Some Thoughts on Compost and Worms
I rarely post sermons and talks online. But I know folks who attended the Evolving Faith conference were intrigued by this idea of the theology of the compost pile. So here’s a brief excerpt from my talk. I’m still thinking about all this, and one of my insecurities about posting it is that it isn’t as fully developed as I would like it to be. But let me walk into the risk of community and ask for your thoughts. What resonance do you feel? Where would you critique or push back? What do you see in these metaphors that’s helpful, and what is not?
(Delivered at the Evolving Faith Conference, Montreat, North Carolina, October 26, 2018)
When I got to Princeton, I unexpectedly landed at the Farminary, 21 acres where we dig in the dirt and introverts don’t have to talk much but it still counts as class. Come down the long, gravel drive, and you’ll see a pond to the left, where geese like to rest. Early in the morning, when the sun begins to peek over the trees on the pond’s far end, a cloud of mist often hovers over it, looking soft enough to be a blanket. To the right is our garden, 100 feet by 100 feet now; we’ll expand it next season. Our peppers did well this season. So did our marigolds, dahlias, and okra. We had beautiful rainbow carrots. Our tomatoes did fine, but the soil isn’t rich enough yet for some heirloom varieties.
We need compost, and it’s being made at our pile—to me, the most beautiful place on the farm, just past the far garden fence. I didn’t know much about compost. Now I know it preaches a hundred Sundays’ sermons about death becoming new life, about God’s abundance, about how things that seem useless—moldy fruit, eggshells, coffee grounds—can become rich soil.
The more I spend time at the compost pile, the more I wonder whether what we need is a more robust theology of compost. The more time I spend at the compost pile, the more I think it’s essential that we help write a narrative of hope amid the world’s narratives of despair. The more time I spend at the compost pile, the more I see that death never gets the last word and the more I ask: Isn’t the story of compost really just the story of God, turning fear to courage, sorrow to joy, death to life?
I’m Reformed, so I’m supposed to adore John Calvin. “And what can man do,” Calvin wrote, “man who is but rottenness and a worm?” A version of this story of wretchedness thrives today, and you can’t help but think, looking at the news, that there is some rottenness in humankind. But this narrative has also been weaponized against many of us, especially those deemed more wretched than others—women who claim their full womanhood, queer people, trans people, people who are labeled “Other.”
For much of my life, I believed this bad news. But the bad news is a lie—and a robust theology of the compost reminds me of this good news: A long-dead theologian who apparently knew little about farming mansplained it to us anyway, but what he had to say about worms was wrong. Worms can be magic. They can be engines of redemption. They can devour things of death and poop out things of life. And God gave them the power to do it.
A robust theology of the compost reminds us that death and the things of death—our sin, our suffering, the endless ways we hurt each other, the numerous ways we harm ourselves—are never the end of the story. A robust theology of the compost reminds us that God has written redemption into Creation itself, if only we would see it. A robust theology of the compost reminds us that God has empowered us—lowly worms—to turn what’s ugly, festering, and dying into what’s lovely, beautiful, and life-giving.
A robust theology of the compost testifies that we can’t do it alone, but we need others—a single worm can’t do much, but in community, there’s tremendous power. A robust theology of the compost testifies that we who have been told by society that we are worthless can act in the confidence of the knowledge that we are worthy. A robust theology of the compost testifies that God urges those who have been shamed not to shame but instead to love—because in our acts of love, we participate in preparing the soil in which God’s reign of love and justice can take root.