Reflections | April 7, 2022

The parable of the compost

vegetable scraps in compost bin

Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown
(Matthew 13:8, NIV).

We call it the Parable of the Sower—though we are not the Sower. By most interpretations, God is the Sower and the seed is the Message. Which leaves us to be the dirt.

Dirt makes me think of dust to dust and ashes to ashes, which makes me think of my own uncomfortably close mortality. I prefer to think about what kind of dirt I am. The Sower sows, and there is not good seed or bad seed. It is the soil that is differentiated: hardpacked, shallow, rocky, weedy, pest-infested, and good. I want to believe that I am the good soil.

My grandfathers were farmers—as were their fathers and grandfathers. But I can never know what my agriculturally oriented ancestors thought of the Parable of the Sower. However, if my faith is anything like theirs, I imagine they had some questions about the Parable of the Sower because a good farmer does not just sow seed. If good crops come from good soil, then a farmer must know that soil can be exhausted and it can be improved. Soil is living and must be cared for. Therefore, I am the descendent of people who mulched, irrigated, and fertilized the soil. I am the good soil, even if this is a fallow season for my faith.

Maybe I believe this because of my mother and grandmothers, who kept gardens, planting food, herbs flowers side by side. In my family, for as long as I can remember, the kitchen has had a bucket for scraps. Every tea bag, onion skin, and eggshell has been dutifully put into that bucket, and every evening someone has taken it out to the compost pile.

I live in a rowhouse. My garden is a peach tree and a few pots on the deck. Still, I got a compost tumbler and continued the tradition.

Compost is made of the scraps—the peels, the browned outer leaves, the discarded grounds. It feels sometimes like my faith is made of fragments of scripture I have memorized, lines from sermons that moved me, interpretations that do not feel as true as they once did. Scraps.

The first time I saw the worms in my compost, I was surprised. I didn’t put them there so there must have been worm eggs on something peeled or chopped from my CSA. Worms are a sign of good, living soil.

I imagine that Mary had a compost bucket, probably a clay pot, and that it was one of Jesus’ jobs to empty it each evening. I imagine Jesus, turning the compost pile mixing the old and the new. He would have seen rebirth alongside disintegration as sprouts reached toward the sun.

Sometimes I imagine that we will find a scroll, in a pot in a cave, that recorded when Jesus told the Parable of the Compost. Other times I can only believe the story was written on a papyrus already turned to powder and brushed into the compost pile like dry leaves.

My compost tends to be too wet. I add the dried leaves from the peach. For me, spinning the compost tumbler is an act of mindfulness. It is heavy, there are sometimes slimy drips I do not want to touch, and I try to rescue the worms that have gotten out through the airholes.

The cycles of compost—filling, resting, harvest—are unpredictable but steady. I wait for my faith to shift, the moment it goes from slimy and slick to rich and earthy. The elements of my old beliefs that had browned and soured are becoming ready for new spiritual growth. From the beginning, separating the water from the land, the work of God is making good soil.

Through the cold winter, my compost bin mostly rests. Yet, on warmer days I spin it and am surprised to see the worms still there, still wiggling and pink. I add another layer of dried leaves, hoping it will keep them warm the way the old parts of my faith are sometimes, suddenly familiar and comforting. It is not that my old beliefs and understandings are thrown out, as much as it is that they are spun around by my experiences. Decay leads to renewed nutrients.

In the spring, I have more compost than I need to start a few pots with tomatoes, cilantro, and basil. I share compost with neighbors starting a raised bed garden, a spoonful for a toddler putting seeds in a paper cup, or I take a bagful for a city tree box at the end of the block. As in the miracle of the bread and the fishes, I have never run out. I have enough of the good soil to share.

Gimbiya Kettering is a writer and storyteller who has worked for various Church of the Brethren agencies. She lives in Washington, D.C.