Let the Pruning Begin

February 21, 2012

Today is “fat Tuesday,” the day before Lent begins, and time to ponder spiritual realities, discipleship goals, and what it means to be “Reformed and always in need of Reform according to the Word of God.”

Our back yard garden is home to fourteen bearing fruit trees, two walnut trees that are past bearing age and dying off gradually, and numerous other decorative trees. My pet project every year is our fig tree, and I have already applied the shears to it for its annual severe pruning. Every year, my husband says, “You’ve killed it for sure!” but the leaf buds pop out in March and by August we have a lush, fruity tree to remind us of Eden.

On a windy day last week, our stately birch trees took a beating, necessitating their removal. Turns out, they were dead, decimated by a bark beetle from the inside out. One of our lemon trees also sustained damage in the wind: a particularly laden branch bearing perhaps forty lemons has started peeling from the main trunk. It’s only a matter of time before that branch must be lopped off, but sap is still running and the fruit is still ripening, so I will wait another week or two and see what happens. We call it our miracle lemon tree, as this has happened before and my hopes are high for harvest.

The image is ripe for interpretation for the church, and Jesus helped us along in this direction with his parable of the Vine and the Branches (John 15:1-17). A portion of it here:

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

The first idea of note here is that pruning is a necessary exercise whether the tree is dead or alive. If it bears fruit, it gets creamed. If it doesn’t bear fruit, it gets creamed. Pruning is in our future, perhaps even our present. If the tree is dead, like our birch trees, it must be taken down to make room for plants that are still alive. If the tree is fertile and full of potential, it must be pruned to coax fruit-bearing. For whatever purpose, pruning is necessary but painful.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is undergoing a pruning, a spiritual discipline with which we must cooperate in order for God’s purposes to be accomplished. It is a necessary, painful process we must endure as a prerequisite for God’s blessing, for vitality, and for fruitfulness. If we do not go along with what God is doing, we will end up either a dead, dead shell of a church that will fall over in a wind storm or a forever fruitless vine of undisciplined foliage that looks good in a dead-end sort of way.

If the PCUSA is dying, it is because individual members have died spiritually and only the structure of dead wood (an institutional organization) is holding them together. Tree-tending takes the form of Christian discipleship and disciple-making, getting people in touch with Jesus so that they can stay connected to the Source of life. To the degree the church has failed in this basic vine-tending, we are seeing the result in diminishing membership, fewer congregations, and a paralyzed ministry.

If the PCUSA is fully alive and well, it is because individual members have abided in the Vine, stayed connected to Jesus, stayed connected to one another “remaining in love,” stayed connected to God’s will “remaining in obedience,” and stayed connected to their calling “bearing fruit.”

The reality of the present moment is something between dying and vital, but trending toward dying as an institution. [Alternatively, some believe that the PCUSA is now two trees, one flourishing and the other dying.] If as God’s people we want to reverse this trend, we must submit to pruning. However we interpret the reality, being Reformed and always needing Reform points to our perpetual need of this shearing, to contain this tree, curtail its free but fruitless growth, and discipline it into fruit bearing. Pruning restores the shape of a tree just as God’s discipline of his children shapes lives in the image of his Son. We are always called back to our roots. During this Lenten season, may we submit to God’s discipline, cut back our ecclesiastical excesses, lop off our errant and fruitless beliefs and practices, and undergo the shaping that will produce a tree of life that exists for Christ’s sake and the nourishment of our neighbor.


One Response to “Let the Pruning Begin”

  1. Bonnie M. Colton Says:

    And I wondered why some of the most dedicated, spiritual, talented, generous people were leaving our congregation and finding other sources of spiritual nourishment. This deftly explains it–God is pruning us. We will either start producing real fruit, or we will be blown over by the reality of shrinking numbers and lack of sound leadership, and bleak economic feasibility.
    We are holding a series of three “consultations”, hoping to involve all our remaining members and friends, with the focus on what to do about our obvious decline. We’ve been given three possibilities to think about in preparation: 1. Keep on doing what we’re doing, but try to do it better. 2. Consider working with the three other Presbyterian in our region for special events/services/etc. and/or 3. Find a new way to be the church in this new millenium.
    Pray for us to seek our roots during these consultations on February 26 and 29, and on March 4. Thank you.

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