A week ago was our annual Pruning Weekend at Emery House. Volunteers helped us brothers and interns prune apple, pear and cherry trees on the meadow. We used ladders and the more adventurous climbed among the branches. With pruning shears in hand, we looked for four things.
First and most obvious, we looked for water sprouts: new, young growth often shooting out all over the trunk and major branches. Much of it is short and easy to see. Some is taller, but it’s noticeable by growing straight up rather than angling out. Second, we looked for branches touching or crossing each other. Third, we looked for anything growing backward toward the trunk instead of out. Fourth, we looked for branches that were actually dead. In all this, we cleared the center trunk, encouraging outward angled growth with space for each branch to grow.
We pruned to let go of growth, letting die what is alive but not growing in the best direction. We pruned to let go of death, letting go what is dead but still taking up space. Pruning is a form of dying in order for the tree to more fully live and bear more fruit.
Dying in order to live and bear fruit. That’s what Jesus says in our Gospel text this morning. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”1 Unless it dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Like trees being pruned, letting go will bring more life and health and fruit.
With a seed or a tree, this sounds good. It’s much harder in our own lives. Much harder for many in our world who, like Jesus, face violent deaths. We must soberly acknowledge most of our deaths are not so violent, and we don’t have to fear death in the immediate way much of the world does.
Yet we all die. And there are troubling elements of death in our everyday lives. We can practice dying. As we brothers say in our Rule of Life: “Week by week we are to accept every experience which requires us to let go as an opportunity for Christ to bring us through death into life.”2 Every experience which requires us to let go. Every letting go: loss and grief, hardship and frustration. These are opportunities to practice dying to self. Practice humility. Practice following Jesus who humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Consider the four things we looked for in pruning trees: water sprouts, crossed paths, heading backward and already dead. Maybe they point to an opportunity in your life, an opportunity to let go, to practice dying.
Water sprouts take valuable nutrients from mature branches and scatter them in all directions.
Are you preoccupied? Distracted by things that really aren’t worthy of your attention? Are little things cluttering up, getting in the way of what you know is really important?
There’s a problem when branches cross each other. They push and block so neither has appropriate space. Is there something in your life that’s at cross purposes? Conflicting priorities? A place where you need to make a choice: choose this and let go of that?
Perhaps something is heading backward toward the trunk. Is there something in you that’s trying to go back in a way that hinders moving forward? Maybe there’s a fear of taking risks into the future and a grasping back to the past? Or a sense of acting younger instead of leaning into maturity? An unhealthy focus on yourself that is getting in the way of growing up?
Sometimes whole branches are in the way because they’re dead yet hanging on in place. Is there something dead in you? Perhaps when alive it was really good and nourishing: maybe a person, a relationship, a job, an ability. But now, for whatever reason, it’s dead. It’s gone, and there’s nothing you can do to bring it back. It’s now in the realm of memory, which is fine to treasure. But are you clinging, acting as if it wasn’t gone?
Maybe you have something that’s not dead, but it’s deadly, harmful, hurting, eating you up: an unaddressed behavior or addiction, a secret, a hatred or self-loathing? We usually need another’s help to face such problems.
Do any of these ring true for you? A distraction? A priority conflict? Something heading backward? Already dead or deadly? Is there something you should probably let go?
All this is not simply to practice dying. It’s dying in order to live! “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We just pruned the trees because spring is coming. Just in time this year because the sap is flowing and buds are arriving. We’re anticipating Easter and new life. So is there something to make a step toward letting go of, to let die in preparation for Easter? So that you might bud and bloom and bear much fruit? So that you might live?
Sure there’s stuff to let go. But how does one do that? Even the knowing, the awareness of need, is a part of God already at work in us. We can’t prune ourselves. Letting go is more than we can do on our own. Dying and rising is with and for and by Jesus who ultimately let go and died on the cross. God is operating in our lives, and God invites our cooperation. So listen and live into. Take a risk and be attentive for Divine help.
As you awaken to the voice deep within as to what should be pruned, risk acting. As you do, notice Jesus, the master gardener, has already come alongside with perceptive, loving eyes and pruning shears in hand so that you may live and bear much fruit.
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