Today we continue our series “Lessons from the Farm.” A series that we designed to help us take a fresh look at some of the keys to growing in the Christian life. Through this series we’re exploring agricultural metaphors and lessons from farming as they pertain to our spiritual growth. The hope for this series is that we might be reminded of and inspired to live out some of these important truths so that we might fully live the life that God has called us to live.
We began the series several weeks ago by talking about the first step to experiencing the life that God wants for us. The important step of surrendering our lives to Christ allows us to turn and follow him so that we can be freed from the mess that is the human condition, we can finally get unstuck from the mud of life.
Two weeks ago then we talked about the next step, the important role that Christian companionship or community plays in our spiritual growth. We are not designed to operate in isolation from others and so we need to connect with people as we seek to grow into who God would have us be. We need the strength and support of community and at the same time we need to be engaged in community for the sake of others who need our strength and support.
Last week then we talked about the importance of discipline as we grow in our spiritual lives. As we explored this lesson we looked at the need to tend to the weeds in crops or in gardens. I confessed that this summer we neglected the garden for a few weeks in the midst of the craziness of moving in and then it got hot and several more weeks went by and all of a sudden we had a mess on our hands… And I invited you to think of these weeds as a metaphor for our spiritual lives. To produce the fruit that God hopes for us, we must tend to the weeds.
This week we’re going to talk about manure. I imagine that many of you have seen the bumper stickers or at least heard the sentiment that, well, to paraphrase, “manure happens.” We know this right, in life there is suffering, hardship, pain, unpleasantness. These things are as much a part of living as manure is a part farming.
A couple of weeks ago now Heather and Hannah and I were having a leisurely breakfast on a Saturday morning and out of the corner of my eye I saw a horse and buggy traveling down the road. I grabbed Hannah and we ran outside excited to see the horse turning to go down our street. We watched horse go by and Hannah waved at it excitedly.
About a week later I was out in the yard working on Friday during my day off and the same guy came by again and stopped to chat. After he left I found myself thinking about the years that I had gone to horse-back riding camp as a kid and how neat I thought horses were and I began to think that it might be fun to have a horse someday. That afternoon I was poking around online and did a little bit of looking into what exactly that might entail and was blown away by how much is involved with having a horse.
You have to get them shots, and take them to the vet, there is some kind of paste you have to put in their mouth, you have to keep them clean, you have to have a farrier come and put shoes on them, you have to feed them (a lot), and then you have to clean up after. And do you have any idea how much manure horses make from all of that food that you feed them? The average 1,000 pound horse creates 50 pounds of manure a day. That’s nearly 9 tons of manure a year from one horse. Manure happens…
This is not just the case with farm animals, but with our lives as well. Bad things happen in life. You will lose loved ones. You will experience tough times. You will be betrayed. You will be disappointed. There is no hiding from these realities. But it is not these realities that define us, it is how we respond to these realities that defines us.
In dealing with the manure of life it seems that people most often take one of two approaches. Some people choose to be in denial of the fact that manure happens and so when it ultimately does they’re not prepared and are totally blindsided, taken aback and paralyzed by the painful reality they’re experiencing.
The other extreme approach that some people take is to fixate on the possibility of manure, to be so consumed by worrying about the potentially bad things that might happen that they again become frozen in fear. Of course, neither one of these options is particularly helpful. The best solution is to recognize the fact that bad things do happen and to have some helpful/healthy perspective regarding this reality – to have a manure management plan.
When we are paying attention we can’t hide from the reality that bad things happen. Death and pain are a natural part of the cycle of life. This time of year we see this all around us as the colors leave plants and trees, things that we have planted in our gardens bear fruit for the last time and die. We enter into a cold and dark winter with a sense of trust and a hope that new life and resurrection will come in the spring. As people of faith we enter into this season mindful of Jesus’ words from today’s gospel reading, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
This cycle of the seasons, of life and death, is a natural part of living in this created world. Yet so often people still struggle with the questions of why. Why must things die? Why must there be pain and suffering? As people of faith we have the assurance held by the Apostle Paul when he wrote to the Romans, “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us…” and “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
But even in the midst of these assurances, times of death and decline can be incredibly difficult. Nonbelievers and even sometimes people who consider themselves to be believers, struggle with the notion that God can be all loving when so much pain, so much manure, exists in the world. And so the question of why, why there is so much manure, is a totally legitimate and honest question.
And it’s not just a questions that people today wrestle with, it is a question that many of the authors of the bible struggled with. The book of Job is full of these questions about why bad things happen, especially to faithful people. The Psalms are filled with songs of pain and despair, people crying out to God. Through the Bible we see time and time again the reality that storms and earthquakes exist as a part of life.
