I am the vine.
Dear Members and Friends of Saint Timothy’s,
One of our Vestry members, Sandy Wheat, teaches and supports the CREDO Conference and has recently presented a reflection paper at one of the CREDO conferences. The CREDO Conference is a program of the National Episcopal Church that is intended to support the health and welfare of retired and active clergy. Her reflection is really a witness to her life in and with Jesus Christ and is moving and inspiring. I think it’s a witness all of us should hear so, with Sandy’s permission, I’m sharing this edited version of Sandy’s witness with you.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches.” As priests, you are all aware of today’s lesson. It is powerful in its imagery of Christ as the vine and the Father as the vinegrower and of the faithful as the branches.
I am sure that each of you has reflected or preached on this lesson at least once, if not many times. As one of only three people in this chapel who is not an ordained priest, I found the task of reflecting on this lesson to a group of priests to be a bit daunting so please don’t judge me too harshly.
At my first CREDO Conference my room was on the hillside and the vineyards were down in the valley. I didn’t have a good opportunity to really study the vines, I only observed them from a distance. I think that this is how many among us experience Christ…from a distance. I hear many people say “I believe in Jesus” or “I am very spiritual; I just don’t go to Church.” I have to wonder about these long-distance believers. Can one bear fruit unless one is truly a part of the vine? I mean “well” and truly “a part of the vine”? We must abide in him and he in us in order to flourish.
I had the good fortune of being able to stay in California for a couple of days after CREDO. I had the opportunity to visit some of the wineries. I’m not an oenophile, far from it, however I do love learning new things. While visiting one of the wineries, I had the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the grape vines. Some of these vines were more than 100 years old. The trunks were thick and gnarly and oh so very strong. They had to support the weight of the fruit bearing branches that held heavy clusters of grapes. I noticed that after every third leaf there was a tendril. The tendrils reached out until they were able to grab hold of something to provide extra support for the vine. If there was nothing to grasp, they would continue to reach and eventually form a nice curly Q that sat in wait of something to grasp. Once they touched something, would wrap around and hold fast. Isn’t this so like the love of God? There is a strong trunk, branches with tendrils that reach out to gather us into the body of Christ. If we reach out to God in Christ, one of those tendrils will find us and bind us, so long as we are willing captors. The tendrils are strong, but their grip can be broken; broken by doubt, challenges to our faith, outside influences, news of current events that are tragic, illness or death of a loved one, substance abuse. There are many, many things in the world that cause us to not only question our faith, but to outright abandon it. But God is always there, patiently awaiting our return, a patient Curly Q just waiting for the faint brush of our hand, heart or soul, waiting to grasp and hold us to Him.
I know that for me personally there have been times in my life when I held a very tenuous grasp of my faith and I felt distant from God. Was this God’s doing? No, it was mine and mine alone; God was always there, like an old friend who hasn’t heard from me in a long time. As a child most of my fondest memories included Christ-centered activities. I had the extremely good fortune of being born into a family of faith. They even had the good sense to be Episcopalians. Even into my adolescent and high school years I was really close with God, participating in EYC and events like “The Happening.” I had witnessed miracles in my personal life with my younger brother, things that medical science couldn’t explain…but the power of prayer and faith certainly held the explanations for my brother’s miraculous healing. My little brother, who wasn’t supposed to live past the age of 5 due to a birth defect of his heart, is going to be 50 on his next birthday and is the healthiest person I know. But still I fell away from God, especially in my college years…boy did I stray away from God. I was “trying to find myself” and in the process lost my relationship with God, even with all that I knew to be true about God. Fast forward to marriage to a wonderful man and the arrival of two beautiful children; I reconnected with God during this time. Then I drifted away again for a time. The funny thing is, I wondered why some periods of my life were marked with happiness and purpose, and at some points there was a feeling of being lost and sad. It didn’t take rocket science to figure out that when I was nurturing my relationship with God, those were the times of my life that I have borne the most fruit and did not have that feeling of being withered. And so, I reached out to God again in earnest, began having daily conversations with God and actually started listening to the responses. I thought, boy I have this faith thing mastered! It was a good thing I was close to God with what came next.
