Vineyards, John 15, and the Rhythm of Lent

Learning about Rhythms from a Vineyard

Last Wednesday, the Lenten season began, a season that reminds us of our sinfulness and our frailty, but more than that, a season that reminds us of God’s goodness and faithfulness. Entering this new season has drawn some parallels to Jesus’ words in John 15, especially since being a part of a vineyard co-op here in Auburn and learning about the process and rhythms of tending the vines.

Observing Lent (though not always perfectly….) has become a significant rhythm for Rachel and I over the last few years. We may not always think about this, but rhythms hold a powerful place in our lives — ranging from the most menial (such as brushing our teeth), to more significant (such as holidays and annual traditions). Rhythms aren’t just something that we observe, but they shape who we are and how we interact with the world. Lent is an ancient rhythm that Christians have observed in their pursuit of Christ for hundreds of years. Observing Lent doesn’t earn us any brownie points with God, but it does give us space to pursue and encounter Christ in an intentional way.

Glenn Packiam, pastor and author says, “We need rhythms. Rhythms anchor us, center us, keep us in touch with what has happened, what is happening, and what is yet to happen. A rhythm may move slowly at points, and more frenetically at others, but the cadence gives order to it. Breathing is a rhythm. Life happens in rhythm.”

As I have been thinking about this season of lent and this rhythm that we are invited into, I have been meditating on Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 15 and how he invites us to abide in him. He also talks about pruning our lives, so that we may find fullness of joy in him. And as I think about it, lent is exactly that- an opportunity to prune our lives, so that we may enter more fully into the life that he offers us:  

“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 does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1-5, ESV)

Growing up in Colorado, I wasn’t around many gardens, or orchards, much less vineyards — unlike here in Northern California, where the growing season is year-long. There’s a saying I grew up hearing all the time: “April showers bring May blizzards.” Just when you think the weather is warming up and bringing everything back to life, a cold front moves in and starts the whole process over. Not ideal for growing much of anything!

For the last few years in the Sierra Foothills of California, I’ve been part of a vineyard co-op. One of our friends bought a house that already had a vineyard planted on it, and not knowing what to do with it, enlisted his friends to come and do his yard work for him, with the promise of a share in the fruit. As I have been anticipating this season of Lent, I have been reflecting on what I learned working the vineyard and my spiritual life. In John 15, Jesus likens us to being branches on a vine. And in doing so, he evokes powerful imagery about what it looks like to abide him.

There are three things that I want to highlight that I think connects this passage the season of Lent. First, our transformation in Christ is God’s doing, but he invites us to participate. Second, pruning means cutting things out, but only for the purpose of sending energy and focus elsewhere. Finally, pruning works powerfully in specific seasons.

Growth is God’s work.  

We can’t make ourselves grow — transformation is God’s work. Just like we can’t make grapes grow on the vine, we can’t make the rain fall, and we can’t control the weather. Transformation requires a relinquishment of control and trust in One who is greater.

Because of this reality, we often see ourselves as innocent bystanders in our transformation process, and yet much of scripture point out that we have a significant role.  Jesus tells us to abide in Him in John 15. Romans 12 tells us to be transformed; though the work of transforming is God’s work, the renewing of our minds is our work. In 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit, but our invitation is to behold Christ, or fix our eyes on him.

In the vineyard, we can’t force the grapes grow, no matter how hard we labor and toil. It is beyond our power to produce them. But we have a massively important role: we have to prune and thin the vines. We have to spray to keep mold from growing, and tie on bird tape so the grapes don’t get eaten by birds. We can’t make the sun shine, but we can pull the extra leaves off so that the sun’s rays can reach the grapes directly.

Spiritual writers for centuries have been constantly trying figure out where God’s work ends and ours begins.  I received an email from a friend last week that said, “Especially intriguing is the mystery of how God is the one who initiates, and we cooperate with it all.” Joanne Jung highlights this partnership between us and God in the work of transformation in our lives. She says “It was clear to the Puritan divines that in order to live the Christian life- beginning with the pre-conversion, then growing in spiritual maturity while having an impact on one’s community- the means were essential. The saint was to guard against depending on the means without God, and on God without the means.”

Just like a vineyard, growth, health and fruit is ultimately a work of God, but he invites us to participate and create conditions for the life of Christ to thrive in our lives. We can participate in the means, such as spiritual practices, to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit. Lent is a means that can help to cultivate those conditions.

Pruning cuts something out to send energy somewhere else.

The second truth that working in the vineyard has taught me is that pruning is essential. Pruning is saying “no” to something, or removing it, in order to devote energy somewhere else. In early springtime, we’d go out and prune the vineyard, carefully cutting the less fruitful branches off and allowing the energy and required nutrients to go to the more fruitful branches. If energy is a zero sum game in a vineyard, for every branch that is cut off, some other branch benefits by receiving more of that energy.

Lent isn’t just a time to say “no” to one of our creature comforts, like candy or coffee or social media, or fasting for the purpose of self-denial. This saying “no” intentionally cuts something out for a season, in order to devote that energy to something better: God Himself. We have the chance to take that energy and pour it into seeking Christ.

Pruning is only a season.

Lastly, working in the vineyard has taught me that pruning works best in a specific season. If you prune in July, when the grapes will be ready in August, you will lose your crops. There are seasons to fast and seasons to feast, just as there are seasons to prune, seasons to harvest, and seasons to enjoy the harvest.

God’s work of pruning isn’t limited to the season of Lent, but it is a rhythm the church has adopted to actively and communally join him in. We aren’t pruning by ourselves. In the vineyard, pruning was one of my favorite days because we would all come out to the vineyard — spouses, kids, and all the members of our little co-op — and do the work together. We’d slowly walk each row of vines together, sharing our lives and talking as we worked. Like our families gathering together to share in the work of pruning, Lent is meant to be a seasonal rhythm practiced with others around us and all across the world.

Lent teaches us to abide.

It is through this cooperation in God’s work and the important work of pruning in this season, that roots us in this abiding life. Day in and day out. Abiding in Jesus is a full-time, life-long pursuit, but this is a season to refresh that commitment. We have all had those seasons where we get so caught up in everything else going in our lives that our walk with Christ gets put on the back burner. It’s still there, but perhaps our disciplines go out the window, or we feel like we are just going through the motions. Or maybe we just feel weary and worn down. Here we can refocus this abiding and be refreshed in him, even as we anticipate his death, but even more importantly, his resurrection. Greg Pennoyer writes, “Lent cleanses the palate so that we can taste life more fully. It clears the lens so that we can see what we routinely miss within our circumstances.”

This is what this season of intentional pruning is for, to cleanse our palate, reorient our lives around abiding in him so that we may more fully know Christ, through participating in his suffering and reveling in the power of his resurrection.

Whether you are practicing Lent this year or not, I’d invite you to consider:

  • What might you be invited to say “no” to in this season, in order to say a bigger “yes” to God?

  • How can you make this current season of your life more intentionally focused on Christ?