The Compost Pile

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation;
the old has gone, the new has come!
—2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)

Not far from the bluff, where the Lord found me, there is a retirement home for Dominican nuns. It sits high on a hilltop overlooking the western Lake Michigan shore. From the top of the hill, you can see the Milwaukee skyline to the North, and on a clear day, Chicago to the South. The great lake appears as an endless sea. Somewhere beyond the horizon is Michigan, but you can only imagine what its beaches and bluffs look like. In the early springtime, when the weather is still chilly, it’s not unusual to see a sailboat or a cabin cruiser on the lake. Winters in Wisconsin can be long, and diehard captains can’t wait for the ice to be gone so they can take their crafts out of dry dock. From the top of the hill, you can watch them leave the harbor and move cautiously through the ice-cold water.

The grounds of the retirement home are spacious and wooded. Deer come into the clearings and eat ripe ears of corn that the nuns pile on ancient, hollow tree stumps. In the spring, the does bring their fawns there. They stay close to their mothers, and they dash away when people come near to them.


In the summer, the nuns have a vegetable garden on a prairie at the edge of the woods. A lovely garden of wildflowers grows around it. It has tall Queen Anne’s lace, neon-blue cornflowers, salmon-colored lilies, and golden rudbekia. The garden is wrapped in an old picket fence; the whitewash paint is peeling, and the gate is rickety and hangs on rusty hinges. The nuns grow sweet corn, peppers, eggplants, and pole beans there. A scarecrow guards the end of a cornrow. She wears a nun’s habit and a hot-pink sunbonnet. A plastic owl sits upon her shoulder while screaming crows perch on her hat complaining because the corn isn’t ripe yet.

In the autumn, when the deep-yellow sunflowers are tall, their centers filled with jet-black seeds, children from a nearby school come to help with the harvest and cleanup. They help the nuns build a compost pile from the decaying vegetables, corn stalks, and leaves. The pile is as ugly as the hilltop is beautiful; it stands five-feet tall, towering over the youngest children.

A thin asphalt trail goes up to the hilltop and then down to a narrow, sandy beach. It winds through the woods, across the prairie, and past the garden. It is there for the nuns, visitors, and neighbors to enjoy. Walkers are welcome year-round as long as they are quiet, contemplative, and respectful. Signs along the way remind them of the rules and point out things to look for as the seasons change.

One clear, spring morning, I walked along the path. Arriving at the prairie, I heard a male cardinal singing. He sat high up in an elm tree, and I observed his brightly-colored, mating-season feathers blazing crimson like little flames licking at the tree’s pale foliage. His pallid, olive mate sat on a branch beneath him, occasionally looking up at him as she listened to his song. I listened too, marveling at the crisp clarity of the notes and how far they traveled on the wind. The song ended with a series of short, resounding chirps. Then the male flew down and sat beside his mate. He picked a bud from a nearby branch and then passed it from his bill to hers.


It was at that special moment, that I noticed the stench of the compost pile. The winter thaw had created a damp, tangled mass of decaying vegetables and foliage, and the warmth of the sun had started it cooking. The smell was awful. It was my garbage pail three days after a chicken dinner; it was the container of unidentifiable muck in the back of my refrigerator; it was the city garbage truck on a steamy, August day. I wondered why the nuns hadn’t thought to put their compost pile away from the path, somewhere where the scent of rotting plants and kitchen waste could only be smelled by crows, possums, skunks, and raccoons. How rude, I thought, to put it here in this pretty place. I stood there silently grinching to myself sounding a lot like Nevell.

Just then, my complaining heart was interrupted by the Lord’s quiet voice. “Jean,” He said. “Although the compost pile isn’t like the beautiful things you see on this perfect spring day, it is a part of My perfect plan. Quietly, it accepts the things that are dying, dead, and decaying. Then it works to recycle them into something that will nourish new life.”

As I watched the male cardinal feed a seedpod to his mate, I realized that God was also feeding me a seed of knowledge. He was showing me that I envied the lives of my friends. I imagined them living in beautiful gardens filled with “flowers” that were husbands, children, and endless joy. As a single, never-married woman, I saw my hopes and dreams for marriage and family dying in the compost pile. It filled me with a sense of loneliness that Nevell would have loved.

It became clear that envy made me feel apart from God. I had let other possibilities for my life decay for want of what my friends had. God said, “Put envy onto the compost pile, re-form it, recycle it into something new.”

He didn’t have to explain. I knew that I was the compost pile and He was the gardener. In my spiritual walk with Him, He was showing me thoughts in my life that needed to be recycled, asking me to change them and to shape them into feelings that would give me new life.

God taught me that day that the things that “smell” in our lives are things that need to be changed. If we give them to God and put them on the compost pile, He will work them all for our good and for His glory. On that beautiful spring day, God changed forever the way I looked at the compost pile. Instead of a pile of rotting muck near a path, it became just as lovely to me as the lake, the deer, the cardinals, and the garden.

Dear Father God: Help me to see those parts of my life that are decaying, dead, or dying. Help me to put them on the “compost pile,” that they might be recycled, and nourish new life within me. Amen.

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