“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful."
This painting was commissioned by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for our National Staff Conference in January 2020.
Just as I started painting this piece - the pruned vine from John 15, I learned that Lauren Markel, one of our InterVarsity Staff and a dear friend went into a coma after battling DIPG (an inoperable brain tumor) for 4 years. At that moment, my soul hit a fork in the road. Should I keep painting?
There was a part of me that wanted to stop. Not because I needed to stop in order to grieve or pray, but because it would have been easier to escape that way. There was a part of me that wanted to flee into busyness, into numbing through controlling my environment and mindlessly blast through my inbox.
But there within my office, as I held my brush in my hand and stared at the text with the news, there was a beckoning in my spirit that said, “keep going.” The chaotic thoughts and confusion and pain and questions needed to be funneled into the river of prayer through creating. There was no other way they could come out.
When I have faced the darkness before, the Lord’s invitation was to sit in the pain and lament. But sitting in the pain of loss didn’t mean literally sitting on my couch growing restless with each passing moment or trying to pray when I couldn’t find words. Not this time. This time, my soul needed to move. I needed to paint a way through the pain - literally.
The path took the form of a pruned vine that wept for her, that wept for all of us that felt the sting of the curse that day. And so, as I painted shadows and light and creases within the vine - bending and twisting towards the sky, there was a rightness about it. A sense of confidence that yes, this is what I need to be doing right now. Not work emails or phone calls or finishing up other projects. Not even journaling my prayers or kneeling in lament. For this moment, this was my work. And it was holy work.
My brush and paint became the pathway for unleashing all the uncertainty, the sadness, the prayers welling up and spilling over in strokes of Payne’s Grey and water droplets that rained down the claybord, holding within them the weight of waiting.
Would she die or would she live? The paint dripped down the claybord with the gravity of water and time.
Sometimes there are no words that will suffice. So, with the force of color and movement and form, the grief made its way out into the pruned vine - stripped bare of expectations and the glory of fruitfulness. What remained on the vine was raw and exposed weakness and vulnerability. The kind that is hard to look at, hard to sit with.
The next day, I joined a 24 hour prayer movement to pray for Lauren. I took the first slot from 1-2pm. While I was painting and praying for her that day, I felt God invite me to dance in worship. This isn’t something I typically do while painting and it felt unnatural, but the call was so strong I had to yield. And as I danced, I pictured Lauren and the joy she experienced when dancing in worship. She loved to dance. A few hours later, I found out later that 2 pm is when Lauren passed, and I believe that is the moment she went to dance with Jesus.
As I went back to painting, the vine stood there silent as death and brooding with the color of loss. It was uncomfortable to look at, because it spoke so much truth that was too raw and vulnerable to name. It just stood there testifying defiantly against any attempt to fix the situation. Any attempt to rush on towards hope or resolution was pulled back with the weight of the vine - its roots pressing forcefully towards the depths.
This vine would not be hurried on towards hope or transplanted towards warmer weather where it could bloom. No, it would remain where it was. Hope would have to come on its own time, as it always does. And hope would not come from journeying on towards warmer weather. No, hope would come from within.
And so it is with suffering. There is no moving past it. There is no rushing on to make it easier or more beautiful. There is only staying where you are planted and taking it in.
And so with the vine and with me, I invite you to stay. When winter hits, and the cold saps your strength, remain and press your roots down deep where they are. Stay with the vine that isn’t moving on towards spring. Don’t hurry past the pain because it’s too hard or too much to sit with. Stay and let the painting, and God, move within you. And as you do, you move into Him - into His love for you that meets you in the midst of it.
Let hope come to you, from within you. As it always does.
When I met with a vinedresser to talk about the process of pruning, he told me that after harvest, the leaves no longer are pushing their energy towards making grapes, they have a new focus: the roots. All the light from the sun is soaked up and journeys inward, downward. It is already preparing for winter. The roots are storing up the energy needed for bud break next year, but the season of outward production is over. The fruit has been taken to the wineries, and now it is time to descend into the roots.
In the last year, when Lauren was too weak to get out of the house, she prayed and interceded for staff and ministry from home. Her leaves had fallen off and she was dying, but she took all of the light she could soak up in Jesus and channeled it downward in prayer - for us.
At bud break, all the energy it takes to push forth into new life comes from the reserves in the roots. It has been waiting for this. And the new life bursts from within. Not from the sun, not from fertilizer, it erupts with the power and strength that has been stored and saved and hidden within what looks like death.
The pruned vine is latent with life.
The prayers that we pray when things aren’t going well may not show on the surface in luscious grapes right away. But - rest assured, what is offered to God in the prayers through our muffled tears and soft whispers barely uttered in the dark are kept hidden underground - and are the source by which new life rises in its time.
As we seek God for revival, we must first begin by staring into the face of what needs to be revived. What is dead that needs restoration to life? What has lost color that is longing to burst forth with green and new growth? What has been stripped away and pulled back that longs to be reclothed with the wonder of spring rain?
When Lauren passed, I had to face once again the darkness of this world. There are still things in the wake of her death that need to be revived by Jesus - how her little girls will ache for their Mommy, how her husband will feel the sting and emptiness of losing his best friend. We need to mourn each of these losses individually and attentively. They are precious to Jesus.
But as we offer these things out in our lament, in our tears and prayers, He waters the soil and because of the Cross, within them lies hope. Lauren is dancing with Jesus fully restored and healed. And we will see her again. Her prayers have not been wasted - Jesus will channel them into new life in His time. And so, I painted a small bud on the vine - unnoticed by most viewers save for those who have sat with the painting and looked for it. And that is how revival comes - to those who are actively seeking it.
Lauren deeply believed in Revival. She lived it in her prayers and her bold evangelism. She knew with her whole heart that Revival would not come out of our human strength and striving, but out of prayer. I pray that as we seek God for revival in our 2030 calling, we can continue to live into this testimony - praying faithfully, worshipping Jesus over our campuses for breakthrough, and proclaiming the Gospel as she did until we see her again.