Not Sure About Visiting?

We would be happy to answer some questions you may have.

Manure Principles

Lately I’ve been thinking that one irony of my continued survival as a man of a certain age is that now it has become possible for me to suffer simultaneously from both insomnia and a shrinking attention span. But while I find this to be weird in a kind of intellectually ambidextrous way, apparently, I am not the only dude on the block who has noticed how difficult it can be to remain “mindful,” as they say in San Francisco. Recently, for instance, I was reading that Microsoft surveyed the media consumption habits of their consumers only to determine that the average human attention span has now fallen to eight seconds . . . shorter than goldfish, according to the researchers. Or, as the Spokane native and New York Times op-ed writer, Timothy Egan, puts it: “We think in McNugget time.” Oh well, if Egan is right about that, perhaps this will help future historians trying to decipher the collapse of what we had designed to be a fact-based democracy. Maybe they will simply conclude that we just did not take quite enough time to think everything through. So, to borrow and paraphrase from our President, who knew that self-governance could be so, you-know, complicated?

But see, that is exactly one of my problems . . . I keep exhibiting this tendency to digress. Where was I? Right, I was beginning to think along with Timothy Egan and what he mentioned not long ago regarding an old-school antidote he has been utilizing to overcome some of the challenge of his own fleeting-as-quicksilver attention span. Egan said that one of the ways he has found to avoid chasing the temptation of stray thoughts is some good, old-fashioned gardening: “You plant something in the cold, wet soil of the fall – tulip bulbs or garlic – and then you want to shout, ‘Grow!’ [But even after a few] seconds later, nothing. Working the ground, there’s no instant gratification. The planting itself forces you to think in half-year-increments, or longer for trees and perennials. The mind drifts, from the chill of a dark day to a springtime of color. Hope, goes the Emily Dickinson poem, is the thing with feathers. But it’s also the thing that rises from a tiny seed, in its own sweet time.”

That sounds about right, if you ask me, so it must be that I’m still holding onto the narrative thread. In fact, if you’ll allow me to mess around with just a wee bit of theological swordplay, let’s take a moment to point out that the very first thing in all of Creation that God chose to sanctify and call holy was none other than the character of time itself. “So God blessed the seventh day,” intones the narrator of Genesis, “and hallowed it,” presumably because the holiness of God is quite literally intended to be woven in and through every dimension of this indescribably good created order that our Lord and Maker has graciously fashioned. Which means that the first place we should begin to look for fresh evidence of the holiness of God is within our experience of time, unspooling all around us with seemingly no apparent sense of deep purpose, urgency, or most importantly, any meaningful hint of plot. Little wonder then, that so many of us nod our heads at times to affirm the punchline of those gleefully profane bumper stickers: Stuff happens! Well, the prickly counterclaim narrated to us through each of those carefully measured cadences in the Genesis Creation poem (“And there was evening and there was morning”) remains every bit as insistent: Grace and not just stuff is happening. In fact, I suspect that Genesis is actually trying to help us recalibrate our theological vision, hoping that over time we will begin to once again recognize that Creation is pregnant with hope and holiness even where we had no initial reason to expect that God had any Gospel work underway. As our friend Reuben Welch likes to remind us, “With God, even when nothing is happening, something is happening.” And that is at times all that you really need to remember when you’re in it up to your last eyelash. Time never stands empty or completely devoid of God’s redemptive purpose, every appearance to the contrary notwithstanding. You have God’s word on it that time is holy. So, hang on, for when nothing is happening, you can bet that something redemptive and transformational is still happening.

