Vine Valuation

My interactive devotion today stemmed from Jesus’ teaching in John 15. I headed out into the wilds of my yard ready to yank, cut, and destroy unwanted growth from my flower garden. This has been the summer of invasive vines. There are two main varietals, one of which is a grapevine. Highly valued in biblical writings, it has become my nemesis. Foolishly, perhaps, I planted two grapevines in my vegetable garden years ago. They have quietly gained momentum and, this summer, climbed to new heights! They are boldly climbing up my fruit trees, inhibiting their growth. They have killed a couple of pin cherry trees near the garden by choking the life out of them. (They’re a weak species and an easy target.) My vision of harvesting healthy bunches of juicy grapes has not been realized. The vines that are weighing down the fence that surrounds my vegetable garden have no grape clusters hanging from them—not one grape is within easy picking distance. When I looked skyward to see the vine that is having a party at the top of an apple tree, I see those grape clusters which are impossible to harvest! I may be imagining it, but I’m pretty sure those vines are smirking at me as I walk around my yard purveying their dominance.

But not today. I covered myself with clothing since a recent spontaneous weeding session resulted in a rash requiring a dose of prednisone. My daughter’s scrubs are my favorite outfit to wear for dirty projects. Instead of a stethoscope, the side pocket holds my phone. I wear a baseball cap that proclaims, “Half Full.” (I’m not so sure about that optimism when confronting these vines!) I have turned old, unmatched socks into arm protection by cutting out finger and thumb holes. They go under my gloves. Boots and socks complete the outfit. With clippers in hand and a tarp for hauling the verdant carnage away, I head to the side yard.

No one looks at that side of the yard. It’s easy for us to ignore it since it faces a big hill and the homes on that side of the house are in the distance. Our neglect of the yard is easy to conceal on that southern exposure. However, I am concerned about our air conditioning unit, which has been a lifesaver many times this summer. I noticed that it was nearly covered with vines, which can’t be healthy for a system whose very function is to inhale air and run it through a cooling system.

I also saw that the same vine had covered a Rose of Sharon bush that didn’t deserve to struggle to bloom in the grip of such an aggressive foe. So I started pulling on vines to find the root. As I jubilantly cut those sturdy stems, I had a pang of guilt. Didn’t Jesus say He was “the true vine”? Should I view this vine positively rather than with murderous zeal? Am I doubly guilty because I am delighting in the notion of doing a follow-up attack with a spray bottle of Round-Up? As I victoriously hauled one tarp-ful of hacked vines after another into the nearby woods, I wondered what could possibly be good about vines!

So I turned to John 15:1-2. “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.”

So God prunes the vine. What a concept! I planted a couple of grape root balls more than ten years ago and have never pruned them. In fact, I never really paid attention to them since my attentiveness to the things I plant is greatly curtailed by other obligations in my life (namely the fact that I drive off to work each day and tend to a household). I am certain there is great joy among the vines as I head down our driveway each day, giving them the freedom to wrap their tenacious tendrils onto the plants and trees I value! It’s a veritable reproduction rights rally taking full advantage of my absentee gardening style! God prunes the vine, which is life in Christ, so that all growth that doesn’t produce fruit is clipped off. The expectation is that we will bear fruit, not just grow without purpose.

I’ve heard so many stories this past year at the mental health hospital of how folks have latched onto some of my patients, demanding too much of them and giving nothing in return. In groups that I lead, folks confess how guilty they feel that they need to focus on themselves while hospitalized. They have nothing left to give. We explore if it is “selfish”, as they believe, to value themselves enough to say “no” to the unending requests of others. As the tendrils of others choke the life out of them, they have no energy to bear good fruit in their own lives. This lands them, in an exhausted, hopeless heap, on an in-patient psych unit. Slowly, through good medical care and compassionate conversations, life returns and their beautiful, authentic self begins to bloom.

What I can tell you about vines is that they are strong. They put down roots along their journey at ground level. They have tremendous climbing skills and stretch with amazing determination from one branch of a host tree to another. They reproduce with force, much more easily than the plants I have hoped would thrive in my garden! If ignored, they will waste their energy on overtaking whatever plants surround them rather than producing nourishing fruit. A pruned vine responds to the painful process by producing fruit that is of good use to others. Like small children who yearn for discipline, a productive vine needs intentional cultivation.

As I dumped piles of dismembered vines into the woods, I remembered another teaching of Jesus: The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. The weeds that grew among the sown wheat were allowed to grow together until the wheat was mature enough to survive the violence of weeds being plucked up around them. The instructions to the gardeners were severe: “Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.” I felt less guilty about yanking out vines and tossing them in the woods to die! If something grows, only to leach the life out of their surrounding culture, it rebels against God’s intent for good harvests. Communities rely on the mutual sharing of our gifts so that all needs are met. What I am able to provide with my gifts is different from others and all are needed. Pruning is painful but keeps us honest about how we need to use our personal resources for the common good.

So my AC unit can breathe and the flowers on the Rose of Sharon bush need no longer fear for their lives. The satisfaction I derived from my morning weeding session spared me at least a couple of therapy sessions! And I’m sure that I have undermined the arrogance of prodigal vines wasting their energy on useless climbing! Further uprooting and pruning are assured as the battle for my yard continues!


