We have had a wonderful harvest this autumn. The small vine on the south side of our house produced a super-abundance of grapes. When I took them to a local vineyard for processing, I discovered that my grapes weighed in at 51 kilogrammes: this means that by next May I will have 51 bottles of white wine which I will serve my friends under the ‘Chateau Beasley-Murray label’.
If the truth be told, I cannot take any credit for these grapes. I have not ‘fed’ them with special nutrients. All I did was to prune the vine back severely once winter had come. But that is, of course, the secret. Pruning is the key to growth.
What is true in the natural world, is also true in the spiritual world. Jesus said as much when he spoke of himself as the ‘true vine’, and likened his disciples to ‘branches’: “Every branch that bears fruit, he pruned to make it bear more fruit” (John 15.2). Sadly, there is much ‘dead wood’ in our lives that needs to be cut away – sins, for instance, of pride and of anger, selfishness and self-indulgence, impatience, greed, jealousy.
Sometimes God’s Word becomes the pruning knife. The writer to the Hebrews describes God’s Word as “alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It cuts all the way through…. It judges the desires and thoughts of our hearts” (Hebs 4.12 GNB). Many of us, I’m sure, have experienced the cut of God’s knife, as we have read his Word in our quiet times, or as we have heard God’s Word preached on a Sunday – we have felt ashamed, rebuked, and humbled as God’s Word has done its work in our lives.
Sometimes too God uses circumstances to remove the dead wood. True, the initial circumstances may not be of his inspiration, but nonetheless it is amazing how disappointment, suffering, and even bereavement can be used to make us better people. So Joseph toward the end of his life was able to say to his brothers: “You plotted evil against me, but God turned it for good” (Gen 50.20 GNB). Yes, God can use even the unfairnesses of life to work for our good. They can be times of pruning, when as a result we emerge leaner and fitter Christians.
So far I have been writing of individual spiritual growth. But can we apply the metaphor and apply to the growth of the church? In Growing the Church through a Spiritual Winter (Grove Books, Cambridge 2017) Tim Sumpter, an Anglican minister and a member of the College of Evangelists, likens the current “morale-sapping numerical decline” of the church in Britain to a spiritual winter, and suggests that “just as some seeds need winter cold before they can germinate, so the UK church needs this current winter season. Only then may it be properly ready to play a significant part in shaping the cultural fabric of the UK’s future”. Or, to use the metaphor of the vine, what from a human perspective appears to be a time of decline and death for the British church, from God’s perspective is a time of pruning, preparing the church for spring growth and summer harvest. “There may not be evidence of great numerical growth, but spiritual enriching and strengthening may be occurring in hidden ways, as well as more obvious ones: a renaissance of prayer, seeking intimacy with God, prioritizing relationships, and creativity and experimentation in communion, worship styles, use of buildings and missional activities”.
God is at work in this winter season, creating a new future for his church. In the light of his own experience of leading a local church through a season of winter, Tim Sumpter lists “characteristics of his discipleship and leadership which have been forged on the anvil of that painful and enriching time”:
- Less driven – seeking to work sharper, not harder
- Team focused – developing the art of delegation and allowing others to shine
- Spiritually sustained 0- creating margins of contemplative prayer and silence
- Tolerating paradox – God’s power perfected in weakness and vulnerability
- Living for each day – not romancing the past or fantasizing the future
- Learning to wait – focused on patience, character and God’s timing
- Embracing empathy – seeking to walk in the shoes of those who hurt
The church of the future in the UK will, I believe, have been crafted and created by this wintertime. And because of this, one day, we or future generations of Christians in the UK may hear God say to the church those celebrated words from Song of Songs 2.10-11: ‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me. See! The winter is past…’