A brown thumb, a vineyard and some thoughts

 Photo by  Amos Bar-Zeev

Photo by Amos Bar-Zeev

DISCLAIMER: If you know more than I do about vines or plants in general, please forgive any errors in this post. I've only owned one plant that has survived longer than a year living with me (I think in part because I named him Timothy). But here goes.

The hardened dirt digs into my knees as I try convincing a slender, dark red vine to lie along to the trellis wire. It's still stiff and inflexible, so I have to bend it slowly to avoid breaking it.

That's when this thought came unbidden to my brain. The simplicity and yet sheer accuracy of it made me stop short.

Grape vines need a lot of help to be fruitful.

They need careful nurturing and guidance as they grow in order for them to produce the most grapes. They need to be pruned so they don't waste energy where it does no good, and they need to be handled very gently, otherwise they'll break.

The process, when done organically and without big machinery, is slow, tender and very involved. On their own, the vines could do almost nothing.

Just like us.

There is deep meaning behind Jesus calling us branches from his vine. Our life source comes from him. We cannot be truly alive or truly fruitful without him, or without the Father, who is the gardener.

I already understood the surface-level symbolism of John 15:1-17. But since I began working part-time at a vineyard, I've discovered how deep and intimate the relationship we've been called to truly is.

Being a Christian means surrendering to God's constant, gentle, and very involved "gardening" in our lives.

It's a gradual process, and it requires great humility. It requires admitting that we actually don't know very much at all. 

Jesus reminds us exactly how incapable we are without him:

Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
— John 15:4

Let's go back to vines for a second. When I say that they need a lot of help, I want you to know what I mean.

I’m still learning the process; I’m no viticulturist by any stretch of the word. But for perspective, here's what our crew has done over the past month to get the plants ready to grow and produce fruit.

The vines are buried to keep them insulated during the winter. In the spring, we carefully hoe around each plant, gently loosening the dirt and coaxing the vines up from beneath the soil.

Next, we clear the dirt away from the crowns, or bases of the plants. Then we untie the vines and separate them from the wire so they’re ready for pruning.

The pruning itself feels a little brutal. It’s harsh because it has to be. Vines that are too spindly or too old get cut because they won’t produce good fruit.

We don’t want any extra energy going to vines that won't bear results. By getting rid of these vines, the healthy ones will become even stronger and more fruitful.

Then comes training the vines, which means lifting them up to a higher wire and tying them in place. We do this because the vines need to be supported so they don’t get weighed down when they start producing fruit. 

However, once the buds begin to swell, this job becomes very slow. At this stage, they can fall off with even the slightest touch, meaning one less cluster of grapes on that vine. 

Over the summer, we’ll have to hoe consistently so weeds don’t steal the soil’s nutrients and choke life from the vines. We’ll have to keep pruning as the plants get bigger and pick bugs off the leaves by hand.

And there are a lot of dangers too: birds, insects, weather or disease can devastate a crop. Without the attentive care and watchful eyes of vineyard workers, the vines would have no protection against these enemies.

This is why Jesus tells us—almost to the point of being repetitive—to remain in him. In the same way that branches were meant to grow from a vine, so we were meant to get our strength from Jesus.

But what does it mean to “remain in Jesus?”

I keep thinking back to a series I heard on praying the Lord’s Prayer. To me, this seems like a really good place to start.

In a culture that preaches individualism and independence, we need to learn how to rely on God for our needs and trust him with guiding and shaping us.

Why? Because if you read the rest of this passage from John, you’ll see that the standard for following Jesus is set pretty high.

Christ says that we are to love each other as he loves us. There can be no greater love than giving up your life for another person. Yet, that is the kind of love Jesus commands us to have.

We can’t manufacture that love.

We can’t just snap our fingers and be willing to sacrifice our careers, our bank accounts, our status, physical comfort or safety for the sake of others.

In the same way that we would have to spend time with a human we admire in order to truly emulate them, so we need to spend time with Jesus to cultivate the kind of love he’s asked of us.

Thankfully, he offers us abundant support.

As I've begun physically acting out Jesus’ parable of the vine and branches, it's made me feel very safe and secure, knowing he never intends for us to face life alone.

Christ knows that we, like branches, desperately need all the help we can get.