I visited the waterfalls near NYC to catch the sight of autumn colors reaching peak. I stopped short of getting the best view, however. The prospect of walking down 108 slippery stone steps without my hiking boots scared me off. On the way back, I walked toward an observatory overlooking the waterfalls, but again I refrained from getting closer. It was too crowded to be safe, it seemed. The visit was still not a lost cause. I enjoyed the calm ambience of bare trees and their fallen leaves nearby the parking lot.
As I look back, I often stopped short of beholding late fall and winter seasons in ministry. I favored budding spring, energetic summer, and harvesting autumn. The coronavirus, however, has opened my eyes on the importance of falling, losing, and dying. Now I begin to appreciate how my dear friend Rev. Daniel Shin used to comment long ago, “Pastor Kim, give yourself a chance to contemplate on the spirituality of winter.”
Cha Jung-rak sang and lamented “Love Gone with the Fallen Leaves.” But is that really so? It is for the best that autumn leaves fall, decompose, and feed the soil in tune with season’s change. Thanks to them, new life will reappear in the spring. One of our church members said to me recently, “Pastor, everything has collapsed due to the pandemic. It’s time to start from scratch. Let’s not look back to all the vain things of the past. Our job now is to build up the true church that God calls us to be.”
I made someone upset the other day by not inviting him into the office. He protested: “Would Jesus have done the same? How can you treat your church member like a leper?” I thought I had good reasons: My office wasn’t prepared for anyone’s visit, and the next worship service was soon about to start. But what can I say. I stopped eating out since the outbreak of the coronavirus, but some take it personally. I would sit down for a conversation with my mask intact, and some take it personally. All these years the best part of my ministry was about eating together and sharing a laugh, but the coronavirus has made me take a complete opposite route.
As life with corona stretches into winter, the safety measures that I took to be responsible are becoming a source of resentment. People expect a pastor to be the presence that is always welcoming and accepting, no matter what they say and what they do. It is regrettable that I couldn’t be all things to all people, if I borrow Paul’s terms. But truth be told, I practiced distancing mainly because I thought there’s a more likely chance that I might be a carrier.
Fall leaves better nurture the ground after they’re trampled and crushed into dust. I had stopped short of reaching that maturity in ministry. I look back to the thoughts I maintained and principles I insisted, at times even stubbornly so. And I question myself: Were my thoughts always stemming from a heart of love? Did I do my best to see from the other’s point of view, from where the other is coming from? I often stopped short of reaching the other side.
Korean poet Baek Seok writes in his poem, “Autumn Leaves”:
“Where are the regrets for the youth foregone? Where is the fear of old age and death? Love is ripe, and the body is set ablaze like a fuel…Autumn leaves of October are beautiful but I will refrain from loving them, because the red purple hues are so vivid out of a wound unmended.” ‘Wound unmended’ is often interpreted as resentment, but I don’t think love can carry resentment.
Autumn leaves are beautiful because they give all of themselves for the sake of love. We observed this past Sunday as All Saints’ Day, remembering the self-giving love of those who have gone before us, who have now joined the great cloud of witnesses in heaven. It is by their sacrifice we stand today.
To die is gain, affirms the Bible. This late fall season, I stand humbled before this paradoxical truth.