Of Strawberries and Grapevines
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to "U-Pick" berry picking, which is basically a do-it-yourself picking and harvesting of summer's best bounty. My first "picking" experience was with strawberries and from then on I didn't want my berries any other way! I was amazed as I walked the fields filled with ruby-red gems. In one visit, I had picked more than enough for jams, tarts, pies, and smoothies for the next year.
Now with all the super-centers and grocery stores on every corner of every street, why in the world would I be so attracted to the inconvenience of going out and picking fruit for myself? Why would I seek out a farm inevitably far away from where I live to slave in the summer sun for strawberries?
When I was out in those fields, I was connected to the process that goes into harvesting food. It was my knees that began to ache from bending over, my hands that occasionally encountered a stinging or biting insect of one kind or another. I became deeply aware of my own tendency to take for granted the food that sits there waiting for me on the over-filled grocery shelves. In searching for just the right berries, I became connected to a part of the journey that our food takes to get to us. I thought of all the people who labor on my behalf so that I might enjoy the beautiful summer berries. Going out and picking strawberries reminded me of the importance of the process and not simply the end product.
As I shared my experience with a friend, she reminded me of a similar comment made by the poet Alison Luterman: "Strawberries are too delicate to be picked by machine. The perfectly ripe ones even bruise at too heavy a human touch. [E]very strawberry she had ever eaten—every piece of fruit—had been picked by calloused human hands. Every piece of toast with jelly represented someone's knees, someone's aching back and hips, someone with a bandanna on her wrist to wipe away the sweat."(1)
Despite all appearances to the contrary, food doesn't arrive at our super-centers and grocery stores without the hard work of multiple laborers forming the chain in a vital process. Picking strawberries reminded me of this simple, yet profound truth. The ease of convenience deludes us into valuing the end and not the means, of caring only for the product and not the process.
Our busyness and commitment to convenience keep us from engaging in vital processes that inform us of our beginning and guide us to our end, just as they contribute to a general amnesia about what it takes to put food on our tables. Our consumer conveniences often sever us from our vital connections; we forget from whence we have come and to where we are going. We look for the quick fix or the short-cut to the end goal, rather than journeying through many arduous processes essential to our growth and development as human persons.
How similarly people of faith often wish for the easy way or the convenience of the "super-center" for spiritual growth. Jesus's frequent use of agricultural imagery should not surprise us. Some of the most beloved images from Jesus's conversations with his disciples evoke the vine and branches from grapevines and vineyards that likely filled the landscape of first century Israel. Growing grapes requires three years to establish a grape planting. Yet, even during the third season, only a limited harvest may be expected from the vines. The first full crop normally takes between four to five years.
Perhaps this knowledge can give new insight into his words: I am the vine; you are the branches...Remain in me, and I will remain in you...no branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine...remain in my love...I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.(3) The spiritual life, like our development as human beings, is about the process. Just as in farming, much of that process involves watching and waiting, tilling and cultivating the land, even getting our hands dirty or suffering the wounds inflicted by thorn or insect. There are no short cuts for a bountiful harvest.
Margaret Manning Shull is an adjunct speaker and writer with RZIM based in Seattle, Washington.
(1) "Every Piece of Fruit" cited in Alice Peck Ed., Bread, Body, Spirit (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2008).
(2) John 15:4-16