Saturday, March 20, 2010

Making the Most of Manure

In his book Tell It Slant, Eugene Peterson uses the short parable in Luke 13:6-9, a parable about manure, of all things—to talk about our need to practice resurrection in everyday life. In the parable, a man has a fig tree in his vineyard that doesn't yield any fruit. Frustrated, he says to the man who takes care of the vineyard that after three years, it's time to cut the thing down. But the caretaker replies, "Leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down." Peterson reflects on how this parable challenges us as believers—a challenge worth hearing at Easter, when we celebrate the power of resurrection. He writes:

Instead of goading us into action, [Jesus' Manure Story] takes us out of action. We have just come across something that offends us, some person who is useless to us or the kingdom of God, "taking up the ground," and we lose patience and either physically or verbally get rid of him or her. "Chop him down! Chop her down! Chop it down." We solve kingdom problems by amputation.

Internationally and historically, killing is the predominant method of choice to make the world a better place. It is the easiest, quickest, and most efficient way by far to clear the ground for someone or something with more promise. The Manure Story interrupts our noisy, aggressive problem-solving mission. In a quiet voice the parable says, "Hold on, not so fast. Wait a minute. Give me some more time. Let me put some manure on this tree." Manure?

Manure is not a quick fix. It has no immediate results—it is going to take a long time to see if it makes any difference. If it's results that we are after, chopping down a tree is just the thing: we clear the ground and make it ready for a fresh start. We love beginning: birthing a baby, christening a ship, the first day on a new job, starting a war. But spreading manure carries none of that exhilaration. It is not dramatic work, not glamorous work, not work that gets anyone's admiring attention. Manure is a slow solution. Still, when it comes to doing something about what is wrong in the world, Jesus is known for his fondness for the minute, the invisible, the quiet, the slow—yeast, salt, seeds, light. And manure.

Manure does not rank high in the world's economies. It is refuse. Garbage. We organize efficient and sometimes elaborate systems to collect it, haul it away, get it out of sight and smell. But the observant and wise know that this apparently dead and despised waste is teeming with life—enzymes, numerous microorganisms. It's the stuff of resurrection.

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