As I mentioned earlier, there are things in life that challenge our faith. My beautiful baby boy (actually a young adult) suffers from the disease of addiction. And make no mistake, it is a disease, an ugly, unrelenting, chronic and incurable disease. Fortunately, it is a disease that can be managed, but not without God’s help. He entered into an inpatient treatment facility for the third time in July. He just received his token for sixty days of being clean. This is a huge accomplishment. I tell you this not to seek your sympathy. You see my faith is strong and I know that he will be fine in time. It might take a long time for him to be fine, but I know that God has a plan for him. Again, I am sharing this with you not for sympathy, but to share with you the fact that I think he finally understands that God has a plan for him, too. He is taking his recovery very seriously and is attending group therapy four nights a week and is attending 12-step meetings daily. Some of you may be aware of the 12 step recovery programs. For those of you not familiar, the first three steps illustrate very plainly that we cannot be fruitful in our lives unless we abide in the vine. The first step states, “We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.” Step 2 says “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Step 3 goes on to say “We made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” This is a big one. Number 3. “We made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” I think it is important to really pay attention to that wording, turning ourselves over to the CARE of God…just like in today’s reading, the Father is the vinegrower who tends, prunes or cares for the vine. What a mess the vineyard would be without God’s care of it.
So many times in our lives we try to tackle our problems alone instead of turning our worries over to God. My son tried this repeatedly. He tried to quit on his own and couldn’t. He tried to quit with outpatient care, he couldn’t. He tried to quit with inpatient treatment twice before and couldn’t. He was not ready to turn his life over to the care of God. He questioned the existence of God with so many bad things in the world. I used to pray that my son would be cured of his disease. But, I realized that I was praying for the wrong thing. What I really needed to be doing was praying that my son would make the decision to turn his will and life over to the care of God. I began to pray that he would find one of those tendrils from the vine and let it pull him closer to the loving care of that old and oh so very strong trunk. That he would, in time, become one of those fruit-bearing branches in the body of Christ that would be tended by the father. Is he there yet? I do not know. I cannot say for sure as only he knows the strength of his relationship with God. But I know that he is developing one. And, I know from today’s lesson from that Jesus tells us that if we abide in him and his words abide in us, we can ask for whatever we wish and it will be done for us. He goes on to say that God is glorified in this, that we bear much fruit and become disciples. It is that simple. All we have to do is ask.
My son came home recently from one of his group sessions. The topic was tied closely to steps 2 and 3. He was deep in thought and then was visibly excited. He suddenly blurted out that he finally got it. He finally had a logical progression of thought for the existence of God–and what he said was brilliant. Some in the group were questioning the existence of God with all of the bad things in the world. They were conveniently ignoring all of the wonderfully good things in the world. Someone mentioned that some of the bad is the result of free will, with which God had gifted each of us. My son mulled this over for some time and concluded that if free will was a gift from God and drugs had taken away his free will, then the only way that free will would be restored in his life was with God. With that simple conclusion, which seems obvious to many of us but is absent from so many others, I could see that one of the tendrils from the vine was reaching, reaching for my son. The tendril was reaching to pull him closer to the serenity and sanity that comes from abiding in the vine. I know that one day, with God’s help, my son will be a branch that bears fruit and will be pruned by God, and my son will know he is cared for by the father and his joy will be complete.
As priests and lay people, all of us who are of the vine, it is our role to be branches that bear fruit. In addition to bearing fruit, each of us, branches of the vine, has tendrils that reach out. Sometimes they will just be Curly Qs waiting for contact. At other times, they will lightly brush the heart, hand, soul of someone who is hurting, reaching and searching in the darkness, trying to fill the void that can only be filled by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is the hand of someone who was not born into a family of faith, someone who has never been given the message of God’s love, someone who has never known that Jesus’s life was laid down for ours, perhaps it is someone who has heard the message but suffered injustices and wrongs that turned them away from God’s love. When contact is made we must reach out with love and patience and share the message of God’s love and care. As Jesus said in today’s lesson, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” No one had greater love than Christ; but that should not stop us from trying.