Do We, the Easter People of God, Accept the Pruner’s Knife?

A Reflection on the Gospel for

May 3, 2015, The Fifth Sunday of Easter


David Somerville+

Distinguished preacher, Dr. Fred Craddock, author of Preaching Through the Christian Year,  makes a telling observation about the Church.  Is his observation compatible with our Anglican ethos? I think so.  Our ethos involves the assumption that the church is a living unity, more like an organism than an organization. So we are generally inclined to feel O.K with Dr. Craddock’s commentary on the vine image: “The Father’s loving care means being subject to the vine grower’s pruning knife….” This all feels O.K. — on first thought. But if we go just a little further, we find a chilling implication. We must have the spiritual readiness to accept the possible loss of anything we take for granted. In my experience with life, losses can take a variety of forms from things familiar that I thought I could never live without to those blind-siding betrayals in life caused by the untimely death of either a loved one or a relationship. I have experienced the grief and pain of other kinds of losses- either the consequences of an act on impulse, or a life-altering diagnosis coming from a routine physical exam. Even when bad things don’t happen to me, but to other people in the living Body of Christ, we all become “dis-eased”.  Therefore Dr, Craddock concludes,  “Life is often painful”, tempting us to wonder  “if God cares.” Where will the knife need to go?  What part of us will it cut out next?

On February 12, 2014, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Television journalist and former CNN anchor, Miles O’Brien, was on location in the Philippines doing a report on 3 D Image technology.  He was in the process of packing one of those large professional video cameras into its heavy duty Pelican brand travel case. The case inadvertently fell off a shelf and hit Mr. O’Brien’s left arm.  There was some pain. But it did not seem terribly serious.  But two days later the arm pain got worse, and O’Brien had to go under general anesthesia.  He woke up in the recovery room, and looked down his left shoulder. He was confronted by the unbelievable.  All that was left of his arm was a bandaged stump. O’Brien had become an amputee.

The surgeon explained that he had no choice. “Acute Compartment Syndrome,” a blood restriction condition, had set in destroying nerve and muscle tissue that could not be repaired. Immediate removal of the arm had to be done to save Miles’ life.  When O’Brien’ consciousness returned, he discovered that he was now different forever! He was not prepared for this life-altering change that came from the inadvertent drop of a piece of luggage.

Miles O’Brien is a rugged individual. He was busy and on assignment; he had not budgeted the time to grieve over the loss of his arm. He had a deadline.   Miles’ friend and colleague from his CNN days, the well known medical correspondent, Dr, Sanjay Gupta, interviewed O’Brien and did a special CNN presentation about the experience a little over a month ago.  It was touching when Dr. Gupta had to stop the interview and let O’Brien cry.  The sobs were deep and poignant, but there was nothing about the emotion that compromised O’Brien’s masculine dignity (No, let me correct my word choice. Gender stereotypes are irrelevant. Let’s just call it “functional” dignity).  It was grief work getting done, and done effectively in the arms of a trusted friend.  The glare of the television studio did not appear to interfere with this healthy process.  When the interview continued, Miles was indeed a different man.  He told Dr. Gupta of the many options that prosthetic technology has made available to vigorous, athletic amputees. He spoke of re-learning a variety of skills from cycling to buttoning a shirt. Those were the achievements of his “up” days.

When Dr. Gupta heard O’Brien talk of all that he was learning to do, Gupta felt some concern.  An “emotional crash” he thought, was going to happen.  It was just a question of when such “down” days would dawn.

Miles, a consummate fitness buff,  started running again, but losing an arm affected his balance. He fell, and broke his nose.  He had reached to break his fall with an arm that was no longer there. With occasional experiences like that, times of severe discouragement and even thoughts of suicide were bound to happen, and they did. Dr. Gupta and Mr. O’Brien were teachers to teach other in a special relationship of trust. Gupta learned from O’Brien that the virtue of personal discipline that renounces self-pity can go a long way.  But grief work denied and ignored will only get worse—like O’Brien’s untended injury.

The five stages of grief work first identified by Dr.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross more than forty years ago were useful for Dr. Gupta to remember. But the five stages do not follow any kind of predictable, sequential series of steps.  When and how they appear in a particular individual is anybody’s guess.  So to go ahead and know the content of the Kugler-Ross book on the five stages was Gupta’s first lesson, but the next lesson was to lay the book down because the more important text is what Anton C. Boysen, founder of the Clinical Pastoral Education movement, called the “living human document”.  That is the primary source that has the final, but ever-changing, word.

There are parallels, I believe, between some of the ordeal Miles O’Brien passed through, and the teachings of Jesus.   Our Lord this upcoming Sunday will give us his truth,  “I am the true vine”.  The Gospel reading continues: “My Father is the vine-grower.” It is a little scary to say this, but if you will pardon the odd grammar, I is us!  But we already know that.  We are indeed the Body of Christ in the development and exercise of its mission.  We, who are the Church, its baptized ministers, with their servants in ordained ministry, are an organic unity. When in good health, we should, much like mature, gray haired athletes,  be steady performers.  Our maturity should lead us to set endurance through self-care as our first priority over competitive speed. We, the Church should be something like Miles O’Brien’s body.  We, much like the recovering journalist, are on a journey which O’Brien describes as “still not completed, … but a continuing [process of] self-discovery”.  O’Brien elaborates by saying more:  “ I learned that there’s no weakness in asking for help”.  (Wow! The italics need to be there, so I put them in.)

As a presbyter in the church, I hate to count and admit the number of times I have failed to remember that, indeed, asking for help when help is needed, is a virtuous act.   I have made mistakes out of my proud failure to admit that I was in over my head.  So I did things that caused both myself and others unnecessary pain.  The tempter remains in my midst, so the best I can pray for will be that all my errors in the future will cause minimal pain to others and maximal opportunities for me to learn and grow in our Lord’s stature —- which is what every person’s pilgrimage to life eternal is all about anyway. We are familiar with the image of running for the crown that does not fade away.  It sounds glamorous, but in real life, I, with everybody else on occasion, will bloody my nose because I tried to brace myself without help. I have done things like trying to break falls with something like an arm that I did not believe had been amputated. To drop the metaphor for a moment, I am still inclined to set up for myself the goals and objectives for a day’s work that assumes that I am still in my late thirties, and do not have Parkinson’s disease. That is my phantom.

Today the shock and pain of the pruner’s knife is in the midst of our church body. If we deny that,  we deny the amputation of the moribund parts of ourselves that the pruner has removed. I pray that we will continue to have, as we have in times past, the grace to accept loss, betrayal, and grieve constructively over those things and people once familiar to us and valued, who are now gone, doing what is the point of the vinegower’s image in the Gospel of John, and what Dr. Craddock’s commentary pointed out about it:  namely “that our pain today [is] a sign that God is still working to mold us––to shape our lives––to help us to become the best that we can be — even though, as Miles O’Brien wrote recently in his blog, “the hand dealt us in this time of our life was not ours to choose”. All this, we, as the company of the Faithful might add, is something from the damaged, but compassionate, hand of God.


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching

2  Oxford Biblical Studies

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