TRUE STORY: The boy and the manure — Mark Roberts

A message in manure (PHOTO:

The day I met Dennis, I was a little alarmed, to say the least. My minister had asked me to take the 20-year-old under my wing and try to work with him on the farm. He was an addict with a preference for ‘Tik’ and from our initial meeting, it was evident that he had been using it for many years.

Initial conversations were limited to a few sentences, and his ability to focus and concentrate were severely impaired. He was an only child who came from a very conservative background. Naturally, his parents blamed themselves, but their attempts to rescue him were hampered by the ways in which they enabled, empowered, and accepted his behaviour. There was no attempt from his side. He sat in the pigpen as his life began to slowly fall apart and watched emotionless as his mother lay slumped in a bedridden state from despair. Other than that, he was a likable chap. He had a great sense of humour although sometimes bordering on naughty.

His impaired communication skill made it difficult to relate and communicate effectively with groups of people. The other addicts generally avoided him, not so much due to his impairment, but because he was a stark reminder of what drugs can do to your brain. The farm was filled with all sorts of characters from all walks of life. Over time as they left, I carved their names into wooden plaques that hung on a wall in the garden, not as a victory emblem, but as a reminder to myself of what I had learned and how God had blessed me for bringing these people into our lives. It was hard work, at times heart-wrenching, but it was also rewarding and fulfilling.

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“Today you need to help me with the manure,” I said as I pointed to the piles of horse dung lying in the nearby field. We had three horses: Pony, Amigo and King. King and Amigo were therapy horses who really earned their keep, and all they expected in return was for us to feed and clean up after them. A fair expectation. 

“I’m not picking up crap,” said Dennis rather defiantly. “It’s a working farm, Dennis,” I said as I stood to face him. “Besides, I’m not expecting you to do it alone. You’re helping me. When we’re done, we can take a dip in the dam,” I said as he summed me up and down. He took the spade, as I followed with a wheelbarrow, and after an hour we swapped roles. I tried to make a few jokes as we worked to lighten the mood. It worked. For the next few months, it became his chore, and on completion, we would swim, drink coffee under the trees or simply take a nice afternoon stroll. Unfortunately, he was no good at cooking, gardening, or anything else, but his attention was held by one activity only: picking up manure. He was easy to chat with and the single sentence conversations began to evolve into some serious philosophical discussions that bordered on ‘weird’, like, “What if cat spells dog?”

I began to see a dramatic improvement in him, despite the impediments. He enjoyed the farm and strangely the farm seemed to like him as well. He loved wandering about on walks, playing with the animals, and growing comfortable with the smell of manure. He even became best friends with the horses. After six months on the farm, he would still occasionally pass a comment about how he felt a craving for a ‘hit’. I’d try to change the subject and keep him busy, and within minutes he would forget that he had ever felt that way.

On a hot sweltering day, we took a breather from our chores and sat under the trees. I poured water over my head, drenching my hair, shoulders, and clothes before downing the last of the contents. “This is madness, working in this heat,” I said as I sat down. “It’s amazing how the manure smells worse when it’s so hot,” he said laughing under his breath. “Are you saying that on cooler days the manure smells better?” I asked, sounding genuinely interested.

“I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. I’m becoming a bit of a dung specialist,” he said as we both packed up laughing.

“That is an interesting lesson,” I said in a very serious tone.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, generally when things are cool and going well, we don’t really notice the crap in the world and in our lives. The crap smells tolerable. When the heat gets turned up and we face serious problems and challenges, from a place of desperation and necessity, we become painfully aware of the crap. The problem is that circumstances are often the thing that influences our sense of smell and tells us if the crap is tolerable or bad.”

I watched him tentatively and he seemed to be understanding what I was saying. “Your problem is simple. The heat and problems in your life have escalated but you haven’t even flinched at the smell. The crap is so bad that you have started to sink in it and the smell doesn’t seem to bother you,” I said as I watched his expressions carefully. “Or am I wrong? The question is why would you choose to remain there?” He pondered for a minute and looked down.

“I guess I just don’t know how to get out… maybe I belong there,” he said with an expression of despair. “I climbed in by myself and now I guess I just feel like I’m part of it. I look the same, smell the same and it’s just where I feel at home. After all, the world doesn’t care… No one really cares. I am alone and that’s just the way it rolls,” he muttered under his breath.

“Talk about rolling, there was this guy by the name of Dick Kleis who was a farmer,” I said and waited for a few seconds. “He literally spread one hundred and twenty-three tons of manure across the lawn on his farm.”

“That’s a lot of dung,” he said.

“Yep, they say his wife absolutely loved it,” I said with a bit of laughter in my voice.

“Weird chick. She probably loved the smell?” he baited.

“Well, if she didn’t get the message in the manure, maybe she would have been seriously peeved instead,” I let slip.

“Huh?” was all he managed to let out. “What message?”

“The ‘I LOVE YOU’ message he wrote in the dung,” I said and waited. “Imagine writing out a message in dung to express your love?”

“Doesn’t sound very romantic,” mocked Dennis.

“Actually, I think it’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” I said. “You are in the dung of this life and battling to get out. There is someone who loves you very much and He has been waiting for you. He doesn’t say you must get out of the dung before you can meet him because you are so bad and unworthy. Instead, He steps into your smelly, dirty world and in the dung of your own life, He carves out a message of love. The problem with the world is they are so busy reeling in the poo that they never see the message of the One who loves them. Imagine a person who is clean and perfect stepping into the dung of your life, who carves a message of love with His bare hands, who doesn’t see or smell the dung. He only has eyes for you” I said as I stared into his eyes.

“Wow. It’s hard to digest,” he said.

“Actually, it’s not as hard as chewing, digesting, and choking on manure every day of your life,” I interrupted. With that said, I got up, grabbed the spade, and started shovelling manure.

Dennis stood for a while watching me and then took the spade from me. “Imagine if someone left a message like that for me. It would be a first,” he laughed. With that, I stood up straight and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Someone did, Dennis. To write that note in your dung cost Him His life. He wrote the message of love so that you could be free of the dung. The day you understand Jesus, dung will never smell or look the same,” I whispered.

“You know, no one ever said what happened to the dung that Dick Kleis spread on his lawn, but I guess he cleaned it up. Even after it’s gone, his wife remembers the message every day. What you need to do is look and find the message, embrace it and watch how He cleans the mess up. Then, for the rest of your life, you’ll remember the message. When you step out into life in the future and see dung, look at the message and not the dung,” I said. As we continued working, Dennis remarked how the day suddenly seemed cooler and somehow not so smelly. We both laughed loudly as the other residents joined us for afternoon tea in the garden.

I haven’t seen Dennis in many years, but I do occasionally think about him and pray that he still sees the message. Imagine that. A God who stepped into this world as a babe in a manger and as He took His first breath of air, His lungs were filled with the stench of manure. Oh, trust me, Jesus knows all about manure… Mine, yours, and Dennis’s, and He came and scratched out a message of love in the midst of it. A message that says, “I love you.”

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