Monday, April 29, 2024

On Being Pruned


John 15:1-18

Easter 5 / Year B

Jesus said, “I am the true vine… Every branch that bears fruit the Father prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

I read in a passage years ago which has stayed with me ever since and changed my life:

Out of the morning mist a magnificent bald eagle swept down and in one smooth movement caught his salmon fresh from the sea and was gone again.  It was a sight I shall remember ‘til I die.  That magnificent bird had emerged from its fragile shell, as helpless as we were at birth.  But it survived, because of the nest.  Then feathers grew.  The eyes brightened.  The talons strengthened.  One day the bird stood poised upon the nest and all the future of its life lay before it, the vista vast, the glorious rivers and forests and fountains of the earth.  To take possession of it, however, he had to stretch his wings, take the daring leap, trust the air, have faith in whatever great eagle gods there are and go!  The instinct to fly and the instinct to nest met in that moment.  There comes a point in everyone’s spiritual life when that issue is joined and must be faced.

Will we dare to fly, to test our wings, to see the great wide world in all its manifold wonder, or will we nestle down where we are, complacent, conservative, content to patch and tidy and rearrange the mud and wattles of our existing world?

Life is a series of letting goes.  Think about it.  Our very first experience – being born – involves letting go.  Cutting the umbilical cord is a kind of pruning, isn’t it.  Early childhood activities like swimming and biking require us to let go so we can move forward.  The first day of school and the celebration of graduation – while being wonderful achievements – are also times a pruning.  Becoming an empty-nester, retirement, downsizing, being widowed, giving up driving – each has an element of pruning to it, some more welcome than others; some more challenging than others.  From birth to death we are being pruned.  When it comes to gardening, pruning is essential for the health of the plant and its fruit-bearing potential.  It allows the plant to focus its nutrients on those areas of loss in order to foster healing and growth.  So it is with life.

God’s pruning comes externally through life-altering events which require us to let go and move forward in a bold, new way.  It can also come internally as we learn to let go of certain ideas, experiences, and expectations.  There is a Zen story about two monks who encounter a wealthy woman scolding her attendants for any number of infractions, chief of which is their inability to help her cross over a muddy puddle because they are weighed down with all her bags and packages.  The younger monk passes by her, but the older monk puts the woman on his back, carries her across the puddle, and puts her down safe and dry on the other side.  Not even offering a word of thanks, the woman shoves the monk out of her way and departs in a huff.  As they walk on, the younger monk stews in silence about this for some time.  Finally he says, “That woman was selfish and rude, even though you carried her on your back.”  The older monk replies, “I set her down hours ago.  Why are you still carrying her?”

Sometimes God prunes us in order for us to let go of the corrosive effects of staying stuck.  It happens because the things we fight against exhaust our vitality and stifle our ability to bear fruit.  The energy we devote to them is energy we cannot put to more positive pursuits.  God desires for each one of us to live a life marked by peace and joy and freedom but there are times this is possible only – like that eagle on the edge of the nest – by letting go and entrusting yourself into God’s care and keep.  Helen Keller once observed, “Often we focus so hard on the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.”

Those of you who live for my analysis of New Testament Greek will be thrilled to know three words which appear throughout today’s reading – pruning, removing, and cleansing – are closely related.  This suggests pruning and removing, while painful, are actually a cleansing process enabling a person to move forward in life with life. 

Sometimes this cleansing looks like pruning away something from the past which is holding you back.  The motivational speaker Steve Maraboli says, “Letting go means coming to the realization some people are a part of your history, but not a part of your destiny.”  Who or what in your life is a part of your history, but not your destiny?  Let God prune it.  Sometimes the cleansing looks like letting go of something you cannot take forward into your future.  It is so difficult to let go of the known, the tried and true, the familiar.  It is challenging to accept the sun is setting on a part of your life you don’t yet want to see go dark.  A woman once wrote to Ann Landers seeking advice.  Her children wanted her to sell her home and move into a retirement community, but she was fighting them tooth and nail.  The columnist offered this:

Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength.  However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.

I am not very good at gardening because I am not very good at pruning.  Mums bloom and then go blah.  Tomato plants grow longer and longer vines, but the fruit thins and withers.  I don’t want this to be a metaphor for my life, and I suspect neither do you.  The good news we hear today is God does know how to prune us so we can continue to bear much fruit.