I had a great time speaking at a retreat this week in North Bend, WA, and am grateful to the women who invited me for being such wonderful hosts (hi, girls!) The retreat was for leaders within Seattle’s Community Bible Study, and what a beautiful, gracious group of lady-folk they were. They demonstrated a generosity of spirit toward me that was like a blanket, wrapping me up and making me feel so loved and well-cared for. And the feedback I received after each of my talks was encouraging, as it was confirmed over and over that I heard correctly and my messages hit their mark.
What was the crux of what I had to say?
First, we are not called to be productive. We are called to be fruitful.
There’s a difference!
We took a good, close look at John 15, after I read John 15-17 aloud, in their entirety, to set the context. (On that, I am currently reading Unleashing the Word: Rediscovering the Public Reading of Scripture, by Max McLean and Warren Bird, and it is an excellent case for reading long passages of scripture aloud!) I shared some of the responses I got from Twitter and Facebook when I asked people to finish the sentence, “A fruitful life…” And we mined John 15:1-17 for insights as to what, exactly, it means to “abide in Christ” and to “bear fruit.”
Here are a few of the things I suggested this passage teaches us:
A fruitful life begins with Jesus. He said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” How often to people – do we – do I – want to see the “fruit” of a faithful life, but try to get to it without actually spending time with Jesus in prayer and study and contemplation? For me, its a constant battle. I love to hit the ground running with my to-do list in hand. I am deeply gratified when I can check five things off my list before noon. But the primary work of the Christ-follower is to be with him. As a friend of mine has often reminded me, “We are human beings, not human doings.”
The fruitful life requires maintenance. “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.” Who maintains a garden? The gardener. And it is the gardener (God) who does the maintenance in our lives as well. But we have a role to play. We can either be tender shoots, pliable in the gardener’s hands, or we can be stiff, dried out, brittle branches, resistant to his efforts to bend and prune us. Either way, the gardener will prevail; God accomplishes his will with or without my compliance. But it is so much better for me to be a yielded participant!
I suggest making prayerful contemplation about how God might want to prune you part of your regular devotional life. Set the Bible aside and just listen to God for a period of time. Perhaps you could pray over your calendar and ask whether God might want to prune something from your long list of commitments (overcommitments!) Perhaps there is a relationship in your life that is sucking the life out of you and keeping you from being able to give yourself in other relationships. I don’t know what it is, but I do believe that if we seek God’s voice on this, he’s gentle to let us hear from him.
A fruitful life is not primarily productive. This is especially important for leaders to hear! It is so tempting for those of us who are in some form of spiritual leadership to begin approaching our entire spiritual formation as a means of preparing to lead/form others. But think about who Jesus was talking to here: the apostles! Those who would go on to plant churches and defend the gospel before angry mobs and resistant kings. But Jesus was not giving strategies and clever bullet points (that often employ alliteration!) to prepare them.
He simply instructed them to remain in him. To abide in him. To dwell in him. Jesus is practically begging the apostles to make their primary work about staying close to him. This can color our entire Christian experience in a whole new way, if we see everything we do through the lens of staying close to Jesus. When we study scripture, its not so that we can teach others, but rather so that God’s word would be rooted ever-more-deeply in our hearts.
The fruitful life is a life of community. It cannot be just you and Jesus. A fruitful life is never “just me and the Lord.” While certainly people might need seasons of solitude, for the most part, we are created to flourish in community. The metaphor of a vine and its branches supports this as well. You’re a branch on a vine that has other branches. A Christian who avoids being in communion with other Christians is a branch that does not bear fruit.
And, not for nothing, but few things are more “pruning” than being around other Christians! (Can I get an “Amen?!”)
Remaining in Christ means Christ’s words remaining in me. Namely, that bit about “love.” Christ said a lot of things that are worthy of a lifetime of reflection. But if you only remember one thing, remember this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, more succinctly, “Love one another.” Let Christ’s words, “Love one another,” color how you live in every aspect of life, and you will reap a glorious crop of spiritual fruit. Interacting with a grocery store clerk? “Love one another.” Feeling annoyed with your spouse? “Love one another.” Irritated because someone is late? “Love one another.” Get cut off in traffic? “Love one another.” Neighbor playing his music too loud? “Love one another.” I could go on.
A fruitful life is marked by fruitful prayer. Jesus said, several times, that if we remain in him, and his words remain us, we can ask God for whatever we wish, and it will be done for us. This can be easily misinterpreted or abused, but here’s what I think he means: when we are filled with God’s word, his desires become our desires. His priorities become our priorities. And the things we want will be a reflection of the things he wants. So that, even as we pray for a sick friend or a new job or a more well-behaved child, our highest prayers sound more like this: “To live is Christ, to die is gain,” and, “Not my will, but yours be done,” and, “That Christ may be glorified in me.”
So what is the fruit that marks a “fruitful life?”
I’ll share that next time!