The Compost Heap and the Church: New Life (Part Five)

Presented at Gathering Leaves 
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine

2013-08-24 22.34.13New Life
Decomposition and fertilization lead us to the third message of the compost heap: new life. If we learn anything from what the Lord shows us in nature, in the Word, in our own lives, it’s that things work in cycles, and there is new life. We see God is a God of resurrection, cycles, rebirth, and new life.

Friends and sisters, something is trying to be born. The Divine Parent, the Divine Womb, is rich. Use whatever words resonate with you—a new era, a new consciousness, the New Jerusalem descending to earth—something is active and present and urging to be born. The signs of the giant rummage sale are the contractions. Something is pressing to be born, and we don’t know what it is or how it will come. But we can be called to be midwives to it. New shoots and plants are pressing their way through the dirt and make their way into the light. We can notice and we can be present to the hope and the pain, the mess and the beauty, and then we can celebrate the new life.

2013-08-24 21.27.53Look for the Pumpkins
I believe by staying present to the contractions and expansions, being a non-anxious presence in times of change, and keeping our eyes out and celebrating the new birth when we see is a call for all of us. We can actively be on the look out for where the church is being reimagined and born in the world?

We might be tempted to say, “That doesn’t look like church to me. I don’t even recognize that as church. That’s not what I’m used to church looking like.” It’s easy to miss or dismiss these new expressions of life. Maybe because we’re so focused on a nice neat row of lettuce, because that is what we’ve always done—plant lettuce. But, look up and there’s a pumpkin growing out of the compost heap!

Where are these new expressions of church happening in our churches, our congregations, our world? How can recognize and re-imagine what it means to be church?

Because here’s the thing to remember about the compost heap—what comes out of the compost heap is rarely the plant we expect. You can take the fertilizer and spread it around your nice rows of lettuce, and it can help. We continue to maintain the things that are working in our churches and that serve the world.  But when we open our eyes for the new signs of life that are being born as church is re-imagined we see new life. These are the gifts of the compost heap. Not the things that we planted in straight rows, but it’s that pumpkin! And it’s the biggest pumpkin in your entire garden, because it emerged from the fertilizer that came before, and grew in its freedom, and creative new life on the back corner by the shed.

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Re-imagining Church
Last Friday I was at my internship, at Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I go on Sundays for worship and it’s beautiful and creative, then on Friday’s I go to be part of the worship that is the Food Pantry, because on Fridays there’s a different congregation there. There’s a different way that church is done.

By noon a long line of people are standing outside the doors of a steep San Francisco street. They walk in the front doors of the sanctuary, and around the communion table, where they find piles of rice, fresh celery, bread, watermelons, and strawberries. Four hundred families, who are hungry, come in and they take communion. And people are worshiping. And passing around piles of carrots. And loaves of bread. And looking each other in the eyes and seeing the face of God.

This is church. To be able to love each person who walks in the door. Many of them I can barely communicate with, because I have yet to learn Mandarin, Chinese, Russian, and only know a little Spanish. But I can greet everyone with a smile and say, “Welcome, I’m glad you’re here” and when they walk out the door, “Have a good day, see you next week.” The Food Pantry one of those pumpkins from the compost heap, it is church.

God is on the Move
I don’t know what the church looks like in this next season.  My suspicion is that it is going to look many, many different ways. It is going to be creative and the variety is going to be wide. I don’t know what the models are going to be, but what I do know is that it’s not going to look how it looked for my great-grandparents or my grandparents, or even my parents, or even how I thought it would look. Something is moving and shifting in the world. The church is changing.

I believe God is on the move. God is hovering over the face of the waters, continuing to create and move and breathe into all that is. And this is not our creation. This is God’s creation that we are privileged to participate in.

2013-08-24 21.27.39I don’t believe this new life is born of strategic plans, or any one of our specific ideas of what our denomination’s next steps are, though these can be helpful at times in our processes of preparation. I believe this new life is of, from, and will be birthed by the Holy One. We are called to be midwives and hospice chaplains and gardeners.

We are called to be that non-anxious presence in the midst of decomposition to celebrate lives well lived and grieve change and loss.

We are called to honor our ancestors, to notice and name the way their lives and work fertilized all we are today. We are called to be fertilizer, to consciously make choices and changes based on what is pressing to be born.

And we are called to witness new life. Not new life that we quickly fabricate within our desire to survive. But new life that comes from God—and grows out of what has been. New life that arises after we’ve been broken down, our dreams have died, we’ve let go, we’ve released our holds, we’ve sat—quiet and still—through the cold of winter awaiting the new life of spring.

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You can find this entire article published in the recent edition of The Messenger.  

The Compost Heap and the Church: Fertilization (Part Four)

Presented at Gathering Leaves 
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine

2013-09-04 15.20.20 Fertilization
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Intergenerational Support
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?

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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.