by Melissa Brotton | 13 April 2021 |
“Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2 ESV).
I am sitting in a Sabbath afternoon seminar on how to grow stone fruit trees, the outcome of a survey our church has taken on the top three health emphases for the year. Having recently planted a few stone fruit baby trees, I am already dreaming about the large, lovely fruit I will be gathering from Nelly Nectarine, April Apricot, and Abner Avocado.
All gathered here this afternoon are relatively new to orchard work. Together we average just a little higher than novices. But we are here to learn, notepads and pens ready. I envision myself freeing the soil around the trees to promote effective watering or maybe scattering organic fertilizer, but the nursery worker in the video says nothing about water or fertilizer. Instead, he focuses on pruning.
I inwardly gape. How can he say that much about pruning? What is there to it? But as I continue to watch, it becomes clear that growing delicious stone fruit is all about pruning.
The speaker in the video, Tom, begins by showing us a midsummer orchard of small, leafy cherry trees. He picks up his pruning shears and starts on the first tree, a tiny but prolific one. He takes off a few branches; then turns to the camera. “It is important to open up the center of the tree,” he says and continues to cut. “I’m going to take a little bit of this growth off that’s growing in towards the center. I want everything to move back toward the outside.” If the sun cannot break through the branches, the center of the tree will not be healthy. The spine of the tree needs the sun as well as air flow. “What we want is structural integrity.” Tom continues to cut. There is an audible groan amongst us as we watch him clip the little tree down, down, down. And just when we think he is going to stop, he keeps going. We look from the video to each other in amazement. Can he really know what he is doing? Tom moves to the next tree. “I’m going to take some of this real low growth.” We gasp as he happily clips away, lovely green branches falling to the ground.
“There we go,” he says cheerfully. “A little more manageable.” Some of us start laughing. It is absurd. The tree has been trimmed down to a stub of its former self. How can he expect any fruit to grow when he has lopped off nearly all its growth? The camera scene changes, and we now see a different orchard, one with nectarines. “Trees need structural integrity,” he said, as he lops off more branches. “We want to make sure we have balance on all sides.” He takes more and more off the tree until we squirm again. It seems he has nearly destroyed the little trees.
Tom shows how he works around the tree in stages, taking care to cut the branches that are sticking out and causing imbalance. As he gets to the western side of the tree, he gets more drastic with his cutting. Huge, beautiful branches fall to the ground. It seems nearly half the tree is gone. “I’m going to re-establish plenty of fruiting wood,” he says. We shake our heads. How?
The next scene of the video shows Tom standing in an orchard that has been worked on several months earlier. The trees stand perfectly upright with branches well-spaced to let the sun reach their spines. Structural integrity. The fruit on the tree is mature, large and lovely, a result of the thinning work. Tom pauses to pick a white peach from one of the trees, and takes a bite. Juice pours out of it. He smiles broadly, and our mouths water.
“Absolutely delicious,” he says.
And we see it is. After the video, our discussion centers on the shock we feel at the seeming violence done to the small trees in order to get them to the place of producing good fruit. Will we have the courage to take off so many branches? Our group leader shares that his wife, having already seen the video, has already gone through their yard, clipping trees down to mere stalks. As I hear this, I start to take courage too.
Jesus, the Master Gardener
One of the last conversations Jesus had with his disciples before his crucifixion was about pruning. “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 15:1-2). Another way to translate the Greek word for cutting off branches, kathairo, is “to cleanse.” Jesus verifies this meaning in the next verse: “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).
Pruning is an act of mercy on God’s part. He could have cut us down completely, but instead he takes time to help us clean up our act so that we can produce good fruit. One kind of fruit is that of our spirit (love, joy, peace, forbearance, etc.) so we are remade into his image. Another kind of fruit is the service he has created us to do in the world with the abilities and talents he has given us. God wants us to bear much fruit, the evidence of discipleship, as Jesus says in verse eight.
As the Master Gardener of our lives, God knows which branches need to go and which should stay to promote our structural integrity. He knows exactly how to thin our fruit so that the end result is healthy and satisfying. Branch after branch must go. Grudges. Pride. Hate. Coveting. Selfishness. Vindictiveness. We don’t understand. Another cut.
“Why, Lord? Not that one!”
“What I do now, you do not understand.” His voice is gentle.
“How long, Lord?”
“In time, you’ll see,” he reassures.
“Not another one!”
“I am letting in the light.” His encouraging smile.
A bare whisper. “Yes, Lord.”
By the time the blooms come, we’ve forgotten the old pruning days. The blooms delight us. They show us what we didn’t know, that hidden potential that only Jesus can draw from us. The fruit he grows is rich, filled with sweetness, color, and vibrant health.
“Absolutely delicious,” he declares.
And we see it is.
Fruit worthy of the King.
 Spellman, Tom. “Summer Pruning Fruit Trees, 2013.” Dave Wilson Nursery. 2013. Accessed 14 February, 2021. https://www.davewilson.com/community-and-resources/videos/summer-pruning-fruit-trees-2013.
Melissa Brotton teaches writing and literature courses at La Sierra University. Her special areas are nineteenth-century British literature and religious studies. She has published on the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Biblical ecology. She spends a lot of time outdoors, paints, and writes nature stories and poems.