Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pruning for Better Quality Vintages

John 15: 1-8

Once upon a time, before I was a minister, before I moved to PA, before I went to seminary, before I even was a Christian, really, I worked in the Napa Valley as a winery cellar worker and tour guide. I attended school at Napa Valley College, and majored in enology. Enology is the biological and chemical science of fermentation, and as part of that program, there was a class in viticulture, the agricultural science of the growing of grapes. I still have many of the books I used for those classes, as well as gifts of books that friends have given me.

So it was with great interest that when I saw this particular scripture this week, al about the pruning of vines, I went and pulled out my old copy of the book General Viticulture, published by the University of California, 1974. Page 287 begins the chapter on pruning. Yes, the chapter. For 47 pages, plus two pages of notes at the end, you can read about how to prune fines if they stand independent of each other in the old world style, or whether they are tied to a stick and spaced out in regular even rows.

There is a lot of scientific proof that support the concept that the grapes you get depend a lot on the way you prune. If you go through a vineyard and cut too severely, you won’t get much fruit, but what you get will be very rich, because all of the grapes’ vigor will be concentrated into a few “units’ of growth. Conversely, if you don’t prune at all, the vine will send all of it’s energy into leaves, growing just enough blooms to propagate itself, which turn into grape berries, which then fall to the ground or get eaten by birds, and who will drop the seeds to grow where they are planted. This assures that the whole vine will continue to survive.

For the vine grower interested in a harvest of good fruit, a balance is needed. You want enough leaf cover to generate photosynthesis, and to protect the berries from birds, but you also want a reliable amount of grapes grown so you can make wine.

While this is a modern science, taught at the highest levels at schools around the world, the particulars debated over and over again, the general concept was known to ancient Greek philosophers, and it was known to Jesus. In verse two, when he says “every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make bear more fruit”, he’s showing basic sound viticultural theory. And anyone who grows grapes outside their houses for jelly or to make homemade wine, this is not news to them either.

A good shoot produces good grapes because it has been trained, and because it receives good energy and growth from the leaves and the trunk of the vine, the roots of which can sometimes grow down 20-30 feet, if the soil bed is deep enough.

The image is pretty clear—you’ll know a good follower of Jesus by the fruit they produce. If they yield a good harvest year after year, they will be pruned and trained so as to continue to produce good fruit, year after year after year. They will prune away all of the deadwood, all of last years’ growth, and burn it, so that what is left will be set for success.

To abide in God, as Jesus says, is to be closely connected to the system of leaves and trunk that produce the sugar that allow the whole vine to exist and produce fruit. When one abides in God (Jesus refers to “me”, most of the time, but in John the sense of Jesus as God is the most strongly claimed), one receives all one needs to produce good fruit.

Now this is just a metaphor, of course, but it is a good one—the closer are with God, the more we will naturally resemble Jesus. The more we read the Bible, the more we pray, the more we are here with each other, it is like sugar that is generated by the leaves of a grapevine through photosynthesis. It is how fruit is produced.

Where the metaphor falls apart is that a vine cannot prune itself. A vine grower must come through and prune the vine for the vine to be good and healthy and to last over time. We do have the ability to improve ourselves, to choose how we will follow Christ, to discern where it is we are being led by God.

We also have the choice available to us whether we will even take the “sugar” that is made available. We choose whether we will make time for Bible study, for prayer, for time together as the people of God.

We live in a busy time. There are demands placed on us that we never placed on those of earlier ages. Specifically, those among us who are in the midst of the ministry of raising children, we are pulled so many different ways. There are so many more opportunities for kids today than there were when we were kids, but to take advantage of those opportunities, one has to decide between them and time with God.

No one is saying that the only way to follow God is to quit all extracurricular activities and only come to church. Remember, a good vine grower prunes for balance between leaf growth and fruit production, with an eye toward the longevity of the vine. And the environment in which we are planted is different than it was a generation ago. So a new balance must be struck, one in which our children can take advantage of all that is laid before them in this great and wonderful world, but God and the things that bring us close to God are still also at the center of our lives.

As parents, our primary job is to provide for the physical and emotional needs of our children. Proverbs says it this way “train them up in the way that they will go, so that when they are old, they will not depart from it”. We are doing no less than giving God; not to our children, but to our great grandkids through our children. And sports and music can be great tools with which we can do so, but it must always be done with an eye toward how they are being trained and pruned and fed, the goal always being what fruit they are producing.

It is often said that the best vintages of wine are those that started with superior fruit. You can make a bad wine from good grapes. You can’t make a good wine from bad grapes. It’s all in the fruit.

How good is your fruit? How well are you pruned?

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