Rhythms of Work
by Susie Lipps
National Partnerships Consultant
Fuller Theological Seminary
© Copyright 2020 De Pree Center. All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot…
a time to weep and a time to laugh…
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and time to throw away…
a time to be silent and a time to speak…
Ecclesiastes 3:1-7, portions
Have you ever found yourself in an unexpectedly difficult place, struggling to understand how you got there? Maybe the perfect storm hit your life and all that was dear and familiar got washed away, revealing a bare, and often severely cracked, foundation. Perhaps you didn’t really notice it, but imperceptibly, over time, your soul ended up cracked and dry. That’s how drought happens. Slowly, over time, what used to be streams of water gushing over a rocky bed, diminish to a mere trickle, and then dry up altogether. It doesn’t matter much whether the storm or the drought started in your work or your family and spread to your soul, or whether the deep trauma started in your soul and affected everything in your life, including your work. Call it a perfect storm or a severe drought, the effects are the same. Life is a mess.
This is my story. Someone pulled the plug on my beautiful life and all the water drained out of my soul. The non-profit start-up I was working on didn’t materialize. As board chair of another non-profit, it became apparent I would have to shut it down. My husband lost his job. We were involved in a betrayal and a lawsuit. My adult children all seemed to be struggling. We were forced to move out of our favorite home overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge to a small, dark home with orange counter tops in wine country, far away from our friends, our community, and our church home. The cracks in our thirty-five-year marriage were widening, and it looked like it might fall apart. All of a sudden, my life was a disaster and I had no answers. It seemed the harder I prayed the worse things got… for several years!
During that season, I discovered gardening and the vineyard… and I don’t mean just the wine! God had banished us to wine country and, by God’s grace, it was the rhythm and the metaphor of the vineyard that slowly began to nourish my soul and repair our marriage. The images of piled up branches, waiting to be burned and the naked vines waiting for spring mirrored my desolate soul. The compost pile, filled with rotten banana peels and moldy watermelon rinds, reminded me of the death I was experiencing.
Mercifully, the gifts of each season give way to the gifts of the next season, and spring follows winter. Tiny green shoots magically appear from the wounds of the pruning shears. The green branch puts out tendrils that attach to the wires, leaves to catch the sun, and flowers that hold the promise for a harvest. Summer follows with crazy growth, grapes forming, growing, changing color through a mysterious process called veraison; all the while becoming sweeter and readier for harvest. Fall brings a flurry of activity as harvest goes into full swing. The air is filled with the sweetly rotting scent of fruit on the move from the vineyards to the wineries. Harvest, and the wine that results, is the whole point of vineyards! The whole community breathes a collective sigh of relief and celebrations ensue once the harvest is in. The leaves turn colors as they slow and stop the process of photosynthesis. The rains come, and pruning strips the once-full vine of her beauty, leaving her standing alone and misshapen in fields of yellow mustard flowers to wait, once more, for spring.
Over the course of several years, the beauty and slow rhythm of each season, inexorably pushing into the next, opened up new pathways in my soul to receive the gifts of my exile. I began to welcome the pruning shears and the need for death to come before resurrection. Hope came, like the spring flowers hoping for pollination and, ultimately, fruit. I toiled, doing the hard work of summer transformation. In the end, some fruit has come, and harvest, at least for one cycle, is in! Our marriage is better than it’s ever been. We both have jobs we love. While there are still many, macro- and micro-seasons of winter to come, I have learned to lean in to the rhythm of the vineyard, knowing that spring will come. The journey to becoming like Christ in his life and his death is a journey through many seasons.
The lessons from the vineyard apply to many spheres of life. Would you join me on a journey to explore the vineyard and consider some of the metaphors that might give you a new way of being, working, and leading? Thanks for coming along!
I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener… Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
On my drive through Sebastopol, the vineyards on both sides of the road are robed in autumn splendor. The slant of the late-fall, morning sun filters through the golden leaves that are still clinging to the vines after the harvest. The morning is crisp, and the blue sky is broken by long, grey fingers of clouds stretched out across the horizon, threatening rain later in the day. I’m compelled to pull off the road, drawn by the sweet beauty of the vineyard after harvest. All the grapes are gone, where just a few weeks ago, the vines were laden with gorgeous Chardonnay grapes. The hard work of the vine is done and the harvest has been gathered in to make the precious wine. The abundant harvest is evidence of a good year, and there has been much celebration!
