I love fall. It’s my favorite season. My family has most of our birthdays, along with our wedding anniversary, in October. But in addition to all of that, one of the things I love the most is the changing of the leaves. And I’m not alone.
Every autumn thousands of people, maybe some of us here tonight, trek up to the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains of Virginia. During a recent October, around 220,000 people visited Shenandoah National Park, including Skyline Drive, according to a park media relations staffer. When we go, we’re hoping for that perfect day, when the air is crisp, the clouds are few, and the sunlight is plentiful, so we can take in one of the most spectacular scenes in nature — the gorgeous fall foliage.
Various species of trees change color at different times as we march toward winter. We begin to see the first spots of red in the forest in early September. These are the black gums. They’re quickly followed by the black walnut’s leaves turning yellow and the dogwood’s turning red. Soon the hickory begins to change to a deep yellow. By mid-October there is a rush of color which we usually call the “peak season.” That’s when we see the brilliant oranges and reds of the sugar maples, reds and yellows of the red maple, and all the colors of the oaks and other species. Finally, toward the end of the season the last show of color is provided by the yellow poplar. Beyond mid-November, the forest is generally shades of browns and bronzes with a few remaining color splashes here and there.
According to the Virginia Department of Forestry and National Park service, color change in leaves is not fully understood, and remains a mystery. Imagine that — we pat ourselves on the back because we put men on the moon, but we can’t figure out precisely how God gets a green leaf to turn brilliant crimson the third week of October. God can humble us in many ways.
But we do know a few things about leaf color: Forestry professionals tell us it involves sunlight, moisture, temperature, length of day, chemicals, and hormones.
A green leaf is green because of the presence of a group of pigments known as chlorophyll. Reaching back to high school biology, you may remember that chlorophyll absorb light to provide energy for photosynthesis. Chlorophyll are active during the summer growing season, capturing the sun’s energy and using water and carbon dioxide to make simple sugars. These simple sugars are a tree’s food. All during the summer, the chlorophyll are constantly being produced and broken down, creating food for the tree, and are, as a side-effect, keeping the leaves green.
But it turns out that the green color actually is masking the leaves’ true colors.
As autumn approaches, weather changes somehow signal a slowdown in the production of chlorophyll. The green begins to fade as the masking effect disappears. Other colors which have been in the leaf all along begin to show through. These pigments, called carotenoids, give us the yellows, browns, and oranges. Reds and purples are created by pigments called anthocyanins, which develop in the sap of leaf cells in late summer. Supposedly, the brighter the light (the fewer cloudy days) during this late summer period, the greater the production of these pigments and the more brilliant colors we see come fall.
So we might sum up what we know about leaf color like this: During the growing season, chlorophyll is continually being produced and broken down and leaves appear green. As nights get longer in the autumn, chlorophyll production slows down and then stops and eventually all the chlorophyll dies. The carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments in the leaf are then unmasked to show their colors.
And so, what we realize is that all those people who travel every Fall to the mountains are really going to see just one thing — dying leaves.
We don’t go to see the leaves in the summer, when they’re full of their own life, when they are supplying their own needs with their own chlorophyll. No, we go when they’ve run out of their own resources, when they can no longer feed themselves, when they have come to the end of their own leafy strength. No longer are they green and proud, supplying the food for their mighty oak, or majestic maple. Now they are dying. And it’s only now that they are the absolute most beautiful. Only now are they seen painted in the true colors that their Creator designed them to show.
And all that makes me think of God’s Word in Romans chapter 6. Here, Paul writes in verses 6-8:
For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him.
So each fall, I think of the many people drawn to see a bunch of dying leaves. Leaves, which after a season of self-sufficiency, are finally showing their true, beautiful colors.
And I’m reminded that God has designed me to be free from sin — to show my true colors as well — colors that are true of any child of the King. He lists them for us in Galatians 5:22, where we see that the fruit of the Spirit-led, if you will, God-colored life, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
But I can’t show those colors when I’m living for my own sinful desires, in my own strength. No, those God-colors are only evident when I’m dying to my sin and living for Christ.
A pretty neat lesson from a bunch of dying leaves, I think.
So maybe as we watch the leaves show off this fall, you’ll choose to join me as I ask myself, “Are my true colors showing?”