“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” John 15:1-2
Almost a year ago, Brian and I were looking at what would soon become our first home. It was a small, tidy-looking white, plastic shingled home with scrolled iron railings and a tin-roofed carport sealed directly into the cement driveway. It’s got what I like to call “grandma charm.” And also, a garden.
The bursting, flowering garden beds were one of the first things I noticed about the home. The plants are arranged kind of here and there with almost no regard for landscaping and only regard for flowers and the love of them. Azaleas. Crepe myrtles. Irises. Daylilies. Hostas. Rhododendrons.
We bought the house. Summer and early fall met us with climbing roses, and yellow lollipop dahlias, gladiolus, and hydrangeas. We reaped the fruits of the labor the kindly homeowner before us had already done. I loved the higgly-piggly garden, and it was fun watching new things pop up every other week. But I didn’t have a clue what to do with it or how to take care of it.
Up to this point, I have had two gardening-related experiences in my life. One, was in first grade, when we tried to grow tomato plants from wet paper towels, and mine never germinated, and possibly molded. The second is from the yellow house a few doors down from my childhood home that I always admired for its shady, cottage garden. As a teenager, I discovered that the woman who lived there was widowed, and bless her heart, I decided I was going to be her friend. So I walked over and started with what I knew, which was, “I’ve always loved your garden.” Let’s just say, we weren’t fast friends. but eventually I wore her down and I like to think she warmed up to me. Everytime I knocked on the door she had to restrain her barking lap dogs from jumping on me, slipping half of her tanned, lanky body out of the glass door to keep them in, and sometimes she’d even laugh, and her prolific wrinkles from years in the sun would multiply. Until recently, gardening was failed science experiments and feisty British ladies with yappie dogs.
So with that background, the help of Google, and the naive confidence YouTube offers, I began my formal education. No need to get my hands dirty until I learned everything there was to know. Zero to Master Gardener. All or nothing. Naturally.
I started making spreadsheets. I can think of almost nothing that disinterests me more than entering things into an Excel spreadsheet, but, I needed to be good at this, and organized, so I did. I made columns for watering, fertilization, when to prune, sun needs, etc. To ease myself into the process, I ordered eight different kinds of seeds and corms to start indoors. I watched my Jiffy pots expand like those shrunken, colorful pellets from my childhood that expand into washcloths when you put them in the tub. I dreamed of the idyllic blooms I’d skip in with, bodacious, bountiful bundles under my arms! I’d spread them generously throughout every room of the house with ease like Mary-Freakin-Poppins!
And then reality came into focus. My worst-case scenario tendencies emulsified with the reality that working with plants is kind of a gamble, with few guarantees. The more I learned, the more aware I became of all the ways I could kill my plants. Excitement was traded, in part, with anxiety. There was a lot of aggressive Googling. I began asking my coworkers, texting anyone I knew that owned a houseplant, and polling Instagram for input about all my plant care related decisions.
I turned and watered my indoor seeds for days and weeks with fear and trepidation, sure it would soon become my own personal elephant graveyard. (People told me to chill, that I didn’t have much invested in it. Seriously??? Not much invested??? $40 and MY EVERY WAKING THOUGHT!)
As soon as it got warm enough I stepped outside to start on the yard. I nervously began to cut back iris leaves that looked unhealthy, because Google told me to. I pulled weeds I’d left unattended for months. I reluctantly cut my dahlia plant down to the ground because a coworker said I should. I plucked probably half the leaves from my azaleas until they looked so sad, so deflowered, like the first time I tried plucking my eyebrows in middle school. I actually dug up and transplanted a rhododendron on a whim so I could plant something else in its place. I dug up some day lilies to make space for other plants, pilling their strange alien bodies into a box that’s still on my porch. I anxiously whacked my dormant hydrangea down into a little stick crown, I weeded. I eventually worked up the courage to really prune the rose plant thanks to a YouTube video of the world’s cutest 80-year-old man demonstrating a how-to. I imagined all the neighbors looking out their windows, aghast as I ignorantly hacked apart my plant. I ripped off leaves, cut down old canes that might choke out healthier ones, and pruned the remaining ones at a 45 degree angle away from the buds, just like he said, so that rainfall is directed away from it. By the time I finished, the thing looked sparse, and its thorns, sharper.
Still, my internet searches and Instagram polls could not give me what I wanted: a guarantee. I wanted to know that yes! all my plants would thrive! Yes! You will be effortlessly skipping in with arm fulls of blooms in just a few months! Yes! The birds will flutter to carry the hem of your dress! No such luck.
So much for being a zen gardener. I am the opposite of zen. I am an anxious gardener.
The week before he is crucified, Jesus sits around with his twelve disciples, and says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” John 15:1-2.
There is a better gardener.
Jesus is the vine; his people, the branches, capable of bearing much fruit; and God, the vinedresser. A gardener.
Any good gardener does not prune his plants because he wants to destroy them; he does it because he delights in them. He prunes because there is life there; he prunes because he wants to bring forth more beauty; he prunes because he desires its flourishing.
And so it is with God. With every cut he makes, and every branch he takes away, he frees me of that which chokes me, that which keeps me from growing. He loves me, and wants life--the abundant kind--for me. The Master Gardener is not anxious, crazily yielding a pair of clippers simply hoping for the best, creating a few casualties along the way like I am. He is not wringing his hands and wiping his brow and polling the angels, wondering if he’s doing this thing right. He is masterful. He is tender. He loves. He knows exactly when, where, how much to prune me. And he makes no unnecessary cuts.
The fruit he wants to produce in me looks like love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control-- and oh, to be defined by these things!-- and yet far sweeter than the fruit, I’m learning, is simply being connected to him. Staying close. Abiding in his love. Fruit is simply the byproduct. My Father loves me and he will not settle to give me anything less than a deep, abiding intimacy with him.
This Holy Week, take heart. It is a precious thing when his pruning leads us to his presence. The same One that prunes us offered up his own Son to be cut off completely, that we would never be.