In our last home, we had a compost bin. At the farthest edge of our yard, we would fill it with cut-up leaves after mowing the lawn, grass clippings, and carrot shavings, peelings from apples, as well as other vegetable and fruit peelings. Then we would turn it over and over and over again. We would regularly check in on the progress of our pile. We were hoping that our pile over time, would turn into rich and beautiful soil. Every time we checked it, added scraps, or turned over the load; we got excited hoping that new soil was soon to be ours. Full transformation was soon coming. From those scraps we no longer needed, something new was being made! Our discarded table leftovers were becoming something new.
This month we have been seeking the joy of God in our lives as we returned with the wise men home by another road. We have been celebrating the road markers in our lives of where God has been in our lives as well as where God will be. Today, we look at what distracts us from the full joy, gift of the Holy Spirit, in our lives and how we cultivate more of powerful presence of God in our lives.
All of those things that distract us from joy are on the apostle Paul’s lists of don’ts. And this one is no different: Do not be angry. Do not be full of wrath. Do not be malicious. Who would choose to be this way? Of course, no one wants to be any one of these. Do not slander. Do not let abusive language slip or tumble or cascade from your mouth. I am sure that Paul has heard one or two us in traffic or at a bad moment. Do not lie to one another. All of these distract from joy.
And yet, there are times that we, like Paul, do the very things we do not intend to do. And do not do the things we intend to do.
Paul, the apostle and perhaps, burgeoning farmer, did not stop there. On this cold and messy day when our minds are far from daffodils poking up through the warming spring grounds or fantasizing of round ripe red tomatoes on the wine or even planting varieties of spinach from seeds or plants, Paul offers up metaphors of renewal.
From my compost bin at our previous home, we learned a robust theology of compost. Death, dying, sin, suffering, and the ways in which we hurt one another on purpose and by accident are not the end of the story. A compost bin teaches us that when worked with and piled together, redemption is not out of sight. In fact, it is written into nature. In a compost bin, worms are the backbone and superheroes of transformation. It is not a single worm transforms an entire load, but a group, a community of worms. What would be overload for one worm is life for the community. Worms, often disregarded by many, are valuable and necessary to turn ugly, discarded, unneeded, festering, cast-offs, into needed rich, vibrant, desirable soil.
So, what about our distractions from joy – our malice and our abusive speech, our lying, and our anger, and our wrath, our slander and our malice? All of these embarrassing ways of being that we can hardly admit out loud that we have chosen to be once or twice, ironically need others desperately. We need to admit that we have been distracted from joy and hurting others with other actions. We need to let them go as we throw them on the compost piles of our lives. We thank the worms as we actively engage the processes of letting God use us for transformation.
Our compost bin worked best when new compost was regularly being added and the previous material was turned over. A robust theology of the compost testifies that God urges those who have been shamed, not to shame but instead to love. In our acts of love, we participate in preparing the soil in which God’s reign of love and justice can take root. Transformation and composting are our way through the distractions of joy.
On my renewal leave, I attended a conference with excellent teaching sessions. Jeff Chu, writer and theologian, had all 1500 participants write our deepest fears. Fear is at the heart of that which distracts us from joy. Bravely onto 3 by 5 index cards, we wrote and handed back our cards. Cards listed fears of loss, of abandonment, of being wrong, of bad parenting, of humiliation, of rejection, of failure, of not being enough, of being too much, of disappointing God, of so many other ungodly things. Fears that often sneak out in the form of malice and anger, abusive speech and slander.
A week later Jeff Chu sent this picture: They are in this compost pile at The Farminary [Princeton seminary farmstead] as promised, amidst the rotting spaghetti squash and coffee grounds, eggshells and wood chips. Like a good composter, he buried our fears after taking this picture. They are dying now, to be redeemed as good soil and new life, with the help of the worms. And we keep on with the hard work of spiritual and emotional composting in our own lives, remembering that this is the story of God, who turns fear to courage, sorrow to joy, death to life (1).
In the church, we often want to imagine that there is no need for compost and transformation. As if good church people don’t get angry, or have fears, or mouth off. As if there is nothing that ever distracts good church folks from joy. Compost is unnecessary in the church. But that misses the reality that we are already moving toward redemption and also need it deeply.
We compost because we believe that God is still at work. Our distractions from joy are the ways through which there are opportunities to for learning how to become actively clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. If we can only keep on bearing one another in love. If only we are willing to add them to the compost bin.
As we remove again the practices that distract us from joy, we cultivate new and renewed practices that remind us of who God is and whose we are as God’s beloved children. In the book that inspired this series, The Book of Joy: Happiness in Changing World by the His Holiness Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, there are practices to consider. Here is just one. Consider meeting each person as made in the image of God (2). Think for a moment about someone particularly special to you. Maybe this is your son or daughter, your husband or wife. Your dearest friend or your dog. Take a moment to picture that beloved person in your mind. Remember that beloved person in your mind. Think about how much you love them. Reflect on how delighted they make you feel. Thank God for them.
Now, consider you will meet someone new today, a neighbor, a coworker, someone at the grocery store, or school. When you first meet them, you might be tempted to first notice their hair color or height, their stance or who is with them. Instead as you meet them, please tell yourself that they are created in the image of God. Notice how that changes your interaction. Simple, profound change. This one, is a child of God, made in the image of God. Watch how it changes you. Your perception and even your social assumptions change. On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, may we continue to seek ways to transform our personal and institutional racism.
One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, died this week. As I remembered her, I re-read her poem “The Summer Day”(3). As she observes in awe the swan and bear, she writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Where in your life do you have distractions from joy? Where have you allowed anger and frustration, fear and loneliness to take over? Put them into the compost heap where they belong. A robust theology of compost celebrates redemption, the work of the community, the importance of worms, and hope even when everything feels like trash. What beautiful practices and new things will grow in their places? In building our compost piles, we cultivate joy. We remember that we cannot go around this compost process. We must go through it.
In your one wild and precious life, may you abide with God turning over fear and anger, malice and wrath, slander and resentment. You didn’t want them, anyway! And let the God of us all, bless you abundantly as we cultivate a life removing distractions from joy and letting God compost/transform them,
This is the Gospel, the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.
(1) Adapted from Instagram post -@byjeffchu, October 29, 2018.
(2) Tutu, Archbishop Desmond and Dalai Lama. The Book of Joy: Finding Happiness in a Changing World.
(3) Oliver, Mary. House of Light. Beacon Press: Boston, 1992.
New Testament Lesson: Colossians 3:7-17: These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Gospel Lesson: Luke 3:7-18: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Meditations For Your Week
Sunday, January 20 ~ Saturday, January 26
Sunday: “But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.” Colossians 3:8. The words of our mouths can distract us from joy. Sometimes we say things we do not even mean! Pray for self-control for yourself as you grant grace to others.
Monday: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” Colossians 3:9-10. Through Christ, you are a renewed creation. Give thanks to God for God’s good gifts!
Tuesday: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Colossians 3:12. After you let go of anger and frustration, replace it with kindness. Chose compassion. Today, ask God to show you one person with whom you can show compassion.
Wednesday: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Colossians 3:13. Prayerfully consider who God is calling you forgive. Who nags at your heart? Ask the Holy Spirit to move within you towards forgiveness.
Thursday: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” Colossians 3:15. Pray for peace as you experience distractions from joy of fear and anger, envy and despair. May the peace of Christ be yours today!
Friday: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” John 15:4. Where are you finding joy in God’s presence today?
Saturday: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5. God is the vine through which we find joy! Abide in God.