The rhythms of our work often mirror the rhythms in the vineyard, and harvest is a great example of that. Harvest might happen in a day, but it’s been in the making all year long. Both the vine and the gardener work hard through all the seasons to produce beautiful fruit. There is only one goal: good fruit! In the spring, the gardener ties the vine’s unruly branches to a support system in preparation for the heavy fruit. Meanwhile, the vine uses the last of its reserves from winter to push out tiny leaves and fruit. Then, all summer long, the vine and the branches work together through photosynthesis to make the fruit grow. The gardener exerts great energy to protect the fruit by managing the canopy, the amount of water, and the predators that would destroy the grapes. Finally, the fruit is ready for harvest, and the hum of tractors and the songs of the pickers can be heard day and night. The fruit is transported to the winery, where it will be transformed into wine and become a gift of gladness.
The rhythms of our work often mirror the rhythms in the vineyard, and harvest is a great example of that. Harvest might happen in a day, but it’s been in the making all year long. Both the vine and the gardener work hard through all the seasons to produce beautiful fruit.
If you’ve ever been involved in a big project… raising money for a fund… building a house… painting a canvas… doing an audit… putting on an event… straightening teeth… teaching a year of school… raising a family… you know the rhythm of hard work towards a common goal. Each work product has its own timeline, and—just like the varietals of grapes—will ripen at different rates. Some work cycles are much shorter than others. Cooking dinner is much quicker than doing an audit, and building a house generally doesn’t take as long as raising kids. The stages towards fruitfulness, however, are fairly predictable. Like spring in the vineyard, there is a season of planning and preparation that taps into stored resources. For example, to build a house, you must already have land, financing, and architectural drawings. Once they break ground, the long days of toil and hard work seem to be endless. The general contractor coordinates the plumbers, concrete workers, framers, electricians, cabinet makers, flooring folks, painters, and so on to work hard every day towards one goal: finish the house! Like the summer months in the vineyard, projects tend to have at least one, long season of focused, intense work.
And finally, like harvest, the project is done and the goal is accomplished. Dinner is done… the fund is funded… the house is finished… the kids are launched! There is rejoicing as the gift of what has been produced is presented to the world.
The vineyard gives us such a beautiful picture of what it means to work, to be fruitful. Jesus tells us he is the vine, we are the branches, and his Father is the Gardener. The life-energy that is the Spirit flows through us to create the fruit so desired by the Gardener, who has been carefully tending the vine through the seasons. Did you notice that the vine and the branches work together? The vine cannot produce fruit without branches, nor can the branch produce fruit apart from the vine. The branch is the conduit for the fruit, but it is the life of the vine and the astute, patient care of the Gardener that makes for good fruit. In the end, when good fruit comes in from the vineyard, the branches don’t get praised for being good branches—the Gardener gets the praise!
As we stay united to Christ, the true vine, with the life-force of the Spirit flowing through us, may the fruitfulness of our work bring God, the Gardener, much glory.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
The winter rains have begun, and the grapevines have dropped their leaves. Only a few yellow, orange, and red stragglers remain, catching the watery afternoon sun, like tiny stained-glass windows. All the work for the season is done. The fruit that was gathered, sorted, and pressed, is now resting quietly in barrels, slowly becoming delicious wine that will someday grace our tables.
The energy that flowed between the leaves, branches, and vines throughout the growing season has slowly made its way to the trunk for an extended period of rest. Now the vine is ready for a season of dormancy. The branches that held the fruit will become unsustainable during the dormant season, and will soon be cut off leaving the gnarled trunk standing like a dead stick. Happening upon a vineyard during this season, it’s hard to imagine there is any life left in the vines. In fact, you might wonder why all the sticks are in rows! But, here’s the secret of the vine: Dormancy produces fruit. Without this season, without the rest, without the stored energy, the vine would not have the vitality to push out the new leaves and fruit in the spring. Without dormancy, there is no harvest.
Perhaps the metaphor for our lives is obvious… rest is critical to fruitfulness.
Here’s the secret of the vine: Dormancy produces fruit. Without this season, without the rest, without the stored energy, the vine would not have the vitality to push out the new leaves and fruit in the spring. Without dormancy, there is no harvest.
As leaders, it often seems rest is not an option. There is always more that could be done, someone to follow-up with, a never-ending pull to be everything to everyone. We are never far from our devices which relentlessly inform us of more work and more opportunities, and which even notice that we don’t quite measure up, causing us to work even harder. We work every day of the week. We even cut out sleep to make room for those extra projects, causing us to become irritable, gain weight, and get sick more often. Sounds great, huh?
