Heard an interesting sermon at St Aldate's this evening. (This morning's sermon was also interesting, but chiefly because Helen (the curate) appeared to be preaching using notes stolen from Father Herbie who ran the Personal Vocation Course midnightmelody and I went on just after Easter - definitely one of those 'God is on my case' moments.) This evening's was on John Chapter 15, which is the bit where Jesus says he is the true vine, and that the branches that remain in him will bear fruit - and that these branches will be pruned so that they will be even more fruitful. Matt (the other curate) first of all pointed out that the passage doesn't say we should aim to be fruitful - but that we should focus on 'abiding' - ie staying in God - and that if we do that, fruitfulness will follow automatically. He then outlined the cycle we can expect to find ourselves going through, which looks like this:
It then goes back to abiding, and starts again. The vines that were grown in Israel in Jesus's day apparently used to be pruned pretty radically - shoots would be clipped back to within a few millimeters of the main stalk, and the bark would actually close over them to protect them during the winter. Then the following year they would start growing again, and would eventually bear fruit and then be pruned once again.
The practical application of this was that we shouldn't worry if we didn't appear to be being fruitful if this was because we weren't at that point in the cycle just at the moment. After a time of fruitfulness, we'll often find ourselves being pruned - ie, taken away from whatever we were doing, or moved to a new set of circumstances where the old rules simply no longer apply. This isn't cause to panic because we're suddenly not bearing fruit: it's a chance to concentrate on abiding in God, which will lead to growth, which will ultimately produce fruit - and the point of the whole cycle is that this process means we'll be more fruitful in the long run than if we hadn't been pruned. I found this reassuring: I don't feel very fruitful at the moment, but on this model, that's OK - I've fairly recently borne a significant piece of fruit (ie at long last finishing my thesis), and have been pruned (ie have been taken out of my familiar comfy being-a-student context) which means that now is the time for abiding in God and growing - possibly in new directions.
The bit I don't yet have figured out is how one tells if one is operating on the right timescale: the process of growth isn't an end in itself, but is supposed to lead to fruitfulness. Presumably, therefore, there will come a point when I should have grown enough to be bearing real fruit, and if I'm not, that means something has gone astray somewhere. Not quite sure how I tell when I've got to this point, though...
Anyway, the central idea - that there isn't necessarily something wrong if one isn't being fruitful (however one chooses to define that) all the time is one that I like, and makes lots of things make rather more sense.
(It occurs to me that this summary may not make very much sense to anyone who didn't hear the sermon in question and/or isn't me. Am very happy to provide amplification/definition of terms if anyone's interested.)