Berries and Thorns…
This time of year, where I used to live in the Pacific Northwest, we find it easy to be overtaken by wild blackberry vines. Along the trails, along the roadways, on vacant lots and in city parks, beside streams and rivers, and deep inside the vast woods and forests they grow in profusion. I have walked inside literal “caves” where they have vined so thickly over the tall evergreens that coyotes made their dens inside, and lilac trees grew wild from within them! When we purchased our third of an acre in Southwest Washington they grew so thickly that we were unaware of shrubs and fully grown trees beneath them on our back hillside, and an entire flat upper yard that existed underneath their growth above the hill’s crest!
They sprout up quickly in the early springtime while the rains are still heavy and the temperatures uncomfortably low in the 40’s. By the time April sunshine warms enough for the daffodils and tulips to peek out and color a smile on our faces, following months of grey skies and rain, the blackberry vines are already well on their way for their annual take-over! Much like the Midianites who ravaged Israel preceding Gideon’s conquering army, or the storms of locusts that destroyed the Egyptian crops in prelude to the Exodus, the blackberries start growing with a vengeance quite early and quite fast, and if left alone will choke out and take over anything in their path.
When the long awaited blue skies have finally wrung the last of the clouds dry for a sun break of any duration, and those with wooded yards have braved the mud to start clean up from winter storms, the dreaded blackberry vines have donned their thorns and their sneers and are daring us to choose wisely and act quickly. Our choices are only two: either surrender to their takeover for their sweet berries in late summer – or rid ourselves of them so that they don’t choke the life out of the rest of our shrubs and trees by August. Again, much like the warning and command of God as the Israelites entered the Promised Land: either annihilate them or they will creep in and take you over!
And should the choice be to rid them, they can’t simply be cut back, as the vines have a parent root ball that is probably twenty feet away from the sprout above-ground in any direction underground! Within a week of its pruning, the simply cut vine would be sprouted up once again. No, to be truly rid of the blackberries, the vine must be poisoned with such a strong substance so as to travel to that underground root ball and kill it, or the root ball must be located at its source and dug up once and for all. In any third-of-an-acre lot such as mine, there could easily be literal thousands of such root balls. Conquering them is a daunting task, and not for the faint hearted gardener. Their thorns are continual along their vines, like fine stingers or nettles, so that anywhere the vines are touched brings a wince of stinging pain. In addition to these “fuzzy” hair-like thorns along the vines, there are secondary thorns much like those on traditional rose stems, large – and very sharp! I have come in from my garden looking like I had wrestled a young cougar or two when in fact I had simply had an argument with a blackberry vine. And once they engage, they are a ruthless opponent and they don’t let go! Even with gloves, jeans and a long sleeved shirt I have come out looking battle torn and bloody.
A small reminder of the thorns that bloodied the brow of my Savior so long ago, as He once and for all rid the root of sin from condemning me to an eternity of entanglement.
But if left to blossom and grow, oh! come August the vines along the roads and in the parks and woods are laden from the ground up to twenty feet high with uncountable millions of plump, deliciously sweet, juicy blackberries! Enough for the commercial sales as well as for the birds, the bears and all that any native Oregonian or Washingtonian can possibly pick to eat, freeze, can into jams and jellies, bake, make into wine or syrup or dump on ice cream! It’s a ‘country charm’ sight to see families on bicycles, with plastic buckets, picking all they can. Kids are bending low and parents are reaching high on the twenty foot mounds of vines to take the sweet freshness of late summer home for the evening. Or you’ll see a young couple gathering dessert for the evening barbeque with friends. And somewhere nearby a grandmother is still passing down to her grandchildren the art of canning jams and jellies, or actually baking a pie ‘from scratch’. The young, the old, even the homeless and the street people…all can indulge without restraint, and still the unused berries fall rotten to the ground by late September. The abundance of goodness and delight from the blackberry vines each year is an unrestricted resource that knows no end.
Ah, blackberries in the Northwest: offering us each year both the blessing and the curse! Our untamable vines running wild.
In the book of James we are reminded that the tongue is just such an untamable vine. Hebrews 12:15 exhorts us to “see to it that…no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many”. The roots of what I say have far reaching vines of effect into the lives of others. If I speak with wisdom and kindness, the sweet fruit of what I say will inspire, give incentive, calm someone’s fears, ease their suffering, make them feel less alone, or can make them laugh when their sky is gray. I can break a spirit or share the Spirit of Life.
Days, even years, down the path of life, each of us remembers the sharp and thorny words, the searing footprints of mean kids at school, or dysfunction in our homes, stamping insecurities on our self-esteem. On the other hand, memories of sweet words can bring to us the optimism of that friend, parent, or teacher who believed in our potential; who implanted seeds of confidence into the untamed dreams that God implanted to run wild in our youthful minds; to inspire us to do great things for His kingdom, and His humanity on earth.
I paraphrased several scriptures below as a reminder to myself of the power of the tongue, which can serve either sweetness or leave a bitter root – in my soul or the heart and soul of another. Each season the battle with my blackberry thorns and berries is a reminder, that:
“No one can tame the tongue; it is an unsettled, undisciplined, unrestrainable evil. It is full of deadly poison. It injures, impairs and has the power to kill motivation, dreams, hope, and life. My thoughtless and invalidating words will inhibit the positive activities and growth of someone else, and can completely change – negatively – the course of their life. By believing the critical things that I say about them, they will feel small, and inadequate, and recoil out of their anxiety to avoid the sharp thorns of humiliating rejection. In their woundedness, for mere survival, they learn to react to others by cowering – or by anger. Thus, that person’s opportunities are inhibited, because through the process of growing up, or growing old, they will not possess the self-esteem to try and succeed; fear of failure overshadows them like the blackberry vines over the lilac trees. They never discover that outside their dark place awaits their hope, and their freedom to blossom and bear delicious fruit, as they mature in the light of the Son. They will live within their inner “cave”, pierced and taken over by the thorns of someone’s – perhaps my – careless words. They may try to cut back the sting of verbal stabs, but the bitter root remains; losing faith, they eventually won’t try at all, because they are convinced that they’re a loser. That false identity stamps their spirit the very moment they hear the sour, angry, or ugly words I speak over them – even for years. Thus, their attitude and reactions will repeatedly bring negative responses from those in authority over them; in annoyance or embarrassment, would-be companions will keep distant. And so, in discouragement, they will settle and befriend other wounded company; and since bad company corrupts morals, they too are then made corrupt. The sweet talent and goodness awaiting them, the harvest season of their dreams, will instead remain a bitter, fruitless shell, only to fall to the ground, wasted and trampled underfoot by others who are reaching for the sweetest rewards at the top.
Hence, this person who was knit together in their mother’s womb, this soul for whom Christ died, this person to whom God promised a future and a hope, is kept from their intended greatness during their lifetime on this earth. So much was planned by the Creator for them to accomplish in and for the kingdom of God, and the harshness of my words have the power to hinder or sabotage their intended destiny.
And just think, I’m told by Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew, that on the day of judgment I will be required to “give account for every empty and careless word I ever spoke.”
May we each be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to pierce a heart in our anger, and may our words be abundant and sweet.
 Judges 6  Exodus 10  Joshua, OT, Prophets  Matthew 27:29, Mark 15:17, John 19:2
 James 3:2-12
 I Corinthians 15:33
 Psalm 139:13
 1 Corinthians 8:11; 15:3
 Jeremiah 29:11
 Psalm 139:16; Ephesians 2:10
 Proverbs 18:21
 Matthew 12:36
 James 1:19
 Proverbs 26:24