It seems like whenever a tornado or hurricane strikes and brings destruction and despair with it, there are religious leaders who make bold claims like the storms must be punishment for sin or that God was seeking to teach someone a lesson and sent the storm. Often statements like this make nasty assumptions about the nature of God, that God would negatively impact the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people or even kill people just teach a sinner a lesson.
In the early 2000′s after a hurricane came through Florida and caused some remarkable damage, then governor Jeb Bush said something fascinating. He said that hurricanes are the price of living in paradise. This way of thinking is very different than the mindset that God sends storms as punishment and I believe it is a faithful and a helpful understanding of how God is at work.
Florida is a beautiful state with gorgeous beaches and a wonderful climate. However, when the sun’s rays heat up the waters of the ocean to approximately 82 degrees, winds pick up and storms begin to form and the winds and the storms begin to swirl and hurricanes can be born. The very same elements of God’s created order that make Florida so beautiful, the warm temperatures, the water, the breeze, also open the door to the possibility of storms that can cause serious devastation. These storms, like the manure of life, are a natural part of the process for living. Manure happens. Again, the question is what are you going to do with it?
When I was doing my research about horses and began to learn about manure, I knew I was going to be preaching about this in a few weeks so I did a bit of research regarding what needs to be done with that much manure and it turns out that there are four different things that can be done with manure. As I talk about these I invite you to hear the parallels that exist between what people choose to do with manure and our spiritual lives. In these options, I hope you might begin to put together your own manure management plan.
The first option for dealing with manure is to simply pile it up. You can just put it off into the corner of the yard and keep adding to it. Day after day, the more manure there is, you just add it to the pile. The pile gets bigger and bigger, but you just try to keep it out sight and out of mind. The problem with this plan, however, is that the pile will eventually grow to the point where you can’t simply hide it. It will eventually get so big that it will overshadow everything else in your life.
Another option for dealing with manure is to try to burn it. If you douse manure in the right combination of chemicals, some kerosene and gasoline, you can burn it. From what I understand, this isn’t a pretty process! The burn creates a horrible smell and it can be a nasty messy process and sometimes it can even cause other things to catch on fire. I have heard that most people who try this once, don’t try it again. Yet people do keep trying this, dumping chemicals on the manure pile hoping that it will simply burn up. We all know people who have tried to deal with the manure in their lives like this, by dumping chemicals on it and hoping it will go away. It isn’t any prettier when people do this with their lives. It can be incredibly destructive.
Another approach that people could take to dealing with manure is to bury it. You can dig a big hole and put your manure in the ground. You can dig a lot of little holes and put your manure there, but there are a couple of problems with this plan. The most obvious, of course, is that your yard is full of these holes. A more significant problem is that if you do this, the manure won’t break down. Without exposure to oxygen the manure will always be manure. Thirty years down the road the manure that you bury will still be there, lurking under the surface. We have seen people do this with the manure in their lives, haven’t we?
The fourth option for dealing with manure, the ideal option, is to compost it and turn it into fertilizer. If manure is taken care of and treated in the right way it can be transformed from something nasty and unpleasant to something of great value that gives nutrients to the things it touches. This is my hope for your life, that you might learn to manage your manure in such a way that allows it to become something life giving.
So how do we do this? What is needed for the best manure management plan? Last month I visited a bit with Ben Myers, a member of our congregation who has farmed for years, and asked him to tell me a little bit about the process of using manure as a fertilizer. I began by asking if you could just take the manure and put it on what you want to grow. Let’s hear what he had to say…
You can’t just take the manure and put it straight on to what you want to grow. In fact, I learned this week that to do so would be counterproductive. The microbes that help break down the manure require nitrogen to do their work and will steal this nutrient from plants actually inhibiting their ability to grow. You can’t just put manure straight onto something, it takes time to turn manure into something like fertilizer.
The other interesting thing that Ben said is that it takes weather, the breeze and the sun to make this happen, to turn manure into fertilizer. Something fascinating that I learned this week is that ideally you should turn your manure to expose it to the air and to the sun to help it break down into fertilizer. The best case scenario is that you would turn it every 7 days. Just think about that… It is going to take time to turn manure into fertilizer, but while you give it the time it is also good to turn it and to expose it to the breeze and the sun every 7 days.
When we are dealing with the manure of our lives, it will take time for that to become something that can be rich and nourishing. However, as we move through our weeks and our months we need to be in worship, encountering God and growing with one another so that we can turn that manure, so that we can expose it to God’s holy spirit, so that it might be transformed into something good and rich and nourishing that is a blessing to others.