It’s a bitter afternoon—the damp kind that cuts clear to the bone. From my window I see the stark, barren trees outlined against the colorless sky. They slouch firmly to one side in the November wind, like proud old men, hunched over but still strong and determined enough not to yield to the forces around them.
As if angered by this, the wind whips around toward me and howls as it tries to push its way through the panes of glass. The sound sends a shiver up my back, and I huddle closer to the fire for warmth. But the flames are quickly dying out, so I muster my resolve, bundle up, and brave my way out back to the woodpile. In lifting one particularly heavy log, I uncover a broken branch that has fallen from a nearby tree. It’s soggy and has a few brown, withered leaves still attached to it, but I decide, Hey, it’s cold out here. As long as this thing will burn, it’s coming with me.
Back inside I’ve got the fire blazing again, and my grateful hands soak in the heat. Just for good measure I toss in the old branch. As I do, the Spirit brings John 15:6 to mind: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.”
Suddenly, a small cluster of leaves ignites and flies up the chimney. Somehow something deep inside me is moved by this. I sit there silently, mesmerized by the flames, engulfed by the scent of hickory, and I ponder the leaves. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a special love for leaves—from the excitement they bring when the first buds pop open in the spring…to the delight of seeing the world awash in summer’s green…but, oh, especially in the fall, with the brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds cascading all around. There’s something about leaves when they fall that just seems to invite interaction. It takes me back to my childhood—to the joyful abandon of running at top speed and springing feet first into a huge mountain of foliage fun…to the supreme satisfaction of hearing those crackling crunches as I’d pounce on each crisp plaything in my path. (Okay, I admit I still do that.)
Of course, I realize that not everyone shares my fondness for the fallen leaves. I was at a class reunion a while back, where a friend who has a large yard remarked how he thinks the leaves are great—as long as they stay on the trees. As soon as they begin to drop, he sees them as nothing more than a nuisance, an annoying fact of life that just means extra work for him: raking, bagging, trudging back and forth lugging a leaf blower.
It’s interesting to see how different people view things. I had a conversation with another friend who’s an avid gardener. To her, leaves are like gold. Each autumn, she lovingly gathers them into a large compost pile, where slowly over the course of the year they break down into a nutrient-packed pulp. In the spring, she spreads the mixture throughout her garden to enrich the soil. The flowers and plants that result from this effort are nothing short of amazing.
I glance out the window to see if I can spot the small hill of leaves I gathered last week on her advice. As I look, another gust charges and rattles the glass. It strips the last two leaves off the maple near my fence and they race swiftly by, spiraling and chasing each other across the yard. My mind flashes back to a similar scene: Mid-October. I’m stopped at a red light when a sharp breeze shakes a young birch on the corner. A handful of golden leaves tumble past my windshield. Amused, I watch them play a seeming game of leapfrog, like carefree children let out of school early. They chase each other into a fenced parking lot, swirling to and fro in an elaborate autumn dance. They’re beautiful, I think to myself. So bright and colorful. They seem to be having such fun….And yet…they’re dead.
Stoking the fire, I’m struck with how often God uses the natural world to teach us about the spiritual. I begin to see why the burning leaves moved me so. They are the unsaved. My family…my friends…my coworkers. Like leaves, they are bright—some of them truly brilliant. Certainly all of them colorful. And although they seem to dance through this life so carefree, the truth is they’re in a fallen state, and they’re dead in their sins. Yet there’s something in them that is still so beautiful.
And I love them.
It breaks my heart to think of them being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” (Eph. 4:14) To see them withering away like leaves on a broken branch, not supported by the root and richness of the olive tree, which is Jesus Christ (Rom. 11:16-17), knowing that unless they turn to Him, they will one day be cast into the fire and burned.
But I also know that I, too, was once a dead leaf on a broken branch. And through the grace of God, I was grafted back into the tree. This is the beauty inherent in these fallen ones. It is the beauty of hope. For “they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.” (Rom. 11:23)
And so I see my choice as a believer: Into my life God has allowed many leaves to fall. I can look upon them as a nuisance, an annoying fact of life. I can trudge back and forth through the yard God has placed me in, lugging the leaf blower of my indifference, taking these precious ones and blowing them off, out into the street to be swept away. Or, I can choose to see their beauty, their value. Though they be fallen, I can lovingly gather them back toward the Garden, allowing them to enrich the soil of my life. I can pray that over time God will break down their pride and their defenses. Yes, it may require patience and hard work at times, but the resulting grace may be nothing short of amazing.
The day is bitter; the wind, harsh. Even still, I think I’ll leave the comfort of my chair, go outside, and check on my leaves. And in the spring, when the Lord causes new life to abound, we’ll see what grows.