Being Pruned Sucks!

As most of you know, we have a lot of children in our parish and preschool.  I love watching your children grow, and I marvel at the rapid changes in their lives, changes that daily take place.  One of the things I find so fascinating is the independence that begins to develop at a very young age.  It doesn’t take long for a little one to begin saying, “Me do it myself!”  That fierce sense of independence and the development of self-identity is something that we as Americans hold dear.  Independence of self and the “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” mentality is a treasured aspect of American identity.  However, it is also something that runs contrary to Jesus’ teaching, especially today. 

I love what Nadia Bolz-Weber says as she reflects upon the challenge of today’s gospel reading.  She writes:

I’m nothing if not independent.  Reportedly my first sentence was “Do it yourself!”  Yes, I will do it myself, thank you.  You see, I want choices.  And I want independence …. What I wish Jesus had said is: “I am whatever you want me to be.  And you can be whatever you want to be: vine, pruner, branch, soil …. Knock yourself out.”  

Nadia continues:  What Jesus actually said is: “I am the vine.  My Father is the vine grower.  You are the branches.”  Dang! (she says.)  The casting has already been finalized.  Vines, and branches off of vines, are all tangled and messy and it’s just too hard to know what is what … Not only are we dependent on Jesus, but our lives are uncomfortably tangled up together.  The Christian life is a vine-y, branch-y, jumbled mess of us and Jesus and others.  Christianity is a lousy religion for the “do it yourself!” set.

Yes, we’d have to agree with Nadia, Christianity is a lousy religion for the “do it myself” set.  And nowhere does Jesus teach more clearly that we are notindependent do-it-yourself-ers than here in today’s gospel reading.  You see, nowhere does Jesus demonstrate more clearly:

– that we were never meant to go it alone, 

– that we weren’t meant to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps when life puts us down, and 

– that it is completely unreasonable to expect anyone else to, either.  

Today’s gospel reading is all about being connected to the vine, remaining connected and staying connected throughout this life’s journey we all are traveling together.  Life was never intended to be lived independently, do it alone, and “me do it by myself.” 

As we enter into today’s gospel, we find ourselves back on that evening of Maundy Thursday in John’s account of the Jesus story.  Jesus knows He is about to die, leaving the disciples behind.  So, Jesus is urging them to remain in Him, stay connected to Him, and remain in fellowship with each other.  He says, “make your home in me just as I do in you.  Continue on in my teaching and example and remain in fellowship with each other.”  And Jesus gives us this wonderful image of the vine and branches.

Now, if we think about wild grapevines, or any vine for that matter, one thing we soon realize is that vines and branches easily get tangled and messy.  And the truth of the matter is that our lives, our families, and our places of work or study or play are all messy places too.  Life is just that way.  And, sometimes, as Nadia says, it is just too hard to know what is what.  Life is just a vine-y, branch-y, jumbled, tangled mess.  

Yet, when we look at a cultivated grapevine, we can see that the vine grower has put an anchor to the main vine.  The branches are sorted out, trained and even disciplined.  There is a wire structure that supports the vine from below and from above.  All of the dead branches have been removed.  And, the vines and branches that are cultivated end up producing large quantities of grapes. 

With this image that Jesus shares, he shows us that Christ is the source of all life.  Our very existence is dependent on God, who nurtures and cultivates us.  We are not and cannot be the vine that gives life to all.  Neither are we the vine grower, the One who cultivates, stakes, supports and yes, prunes the branches, though sometimes we try to claim this authority.  We are the branches and, if we are to flourish, we need to stay connected to the vine, and abide and remain dependenton the vine.

To abide is all about remaining, staying, taking up residence, and making one’s self at home.  It is about:

– living in the community of Christ, 

– participating in the life of that community, and 

– staying connected to that community.  

When we abide in Christ, God’s love is perfected in our lives.  When we abide in Christ, love grows in us, casting out fear and hatred, and empowering us to act boldly.

Abiding in Christ means admitting that we are not independent, do-it-yourself-ers who can boast saying, “Me do it myself,” or “I did it my way.”  Abiding in Christ means accepting that we are dependent on Christ and on each other.  

It is by being connected, being planted in God and participating in Christian community, that we learn what real love is all about.  When we stay connected to the vine and live together in authentic Christian community, the love that happens and is born enables us to then love others as we have been loved.  It is that kind of love that brings others in and grafts them to the vine.  And, it is that love that sends us out to make a difference in people’s lives both here and around the world as love becomes the fruit of living in relationship to God and others.

All of this said, I think we can all agree that Getting Pruned Sucks!

