Oxen.Shit.Life.

I still don’t get it: watching parades is like crack for my kids.  Any of you in this season of parenting know what I’m talking about: St. Patrick’s Day, Fourth of July, Memorial Day—you name it, the kids go crazy.

Granted, where else can you join throngs of people cheering as the fire truck goes by with sirens blaring, lights blazing, and smiling firefighters running up to you with handfuls of candy?

Confession: I’m terrible at being a spectator.  I’d rather get dirty on some single track than sit in a folding chair and watch others live life.  But the humility and desperation of parenting small children finds us, yet again, stroller to stroller with other exhausted parents on a good handful of early Saturday mornings.

And in this decade of character over kingdom, there is one man in every parade who is catching my attention and earning my admiration above all others: the guy who pushes the wheelbarrow and carries the shovel.

Right behind the horses.

I understand his life a little more as I’m beginning to understand mine.

How much shit are you willing to shovel?

It’s actually a deeply significant and theological question.  And one not to be taken lightly.

This question first came to me nearly fourteen years ago. I was courageously fumbling through our early years of marriage when things went sideways—again.  I had read all the marriage books and was desperate to be the best husband I could be. In fact, I tried the super-husband strategy of the day the way the restaurant I worked at in high school took leftovers and turned them into the soup du jour.  It wasn’t working.

I was sharing the angst with John, a long-time mentor and friend, when he took one of his long pauses in conversation, pulled out Proverbs 14:4, and said, “Read this:”

Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty,

but from the strength of an ox comes abundant harvests.

At first pass, I thought to myself, What does my mess of a marriage have to do with mangers, oxen, and harvests?

But after another uncomfortably long pause, he went on to explain:

Where there are oxen, there is strength and life.

But where there are oxen, there is a lot of shit.

No oxen, no life.

No life, no shit.

If you want life, you are going to have to shovel some shit to get it.

How much life do you want?

In many ways it depends on how much you are willing to shovel.

Oxen. Shit. Life.

It was a proud moment of revelation that’s shaped me ever since.

I want life. Jesus said He came that we might have life and have it to the full.

I believe it’s available, and I’ve staked my entire life and the life of my marriage and my family on this hope.

And what this hope has also revealed in me is a disproportionate unwillingness to do the shovel work necessary.  And even deeper, a mistaken interpretation of the steaming piles in my world.

But there is a shift:  this decade is offering me a new interpretation of the shit, a deeper willingness to shovel it, and a deeper acceptance that life doesn’t come apart from a lot of shoveling.

 Boots and Pitch Fork

This was never far from Jesus’ ministry.  He knew this.  I think it’s a big part of why the perfect love and true masculinity in which He walked is expressed in such an inefficient lifestyle.

I appreciate Paul’s words:

We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with Him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with Him!  (Romans 8:15-17)

So often we misinterpret the shoveling. We curse it for its drudgery, hate ourselves for letting it happen, or see it as punishment and feel the cold, steel blade breaking our hearts.

What if we could interpret the shit from the perspective of sonship?

As we experience God more and more as our Good Father, we begin to see the shoveling as part of our apprenticeship to Jesus as sons, students, and future kings in the Kingdom of our Good Dad.  These are the miles that make a man, and our Father believes in us so thoroughly that He entrusts these miles to our care, allowing them to be the very process by which we become the men we were born to be.

Paul reminds us that the challenges in our lives are “a clear sign that God has decided to make you fit for the Kingdom…. make you fit for what he’s called you to be” (2 Thessalonians 1).

When I see the pile of shit as a sign of my Dad’s commitment to my becoming, I feel my strength revive and my heart show up again.  Interpretation is everything.

Right now, I’m in the pre-staging phase for a backcountry elk hunt.  It involves hours of early morning mountainside workouts.  Squeezing in chances to fine-tune my bow over lunch. Pouring over maps, dialing in gear, prepping my family and my world for me to disappear off the grid for a week.  It’s a week I don’t have time for.  (No one has time.)  But I’ve grown to the point of a deeper conviction: I don’t have time not to hunt.  My worlds needs me to go.  To be with my Father. To be fed by wilderness.  To be restored and healed.  To adventure with a few men whose friendship makes me a better man.  My family needs me to be strong, wholehearted, and true.  And no context forms that in me more than being with God in some remote piece of Colorado wilderness, chasing bugling elk with the bow.  Hunting is merely one example of many.  From my marriage to parenting, from my closest relationships to my vocation; every realm where God is at work is teeming with life, and excrement.

Jesus invites us into the reality that our Good Father is a generous sower; He is constantly scattering seeds of possibility, healing, rescue, and transformation like the cottonwood that fills the April air with millions of seeds. In His wild goodness, even the smallest seed will become the greatest tree when it finds the rich soil of a tended heart.

It is interesting that there is no better way to amend soil than to thoughtfully and wisely add shit to it.  While it may stink to high heaven, manure in the hands of a wise man provides soil with exactly what it needs to be the optimal environment for germinating and sustaining life.

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It takes a lot of shit to make good soil.

These words of a wise old sage finally brought home the reality to my heart as a young man.

If, truly, in the depths of my heart, I want to become good soil, something deeper still must be willing to shovel a proportional amount of excrement. I must turn away from the false promise of shortcuts and instead engage the slow and steady process of becoming good soil, one shovel-load of manure at a time.

What is my resistance to the shovel work of the narrow road?  What is my resistance the hard work of unplugging from the matrix in order to plug in to the hearts of my kids and be fully present?  What is my resistance to putting in the long, hard miles of serving under other kings, the miles of being a middle manager and of taking the no-shortcuts path in my vocation? What is my resistance to the hard work necessary for a vibrant, adventurous, intimacy-filled, and laughter-laden marriage?

Maybe we’ve been going after the wrong thing, from the wrong end, literally.

You want life? You need oxen.

You got oxen, you got shit to shovel.

No oxen, no shit, no life.

Oxen. Shit. Life.

Take a moment.

What stinks in your life, literally?  Write it down. Take stock of the piles of manure.  Ask the Father to show you His interpretation.  Don’t give up.  We need your strength.

Maybe it’s time to invest in a good pair of boots.

Here’s to life…

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Father, I confess my resistance.  I confess my tendency to try to avoid shovel work and yet still cry out for life.  Father, the Scriptures say we are to open ourselves before You, keeping nothing back, and that You, through Jesus’ resurrection life, will do whatever needs to be done.  You promise to bring the validation we need (Psalm 37 5:6). I need it, Father.  I want to be able to consider these pressures and challenges from every side as training.  That under this pressure, my faith-life is forced open and will show its true colors.  I want these challenges to have their way in my heart so that I might mature and become well-developed, not deficient in any way (James 1:2-4).  You say that if I choose to stay, to live as a man loyally in love with You, the reward is life and more life (James 1:12). Father, I am choosing to take You up on Your invitation and Your interpretation.

Father, You have my permission to re-interpret the crap in my life. What is it in me that is prone so quickly to discouragement, hopelessness? Would You tend to the young places in me who fight against the way You choose to work in this world? Oh, Father. Would You show me Your good heart for me here?

Show me how to do the shovel work, with You, alongside of You.  I can’t do this alone:  I choose union with You.

Show me how to fold the manure of today back into my story and my heart and let it supernaturally become the good soil of my tomorrow.

Come today.  Reveal who You are and set the world right.

Set it right, in me.

Amen.