Gray skies, completely filled with gray, wintery, stratus clouds. Trees, devoid of leaves, the gray trunks solidly supporting spindly branches from which the silvery Spanish moss sways seemingly lifeless in the chill winds. Dead grass in every yard, rendering each lawn gray, offering nothing of cheer to the eyes. February seems to leave me colorblind, with everything perceived as one continuous, unvarying shade of gray. Maybe it’s from having been born and raised four blocks from the beautiful warm, sunny beaches in Florida; maybe it’s my anemia, causing me to be constantly cold; maybe it’s because it is the annual reminder of my grandmother’s tragic death and my dad’s funeral. Whatever the reason, it’s my least favorite time of year. I find myself listening to Jimmy Buffett songs about the ocean and changing my home screen to images of the beach or of spring flowers. No amount of hot chai or blankets can completely remove the chill, and nothing takes away that darn gray outside!
Feeling like Dorothy trapped in the drab black-and-white of Kansas and desperately needing the vibrancy of Oz, I made plans to visit my mom in Florida for a few days. Although we talk on the phone nearly every day, it isn’t often that I get to spend time by myself with her, so we were both really looking forward to this visit. I checked the weather app on my phone, ready to leave behind the rainy, cold temperatures here and bask in the warmth of the Sunshine State. As it turned out, there was one solid day of sunny, balmy weather forecasted; the rest of the time was projected to be rainy and not much warmer than the temperatures I was running from at home. At any rate, winter day in Florida is better than a winter day where I was, I figured. The grass would still be green, palm trees would sway their verdant fronds, and there would be some flowers blooming. Plus, I wanted to spend time with my mom, talking and laughing, playing cards, watching movies, and doing a few things around the house for her.
One of the main things that needed tending to was a pair of crepe myrtle trees that were in desperate need of pruning. The branches were so crowded and jammed together that they were kind of choking themselves. Mom told me the plants had been prolific this past year, with bright pink blooms covering every inch of them. She expressed concern that maybe we should leave it alone. What if pruning the trees, cutting off so much extra would damage them or even kill them? But they needed thinning out to remove the excess, unnecessary branches and limbs and allow for more growth and overall health of the plants. On the one sunny day of my visit, I grabbed gardener’s gloves, loppers, some bypass pruning shears, and the lawn debris bins, and and set to work.
Very soon into this endeavor, I realized two things: I needed a hat and more sunscreen (you can get a wicked sunburn there in February), and I needed new bypass pruning shears, because the ones we had were D-U-L-L. Having rectified the situation, I returned to the job at hand. I will admit, it was a bit daunting at first. I’m not a master gardener by any stretch of the imagination. My dad had a degree in agriculture, and he had shared his wisdom and knowledge with me over the years. I had read articles online about how to avoid “crepe murder,” whereby you lop all the branches in the same place over and over again each year, causing ugly ‘knuckling’ of the branches that greatly detract from the beauty of the plant. I had even watched YouTube videos from local nurseries which demonstrated the proper technique for pruning the trees. None of those things increased my confidence very much, but I realized that the best way to get started was to get started, so I did.
It was slow-going, for sure. I started with the largest limbs, trimming back the excess. Often I found myself stepping back, like an artist would with a large canvas, getting an overall impression of where the project was going, making adjustments as needed. Sometimes I was nervous about the volume of tree I was removing. It was a LOT, but I reminded myself that pruning was good for the trees. Sometimes it seemed like I was taking away more from the tree than was being left in place, but I knew that it was ultimately for the health of the plants. Although it seemed counterintuitive, cutting that much away was necessary for the tree to experience growth.
Mom's crepe myrtle tree, one month after being pruned.
Much like these crepe myrtle trees, we need periodic pruning as well. Jesus speaks about this in John 15.
"I am the true Vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that continues to bear fruit, He [repeatedly] prunes, so that it will bear more fruit [even richer and finer fruit]. You are already clean because of the word which I have given you [the teachings which I have discussed with you]. Remain in Me, and I [will remain] in you. Just as no branch can bear fruit by itself without remaining in the vine, neither can you [bear fruit, producing evidence of your faith] unless you remain in Me. I am the Vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him bears much fruit, for [otherwise] apart from Me [that is, cut off from vital union with Me] you can do nothing.” (John 15: 1-5, AMP).
In our walk with Christ, the Lord prunes us, lopping off the parts of our character that do not allow us to reflect His character. Perhaps ungodly friendships or relationships are getting in the way of His best for us. He may remove detrimental aspects of our character like pride, jealousy, bitterness, or anger. He may step back and look at the overall picture, paring away negative habits like gossip, dishonesty, prejudice, or laziness. Slowly but surely, when we think there is surely more of us being taken away than being left intact, the Master Gardener repeatedly prunes all the unhealthy, ungodly, or unproductive parts of our lives in order that we may bear fruit.
Even the parts of our nature that are positives, like faithfulness, generosity, thankfulness, contentment, or honesty can be ripe for pruning. Just like Jesus stated above, every branch that continues to bear fruit must be repeatedly pruned by the Father, so that it will bear even finer, more exceptional fruit. It reminds me of what takes place as we crucify our flesh, as described in Galatians 5:24, And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Those parts that are pruned, or removed, from us cannot survive on their own. They die as surely as a branch that you’ve lopped off of a tree, shrub, or vine. Only the part connected to the Vine remains lush, alive, and fruitful.
As painful as it is to endure pruning (forgiving your enemies, anyone?), remember the ultimate goal of this process: to produce growth as evidenced by a richer, finer manifestation of your faith and to more accurately reflect the glory of your Father in Heaven. Nothing is wasted. When we trust ourselves to God’s gentle, purposeful hands, the outcome will be nothing less than bountiful.