The season I worked as a horse wrangler in the Yukon wilderness, there was a little ritual that I looked forward to each day, called “tea time”. One of the guides I worked with carried a little tea pot in his saddle bags and would build a small fire around ten or so in the morning and boil some tea. This meant a break for me. Usually I was up before five in the morning, running after the horses on foot and then it was a quick breakfast before heading back out on the trail with the guides and hunters, to either walk or ride for hours in search of game. If nothing presented itself, we would take a break and some days that break is the only thing that kept me going.
My mantra was “If I can make it to tea time . . . I will be ok.”
So we would collect up some sticks and build a small fire, sometimes a little larger one, depending on the weather and the tea pot would be filled either with water from a nearby stream or from water carried in our saddle bags. Soon it would be boiling and steaming and tea bags would be dropped in and stirred and the hot fragrant liquid would be sitting in our cups warming my hands and my belly. It always rejuvenated my spirits enough to make it to the next break time and the next cuppa tea.
I do not drink coffee and usually I was surrounded by coffee drinkers out in the bush, except for a few times, when this guide and a few others I worked with over the years, saw the wisdom of using tea instead of coffee in camp––so much cleaner, so much quicker to make than that other favored drink. I always carried a tin of special teas with me. The tin was a cheery little thing that I would use to brighten up my cabins and the teas had wonderful flavors that I would pull out for a bit of a treat when everyone was gone from camp, or to offer to guests that came visiting.
Lately I’ve become more sophisticated in my tea drinking and upgraded from tea bags to loose leaf teas. I’ve learned that certain teas need specific temperatures and steeping times to maximize the fullest flavor of the tea. Green teas and white teas are more delicate than the black teas and can become bitter if saturated in too hot of water or allowed to steep too long.
There is a process that happens with loose leaf teas that one doesn’t notice with bagged teas. This process is expressed as “the agony of the leaves”, which captures perfectly the writhing dance of the dried tea leaves when hot water is poured over them. The shriveled leaves bend and struggle and begin to unfurl in the water, and as they expand they “give up” the full aroma, colours and the rich flavor they were withholding within.
The expression itself captivated my attention. “The Agony of the Leaves”.
Agony, seems to me, something I wish to avoid–at all costs if possible! I think of agony as something that is distressing and painful if not downright tortuous. And so to think that the hot water is torturing the leaves to release the essence of what they hold within, seems very cruel and I would stop drinking tea for that reason alone. However I didn’t realize that agony is a far richer term than what I just described. Yes is can mean a violent struggle or contest, or the suffering that precedes death, but it also encompasses an intense excitement or sudden outburst of powerful emotion such as joy or delight, as in “the agony of joy”.
So with that in mind, instead of torture and suffering causing the writhing dance of the unfurling leaves, I now see an outburst of emotion, of joy, of submission, of allowance, of a laying down and a giving up to fulfill a richer purpose.
I think it’s a wonderful picture of the hand of God on our lives. So many times I feel hard pressed, shaken up, and squeezed near to death. During those times the word writhing has come to mind, though my picture of it has been more of a worm stuck through with a pin and writhing around trying to get away from the pain. And I am the worm and God the one who pushed the pin in. And I plead with Him, “Just take away the pin! Just let up on me! I’m tired of this agony! I don’t want to be stuck here, with no chance to get away from the pain, all shriveled up and drying up and dying.” It’s a belly-deep groaning that rises up within.
Yet now, with this lovely picture of the writhing, dancing tea before me, I think, maybe I had the wrong idea about agony and writhing. Maybe now I’ll envision myself like a tea leaf instead of a worm. I was a dried up husk of what I was designed to be and God instead of sticking it to me, is pouring the hot water on and oh yes, the agony, that causes me to writhe, but not like a worm stuck with a pin, but a dance, an unfurling, an embracing of the tension and the struggle to let go and become greater. He’s pouring into me so that I may expand and fulfill larger purposes than I could ever have before in my dried up state.
As the apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18 NIV) and then goes on to relate how creation is groaning like a woman in childbirth, awaiting deliverance and transformation. And how God is working within us and in creation to liberate us from bondage and decay and bring us into freedom and glory.
So apparently this pain, this struggle, this agony endured is to bring out in me a richer beauty than what I could ever imagine. At least that is my hope––my faith if it may be said, that God is there to bring out the fuller flavors in me; the pleasing aromas, the richer colors. And not just in me, but this whole creation. He’s taking the shriveled up condition of this world and recreating. And it’s agony. Pure and simple. But it’s agony meant to bring about expansion, like the tea leaves that were whole and fresh, then dried and dead and then brought back to life in a new and greater way, and with an even stronger essence than before.