Stuck in the muck?

 

Times of challenge are times of growth

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

Black and white cows in a pastureIt’s funny the things you remember from childhood: like the sandals I wore while running through cow manure. They were red and adorned with plastic white daisies. I didn’t intentionally run through the manure. I was a six-year-old who was excited to be in Switzerland meeting my paternal grandparents. When the car pulled to a stop, I jumped out, opting to take a shortcut through a field to get to the storybook Alpine farmhouse. The farmhouse was magical in my eyes, with gingerbread trim and geranium-filled flowerboxes in every window. I ran with joy — and with wonderment. Why did the “mud” oozing between my toes have a pungent smell?

When we were reunited by the watering trough near the kitchen door, I noticed my grandmother’s glacier blue eyes crinkling with laughter. My mother shook her head. My uncle chuckled to my father in the Swiss German dialect of the region: The field had just been sprayed with fresh manure. “Oh well,” I shrugged, smiling down at my sandals. I was quickly whisked to an ancient handpump where frigid cold mountain water gushed over my feet. The plastic daisies that enamored me were now ruined, but “What’s a little muck?” I thought joyfully.

What’s a little muck? When was the last time you were able to shrug off life’s disappointments, challenges, conflicts and even seemingly failures? I often think of those red sandals, especially when the fields around my rural home are being sprayed with manure. Unlike others who cringe at the smell, I find myself sniffing it in because it reminds me of a time — when even standing in muck — I had a freeing joy in my heart. Why, as we get older, do we lose that joy when life gets mucky, and our best laid plans fail?

It wasn’t too long ago that I found myself in muck again — literally and figuratively. I was serving a church that really couldn’t afford a full-time pastor. The search committee, though, decided to risk their savings all on me. “We are willing to ‘sell the farm,’” said one elder as I settled into a strange new life void of Ubers and DoorDash.

So, there I was for the first time living miles away from my parents with no friends and no significant other to lean on. All I had was a strong sense of call that led me to this church. It wasn’t easy holding on to that sense of call as harsh winters turned into mud season. It was then I found myself in muck that I thought was just mud.

I was making a pastoral visit to a dairy worker who couldn’t find time to get away from the cows, offering to meet her at the barn. I slipped into my favorite flats, left over from my city days when my then-paycheck could afford designer names. I didn’t think twice about my decision to wear them. Just like my red sandals with the white daisies, they made me smile. I parked my car and decided to take a shortcut through a grassy area to get to the barn. It was then I felt a familiar squishing. I smelled a familiar smell. I looked down and saw a familiar sight. The shoes that made me smile were covered in cow manure. There was no better illustration for my life than this very moment. I found a hose, cleaned up and left the farm wondering, “Where was God when I was stuck in the muck? Where was God when everything I did just seemed to go no where?”

Like manure sprayed on a humid day, these questions lingered with me. Then one day, the answer came. After entertaining the women gathered in the church kitchen preparing for yet another dinner with a humorous version of my penchant for finding myself standing in cow manure, I noticed one woman shaking her head. The daughter of one of the big farm families lovingly chided me that finding yourself in cow manure wasn’t a bad thing. If anything, she said, being stuck in the muck can be seen as life-giving. That muck that I cursed for ruining designer flats (and red sandals) is filled with nutrients. “It helps the corn grow tall,” she said.

I smiled my first real smile. She was right. God is always right there with us when we find ourselves stuck in the muck. And praise God that that muck is the very thing that will help us grow. For in the disappointment, challenges, conflicts and failure, we are being nourished by God’s redeeming grace, and we are being asked to see beyond our situations to the possibilities that are always there. And so, my friends, what’s a little muck in life? Smile. Be joyful through it all. The muck in life can indeed be nourishing. 

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today. She now thinks twice before running through muddy fields. If you have a story in your ministry as to how a failure turned into something wonderful, drop her a note at editor@pcusa.org

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