Every Wednesday morning, I place an offering upon the altar to the future.

The offering is contained in the white plastic Garbage to Garden Bucket. For those unfamiliar with this company, households in the area rent a bucket in which to place organic waste, the company truck picks it up and leaves a clean bucket in which to collect next week’s offering. In return, participants are entitled to a weekly bag of compost to add to their gardens.

Staring into the bucket, I might see coffee grounds and filter paper, tomato skins from the canning process, bones of the chicken or chops from dinner, lemon peel, onion skins, and egg shells.

In addition to the expected kitchen waste, I can also find ashes from the fireplace, lint from the dryer, even the contents of a vacuum bag. Three and one-half cubic feet of funk, waiting to be transformed, repurposed if you will, into rich, fertile compost.

Composting is a worthwhile environmental effort; it reduces landfill and prevents organic waste from leaching into watersheds. It is, for me, a kind of spiritual practice as well. Within the present waste are the seeds of possibility and hopes for the future. Leafy greens are possible out of my rotting carrots; tea roses will be fed from broken egg shells; coffee grounds will nourish blueberry bushes.

That, to me, is nothing short of miraculous: Out of this mushy mess, things of beauty and freshness will emerge. To quote a line from a modern hymn, sometimes “there’s something only God alone can see.”

In the Book of Isaiah, God speaks through the prophet to a people who are experiencing the wasteland of exile. God promises something new will emerge. God says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Many times the answer is no. All we can perceive in our lives is the wasteland, and it looks barren and lifeless, or like the contents of the bucket in my garage, most unpromising.

Just prior to promising a new thing, God admonishes, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.” In other words, forget about the past; do not look back; look ahead to what’s coming. Forgive me, but I have to disagree with the Almighty on this one. Sometimes you can’t go forward without looking backward. Not to dwell in the past or get stuck in the muck of it, but to look for the seeds of the future in it.

I believe having a clear perspective on the past helps us to better imagine the future. It gives us a place from which to dream. In my own life, the moments of hardships, failures and misfortunes are the backdrop against which a “new thing” is contrasted, thus better perceived. When I can consider those moments as “compostable moments,” I can take the disparate detritus and fashion something new and rich.

I would argue the same applies to faith communities who confront dwindling congregations and the rise of the “nones,” those who check none when asked to give a religious affiliation. The response is often to look back and lament the “good old days,” and hope that if they just did what they did before, all will be well.

That has about as much a chance of success as my looking at the remains of a great meal in my bucket and hoping it will rise again out of the scraps. But what if we considered this time when all seems to be falling apart as a compostable moment out of which a new future is possible. Five hundred years ago, there was such a compostable moment when out of the corruption of a church that had lost its way, something new emerged in the shape of the Protestant Reformation. I truly believe we are in the midst of another such reformation, reforming (composting?) the old into something new.

The same applies to our current intractable political and civic divide which seems as festering as my bucket. As someone who has great faith in our country and its people, I believe we can look back and remember our best selves and discern a path forward and a future that is faithful to who we are and challenging to who we might become. We must bring together differences and make something new out of an unlikely mix.

Next to my bucket in the garage are white bags of compost, the fruit of my offering on the altar of the future, each a symbol of that future, each a symbol of hope and new life.

The Rev. Janet Dorman is pastor of the Foreside Community Church, UCC. Contact her at [email protected]