But much increase comes from the strength of an ox.
I read this proverb this morning. It does what proverbs do best, namely to pithily state something that is universally accepted, and then leave you to connect the dots.
Generally, I'm a fan of order. Unapologetically, in fact. There is something about bringing order out of chaos that rings of creation by the God in whose image the Bible says I am made. In the hospital, and outside the hospital, I spend a lot of time trying to solve problems. And oftentimes, those solutions take the form of trying to develop a good system. A system that documents medicine doses given. A system for determining how our construction projects will be funded. A system for approving student thesis research projects. These are all good things, and what's more, I think they are one of the significant contributions that I and my teammates make to various situations we encounter here. I see a well-functioning system in place and it feels so right.
In other words, I like a clean manger. Quite a lot.
Generally speaking, though, we do not live in a world of clean mangers. And by the way, this proverb is being ridiculously polite, and I think we all know it. I mean, yes, it's true that the oxen will leave the manger dirty, and there is a nice parallelism between the manger void of food and the harvest of food that the oxen produce. But we all know that the manger is not where the real mess is. Oxen leave quite a bit more in the stables before they go out to their work. The stable is not clean.
I can relate to that. For all fires I try and put out, or all the systems I try to put into place to prevent the next fire, things fall apart. The day feels like whack-a-mole. Even 60% feels super great sometimes. This world is good and fallen and messy. Our efforts at creative order in this world are good and fallen and... messy. Actually it can be quite dispiriting.
I like a clean manger.
Proverbs' personification of Wisdom walks in the door and retorts, "but do you like an abundant harvest?" I see where she is going with this. I glance up at her as if to ask "do I really need to answer that?" She looks back as if to say the same thing.
"Yes, I do," I say begrudgingly, but still appreciating the back-and-forth.
"Then it's going to be messy," Wisdom replies, "but that doesn't mean you're doing it wrong."
Aside from the oxen argument from the natural order, why is this mess necessary? Couldn't we be free to create order without it. Last year, I read these words from the late, great Eugene Peterson in his Under the Unpredictable Plant:
A group of seminarians I was leading on retreat once asked me what I like best about being a pastor. I answered, "The mess." I had never said that before; I don't think I had even thought it before. The answer surprised me as much as it did them...Actually I don't like the mess at all. I hate the mess. I hate the uncertainty. I hate not knowing how long this is going to last, hate the unanswered questions, the limbo of confused and indecisive lives, the tangle of motives and emotions. What I love is the creativity. And what I know is that I can never be involved in creativity except by entering the mess.
I think this is quite true, and I can relate to it. Thus, to act in imitation of my Creator, I will enter the mess.
Even more so, I think that I am (very slowly) learning that this is how we grow in trust. How should things be in this world? It's a good question, and part of the answer is that we are to be trusting God. And how would we learn to trust without things happening in a way that is other than what makes sense to us?
The manger is not clean. We need the mess.
One Kibuye way of expressing this over the years has been to reference "thorns and thistles". In Keller's Every Good Endeavor, he references these words in Genesis 3: "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field."
Keller's point is that sometimes our work in this world is full of hardships and brokenness, the "thorns and thistles". Why? Because the world is broken with sin. Why is that important? Because, though it means that the presence of such difficulties is a sign of something wrong (we know this intuitively), it does not mean that we are doing something wrong.
Yes, we have days like that. So you do, I imagine. We walk home and catch the eye of an old friend who happens to also be a teammate.
"How's the day?"
"Thorns and thistles."
A nod of understanding. Sometimes, it's a mess. But that's not a sign necessarily that you're doing something wrong. It may be an opportunity for creativity. An opportunity for trust. Maybe it means that the oxen are hard at work. We await the harvest. Courage as you wait.