It’s a wrap.

Walking back to my car after a day at work, I am tired and gratified. I was the chaplain on duty to lead worship at the psychiatric hospital where I have been working for nearly a year. Worship leadership is different here than in a church building. I travel between locked units, with bulletins and blue tooth speaker in tow. My accompanist for hymn singing is YouTube amplified on a 3” x 3” speaker that fits securely in my pocket. My chaplain badge identifies me as the one who will gather willing patients into the proper room on their unit so that we can attune our hearts to God.

The service I have prepared plays out differently on each unit, depending on how many show up and their level of mental health acuity. Two younger women made up the “congregation” at one of the services, one of whom overshared because of her mania. Her reflections where generously sprinkled with four-letter words for which she apologized halfway through our 45- minute worship window. She explained that she likes to be straightforward with her thoughts. I assured her that I was glad to have her authentic participation. At another service, an older gentleman didn’t want to commit to sitting for the service. He stayed just outside the door, particularly seeming to enjoy the music. I took a bulletin to him which he referenced occasionally. He disappeared without explanation after thirty minutes. A couple of months ago, the staff decided to allow a patient to join the service, something her behavior had prevented her from doing up until that point. Immediately following a responsive call to worship, she grilled me on a cruel God’s justice and how bad things will be for us if we…mess up…our lives.( Her language was a bit more colorful.) After the fourth angry inquiry into my theology on “sinners in the hands of an angry God…”, I suggested kindly that I didn’t wish to use time in corporate worship for theological debate. She wadded up the bulletin, throwing it out as she stormed out of the room. The experiment to include her in groups failed.

It has been a different experience to serve as a chaplain in this setting. The “congregation” continually changes. What inspires on one unit doesn’t work in another. The liturgy and sermon are unpredictably interactive and raw emotions run the gamut from tearful sadness when singing a hymn to fury over broken promises at home. The show must go on. My very first service here, a patient managed to kick their way out to freedom before we could grasp what was happening. Staff were stunned as those windows had not been breached by anyone in more than 40 years. I learned to keep any “equipment” that I carry onto a locked unit small and by my side. I don’t wear dangly earrings that could be yanked or necklaces that could be used to choke. Even my pen, if left on a unit, could be used for harm. While these possibilities are relatively slim, it could happen and I would be the fool for ignoring precautions. After 37 years leading services in congregations, it is safe to say that I have been stretched this past year!

You might think that I dread going into each of these five units on a Sunday. But I don’t! What a privilege it has been for me to bring a Word through the scriptures to folks who are at one of their lowest points in life. (Those who are homeless or who have spent time in jail would argue that those settings could certainly be more confining.) I am moved when I look around the room at those who are mustering the energy to sing the hymns while others wipe tears from their eyes as Alan Jackson sings, “Amazing Grace.” I give God thanks as patients recite the 23rd Psalm by memory, many using the words of the King James version of the Bible.

A couple of weeks ago I led worship on a unit that had several COVID+ patients. Only the healthy residents could attend the service but I still had to wear an N-95 mask, shield, medical gown and plastic gloves. I might as well have been leading a service on the moon! Yet the women who sat with me sang the hymns I had chosen and spoke earnestly of their desire to serve Jesus. I am blessed by the transparency with which these patients speak of their hardships, any one of which could lead to my admission onto one of these units. Our church congregations would do well to mimic the willingness of these patients to share the raw elements of their life that have left them disappointed, angry, or betrayed. I have been surprised so many times when someone who seems particularly psychotic offers to read a scripture and does so beautifully. I was moved as one patient voiced her prayer that those gathered in a circle this Sunday morning would find peace. “We’ve all become so close,” she exclaimed with a smile. She looked around the circle at others who nodded their agreement. These “congregations” may be transient but their sharing is deep. There is no “My life is just fine, thank you” façade. Their prayers are unapologetically from the gut. Jesus is clearly present in the lives of these hospitalized congregants.

I had to set the alarm to get to work on time to begin my sabbath duties. Thanks to coffee and a shower, I felt ready for the day. I played my chosen hymns for today’s service over our sound system so that my husband could hear organ, guitar and voice on surround sound at 7AM. I sang along, even pausing in my kitchen at one point to lift my hands in worship of the One whose glory I seek to carry into weary corners of our world. As I left, my husband reminded me that today would be my last time of serving as a regularly scheduled worship leader. I retired from parish ministry in April and will conclude my Chaplaincy Residency in three weeks. I will not be leading worship at the hospital again. While I may do supply preaching on occasion, I am done leading worship on any kind of a regular basis. My Sunday mornings will be strangely free.

Singing “Amazing Grace” at the last of five services today, I felt a mix of emotions as I reflected on the privilege it has been to craft worship services that have given a variety of congregations an opportunity to attune ourselves—once again—to the work of the Spirit in our lives. One of my scripture passages for this last service was from Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…”

What a wonderful season it has been for nearly four decades, praising God alongside my brothers and sisters in Christ. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” I wonder what will mark the next season? I choose to trust the One who has guided me faithfully. Walking to my car, I place my badge in my briefcase. For this pastor and chaplain, it’s a wrap!