In the last 24 hours I’ve read three different sections from books that are somewhat related. This might not be my best or most organized post, but I’m going to try to bring the elements together in a way that will hopefully speak to the activist community.
First, in Luke 13:6-9 we find Jesus’ parable about a fig tree that wasn’t bearing fruit, even after three years of care. The owner wanted to uproot the tree so a more productive one could grow in that space; however, the gardener asked for one more year to see if he could coax fruit from it. His methodology? Add manure. “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it” (v8).
Sometimes, to help us bear fruit God piles on the manure. God also prunes, but this story is about adding fertilizer. It may be unpleasant, but it may be exactly what we need to become strong enough to do what we have been called to do.
The other two things I read can be seen as examples of this, though in some ways this might be a stretch. Ellen White writes briefly about John Mark in chapter 7 of The Acts of the Apostles. He had a growing desire to be a missionary for God, but when Paul and Barnabas agreed to take him, the road was harder than he expected.
Their way was toilsome; they encountered hardships and privations, and were beset with dangers on every side. In the towns and cities through which they passed, and along the lonely highways, they were surrounded by dangers seen and unseen. But Paul and Barnabas had learned to trust God’s power to deliver. Their hearts were filled with fervent love for perishing souls. As faithful shepherds in search of the lost sheep, they gave no thought to their own ease and convenience. Forgetful of self, they faltered not when weary, hungry, and cold. (p. 169)
Paul and Barnabas were strong and productive, but Mark was still young. These struggles proved too much for him, and yet this manure would be the training he would need to learn and grow so he could be stronger in the future. White continues:
It was here that Mark, overwhelmed with fear and discouragement, wavered for a time in his purpose to give himself wholeheartedly to the Lord’s work. Unused to hardships, he was disheartened by the perils and privations of the way. He had labored with success under favorable circumstances; but now, amidst the opposition and perils that so often beset the pioneer worker, he failed to endure hardness as a good soldier of the cross. He had yet to learn to face danger and persecution and adversity with a brave heart. As the apostles advanced, and still greater difficulties were apprehended, Mark was intimidated and, losing all courage, refused to go farther and returned to Jerusalem.
This desertion caused Paul to judge Mark unfavorably, and even severely, for a time. Barnabas, on the other hand, was inclined to excuse him because of his inexperience. He felt anxious that Mark should not abandon the ministry, for he saw in him qualifications that would fit him to be a useful worker for Christ. In after years his solicitude in Mark’s behalf was richly rewarded, for the young man gave himself unreservedly to the Lord and to the work of proclaiming the gospel message in difficult fields. Under the blessing of God, and the wise training of Barnabas, he developed into a valuable worker.
Ellen White herself is the other example of someone who learned from hardship to overcome even greater difficulties. The early manure taught her to have firm faith in God for later days when even larger struggles would come. Each struggle or shovel-full of manure prepared her for overcoming future struggles. Paul Ricchiuti shares vignettes of these experiences in Ellen: Trial and Triumph on the American Frontier.
With White’s well-known health struggles in the background, Ricchiuti looks at other times of difficulty in her life. For instance, early in her ministry (December 1856) she intended to travel to Iowa to speak with Adventists there (chapter 4). This required crossing the Mississippi River in winter. When they got to the banks of the river, they did not find ice as they had hoped. “They expected ice, but found water. As far as they could see it flowed in a wide steady current. What should they do now? Was there ice beneath the flow? They hoped so. And if there was, would it be strong enough to hold them?” (p. 41).
They did cross successfully, but then the weather turned cold.
Ellen wrote: “I never witnessed such cold weather.” As they watched each others’ faces, “we would often hear, ‘Brother, your face is freezing, you had better rub the frost out as soon as possible;’ ‘Your ear is freezing,’ or ‘Your nose is freezing.”’ (p. 42)
In the end, they reached their destination, and White had the conversation she had made the journey to engage. God showed her that he would make a way if she would obediently follow. This was an important pile of manure for her life of travel and ministry.
Some thirty three years later (1889), now with weakened ankles from several falls, she again felt called to reach a remote group of Adventists. These Adventists had gathered for camp-meeting, but they were cut off by floods that had downed telegram lines and washed away roads and railroad tracks. This was at the time of the Johnstown flood, which might be comparable to Colorado’s recent floods that tore out mountain roads and caused some $2 billion in damage.
When White’s train had gone as far as it could, it retreated, but not before she and her companions had gotten off and had no idea how to proceed. By now White had experience with God’s leading, and trusted God would make a way when there was no way. Her earlier manure had made her trusting, which would now make her more fruitful.
In the area where White was stranded, other Adventists had remained, not wanting to travel the washed out roads to camp-meeting. One person gave her hope.
But while she was in Roaring Branch, she met a young man who was walking his way to Williamsport [White’s destination]. He told her the valley road was gone, but that it just might be possible to make it by the mountain road. That was all Ellen needed. “This seemed like a daring enterprise,” she said, “but we decided to undertake it, and on Tuesday morning, with a good team, carriage, and two men, we started on our way.” (p. 77)
White describes further:
“We were obliged to cross the streams where bridges had been swept away…; but my secretary and myself always found a way of passage by using a plank…. In many places where once had been a good road there were only gullies, while in other places the road was filled up with rocks, not equally distributed, but in great heaps…”
Although Ellen suffered the hardship of traveling through storm-ravaged mountains, she found time to praise God. She thought about her ankle. “We were obliged to walk miles…, and it seemed marvelous that I could endure to travel as I did…. In this emergeny I felt no weakness or inconvenience, and traveled safely over the rough, sliding rocks.”
On they went, slipping, sliding, stumbling, and leaping streams of water. Once, when they came to a fallen tree, they tried driving over it, but the doubletree of the carriage snapped and broke. Yet, they expected things like this to happen, and they were prepared with tools and straps to repair the damage. They simply replaced the broken part with a tree branch and drove on. Another tree blocked their way. They stopped, chopped through the obstacle and cleared the way. But when they came to the third tree they found it was too big to do anything with…. They simply drove into the woods, making their own road.
Then it started to rain. Thunder and lightning flashed around them, the roar echoing and reechoing through the hills. They were miles from any house or building, and they traveled on, fearing they would be forced to spend the night in the open, unprotected from the rain…. Thus they traveled for seventeen more miles. (pp. 78-79)
The group found lodging for the night but were unable to dry out their clothes. The next day they headed out again, though they were told the road ahead was impassable.
A raging stream, now a river, blocked their way, and there was no bridge. They found a small boat and could use it to cross. But how were they to get their carriage and horses over? This, however, was no problem for Ellen and her friends, because they built a raft, taking only three hours to do it. Then they tied the carriage to it, and pulled it across with a rope. Next came the horses. (p. 79)
When they did finally arrive in Williamsport, they were “tired, wet, worn, and exhausted” (p. 80). Her work with the community there was productive, and I think it can be argued that she had developed this no-turning-around mentality from her earlier experiences overcoming smaller struggles. I think these earlier struggles can be seen as manure for later fruitfulness, even if I don’t mean to say she was entirely unfruitful in those early years as the fig tree in Luke had been.
- What manure has made me more fruitful or productive today?
- Am I experiencing any manure right now? How can I use it to grow–in character, in faith, in service?
- How do stories of “the great cloud of witnesses” encourage our walk?
- Who is watching my story as I look and learn from others before me?
- What new and likely difficult thing is God calling me to? What will sustain me through this work?
- What am I willing to endure to be successful in what God calls me to?