This morning, like every morning, I walked my dog Hank. The morning was cold and I was tired, so I was kind of moping about with my head down, thinking about how many other things I’d rather be doing than walking my dog (like sleeping). Taking in my first glances of Mother Nature as we stepped outside, I took note of all the death that was happening.
A hard freeze had happened. Once vibrant plants were now drooping. The garden was barren. The bird bath was frozen. And the sky was a murky gray–autumn gray, as I call it. I sighed an “I miss summertime” sigh, and resigned myself to walking.
Hank and I started our trek up the hill of our long driveway. My head was still down until something like yellow rain caught the corner of my eye. I looked up to see what in the world it was, and caught a glimpse of the most magnificent leaf-dropping I think I have ever witnessed in my life. The neighbor’s tree was dropping beautiful, golden leaves, as silent as a snowfall, and as quickly as a steady, cold, November rain. I stopped in my tracks.
I had to try to capture the moment, so I took a quick video, and then a photograph. But pictures can’t do beauty like that justice. Finally, Hank looked up at me like, “Come on, Mom!”. I gave him a pat on the head, looked one more time at the tree, then kept walking.
Fr. Richard Rohr says that beauty is evidence of a kind of harmony wherein something within us presents itself visually before us. We may not always even recognize that it is there inside us, yet when we see it before us, there is no question–the beauty in us recognizes the beauty before us. It is, to use the language of our faith, a kind of sacrament: An outward and visible sign of an internal grace. Or, in this case, an outward and visible sign of an internal beauty.
Which means that on this morning when I couldn’t find anything beautiful in the midst of a cold and barren landscape. In the midst of grief over the season that had passed. In the midst of fatigue and maybe just a little sadness that never really leaves. In the midst of “to-do” lists that never end, and responsibilities that I take on or that others place upon me. In the midst of all that isn’t necessarily beautiful or lovely, beauty was still there. Even in that space in which I felt beauty had no business. It had never left despite all of my feelings at the moment.
That tree was evidence of a harmony that I–that we–so easily forget. The harmony of the forgotten beauty within us that is made manifest beyond us. To remind us that all is not lost. That there is something holy beyond the limitations of our current experiences. That despite how lonely or isolated or lost we might feel, we carry within us an ancient connection–a sweet communion–to remind us who we are–who we really are: Vessels of beauty and grace and love beyond measure. Even when the landscape offers only evidence to the contrary.
Learning to look for the outward and visible signs of what is internal and eternal with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.