Compost as a Vision of Grace
Compost as a Vision of GraceI’m the kind of person who takes pictures of piles of what others call “trash”—used paper plates smeared with BBQ sauce, the green beans some toddler spit out, greasy napkins and the like—and then posts the photos on Facebook (which rarely get any “likes”!).
I see the potential of this so-called trash; indeed, it is like treasure to me when I fast forward in my imagination to the vegetables and flowers that will someday be nourished by it. The photo also documents an act of love and care for God’s creation, and so I think God finds that pile beautiful too.
In case you’re not familiar with the incredible process of composting, let me give you a little primer. Some of you may be more familiar with the term “mulch pile”—that pile out back of food scraps and dead leaves, where local critters help themselves to the smorgasbord. A wise mother or grandmother had one in striking distance of the kitchen window.
Successful composting takes a little more work. Basically, it is a form of recycling with organic matter (basically, anything that rots) that eventually heats up (yay, bacteria!) and “cooks” the waste so it starts decomposing. Microorganisms and critters feed on the hot waste, digest it, and create nutrient-rich manure. The pile gets turned from time to time to allow more oxygen so the good bacteria can work. In time, a good pile will break down into rich, earthy-smelling soil fertilizer that some call “black gold.”
A compost pile mimics the natural process of decomposition found in a healthy forest. As trees and leaves fall and break down, they provide habitat for various critters. Eventually, they fully rot and become essential organic matter for the growth of new trees and plants.
While our familiar Creation story focuses on the creation of material “stuff,” it’s the cycles and systems that are the most miraculous to me. God has given us a complex, interdependent world that is constantly in motion around us, just sometimes in incredibly slow and microscopic motion.
God created systems in the world so that there would literally be no waste, no thing that does not get repurposed in some way. Creation is intended to be what sustainable farmers call a “closed loop” system, in which everything has a purpose, a role. And that role always leads in some way to new life or growth. Something useless, rotting, ruined, stale, or even dead, when handled wisely with care, can bring forth abundance and health.
When humans interfere with these processes, however, we often end up with the opposite outcome. Take food waste, for instance. When nitrogen-rich food waste ends up in a landfill without much oxygen, it releases methane as it rots. Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas, 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In a landfill, the food and food waste designed to give life instead contributes to climate change and the suffering and death around the world that comes with various climate catastrophes like extreme drought, super typhoons, and unprecedented flooding.
But that’s not the way of Jesus, as the reading from Acts shows us today. As soon as Peter hears that beloved Tabitha, or Dorcas, had died, he went straight to her bedside and prayed. She came alive, no doubt shocking her weeping friends and turning their mourning to dancing. This should not shock us now in 2016, though, with so many resurrection stories in our Scriptures, including that big one involving our Savior we celebrate this Eastertide.
Yet, sadly, we operate so often with a landfill mentality and theology.
Our throwaway culture values convenience at almost any cost, and our self-centered egos believe that things matter insofar as they are useful to us—and we are not responsible for them past their utility. Many Christians promote a God who seems more aligned with death, sickness, and revenge than life, health, and grace—a God who ordains war and wants more guns to protect his flock. Or perhaps a God who wills our deaths to happen on a certain day or in a certain way, or who uses illness as punishment and instruction.
I hear about this kind of God frequently in my ministry at a local domestic violence shelter. Once a week, I spend an hour or two in the shelter offering spiritual care, an empathetic ear, and encouragement. The women, escaping physical and/or emotional trauma, were once treated like worthless trash, without a larger purpose beyond their abuser’s needs. They were stuck in a dark pit with no future, steeped in the stench of evil.
They come to the shelter because deep down, somewhere, they know they are worth more than that putrid pit. I get to share the Good News with them that “compost happens”—that Jesus is all about making new life from the ruins of the old. The hurt and hardship of that time was not God’s dream, but God is able to redeem it, to bring growth out of it, if we are willing and have good support. God has a beautiful purpose for each of us, I remind them.
Yet it is so difficult for many of these women to accept a life-giving, gracious God. They have heard the opposite for so long, of a judging, distant, score-keeping God. What did I do to God to deserve what my abuser did to me? … I guess all of my loved ones died so God could test me and see if I could live on my own … I just pray to God every day to not take away my salvation … I don’t understand why all these bad things happened to me, but I know God had a reason.
While most speak of God as a source of strength and comfort, comments and questions like these belie a painful internal struggle. Is God a God of life or a God of death?
Both the Scriptures and Creation affirm a God of life. Scripture is a form of revelation, and so is Creation—we can understand who God is and what God is about by contemplating on both. We are guaranteed to find miracles of transformation, abundance, healing, cleansing. Of new life from death.
When Dorcas died, Peter did not shrug and say, “Well, it was just her time” or “We don’t understand why God would take such a good woman so soon, but that’s just God’s will.” No, Peter got up immediately, went to her bedside, and prayed to the Lord of Life. He trusted that, somehow, God’s grace would break through, and he was willing to be a channel of that grace.
God’s vision for the future—for each of us and for Creation—is not a trash heap. Today in the passage from Revelation, the vision unfolds: those who have come out of a great ordeal have been cleansed. “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat, for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” We can be like Peter, faithfully and actively nurturing all things toward this future.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday (emphasis on good)—a day to celebrate God’s guidance, care, and protection. The Shepherd does not lead the sheep off a cliff because of bad behavior, but rather to refreshing waters and lush pastures. The Shepherd walks with the sheep through the valley of darkness, through the landfills of life, to a new place of blessing and goodness.
The nasty “trash,” the rotting peels, and the chewed-up gristle of our lives do not come from God. But God can do something with them, if we trust the process and are willing to be transformed—even if the experience is uncomfortable at times. God breathes into our piles, gently stirs things around, and provides the helpers we need to change junk into glory. In time, we become the nourishment others need to live and grow and change.
Each of us can be a force for regeneration for others and for Creation, too, partnering with God in the world’s transformation. Every day, we are given opportunities to choose Jesus’ way of life and growth, or not. Composting and other forms of recycling are part of this work, and can serve as daily spiritual practices reminding us of the Best News of the universe—Jesus is risen! And Jesus continues to rise in our midst.
One of my favorite poems is Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Here are just a few verses:
“Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.”
The poem ends with two simple but profound words:
Practice resurrection at every turn of your life and your pitch fork, sharing by word and example the Good News of new life in Jesus Christ. Tell the world about a Shepherd who knows, loves, and guides each of us, through the dark pits into abundant fields.
Tell them about the Good Composter who looks at a refuse pile with love, ready to prove again and again that life conquers death.
Joyfully tell them this:
Compost happens! Alleluia, Alleluia!
Preached at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Valdosta
April 17, 2016
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:36-43; Rev. 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
By Rev. Dcn. Leeann Culbreath
(South Georgians can contact Dcn. Leeann Culbreath at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’d love to find out how you can help GIPL lead in South Georgia for the sake of all of Creation!)