Prayer for the Church and the Compost Heap

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O Holy One,
Who stirs over the face of the waters,
Who created at the beginning, the garden,
Who gives us this vision of a heavenly city,
With a garden in the middle of it. 

May we, each individually and collectively,
be present,
with the journey of compost. 

May we be present with the decomposition,
to grieve,
to celebrate,
to let go. 

May we be courageous and active to being fertilizer for the next generations.
May we be purposeful and bold,
making choices not out of survival or comfort,
but from our love for all that is good and true.

And may we be curious, engaged, and on the lookout for new growth.
May we be delightfully surprised, and touched to the core of our heart,
When we see how you, O Holy One, are birthing Your New Church. 

We see a garden ahead of us,
The garden of the New Jerusalem,
with the river that flows through the city,
giving truth and quenching thirst,
to all who seek it.

The trees with leaves that heal the nations.
We see twelve gates,
welcoming all to enter and
come and take the water of life freely.

This garden,
where there is no temple,
where God is the center of the city.
And in this garden,
I do believe,
there probably is a
Compost Heap.
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Read The Compost Heap and the Church

The Compost Heap and the Church (Part One)

Presented at Gathering Leaves (a symposium for women from all branches of the Swedenborgian Tradition)
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine

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I have come to believe that a compost heap is beautiful. Decaying leaves. Crumbled eggshells. And yes, even that slime oozing off a banana peal. I love a good compost heap. I cannot say that I’ve grown to love the odor—that sharp, putrid smell that reminds us of death as part of the life cycle. But I do love a good compost heap, and I do believe that it is beautiful.

I believe dry leaves are beautiful. Dry leaves hold a set of unique colors. Looking out the window over the Saco River today, we see that the leaves are beginning to turn. And in the next month, thousands of tourists will come to New England. And what will all these people flock here to see? Dying leaves! Millions of beautifully shaped colored flags proclaiming in unison the changing of the season and the decay of their little corner of the nature-scape.2013-08-24 23.00.07

This sense of cycles is evoked by the Gathering Leaves 2013 theme, “Changing Colors, Changing Lives.” As are the seasons of nature, so are the seasons of our lives, of our communities, and of our churches. I believe that the cycles and the seasons—like any spiritual principle—do not just apply to their literal manifestations. These cycles in the natural world correspond, or mirror a spiritual process, something that is going on internally. Emanuel Swedenborg talks about the idea of the microcosm and the macrocosm, and that any one principle is true on various levels, leading me to believe that not only do the season and life cycles show up inside an individual, but also in collections of individuals. What we know about death and life, birth and resurrection, in a human setting, can also be true within a community, within humanity as a whole, within nature, and in the church.

And so within this context of seasons and change, I’d like to consider the following questions: What are the spiritual principles of a compost heap? And how does that apply to the church? What does it mean to be part of an organization that is moving through decomposition, fertilization, and new growth? 

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Intergenerational Conversation
This morning at Gathering Leaves we have an opportunity to engage intergenerational conversations around the future of our church. My experience is that it takes effort and is often uncomfortable to talk about the church between generations. I walk in many circles, and I often end up in conversations about church with various generations. I’ve noticed that particularly from the generation that’s most prominently represented here—those over fifty-five—I hear these types of questions: “What’s happening to the church?” and “What’s the future of the church?” And I hear the questions, some tinged with expectations or disappointment, “Where are the young people? Why aren’t they taking over?” Or the laments of, “What are we doing wrong?” “Why didn’t this work? I raised my kids in the church and now they’re not interested.” This is a tender and often difficult subject, and it can be very personal for all of us. I hear and honor these questions.

I want to reframe the questions. I believe there’s great power in how we frame our questions, and I’d like to suggest other options. For example, what about these questions: “What might church look like for different generations?” “What is feeding the spiritual lives of the young people of today?” And the question that is driving my call to ministry, and the reason I’m here today: “What does it mean to be faithful today? What does it look like to be ‘church’ in this generation?”

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To be continued… or if you can’t wait and want to read the whole thing right now, you can find it published in the recent edition of The Messenger.  

The Shell

I spent this summer in Northwest Washington, reconnecting with my childhood state, spending time with family and friends, and working as a hospital chaplain intern. Each morning I would ride the bus into work and when I wasn’t nodding off, I would often write poetry as I searched for words for the experience. Here is one such offering. 

The Shell

The old shell is cracking,
sloughing off.
As I straighten my neck,
another layer slides,
crackling on the way down
to the

New skin is exposed,
some raw, quickly
chapped and irritated
by the elements.
Some fresh,
clear and clean,
glowing like a newborn,
with the elasticity and
tenacity of a toddler’s knees.
The rippling muscles of a
marathon runner,
pulsing underneath.

Rising up
Vulnerable wholeness
Exposed strength.

Easter Morning 2012

Christ has risen!


Christ has risen from the dead!

The newsfeed proclaims,

This Easter morning

two thousand years later.

We reach to touch

the awe

the wonder

confusion and fright



of Mary

and Mary.

Disciples who walked with Christ.

They couldn’t believe,

How could this be?

I struggle too.

Is this God of resurrection,

Christ incarnate Word,

Alive and well today?

I, like Thomas,

Want to ask for physical proof,

Show me the children being fed,

Show me the marriages being healed,

Show me the wars subsiding,

The violence ceasing

The hateful words subsiding.

If you are the Christ,

Get down off that cross,

And change things,

Change things for us today.

But not my will,


Thy will be done.

Into this world,

Christ was born.

Into the humanist

of human conditions,

Christ entered.

Walking step by step

Into the contradictions we face.

Providing a constant,

a beacon,

a Divine Light

to follow and let grow inside.

This beacon we reach for,

This light we hope for,

This new hope we glimpse,

This Easter morn.

The Human One,

Risen! Divine!

Our Hope

Our Beacon

Our Spring Bulb,

Bursting forth

with Color

with Vibrant Strength

Out of the cold ground,

After a long, dark winter.

You Are a Pumpkin | Being Emptied Out

“You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” When I hear these familiar lines, I’m drawn to the second-half of the equation. Let’s talk about the dancing and this joy-filled clothing. “You brought me up from the grave, you spared me from going down into the pit.” Rescue and new life—excellent! I’ll avoid even acknowledging that the pit is there…thank you very much. Let’s stick with the new life, the joy and the springtime states. They’re pretty, new and shining, light and fluffy.

But look outside for a moment.  Fall is upon us. Look outside. The leaves are dying and falling to the ground, the plants are curling up and drawing in. Things are rotting, decomposing, returning, dying. The cycle of the seasons around us reminds us… Surrender comes before growth. Cycles and seasons are part of the journey. The pathway to life is through death. Death to our self, to our agendas, to our need to control. Birth to the idea that God is God and we are not.  Nature displays in front of us, that part of spiritual life is the process of being emptied out. There are internal parts of us that need to die, in order for the Divine Life to flow through more freely.

Or another way of framing it: You are a pumpkin.

A pumpkin, filled with the seeds and muck, mixed with hope and new possibility, and baggage and old stories. Terrified of the pain of carving, while yearning to shine brightly.  You are a pumpkin. A pumpkin in the hands of the Carver. Anticipating the scooping out, to make space for the light.

Stephanie Eden, a friend and brilliant singer/songwriter paints it this way:
She says: These are the lyrics to a song I wrote this past October while carving pumpkins with my children.  It is inspired by a sermon given by Pastor Jonathan Rose a number of years ago on the process of being emptied out, and it’s titled: Hollow Me

Hollow Me
By Stephanie Eden

One October a pumpkin grew
Full of seeds and thoughts
She said I don’t wanna be one of those
That sits around and rots
Pick me now cause I wanna be
Like other pumpkins I’ve seen
With a picture and a warming light
For the kids on Halloween
But the other pumpkins warned her
It’s a process you can’t handle
Being scraped and carved right to the flesh
Till you’re cleaned out for a candle

Hollow me hollow me hollow me
And make me shine
Make me shine

The pumpkin she was determined
Her fate was in decoration
But with the first stab of the knife she thought
Time for reconsideration
They were right she thought I’d be better off
As a pie or on the vine
Why wasn’t I satisfied as a big orange squash
Why did I want to shine?
But the carvers hands were gentle
And she could sense the jubilation
As he held her and he made his plans
In great anticipation

Hollow me hollow me hollow me
and make me shine
make me shine

As he began to scrape inside she found
To her seeds she was attached
She was afraid without all her junk inside
She’d be more likely to get smashed
But she noticed too a feeling
Of freedom as she was emptied
All the space and possibilities
Like holding light instead of seeds
Though she never had felt pain
As a pumpkin on the vine
The pain could not come close to how
Good it felt to shine

Hollow me hollow me hollow me
and make me shine
follow me follow me follow
if you wanna shine
make me shine

You are a pumpkin.  You have a choice. Each of one of us have a choice. We can stay on the vine. Comfortable and secure, yes, but in the end, probably just a waste, rotting away.  You have a choice. Each one of us have a choice. We have a choice to allow, or in moments of bravery and insanity, even invite the Carver to take out the knife and begin to hollow. To open up to the emptying out that Christ calls us to, and that Christ walked. Welcome and invite brokenness and being emptied out? Careful what you wish for…but Christ did. Or at a minimum, Christ boldly and deeply accepted this path, wrestled with it and brought new life from it. Christ rose again.

I think that in our culture we often like to try to put a little more space between these polarities—to separate the dying from the rising again. We put space between the scooping out of the insides of the pumpkin to the brightly shining jack-o-lantern. We want to create distance from re-birth to the death. We can be drawn to only focus on the newness of life, spring, flowers, shining lights twinkeling from the pumpkins. These are all lovely things to focus on, but I believe that in separating the pieces of the cycle, death and life, light and dark, springtime and fall, we can loose the profound message for each of us in our spiritual paths.

Swedenborgian theology, my faith background, talks about the process that Jesus went through throughout his life, culminating with death on the cross.

It outlines this process into two states: One, being emptied out and
two glorification or resurrection, new life.
A passage from Swedenborgian theology states:

“The reason why Christ experienced these two states, the state of being emptied out and the state of being glorified, is that no other method of achieving union could possibly exist.  This method follows the divine design.

The divine design is that we arrange ourselves for receiving God and prepare ourselves as a vessel and dwelling place where God can enter and live as if we were God’s own temple. We have to do this preparation by ourselves, yet we have to acknowledge that the preparation comes from God. This acknowledgment is needed because we do not feel the presence or the actions of God, even though God is in fact intimately present and brings about every good love and every true belief we have. This is the divine design we follow to go from being earthly to being spiritual.”  True Christianity 105, Emanuel Swedenborg

In order for God to flow through us, the vessel needs to continue to be cleaned out and cleared out. The shining of our light requires being emptied out, being carved, being formed. We can probably all probably pretty quickly think of a time in our lives or an area of our personal and spiritual growth where we have felt the carving, the cutting, the spiritual surgery, the scooping of the goop. Maybe when we lost a loved one, or transitioned jobs. It came upon us when we came up against challenges in relationships, experienced a health crisis, a spiritual crisis. We wrestle when we encounter doubt, struggle in the day to day work.

This is the work. To be emptied out and to be filled up. The emptying is painful. And powerful. It’s part of the design. It’s part of the cycle. The seasons.

But the other pumpkins warned her
It’s a process you can’t handle
Being scraped and carved right to the flesh
Till you’re cleaned out for a candle

Hollow me hollow me hollow me
And make me shine
Make me shine

This link between the suffering, pain and death and the new life, resurrection and hope is one of the cruxes of the human experience. Recently I’ve been reading a number of memoirs and autobiographies and I’ve been struck by this theme. I’m touched by the honesty and vulnerability that is brought forth in these human stories and it leads me to reflect on and wonder about my own story.  If I was writing my life auto-biography, would I have the guts to lay out this level of honesty? To expose my seeds and goopy insides to others?

Sure, it’s easy to be open about the mountaintop moments and the ah-ha’s in our spiritual life. The challenge is, do we share about the places where we are broken, where we’re being emptied out, the times when we wondered about this whole “God thing”, the days when we continued to make the same mistakes, listen to the same old stories and live in ways that were far less than saintly. It’s this that sticks with me and challenges me.

The pumpkin she was determined
Her fate was in decoration
But with the first stab of the knife she thought
Time for reconsideration 

They were right she thought I’d be better off
As a pie or on the vine
Why wasn’t I satisfied as a big orange squash
Why did I want to shine?

A few weeks ago, in worship, a colleague offered his vulnerability to the group and invited us into the story of Jesus’ healing the man with the withered hand in the gospels.  He pointed out that before the man was healed, Jesus asked him to stand up before everyone and reach out his hand, and show his vulnerabilities.  My whole body tensed as he recounted the text, just imagining God calling me to stand up and articulate my brokenness, my wounds, my scars to the people around me. So much of me resists this, and yet, somewhere inside I feel the wisdom. Not to spew my life history at every turn as if spiritual community is one big therapy session. But to, in those moments of sacredness, present with God and human community, to be strong and courageous and reach out to the Healer in the presence of others. To acknowledge that part of the process of spiritual life IS the emptying out, that that is intrinsic in the process of shining. The call, the challenged, is to look honestly in ourselves and see what is blocking the Divine Light from shining through. What are the places in us that are stuck and stagnant? Where do we need to look a little deeper and see how our places of challenge and struggle can be transformed into wisdom and strength by the Great Carver? Or as Rumi puts it: “Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure”

I wonder if that’s what these authors did, in sharing their stories.  Is this part of the spiritual process of Anne Lamott, John Woolman, Roberta Bondi, Thomas Merton, Pema Chodron, Dorothy Day and so many others who share their life stories, their spiritual journeys, in the pages of autobiographies, memoirs, blogs and journals.  In the written word they walk through the suffering, line by line, in snapshots and in full-color. The dialog of the challenges, the pain and doubt lead to places of transformation. In these lives laid before us, a sacred offering to the larger community of faith, we can see God at work.  We can see God working through the life of a brilliant, addicted, depressed writer as she bares a child, finds God in a new way and steps into a daring journey of discovering faith. We can see God in the workings of at early church leader, as we see Christ’s light shining through division and mis-understanding, in leading and being silent.

Be it through the written word, honest preaching, held conversation, or solitary prayer, we can feel Spirit beckoning. Beckoning us to surrender to the Carving. Urging us to bravely look inside and examine and begin to let go of the things that are blocking the Light. Bravely inviting the Carver to hollow us, cleanse us, and shine Divine Light through us.

Because this healing is not just for each of us. This call to vulnerability is not about me or you. There is a greater call to healing through our brokenness, restoration through our vulnerabilities, resurrection through inner-death. This challenge to dig into our muck and guck and be cleared out is not simply a personal exercise. There is a world of brokenness, there is a God of Healing. As we walk through this process individually, we can be part of changing the collective. As the Light shines more and more brightly through each one of us, the Light in the world strengthens and spreads, widens and enlivens. The baptism of spirit offers all new life, cleansing and hope, each and every day. As we die to our own ideas of how life should be, as we loosen our grip that clings to the past and the future, as we release our needs to be in control and have it all together…God seeps in, rushes in, moves in our midst. Moves to bring healing to the all.

 Though she never had felt pain
As a pumpkin on the vine
The pain could not come close to how
Good it felt to shine 

Hollow me hollow me hollow me
and make me shine
follow me follow me follow
if you wanna shine
make me shine

“You Are a Pumpkin” or “Being Emptied Out”
by Anna Woofenden
A sermon for Joint Seminary Chapel
(Earlham School of Religion and Bethany Theological Seminary)
Preached 9.30.2011