Failure is like compost

What goes in the compost bin? It took us a few weeks to figure that out. At our new house, we have a big black compost bin next to the garden that previous owners left here. It was pretty much full of compost when we got here, which is disgusting. But what’s weird is that it’s still not ready to be put in the garden. There are still tiny egg-shell bowls and blackened banana peels. No way I’m spreading that stuff out yet.

It turns out that it takes FOREVER to turn organic garbage into food for the garden. It’s not like this week’s apple cores turn into next week’s fertilizer. It’s not even ready next month. More likely, next year’s fertilizer is now being gathered when I slide the orange peels from our snack into the compost bin.

This description from was eye-opening to me:

Basically, if you are engaged in the process, you will need just a few months to get the compost you want. On the other hand, if you put all ingredients into the compost bin and forget about it, you can count on obtaining the usable compost only after a couple of years.

This makes perfect sense if you think about what’s happening. An apple core has a certain molecular structure, determining its shape, colors, smells, etc. When compost is ready, it no longer looks like a bunch of apple cores and other stuff rolling around in the barrel. It looks like dark, rich soil. But the apple molecules are still there.

It takes time to transform something inedible into something that can nourish plants. Interestingly, those plants then become something edible, and the cycle continues.

Photo by Toni Reed on Unsplash

I think this compost process is somewhat illustrative of what’s happening in our inward character. Whenever I screw up or do something well, that experience becomes part of my history. I imagine that God and the world are keeping a register of all my successes and failures. The big moments are highlighted and last longer.

Maybe this is the world’s way, but this view of God’s way is too passive. He is not sitting back and grading our lives with a red pen. He is a teacher, a mentor, and a parent. He is a gardener.

Even my biggest failings are compostable. Yes, our failures and our successes become part of who we are. But God is able to take the materials that these experiences are made of and turn them into fertilizer for future growth.

How does this happen? How do we make sure this happens? What is our job? As usual, the answer is not in list format.

Our job is to be a garden with a compost bin. Everyone is a garden, but not everyone has a compost bin. Every time we fail and every time we succeed, we can put the memory of that into the compost bin.

What the heck does that mean? It means that when we talk and think about what we’ve done, that’s what it is: it’s something we did. It’s not who we are. Who we are is the garden, and what we’ve done is the compost.

To be honest, one of the things I’m happiest about having done in my life so far is teaching my boys to read before they started kindergarten. I read books on how to do it, and I built in the habit of working on phonics a few times per week when they were about a year away from starting school. Both boys did fine. Now I’m teaching my daughter, who is four and will start school next fall.

Here’s where the whole compost thing happens: I have the positive experience of my boys learning and getting those “aha!” moments when the words become more than sounds to them. I remember also the times when they were super unmotivated and I wondered if we would ever get moving again.

When my boys started school, I had a choice about how to view our success. I could gild it with shiny metal and put it on my shelf. It would have a plaque that says, “ALLIE IS A GOOD MOM BECAUSE HER KIDS READ EARLY.” When people marvel at how well my boys do with reading, I can pull out my trophy and say, “Yes, I taught them myself!” This way of viewing my success makes it very hard for it to become fertilizer for my garden. It sits on a shelf and remains static.

And what’s worse, I might put pressure on my daughter to learn to read early, not because I think it’s good for her, but because I don’t want to lose my trophy!

Photo by Ariel Besagar on Unsplash

What I have endeavored to do instead is to keep it practical. I am thrilled that my dudes kill it when it comes to reading. I followed some simple instructions. I may not have been able to do it if my kids were developmentally challenged or if our lives were too chaotic at the time. I recognize the cooperation of my boys and the encouragement from my husband and others. My assumption is that anyone could do this with their kids, given the same support.

My hope is that having this attitude about our success enables it to remain organic, growing and changing, and capable of being broken down by God into fertilizer for future growth.

How would this look with failures? (Kudos to you if you’re still reading! Hang in there, we’re almost done!)

Failures can be turned into little grave markers that we plant in our yard. The last 5K I ran felt like an ugly failure. Since the previous 5K, I had gained about 10 lbs. I had trained some, but not very diligently. I was uncomfortable and frustrated. And I haven’t run a 5K since.

Have I turned that failure into a grave marker? Have I set it up in my memory as an RIP to my running habits? Maybe. I’m planning on signing up for another 5K in a couple weeks. But…I haven’t actually signed up yet. I’ve been running, but I feel really embarrassed about my last race, and I’m pretty sure I will have my worst time yet.

I think I’ve immortalized my failure somewhat. I need to turn it into back into small pieces. The 5K was hard because I had gained weight, not because I’m an illegitimate runner. I had gained weight because of lots of poor eating decisions compounded into each other. Also I had a stressful year and I’m older, so my metabolism is even worse than before, which I didn’t realize was possible.

