A three-part series on faith, discipleship and witness from my northern Alberta garden.
My kids love fruit. Our local grocery store always has a basket of free fruit, offered to help keep kids “healthily” occupied while shopping. Choosing their respective “shopping” fruit is an adventure, and our first stop. They especially love the fruit that we can grow at home: raspberries, currants, sour cherries, strawberries, crab apples, pine berries, the occasional blueberry, gooseberries, rhubarb, goji berries, sweet tiny tomatoes (yes, tomatoes) and in particular, haskap, or more commonly known, honeyberries or blue honeysuckle. This year, we are attempting ground cherries, some new golden raspberries, valiant grapes (again!) and will be adding a dwarf apple tree to the front yard.
Growing fruit in northern Alberta is not without it’s challenges. While there are many great fruits that can be grown with abandon (can you say giant rhubarb), there are others that simply cannot thrive in our growing conditions, and if they survive at all, they are stunted and do not produce. Our growing season is short. Our nights remain cool. Even our prolonged high temperatures do not remain consistent enough to sustain certain heat loving fruits. Bananas and mangoes will forever remain a grocery store purchase, though kiwi has become a distinct possibility! I have managed, in the past, to grow enormous mini-watermelon plants; their vines overtook the garden bed, the sidewalk and the fence. Yet they produced no fruit. They were an impulse purchase, to placate my four and a half year old, from a local greenhouse and I had no clue how to grow them. I spent little time preparing, and simply planted them in a sunny spot in the yard. If I had taken a moment to do a little research, I would have realized the perfect, warm and sunny location they needed for fruit production was next to my house, where the heat would settle and reflect and create a micro climate. So instead, they greedily soaked up much needed nutrients, ran roughshod over my feeble attempt at flowers, and did not produce fruit. They had potential, but they ultimately did not provide the fruit we were looking forward to.
Our discipleship efforts are much the same as my watermelon misadventure. Often we have high expectations, and yet fail to remember the commitment required. We forget our part is dependent on more than our dreams and wishes, our visions and desires. We live expectantly, waiting (impatiently) for the blossoming fruit, while neglecting the conditions required to obtain a harvest. In ministry, we desire to produce disciples … forgetting that growth and production is God’s domain (or the respective plant’s if you are following the metaphor) and we are instead called to cultivate disciples. Read more
We do not produce disciples, we cultivate them; discipleship is not the result of rote production, but exquisite cultivation.
In the back of my yard along the fence, grow raspberry bushes. They were transplanted from the huge patch at my in-laws. There must be something in the dirt out there at the ol’ chicken farm, because these things are kind of mutant-like. Let me explain: they rooted and took off almost immediately, they produce an amazing amount of sweet and tangy berries, and they spread, via their roots, rapidly. By rapidly, I mean out of control – pure invisible chaos! They spread to the point of growing two feet out the other side of the fence; they spring up randomly in the compost pile and find a home right in the middle of the green beans! They have not yet reached the status of a bramble or thicket, but they are definitely edging closer.
When I think of discipleship, I think of my raspberry patch. Cultivating. Pruning. Experiencing. I cannot help but be reminded of Jesus’ teaching in John 15 as I set about pruning the patch, hoping (and praying) that they will provide a bountiful harvest for my children to enjoy as they play in the yard. Each fall I cut the old canes to the ground, as they will no longer bear any fruit and tend to just get in the way. New canes emerge and grow quickly, sometimes in unwanted places! This year, the first order of business is some intense spring pruning, digging and relocating. Anyone need some raspberry plants?
Discipleship is messy. Discipleship is painful an prickly (raspberry thorns anyone?). Discipleship is hard. Discipleship will push you to the brink, and then some, which my raspberry plants may soon find out! Discipleship leads to thicker and fuller and deeper union and communion with God, through the Lord Jesus Christ and transformation by the Holy Spirit. Consider these words:
“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.” (John 15:1-8)
If we do not produce disciples, but instead cultivate them; and if discipleship is indeed not the result of rote production, but exquisite cultivation, then we must begin with the source of life. If a plant is growing, it is alive. For a disciple to grow, they must be alive. Jesus tells us that to be alive is to be attached to Him. We have been pruned and purified by the message of Jesus Christ. He is the true vine, the one in whom we must remain, and when severed from reveals we can do nothing … we cannot grow and therefore are dead. Our responsibility is to remain connected to Jesus, the one who gives and sustains and produces. We cannot produce genuine growth and change; our hearts and character are shaped by the Holy Spirit. We can however cultivate the soil and the connection – our lives of faith. If we attempt to produce and grow apart from Christ, we will end up with enormous mini-watermelon plants: greedily soaking up the next best thing; running roughshod over those around us; and eventually withering away and rotting, without ever showing signs of that which we were made to do.
To cultivate and allow ourselves to be cultivated in discipleship is not easy; however, as we open ourselves up to the possibility, new life is infused into fallow ground. But it can be prickly. It can be dangerous. It can be more rewarding than we ever imagined. Sometimes, there are moments of explosive growth, in our lives and in our gardens, and then it tapers off, finding a rhythm before bursting forth with an abundance of fruit. Other times, the growth is slow and steady, responding to the pruning of the gardener, with ease and constancy. And there are times when growth must be restarted by a complete transplant; new soil, new location, intentional cultivation.
In this time of Lent, let us begin anew. The prophet Hosea provides us with timely wisdom: “Sow righteousness, reap love. It’s time to till the ready earth, it’s time to dig in with God” (Hosea 10:12a, The Message). What does that look like? Again, it will look different for different people, though there are some basic ways we can begin the process of cultivating and being cultivated.
One suggestion and encouragement here is to recall the words of Jesus in John 15.
Let us submit ourselves to the reminder of Jesus that God is the gardener of our lives. He is the one who prunes, effectively shaping and forming and disciplining His children, who are connected to the vine of life, Jesus Christ. The more the Lord prunes, the more fruit will be produced in the lives of those who call Him by name. When I leave my raspberry plants to their own agenda, they become an out-of-control mess. Damaged, diseased and dead. The dead canes are just that – dead. Uprooting a dead raspberry cane can be done with relative ease; they are severed from anything that sustains life. The damaged and diseased canes may still produce some fruit, but often the fruit is small and bitter. What areas of our lives are damaged, diseased or approaching death, in desperate need of pruning by the Gardner?
Perhaps, the simplest way to begin is to start breaking up any fallow ground in our hearts and our lives and invite the Lord to begin pruning, to His glory.