A first home is an exciting thing. I can remember finally saving enough for a down payment and finding that home sometime around 1968. It is hard to believe the last several cars I have owned cost more than that first house. It was small, at 750 square feet, with three bedrooms, a single bath, a kitchen, and a living room. The original owner had built the house from recycled lumber and hand-carried stone for the fireplace from the local river. It was unique, filled with charm, and it was ours (and the bank’s, of course). It was on Pine Street. While there are many stories I could write about those early years of homeownership, the one that seems to have impacted me the longest was in the backyard, behind the garage.
The land is amazing. Owning it is a privilege that few in the world ever get to enjoy. The yard was small, with an old apple tree, a pear tree, and a fieldstone barbecue. Next to the house was a grape arbor. The arbor had been there probably as long as the house itself, around twenty-five years or so. Yes, our first house, and fruits for our laborers. This is the American dream.
After the initial bloom faded upon the rose, the reality of owning an older home began to set in. My weekends were filled with repairs, remodeling, and constant upkeep. Don’t take this wrong. There was no time in those early years that I would have had it any other way. The constant projects bonded neighbors into work crews, established lifelong friendships that continue today, and provided me with the training ground for many of my DIY skills. Simplicity and necessity are wonderful things in life. Too bad we work so hard to leave them.
Well, my story takes place in the backyard of that home and centers on the grape arbor. It must have been the labor of someone’s love once upon a time. The arbor was built to gracefully hold and guide the branches of two very old and large vines. They had flourished over the years, intertwining and forming a canopy over the arbor. It was so peaceful to walk out our side door into the back yard and stroll under the arbor. A picnic table sat next to the arbor under the apple tree. The apple tree was a great place for my children as they learned to climb their first tree. So many hours were spent sitting at that table in the yard. I had taken a new job in a risky, unknown field. By the end of the ’60s, computer technology was emerging, and I had just become a programmer. No one knew what a programmer was back in the late ’60s. Sitting under that apple tree, I studied my programming manuals, poured over “core dumps” (if you know what these are, you are old), and taught myself basic assembly language.
In the fall, my family was ready to enjoy our harvests. Apples, more than we could use; pears, sour but great for jam; and grapes. Wait a minute. “Where were the grapes?” Fall came, and then winter came, and there were no grapes. We had a healthy vine loaded with branches, but there was no fruit. As I examined the arbor, it became clear that the vines had never been tended over the years. It was easy, I thought, to just prune back the vines. However, this turned out to be much more of a task than I was prepared for. The wood used to build the arbor had decayed, and as I tried to prune the branches, the arbor collapsed. It was with great reluctance that I found myself forced to tear down the arbor and cut down the vines.
After finishing up the demolition and clean-up, I was left with two very short and fat vines. Both were bare-rooted, about two feet long, and several inches thick. As you can see, I did not prune the vines; I cut them up, ready to put them out in the trash. I cannot tell you why I hesitated that day, but I decided to give them one more chance for some reason unknown to me. Both vines—what was left of them—were planted against a fence along our property line. Winter came, and I never gave the vines a second thought. Winter in Ohio usually takes up most of your time trying to figure out how to stay warm.
The following spring came, and I noticed that those stubs of a vine that I planted were sprouting buds. As the season progressed, branches were formed, buds flowered, and, yes, grapes were on the vine. Through the summer and into the fall, our family waited in anticipation. We were not disappointed. The fall harvest came, and we enjoyed concord grapes from our little vineyard. It was a great first home, and for the next several years, my family enjoyed the “fruits” of our labors. As my career began to blossom in the emerging computer industry, we moved to a bigger home. We gave up the fruit trees, the grapevines, and the simplicity that went with it all. But the lesson was yet to come.
It was many years later, in the late ’80s, when I was active in a Bible Study. My wife and I had been asked to lead a group of adults in the study of the Gospel of John. This Gospel is the oldest, written decades after Christ’s death. John had watched the early Christian church struggle to understand Christ. In John’s emphasis, he uses so many unique metaphors and descriptions that relate to the world around us that the true person of Jesus emerges. John also chose to provide Christ’s own words, the words that served to clarify the Christian struggle. As the Bible Study went on from week to week, we eventually came to Chapter 15.
John 15:1-5 (NIV)
“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. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me? “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
I could not help but be taken directly back to that grape arbor and my experience with it. To let the vine grow without attention was no different than leading an unexamined and self-centered life. My arbor had not been touched in years. The vine had grown large, but the branches did not bear fruit. The infrastructure that held the vines from the ground, the arbor, had become rotten and weak. When I cut off all of the vine’s branches, it did not kill the vine. The root and vine remained alive, ready to generate new fruit-filled vines. As long as Christ remains the vine in our lives, we remain alive.
Life is filled with experiences generated by our own hands, some good and some not-so-good. We have a God that uses those experiences to “prune” away from the non-productive “vines” within our lives. As we remain faithful to Christ, we retain our fruitfulness and our usefulness to God’s kingdom. As this lesson has unfolded in my life, I have finally understood the verses in the Gospel of John. The measure of life is in our fruit, not the complexity of our life (the size of the vine or arbor). Did you ever wonder why the Bible references grapevines as much as it does? To the vine, the fruit has no real value. Until the fruit is picked and carried off, there is no benefit to the vine or the world. The fruit we bear must nourish others. I now measure my life by the number of hands that pass through my life.