Sunday, March 08, 2009

Manure and the Church

For my special Lenten reading this year I have chosen Eugene Peterson's book, Tell it Slant. Asking us to consider the way we use language, Peterson takes us through Samaria with Jesus as he went up to Jerusalem in Luke's Gospel, opening up the parables that are the heart of the Lord's teaching. Early this morning I got to what Peterson calls the Manure Parable (Luke 13:6-9).

Here is a parable that I have read for years, puzzled over, but never really properly understood -- and had certainly not seen in light of the struggles that the churches, especially the Episcopal Church, have been going through in recent years. But Eugene Peterson has not only shed fresh light on my understanding, but has also given me some helpful insights into the way we have all been handling ourselves, especially through the last half dozen years.

The parable goes like this:
Then Jesus told them a story: "A man had a fig tree planted in his front yard. He came to it expecting to find figs, but there weren't any. He said to his gardener, 'What's going on here? For three years now I've come to this tree expecting figs and not one fig have I found. Chop it down! Why waste good ground with it any longer?' The gardener said, 'Let's give it another year. I'll loosen the ground and dig in manure. Maybe it will produce next year; if it doesn't, then chop it down.'"

When I saw the subject of the chapter this morning was manure, I have to admit that I wasn't particularly excited. I thought I might skim over the pages so that I was soon somewhere more interesting. But from the outset it grabbed me. Here is Jesus leading his disciples through the sometimes dangerous country of Samaria where religious wars are common and even bloody, but he is challenging the natural response which is "Chop it down!"

"So much of the time it is not complecency that threatens but its opposite, impetuosity. We see something that is wrong, whether in the world or in the church, and we fly into action, righting the wrong, confronting sin and wickedness, battling the enemy, and then we go out vigorously recruiting 'Christian soldiers' ... we solve kingdom problems by amputation" (Page 69).

He goes on to point out that manure is not a quick fix because it takes a long time before anyone begins to see that it is making any difference. What we want is results: which means chopping down the tree, clearing the ground, making a fresh start. Spreading manure is neither glamorous or exhilarating work, it is the slow solution, but "it's the stuff of resurrection."

He quotes George Adam Smith, the great Victorian Scottish expositor who says when commenting on some of Isaiah's prophecy that "we are not warriors but artists... after the fashion of Jesus Christ who came not to condemn... but to building life up to the image of Christ." What a wonderful description of the nature of Christian ministry and relationships during difficult times.

The trouble is, we don't have the patience for manure -- cut it down, make a fresh start, if we are Christian soldiers then those who disagree with us must be the enemy.

Peterson goes on, "Manure. The Psalms are prayers worked into the soil of our lives to shape our imaginations and obedience so that we live our lives to shape our imaginations and obedience so that we live our lives congruent wit hthe way God works in the world and in us, works in a world of violence and antipathyu without becoming violent. One of the most repeated sentences, repeated because we are so impatient to 'cut it down and get on with it,' is 'O give thanks to the Lord for he is good; His steadfast love endures forever... His love never quits.

Manure. God is not in a hurry. We are repeatedly told to 'Wait for the Lord.' But that is not counsel that is readily accepted by followers of Jesus who have been conditioned by promises of instant gratification, whether American or Assyrian. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, one of our great modern Isaianic prophets who has extensive experience with violence in two World Wars, wrote, 'The greatest temptation of our time is impatience, in its full original meaning: refusal to wait, undergo, suffer. We seem unwilling to pay the price of living with our fellows in creative and profound relationships.' Like Isaiah, he was ignored" (Page 72).

But we are in a hurry. We are pushing to put things right, and to get them right here and now -- even if it means pushing God out of the way but, of course, in the name of God!

"Manure. Silence. Manure reentering the condition of 'Let it be done to me,' submitting to the silent energies that change death into life, the energies of resurrection. Language consists in equal parts of speaking and silence. The art of language requires skills in not speaking quite as much as skills in speaking. Much mischief and misunderstanding result from talking that is not embedded in much listening. When we listen we are silent. I like Saul Bellow's comment, 'The more you keep your mouth shut, the more fertile you become.' Silence is the manure of resurrection...

... The Manure Story is free-floating throughout the journey through Samaria -- as it is in the journey through America. It is ready for use whenever we come up against animosity, against antagonism and impetuous indignation and are prepared to counter the opposition with violence, whether verbal or physical. But the story comies to its most powerful and incisive expression in words Jesus spoke from the cross..." (Page 73).

As I look at the ruins around us as well as the promise of more to come, there is great enlightenment in the words of Jesus, and Eugene Peterson's insight as we seek to understand them. This is a little story for the church in our time. It is a story that points the finger at our impatience that fails to allow the manure of divine grace to slowly filter its way into our relationships, our disagreements, our politics.

This is a story that speaks volumes to those of us whose impatient wielding of power has us hurling vituperative lawsuits at those who can take no more and want to walk away.

At the same time it is strong medicine for those who have lost patience and walked away saying "Chop it down" as they have departed -- and sometimes those words are spat out with agonizing viciousness.

We have become warriors and abandoned the artform of the Christian faith. It is little wonder that there is a swathe of destruction all around us that is the ecclesiastical kin to the path taken by a tornado through a densely populated suburb. I know that is a good analogy because I have had just such a thing happen to me.