Sh*t makes excellent fertilizer

A friend I had not heard from in a long time wrote to me and apologized for being a sh*tty friend, not returning my phone calls or texts. I was happy to hear from her and responded that she is a friend, period, without qualifiers. Was I disappointed that I had not heard back from her earlier? Yes. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t want to hear from her whenever she was ready to reach out! In that moment the story of the Prodigal Son became real in my life. I was happy to hear from the person who I thought was lost, but now was found.

Then I read a terrific blog post by Jen Hesse, titled “God never wastes the space between.” It got me thinking about my own in-between spaces – those times of waiting for the next step, of wondering what the next step will be or what it will bring. It is wonderful to celebrate the end of the waiting – the joyful reunion of friends or family members, the new relationship, the new job, the return of good health – but sometimes, unfortunately, we have a long period of waiting. The season of Lent in the Christian church is a season of waiting, remembering the decades that the Jewish people spent wandering in the wilderness, following Moses, before getting to the promised land. The season of winter feels like a season of waiting for the sun to return to prominence in the hemisphere, waiting for leaves, grass, and flowers to emerge in springtime. Waiting can be a lonely, dark, dispiriting time. I am a person who loves to have a plan. Waiting for a plan to emerge has been difficult.

Fortunately, the seasons of Lent and winter also bring the assurance that the waiting will end. God’s people did not wander in the wilderness forever, it just seemed that way to them. Winter does not last forever, spring does return. It does not return in the same way that it did last year, and my future will not look the same as my past, but I will not be stuck in my present state of waiting forever. It is reassuring to be reminded that God is with us in the waiting, in the wilderness, when it is hard to hold onto faith and hope. I am thankful for friends and family members who reach out, for writers who share their stories of struggle and faith, and for my church community. Even when I cannot see what is ahead, I can take comfort in the knowledge that I will be surrounded by faith and by opportunities to live out my faith.

And what does fertilizer have to do with any of this? With the emergence of spring it is time to turn over the earth, dig into the dirt, and prepare the garden and flower beds for planting! If you’ve ever lived near a farm you may know that cow manure (sh*t) makes excellent fertilizer, much in the same way that vegetable scraps make excellent compost. But cow manure and vegetable scraps do not become excellent fertilizer or compost overnight! They need a lot of time to decompose and change their physical properties into something that will provide nourishment to other plants. Something that is a waste product can, over time, become a new and valuable commodity, contributing to our well-being. Similarly, the parts of ourselves that we fear are used up or out-of-date can be renewed over time.

Reading the scripture verses about the “parable of the prodigal and his brother”, as it is called in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, I am reminded that there are two brothers in the story. These days we could call them siblings. One has stayed at home caring for the family farm/property, the other has left home with his/her inheritance money and wasted it on decadent living. When the prodigal returns after years of no contact the father rejoices but the other sibling is annoyed, feeling unappreciated for the years of loyal work that they have provided. The father’s words to both of the siblings can provide comfort to us, whether our period of waiting has seemed productive or not. To the first he says, “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (Luke 15:31.)  You are always with me. How much I need to hear that in my times of darkness and waiting! Then he goes on, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this [sibling] of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:32.) In God’s world the old becomes new, the dead come to life, the waiting ends in rejoicing.

Lord, thank you for being with me always – in the waiting, and in the rejoicing to come. Amen.

 

 

 

A new shoot

The thermometer outside my kitchen window read 0.9 degrees (F) this morning, well below the average for January in New Jersey. And it’s not just in the northeast; much of the U.S. has been gripped by severely cold weather since Christmas. Although it was sunny and bright yesterday it was the coldest day yet this winter, barely getting out of the single digits. The start of the new year has been bleak from that perspective.

How happy I was to look closely at my orchid later in the morning and to see a new shoot! This orchid was given to me by the Deacons at my church in June last year as a “thank you” for the three years I had served as a Deacon. The white flowers lasted for months and when they died off I cut the stem short and put the plant, pot and all, into a clear plastic dry-cleaning bag to preserve the humidity, then placed it out of direct sunlight. More months passed without any sign of new growth yet here it is, the little piece at the top of the old stem, pointing to the left! What a timely reminder that new growth is happening even when it cannot be seen. What a timely reminder to have patience even in times of darkness and cold.

new shoot - orchid

This brought to mind the prophesy that a king would be descended from David: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1.) A stump may not look like fertile ground for the future beauty of an orchid, or of the Lord, but a stump is almost all that is needed. Add a trace of water, don’t burn it out in direct sunlight, and be patient. Even when I cannot detect any movement, a new thing is happening!

