It was a brilliant but brisk winter day, and I was none too sure I wanted to brave the cold with my clippers and shears. But the calendar would not be denied. For it’s a cardinal rule of gardening here in God’s country that pruning must needs be effected no later and no earlier than Valentine’s Day. I’d as soon lay a rose bed to mulch under the nose of the right reverend George R. Briggs, or sow the least summer seed before Good Friday, as trespass so serious a decree. I won’t even speculate as to what garden calamities might come of such an aberration, as I’ve never been brazen enough to hazard it.
But this year was different. Or, at least, it seemed so, as I stood in my warm den with a mug of hot coffee and contemplated the exchange of my shearling slippers for the cold comfort of the Wellies waiting outside the kitchen door. More dispiriting, still, was the overflowing mess that the brambles had profligated themselves into over the previous growing season. When I had taken myself in hand at last, fortified against the elements in coat and gloves and armed with loppers, I stood before the trellis, thoroughly and uncompromisingly stumped. I was too lazy to go all the way back into the house for the aforementioned George R. Briggs and his unambiguous instructions on Pruning for the Home Orchard. So I did what any level-headed gardener would do: I went after the roses.
Roses are much more straightforward, and I have a longer history with them. Roughly one-third off the climbing varieties and more-than-you’d-think-at-first-go off the others. Nothing too challenging. But as I worked, I noticed a strange frustration growing on me. Or, more accurately, in me. The fact is, the whole idea of pruning was rather a touchy subject at that particular moment in time. I had been reading in John 15 about abiding in our Lord the Vine, and the Father-Vine Dresser Who takes it upon Himself to prune the branches so that they bear fruit that is undying and everlasting. And I had fretted with Him in prayer that very morning about the disparity between that lovely and simple condition and the sense of fractious feverishness that had begun to steal into my own life of late.
Old foes of haste and hurry; the siren wail of the urgent and indispensable; the choking burden of choices and expectations. In short, I was right royally overwhelmed. And beleaguered with the problem of what to do about it.
Oftentimes we see His hand at work in our lives, lopping off things which we have no control over, and even as we flinch under the shears, we trust the love that guides them. But, just as often, He may hand the clippers over to us, asking us in faith as under-gardeners, to have a go at our own lives. To act on the promptings He’s been nudging for some time or to recalculate the cost of a particular endeavor. I really believe that personal assessment and regular, routine ‘fruit inspection’ is an indispensable part of a disciplined spiritual life. It doesn’t speak very well for my discipline, then, when I recognize its necessity only after my garden has gotten rather out of control.
But I recognized it that day as I was working away in my own tangible little vineyard. And I stopped in mid-cut and the clippers swung idle in my hands.
Okay. I said it out loud. Is there anything You want me to see here?
And if I sounded a little miffed, I have to think that God doesn’t mind honesty as much as He does self-reliance clothed in pious speech. I was frustrated. And He knew it.
I finished up with the roses and then I went and contemplated the brambles again. Half of the trellis is set to blackberries and half to raspberries. But it was such a tangle you could hardly see where one ended and the other began. I seriously entertained for a moment the thought of leaving them to themselves, taking a year off. But only for a moment: the memory of last summer’s berries, warm to bursting in the morning sun and so abundant I could feed them to Puck through the fence without reserve, won the day. I took off my coat, as this was serious business, and pushed up the sleeves on my hoodie.
And as I confronted the confusion of shoots and canes, a bit of wisdom came to me. At first I attributed it to the honorable George. But I now know it to have come from a much nobler Source.
Dead things first.
The string of words became a little motto as I looked closer among the canes, sorting out those distinctly brown from among the winter-silvered green. And it was amazing what clarity their removal brought. So many of the tangles resolved themselves as the dead vines were cut and dragged away. I was humming the phrase to myself like a little pep talk as I hunted the next candidate when, suddenly, it hit me.
Of course! Dead things—old encumbrances; old entanglements. Old sins and old habits and old regrets. Old, toxic thoughts about graceless-living. In short, the very things Christ has set me free from and which I, like the Apostle, tend to carry around with me like a dead weight. “I know You’ve dealt with this in the only way possible, Jesus, but let me haul it around a little longer just to prove how sorry I am.” And it’s amazing how cunningly those worthless things accumulate while our back is turned…just when we think we’ve seen the last of them.
“Let the past sleep,” says Oswald Chambers, “but let it sleep on the bosom of Christ.”
Dead things don’t need to be analyzed, critiqued and disputed over. They are obvious and they need to be hauled out from among the living things and tossed on the burn pile.
After such strong and severe simplicity, I returned to my brambles with a considerably lightened heart. I wondered if I’d see anything else worth pondering when my glance fell on a shoot that had sprung up from the trellis with all the energy of summer-past, and rooted itself in the middle of the lawn. And the funny thing is, the more I looked, the more I saw of the same thing: far-flung branches arching off the original site so that they had toppled to earth and put down roots far from the vine and from the rich soil I had prepared for them. What well-intentioned canes they were, fat and sleek and many yet bearing the scarlet banners of last year’s leaves. I almost apologized to them as I tugged them out of the ground and cut them back to a reasonable length.
But they had to go, of course. They would steal all the energy from the fruit—not to mention make a wilderness of my backyard. They are the stuff of scanty harvest and exhausted resources. The things that stretch us beyond our means. That make us feel, as Bilbo so wisely observed, “like butter scraped over too much bread”.
After that, it was the real heart of the matter: the strong, healthy canes, the ones that were growing where they were supposed to and had borne last summer’s berries. And these were the toughest of all. It’s always hard to convince myself that I’m really supposed to cut them back that far. But as I set to with my loppers, three more little thoughts came wafting to mind and settled in my heart:
~Every single shoot needs scrutiny.
~Pruning is always more severe than I think it needs to be at first.
~It gets easier.
Like I said, I’m a novice. But it certainly gave me a passel to tuck away and pray over. I want to learn from the Master Gardener. And I want a whole lot more than a freezer full of berries by this time next year. I’d like to think there was some fruit that remains, unspoilt and unchanging, to the glory of His Name.