To be honest, it’s hard to find time to rest, but perhaps it’s even harder to value rest and give ourselves permission to rest. One of the highest cultural values in America is being productive, and being busy seems to be the marker for productivity. If we are not busy, others may think of us as unproductive, or we may consider ourselves somehow inferior. Even if we could take a whole day off, we choose, rather, to stay engaged with work and so avoid the pain of feeling unproductive.
But, what if scientists are correct? What if we need enough sleep and rest to be healthy and productive? And what if God is calling us to rest in order to be more fruitful? The rest that is built into the rhythms of nature serves as a reminder that our lives depend on rest. Throughout Scripture, God invites us to rest. Right from the beginning, God models a complete, joy-filled rest after working hard to create all that we know. Later, God commands a full day’s rest every week! Can you imagine 52 days of rest every year? In the Psalms, we hear God whisper that he will provide for us, even while we sleep! Jesus continues to model rest as he withdraws from the crazy busyness of teaching and healing, trusting that all will be accomplished that needs accomplishing.
The rest that is built into the rhythms of nature serves as a reminder that our lives depend on rest. Throughout Scripture, God invites us to rest. Right from the beginning, God models a complete, joy-filled rest after working hard.
As it turns out, rest and trust are interrelated…
Rest proves trust
Trust provides rest.
When we trust God to care for the things that concern us, we can rest. When we rest, we prove that we trust God. Like the vine, we can trust that reserving our energy for a season will provide enough resources to work hard and provide a bountiful harvest in a future season. Unlike the vine, which makes no choice regarding rest, we can choose to rest or not to rest.
Jesus calls all who are weary and burdened to come to him and he will give us rest. Simple as that… but we must choose it. Can we trust God enough to choose rest for a season? For a day? What does that look like? Let’s journey together into the rest of God.
“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.”
This time of year, in wine country, the vines stand naked and exposed like twisted sticks arranged in rows. A newcomer to the area might wonder in alarm if the vines have died. Indeed, they look dead! The strong, supple branches that once held the leaves and grapes have given their fruit to the harvest and dropped all their leaves. The sap has traveled down into the trunk, and the once graceful branches have hardened into brown canes. Now, it’s time to cut back the old wood. Skilled workers with sharp, clean pruning shears hand cut every cane, dropping them in piles between the rows. Today, the canes are gathered, ground and recycled as mulch, but in years past, the canes were piled high in an open field and burned.
Pruning is not a random slashing of the canes. Rather every cane is carefully inspected and cut at a point appropriate for that cane. Vines that are supported by a trellis system generally have branches that are trained out from the trunk in a “T” shape. The branches that form the top of the T are called cordons, and each cordon has numerous spurs. Spurs are basically the stumps that remain from years of pruning. All the fruiting canes come from healthy spurs, and careful vineyard workers make sure each spur produces only two canes. During pruning season, one of the spent canes is cut completely off and the other is cut in such a way as to leave only two nodes. In the spring, the two nodes will burst forth with tiny tendrils and leaves to become the new canes on which the fruit will grow. For now, the nodes are barely visible little lumps on the bit of cane sticking up from the spur.
The pruning details I have described are certainly simplified (and maybe already more than you wanted to know about pruning!), but let’s focus on a couple of principles that apply to our lives as leaders.
Pruning is not a random slashing of the canes. Rather every cane is carefully inspected and cut at a point appropriate for that cane.
In the vineyard, pruning happens every year. And, so it is with leaders. We must submit to a process of pruning on a regular basis for sustained fruitfulness over the life of our leadership. If we do not cut out the dead wood of activities that are no longer fruitful, or allow God to prune out character traits that hinder us, and habits that divert our energy, the next harvest of our leadership will be less fruitful instead of more fruitful. And, as in the vineyard, it seems pruning often comes shortly after a significant harvest.
This may seem trivial, but, a few years back, I allowed God to prune back my travel schedule. I had spent many years traveling extensively and interacting with significant leaders across the country. It had been a fruitful season—and a fun one!—but God was redirecting me. The cane that had previously produced great fruit was cut off. I felt dead. Useless. Exposed. I had to endure a season of waiting, wondering if there would ever be fruit on my branches again. In the midst of that season, I moved to wine country where I was able to observe the stark vines in winter and the rhythm of pruning. As I got a little closer to the wound of the pruning shears, I noticed the two little buds that remained as tiny signs of hope that are invisible to the casual observer. Buried in the dead wood of that season, I began to pay attention to the traces of hope which remained, almost imperceptibly, but there, nonetheless. In due time, the next season burst forth, but not until the work of winter was accomplished.
