Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Shoveling Manure

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Jesus described a fig tree that had borne no fruit for three years, and the owner wants it cut down. “Why should it be wasting the soil?” the owner questions the gardener. But the gardener patiently replies, “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

The subtext is what will happen to a spiritual community that does not produce fruit. Yet Jesus offered hope for its redemption. The owner is ready to cut the tree down, but the gardener says, let me put a little more manure on it and give it another year. This is a story about being given another chance, another opportunity—in this case, to bear fruit.

I love the relationship of manure to fruit in this story. Too many Christians have a high propensity for manure and a great tolerance of manure. We prefer to speak of bearing fruit, but it’s important to remember the manure we plow through just to be in church on Sunday mornings.

There is a Buddhist story of a monk who went from monastery to monastery, trying to find the right one for him. He would spend six months at one, then pick up his bag and leave. He spent three months at another, then pack his bag and leave. A year at still another, then pick up his bag and leave. Observing this over time, one monk said to another, “His bag long ago got dipped in manure and he carries it wherever he goes, thinking the smell of manure is coming from the monastery he’s visiting rather than from his own baggage!”

Many of us are carrying religious baggage that long ago got dipped in manure, and we smell it whenever we even think of church. If we don’t give up altogether, this is what makes us hungry for progressive theology and thirsty for an inclusive spiritual community. The manure from our past bears fruit in those of us who have had it with bad theology and damning rhetoric. We still get a whiff of it from time to time, sometimes in a scripture or a hymn or a sermon, sometimes in a conversation or an e-mail or a meeting, but we try to counter it with the aromas of opening blossoms and ripening fruit.

Speaking to a conference of clergy, William Sloane Coffin said that ministers are like manure—effective when spread out in the field, but when heaped together, a little overwhelming. All Christians are ministers, and heaped together, we can be a little overwhelming!

But if we indeed remember and act as if each of us is a minister—that is, a prophetic voice, a pastoral ear, a “wounded healer,” and a priestly actor, we will reach those who need to know about this thing we call progressive Christianity. Encouraging us is this parable of the fig tree, this parable of another chance, this parable of redemption, this parable of using the manure we’ve been given to bear fruit. 

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