On the steep road that connects the Saracen castle above the Sicilian town of Taormina, and the village of Castel Mola, about 2 km away, I came across a number of almond trees which were in blossom, leaf and fruit all at the same time. This is not unusual in warmer climates, but it generated a lot of thought.
The next day, outside a small villa in Taormina itself, I encountered these orange trees, fruiting and blossoming at the same time. It really got me to thinking about the nature of fruitfulness and how we interpret this metaphor of bearing fruit. It is a strange and important one, I think, because we are bidden to bear fruit in every good work, and living in the awareness of fruitfulness is not always easy. We often do not know the impact of our fruitfulness, because fruit by its nature is from the tree toward others. Fruit trees do not share in their own harvest. When Jesus says in John 15 that if we abide in Him, and His word abides in us, then we will bear much fruit, he was not expecting us to feel particularly good about that. Fruit-bearers are there for the plucking, by friend or foe or by passer-by. Wise consumers of our fruitfulness will know and appreciate the time that fruit is ripe and pick at an appopriate time. (I am going to stretch this metaphor, nearly to breaking point, so stick with me!). However, it is vital to the fruit-bearer, for their own mental health and sense of purpose, that they know the type and variety of the fruit that they are bearing, that they do not credit it to themselves (this the lesson of Galatians 5), but that they are confident in the process that the Holy Spirit employs in order to keep them fruitful. John Hattie would say: know thy impact. If they do not, and all leaders of any kind of honesty go through this, then they look back at their work and wonder whether it was all worthwhile, whether the fruit was any good at all. This is why mutual encouragement is perpetually required among and around leaders – I have been blessed by two fellow heads who at the end of last term wrote and in what they unknowingly said, revealed to me fruit that I could not see for looking.
The almond tree above has some lessons, I think, because in bearing blossom, leaf and fruit at the same time it is typical of many organisations, including churches and schools. The blossom is the promise of fruitfulness, the sign of blessing and trust that fruitfulness will come. It requires help in the form of pollenation, and thus wise leaders will nurture the promise in whatever form it comes – indeed, they will be watching for it! – but its essence is promise, and that promise can turn to nothing, if not pollenated, or to fruitfulness. The leaf speaks of protection and sustenance, ensuring the health of the plant by creating sugars through photosynthesis, enabling by their faithful work the covering and life-sense that the promise needs in which to mature into action and thus fruitfulness. The fruit itself takes time to grow, is often vulnerable to attack, and relies on the leaves to hide it sometimes. So it grows in a life-giving environment – the provision of this is the responsibility of leadership, which sets good expectations of fruitfulness and kindly and timely appreciation of the successes that are the metric of fruitfulness. For leaders, it is worth gaining a deeper understanding of where the fruitfulness is happening and then letting it happen, not confusing it with the promise of others or with the protection we offer it through careful provision of a healthy environment.
The lesson from the oranges is slightly different, I think. Because of the warm and temperate climate, oranges that are on the trees now are last year’s crop that have survived the winter. They are from an earlier fruitfulness, still there to be picked, but the fulfilment of an earlier promise. The orange and lemon orchards of eastern Sicily are laden with fruit at the moment, all of it last season’s. Anywhere you go you are likely to be overwhelmed by the scent of orange blossom, one of the loveliest natural perfumes you find anywhere. The promise of next season’s fruitfulness is challenging the (actual) fruitfulness of the last; the latter must make way for the former, as the tree is not big enough to hold them both, and does not have the foliage to sustain both.
Where this all leads to is here:
Are there areas of fruitfulness in our lives, in our school, in our church, which must make way for the new thing that God wants to bring into being as a fulfilment of His promise? And in trying to discern what these things are, can we separate them from that fruitfulness which feeds back into the health of the tree and is essential for sustaining a level of fruitfulness in the future?
At school this means trying to see what has fulfilled its purpose as an approach or policy, and distinguishing that from the ongoing fruit-bearing that is representative of our identity and calling as Christian people or a church school. And here we have to tell the difference between the inner transformation that (for example) the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians talks about, and the good works we are called to that have perhaps a time-limited shape to them.
All our fruitfulness is multi-directional, if you like – it impacts adults and children, systems and thinking, research and reflection. Some of it feeds back to those around us to encourage fruitfulness in them, and then they blossom. But some of it is deeply embedded and reflected in our core identity, and the Holy Spirit begins to change us and transform our character, not only as an individual, but as an institution. James Hunter calls this the burden of leadership – ensuring that this is articulated and fed back into the very DNA of our organisation.
What we do have responsibility for, each one of us, is affirming where we see the fruitfulness of each other, saying out loud where it is having the effect we hoped for, noticing the promise that will one day lead to greater fruitfulness, clearing the way for the new promise to have opportunity to flourish, and all the while making provision for life, health and prayer so that the new promise has the best chance to come to fruition.