Composting as Spiritual Discipline

DSC01674By Kyle Mitchell

Kyle lives with his wife Lynea on the 3rd floor of an old house in Cleveland. They have a couple egg-laying hens in the backyard and tons of red wiggler worms. Kyle spends his days working alongside folks with developmental disabilities on a 2-acre urban farm down the street from his house. In his spare time, he works alongside Lynea in the 2 youth gardens she started in the neighborhood. They are both passionate about growing food, spreading that knowledge, and figuring out ways to get healthy food to folks that don’t have access to it.
A few years ago I was reading a book on permaculture and I came across a quote about soil that captured my imagination: “The soil is miraculous. It is where the dead are brought back to life.” This launched me into the slow process of being re-wired – seeing with new eyes, altering my actions, converting myself to the truth that the soil is not dead, but alive! I could no longer waste what I once thought was waste. I had to get in touch with the death-brings-life cycles of creation, and I had to do this through a tradition called composting.

Composting in the city is tough – especially in the winter! But having had some deep experiences with compost and soil, I can’t help but practice this discipline and consider some of the observations for my discipleship journey.

1. Compost is a transformative process – Compost is created out of what most would consider waste: food scraps, newspaper, hair clippings, wood shavings, dead leaves, etc. With the help of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms (there are billions in a teaspoon of soil!), these lifeless materials are broken down and brought back to life. This process is part of the ongoing creation of the world, a creation that values everything, uses everything, transforms everything. Nothing is wasted. Nothing. Is. Wasted. As one writer put it, compost is “resurrection in a bucket”.

2. Compost can be offensive – Don’t let my romanticizing of compost make it sound easy. It can literally stink if not managed properly, and that is why we usually throw things in the garbage to never have to think about them or deal with them again. It’s waste, trash, useless, smelly! Throw it out! Interestingly, it seems to me that the scriptures were written from the perspective of and for those who had been thrown out, forgotten, useless, marginalized. The God of the Bible rescues, takes what is lowly and lifts up, gives honor where there was shame, breathes life into the lifeless. That can be pretty offensive.

3. Compost becomes us – As I throw a watermelon rind in the compost bucket under my sink, I consider how this rind will become me. In a mystery that is too great for my brain to understand, this rind (along with everything else in the bin) will transform into beautiful, dark compost, full of nutrients. This compost will go into our garden beds, and become the nutrients that feed our tomato plants, that grow the tomatoes we harvest. These nutrient-dense tomatoes, packed with potassium, calcium, and phosphorous (thanks to our homemade compost), will become the tomato sauce that we ingest on our delicious gluten-free pizza (thanks to my wife’s g-free diet!). We take in these nutrients that started with the compost bin under our sink, and these nutrients help build cells that become things like our brain. Compost becomes us.

In the Hebrew creation story, Yahweh forms “the human (Adam) from the topsoil of the fertile land (Adamah)”. Adam from Adamah. Human from humus. We come from the soil, from the humus, from the earth, from the compost bin.

4. Compost is radical – Making my own compost at home may not be as big a deal as Ghandi making his own salt, but it’s right up there! It’s a first step of getting away from the chemical fertilizers and pesticides we’ve become accustomed and enslaved to – the ones that pollute our watersheds and decimate the miraculous life of the soil. A little bit of compost to a garden bed goes a long way by inoculating the soil with new life. This life is what causes forests to grow and thrive without the help of chemicals bought from a store. This act of observing the fecundity of the forest, and applying creation’s rhythms to our backyard says a lot about which economy we trust in – Caesar’s or God’s?

5. Compost as a spiritual discipline – While participating in compost, I invoke a number of the traditional Christian disciplines. I meditate on grace and resurrection, even the redemption of God as I turn the compost pile and notice the steam that rises like incense. As I spread the finished compost on the garden, I pray for soil fertility and the abundant life God brings through it. I practice simplicity in valuing everything, not wasting a single apple core. I celebrate over meals of God’s goodness from our garden.

But one discipline stood out to me recently that I hadn’t considered before. Service.

100_4679In her book, Scripture, Culture, Agriculture, Ellen Davis studies the Hebrew words till and keep found in Genesis 2. She notices how they are translated elsewhere in scripture as serve (till) and preserve (keep). The task of the first human in scripture is to reflect the image of God by serving and preserving the garden of creation. The simple task of composting can become the glorious task of serving the soil, which is a direct service to plants, animals, and humans.

In this spirit, may we all embrace our primal identity as gardeners of creation. May we learn to serve and preserve. May we connect with the soil from which we come from. May we learn to compost. And may the God who wastes nothing, bring life and resurrection to the garbage of our past, composting it, so that our steps may be filled with new life and abundance.



1. Gaia’s Garden was an eye-opener for me, especially the section on soil. It has an incredible description of what happens to a leaf when it falls from the tree.

2. Resurrection In A Bucket is the title of a book about composting that I have not read. So I can’t speak for what’s actually inside it. Great title, though!

3. Some of the spiritual disciplines I refer to are from the book called Celebration of Discipline by the Quaker, Richard Foster. It’s been a reference on my shelf for many years.

4. While thinking about writing this, I’ve had a few references by my side:

a) The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson

b)Soil and Sacrament by Fred Bahnson

c)Scripture, Culture, Agrigulture by Ellen Davis

d)Food and Faith by Norman Wirzba

e)Teaming With Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis

5. In the permaculture design course I took this year, one of the teachers, Peter Bane, talked about our unique task as humans to be “gardener’s of the planet”. I also got to look at microorganisms under the microscope during the class. They are indeed in/of the soil.

6. The first time I heard the language of life experiences being composted was from a talk by Chris Grataski. At this same event, I heard from Elaine Enns and Ched Myers who sparked my imagination on much of these reflections. They’ve all been writing and speaking about these types of connections for years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s