As the calendar turns from September to October, there is no shortage of difficult and challenging topics that could be addressed. Hurricane Ian has devastated many parts of Florida, particularly the Southwest Coast. If you have not given to UMCOR to help respond to this disaster, I encourage you to do so. While no particular storm can be directly attributed to climate change, this is the kind of horrific storm climate scientists predict will continue as the oceans warm and the climate changes. It will cost billions to repair the damage. Shouldn’t we get more serious in our conversations about investing in the kinds of changes needed to mitigate climate change? We have an election just around the corner. I encourage you to vote and to do your homework on the candidates and issues for which you will vote. Don’t let your only information come from political ads. I also encourage you, if you can, to volunteer to be a poll worker. There is a shortage of people currently willing and available, and our current political climate has made this a less attractive task. Yet it remains a critically important task. This is not about partisan politics. It is about the healthy functioning of our democracy and making sure that the voting process works well for all those exercising their right to vote. All the denominational issues surrounding disaffiliation remain as well.
But I would like to go in a different direction with you. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). “Jesus also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west you immediately say, “It is going to rain;” and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat;” and so it happens.’” (Luke 12:54-55). If we pay attention, we know we are in a change of seasons this month, from summer to autumn.
Autumn. It is a season that mixes speeding up with slowing down. In the church, there are rally Sundays, renewed programming, new groups. Autumn brings the start of school with all the attendant activities. It is a busy time, often a very busy time.
Yet autumn also invites a slowing down, an attentiveness to change. While a busy season, it is also a season where plants grow more slowly, and after the first freeze, stop to prepare for winter. Autumn is the transition from the warm possibilities of summer to the chill of winter. Popular songs associated with autumn invite an attentiveness to the wistfulness of what is past, to change, and to present beauty. “Autumn in New York, that brings the promise of new love. Autumn in New York, is often mingled with pain. Lovers that bless the dark, on benches in Central Park, it’s autumn in New York, it’s good to live it again” (Autumn in New York). “The falling leaves drift by my window; the autumn leaves of red and gold…I miss you most of all…when autumn leaves start to fall” (Autumn Leaves).
As followers of Jesus, we affirm that “every perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17) and that therefore we have reason to “enjoy life” (Ecclesiastes 9:9), giving thanks to God for life’s joys and good gifts. I mention the songs above not only because they are autumn songs, but because they are songs that bring me joy. Listening to Billie Holiday, Diana Krall, or the duet with Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald sing “Autumn in New York” touches me. It brings me joy and it slows me down to appreciate joy and beauty. “Autumn Leaves” has been sung or played by musicians as diverse as Johnny Mercer, Frank Sinatra, Eric Clapton, Cannonball Adderly, and Bill Evans. All reach a place in my heart. I think of other such autumnal songs: “Fall” by the Miles Davis Quintet, “Autumn in Washington Square” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, or a song that makes most people who know it want to dance—“September” by Earth, Wind and Fire. All bring me joy.
The serious issues with which we have to deal will not magically disappear by spending some time in autumnal reverie. Hurricane response will be ongoing. The election will still be before us, and after it, dealing with what comes next. Inflation, gun violence, opioid deaths, denominational disaffiliation will be there on the other side of reverie. Yet we miss something deeply important, deeply human, if we neglect opportunities to slow down and pay attention, to stop and watch the leaves change colors, to pause and let a cool autumn breeze kiss our cheeks. It is a part of faith to take time to appreciate life’s good gifts—music, an engaging book, a fine film, a beautiful painting or picture, a delightful poem, a nice meal, a lovely conversation. There is something about autumn that invites me to such appreciation, an invitation of the Spirit in this change of seasons.
In “Postscript,” the final poem of his book “The Spirit Level,” Seamus Heaney encourages a drive on the Ireland shore “In September or October, when the wind / And the light are working off each other / So that the ocean on one side is wild / With foam and glitter.” He says that to stop the car really won’t help you capture the beauty and the moment more thoroughly, but that still you can let “big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
This autumn, take some time for beauty and reverie and joy. Let something catch your heart off guard and blow it open. I’m on this joyful journey through autumn with you.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church