For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.
I live in an attic of a family, a married couple and their two daughters, ages nine and four. We eat a delicious home cooked meal most nights, usually vegetarian, lovingly prepared by one or both members of the couple. We talk about our days, our little joys and annoyances. And afterwards, whatever food is left over on our plates, we scrape into a lidded pot next to the sink.
Composting, besides a brief foray my mother made when I was a child, was new to me upon living here. But I have now become so used to the habit that I find it strange when a friend’s house or self-bussing restaurant does not offer it. You mean I have to put all of this food in the regular ol’ garbage?
At the risk of sounding like some sort of hippie, I feel like I’ve found a great value in this smallest of acts. I like the idea that even my garbage can be useful, that my black, uneaten bananas and abundant tea bags might help grow next year’s salad or daffodil. That all this garbage might be good for something.
In August, I moved from Ohio to New Haven, Connecticut and started my first year at Yale Divinity School. Two years from now, when I’m finished, I hope to be ordained and ready to begin fulfilling my call to ministry. But quickly after I arrived at my new home, I began to doubt if the Holy Spirit really called me to this place. Maybe I misunderstood. I grew up in a very traditional church, and somehow I’d found my way into classes where we were asked to refrain from using male pronouns to refer to God, into a chapel service where one professor claimed that all those demons Jesus cast out of folks were metaphorical.
Everyone seemed so different than me. Could I possibly find a way to belong here? My anxiety seemed to spike, and I quickly realized what I’d gotten myself into.
Almost three years ago, I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. My mental illness and my faith have always gone hand in hand and probably always will. The brain of a person with OCD is constantly doubting, always grasping for a certainty that feels like it can never be attained. This makes resting in the peace of Christ feel like a Herculean feat most days. I always worried:
What if I sinned? What if I’m about to sin? What if I’m causing someone else to sin? Does God still love me? How can I know for sure?
As my first semester at school unfolded, these questions seemed to plague me with increasing volume. In my classes and relationships with peers, many of the things I had come to believe about God and God’s world were called into question. Sometimes, at the end of these questions came a changed opinion or belief. Is it okay to change my mind, God? I panicked. Sometimes I stuck with the belief I had in the first place. Am I missing something? I panicked some more. Regardless, my racing mind flung me into a depression. I could barely sleep, could barely eat, could barely get off the couch to go to class.
After a week at this lowest point, I remembered my pastors in Ohio praying over me before I went to divinity school. After the prayer, one said, “You really know how to question yourself and see where you might be going wrong, and that’s a gift. But now God wants you to learn to start trusting in yourself.” I had totally forgotten about this moment, this wisdom, this prayer until the exact moment I needed it most.
So now, as I prepare to head back to Connecticut for round two of school, many of my Big Questions remain either tentatively answered or filed in an imaginary mason jar labelled “Ask in Heaven.” But what I do know is this:
My God composts. From the refuse of life, something can be salvaged. From change and grief and illness, something can grow. Now I find myself more able to experience God’s peace and presence even as I question, even while continuing to find my place in a new community.
Like this passage from Isaiah says, I believe God can make your waste places, your wilderness, like Paradise, too. Ask in prayer or reflection: What beautiful things has God allowed grow in the place of your personal wasteland? Or what desert are you walking through now that God may desire to turn into a garden? Amen, God, let it be.