Each year when fall arrives, I watch for my favorite maple trees on my route from home to church. I delight in the way their leaves begin turning at the very tops, then the color slowly spreads to include the bottom branches, lighting up the trees in brilliant hues until finally circles of orange, red and yellow leaves surround the trunks like Christmas tree skirts. I know where all the maples are on my various daily drives and often go out of my way to check on their progress. I happily indulge this small ritual every year to welcome the new season.
Of course it’s always the maples. They’re the most dramatic of all the trees, bursting with fiery shades. When I witness a tall, bright maple standing against a clear, crisp blue autumn sky it takes my breath away. The maples are what I remember, what I search for, what I bask in, what remind me that there are moments of transcendence in each day.
I’m not exaggerating about my experience of the changing maples. My personal spirituality, the way I often experience God most profoundly, is not only in the beauty of nature; it’s in extravagant beauty, breath-taking beauty, scenery and art and music and words that are lovely in their resplendence. On a hike at Holden Village in the Washington mountains, our group scaled a long uphill trek to reach Hart Lake after a few miles of flat terrain. The person hiking ahead of me turned around at the top of the path and gasped, claiming the climb was worth the view. And was it ever. Once I was high enough to look back and witness the spectacular valley beneath us, I knew I would never forget the scenery. God’s abundant, extravagant creation stretched out for miles around me.
At times I assume faith and spirituality need to be about serious self-denial and the enjoyment of beauty is frivolous and silly. Perhaps this is a reflection of my Midwestern, Scandinavian upbringing. Yet I also remember my Finnish great-uncle, who grew scores of bright, velvety roses in his tiny backyard in the short Iron Range summers and who played his piano for countless hours until his fingers wore away permanent grooves in the keys. I think of the people of our sister congregation in Masisiwe, Tanzania, effortlessly singing in multiple-part harmony, praising God with their voices. Self-denial and beauty don’t need to be either-or, but our faith makes room for both.
We worship a God whose creation is the very example of excessive abundance, who formed a world for us to continually enjoy, who welcomes the Prodigal Son and tosses seeds onto all types of soil. Don’t forget that God wants us to live whole, full lives with many moments of joy and wonder. It’s these moments that inspire us to live out our faith with extravagance, grace upon grace upon grace.