When I was in college I came home one weekend to find that my dad had cut down every single tree in our backyard, including my favorite, the one with the limb that had curved into the small of my back just right, the one where I spent hours reading Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Secret Garden.
I understood why he did it. It was the apples, of course.
Inedible crab apples plunked off the trees, littered the grass and rolled onto the driveway, where they were squished to a brown pulp every time my parents backed out the car. As a kid I filled bucket after bucket with rotting apples melted warm and cidery in the blazing sun and hauled them up to the edge of the yard, where I dumped them into a stinking pile. The worst ones teemed with ants and worms or were half-eaten by God-knows-what, huge bites chunked out of yellow skin. I’d pick one up, and it would crumble with a splat, sending a cloud of fruit flies up my nostrils.
After years of contending with the mess, I understood why my dad snapped. He’d had enough of those gooey, rotten apples. Still, it was a shock to pull into the driveway and see that treeless yard, the lawn yawning wide and empty.
My sister and I called my dad Paul Bunyan for a full year after that.
I thought of my Paul Bunyan dad when I read John 15 this weekend, the verses about God cutting useless branches and pruning others so that they may bear more fruit:
“I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-3).
I love that analogy. It prompts me to question all the areas in my life that might need a good pruning:
Am I spending too much time online at the expense of God and my family?
Am I overscheduled? Have I overscheduled my children?
Am I wasting precious mental energy on negativity? Am I being judgmental or self-absorbed?
On the other hand, though, the story of my dad and the apple trees reminds me that I can over-prune, too, even when I have the best intentions.
A year ago I realized my life needed some dramatic pruning. I had spread myself too thin, and my frenetic lifestyle had diminished the time and energy I had to write. I realized the fruits God had given me were rotting and falling from the branches, untended as I frittered my time in other ways.
So I pruned.
I “retired” from “The Edgy Bookworms,” the group of seven women whom I’d met with monthly for more than five years for dinner and conversation about literature.
I quit seeing my girlfriends for coffee and scones on Friday mornings.
I declined opportunities to meet for a movie or drinks or dinner.
I stop running three or four days a week as I had done for two decades.
In short, I cut out all extraneous activities so I could focus on writing about faith and God.
The result was not what I expected. Not only was I not more productive, I also spiraled into depression. I’d pruned so dramatically that nothing remained except writing, my job and my family and household responsibilities. Not only was it lonely and isolating, it also wasn’t very inspiring. I’d literally cut myself off from the community and life experiences that in many ways fed my creativity.
Just like a tree doesn’t rely solely on its trunk, but needs its branches, leaves and buds to sustain and nourish it, I realized, after that dramatic pruning, that I need a community, joy, relaxation and exercise to sustain and nurture my creativity.
In the end, I made one critical error when I pruned my dead branches: I forgot that it’s God, not me, who is in charge of the process. I held the scythe in my own hands and turned inward, bent on solving and controlling the problem myself, rather than listening for the solution God might offer.
Had I listened to God, I might have heard him urge balance, rather than radical extremism. Had I listened to God, I might have heard him say: "Abide in me."
If you read John 15:1-8 you'll see that the word "abide"[or "remain" in other translations] is used by Jesus seven times in eight short verses. It seems perhaps he wants to make sure we get the message. "Abide in me," says Jesus -- and this time, I'm listening.
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