Easter’s fertile promise

Composting as parable of faith formation

by Ken Sehested
Easter Sunday, 4 April 2021

I’ve never had a green thumb. My wife tends indoor plants and outside flowers. I’ve never had the urge to garden, though I wish I had.

But I’ve enjoyed making dirt for over 30 years. Soil, I should say. Dark, fertile, nutrition rich soil that growing things need to thrive, filled with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and a dozen other nutrients and organic matter.

I keep three compost stashes going. A two-gallon bucket next to the kitchen sink, where I deposit scraps from meal preparation, certain dinner leftovers, coffee grounds, napkins, and shredded paper. Once every week or so, when it’s full, I take it outside and empty it in a 96-gallon compost container, next to a mound of “brown” material—leaves and grass clippings—for covering each deposit. I’m not in a hurry, so I don’t turn the compost, which would speed up the process; I just let the weather and worms do their work.

Once each year I empty the composter and cover it with a layer of brown material, where it will sit, undisturbed. After “cooking” for a year, it’s ready to do its magic. So I shovel it into cardboard boxes, careful to remove the weed roots that encroached over the past year. The load comes to about a half-yard, filling my pickup bed for transport to our kiddos’ house up the street. My son-in-law, Rich, tends a large garden. It’s down payment for a bountiful harvest of vegetables and berries to come.

This is my substitute for an Easter sunrise service. (I’m not an early riser.)

Most of the brown material comes from my own yard. But if the leaf harvest in late fall is smaller than normal, I’ll patrol my neighborhood streets and collect bagged leaves set out for the city to pick up.

Composting isn’t hard, but it’s not convenient, either. It takes some work and persistent attention.

Sometimes the labor of spiritual formation is, in fact, hard. Grace sometimes takes us to places we would otherwise not be inclined to go; or be with people we’d otherwise avoid; or pay attention to news that we’d just as soon ignore.

Sometimes spiritual growth is like an earthquake, unsettling things we thought would always be certain and secured. Sometimes it's a big screen drama, brimming with a scary storyline, and heroic gestures and heart-pounding action, with valor in the dark and near-catastrophes and undeserved affliction.

All the saints have scars and bruises and limps and even missing limbs. All had, like us, scrap material: peelings, bruised spots, wilted and other gone-bad produce, indigestible trimmings, rinds and seeds. The promise of compost, like Easter, is that nothing is wasted. Part of resurrection’s exultation is knowing God wants all of us. In one of his poems, Steve Garnaas-Holmes has this striking metaphor, “God licks the spoon of us.”

Spiritual formation can be wearisome, can place you in a storm-tossed boat, can demand more than you think you can bear. It is almost never convenient and can be unnerving. It is not risk-averse.

But most of the time, spiritual formation is much like composting. It requires persistent attention, intentional choices, and locating yourself in a community where some bring nitrogen, some phosphorous, some potassium and the like. Mostly there are no fireworks or theatrics, much less headline news, and almost never fame nor fortune.

Spiritual formation is quotidian work. In ordinary circumstances. Sweating the small stuff; showing up; giving attention, without the need for billboards, to the needs on the streets whose names you know. It requires constructing a custom-made rhythm of work and rest; of action and reflection; of listening and speaking; and making a nest with others—ordinary, non-saintly, sometimes eccentric others—who are attempting the same.

Civility is among the many daily habits we practice. As the author of the book of James noted, the tongue can cause all manner of harm (3:5-6).  However, when confronting injustice, civility is not a primary virtue. “Peace” is not always “quiet,” and silence becomes violence.

Some conflicts need to be heightened, confronted, brought to the surface, before they can be dealt with. What passes for order must sometimes be dismantled before communities can flourish. Some trouble is “good trouble,” in the words of former Congressman and heralded civil rights leader John Lewis.

There is work to be done (not to mention merriment and sweet treats). But ultimate outcomes are not ours to engineer. There is a fecund Presence in Creation we can count on.

Dominion is not up to us. But cultivating is. Don’t mind the sweat and don’t neglect your gloves; but don’t postpone joy.

As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, in his say-it-slant way, God longs to “easter in us.” Join your will to that Way.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org