Lord, thank you for signs of new life and growth. Amen.

Beware

“[The scribes and the Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” Matthew, 23:4

Last week I was in Florida, sitting along the shore of Lake Pierce, at the Future Farmers of America Leadership Training Center, an educational retreat center where I was leading a workshop for faculty members and administrators from Florida Southern College. It was a gorgeous day, sunny but not humid, with a light breeze. I watched an egret on the shore and a great blue heron that was chasing the egret from place to place along what must be good fishing grounds. There were occasional splashing sounds in the reeds and water in front of the dock on which I was sitting. Those sounds made me a bit uneasy, thanks to the big sign warning about the alligator. By the time I heard the splashing and looked in its direction I couldn’t see any movement, not even ripples on the water’s surface. I wondered if the sign meant that there is one alligator to beware of and I doubted it. In this context I’m guessing that “alligator” is the plural as well as the singular, similar in an odd way to “moose.”

Beware of alligator sign

What were my “take-away” thoughts from this peaceful-although-occasionally-anxious setting?

  1. Danger is a part of life, whether we can see it or not. Depending on the kind of danger (an alligator) we can take preventive measures and be pretty confident that we will be safe. Other kinds of danger (illness, loss of income) can arise regardless of what we do or don’t do, and their unpredictability brings its own anxiety.
  2. Some people have more resources to deal with danger and its accompanying fear and anxiety than other people, depending on the form of the danger and the type of resource.

I should add here that I’m reading David K. Shipler’s book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, a very sobering account of Americans whose lives are different than my own. My parents remain married to each other (and celebrated their 63rd anniversary this year!), still are healthy, and both earned bachelor’s degrees before they had children. My dad had a steady job as a teacher and my mom was a full-time mom for my brother and me. We were well cared for and loved, got great educations, and were raised with a Christian faith that emphasized God’s love and minimized God’s judgment. I could believe in the American dream because that was my family’s experience.

Given what I’m reading, I have to acknowledge that for me to write about danger in life is like me writing about playing football – I’ve sat on the bleachers watching many games but have never played the game. So I’ll bring this essay to a close not by providing a happy, Pollyanna-type ending, but by being thankful for what I have been given in life (lots of advantages, including good health); praying for peace and justice in our country and our world; and committing to take action, in addition to prayer, for the same.

God, thank you for your loving grace, freely given and not earned. May all your children experience it every day. Give me humility and compassion, and the courage to work for justice for all. Amen.

Lake Pierce

Photo of Lake Pierce

Moving

Moving

“See, I am making all things new.” Rev. 21:5

I’m moving offices and although I’ve been in my current office only three and a half years I’ve accumulated lot of files, reports, and books. Between the sorting and packing the other day I took a break to talk to a colleague about a new project. Our conversation led us to the subject of organizational change. We speculated about how a bold new initiative can generate energy and enthusiastic action, then ever so slightly fade over the years as it becomes institutionalized. It gets seen as normal, as “the way we do things here;” new ideas and energy are directed elsewhere. People are curious and as much as we like patterns and routines we also like new things and we like to be creative, creating. Both for our minds and our bodies, we have to keep moving to stay lively, limber, and flexible.

I imagined a lobster trying to grow without shedding its shell. It would be squeezed, constricted, stifled, and unable to move because of the weight of all the new shells formed over the old. While it is disruptive to pack up my office and move to another building, it also is an opportunity to shed some baggage and possessions that are old and no longer useful. If I were to drag to the new office all my old files, books, and mementos, I too would be weighed down and unable to move, unable to grow or change or to do new things. That printout of the presentation I made in 2000? It was a good presentation but now it’s out of date, and the printout doesn’t make it any more current. The national norms from the 2001 survey? They probably are on the web by now, if I ever really need to see them. It is okay to give up old things (old habits, old ideas) so that there is room in my new office (new year, new life) to think and do new things.

What is it that’s holding you down, keeping you from being able to move? Is it possessions? Things you’ve signed up for or agreed to do? Attitudes? Things you think are supposed to be so? What new things could you be doing, what new friends could you be making, if you had some freedom to move, to breathe, to stretch and grow?

It doesn’t have to be difficult, and it doesn’t have to be done all at once. I started with one file, then another. Then one drawer, and a shelf. It felt great! It was liberating to let go so that I can move on.

Which will you be – the lobster with all its old shells, weighed down by their gradual accumulation? Or the lobster with a new shell, growing and changing?

Gracious God, thank you for the example of nature, ever growing and changing. Help me to resist the temptation to stay the same. Let me follow your lead toward newness of life. Amen.