife and I have been experimenting this past year with ways of honoring the Sabbath: preparing for it by making sure we’re ready for Monday on Saturday instead of Sunday; choosing activities that aren’t related to work-related productivity; steeping ourselves in good literature; spending time with family and friends; sharing communion together at the end of the day. We do this, not out of legalism, but out of freedom. We will be slaves to our work–even good and valuable work–if we aren’t intentional about God-sanctioned rest and renewal, about setting aside the time and space to be reminded that God is the one who keeps the earth spinning on its axis, not us.
Meanwhile, gazing out at the fall colors in my backyard is a Sabbath moment, a small space in the day to be both amazed and thankful. I know that many such moments are possible. I just have to pay attention, and catch them when they come.