AfterWords is a series of community-contributed reflections intended to further the conversations that begin during Parish sermons.
A 3-Minute Read
by Beth Nelson
For years—nearly a decade, and very possibly longer—I kept a lemon tree alive in a little pot. I grew it from seed, and, like a proud parent, tended it, watched its every leaf sprout and unfurl, and reveled in the expectation that it would bear fruit in time. My mom was visiting one day, about two years into the process, and recommended offhandedly that I cut it back. It was leggy, she said. Aghast, and forgetting entirely that her backyard could pass for an outpost of the State Botanical Gardens, I reminded her how long it had taken to grow as much as it had. Cut it back? Please. It seemed a heartless and wasteful idea.
I remembered my lemon tree when we sang on Sunday, You take what’s dead away, and You prune what’s running wild. My tree certainly never ran wild, but in time I recognized for myself that pruning was in order. Logically, I knew it would be healthier if it could spend its photosynthesis energies on a more compact branch structure, one balanced with its root structure. But my heart could hardly bear to cut off those long, seemingly healthy, green, lemon-scented branches I’d worked so long for. The pruning shears in my hand felt like a sword, sure to bring death and destruction
And what of the perspective of the tree? I’ve done everything you wanted me to do! I’ve taken in sunlight and water and fertilizer and gotten taller and stronger. I have these glossy green leaves and long, sturdy branches. Why are you coming at me with that knife?
Perhaps it’s the perspective many of us have as we consider the Lord as the Gardener, pruning what’s dead and what’s running wild in our lives. We see the shears and mistake them for an enemy, come to destroy us, when in truth they exist to remove the sin and dead things of the Enemy from our souls. Jordan reminded us that Sin grows systemically, beginning with one person, then a couple, a family, generations, communities, society, and ultimately the entire system. Is it just me, or does that remind you of kudzu? It creeps imperceptibly into spaces where it isn’t meant to be, until in time, unchecked, it takes over everything.
Sin has convinced us we need to self-protect, to hide in shame, to make our own way. The Myth of Redemptive Violence that rises from Genesis 4:23-24 has led us to believe we can depend on none but ourselves. Wielding our own sword is the only way to go, holding on to anger and vengeance and resentment. This idea, adopted and avowed here in the fourth chapter of the Bible, grows unchecked across generations and millennia. God observes it, laments it, and promises over and over (with metaphors of gardening, no less) to replant His people and cultivate them into health. Perhaps, even, into the trees lining the River in the New Jerusalem, which bear fruit each month and whose leaves heal the nations.
I invite you to spend a few minutes considering yourself as the plant. Here are a few questions to spur your imagination:
What has it felt like to be sown and cultivated by God?
What parts of yourself are healthy, growing, bearing fruit?
What parts are neglected, maybe wilting a bit?
Are there dead parts that need to be removed, like faded flowers?
What parts are running wild, untamed, and ripe for pruning?
What does the Gardener look like as He approaches you for pruning?
What gets removed in that process?
How do you feel after the pruning?
How might you respond to the Gardener?
In time, the little lemon tree became to me an emblem of growth and hope and faithfulness. Cutting it back was never easy, but I was unfailingly rewarded with a healthier tree afterward. And while it never produced the first lemon, I think it bore fruit in me.