A couple weeks ago, I wrote about my Lenten discipline of learning to respect the work death does, in our lives and in the life of the earth, God’s body. My primary spiritual guide on this Lenten quest is a compost heap.
Two weeks in, I’m continuing to ponder this connection, between what we are trying to do in Lent, and the work that goes on in a living compost operation.
When I started farming, the first time I saw the tractor-mounted manure spreader go out to spread compost, I was confused. It was fall, and there was a lot to do to get the harvest in and the fields ready for the coming winter. And here one person was spending the bulk of his day scooping up tons (literally) of compost from one corner of the farm, and spreading it in a thin layer–1 to 2 inches–over many acres of fields.
Pouring dirt on top of dirt.
What was the point?
Surely there were better uses of his time.
But I’ve learned over the years about the vital work compost does for the soil. And I can no longer argue that spreading it isn’t the best use of a farmer’s time on a busy fall day.
Compost is (ideally) spread on fields in the fall; the effect it has on the soil beneath it by spring planting time is transformational. Over the course of the winter, it gets worked into the top layer of soil by earthworms and other tiny creatures, as well as by seasonal rains and snow melt. Healthy compost increases the biological activity in the soil–adding both important nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.) and microorganisms (beneficial fungi, bacteria, and others that keep on regulating and improving soil quality). Compost can improve soil texture too, increasing its ability to both hold and drain water. Come spring, the crop that grows in the field will grow faster and show better yields, will be better suited to withstand drought conditions, and will be more resistant to disease and pest problems. Compost is that powerful.
All of these amazing truths about what I originally saw as just “pouring dirt upon dirt” trickle to mind as I think about the Litany of Penitence (BCP 267) we are invited to pray on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent.
I love this litany–how honest it is, and how specific. But I get impatient with it too. It’s a lot of detail: we confess pride, hypocrisy, impatience; anger at our own frustration; contempt toward those who differ from us; pollution of God’s creation.
Are we done yet?
Is this really the best use of my time this Lent?
The world’s got real problems–big ones!–wouldn’t I be better off addressing those rather than confessing my impatience and… pollution?
I need to trust that the answer is “no.” Or rather, that the Litany of Penitence IS the particular, seasonal way we are called to address those bigger-scale challenges during Lent. While there are perhaps many tasks that present themselves as more urgent, there is none as important as the comprehensive work of penitence.
Like the compost that enriches the soil beneath it, transforming it from within and strengthening it for the growing season ahead, so do acts of repentance work on our hearts in Lent.
I don’t need to pray the Litany of Penitence because God is somehow impatiently demanding a full accounting of my sinfulness; I need to pray it because Easter is coming soon. If I want to be able to absorb all the new life it has to offer–all the resistance it offers to the powers of sin in our broken world–I need the grace that comes with honest confession and repentance.
I continue to struggle to know how to talk about Lent with my young children. Most of the concepts are still beyond their comprehension. But through our modest efforts at gardening, composting, and engaging other natural systems, they’re starting to understand how what you do in one season affects what you’re able to do in the next. Perhaps that’s enough for this year.
Does your church use the Litany of Penitence in this season? How does it work on you?