Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lessons From the Pig Farm

I learned an important lesson about dealing with messy community and messy discipleship at a pig farm in southern Louisiana. When I was a graduate student in the biological engineering department at Louisiana State University, I took a class called bioreactor design. Bioreactors are used to grow cells and tissues and are systems that transform raw materials into useful products. The class focused on understanding the variables and catalysts of the reactions that transformed inputs into productive outputs—like turning chemicals into medicines and wastewater into wetlands. It was about designing a system in which transformation was catalyzed.

Toward the end of the semester, each of us was required to participate in a project that brought together all the principles we had learned. While the majority of my classmates were designing systems that working with snazzy equipment and studying reaction kinetics for cranking out important products like pharmaceuticals, I was sloshing through the mud and poop of Ben Hur Research Farm every day to take samples from the treatment lagoon at the swine animal feeding operation. In other words, I was drawing samples of pig crap out of a pit.

Here’s the deal. Pig farms stink. I mean, they stink really badly. And most of the farmers treat the waste in treatment lagoons. My goal was to reduce the stink. My project was to determine the variables and kinetic parameters (width, length, depth, retention time, flow, volume, etc) for the reactions in the lagoon that broke down the waste and converted it into useful product—fertilizer—and to come up with new lagoon designs that maximized those reactions. Does that make sense? All this pig poop was being flushed into a alagoon…and I had to make it less stinky.

But here’s the deal—I quickly learned I couldn't do anything to directly address the stink. Instead, I have to focus on creating an environment in which the stink was most effectively and efficiently converted into a useful and beneficial product. The point was not to focus on the stink but to focus on the environment. To design an environment that fostered change and maximized transformation.

In the church, we tend to want to focus on the stink. The sin, the mess, the conflict, the “whatever” that we perceive to be inhibiting growth and community. And we think if we point at it and say firmly enough “stop” that it will go away. Or we try to ignore it away. In reality, we need to approach things like that bioreactor design class. Acknowledge that mess (poo, crap, bad stuff) is a natural by-product of life and work to create environments that catalyze change.


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