"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."
May 3, 2021, Words By: Jenna Smith, Image By: unknown
“You have to cut back the branches.” I ordered my student gardener one afternoon. We were standing in the kitchen of the youth centre I direct and she had just finished giving me the overview of our urban gardens. Some of the tomatoes and peppers weren’t producing fruit. The raspberries were having trouble in certain sections of the bushes. The squash had mildew on a few of its leaves.
I repeated my words: “Cut. It. Back. Prune, yank, trim and remove.”
As soon as I said it, I saw her wince.
I have a few gardeners whose holy work in the ground is done with more love and affection than I could ever give. They care for the plants as if they were their own children. They research, observe, analyse and spend hours reflecting on what the gardens need, how to help them thrive, how to manage heat zones and parasites, what plant matchings will work best and which areas will attract the most pollinators. For my gardeners, their urban ministry is spent, for the most part, with two feet in the dirt.
They have engraved the mission of greening our city onto their hearts, fervently believing that gardening is the love language of our downtown neighbourhood, offering peace and relationship to their neighbours who live in concreted high rises, slum landlords’ housing and asphalted wall-to-wall living.
But when it comes to pruning, there is something of an inner combat. I think my young gardener viewed pruning as an assault on the plant, and—don’t quote me here—I secretly suspect she thinks it will hurt the plant’s feelings.
Pruning can seem a violent affair, and in some ways it is. The act of chopping, hacking away, can feel like death. We instinctively turn away from it.
In reality, pruning is a normal part of the life cycle. With time, it just happens. And it’s actually a life-giving act for both the plant and those who benefit from its fruit and shade.
But It’s one thing to chop away on a diseased tomato branch. It’s quite another to do it in our own lives.
My own parish, in 2016, walked through the painful process of closing its doors. Pruning a whole community—a church—is a sobering, complex, messy affair. As part of my work on the committee who recommended closing the church, I wrote a letter to the community explaining our thought process. Amongst our reasoning were lack of resources, an undefined local mission and a dwindling, fatigued leadership base.
But more importantly, we needed to consider that our death was not the death of the whole Body, the larger vine. “Parts of the body die every day,’ I wrote, ‘cells, hair, nails. They give way and are removed. And in God’s grace this makes ways for life elsewhere.”
I wonder if this is why in the face of this image of pruning, a very permanent act, Jesus so carefully offers the counter-action: abide. He uses the verb no less than eight times, and draws the reader again and again into an image of peace: Stay. Remain. Breathe. Abide your branch onto the Vinegrower’s master roots. There you find a home, nourishment and abundance—all that a branch needs to be healthy and to give back to the larger ecosystem.
Pruning is all fine and well. It’s a normal part of the life cycle. But what is it for? We can move away from toxic people, eliminate programs, change sinful habits, adjust stagnant practices or quit dysfunctional communities. But if the act of doing so does not root us into the sacred abiding, the interconnectedness to which we are called by the Vinegrower, we are simply pursuing short-term “growth.” We are not pursuing peace. And our forced fruit won’t last for long. Our efforts won’t be life giving for anyone.
This invitation to abide stands in contrast to any agenda or recipe to force growth, or manipulate production. As we graft our branches onto the One who wants to draw us closer to the other branches, the good fruit happens as a result. This too is taking its rightful place in the life cycle.
Dwelling Among Us
Jesus’ use of the counter-images—pruning and abiding—might very well be a guide for discernment in our Christian walk: it’s not just a matter of identifying what seemingly needs pruning. Rather, what needs to die, be omitted, cut away, so that we can better abide in Him?