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.  

You Are a Pumpkin

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



“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. What day is it? September 30th.  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 just think about the newness of life, spring, flowers, shining lights twinkeling from the pumpkins. Of course, these are all good 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 some of 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:

“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. When we came up against challenges in relationships, experienced a health crisis, a spiritual crisis. When we encounter doubt, struggle, and 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 for classes 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 fellow classmate 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 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

As we continue our time of shared worship, you’re invited to get your hands dirty and engage in these questions.

What are the areas that you have been emptied out?

What are the areas you’re resisting?

What fears come up when you think about letting God carve you?

What does it look like to surrender to being cleared out?

What would it feel like to have the Light shining through more brightly?

Invite the Divine Carver to continue to shape you. Immerse your hands in the seeds, with the gook and yuck, acknowledging and embodying that part of the process of shining involves walking through the valleys, the brokenness, the shadows, the pain.

Where is God hollowing you right now? What needs to be emptied out? What light is bursting to be shone, that needs the surgery to let it free?

Wash your hands, remembering the power of your baptism, the promise of new life, of resurrection of the Light of Christ shining through you.

How do you see hope, new life and light moving in you?

Light a candle and hold it high, Christ’s light in you as you move in the world.

We’re also reminded in this process that this is not merely individual work. It is a collective effort to each take part in bringing more of Christ’s light into the world.

Sending Out: Reflections on Wholeness

 All:                   Busy, normal people: the world is here.
One:                  Can you hear it wailing, crying, whispering?
Listen: the world is here.
Don’t you hear it,
Praying and sighing and groaning for wholeness?
Sighing and whispering: wholeness,
Wholeness, wholeness?
An arduous, tiresome, difficult journey
Towards wholeness.
God, who gives us strength of
Body, make us whole.
Wholeness of persons: well-being of individuals.
The cry for bodily health and spiritual
Strength is echoed from person to person,
from patient to doctor.
It goes out from a soul to its pastor.
We, busy, “normal” people: we are sick.
We yearn to experience wholeness in
Our innermost being:
In health and prosperity, we continue
To feel un-well,
Un-fulfilled, or half-filled.
There is a hollowness in our pretended
Our spirits cry out for the well-being of the whole human family.
We pride ourselves in our traditional communal ideology,
our extended family.
The beggars and the mad people in our streets:
Where are their relatives?
Who is their father? Where is their mother?

We cry for the wholeness of humanity.
But the litany of brokenness is without end.
Black and white;
Rich and poor;
Hausa and Yomba;
Presbyterian and Roman Catholic:
We are all parts of each other,
We yearn to be folded into the fullness
Of life—together.
Life, together with the outcast,
The prisoner, the mad woman,
The abandoned child;
Our wholeness is intertwined with the hurt,
Working with Christ to heal the hurt,
Seeing and feeling the suffering of others,
Standing alongside them.
Their loss of dignity is not their loss:
It is the loss of our human dignity,
We busy “normal” people.
The person next to you: with a different
Language and culture,
With a different skin or hair color—
It is God’s diversity, making an unbroken
Rainbow circle—
Our covenant of peace with God, encircling
The whole of humanity.
Christians have to re-enact the miracle
Of Good Friday:
The torn veil, the broken walls, the
Bridge over the chasm,
The broken wall of hostility between
The Jew and the Gentile.
The wall between sacred and secular?
There is no wall
There is only God at work in the whole;
Heal the sores on the feet;
Salvage the disintegrated personality;
Bind the person back into the whole.

For without the one, we do not have a whole.
Even if there are ninety-nine:
Without that one, we do not have a whole.
God, who gives us strength of
Body, make us whole.
“An African Call for Life” from An African Book of Prayer by Desmond Tutu

(Psalms for Praying by Nan Merrill)

All praise to You, O Beloved,
For You have raised me up, and have not let my fears overwhelm me.
O Compassionate One, I cried for help, and You comforted me.
You, O Love, helped me release my soul from despair;
You gave me strength to face my fears;
Now love is awakening in me.
Sing praises to the Beloved, all you saints, giving thanks to Love’s holy Name.
Love withdraws when we close our hearts, yet ever awaits an open door.
In the evening we may weep,
Yet joy comes with the morning.
In my prosperity, I had lost sight of Love, I found power in my wealth.
In your mercy, O Beloved, my foundations You shook,
and in recognizing my separation from You,
I was dismayed.

I cried to you for help; to You,
I pleaded for forgiveness;
“What profit in my riches if I am separated from Love?
Will emptiness praise You? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear me, O Beloved, and be gracious to me!
O Love, hasten to my assistance!”
And You turned my mourning into dancing;
You set me free and clothed me with gladness.
My soul rejoices and is glad in You;
Songs of gratitude fill my soul rising up to You, O Beloved.