The northern Ohio autumn sun slants its light through the colorful maples. A slight breeze follows, making me glad for the extra sweater I threw on earlier. The air has that welcome bite to it, a freshness marked by the changing of the guard – from summer to autumn. Around me are some of my favorites, a handful of family who are joining in on the venture to the vineyard.
We are set out on a mission: gathering grapes to enjoy today, tomorrow, and in the long, dark winter days when fresh fruit is shipped in from Mexico. Certainly we will taste our fair share in the picking. My inner fruit-farmer is thrilled to be able to harvest this sweetness.
I’ve never seen arbors hanging so heavy with the fruit of the vine. We had entered grape paradise. Everywhere we looked, masses of grapes hung, begging to be chosen. Our baskets filled in no time at all; tasting led to full-out feasting. As we moved down the row, the seemingly impossible happened: the picking got even better, the grapes even more plentiful. It was beautiful. And bountiful. And tasty. And rich.
Yesterday I boarded a flight that catapulted my life into a season of change. As my Delta plane ascended out of Atlanta and I caught my final glimpses of the Southeast for what could be a long while, this image of the vineyard became emblazon on my mind. I was transported back to that picture-perfect northern day in the vineyard.
I remembered the storybook setting, the great companions, the well-manicured vineyard. But mostly, my mind’s eye was fixated on the fruit. On the bountiful harvest we enjoyed.
Why is this image front and center in my mind in this moment?
I wondered that. I still kinda wonder that. But as I think on it, chew it, mull it over, I find that it might not be a total coincidence that my mind was fixed on this image of fruitfulness as I embark on this new venture.
Dividing callings between sacred and secular leads us down a dangerous path. All walks of life are sacred if given fully to Christ. From toothbrush-maker to full-time pastor, all callings and vocations are venues through which we work as worship. We do a great disservice by magnifying some as greater than others. In some situations, I feel like people look at me as a “better Christian” than I once was, or as better than others because I am moving into full-time missions. I don’t like that separation. In fact, it’s wrong. We are not called to great things, we are called to obedience. And if obedience means living a little, faithful life, then chasing anything else is disobedience.
There is a strangeness about moving overseas. To use the metaphor of a farmer, it seems like walking into a fertile land, a land ready for planting. It also seems like a field that needs extensive cultivation before the seed could possibly take root.
It seems like an atmosphere perfect for cultivating fruit in my own heart. A greenhouse for growth. A keen awareness of my need of Him. A renewed understanding of my own status as sojourner in this world. A poignant reminder of loneliness, an ache that only He fills. All of which can combine for fertile soil for the Master Gardner to grow fruit within me.
But then I think back to that storybook day at the vineyard in Ohio. The setting was perfect, the weather just-as-I-would-have-ordered, the companions some of my best. Really, no matter what we had done that day would have been enjoyable.
But we had set off to harvest fruit. And had the vineyard been as well-manicured as it was, the sky as blue-blue as it was, the everything as perfect as it was, and yet, the vines had been empty or had poor fruit to pick, we would have left disappointed, our expectations unmet. We came for fruit. And had it not been there, it would have saddened us.
In about 35 minutes I deplane at my final destination. I walk off this plane into an atmosphere that is good for producing fruit in my own heart. I step into situations where I will need increased patience, grace, love, and hope. Feeling the outsider, feeling misunderstood, all of it invites me into deeper communion with the One who knows me best. I want Christ to do His gentle, firm work in my heart through this experience. I long for the fruits of the vine to grow, to multiply.
But a change of address will not do that. Great sacrifice alone will leave me empty. Only Christ, the True Vine, grows the fruit.
Maybe my focus is on the wrong thing. Rather than the juicy cluster of grapes, the unsung hero of the vineyard is the strong, hearty vine, without which no fruit is possible.
In the same way, my focus needs a shift. Rather than looking at this season of international ministry as an opportunity to learn to be more loving, to cultivate more humility, to grant more grace, my eye needs to be singular: fixed on the vine. Intimacy with Christ must be my first goal.
So I embark into a setting ripe for fruit-growing, but today I choose to fix my eye on the Vine. To chase intimacy with Him. To endeavor to live in surrendered obedience to Him.
And I’ll let Him handle the fruit.
Random fact of the day: the final four-ish paragraphs were written on an airline-issued barf bag. The announcement had already been made to stow laptops and electronics, so I grabbed the empty bag to write out the rest. I will point out the word empty. I figured you’d want to know that information.