He wrote it almost a hundred years ago, but William Percy’s “Overtones” is a timeless reminder of the power of joy in the midst of even the bleakest landscape of circumstances:
I heard a bird at break of day
Sing from the autumn trees
A song so mystical and calm,
So full of certainties,
No man, I think, could listen long
Except upon his knees.
Yet this was but a simple bird,
Alone, among dead trees.
In times of discouragement and sorrow, it’s so easy to feel small, powerless, and “alone, among dead trees.”
Paul must have felt that way at times. He risked life and limb to spread the gospel, gave himself fully to those who came to Christ, worked tirelessly and suffered imprisonment and deprivation of every kind. Perhaps the most cruel blows were inflicted not by the avowed enemies of the gospel, but by some who had come to faith: those who criticized, gossiped about, complained about, and deserted him.
By the time he wrote his second letter to Timothy, Paul was imprisoned in Rome and knew he would never get out alive. His more immediate setback was that “everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me” (2 Tim 1:15). Given the situation, Paul must have had moments of feeling alone among dead trees. The temptation to feel betrayed and abused must have been fighting hard for supremacy, trying to pull him into the quicksand of anger and self-pity.
But like Percy’s bird, Paul responded by pouring out a song full of certainties. He recognized the reality that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12), but also the surpassing reality that we “suffer for the gospel by the power of God.” Paul knew the certainty that God’s Holy Spirit “gives us power, love and self-discipline,” that God is “able to guard what I have entrusted to him. . .” (2 Tim 1:7-8, 12), despite how bleak the landscape might appear.
As we all do, Paul had a choice here: he could look at his circumstances or he could look at God. He could be immersed in the undertones of isolation and bare branches, or lifted to praise the overtones of God’s power, love and enabling in the exercise of self-discipline. Paul could easily have chosen to see his efforts as a waste of his life. Instead, he chose to see the wonder in the certainty that God would guard the results of Paul’s labor and bring them to fruition in His time and by His power. Paul chose not to see dead trees, but divinely-established roots and branches that would bring new life at God’s appointed season.
Is the song I sing full of undertones or overtones? Do I give way to negatives, or do I discipline myself to focus on God’s power and enabling and absolute trustworthiness? Do I waste my time and energy in worry, wrath or wallowing, or do I choose to walk in and witness to the wonder of God’s grace and my salvation?
Overtones or undertones, waste or wonder: it’s mine to choose. Father, please grant me the discipline to sing and not to sink, and to daily choose what You can use.