Recovering Reverend

You can take the pastor out of the church, but you can’t take the Church out of the pastor.

Derrick WestonNothing is wasted
How I am learning to compost the rotten stuff that comes up in life

by Derrick L. Weston

In early December I took at day trip to a farm. The unseasonably warm weather made it a perfect time to check out Princeton Theological Seminary’s Farminary.

According to their website, “The Farminary Project at Princeton Seminary integrates theological education with small-scale sustainable agriculture in the conviction that the skills and character vital to faithful Christian leadership must be formed in direct relationship with God’s good creation. Located at the seminary’s 21-acre farm, this project is a garden of innovation and an incubator for leadership.”

Even in the still of winter, it was fun to see the greenhouses, explore the farmhouse-turned-classroom, and of course, check out the compost pile. It’s not often that I find someone who shares my passion for decomposition, but Farminary coordinator Nate Stuckey is one of those people. The Farminary Project has been the beneficiary of the near-rotten produce that is often donated to a local food bank. Though that food may not make it to the table of those using the food bank’s services, it becomes part of the soil that will allow for future produce to be grown. “Nothing is wasted,” Stuckey declared. It would be the theme of our conversation.

Whether on the farm or in our own lives, nothing is wasted. 

The natural world is wildly efficient. “Waste” is very much a human construct, one that is perpetuated by a capitalistic society that constantly promotes the idea that newer is better. The things in life that we don’t deem to be of immediate use are labeled as trash, and that becomes as true for ideas, relationships, and experiences as it is for stuff.

Slowly but surely we’re coming to an understanding of what it means for us to create garbage in the natural world. Everything we use needs to go somewhere, and if we’re not wise about the ways that we dispose of things, they come back to haunt us as pollution. 

The same can be said about the difficult experiences in our lives. We can bury them deep down inside ourselves. But we can only do that for so long before the build up of unprocessed hurt becomes too much to hide. We can take out our pains on others, making our problems everyone else’s as well. We can numb ourselves to the point that we no longer see the emotional mess that we’re in. But none of these options allows for new growth to happen in our lives. 

What if we were to adopt the attitude that every hurt, every trauma, every slight, every injury was in fact an opportunity for new life to flourish in and around us? One of my all time favorite statements in Scripture comes from the story of Joseph. The sprawling story extends from Genesis 37 all the way to chapter 50 and includes Joseph being thrown into a well, sold into slavery, being accused of sexual assault, and being left to die in prison. On the other side of all of that, Joseph is able to say to his brothers in 50:20: “Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good.” Joseph could only say this on the other side of his struggle, when he had settled into a new life and was ready to be of service to his family and his people. This is not something he most likely could have said from the bottom of a well and in the bowels of a prison cell. 

“Everything happens for a reason.” People are often told this in the midst of their struggles. It’s supposed to be a comfort but more often than not comes across as a spiritual version of “Suck it up!” It’s rarely helpful, and it can imply that God causes the bad things in our lives. Meaning making is an incredibly difficult prospect while one is still in the belly of the beast; the meanings we derive there are often twisted by our own sense of guilt and shame. But meaning making is what we’re hardwired to do, and faith places our struggles within the larger narrative of God’s redemptive work in the world. It is from that vantage point, safely on the other shore, that we can begin to learn the lessons from our journey. God may not have caused the bad stuff, but God sure can use it.

One of my aspirations for the new year is to be less wasteful. I’m learning more and more about what can be composted. I’m thinking of ways to recycle or re-purpose items in my life that are taking up space. I’m examining everything with an eye towards how can it be used. I’m hoping to do the same with my experiences. I’m opening myself up to allowing my hurts, pains, and failures to be my teachers. I’m learning that the things that have been used to hurt me, especially those things that I have used to hurt myself, can be used by God to heal, comfort, and teach.  All of it can be redeemed. 

Nothing is wasted. 

Derrick L. Weston is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a community builder for the 29th Street Community Center, and cohost of the podcast God Complex Radio.