The Gehenna in my Backyard

Gehenna was in our backyard. And it could have been a disaster. Last month Christa, the girls and took a trip up to Nederland for the day. We walked the Rainbow Lakes trail in Roosevelt National Forrest and since it was on a Monday, we hardly saw any other hikers. It was the kind of outdoor weather and views that reminded us why living in Colorado is so valuable. It was an ideal autumn day. On our way back down the mountain both mine and Christa’s phones chimed with new voicemails and messages from the world below. One of the calls had been from the Broomfield Police department. There had been a fire on our property.

We froze, directing all our attention to the officer’s voice on the voicemail. When I heard the words “fire on your property” my mind instantly thought “what about our stuff?” Even before you know the details, in split seconds you think about all the irreplaceable items, photos, old clocks, art work etc. All the evidence that helps remember who we are.

Well, It turns out that the fire was away from the house in our compost pile next to the shed. It completely burned up the compost container, two sections of our neighbor’s fence and the back corner of our shed before the fire department arrived. The officer said that there was no evidence of criminal cause to the accident but that sometimes this has been known to happen. Compost piles, if not properly attended to can spontaneously combust and given the right combination of oxygen and fuel will consume the container and spread turning all the stuff around it to ashes. (It’s true! google it!)

We’ve been composting for years. We love the way it makes us feel to know that all the organic material we’d have normally thrown into some landfill can actually be used to give us a nutrient packed super-soil! Soil that we can use to bring more life into our space with flowers and vegetable gardens. The end product of a great compost pile is called humus. (pronounced like “human” since we both come from the same idea, “of the earth”) Humus is the result of compounded decay over time. It is accomplished through the mixing of dry and wet organic material to creating a molecular burning that breaks down the material into a condensed matter that stimulates growth and resists decay.

In some ways humus is inevitable for all things given the right amount of time because all things are breaking down. Whether through decay or fire things return to ashes. However, one can cultivate a compost pile to safely render productive humus, That’s why we have containers for them. We make a place, separate from the other living things that are growing, to contain the rotting, decaying and burning stuff of life. If it is not separate, the flames of decay can ruin the growing life that is beautiful. The name that was given to the compost heap in ancient Jewish life was “Gehenna.”

Gehenna in scripture was more than the place for the community’s trash it was also the place that contained the existential and spiritual trash. The bodies of the dead were taken there  and it was known as place of violence, sexual abuse, human sacrifice and poverty. The trash was there was always on fire because it was the most sanitary to contain the spread of all the diseases that lived there. In the words of the New Testament writer Mark, It is a place “where the worm never dies and the fire never quenched” (Mark 9:48). Gehenna was located in the valley of Hennom where a history of child-sacrifices were known to have happened and Gehenna is image Jesus used in his sermons to talk about the dangers of the human condition

Mainly that our human desires and choices are prone to decay if they are not thrown onto the compost heap and cultivated properly, their destruction will reach the fragile growing bud of life and wrap it in an early death if we don’t let it go.

The problem is that it is really easy to forget to turn the compost pile. Our everyday routine and daily demands help us to forget about the drying tinder building up in the backyard. We think the problem is manageable because there is no fire. It’s not until your beautiful hike is interrupted with the alert that while you away, the gehenna in the backyard has spread beyond it’s container and ruined your stuff.

When we got home and surveyed the damage it was hard to escape the feelings of responsibility and regret. “If only I would have taken the 5 minutes to water down the pile and turn it a little then I could have prevented this!” Shame can be a powerful reason to avoid the pile. The second thing I thought was that it was going to take a lot of work and money to fix the damage to my neighbors fence (because when Gehenna spills out it always affects your neighbors.) and clean up and repair our stuff. The work is inconvenient and difficult. It’s much easier to leave it and go back to work on the stuff that seems to be paying the bills and filling your stomach. The world is full of monuments to destruction, where we simply left the work because it was too hard and we had too much shame (look at Haiti and the lower 9th ward in New Orleans).

However, maybe the strongest reason we don’t attend to our compost if simply that we don’t want to part with our “stuff.” Many times we act like we will never change or die even though we know everything is breaking down. In an effort to avoid death we chose addictions, fundamentalism, self-righteousness, substitutes of all kinds. Of course, this doesn’t help avoid the inevitable but increases the potential for more destruction. The hope for us, as Jesus put it, is in losing our life in order to save it.

The hope of Gehenna as far as I can tell is that nothing is wasted. Everything that is dead will be separated and surrendered to its own decay for a time in order to break it down past all recognition. Past the pain, past the morality, past the shame, past all of the lies until the only thing that is left is raw, unfiltered possibility. When this kind of material is placed in the hands of the right gardener the hope of new life is an inevitability.