In the space of a very few days many of the leaves you see here turned from deep green to vibrant scarlet, or to a milky cream. Most of them have fallen to the ground now, leaving behind a bare tracery of stems covering the wooden fence on which they intertwine persistently .
One plant goes out in a blaze of Autumn glory as it seeks to protect itself from the harshness of Winter to come. Leaves are shed, physiology slows down and the plant settles into its dormant state. The other has an evergreen strategy. It will keep its leaves and still endure Winter.
The institutional churches, communities of faith, individuals, you and me, are in one crucial respect no different to these plants. We all move through seasons of life and cycles of being and becoming. There are Autumn times of letting go and falling away which are especially vivid in our experience. That which is inevitable, unavoidable or imposed as loss or change can seem to threaten existence itself. When the leaves have gone, what hope is left? Spring can become a dormant dream in a cold Winter nightmare. And yet the willing shedding of the leaves, this chosen loss within which Spring is assured, also points to the possibility of new growth and flourishing. Holding on to the leaves through Winter would deny Spring and lead eventually to death and decay. Only by this dramatic process of letting go can Spring remake the plant in all its life, fruitfulness and colour.
And of course the evergreen leaves point to that which persists, remains true and is retained, come what may. Here we see another essential truth of our being and becoming. Evergreen is defiant and resilient. Evergreen is visibly confident of the return of Spring. Evergreen endures. Evergreen challenges the power of Winter.
In life as in faith, Evergreen and Autumn are our companions. Not one or the other, but both together shape our soul-making and church-shaping. Life teaches me that Autumn without Evergreen, or Evergreen without Autumn, is not the way of things. In the seasons of our walk with God both will be constantly present, a truth which Rilke expresses so beautifully in his poem Autumn:
The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
As though above were withering farthest gardens;
They fall with a denying attitude.
And night by night, down into solitude,
The heavy earth falls far from every star.
We are all falling. This hand’s falling too-
All have this falling-sickness none withstands.
And yet there’s One whose gently-holding hands
This universal falling can’t fall through.