Around fifteen years ago, when I was a junior at Taylor Unitversity (the Upland campus), I walked with a pretty blonde beside the lake and I was pulling out all the stops. The sun was setting. Autumn was underway. And I was full of all sorts of profound reflections about the handiwork of God in the changing of the seasons.
We were holding hands. And that was cool.
And about time too.
Having said all I could think to say about the colors in the setting sun, I moved on to my observations about trees.
See how it stands there so green and lush and strong? Could you ever imagine it might ever look any other way? But then autumn sets in because God knows what the tree needs. It needs a winter.
Sometimes God gives us winter. Sometimes we go through seasons where by all appearances we look dull and maybe even a little lifeless. But it’s because God knows what we needs. And by His grace He has ordained that before the winter fully sets on in the life of that tree, it would burst into a blaze of glorious color, as if to say, “This is not the last you will see of me! I am strong. I am alive. I have purpose!”
I was on a roll. I was clicking with myself. She was lucky to be there. Lucky.
I paused to let the full weight of my remarks wash over us both. She really seemed to be thinking hard about what I said. I couldn’t wait to hear what she’d say. I thought to myself, “Wait for it. Wait for it.”
After a pause, she finally turned to me and spoke. And what she said made me want to break up with her and marry her at the same time.
“Why can’t it just be a tree?”
What?! Who does this girl think she is? Didn’t she understand that the reason it can’t just be a tree is because that would be, uh, obtuse?
Then it hit me. Maybe she was still absorbing what I’d just taught her. Maybe I was just way ahead of her. So I circled back around to explain it all over again.
Turns out she got it the first time. But she still wanted to know why it couldn’t just be a tree. I had no answer.
I didn’t break up with her. I married her.
What’s so ironic about that little walk we took was that she was being far more profound than I was. In asking why the tree couldn’t just be a tree, she was really asking why I had to dig under every rock? Why did I have to make an analogy out of every simple, tangible, natural event?
Was I hiding behind these super-spiritual sounding poetic flourishes from the world in front of me? Would I use this little trick to hide from her? If so, she had just fired a shot across my bow to let me know she was on to me, mister.
I was mad at her for it. And I loved her for it.
The Puritans used to say you got married in order to fall in love. One of my seminary professors told me on the occasion of his 25th wedding anniversary that the things he loved most about his wife he didn’t really even know were a part of her when they first got married.
I believe both of those statements are true in my life. Lisa and I are thirteen years in and she has been God’s gift to me in countless ways– one of which being how she has rescued my heart from retreating deep into a world of spiritual sounding but meaningless abstractions.
She has given me four beautiful kids who desperately need me to accept that most of the time a tree is just a tree. They need me to be impressed with their pine cone collections. And she has taught me how to do that.
And you know something? This life is richer and better than I could have ever dreamed back then.
Here in the Rabbit Room we look under the rocks of our culture for meaning. And I’m glad for it. I still love the secrets of trees in winter. I still love abstraction.
But I’m learning to simply love the tree. But that took another person’s help. She is not an abstraction. And I love her.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).