A story:  anyone who knows anything about me knows how much I love kids and youth ministry.  In the mid 1980’s I was one of the first professional youth ministers hired in a mainline denominational church.  Professional youth ministry was in its very early stage and only a rare few churches saw the wisdom in investing and growing such a ministry.  These were the days before the internet, before the 24/7 newsfeed, before every high school student had a car at their disposal.  Before Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Tik-Tok.  In many ways life was arguably simpler.  My youth ministry program was in Springfield, here in Virginia, in a church with over 16,000 parishioners, and every event attracted a lot of students.  It was what I would consider the heyday of youth ministry. 

After I served as a youth minister I went into the seminary, and when I was ordained a priest one of my first assignments was to run the youth ministry office for the diocese, while I also served in a number of diocesan parishes as a parish priest.  Please note the operative word here is: assignment.  In the Roman Catholic Church, priests are assigned to parishes.  There are no search committees, interviews or consideration as to what the priest or parish might like, want or need – assignments were, and still are a part of the culture to this day.

[How I feel about being assigned as a priest versus interviewing and being hired is a homily for another occasion; but please let me say this, like many aspects of management, both models have their value and both models have their shortcomings.  Some other day we can talk about that.]

I served as Director of Youth Ministry for the local Catholic diocese for eight years.  I loved that job and would have happily continued in that position; but everything changed in the early days of 1998 when, while on his ad limina visit, our bishop dropped dead in Rome, leaving our diocese without a bishop.  Catholic custom calls for an “interim” priest to serve the diocese in between bishops, and for good and bad, the [now deceased] Msgr Jim McMurtrie was selected as the interim.

I had known Msgr McMurtrie from diocesan circles, but never worked with him or for him.  In his new position as boss of our diocese Jim called me into his office and thanked me for my years of service to the youth of the diocese and then told me I was being assigned as the new Executive Director of Catholic Charities, a position I had never considered, nor was I qualified.

I politely congratulated Msgr McMurtrie on his new position and shared with him that Bishop Keating and I had also discussed me leaving youth ministry and transitioning into the campus ministry job at George Mason University.  Of course, Msgr McMurtrie knew nothing of those discussions.  Jim told me that while in fact that may have been Bishop Keating’s plan, it was not his plan and he needed me to let go of my career-long dream of becoming a campus minister, and rather become an executive director of a non-profit social service agency, where my job would largely entail me participating in management decisions and fund raising for the truly excellent services of the agency.

I was floored.  I was a mixture of shock, sadness, grief, anger, resentment and probably a whole host of other emotions.

I asked Msgr McMurtrie for 24 hours to pray about this new assignment.  Jim graciously gave me that time.

Throughout the next day I asked God for permission to whine and complain and yell at Him for the next 24 hours.  To get it out of my system.  I asked God to help me to accept being harshly pruned from the professional direction I had planned for and dreamed of and rather, instead, to allow myself to be grafted onto a vine that was completely unfamiliar to me.  All for the good of the church.

As I look back on those days, and even re-read my now re-telling of this time in my life, words fail me.  All I can do is chalk it up to God’s grace that I was able to swiftly move past my wants and needs and accept that my ecclesial authority had a greater diocesan need in mind for me to fill.  

Twenty-four hours later when Msgr McMurtrie asked me for my answer the first words that came out of my mouth were, “I accept this assignment, in large part because my father would be so proud.”  And it was true.  Dad would have been proud of me serving the church in this capacity.  

Slowly, over time, I surrendered to what I knew in my heart was right for me, and instead trusted those in authority over me.

In the five years I worked for the social service agency I never loved my job (particularly the work surrounding two accreditation cycles.)  This said, I deeply loved the people I worked with and I loved the services we provided to people in our midst who were horribly poor and in need.

I know you would agree that that kind of pruning is never easy for any of us; but with God’s grace all things are possible and as I look back over that assignment I know now that I grew in ways that only serving the poorest of the poor of our diocese would have taught me.  

In the end, as I look back … hindsight is always 20/20, right … I see God’s wisdom in this assignment.  And one other thing.  Almost immediately after surrendering to the assignment bomb Msgr McMurtrie dropped on me and my professional aspirations, I, again, almost immediately, sensed that God was saving me from something I could not see.  To this day I do not know from what God was saving me; but I do know God wanted me to trust Him and to accept tough pruning from one vine and being grafted onto another.

I didn’t like it; but I accepted it … and my life will forever be blessed because of it.

And so, this week, I invite you to prayerfully consider:

When were there times in your life when God pruned you?

How did you respond?

When were there times in your life when God pruned you and you now know you grew because of it?

Thank you for keeping me in your prayers and know that you all are in my prayers as well.

Peace friends, chuck.

Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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