I padded downstairs, stopping as I spotted my three-year-old looking out the window, face pressed up against the glass watching his dad trim a bush inches away. We watched as the bed of his pickup began to teem over with green trimmings and dead branches from our river birch and the various bushes and small trees surrounding our house. His efforts marked a season of trimming and pruning in anticipation of new growth.
“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. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me…This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15: 1-8, NIV).
As I reflect on this passage in John, I pause to ask myself these questions: What does it look like to bear fruit? What does God expect of us? Our faith? Our service to others? Is it doing the work He has called us to do? Using our gifts to serve Him and demonstrate His love to our neighbors? Am I doing enough? Am I even doing the right thing?
Google defines “prune” as to “trim (a tree, shrub, or bush) by cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems, especially to increase fruitfulness and growth.” What are the branches in me that are not bearing fruit? What is God asking me to remove from my life, so that I might be able to devote more time to my relationship to Him and my service to others? Lord, if there is a part of me that is not pleasing to you, I surrender it to you, and I’ll open my heart to receive your prompting. Amen.
This season, so much of my time has been pruned by the circumstances of our world: activities canceled, school schedules intermittent, travel plans on hold indefinitely, family get-togethers limited to funerals. But in taking a hard look at my life and where I focus my attention, I have more control than I realize. The community around me continues to have needs. In waking up and spending time in communion with the Lord, I find renewed energy to view each day through a lens of gratitude and service. I look for opportunities to serve others while also admitting my own needs and vulnerabilities caused by the toll of a global pandemic.
This week, I received an email update from missionary friends. A friend of mine from college, Amanda, and her husband, Nathan, work with InnerCHANGE, a Christian ministry in Los Angeles. They’ve been living and serving among poor populations in LA for over five years and recently welcomed their first child, a daughter. In describing the new “invitations in motherhood” she has felt, Amanda blogged, “Relationships are two way streets and we feel grateful for this clear opportunity to be in the humble position to receive.”
Christian ministry includes serving and sharing, establishing authentic connections and relationships with others, and Amanda, Nathan, and their daughter live full-time in community with the people they serve. And in this community, there is learning and sharing, giving and receiving, wisdom passed through shared experiences and milestones. It is pruning away everything that doesn’t matter and focusing on everyday conversations and loving others around us.
When Amanda and I traveled with a group from UVA to New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina to assist with flood relief, I fully expected to serve. Our team spent a week gutting homes in a neighborhood not unlike ones we had grown up in — homes where paved driveways once housing nice cars now housed FEMA trailers, where fridges once fully-stocked now vomited murky brown sludge as we pried open their doors. After a natural disaster, these communities found themselves in the “humble position to receive.” But what I didn’t expect was that the families we served would want to serve our ministry team. Day after day, they offered us cash, usually in wads of five and ten dollar bills. We politely refused each offer, not sure how to respond, there only to be the hands and feet of God. Finally, we realized they were eager to serve us as much as we were serving them. To their humble delight, we took them up on their offer to provide juice for our meals each day, and I have carried that simple gesture of give-and-take in my heart ever since.
When we allow God to prune our efforts, we focus on our relationship with the Lord and seek ways to show God’s unconditional love to the people in our communities. We step into other’s lives with kindness: recommending a doctor when a friend’s child is hurt, sending books and markers to a teacher’s classroom, bringing dinner for the coworker who just lost a grandparent, mowing a neighbor’s lawn, leaving a box of diapers on a new mother’s porch, sending a crockpot to a single mother. We keep our eyes and ears open for specific needs in the community around us, at work and in our neighborhoods, and using those opportunities to bless others. The simple gesture of sending a new toy to a preschooler who just broke his arm, scrawling a note in a good book and dropping it off in a friend’s mailbox, or gathering a bag of outgrown clothes and delivering them to a family with young children. Opportunities are all around us as seasons and circumstances change.
You can follow in Amanda and Nathan’s ministry through InnerCHANGE and read more about their vision, plans, and needs here: https://naflickner.novostaff.org.
Written by Ashley Bartley
Ashley Bartley is a wife, mom, and an elementary school counselor in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She writes at www.ashleybartley.com, where she encourages women to create a habit of pause in every small, great, and wild moment. She has been featured in The Joyful Life Magazine and on the Kindred Mom blog. She also creates resources for elementary school counselors and recently published her first children’s book, Diamond Rattle Loves to Tattle, with Boys Town Press (July 2020).