Every day on our farm, I engage in the ritualistic task of moving manure to our compost pile. Cleaning the barn is a familiar and comforting chore, allowing me to transform something objectionable and just plain stinky to a tangible benefit: growing the nurturing fertilizer of the future. Unlike some daily rituals in my life, it feels like I’m actually accomplishing something.
Today, as I scooped and pushed my wheelbarrow, I recalled another barn cleaning a couple of decades ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning more than 90 stalls after a horse event I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from more than 1000 miles away to participate for several days. It was a diverse group of folks with varied expectations—there were inevitable personality clashes and harsh words among some participants, along with criticism directed at me that I had taken very personally. When it was all over and I was unloading the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears and regrets were stinging my eyes and my heart. After making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our large group, my work seemed unacknowledged and unappreciated.
What will be remembered
My friend Jenny had stayed behind with her family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure. Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen:
“You know, none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now. People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country, a wonderful time with their horses, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom. So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy. You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us. Each of us is responsible for our own attitude and each of us chooses how to live out each day we are given. So quit being upset about what you can’t change. Keep your focus on what is eternal and not on what will soon be forgotten. There’s too much you can still do for us.”
Since then, during other tough times, whether in my professional work or in the inevitable conflicts that are part of church life, Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me that sacramental living focuses on doing what ultimately matters to God, not whether it is appreciated by others. She was right about the balm found in the passage of time; since God’s time is forever. She was right about shoveling up my own feelings of hurt rather than letting them stack up. I load them in my wheelbarrow to transport them to be transformed in my emotional compost pile.
What neither of us knew that day as we shoveled manure together, was that Jenny herself was soon to be diagnosed with breast cancer in her early forties. She spent the next six years slowly dying, while vigorously devoting herself to each breath she was given, forcing the malignancy to face her faith and intense drive to live. Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end. Her intense focus during the years of her illness was always outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she visited regularly in medical offices, to her confident belief in the plan God had written for her. Despite her intense love for her husband and young children, she had to let go her hold on life here. And we all had to let her go.
You were so right, Jenny. The conflicts from more than 20 years ago amounted to a hill of beans; memories of those who were part of the gathering are warm and fond.
I especially treasure the words you wisely spoke to me, teaching me about living each day with eternity in mind.
And I’m no longer upset that I can’t change the fact that you have left us. There is so much you do for us, still very alive in our memories.
I know we’ll catch up later.