In the vineyard, pruning happens every year. And, so it is with leaders. We must submit to a process of pruning on a regular basis for sustained fruitfulness over the life of our leadership.
As leaders, not only do we submit ourselves, personally, to the pruning process, but as we look around at the context in which we lead, we must regularly ask the question, “What needs to be pruned to promote greater fruitfulness in the next season?” Pruning is not optional. It is a necessary part of the rhythm of work and leadership, an unavoidable piece of the cycle of fruitfulness in any organization. The simple act of cutting something out absolutely makes room and creates hope for a new harvest. Acknowledging the emptiness, and paying attention to hope carries us into the next season. Spring always follows winter.
Friends, pruning looks harsh and feels like death, but, done correctly, provides the best environment for a rich harvest. As leaders, we must courageously embrace the rhythm of winter pruning. In the end, the biggest mistake novice gardeners make is to not pruning harshly enough. The older the vine, the harder it must be pruned to produce quality fruit in the next season. As we mature in our leadership we can anticipate God’s loving pruning to be that of a master gardener. God knows exactly when to prune our lives and how much needs to be pruned to produce the greatest Kingdom harvest.
Winter in wine country can be confusing. It’s cold and rainy. The vines are cut back and look like dead sticks. But, in the midst of this, millions of bright yellow flowers that sway on tender bushes carpet the spaces between the dormant vines. It’s mesmerizing to contemplate the paradox. As a cover crop, the delicate mustard plant has many lessons for us as leaders.
According to legend, Franciscan missionaries scattered the tiny seeds as they wandered around northern California carrying a bag of seeds on their back with a tiny hole in the bottom. As a perennial, mustard may lie dormant for many years and only spring forth under certain conditions and carpet the hillsides. In the vineyards, whether the mustard is intentionally planted or grows wild, a good vineyard manager relies on its many benefits as a natural pesticide, nitrogen source, and sponge!
It turns out that the mustard plant has high levels of glucosinolate compounds which act as a biofumigant, especially suppressing the nematode population in the soil. While some nematodes are beneficial in the soil, there are others that feed on the roots of plants, weakening the plant and often causing its death. Controlling these nematodes requires some kind of fumigant, which can be accomplished naturally by planting mustard during the wet winter months when the nematode population is increasing.
Once the winter rains have stopped and just before bud break, tractors will roll between the rows of vines, tilling the mustard into the soil. As the green plant material dies, it adds much-needed nitrogen to the soil. Nitrogen is a major component of chlorophyll and amino acids, both of which are necessary for plant growth. When the soil has enough nitrogen, the vine will flourish.
Finally, mustard plants, or any other cover crop, suck up a lot of water. A vine that has too much water will produce flabby grapes without the concentration of flavor necessary to make good wine. During the rainy season, cover crops serve as a sponge, soaking up extra water that sits close to the surface of the soil, protecting the vine from getting too soggy.
As leaders, when we find ourselves in a winter season, we must pay attention to the soil of our life–that mostly forgotten and sometimes boring part of our life that sustains future flourishing. What cover crop will we plant? Often, we plant even as we weep, wondering if there will ever be another harvest.
Not too long ago, I was in a winter season. All my fruitful limbs had been chopped off and I was no longer busy or engaged in something that seemed important. People stopped reaching out and it felt like I had died, but no one had come to my funeral. Inasmuch as I was not entirely aware of the principle of a cover crop back then, I can see, in hindsight and in God’s grace, I planted a cover crop of hope. Tiny seeds that fell out of a heavy bag with a hole in the bottom sprang up as hopeful flowers to kill the pests in my soul, sop up the deluge of sadness, and plow health deep into my life.
Some of the seeds I sowed were spiritual practices of lament…silence…solitude… I prayed the hours because I had nothing else to do. I journaled and gardened. I cooked and read. I got therapy. All along, I continued to work, but not in the same way. It felt different. I was learning a new rhythm. Old pests of perfectionism were being poisoned. Healthy, embodied practices were nourishing my soul and, every now and then, I would notice my sadness was getting sucked up into hope.
The beauty of sowing in tears is the inevitable harvest it produces. Think of it–a cover crop is sown during a difficult season for a short period of time in order to bring health to the foundation of growth. Even, and maybe especially, in the death of the cover crop is found the most valuable treasure–healthy soil that supports the next fruitful harvest.
If you ever find yourself in a winter season of life or leadership, cut a hole in the bottom of that heavy sack and let the tiny seeds fall to the ground to become a cover crop of hope.