“Where man sees but withered leaves, God sees sweet flowers growing.” (Albert Laighton)
May is here and gardeners rejoice. Whether in the south where backyard gardens are in full swing, or farther north where they are still emerging from a long hibernation, growers of every stripe are embracing the season. In southern Maine, where Joanie and Pete grow their own organic produce, the soil has been mostly tilled or otherwise prepared and seed planting is underway. Early planters such as snow peas, lettuce, and radishes are up and before too long beans, corn, and squash will be seeded. As the days get warmer, the demands of the garden will grow and the two of them will spend more and more time outside. Joanie loves gardening, and there is nothing she enjoys more than to spend a few hours outside tending her plants and talking with the Lord. It fills her soul to partner with God to bring forth the bounty of the earth. As the Psalmist proclaims:
O Lord, You drench the hills with rain, You water all the lands;
The earth is nourished by the fruit created by Your hands.
You make the grass grow green and lush for cows and bulls to eat;
You give us plants that we can tend and crops of grain and wheat. (Psalm 104:13-14)
When Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, horticulture was not difficult. We know this because after the Fall, God cursed the land. His chilling words to Adam were: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19) Anyone who has gardened knows “sweat of your brow” is not a metaphor. It takes strength and perseverance to grow produce. Fortunately, Joanie is a certified Master Gardener with an indefatigable spirit, and good knowledge of when to plant and how to execute a winning strategy against the three scourges of gardening: diseases, pests and weeds. But above all she understands that the essential component of garden life is literally in “the ground,” namely, a vibrant and healthy soil teaming with organic life. Indeed, good soil is to a garden what a virtuous life is to a soul. While plants can grow in poor soil, to be healthy and sustainably thrive they must be rooted in good earth.
Good earth is a particular focus for Pete. For while he provides encouragement and a willing hand for the endless manual labor involved in raising a garden, he also makes compost. More correctly, Pete partners with God to make compost, because the “magic” of making compost is nothing less than a miracle. God may have cursed the ground after the Fall, but he also provided for its sustainability in the form of compost, which is a never ending cycle of “dust to dust.”
For the uninitiated, compost is the end product of accelerated decomposition of organic matter. Ideally, the organic matter is a combination of those rich in nitrogen such as fruit and vegetable scraps and manure, and those rich in carbon such as dry leaves and sawdust. And the end product? It is a nutrient rich fertilizer that looks like soil but with a texture that more closely resembles peat moss. Gardeners fondly refer to compost as “black gold” because of its incomparable value when added to the soil. Compost enriches the soil with nutrients and provides a medium where beneficial microbes live and thrive even as they support the life of growing plants. Compost is not simply finely chopped up organic matter, but a radical chemical and biological transformation of such dead matter into a rich, dark, crumbly substance. While it contains low levels of plant nutrients, its primary function is not a fertilizer to feed plants per se, but rather to feed the soil creating a better environment for the plants to feed themselves.
From time to time in years past, I tried making compost with varying degrees of success. When I moved to an abandoned farm in Maine in the mid 1970’s I thought that I would plant vegetables to become self-sufficient. A local farmer generously plowed and harrowed an enormous ten thousand square foot garden plot. On one side I built several large bins for compost, which I mostly filed with chicken manure from a neighbor’s farm. I didn’t have time to balance the high nitrogen manure with carbon rich materials, nor did I have the time to turn the piles over to help in the decaying process. As a result, when I finally dug into the piles later that year not much had happened over the summer – very little decomposition had occurred and it still smelled foul. Several other half-hearted attempts to make compost over years met with similar results. The one striking success was in the mid 1990’s when living in Ohio I prepared and tended a much smaller compost pile. This time I was careful to balance the different types of organic matter and within weeks the pile started to heat up. When I finally dug into it several months later, I was pleased to find that all of the kitchen and yard scraps had been transformed into the sweetest looking and feeling compost imaginable. It was truly a magical moment.
God works a miracle when organic matter is converted into compost. To watch the breakdown of banana peels, corn cobs, and even coffee filters is a transformation that is truly amazing to behold. God works no less a miracle when he takes a soul that has been crushed by sins and/or wounds and transforms it into a new creation. Yet this is what we are promised when we are told that the one who belongs to Christ has become a new person – “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
If Jesus had used compost as a parable for the kingdom of God, I imagine it may have gone something like this.
The Parable of the Compost
“Jesus told them this parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a refuse pile on the edge of a field. Weeds, pomace, dung, and all manner of leftovers are cast into the pile where they are transformed into compost, which works through all the soil in the field.’
When his disciples heard this they said to him, ‘Explain to us the parable of the compost.’
Jesus answered, ‘The Refuse is anything that damages the soul – any sin such as anger, lust, and greed; and any evil that befalls a person such as illness, rejection, and the loss of a loved one. The Field is the world, and the Compost stands for the people of the kingdom whom God has transformed out of the brokenness of their souls.’
‘But Lord,’ they said, ‘How can good come out of something so bad?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. Very truly I tell you, unless the refuse of one’s life is transformed into compost, it remains only refuse. But if it is composted, it produces life for many.’
When his disciples heard this they were amazed.”
Jesus obviously did not use compost as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven, but the point of a soul being transformed is very real. I witnessed just such a transformation some years ago with a woman I knew from work. Becky was a follower of Christ who had had her ups and downs in life. Her marriage had ended in a divorce, but the union had also produced a daughter who was the love of her life. Becky raised her daughter and watched her mature into a confident and beautiful young woman. It was a great day when she graduated from a local high school and started her freshman year at a nearby university. Like all parents who send a child away to college, Becky felt both joy and fear when her only child moved out. The latter turned out to be prescient when one evening early in the school year her daughter was a passenger in a car on driven by a boyfriend. Tragically, he fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a bridge abutment. She was killed instantly. There is no way to describe Becky’s suffering. Her one and only child, with a lifetime ahead of her, instantly cut down.
I didn’t see Becky very often for the next year or so, as she continued to work while processing her grief. Still, she did not lose her faith through her ordeal, and gradually she was functioning again. But what really stood out was how much empathy she showed towards others when they were going through difficult times. It seemed that Becky was the one people turned to when they were suffering. When another woman in our department lost her granddaughter to a sudden crib death, Becky was the first to comfort her. The Lord had taken Becky’s divorce and tragic loss of her daughter and was working them for good. She had become compost in his hands, allowing the Lord to transform her damaged soul so that she could now give life to others.
Spring is the season of hope. The good earth, long suspended in a frozen grave, is once again in motion. The world turns green and life stirs anew. Gardeners emerge from their winter doldrums with enthusiasm and a vision for the year ahead. There is no looking back. The remnants from last year’s garden have been piled up and wonderfully transformed into compost. May this Spring be for us too a new beginning, as the Lord takes the sins and wounds of our past and turns them into something beautiful for his kingdom.