I love gardens – I really do. Few things give me greater delight than a beautifully and lovingly-maintained garden. Paradoxically, I am also an absolutely rubbish gardener, as those who know me well can testify. The reason for this (or at least the explanation that I give to myself) is that it is not because I have no interest in gardening. Rather, it is because the shape of my life – or more specifically, the pattern of my free time – is such that I am really only fit for what I might term the ‘slash and burn’ approach to gardening. Let me illustrate what I mean by drawing a parallel with housework. I don’t actually mind doing housework. But given the long and irregular working hours that I keep, and the amount of things that I need to do during my limited time off, housework for me generally takes the form of the sporadic but comprehensive blitz, rather than a continual and steady round of more low-level cleaning and tidying.
Unfortunately, as I know to my cost, that kind of approach really doesn’t work in the context of gardening, because living things need much more regular and constant attention in order to flourish (or even survive), and ‘little and often’ is a far more appropriate pattern of care than absolute neglect for a very long period, followed by a sudden and short-lived burst of extensive activity. I do remember, very occasionally, that plants need to be watered … by which time it is already too late for some of the more thirsty specimens, which have withered and died before I have even reached for the watering can. So in general, my track record with keeping things alive in the garden is not great.
But partly for that very reason, I do find some of the gardening metaphors used in scripture, particularly those that relate to the life of faith, do speak to me very persuasively. And this morning’s gospel is no exception.
Today’s passage from St John’s Gospel addresses the interesting issue of pruning. The interesting thing about pruning, as our text points out, is that it has a twofold purpose: both to cut away that which is dead and bears no fruit; but also to cut back that which is fruitful, to enable it to bear more fruit.
I am, on the whole, rather better at tending the garden of my spiritual life, than I am looking after my actual garden, precisely because I do attend to it on a daily basis. I set aside about an hour each day, for spiritual reading, reflection and prayer. I probably find it easier to maintain that particular discipline because it feels to be such an integral part of my working life, rather than merely a leisure activity (which is how I tend to view gardening).
And in relation to one’s spiritual life, the metaphor of pruning is both interesting and challenging. Because the fact that we need a measure of pruning, does not necessarily mean that we recognise our need to be pruned. There may be parts of our lives, and indeed parts of our souls, that have become desiccated and arid and moribund over time, and we need to be shot of them. But we remain attached to them, and it can sometimes take an active and brave decision to be able to recognise the dead wood in our lives for what it is, and to choose to bid it farewell.
It may be hopes or ambitions that remain unfulfilled, which we need to relinquish, because they weigh us down. But letting go means abandoning a dream that we may once have held dear. And it is not easy to do that.
And perhaps more challenging still is the occasional need for us to allow those parts of ourselves that are still alive and fruitful to be put to the pruning shears. The things that, outwardly at least, appear to be going well; that enable us to feel comfortable, perhaps to the point of complacency. And those can be really hard to give up. But in truth, if God is actually trying to call us to something different, they too may be distracting our attention and draining our energy.
Some of you may have heard me speak before of my amazing friend Maggie, whom I have known for about 35 years. Maggie has lived for many years in a little terrace house in a very run-down area of Hartlepool, which she runs as a house of prayer. She lives a very simple life, and she has the most astonishing ministry to people of all ages who live in her neighbourhood – precisely the kinds of people who would never normally darken the doors of a church. I have learned many important things from Maggie over the years – in fact, I used to go and see her whenever I felt that I might be losing touch with what the Gospel is really about – because I have always found her so clear-sighted. Perhaps because of the sheer simplicity of her life.
Anyway, I can remember her once telling me a story about a particular project she was running that outwardly appeared to be very successful and was bringing all kinds of results in its wake. And yet, she had been brave enough to have taken the decision, after a very profound time of reflection, to rein it in. And the reason that she did that was, to quote her own words: ‘It was getting too complicated’.
The problem with ‘complicated’ is that the more complex the situation, the easier it is to lose your focus; to lose sight of what you are doing this thing for; to allow your priorities to become distorted. And she taught me a very significant lesson in the process.
Our first reading this morning from the Book of Acts, is the story of the conversion and baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch, as a result of his meeting with the apostle Philip. Consider that story from Philip’s viewpoint for a moment. The young Christian community in Jerusalem is being subject to savage persecution. Philip has gone down to Samaria, where he has proclaimed the Messiah to the people there, with remarkable results, leading to an abundance of signs and miracles. But an angel of the Lord then says to him, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza’, which we are told was a wilderness road.
In other words, Philip is told to leave the place where he has apparently been so successful to head off instead into no-man’s-land. He does so, and it is there that he is directed to go up to the Ethiopian, who is seeking help, although not actually asking for it. Philip interprets the scriptures for him, which leads the Ethiopian to ask for baptism – at which point the Spirit spirits Philip away.
What does this story say to me? The natural human instinct is always to stick with success; to stay where the results can be seen. But in this story, Philip is taken away from all of that, and directed instead into the wilderness, into the unknown. Once there, he takes the risk of addressing a man whom he encouters who is in need of him, although Philip cannot know that in advance. The Ethiopian’s conversion is instantaneous and extraordinary – and yet Philip does not even have the chance to bask in the success of that triumphant missionary encounter – because he is whisked off again. Because the Spirit is forever on the move. In relation to the things of God, we can never afford to be complacent. Sometimes we need to see even our successes trimmed, so that new life and new growth can follow.
Our second reading, from the First Letter of John, contains what are for me perhaps the most important five words in the whole of the New Testament: ‘Perfect love casts out fear.’ So much of what is wrong in our world, and dysfunctional within our own lives and within our relationships, has fear at its root. Our fears about the future; our fear of being found wanting, or of being found out. Our fear of other people; of what they think about us, and what they say about us. That is why it is so often precisely those who feel most weak and inadequate who turn into bullies, craving power over others; needing to impress, or to dominate, or to control, or to instil fear, or even to wound – to keep their own deep-seated fears at arms’ length.
If only we can be freed to recognise that we are valued and loved for who and what we are – then we are free to leave behind, to let God prune away, all that hinders our growth – our real growth; our growth as human beings, and as children of God. And sometimes we need to be reminded that we are totally and utterly loved and accepted, especially when we feel like it least, to be able to flourish.
This Tuesday just past the Church of England calendar commemorated the Victorian poet and woman of profound Christian faith, Christina Rossetti. Her poem entitled ‘A Better Resurrection’ contains the following verse, which speaks of what she describes as the ‘hidden sap of Spring’ within her, that will burst into life even when she feels her life is no more than a faded leaf. I shall leave you with her words:
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see;
Yet rise it shall – the sap of Spring:
O Jesus, rise in me.