Stripped bare. All that vigorous green growth unceremoniously hacked off with surgical precision.
I had a wonderful plan for my life, and God pruned it in a dramatic fashion when I hit midlife. At the time, I wondered if he was using a dull chainsaw to do his gardening.
Jesus used the metaphor of pruning to describe the way the Father coaxes fruitfulness from our lives. The Bible student in me is compelled to mention that his first-century listeners would have understood his words to refer to the living relationship his people could have with God through him. Today, most of us tend to interpret these words as they pertain to us as individuals who are connected to the Vine. We recognize that learning to walk the way of Jesus means surrendering to his specific work in our lives, particularly when it comes to the suffering, change, and loss we may experience.
There are optimum times in a plant’s growth cycle to prune a plant, priming it for greater growth. Arborists often trim trees and vines in late winter when they’re dormant but about to enter a new growth cycle. Gardeners dead head plants and flowers in the midst of growing season so they’ll use their energy to create new leaves and flowers, rather than go to seed and stop producing.
I think there are seasons in our lives that, by definition, tend to include pruning as a matter of course. Midlife is one of those periods.
As my own midlife years were fast approaching, I thought I could skip the pain of those pruning shears by coming up with a wonderful plan for my life guaranteed to increase my own fruitfulness.
After years of home schooling our three children, I spied our rapidly-emptying nest and realized I needed to start contemplating what I’d do next. I had been out of the full-time workforce for two decades – and the full-time work I’d done before I had kids was a string of dreary office jobs.
I’d managed to accrue a collection of communications-related skills through freelance writing, offering courses to home school families, writing press releases for a few small businesses and ministries, and putting together a monthly print newsletter for our church. I was (and still am!) passionate about helping to connect people to one another and to God. When our pastor at the time came to me and asked me to write my own job description for my communications dream job at the church because they wanted to pay me for my efforts and skills, I jumped at the chance. The timing led me to believe that this job was my ticket out of having to face that echoing empty nest at home.
I loved the work and the congregation, but was blindsided by the intramural politics I encountered with a few other staff members. Less than two years into the role, I resigned. The experience was as excruciating and formative as anything I’ve ever experienced. I wrote here in Chapter 4 about the disorientation I felt in the wake of my resignation. The empty nest echoed even louder because within three months after leaving the job, we sold our home and moved, too.
With the humbling clarity that has come to me with fifteen years of hindsight, I now recognize that my some of my hopes for the job included a desire not to feel the pain of seasonal pruning that naturally occurs as children move into adulthood. I recognize that there were plenty of good dreams to write, to serve, and to connect all mixed into my unspoken desire to avoid the grief of a monumental life transition. Frankly, those dreams were good ones, and God has redeemed them in ways I never could have imagined.
But I could not avoid his pruning shears.
I’ve always loved these words of Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe: “Your heavenly Father is never nearer to you than when he is pruning you.” Those words are true, and can be very comforting. However, in the midst of the pruning, the first thing I noticed was the sense of loss, followed by disorientation that could best be described as a form of spiritual phantom limb pain. All the energy and activity I’d put into home schooling and my job had nowhere to go for a very long time in my life. Pruning hurt.
I now recognize that what was pruned during that period has not grown back in the same form. Some parts of my earlier life have not grown back at all – nor could they. My first act was over. I was not building a life, raising children, and trying to make my mark on the world. What has grown in their place has been less green, less wild, and far less impressive. But it has borne nourishing fruit nonetheless, because the life of the Vine can produce nothing else.
What do you think? How has the pruning you’re experiencing at midlife affected you? What do you mourn about the process? What, if anything, do you see beginning to grow from those places of loss?
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