Many thanks to Christine Sine for hosting us at a Gardening Seminar a few weekends ago. Her insights about gardening and spirituality have influenced some of the thoughts I was able to piece together in discussing the analogy of “vines and branches” that Jesus uses to describe a new kind of community.
The story used: John 15
If (vs) When
There is a huge difference between those two words, and although it can be delivered subtly, the impact is profound. It can mean the difference between “yes” and “no,” “now” or “never.”
When we sit back and think about it, we can probably agree. Conversations move from, “If we move to Washington.” To, “When we move to Washington.” From: “If we get married.” To: “When we’ve been married for 10 years…” From: “If we are ready to have children…” To: “When our children go to college…”
“If” allows us to remain in a dream-like state. An imagination-driven state. “If” stays far enough away from the calendar that we don’t have to make a commitment, a promise, a guarantee, there is no obligation with “if.”
“IF” We can take all the time we want, we can change our mind over and over again… “If we paint the bathroom maybe we can paint it blue…or yellow…or lavender…” “If we plant a garden, maybe we could grow herbs, or vegetables…I’ve always wanted to grow my own salad greens, maybe we could even grow broccoli…”
“If” is safe. Secure. Comfortable. Detached. “If” is close enough to be concerned, but not close enough to touch or to care for… “If only you were here…” “If you had been there…” “If I would have said something…”
Not only can “If” put us in an aloof state of imagination, it can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed. We have too much to decide on that we become unable to move into action. We contemplate the best scenario, the best choices, and we are perpetually left in strategy mode…never able to shift, progress, refocus, or change.
The reason why I wanted to touch on this before even looking back on the gospel was to bring to mind the many ways we say “if” and the very few ways we say “when.” “If” is conditional, “when” is unrestricted and unlimited. “If” is all about scarcity, “when” is all about abundance. “If” is about fear, “when” is about hope. And life. And renewal.
So listen again to these words—from the book that we love, that has been passed down as a story of what God is doing in this world, and spend our lives trying to understand:
“I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken… I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant…This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.”
There is no “If”, there is only “when.” There is no… “if you are pruned you will bear even more,” the text says—you are already pruned back! There is no, “If you join with me” Jesus says, “When you are joined with me.” There is no, “If you produce grapes.” Jesus says, “When you produce grapes.”
And we are not the gardener, the farmer—God is the farmer. We were not given shears to cut off other branches we don’t think are producing the right kind or enough fruit. Our job is not to kill or cut down. We are simply invited to grow. And so often when this text is used on a Sunday morning it is twisted and warped and distorted to instruct people to think that our money and our possessions are the fruit that we bear. And if nothing else, I want to say that our money and our possessions are NOT fruit that we produce. We are not measured by our money, by our stuff. That is a lie.
We are branches; this story calls us branches on a vine. You know what’s interesting about vines? They are coiled together, curled around one another, and interwoven so intricately that they are not easily separated. Each individual branch does not grow on its own. It is bound to those around it, depends on the surrounding branches for strength, for energy, and to know where to grow.
A plant that intertwines in this way does not wither as easily as a plant that grows on its own. Think of a sunflower. When they bud and burst they are absolutely breathtaking! But, their stalks start to bend, and the petals weigh it down. It slowly lays down under its own weight.
But yesterday, Jon and I went to a gardening seminar in Seattle. We pulled up Morning Glory, which is often called bind weed in this part of the country. It had surrounded itself over a patch of apple mint plants. We pulled and pulled for about 15 minutes. I would start on one end, and try to trace the little vines to their core to pull them out…and wound up on Jon’s side of the patch. They are strong, sturdy, and highly technical plants.
We are branches on a vine. We are connected to one another. We are dependent on one another for strength, energy, and to guide and help empower us to grow. Each of us are needed, because together we are stronger.
And what of this talk of fruit? Have you ever sat at the dinner table long after the last plate was emptied, laughing so hard tears ran down your cheek? Have you ever done something you thought was—no big deal—but were later told that little note you wrote meant the world to its recipient? Have you ever looked forward to seeing someone—not so that the two of you could “get something done” or “complete a project” but simply looking forward to seeing them and being with them?
Relationships; this is our fruit. Gail O’Day writes, “The mark of a faithful community is how it loves, not who its members are.” It’s not a who’s who game. Alone, we can weigh ourselves down by our pride and our desire to measure our worth by money and stuff. But as a faithful community that loves one another, that welcomes all, the fruit we bare is in caring for one another unconditionally. It becomes not about a profit or a bottom line, but about a fabric of care woven in and through each member of the community. Living together in this way is hard—but it is art.
Vines twist together in a beautiful dance. But they must get close enough to touch one another, to mingle, to share space, and resources of soil, water, and air. And it is only through this sharing they produce fruit. Are we willing to get close enough to touch the pain of one another, to touch and to stay beside? To share resources—what do we call soil, water, and air? We might be tempted to say, “what would it look like “if” I got close enough to share in the lives of those around me…” But remember, “If” is doesn’t ever get close enough to touch. We need to start transforming our conversations from “if” to “when.”
There is a time for planning, organizing, dreaming, and strategizing. And it is an appropriate and necessary time for growth. Pruning is done in the winter months, when the trees are done growing for the year, after they shed their leaves. This is the time to prune back and reclaim the tree for what it was meant to be. It needs time to rest, and to gear up for another year. But when spring comes—the branches push out buds. Layer by delicate layer the buds fade into flowers and expand into fruit.
So now we must ask ourselves. To what am I connected? What is supporting me, holding me up, encouraging me, and helping to guide me as me grow? To whom am I connected? To whom do I tell my stories, my dreams, my goals, my fears and anxieties? Am I willing to get close enough to people to touch their lives, and to support and encourage them? With whom am I already bearing fruit? What does it look like? How does this fill my life with beauty and reflect God’s grace?
There must be a time of “if” for rest, rejuvenation, for dreams and imagination. But there must also be a time for “when”—when your dreams and gifts and passions as a branch connected to the vine of Jesus of Nazareth, meet the deep needs of the world around you longing for grace and hope. May we learn to grow from saying “if we bear fruit,” to “when we bear fruit.”