Bittersweet

Last weekend, we took a drive up the canyon to see the changing leaves. At canyon’s mouth, the air was still hot and dry, the trees had not yet given in to autumn’s brilliant coat and wore a look of tired summer, frayed and dry. Looking down into the valley below, we could see the haze that settled over the sprawling city, the clutter of houses and the bustle of traffic on the last dusty weekend of September.

But as we climbed, the air grew cooler. The sky above, an impossible blue, was clear and vast behind jutting lines of stone…mountains on all sides. The road twisted and turned, snaking its way ever upward. With each mile, we saw the colors grow deeper and more brilliant. Aspen trees, quavering in the breeze, given over to shades of yellow and red and all colors in between. They burned like fire against a green-black backdrop of towering pines, bursts of glowing color spread like a crazy quilt stitched by God’s own hand.

We pulled over, found a trail, unloaded 3 excited children, the camera, a picnic lunch. We set foot at the base of the trail under the azure sky, with sunlight filtering through autumn-struck leaves. We stopped, touched spinning aspen leaves of gold and red, picked up fallen bits of glory and marveled at the painted colors of each individual leaf. We wondered at the changes, just last week this aspen grove had been full green. Hand in hand, we continued our ascent, struck quiet with the awe of God’s beautiful creation.

But as we climbed, the mood changed. The children, hungry and tired, began to complain. They fought, whined, kicked up dust. We struggled to keep tempers that were quickly fraying, tried to remember to look around us at the changing leaves rather than straight ahead at the winding trail. As we climbed, as our moods fell, the sky seemed to echo the mood of our little hiking party. The sun, which had shone so brilliantly a moment ago, slid behind quickly moving clouds. The sky above grew darker, deepening shades of gray rolled over us like an ominous blanket. The air grew cool and the wind picked up. We continued our hike, but with trepidation…how much farther would we be able to climb? Would the clouds, which grew darker with every moment, bring a mountain storm?

In moments, the first drops hit us. Huge raindrops fell from the sky, first a few at a time and then a downpour. Rain pelted us, soaked through sweatshirts and sweaters. Rain chattered on the leafy canopy above us, slicked rock and turned dry dust into mud. We turned around and headed down the trail…these mountain storms pass quickly, but there would be no picnic under this temperamental sky. The children bounced between elation at being outside in this pounding deluge, anger at missing out on the picnic, and fear of the darkly rumbling sky. We were as temperamental as the weather as we slipped and slid down the mountain.
Halfway down, another shift. The sun crested a bank of thick clouds, and bright autumn light pierced through shades of gray. Each falling drop of rain became a diamond, sparkling and flashing against a backdrop of dark pine and brilliant aspen. The glowing sun seemed to light up the colors of the trees, they glowed with a golden backlight that etched each leaf with a color unmatched by human efforts. Though wet and muddy, we stood and stared. Even in this deluge, a beauty unsurpassed lay before us, in all directions! In the midst of the storm, such grace and depth and splendor.

We reached the car, soaked through and dripping but smiling in the rain. Everything around us seemed more clear somehow, outlined in shining light. The world looked clean, scrubbed, fresh. We felt, in a deep sort of way, the same feeling you exoerience when you have cried yourself out….that exhausted, spent sort of quiet peace. Not thinking, not even reflecting…just being for a moment, feeling God in that quiet space.

I’ve been thinking of that day, of the huge swing from sun to storm, of the rise and plummet of emotions along the trail. This was a part of God’s plan for us, this variety. The ups and downs, the highs and lows, the joy and the pain…bittersweet life, in which we must embrace this enormous variety, this deep shift, these conflicting and piercing experiences of the heart. In our sorrow and pain, we cry out to Him…sometimes against Him. It seems counter to the nature of a loving God to allow the kind of pain that life sometimes brings. And yet, he created it all…even in one afternoon on a mountain trail, we can see how His creation reflects these ups and downs. Mountains and valleys, warm sun and pouring rain, laughter and tears. The depth and breath and vast variety of God, beyond all understanding.

I sometimes feel that it is somehow more Godly to be even-keeled, steady, consistent in emotion. To ride along life’s ups and downs, living in the joy and somehow avoiding the pain, to speak only of life’s beauty and to blind myself to its ugliness. But our walk in the mountains has me thinking. Life is full of extremes, full of bumps, of highest mountains and deepest valleys. The purest joy would not be so achingly beautiful if we didn’t know, in our hearts, that the most crushing pain exists in the same life, sometimes in the same moment. We are beautiful and broken, bitter and sweet. It is, at the very root, dishonest to pretend otherwise. Yet somehow as Christians we often feel like we can’t let down our mantel of beauty, as though our faith in God is somehow lessened by feeling the lows as well as the highs, by having moments of faltering faith, moments of despair, moments when we shake our fists in rage at God himself. No, we shouldn’t dwell on life’s pain and injustice or allow it to drag us down. But at times it is as important in our ministry to allow others to see us struggling…yet remaining in faith…as it is for them to see our joy in Christ.

These moments will come, as surely as the rain. It is no less Godly to feel pain than it is to feel joy, He is there in both. It is our struggle to see Him there, to feel His presence in the ugly as well as in the beautiful, that forces us to grow. Our strength as Christians comes in part from the fight, the struggle, the battle to cling to Him through the storm as well as the calm.

King David of long ago knew this struggle. The psalms are full of these wild ups and downs, these joyful songs of praise and deepest laments of sorrow. The moments of joy when the heart can only sing His praise, the moments of heartbreak when one can only choose to have faith, when everything you see around you screams that God could not be present in such a broken world.


Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony.

My soul is in anguish.
How long, O LORD, how long?

Turn, O LORD, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.

(Psalm 6:2-4)

I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonders.

I will be glad and rejoice in you;
I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.

(Psalm 9:1-2)

Lord, help me embrace the lows as well as the highs, help me learn to see you in both. Help me to feel your love and grace through the ups and downs, in the warm sun and in the pouring rain. Amen.

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