In our Monday night Bible Study, we are working through the “I am” statements of Jesus as recorded in John’s gospel: I am the shepherd, the door, the bread of life, the light of the world. Tonight we were looking at John 15: “I am the vine and you are the branches,” a great metaphor, particularly because we had a roomful of gardeners. the image is comforting: Jesus is the vine – the source, the connector – and we are the branches – the outgrowth of that which is rooted in love. The metaphor rolls out pretty smoothly until you get to verse six:
“If anyone does not abide in me, he or she is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”
What I remember about growing up Southern Baptist is thinking that any verse that mentioned fire or being burned was probably about hell, which was a lot easier to end up in than most people thought. As a youth minister, some of my kids and I began to develop a sort of add-on definition of hell that included being perpetually in seventh grade, on a road with constant speed bumps driving a Chevy Vega, endless meals of liver and onions, and Celine Dion for the soundtrack. Whatever hell is, Celine Dion will be involved somehow. And probably Air Supply.
My dad tells a story about my grandfather, the First Milton, who would qualify as a fire-and-brimstone kind of preacher. When my dad was about ten, my grandfather was preaching a revival meeting in Lexington, Texas, a small town in the central part of the state. The first night of the revival the crowd was restless. It was summer, they were hot, and who knows what else, but they were not listening to my grandfather’s liking. About ten mintues into the sermon, Grandpa slammed his Bible shut and shouted, “I hope every last one of you goes straight to hell and fries like a sausage.” Then he stepped down from the pulpit, told my dad to follow him, and they walked out of the service. The next night, when they came back for the service, the crowd was so big they were leaning in the windows to hear him. By the time the revival was over, as they say, the Lord blessed, the Spirit moved, and lives were changed.
Our gardening discussion tonight took us a different direction than hell. The point of pruning, ultimately is not to trim off dead stuff, but to promote growth. What is cut away is connected to what is left behind. You trim and prune to make the vine grow the way you want it to grow, and to produce fruit. An unpruned vine will produce less fruit. The pruning image, then, can be seen as having less to do with who is going to their best Jimmy Dean impression and more to do with what it takes to grow. Pruning is an act of grace, not judgment.
From there we moved back to the heart of the passage, which has to do with how we are connected to God and, thus, to one another. I asked each person to share one way they tried to connect and then articulate one way in which they saw one of the other people in the circle connecting. As we talked we passed a string of yarn from one to another, creating a web of stories and solidarity. (The idea comes from my friend John in Mississippi who did it with his youth group for many years.)
As people talked of how they tried to connect, they told stories of how they had grown. Three or four people in the group talked about being painfully shy and making a conscious decision to learn how to speak to others and be one of those who welcomed newcomers into our church. The people who shared that were not people I would have ever guessed had gone through such an intentional and painful struggle. They had done some serious pruning over the years and, in the process, grown a great deal. I don’t mean to say that shyness is wrong. What I heard these folks say was they felt a need, even a calling, to change and they set out to answer than call. They are vibrant and growing branches who are bearing fruit they worked hard to cultivate; as a result the whole vine is stronger.
In The Active Life, Parker Palmer centers his last chapter around a poem by Julia Esquivel called “Threatened With Resurrection.” Palmer moves from her poem to talk about how the prospect of resurrection, of finding life after death and loss, is often threatening because it means growth and change, both of which are at the center of what it means to be alive. Complacency kills us. Hell is where nobody cares, or everyone seems to let things just go on like they are without thinking about it. I’ve been in some situations like that and it is Hell. Trust me.
My brother mentioned something to me he had read recently (I forget the exact reference). He said a group of buzzards is called a committee of buzzards. A group of birds who gather to feed off dead animal flesh is called a committee. On the other hand, a group of rhinos – animals that can only see about ten feet in front of them (if that far), cannot go backwards, and go barreling along at about thirty miles an hour – is called a crash of rhinos. Miller’s question was, “Why are our churches filled with so many committees and so few crashes?”
Not for nothing: a group of alligators is a congregation.
(I can’t stop; here’s more: a bloat of hippos, an ambush of tigers, an intrusion of cockroaches, a coalition of cheetah, a charm of finch, a smack of jellyfish and a rookery of penguins. Rookery? That doesn’t work. I vote to change it to tuxedo.)
There should be a name – a particular name – for a group sharing stories like we did tonight, articulating how we are connected to one another.
I’ve got it: an embrace of friends.