Lord, help me to put that failure in the compost bin, so you can break it down and use it as fertilizer in the future. Running 5Ks is a way of keeping myself motivated to be healthy; it’s not always effective, but at least it’s me trying!

I would like to turn that failure into a linear success story. To chart the breaking down and the growth. But that’s not my job. God’s job is to tend his garden, and he is in charge of how the compost is created. His way is usually undercover, slow, and mysterious.

It can take years to turn our experiences, especially our failures, into compost. But that nourishment is so much richer than a book you can buy at the store or a 45 minute podcast. Lord God, use your organic process to make us the kind of soil where your word can produce a good crop.

Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.

Matthew 13:8

Learning boundaries, motives, and more, in 300 words or less.

Any minute my kids are going to wake up, and I’ll shut off my laptop so I can be with them. My middle son is almost always up at exactly 7am, which is the time they’re allowed to wake up. His biological alarm clock is both accurate and faithful.

This week, I’ve been learning a lot about boundaries on work. It’s a new thing for me, being paid by the hour/by the article. It’s also a new thing to be “paid” at all. Before this season of our lives, my husband and I were missionaries. So it’s not that we were paid to do missions work; we were supported by donations, so we could put all our efforts into serving.

There were boundary issues with that lifestyle as well, as any minister, and probably most nonprofit leaders, can testify. (I hear the kids now. 7:05.)

I suppose the logical way to learn this new balance would be to take cues from my old way of balancing.

  1. Notice the signs that I’ve overstuffed my life (not wanting to see any humans ever, even if they’re my offspring; eating cold leftovers even if I’m not hungry; etc., etc.)
  2. Talk with my husband about how I’ve worked myself into a pickle. Promising more output than I have capacity to produce. He probably thinks to himself, “Here again? If this territory isn’t pleasant, at least it’s familiar.”
  3. Carve out an hour or two of quiet so I can reassess my motives.

That last bit is the part I always forget that I need. I remember the first time it dawned on me that motives are important. I was at a Christian retreat, in the middle of a stuffy worship session (stuffy because the air in the room was being breathed by so many people.) I was doing the things you’re supposed to do during worship time when the thought came to me, “You do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.”

I left the stuffy room and stood by the lake. I felt crazy and wild as a young person who had never snuck out of her summer camp cabin and always listened carefully when the rules were being explained (I still listen on the airplane to the oxygen mask talk. It’s not something I’m proud of).

My chest was burning with the question: what are my motives? I didn’t even get answers to the question. The answer is always kaleidoscopic and always unfolding. There is good mixed in with bad. It all becomes increasingly complicated, as I realize there are more than two possible colors.

Rather than understanding myself better—and needing less time to sort out my motives—I find myself needing more time and less talking on my part. More listening and more resting to get things in order.

That’s what I need today. More listening and more resting. More enjoying what is before me and not worrying so much about whether I’ll accomplish all the things I said I could do. To those readers who practice Sabbath-keeping (i.e., taking a day off because God is bigger than work), may it be a refreshing one for you. And may we all find those boundaries that bring rest.

Here are a couple articles I’ve written recently for (I would add nice pictures and stuff, but I’m going to go make pancakes with my kids!)

How to Bring Biblical Blessings into Your Life

Shifting our Focus from Tragedy to Hope (in memory of 9/11)

A Glorious Way

He has made glorious the way of the sea. —Isaiah 9:1

Photo by Padraig Treanor on Unsplash

One of the most ancient of stories for Christians and Jews: Moses leading the people through the Red Sea. Over and again, the Bible authors reference this story as a defining moment for God’s people.

Then why do we—why do I?—feel surprised and betrayed when the path I’m walking is muddy, or narrow, or feels like the whole thing could come caving in at any moment?

God has made glorious this way in between two towering, tottering mountains of water, with a furious army in pursuit, with babies and all earthly possession in tow. That doesn’t sound very glorious.

When the Israelites made a similar trek through the Jordan River, led by Joshua, it says they “passed over in haste” (Joshua 4:10). This was no golden-paved route to savor.

Our practical expectation for our lives as believers tends to focus on the first portion of Psalm 23:

“He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.”

We expect that most of our lives will be resting in green pastures, and if our pasture isn’t very green we look to another. Maybe that pasture over there will bring even more rest and enjoyment.

But the poem continues:

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”


“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

The peaceful cadence of this psalm and its overfamiliarity give the impression that mostly life as a godly person will be gentle and joyful. This is often true.

Where we get off is that we think that “gentle and joyful” will come as a result of the circumstances God leads us into or provides for us. But this psalm paints an “even though” picture of gentleness and joy.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

He has made glorious the way of the sea. He has chosen and elevated the muddy, difficult, dangerous way because it defines us as his own. He brings gentleness and joy in the midst of very difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances.

Once you’ve walked through the valley of the shadow of death with God, you will be marked by that experience forever. