Fruitless — the empty feel of a bare-branch life

“The image I have of you is of a tree with no fruit on its branches,” she said, words that echoed what I had been feeling for months.

I was in the middle of a down time. Things weren’t going my way and I was feeling empty.

The church I was pastoring had grown for the first six years and other pastors were asking me for advice on how to grow theirs. Fruit had been abundant. But then we took a massive u-turn and started shrinking. I was working just as hard as before, but the results were disheartening.

So, when I showed up to help my super young youth pastor, Faith, with the middle school group, I was coasting on fumes. I was there to help run games, but I had nothing else to share.

Well, Faith was never one to do youth ministry by the playbook and she did something that few would ever think to do with middle schoolers. She had everyone pair up and pray for each other. Yep. A group of boys who were continually making fart noises and a group of giggling girls — they were going to go deep in prayer. Right!

Well, they did.

The girl matched with me was a guest and a little older than the rest, but she was no more than 15 or 16. But that didn’t stop her from being God’s voice to me, speaking words I needed to hear.

After praying for me, she said this:

“God has given me an image. The image I have of you is of a tree with no fruit on its branches.”

Yep. That’s me, I thought. Failed. Fruitless.

But she continued: “The reason there is no fruit on the branches is because it has fallen to the ground. And there are trees all around your tree which have grown up from your fallen fruit. Stop looking at your branches and start looking around yourself instead. That’s where your real fruit is.”

I was stunned.

I had been so focused on the seeming fruitlessness of that moment in time I was living in that I failed to see the real fruit God had been growing out of me.

Living in the moment can be a lie, editing the stories of our lives into snapshots that don’t speak the truth about the whole thing that God is doing in and through us.

As a friend pointed out later, the real fruit of an apple tree isn’t apples. The real fruit of an apple tree is more apple trees.

We have to look beyond our branches to see our real fruit.

I was reminded of this story this past week as I got together with a group of about 50 people who have started or are starting new churches. When the same group met not quite three years ago, there were only three of us. Over those three years, we’d grown from three trees into an orchard.

But over those same three years, my own attempts at starting a church haven’t fared so well. The first attempt folded and the second attempt is in its small, early stage and may or may not grow much. In other words, I’m not feeling particularly fruitful in my role as a church planter. My branches are fairly bare.

But one of the young pastors came up to me yesterday and said, “Whenever I tell the story of our church plant, I always start by talking about a conversation my wife and I had with you several years ago.”

I heard similar stories this past summer when I spent time volunteering at Lakeside Bible Camp and people whose lives I’d impacted two decades ago told me stories of what it had done for them. Again, where my branches looked fruitless to me, trees had grown up around me.

This is God’s way. This is how he wants it to be.

I know that my days of having children are over. But I know that my four kids will have kids of their own in the years to come. And this, too, is how it ought to be. Parents become grandparents. Players become coaches. And on it goes.

The fruit is there. I just need eyes to look further afield to see it.