Patience + Manure = Hope

In ancient of days, rabbis had myriad ways to read the Torah. Using their imaginations, they would scour the scriptures looking for meaning between the lines and in the spaces between the words. It’s called “midrash” and here is one of my favorites by Rabbi Marc Gellman.

When God set out to pick a leader for the children of Israel, the most important quality that God was looking for was patience. God wanted somebody who would not give up, no matter how bad things looked, no matter how much the people complained, no matter how long it took to get out of Israel. So, God set out to make a patience test that could be used to find the right person for the job.

Now the angels were always bothering God with ideas, and most of them were not very good. But God was patient, so God listened to all the angel ideas for a patience test.

Gabriel came forward with a tangled ball of string. ‘Whoever has the patience to untangle this ball of string is our person for sure.’ God did not like this test because untying knots is just boring work, and string untangnlers are usually the kind of people who save rubber bands and that was not what God had in mind.

Then Michael the angel flew forward with a little puzzle box. You had to twist the red squares on one side, all the green, all the blue, all the yellow. You have to figure out how to get all the same colors on all the same sides. I am still working on this one. 

But persistence in solving a Rubik’s Cube is not the same thing as patience.

So, God came up with the best test of patience. God caused a bush to start burning in the desert. A few shepherds passed by it and walked away. They did not even notice that the bush was burning, but not burning up. Who pays attention to an ordinary bush anyway?  

So, no one took the time to sit long enough to watch the miracle happen. But Moses, who had become a shepherd, saw the bush and sat down on the ground and watched. He watched and watched.  The bush continued to burn and burn and the branches never fell down and the fire never went out. And Moses was the only one who waited long enough to notice.

Moses was the only one who had the patience to pay attention and notice a bush — flaming with a fire that does not consume.

Patience is a virtue, right? The word is mentioned 70 times in the testaments both old and new. One version of the word literally means “a long passion, to burn for a long time while not giving into anger.”

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” Romans 12:12

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” 1 Corinthians 13: 4

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

Hope and a future.

Recently our Paperback Spirituality group read Jane Goodall’s “Book of Hope.” Subtitled “A Survival Guide for Trying Times.” The book jacket reads: “Looking at the headlines – the worsening climate crisis, a global pandemic, political upheaval, it can be hard to feel optimistic. And yet hope has never been more desperately needed.” 

The world-famous naturalist’s definition of hope is not lofty, pie in the sky ideals, but hope grounded in reality, a hope grounded in the human spirit, a hope grounded in hard work and resilience.

Jane shares the story of Jia Haixia and Jia Wenqi.

“They live in a small village in rural China and have been friends since they were boys. Haixia was blind in one eye at birth and lost sight in the other eye in an accident, and when Wenqi was only three years old he lost both his arms when he touched a downed power line. When Haixia lost his sight completely he became really depressed and Wenqi realized he must find something they could do that would give purpose to Haixia’s life. At that point they were in their thirties.

“Both had often talked about how the land around their village had become increasingly degraded since they were young. Quarrying had polluted the rivers, killing fish and other aquatic life, and industrial emissions had polluted the air. 

“I can just imagine Wenqi telling his friend that what they should do was to plant trees. And I bet Haixia was incredulous at first – how could they do that? They didn’t have any money, and he was blind and Wenqi had no arms. Wenqi had the answer – he would be Haixia’s eyes and Haixia would be his arms.

“They couldn’t afford to buy seeds of saplings, so they decided to clone from branches cut from the trees. Haixia did the cutting while Wenqi directed him to the right place. At first it went all wrong. They were excited and managed to plant eight hundred cuttings in the first year, but imagine how they felt when spring came and only two of them were alive. The land was simply too dry. At that point Haixia wanted to give up, but Wenqi told him that was not an option – they would just have to find a way to water the trees.

“They planted more cuttings and this time most of them survived. And now they have planted over ten thousand trees.

“Wenqi says, ‘Though we are limited physically, our spirit is limitless. So let the generation after us and everyone else see what two [physically-challenged] individuals have accomplished. Even after we’re gone, they will see that a blind man and an armless man have left them a forest.’”

So, what does any of this have to do with the parable of the fig tree? Why is the owner of the orchard so impatient? Why does he get so angry? “For three years I have been looking for fruit on this fig three, and still, I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 

Three years of frustration. Three years of tilling the soil with no change. The fruitless tree screams apathy and indecision and pointlessness. I have been preaching hope, Jesus seems to say, but I am running out of hope, even me.

But the gardener answers, “Sir, let it be alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.”

I like to think that Jesus is both the owner and the gardener. Just as human as you and me, Jesus is just plain tired and exhausted and out of patience and at his wit’s end. But then he remembers that it is out of crap that good can come. God is a god of grace and mercy and patience. 

Keep digging around it. Keep watering it. Keep tilling the soil. Keep fertilizing it with you know what. The more the manure, the more the fruit. The more the manure, the more the hope. So, out of strife and out of struggle can come salvation. So out of a long burning passion redemption can come.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

Hope and a future for every nation.

Hope and a future for people of every faith.

Hope and a future for this planet, our mothering earth.

Hope and a future for God’s kingdom within us and God’s kingdom to come.

Hope and a future as we walk together the way of Jesus, the Gardener, stopping at Gethsemane, on the way to Calvary.

Pax vobiscum,


Lent Spirituality The Episcopal Church

eecvoices View All →

The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

%d bloggers like this: