There’s a familiar scent riding these early-April breezes. Though lilacs kiss the tips of heady branches and strips of honeysuckle peel to reveal stamens sweet and sticky, the perfume that lingers is neither heady nor sweet. It is pungent. Landscaper trucks line the curbs of lawns well-manicured and bright, their drivers heaving wheelbarrows of the pungent seasoning up and down the green. Manure.
I have to laugh sometimes at the way God designed the world. He could have designed it any way at all, but in Romans He says that His invisible qualities have been made visible through the things He made. I believe He means that every “thing” we see and experience – every cell, every process, every physical, emotional, intellectual, and psychological paradigm – has been intentionally sewn into the fabric of life on earth. I believe He hid hints of His character and His purposes in plain sight so that when we look out at the world and into our hearts, we will find Him (and in doing so, wonder how we ever could have missed Him before).
If so, He’s a genius. He’s also addicting, because I’ve found that when I peel back one layer of what He said and meant, there’s often another layer of meaning just beneath. And another layer below that one. No matter how many layers of His brilliance I peel back, I discover He’s been there waiting (very often with a twinkle in His eye) all along.
So, when I watch landscapers pushing and pulling and planting and weed whacking, I get a glimpse of the layer beneath, of the Kingdom God is sowing and reaping in us, just below the surface of our souls. I see that the landscapers can only organize the plants, placing them like so many calico squares, or well-chosen notes in a melody. God is the Magician pulling the blooms into being, peeling back petals into a quilt of color and making music for the eyes. In the same way, I can organize my time, my actions and my words, but God is the One who pulls my growth into being. He peels back beauties I never knew were there, weaving me into a source of comfort, and singing me into great gusts of joy. (“So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” 1 Corinthians 3:7)
Under the layer of “only God makes things grow”, I see that plants shy of sunlight and water do not live. Such hidden hints in plain sight whisper that not only is God the power behind growth, He is also the manner through which growth occurs:
“In Him [Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” (John 1:4).
“Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37-38)
God very cleverly likens us to branches and seeds and fruit, then fleshes out the metaphor by sowing the earth with vegetation literally dependent on light and water, as we are dependent on Christ our Light and Living Water. We, as fruit, as branches proceeding from the Vine, are incapable of calling forth either sun or rain ourselves – we are equipped only to receive, humbly holding out our fragile petals for His warming life and soaking grace. As we rest in the gift of His goodness, allowing His glory to bloom through us, He grows us into vibrant beings delightful to Him and to all those who encounter the lushness of His presence in us.
And, lest I miss the irony and the twinkle in His eye, I cannot argue that the buds which blossom brightest and the foliage most verdant and green are those seasoned with the pungence riding these early-April breezes. Manure. The stuff of curses and foul words, the waste remaining when all that is good and useful has been absorbed, the distasteful, disgusting, displeasing pile of rejection has only one use when recycled – to make beautiful things grow.
Our lives reflect the same. That which we wish we could reject – an unwelcome diagnosis, a sudden death in the family, a heartache born of love rejected – is very likely what God will recycle to bring forth color we never could have imagined otherwise. “…We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4). How drab and dry would life be without hope?
The more manure, the more stunning and vivid the petals pressing up through it – it’s how the world works. If God made it this way, He means to say something through it. Sometimes life stinks – not because God is not present, but because He uses what we would reject if we could to weave and sing and grow us into beings reeking of life and hope and joy.
Suffering cannot do any permanent damage after all. We have heard the rumors of a Tree of Life, of Eternal Light and streams of Living Water flowing through the Kingdom sown just beneath the surface of our souls. A day is coming when the hard shell of this life will break open and we will burst through the soil of Heaven, flinging wide petals more lush and vibrant and alive than earthly minds can comprehend. All memories of sorrow and pain will be distant and flushed away. Nothing will ever again wound our limbs made whole, nothing will crush our hearts made new. No pungence will pollute where the air is sweet and the company sweeter.