Two summers ago, I rescued a sick, wilting hydrangea plant from my backyard. The previous owner of my home had planted it in a bad spot where it failed to thrive. So I moved it to a shady bed and very slowly, very tenderly nursed it back to health.
This year, for the first time, the plant is blooming: big heads of pink flowers. However, the plant itself is still rather small, and the blooms are large and heavy by comparison. The other day, I noticed a bloom about to break off under its own weight, so I cut it and placed it in a glass of water on my dining room table. I was over the moon. The bloom was gorgeous and lush with health. It brightened up the dining room for several days.
Then, after days of unchanged beauty, the bloom suddenly shriveled. The water I had placed it in was inadequate to sustain it forever. As I watched the flower fade, I thought about Christ’s parable of the vine and branches in John 15:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”
My flower withered because it had been separated from the plant. The plant was so healthy that the bloom didn’t wither immediately. But it did after a time.
This brought to mind people who choose to abandon their faith. At first, many of them seem happy and well. “I can’t believe I didn’t do this years ago,” some say. “It’s so nice not having to worry about ‘pleasing God’.” That can seem really confusing to those of us who were taught that leaving the faith is the worst thing one can do – inviting all sorts of calamity and misery. So when we see former believers still thriving months or years later, it makes us wonder.
But, now, I’m thinking about that hydrangea bloom. And I’m thinking about the vitality that it drew from the plant, so powerful that it continued to shine days after being separated from its life source. I think the life of Christ is stronger than that of a hydrangea plant. I think his spirit continues to work in people until they allow the darkness of this world to choke it out. And when that happens, the effects are immediately noticeable: anger, bitterness, lack of peace, lack of direction and spiritual emptiness.
And then I thought about the fruit that Christ expects his followers to bear: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). What does it mean to bear peace? Well, I’ve heard some believers claim that ‘bearing peace’ means feeling at peace at all times, even in the worst circumstances. That if you ever feel anxious or afraid, it means the Holy Spirit isn’t working in your life. But as I stared at my wilting hydrangea bloom, imagining God pruning away those who refuse to ‘bear fruit,’ I came to a different conclusion: bearing peace means being a person of peace.
I’ve met people who are very secure in what they believe. If they have trouble in their lives, it’s either because of sin or the devil, and they know just what to do about it. They have a pat answer for every situation, and they’re rarely rattled or caught off guard. They seem to have peace in spades. However, they don’t know how to live at peace with their neighbors. They’re always looking for their pastor to say the wrong thing so they can butt in and correct him or her. Whenever someone slights them at work or church, they’re quick to stir up dissension. They demand a punishment for every mistake, an eye for every eye taken.
They may feel some measure of assurance on the inside, but they aren’t people of peace.
And what about faithfulness? Some pastors would say that faithfulness means attending church every Sunday and paying tithes every month. But is that really the full extent of faithfulness? What about simply remaining faithful to Christ when your world is falling apart, or faithfully showing love to the unloveable? How many times have we heard that interpretation from the pulpit?
FYI, I’m still waiting to hear one sermon on gentleness.
What if the fire the withered branches are thrown into isn’t the fire of hell? We tend to assume that it is. But the word “hell” isn’t used in the parable of the vine. What if the fire is the fire of tribulation? Or something else? Do we really know?
What if there’s a greater depth to Christ’s teachings than we have ever dared to explore?