Revue: Pruning Isn’t Pleasant

“The Potter’s Bench,” © 2015, Lynn Abbott Studios. Used with permission.

©2018 Lynn Abbott

At four, I sat down at Mrs. Brown’s piano bench, and tapped out notes which taken together resembled Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

Later that afternoon, when my mother arrived home from her part-time position at The Times, I repeated my performance. I was duly pronounced a child prodigy.

Mrs. Brown recommended lessons forthwith. Mr. Williams, poor man, was delegated the daunting task of drawing forth genius from a four-year-old who preferred producing mud pies to practicing piano.

Nevertheless, it was all satisfactorily arranged, and thus began the week-by-week tug-of-war. That’s right. Trying to teach me to play that beautiful instrument would require a miracle proportionate to Moses striking water from a rock.

Instead of practicing, I applied all my abilities to avoiding the application of any real effort, a talent I would cultivate to perfection throughout my musical career.

Each week, Mr. Williams arrived, prepared to take my musical education in hand. And when the dearly bought $8.00 per half hour concluded, I was no closer to genius than I had been previously.

But my scales and arpeggio book showed signs of the gradual onset of insanity wrought by myself upon that poor innocent man. Large, bold, #2-pencilled words–“READ THE NOTES”–punctuated each musical score in my piano books.

Despite my teacher’s veiled attempts to motivate and inspire, I couldn’t be bothered.  Instead, I smiled and flattered my music instructor.

Instead of practicing, I applied all my abilities to avoiding the application of any real effort, a talent I would cultivate to perfection throughout my musical career.

I asked him to preview the week’s piece for me so that I might know to what level of excellence I should strive. And each week, I practiced what I committed to memory, the sound of the melody. Precocious, perhaps. Prodigy–obviously not.

In this way, four years of music lessons passed in ongoing struggle between teacher and tot. And I emerged unscathed . . . no more master of notes and 3/4 timing than I had been at the outset.

Mr. Williams, however, was a much reduced man. He had begun with several hundred students.

When our family moved, he could claim only seven students including myself, and had added to his resume the somewhat dubious claim of seeing a psychiatrist.

Clearly, I had made my mark.

My parents, on the other hand, were not so easily beaten.  They committed to cultivating some semblance of perseverance in me. After all, they recognized that success in this world depended upon so much more than natural talent.

I would have to work for success.  And I would need to persevere when I faced difficulties.

But for a child with tendencies to be a “jack of all trades, yet master of none,” their training often felt more like punishment.

After all, I didn’t want to work that hard. Mud pies were infinitely more exciting than metronomes.

Yup. Pruning isn’t fun.

It is as the author of Hebrews wrote, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness,” (Hebrews 12:11).

My parents hoped, of course, that they might rewrite the old proverb and say of me, “Jack of all trades, and master of some.”

Yet, to fully cultivate any gift or talent requires steadfast commitment.  Abba fully understands this, and as the master gardener, He patiently works in our life gardens to create masterpieces.

He knows it will take time.  He recognizes that pruning is necessary for a garden to reach its full potential.

Yup. Pruning isn’t fun.

To be honest, I hate the pruning shears. Yet, I have to admit that training sure beats the alternative.

I know this because in the Old Testament I read about a saint who never fully yielded to discipline.   He did not allow Abba, the Master Gardener, to train or shape beauty from his life. He possessed incredible potential.  But he failed miserably.

His gift is legendary.  His name?  Samson.

Certainly, most of us know his story well.  Abba chose Samson from before birth to become one of the long line of Israel’s judges. As a judge, Samson was called to lead and deliver his people from their enemies.

In fact, Samson was set apart as a Nazarite, and that meant several things:  no razor was to touch his head, no wine was to pass his lips and nothing unclean was to be consumed by him.

Abba would equip Samson with extraordinary gifts, but Samson’s gifts must be cultivated by a disciplined life.  Such training would enable Samson to use his gifts as God had ordained.

If Samson submitted himself to God and to the Holy Spirit’s leading,  Samson would wield supernatural power and strength. His God-given gift would be fully realized.

Problem is that Samson did not persevere in his walk of faith.  He began well and then, fizzled.

Over and over again, Sampson used his gift to promote his own agenda rather than God’s. And so, despite his tremendous promise, Samson ultimately failed.

Had Samson allowed God to work in his life, nothing would have encumbered or held Samson back.  However, he did not submit to God’s training. When it was time to prune, Samson balked.

Samson began well and then, fizzled.

Thus, rather than persevering in faith, Samson lived for himself.  He dabbled rather than delved.  Like a young child, Samson lacked the stamina to see a task through. Samson lacked perseverance in that which mattered most.

Judges 13:5 records God’s promise to Samson’s mother regarding her son, “…he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”

Samson began the race.  But he barely crossed the finish line.

Scripture specifically outlines a number of Samson’s failures.  All demonstrate Samson’s lack of commitment to God and the gift given.  Samson would not put aside the things that held him back, (Hebrews 12:1,2 and 2 Timothy 2:3-5).

First, Samson determined to marry a Philistine girl.  His parents immediately saw the problem with such a plan.  Old Testament law forbade an Israeli to marry a non-Jew.

But not only was she a Philistine, but she was also the daughter of a vintner.  Nazarite were not to drink wine, and yet, Samson wished to marry the daughter of the local wine producer.

And on the way to his wedding party, Samson stopped to eat honey from a hive inside an animal carcass. Thus, Samson violated his vow to eat nothing unclean.

What a mess!

And while God permitted Samson to choose freely and even used Samson’s misdirected choices at times to accomplish some good,  Samson’s foolishness still compromised his role as Israel’s judge and deliverer.

In fact, the most infamous of Samson’s  failures resulted in personal tragedy.

Even many, with little knowledge of the Old Testament, can recall the Delilah scandal.   Perhaps, Samson genuinely fell in love.  I dunno.

But I do know that he didn’t marry Delilah. And an unmarried Old Testament woman either depended upon family or upon her wits to survive.

In fact, the most infamous of Samson’s  failures resulted in personal tragedy.

In Judges 16, it becomes clear that Delilah knew how to take care of herself.  When the Philistines offered her eleven hundred pieces of silver in exchange for information regarding the source of Samson’s strength, she readily agreed to act as their double agent.

And the rest is history.  Again and again, pride and self-gratification distracted Samson.  He lost his God-given focus.  And ultimately, he lost his physical sight as well.

Indeed, Samson’s life is a tale of scattered pieces–disparate and loosely connected demonstrations of potential.

He truly embodies uncontrolled and undisciplined power.

Without a doubt, Samson’s story begins well, but it ends tragically.

God allowed Samson to go his own way, and Samson paid the price. And while his story ends with a heroic stand for God and Israel, his overall life fell short of its early promise. For the most part, his was a life of lost potential.

For this reason, when I am tempted to resent God’s paring process, I have only to think of Samson, and suddenly, I am thankful for the Master Gardener’s merciful and gracious shears.  I don’t always like pruning, but I am truly grateful for the end result.

As Abba pulls weeds, as He trims back all that would choke His grace, as He pushes me to persevere in faith when I would prefer to make mud pies, I willingly acknowledge Abba’s omniscient wisdom.

Yes, He shapes His masterpiece from my mess.

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing,” ~James 1:2-4