Presented at Gathering Leaves
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine
The second concept of the compost heap is fertilization. Fertilizer, no matter how we cut it, is rarely pretty. It doesn’t smell good. Fertilizer is not what you take and put in a beautiful crystal vase or gorgeous pottery bowl in the middle of the table—you want those fresh flowers or tomatoes there. But fertilizer is incredibly important, and can be something we intentionally cultivate with our dying leaves.
Leaves can just fall where they do; our churches and programs and ways of being can just slowly fade away. Or we can ask, “How can we purposefully use this thing that is dying to be the nutrients for what is going to grow?” This is the fertilizer. This is what I believe that we all can be called to, to purposefully put the leaves on the compost heap to decompose into useful fertilizer. And we can stop and remember that fertilizer is what we’re all growing out of. We are all here, being the branches of our denominations and our spiritual heritage because of the people who have put fertilizer on in the past.
Personally I can stand in this room and I can think about my ancestors. I think about my great-grandparents, Anita and Louis Dole who were part of the founding of this camp, my great-grandma who wrote the Dole Notes, a rich resource in Swedenborgian Bible study. Bill and Louise Woofenden, pillars in the church and this camp. My maternal grandparents Dave and Shirley Gladish dedicated their lives to Swedenborgian scholarship and translation. Shirley Gladish, my last living grandparent, who’s still doing working on the New Century edition for the Swedenborg Foundation in her late eighties. And I’m humbled, truly humbled by this legacy and how my ancestors gave their lives to the church, and were that active fertilizer that we are growing out of.
When we talk about this compost heap, it’s not about throwing out the old. It’s not about how the younger generation wants to come in and change everything and blow off the older generation. That’s not the point. The point is: we are each fertilizer for the next generation, so how do we do this purposefully? Rather than throwing out the old in the trash, can we let it be recycled, composted, and become the nutrients for the next generation?
Both my Woofenden grandparents died recently. They had faded out of active life in the church over the last number of years, with their bodies and minds began to slow down. But their commitment and faith to the Swedenborgian was still central to the ethos of their home.
When I went to visit over the last few years, the way that Grandpa would connect with people was through showing us things around the house and telling the stories. We talked a lot about the paintings on the wall, the little squeaky things that made bird sounds, and inevitably, he’d show me the most recent book from the Swedenborg Foundation. And then he would show me with great pride, the bookstand that the Swedenborg Foundation had given him to honor his work with them. Grandma, even when she was struggling to fully communicate, would still have her Greek New Testament out, which she had read her whole life. And every day, at lunch or dinner, depending on the schedule, Grandpa and Grandma would read a chapter from the Bible, slowly working their way from Genesis to Revelation, and back again. They were faithful to their spiritual tradition in their generation.
What does it look like to be faithful in my generation? I am called to be faithful to God and to walk in the Swedenborgian heritage in my generation. And I, and my generation, know that we cannot do it alone. We are able to be the church for our generation, because of the fertilization that has been, is, and will be done by the generations that have come before us.
Building or Gardening
“Built on” is often the metaphor we hear when we talk about generational shifts. Or “stand on the shoulders of.” I appreciate these sentiments. I hold a deep regard for those who have been living the life of faith, and leading and sustaining and innovating the church for each generation. And I know I would not be standing here without that.
However, I’d like to offer the idea of fertilizer as an alternative metaphor. “Building” quickly becomes a linear or hierarchical metaphor. And it is very bound by form. This generation bought the land and built a small chapel, the next generation built on that by adding a larger sanctuary and fellowship hall, the next the parking lot, playground, and a new roof on the original chapel. Now it’s up to my generation to build on that by getting the new carpet and wiring the fellowship hall with technology—and don’t forget that the playground equipment needs to be updated. Being the church takes on the feeling of another thing on the to-do list or an uninvited expectation.
Things have changed in how each generation relates to church, and with this change, we have an opportunity to re-imagine the metaphors. Involvement in church is not the assumption that it was 50 years ago. As someone who is called to be a leader in the church, I can speak for some and share that it is hard to be a faith leader in this era. Gone are the days of community respect, assured job security, and predictable employment. In this era, we are charged with re-imagining church, and ministering to a generation that holds no assumption around the need to be part of church. This work is not easy, and we need each generation to play their part.
We need the coming generations to be proactively trained, equipped, and empowered, and our organizations to consciously make space for new voices. We need our systems to be courageous around change, and cultivate creative and present conversation among all of us. To give voice to the legacy that has been written, and to honor the way that compost can be given for the next generation of leaders. To take the time to ask the generations above and below, “What does it look like to purposefully fertilize?” How can we make organizational choices, financial choices, building choices, cultural choices, in a way that makes fertile rich soil for the next generations and for new life to grow?
To be continued… or if you can’t wait and want to read the whole thing together you can find it published in the recent edition of The Messenger.