Metaphors from the Garden
Being Pruned by Life and by God
I am very much an amateur at gardening, but in my limited experience there seems to be three kinds of gardeners when it comes to pruning.
There are gardeners who prune aggressively. Here I think of a woman who lived in Sanford, North Carolina. Dave and I bought our first home in Sanford; it was a 1920s craftsman-style house in the historic part of town. We were only the third family to ever live in the house. The person who owned the house before us, Mr. Pierce, had lived there for thirty-six years. It must have been a long thirty-six years for this one woman because very shortly after we moved in, with our signatures barely dry on the mortgage, she approached us. See, Mr. Pierce was a “trimmer”—he would shape the top of the holly bushes but not actually prune them, or cut off any branches. This had bothered her for thirty-six years, every time she drove past the house on her way to First Baptist Church. And so she was determined to set things straight with the new owners—us.
A few days later this woman came pulling up to the curb in her blue Cadillac with a soft top. She hopped out of the car, wearing a floppy hat and gardening gloves and carrying her own shears. Going straight to the shrubs in question, she began to prune them, not afraid of cutting deep into the bushes, not hesitating to cut off any questionable branch right at its base. When she was done, she got in her car and drove off. I think of this woman as an aggressive pruner—and maybe aggressive in other ways, too.
Then there are those who leave all the pruning to nature; I’ll call them passive pruners. If I took care of our shrubs and trees, this is the kind of pruning I would do. When I came to St. Peter’s almost seven years ago, our former deacon Kay placed seven plants in my office. I’m proud to say that six are still alive—sadly one succumbed to a plant parasite four years ago. They are in the exact same places where Kay put them, in the same containers, no new soil. I have learned from experience that I tend to love plants to death (literally), and so I’ve taken a minimalist approach to plant care. If I were to care for shrubs, I’m sure the only pruning they would receive would be the pruning that occurs naturally over a long period of time—the kind that happens from a Frisbee gone astray or from our dog Martha making her way underneath.
And then there are those who prune their plants and shrubs with tender care, purposefully and intimately. Here I think of Merry Helen, who approaches pruning with excitement, saying to each shrub, “How can I help you grow?” Pruning in this way is part of an ongoing relationship that involves nurturing; it consists of intentional actions designed to bring healing to weary plants, to stimulate growth, and to encourage new life. This is the pruning of love.
Sometimes we picture God as an aggressive gardener, one who decides what is good and bad, how things “ought to be,” and then cavalierly lops off anything that isn’t up to par. Scripture can sometimes paint God in that way. We see it in today’s parable in this line: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” But I think this parable actually describes not some retribution on the part of God, but what we all know to be the case—when something is separated from its source of life, it dies. It is not judgment as much as it is fact.
The truth is that pruning doesn’t have to be a form of punishment, and it doesn’t have to happen by the hand of God. Pruning is just part of life. If we are alive, we are going to be pruned—sometimes intentionally and sometimes by random forces, sometimes losing small shoots of ourselves and sometimes experiencing the heartbreak of losing large branches, sometimes shedding parts that do us harm and sometimes being cut off from things that are life-giving. We are inevitably pruned as we go through life; at times we are pruned aggressively, at times we are pruned passively, and at times we are pruned lovingly.
We are pruned aggressively when we experience sudden and large-scale loss. Such loss can be the result of natural disasters—such as the earthquake in Nepal, the EBOLA outbreak in Africa, or this winter’s avalanche in Afghanistan. The loss can be localized and personal, as when a house fire claims all one’s material possessions, or when a move takes us away from the life we know, or when we receive a devastating diagnosis, or when someone we love dies. In these circumstances, we know what it feels like for a part of us to wither and die; we know the pain of loss. We feel like crepe myrtles that have been cut-back, whose branches are exposed, bare, and waiting.
But pruning can also happen gradually and passively, so much so that sometimes we barely notice that it is taking place. It occurs in much the same way that sea glass is made. Sea glass begins as shards of glass from broken bottles, dishes from shipwrecks, and other sources. The glass spends long periods of time being tumbled around in the sea, colliding with rocks and other objects. Ultimately the rough edges of the glass are smoothed out and the shininess of the glass takes on a frosted appearance. In the same way, we are pruned by life in community—gradually, naturally, and usually for the better. As we bump up against one another, a lot of our rough edges are smoothed and our overbearing branches of greed, insensitivity, and conceit are cut back. We gradually become more patient, kind, compassionate, forgiving, and loving. We learn that our own branches sometimes have to make room for the branches of others.
Then there is pruning that is intimate and nurturing in nature; this is the pruning that is done by God, by those who love us, by our church community, and sometimes by ourselves. Our experience of it isn’t necessarily pleasant, but this kind of pruning always comes from a place of love. It can be protective, as in ridding the tree of a high, dead limb so that the limb won’t cause damage to other branches when it falls. This pruning can be generative and productive; it can lead to new fruit, new life. We embrace a child—through birth, adoption, or the foster care process—and we know that other things in our lives will go by the wayside to make room for this new addition to our family. We change careers, and our identity gets pruned, added to, and reshaped. Each stage of life holds its own blessings, but we have to let go of some previous blessings in order to meet the future with open hands. Some of this intentional pruning happens by our choice, some does not. But its goal is to enhance overall wholeness.
I have friends who have an organic farm on a nearby mountain. When pruning a fruit tree, they think about the overall well-being of the tree. Each branch is pruned in relation to the branches around it, so that the whole tree can flourish and produce fruit. So it is in our own lives as well—some branches need to be cut so that we can thrive, so that we can accommodate new growth.
The point is that we are going to be pruned—no doubt about it, no way around it. We will experience all three kinds at some point or another: pruning that is aggressive and devastating, pruning that is passive and gradual, pruning that is intimate and intentional.
So instead of hearing this parable from the gospel of John as a threat of judgment, can we hear the promise that lies in these words? The promise that when we find ourselves cut back, exposed, and wounded, God will not abandon us? After all, Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” And can we hear in this parable the promise that we will come through all the pruning alive and bearing more fruit? For as the parable says, “Every branch that bears fruit the vinegrower prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
These promises are exactly what the disciples needed to hear. Jesus speaks these words the day before his crucifixion—the day before the disciples will experience a devastating loss, a part of their very being cut off and tossed away. Perhaps they even will feel that they are the withered branch itself. Maybe they need these promises to give them hope during the difficult time ahead.
(I owe the idea that this parable can be heard as a promise rather than a threat on the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion to David Lose’s commentary on this passage, “On Being Pruned,” found on his website In the Meantime.)
I have no idea how much the disciples knew about vines and pruning. They were fishermen and tax collectors and others. And I suspect many of us aren’t specialists in horticulture, either. Still, we understand that a branch cut off from its source withers and dies; that a vine must sometimes be pruned in order to thrive; that the roots, vine, and branches are really all part of one another. It’s not enough to run a vineyard, but plenty to follow Jesus—the one who plants himself in us as much or more than we plant ourselves in him, the one who promises that resurrection follows pruning, the one who sends us forth trusting that we can and will bear fruit through it all.
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
-- John 15: 1-8 (The New Revised Standard Version: Anglicized Edition)