(Note: I’ll be taking a short break next week. #CoffeeTimePrayer will be back the week after, so look out for a new devo on Monday July 25th.)
That lovin’ pruning, that lovely growin’
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
Isaiah 5:5-6 NRSVA
But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.
Luke 8:15 NRSVA
For a few years now I’ve had an umbrella plant (Schefflera arboricola) perched in the sunniest part of my bedroom. The umbrella plant is a peculiar little plant: skinny stems that push out small umbrellas of green oval leaves splattered with yellow. It’s not handsome, as house plants go, but it is hardy, and while it prefers sunny areas it will dutifully deliver its little spreads wherever it stands.
Usually umbrella plants demand little more attention than a thorough watering once a week, but every once in a while its stems will sag ever so slightly and its leaves lose some of their lustre, like an introvert when there are house guests visiting for longer than a weekend. If my plant’s inner faltering is not mended by water, I know it’s time to give it a prune. (The one book I’ve read on the subject in fact noted that umbrella plants respond well to being cut back.) And so I snip off a few umbrellas, holding them carefully by the stems, spinning the plant around and regarding it intently as I decide which leaves go, the sharp scent of sap in my nostrils.
Perhaps I only speak for myself, but I cannot say that I have ever pruned my umbrella plant maliciously. Never have I ripped off stems willy-nilly, and save those few weeks my plant shed entirely yellow leaves like fat tears onto my carpet, the result, I later learned, of over-watering, I can’t say my umbrella plant has ever suffered at my cruel hands. Why would I treat it badly? Why would I snipper it up beyond its ability to regenerate? Why do I prune it at all, but to make sure it is a healthy plant?
So it’s curious that we, when God prunes us back, regard the process at best as a torture to be endured and at worst as the actions of a cruel Creator intent more upon his righteousness than our suffering.
In Isaiah God speaks through his prophet, and like a miserable parent on the verge of giving up on a rebellious teenager, he threatens to cut Israel – the “vineyard” – off entirely. Part of this threat is that he will stop pruning them back, stop running the hoe over them; abandoning them to themselves, in essence. I found that interesting. Don’t we tend to associate the idea of being “pruned back” with punishment? Because here God says the opposite: not pruning back, not cutting off the dead weight and the shrivelled up parts and the branches that won’t bear fruit – God considers that cruel. Because that would be neglectful. That would be apathy, which God is simply incapable of.
We see a similar theme in the parable of the sower. So many seeds are scattered and lost, plucked up, shrivelled away, that it’s little doubt that those seeds that do take – that sprout and shoot up – are guarded over and nurtured carefully by God. Little wonder that when we sag under the weight of a dead branch, he takes his pruning shears to it. Does it hurt? Is there the sharp sting of sap in the air when parts of our lives are cut back? Yes, certainly. But what is the intent of God here? To cause us pain?
No; how can that be? God’s purpose is to make sure we are spiritually healthy and sound. He wants us to bear fruit, and he knows we are seldom able to see our own branches for what they are. Much like the little umbrella plant is oblivious to the fact that it is being sapped of strength by too many umbrellas, we are often unaware of which parts of our lives are going to seed. We need the expert eye of God, and his loving care.
We’re halfway through July. Here in the southern hemisphere we’re swinging back steadily toward summer and sunny days, towards seasons of preparation and growth. Let’s take this opportunity to let our Heavenly Gardener tend to our spiritual lives; let’s do so with patience and contentment. We may lose a few branches, but ultimately new life will spring forth and fruits appear where we least expected them to.
Prayer inspiration: Ephesians 3:15-19
May He grant you out of the riches of His glory, to be strengthened and spiritually energized with power through His Spirit in your inner self, [indwelling your innermost being and personality], so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through your faith. And may you, having been [deeply] rooted and [securely] grounded in love, be fully capable of comprehending with all the saints (God’s people) the width and length and height and depth of His love [fully experiencing that amazing, endless love]; and [that you may come] to know [practically, through personal experience] the love of Christ which far surpasses [mere] knowledge [without experience], that you may be filled up [throughout your being] to all the fullness of God [so that you may have the richest experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself].
 Huisplante vir Suid-Afrika, Keith Kirsten & Owen A. Reid