Fr. Ron Rolheiser says at the center of our lives there is an natural tension. On the one hand, “something in us wants to be different, wants to stand out; from the minute we’re born, we ache for our independence and uniqueness to be recognized. We don’t want to be the same as everyone else. And this isn’t just pride or ego. Nature intended it that way. If no two snowflakes are meant to be the same, how much more so human beings?
But, we also have within us an equally strong desire for unity, community, family and intimacy.” As much as we want to be separate and stand out, we also deeply desire to be connected – not out of fear but because we somehow know that our togetherness is an essential part of God’s design and dream for us. 1
One of our most ancient and foundational beliefs is that we humans are a GOOD creation made in God’s image. ALSO very ancient and foundational, is our belief that God is a community of persons in equal and loving relationship. This is the essence and significance of our doctrine of the Trinity.
Our scriptures tell us that God IS Love; the stuff between us, that holds us together. In other words, God is a relationship among persons held together by love.
So when Jesus said that he would be present when 2 or 3 of us are gathered together, it was not because he was some kind of diva who needed a minimum audience in order to show up. (Nadia Bolz-Weber 2) Rather when 2 or 3 of us are gathered together in true mutual love, showing genuine care and concern for one another, Jesus will be discovered in what happens among us – for THIS is God. Think about this great mystery for a minute….God, in God’s self, God’s very essence is an intimate community of persons united by love, and we are made in God’s image. Our togetherness is the Trinity being lived and expounded.
On the night before He died, Jesus gathered his small group of friends, who had seen him through the thick and thin of his earthly ministry, and gave them this parable “I am the vine, you are the branches, abide (or remain) in me as I abide in you.” In the span of just a few verses in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the verb “to abide/remain” over 10 times.
We can think about the intimate oneness of the vine and the branches, the sap that runs throughout the entire plant keeping it fresh and alive and our relationship with the vine grower who waters, feeds, and prunes the plant, taking care to see that it gets all it needs to reach its ultimate purpose of bearing fruit.
Bishop Ken Untener said that this image of the vine and the branches – and in particular the details about pruning – are meant to teach us about how kind and loving God is toward us – and how God wishes for us to collectively flourish. This may not be clear at first, because the scripture sounds a little rough when it speaks of cutting off the branches that don’t bear good fruit and throwing them into the fire. He tells the story of one time when he was visiting a Trappist monastery, where the Benedictine motto of “Prayer and Work” was held sacred. In this particular Monastery, their work was cultivating plum trees; this was how they made their living. During the retreat Bishop Ken got to know one of the older monks whose specialty was pruning the plum trees.
There were thousands of them, and he spent all day out there – every day deciding which branches were the ones that should be “pruned” in order to make the tree more capable of producing good plums. He was their expert “pruner” – something a machine could never do. One day Bishop Ken asked the old monk “You must be able to do a lot of praying and feel very close to God when you’re working out in the peace and quiet of this orchard.”
The monk stopped and a tear crept into his eye as he said, “Oh, indeed I do. I love these trees and I know them well. I always think of when Jesus talks about the fact that he is the vine and we are the branches, and that the Father prunes away the branches that are in the way. And while I’m pruning I say to the Lord, ‘Thanks for doing that to me. You have pruned me, and shaped me, and helped me become what I never could have become without you. I’m not perfect, and I know I need more pruning, but you are always there to make me more into your image.’ The Lord has done wonderful things for me, and I’d be nowhere without it.”
Prayerfully abiding in God, remaining in the vine, effects our lives – collectively and individually – in that we are pruned of the many small or great stumbling blocks; habits and beliefs that we keep hidden; things that we think will bring us security or happiness but rather just get in our way and can block the life-giving sap that flows within us….and among us…
Dr. Ann Garrido in her book Redeeming Conflict says that “Remaining is perhaps the most difficult of activities humans ever undertake.” Jesus knows his disciples are going to face hard times, and they are going to be tempted to hang up their cleats. But Jesus’ prayer is that they (and WE) will be able “to abide” – because our togetherness is essential to our purpose, our calling, to the kingdom that Jesus dreamed of and spoke of so often. She says:
“While we readily acknowledge the skill and practice it takes to keep moving when others would be inclined to give up, we rarely give more than lip service to the immense skill and practice it takes to remain when other would be inclined to move on.”
No matter how many books we read on good communication and building strong relationships, no matter how much we love our friends and family – conflict happens. It’s never a question of “IF”- it’s only a question of “WHEN” will the conflict come and how will we respond. It seems so much easier to ignore and avoid the conflict and simply take our toys and go home in response. We say to ourselves “this is just too much, too hard, too much drama.” But, the compelling vision of Jesus is one of inclusion, of togetherness, of remaining. Jesus’ wish is for us to abide in Him and work hard to remain connected to one another.
This does NOT mean we are called to withstand abuse. Jesus never calls us to be a doormat. But rather, we are compelled to learn how to communicate clearly and peaceably, while discerning essential boundaries so that we are able to maintain our relationships in a healthy way. Garrido suggests that when we offer the vision and practice the skills to do conflict well, “we light the path for ourselves and those near to us to be able to remain.”
Jesus wants us to realize that we are part of the flow of God’s love. He says “As the Father has loved me, so I love you.” He is asking us to not break this chain of love; to remain a conduit and love others as we have been loved. This is Jesus’ dream for our world, this is what will bring us and our lives to full fruition. The Kingdom is built not one brick, but one messy, unpredictable relationship at a time.
What if conflict is important to our evolution? Essential? Conflict certainly abounds in nature, and we are part of nature. What if facing conflict with courage and learning the skills that allow us to abide is a necessary part of our growth and development as a species; just part and parcel of our diversity, different temperaments, values, personalities and priorities and the way in which we respond can change the future in dramatic ways? James Surowkiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds states that “the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” Huh…who’da thunk?
Dr. Ann Garrido concludes “If we manage to remain, it turns out that conflict can be redeeming. Our aim is not to fix or avoid it but rather to manage it in such a way that we rob it of the power to divide and fragment while heightening its power to educate and illumine.”