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Passing beauty

On cherry blossoms and contentment

Mild weather has caused the cherry blossoms outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to bloom earlier this season than in any year since records started being kept in 1953.

In Japan, cherry-blossom viewing is a well-organized group activity. Families, friends, and couples plan excursions to parks where the trees are known to bloom lavishly. Companies send representatives early in the day to reserve space for colleagues to gather in the evening, where they will eat skewered bits of grilled chicken and squid, drink beer and sake, sing nostalgic songs, and gaze at the cherry blossoms by the light of the moon, stars, and paper lanterns.

The beauty of the delicate, pink-white blossoms is dazzling, but short-lived. Peak viewing time lasts no more than a week, and can be cut short by strong winds that tear the flowerets from the branches and sent them whirling through the air like tinted snowflakes, or by drenching rains that cause them to drop prematurely and blanket the ground with a sodden pink carpet.

The first spring after I moved to Japan, my marvel at the splendor around me turned to disappointment when I saw how quickly the show came to an end. In the following years, as spring approached, my anticipation of the coming spectacle was tinged with anxiety over its rapid passing. What if the magic week should come at a busy time, when my schedule was too full to accommodate a flower-viewing outing? What if I did arrange for a picnic in the park, only to have it spoiled by wind or rain? I would have to wait a whole year to try again! Why couldn't the cherry blossoms last longer anyway? Why did they have to go away so soon?

When I voiced my complaints, I found that my Japanese friends did not share my perspective. To them, the fleeting fragility of the cherry blossoms only enhanced their beauty, rendered them more precious, and added to the delight of beholding them. In this they showed a more biblical attitude than mine, for I was finding fault with the gift of God and failing to practice the virtue of contentment.

In truth, the fragile transience of the cherry blossoms is shared by every good we enjoy in this life. Health, wealth, beauty, physical talents, mental abilities-all are subject to decline or decay. Even our relationships with family and friends, the most precious things of all, are unsettled by the looming shadow of death. Whether in a day, a decade, or a lifetime, "all good things must come to an end." Every blessing of this life comes to us from above, but none is made or meant to last.

What then? Shall we grumble about our transitory state, cling desperately to each gift, and wail in protest when it slips from our hands? Shall we stoically refuse all enjoyments or attachments in order to avoid the pain of losing them? Or shall we choose to savor and appreciate each blessing as long as it remains, giving thanks to God for sharing such bounty with us for whatever time He allows?

We have an undeniable but sinful tendency to clutch tightly whatever present good God has sent us, rather than releasing it so as to be able to receive the next. In doing this we show a lack of faith in God and His provision, and a twisted sense of values that prizes the gift above the Giver.

We must be careful not to allow the blessings of God to replace Him as the foundation of either our joy or our security. How silly, and how sad, to grasp greedily today's gift as if the One who gave it were unable or unwilling to give tomorrow! "He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32).

The passage of time inevitably brings change and loss. But the temporal setting of our existence is precisely the sphere in which God demonstrates His unwavering faithfulness and all-sufficient grace. If we could somehow freeze the circumstances of the present moment, then our experience and appreciation of God's power and grace would never progress beyond their current level.

As with manna from heaven, the blessings of God come to us in daily portions. Let us give thanks for today's share, and trust Him to provide for tomorrow if and when it comes. "The grass withers, the flower fades," as do all the blessings of this life; but the faithful promise of the God who gives them stands forever.

- Russell Board is a missionary living in Japan