Some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible is found in the psalms. In them, the Israel of 3,000 years ago is preserved in the imagery and the observations of the poets. We can easily see the shepherds and their flocks, the green pastures, the still waters, the lions that once roamed and roared in the countryside. All of this is kept alive in our mind’s eye, even as the world has changed.
If you go to Israel today, it’s a different place. Not nearly so wild. Not so pastoral. Not what David would have recognized as his home – the place whose majesty caused him to reflect not only on the beauty of what he saw, but what that beauty said about his Creator. For the psalmists, nature was a powerful way to understand the mind and the intention of Yahweh.
I often wonder what the psalmists would have learned about God if they’d lived somewhere else. I wonder what kind of poetry they would have written if they had grown up – not in the rolling Judean hillsides, where the seasons and the changes between them are subtle – but in, say, Southern Ontario, where January and July are as different as the sides of the moon.
What would David have said about Ontario in autumn? Of the explosion of colour in our forests – and what would he have written about our hills, far as the eye can see, on fire with red and gold and yellow? Would he have seen a metaphor for the way that God makes everything new – sometimes through literal flame, often through figurative flame – through the dying of the old ways to make way for what’s next?
At this time of the year we are – without a doubt – surrounded by changes in the landscape that are symphonic. The bold, bright notes of a tree blazing crimson against a warm orange sunset before the night frost settles, in a warning of what’s to come. The staccato percussion of pumpkins dotting a farmer’s field – saying that the land has reached its last ripening. The string section of brook trout muscling their way upstream – silver and grey against waterfalls that tell them that the way home won’t be easy, but that the reward that lies ahead will be eternal. The soft applause of leaves, falling, blowing and signaling an end to the music before the long silence of winter snows. These sounds would have delighted the psalmists, who knew that God speaks in our world if we only take a moment to listen.
The autumn brings the harvest in – and the flavours that, this time of year, spoil us with a richness and a warmth that defines “comfort food.” A pot of butternut squash soup – warm and creamy and seasoned to perfection – slow cooked in a Dutch oven brings families together again around the table after a summer’s hectic pace. This is the time of year when we close our barbeques and our decks and rediscover how our stoves can warm our homes and how the conversation over a kitchen counter with a glass of Pelee Island Pinot Noir can loosen our hearts along with our tongues. We can sit back after a meal and unbuckle our belts and say for the first time – in what seems like forever – that we are full, and satisfied.
This is a season when we spend a Saturday snipping back the dead-heads from the garden, our fingers numb from the work – and when we feel the change that is coming through the leather in our gloves, through the skin of our fingers into our bones, where it lives and settles and tells us that cold is here to stay. And the quiet. And the dark. This, too, the psalmists would have seen as a way to understand the mind of God, who in the fallible flesh of our bodies has told us – year over year and season over season – that we don’t stay green and young and strong forever. But that there is peace and pleasure in the process of gathering for the winter, and that with faith, we can learn to accept everything from that first chill draft through the open bedroom window to the hardest frost that makes you late for work with the effort of scraping the windshield.
Autumn. When we leave for work – and close the front door on the warm smells of oatmeal and coffee and eggs – and our noses stand at attention in the cold morning air. Autumn. When the sweet scent of fresh-cut summer grass is a memory. When those things that don’t decay and decompose depart for places that are warmer and more alive. Autumn. When the air is somehow cleaner than we remember, and sharper, and we are more awake than we’ve been in many months. What would the psalmists say about all of this?
What would the psalmists say about what we see? The specter of steam rising once again from the tailpipe of the commuter’s car. The dragonfly frozen on the patio door screen. The squirrels storing away their horde for the winter. The wild birds chevron squawking southward across the sky. The soft smoke rising once again from chimneys. The girls in their puffy boots and even puffier coats. The boys in their tasseled toques and goofy grins, making smoke with their breath and smiling.
What would all this tell us about God?
What would a psalmist – born in the Holy Land 3,000 years ago – have made of Ontario’s everyday opera at this time of the year? What would these sights, tastes, sounds, textures and tones tell us about the one who made us? This profound cycle of fall giving way to snow and silence and ultimately the noise and business of spring and summer?
I think the psalmists would tell us that that we are surrounded by words written in the sky and the forests and the land that tell us, in no uncertain terms, that God loves us. That the seasons are a metaphor for his plans for us. And that autumn – whether on the calendar or in our own lives – is a season that brings us to calm, to quiet, to truth.