Sunday, September 27, 2009

Of Grapes and other thoughts.

We're currently in the process of looking for a house. We've sold our current one to the state and have 90 days (now 80 and counting) to find a new place. All we've done is view some houses and submit a couple of bids. Currently we're waiting to hear back on a couple of them.

One of the houses we visited is a vacant foreclosure with a somewhat unkempt yard. Actually the state of the foliage around the back and side of the yard indicates that it was once tended, perhaps by longtime occupants, but has not been properly maintained in recent years - possibly by the immediately prior tenants, the ones who were evicted. None of the overgrowth was unreasonable, and we were delighted to find that some of it was concord grape vines. Somewhere in the house's history someone kept a small grape arbor, and the fruit on the untended vines was just ripening.

Since the house seemed suitable in other ways, we are currently bidding on it, and thus may end up buying it. But in the meantime, I was loath to see the grapes simply rot on the vine, so I went out to the vacant house and picked several pounds. While doing so, I noticed something about the bunches that I'd never seen before: a tremendous variation in the maturity of the grapes. Most of the bunches had everything from plump, sweet grapes of rich purple to tiny green bumps the size and shape of nonpareils. This struck me as odd - most grape bunches I'd seen in the store, and even on the vine at the local orchards, were of reasonably uniform maturity even if they varied in size.

This got me wondering about the vine. These were grapes from undressed vines - the arbor hadn't been tended for years, and the branches were twisting and sprawling all over the place. I'm just speculating, and I'd happily hear from someone who knows more about growing grapes, but I wondered if the irregularity of the grape maturity could be traced to the fact that they grew untended.

If this is true, it would illuminate another teaching of Jesus' that would make perfect sense to His immediate audience but be opaque to we non-agricultural moderns. I'm referring to His statement at the start of John 15: ""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." I've always appreciated this passage as an encouragement not to be one of the branches that bears no fruit (i.e. good works), as well as an encouragement to persevere in times of difficulty (pruning). While both these understandings are good and appropriate, if I'm correct in my speculation about the kind of fruit borne by undressed vines, there would be yet another reason.

We all know that one of the struggles of following Christ is bearing fruit in all aspects of our lives. We all know people (perhaps ourselves) who might excel at one or two areas of discipleship but fail in others. You know - the man who might have a disciplined intellect and superb teaching ability but is emotionally immature and inconsistent, or the man who can be counted on to show up for every charitable work but can't be bothered to study Scripture or advance his understanding of God's truth. Might this inconsistency be like the fruit of untended vines, where you might pluck a bunch and only be able to use half the grapes because the others aren't suitable?

Again, I don't know if these phenomena are related, but if they are, the example of the vine dresser and the fruit would speak clearly to an audience familiar with agriculture. The intent of the pruning (trials of life) would be to produce not only more fruit (good works), but more consistent fruit. Saints and spiritual advisors have often spoken of the desirability of a consistent spiritual life - that one who is faithful in prayer should also be knowledgeable of God's ways, patient in demeanor, abundant in charitable deeds, and so forth. Could this consistency be the result of careful pruning by the Father, even as consistent clusters of grapes may be the result of well-dressed vines?

I'd love to know for certain, but I suspect there's a connection. I hope that makes me more patient the next time hardship or humiliation or struggle comes my way. I want to be a branch that bears consistent clusters of grapes, every one ripe in its time, succulent, and suitable for nourishment.

For the record, I picked several clusters and culled through them. About 1/3 of the grapes were unsuitable, but those that could be used were turned into a delicious batch of homemade grape jam. We'll enjoy the jam all autumn - but part of me can't help but think of the bunches that bore only one or two suitable grapes, and were judged unsuitable and cast into the garbage.

I don't want to be one of those bunches.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A shift in vision

I was driving along the lake shore road recently, and I found myself looking a bit enviously at the magnificent mansions people had erected along the lake. The towering brick homes communicated grandeur and stability; the well-appointed grounds bespoke tranquility and order. I sighed, perhaps with a bit of covetousness - I knew families who lived in some of those homes, and some of my kids had friends who lived in some of those them. I look at places like that as I drove past, but knew I'd never be able to provide a home like that for my family - they were well beyond anything I could afford.

But still, but still, it would be nice, my frantic imagination protested as I backed into the driveway of the old, weed-beset two-story that had been our home for 25 years. The siding was faded and the chimney was chipping and the front window was cracked. It was anything but a mansion, but it was what we'd been able to afford while raising our six children. With another sigh, I glanced back in the direction of the magnificent lake shore homes which contrasted so starkly with mine.

Then my vision blurred a bit, and my sight took on a new perspective. The miles seemed to drop away, and the intervening houses and trees stepped aside, and again I saw the houses along the lake as if I were standing just in front of them. But this time my eyes showed a different picture. Gone were the clean new bricks and grand picture windows; instead I saw leaning and tumbling piles of bricks shored up with broken and rotting timbers. Tattered curtains blew in and out through broken windows, and gaping holes yawned in poorly shingled roofs. In place of well-tended lawns there were patches of weeds amidst untended sand. Where polished oak doors had stood now splintered shards hung from broken hinges, and the garages were littered with debris.

Aghast, I looked back at my home. But standing there was no longer the simple house I expected; instead there stood a stone castle of six towers. The towers were anchored into solid bedrock, and stood high and strong, their stones solidly joined and well-mortared. The towers were connected by high walls also made of stone, so that each tower not only stood strong but supported, and was supported by, its brethren. The towers and walls were topped by strong battlements, and above them all fluttered a white banner. On the sides stood two other towers, joined to the structure by more walls, and those in turn were joined to other towers fading away into the distance.

Now, this was a mansion, I thought. Not something thrown together to please the eye or impress visitors, but a solid, lasting structure that would serve a purpose and last for generations, one that could be built upon and expanded in the years to come. I wondered what had happened to the houses along the lake, and why they had fallen so quickly.

Then my vision blurred again, and before me I again saw our simple home, and was content.