On our property this past year, we had to take down four trees, three of which we had planted ourselves. The rains from a year ago had ended the California drought, but not before the severe prolonged dryness had taken its toll. All up and down our street, the city had to cut down the once beautiful liquidambar trees which had succumbed first to drought and then to disease. In our own front yard, we removed two dead trees, one of which had shaded our garage for years. It left the house looking strangely bare.
The two trees we took out in the back were fruit trees, a peach and a dwarf orange. The peach tree came with the house, and when we first moved in, it was struggling to survive. With some care, it revived, and we enjoyed many years of luscious, sweet fruit.
It took me years, however, to learn to prune it properly. It wasn’t because I didn’t know what to do; it was because I was reluctant to do it. Cutting away branches seemed so counterintuitive; wouldn’t we get less fruit that way? Maybe just a few inches here and there would be enough? And thinning out the fruit was worse. I knew I had to choose between hundreds of tiny peaches and a much smaller number of big, juicy ones. But it was painful picking off scores of those fuzzy little nubs and throwing them away. It felt like the horticultural equivalent of mass murder.
Fruitfulness, I think, is a good theme with which to begin a new year. In the midst of his final words to his disciples, Jesus tells them this:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples. (John 15:1-8, CEB)
This is the last of Jesus’ “I Am” statements in the gospel, declarations of his identity that echo the divine Name. It’s clear from what he says that God wants to see fruit from his people. And the words can sound threatening: If you don’t bear fruit, I’m going to cut you off and throw you into the fire!
But that’s not Jesus’ point, and we would start the year off on the wrong foot to read this as a demand to run around trying to find more ways to be religiously “productive.” The problem is that it’s too easy to assume that busyness is the same thing as fruitfulness, and if the truth be told, too many of us are more like withered trees, suffering drought.
Can we hear Jesus’ words as an invitation rather than a demand? He’s already told them that it will be their job to carry on in his name after he’s gone. But in order to do that, they will have to find their strength, their sustenance, their very life in him. Come, abide, let me give you life, because you can’t do this alone.
More on this in subsequent posts.