Now one problem with all of this Creation theology of course, is that this kind of Creation inexplicably seems to take so much more time than we ever would have chosen. And interestingly, the sheer disappointment of making that kind of discovery turns out to be the centerpiece in perhaps the most unappealing parable ever told by Jesus. Not so surprisingly, given the subject matter from which Jesus draws his parable, out of four available Gospel storytellers, only Luke shows any interest. Maybe you remember the parable in Luke, chapter 13. Or at least you might remember how it smells. For the story Jesus told on his final journey toward Jerusalem and the death by crucifixion that awaits him there is not exactly redolent of festive banquets and floral bouquets. No, what you smell when Jesus tells of a vineyard owner angered over a fig tree that has proven incapable of producing a harvest despite three years of patient care and a significant investment of farm resources is nothing so much as the smell of death itself. For in response to the vineyard owner’s command that the unfruitful fig tree is to be chopped down and thrown into a bonfire, Jesus describes the plea of a gardener who begs mercy by promising to give the fig tree one more chance. “Sir, let it alone for one more year,” pleads the patient gardener who now promises to dig around the roots of this unproductive tree that it might be fertilized with manure in hopes that a harvest of figs will finally emerge. Let it alone for one more year begged the gardener. And if you are listening very close, it is almost as if the man telling the story is now thinking about his own journey and its pain and frustration after three years of ministry laboring over a stubborn planting of God that has not yet seemed to produce anything of substance. All these years later, perhaps this is where many of us find ourselves still, stuck uncomfortably close to the axe blade between “Cut it down,” and “Sir, let it alone for one more year.”

Although there has never been any way for me to read this story of Jesus by remaining completely at ease and comfortable about whatever time may be left to me on the oxygen side of the Earth’s crust, it does strike me as a word of encouragement in a world where so many always seem so eager to wield an axe. So, maybe the Good News from Jesus is that we still have time! To paraphrase that wise Victorian novelist, George Eliot, it is never too late for you to become the person you might have been.  If you ask me, that is pure Gospel, and it aligns with the fact that no portrait of Jesus that I have seen ever seems to picture the Lord holding a sharpened axe behind his back. As Will Willimon reminds me, this is not a story about us and our limits, about us and our boring, conventional, morally fastidious three-strikes-and-you’re-out mentality. It is a story about God, especially the kind of a God who majors in a mercy that appears to be without limits. There is still time.

But then again, aren’t we forgetting something? Oh yes, say the saints across the centuries, you must not forget the manure. No, said Saint Augustine, that rather improbable patron saint of brewers and theologians who probably said it with the faint curl of a smile unfolding across his sly, African face: Whatever you do, for heaven’s sake, do not underestimate the benefit of the manure. I think he is undoubtedly correct about that, so on many instances, I have found it necessary to remember what the Lord had to say about the saving benefits of a little manure. For all the time, I seem to hear people around me complain that they are too old, too poor, too uneducated, too busy, too irreligious, too inexperienced with church, too et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, to actually figure things out and get right with God. They stand next to me at civic club lunches, or community prayer breakfasts where nobody really seems much interested in actually getting around to the praying portion of our morning entertainment, and they tell me all sorts of reasons why they do not believe in what they call organized religion, acting as if they are letting me in on a huge secret. I just want to tell them, “I have spent most of my life in the Church, and I have to tell you that you have no idea . . . actually, it’s much, much worse than you thought. That’s why I have never been a part of any organized religion, for I’m a Nazarene!” But most of the time, trying to convince all these et cetera folks is a complete waste of time. For these types, sometimes the only real cure is to follow the advice of Jesus: “Well, maybe we can dig around you a little bit, put some manure all over you, and see if you might still show some ability to become fruitful and grow.” Perhaps you now understand why I am such a hit at parties.

In the end, this is what I like about this story that Jesus tells: Manure is never a quick fix, and it usually takes a fairly long time to figure out if any of it will actually work. To me, that sounds like a pretty good description of the kind of work I do on a daily basis as a minister of the Gospel. It might also serve as a good way of finding and keeping your bearings as a disciple of Jesus himself, for what I do and what you are called to do are really just the twin sides of the very same coin. We are all called to be the saints of God, the people who will give the Gardener permission to use anything . . . anything at all, to bring into being what God intended to grow as a result of our lives. So if you are looking for results, for encouraging metrics, or the ego satisfactions of a demonstrated impact, let me be the first to inform you that you will want to go grab your axe to get busy chopping down the next available, unproductive fig tree. I spent too much time earlier in my life shoveling manure to be confused into thinking that spreading manure in a garden is ever likely to confer much in the way of personal exhilaration. But here is the way that Eugene Peterson describes it, “When it comes to doing something about what is wrong in the world, Jesus is best known for his fondness for the tiny, the invisible, the quiet, the slow: yeast, salt, seeds. And manure.”

Jeff Crosno