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Terror and Love in the Vineyard

A while ago I fashioned a couple of walking sticks for my parents. I thanked our Creator for providing beautiful, sturdy branches to honor the beauty and sturdiness of my parents, their love of creation and their joy of being able to hike through its wonder.

Whenever I’ve taken life, plant or animal (which includes fish), from its source for my sustenance or use, I usually feel a tinge of sorrow mixed with much gratitude. Death and life are in partnership on this earth and feeding each other in a symbiotic relationship. And thus many times during each day I am reminded how the death of the God-man, the Son of God and the Son of man, keeps my own life in a state of resurrection and ascension.

Those walking sticks are well preserved and useful, though now dead. They would have died in some manner some day. They were destined for this way and time. “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” (John 15:1-2, NIV). Pruning hurts but is sanctifying and productive. Getting cut off is fatal.

Tribal societies, such as the African and South and North American native people, had no prisons. The personal identity and social, economic and spiritual life of the tribal members were deeply rooted in the tribe, the extended family as it were. Should someone violate the taboos or standards of the tribe, the punishment was banishment, an excommunication.

Just how terrifying this was is not quite appreciated by us. To tribal members, it was worse than death. They encountered suffering and death courageously and honorably, for all had to suffer and die sometime. But blessed was the person who never experienced the banishment of himself or a loved one!

This was not at all like the punitive political exile of Napoleon to Elba or St. John to Patmos. It was not at all like a wayward teen getting thrown out of his or her home. It was not even like a Jew or Muslim being disowned by family and nation for embracing the Christian faith. These people would find other families and clans in which to grow roots and thrive. Try as you might to find an equivalent experience in this culture, you can’t. Except one.

Imagine, if you can, being estranged forever, without hope of ever being reunited, from our Creator, our God, our Life and our Love and our Truth. That is enough to fathom, without bringing in any thoughts of hell fire. I think of the fresh green leaf torn from its branch, or the branch chopped from its tree, or the fish flopping helplessly on shore, all still alive and conscious, but in the throes of fear and anguish of being unable to feel the life force flowing into their bodies from their sources.

Imagine being apparently dead to the world, lying helplessly in a coma. You are conscious, able to hear your loved ones crying around you, to hear them pleading with you to wake up, move, come back. You want to, so desperately. You want to respond with just a discernable hint of a way to tell them you are still there, inside that body shell. But you can only continue to appear dead, unresponsive, week after week. After a while, they stop talking to you. They begin to treat you like you are dead. A terrifying sense of banishment, of excommunication, seizes your spirit. You want to move onto the afterlife, but you hear no welcoming beckoning from the voice of angels or God. There's nothing on the other side either, because you never believed there was. You hear the ghoulish cries of excruciating pain from others, echoing your own. It isn’t a dream from which you’ll wake up.

“I am the true vine, you are the branches.” This almost sounds cute and poetic, like something you might read on a greeting card. The metaphors of Christ, however, are never cute, trite or sentimental. Enter into them and feel their truth, power and reality.

Few Reflections have addressed the terrors of not being attached to the Vine. I have maintained that people cannot be scared into the kingdom of God. The way into it is through love, as the fish loves the water, the branch loves the tree, and a child loves his parents. When I was a child, though, I had a fear of losing my parents. Fear is embedded in the landscape of love. We fear the love won’t continue, that we may be abruptly cut off. Hearing or seeing parents fight is terrifying to a child. The source of life itself is threatened.

If the way into the kingdom of God is through loving Him, which is made quite clear in the Scriptures, and if we embrace Christ as He described Himself, being the Way, and if Christ is the incarnational embodiment of love, (“God is love” 1 John 4:16), then the love of Christ is indeed the Way and the Life.

Given that relationship, any other way is terrifying to me. Others won’t share or relate to my fear, unless, of course, they are in love with Him as well. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, as the Scriptures declare, but the epiphany and end of wisdom is the love of the Lord. How wonderful it is to just rest in the Vine, to feel its life soaring into yours, feeling the fruit grow from you, without any credit due you, except to just hang in there. “He who endures to the end...”

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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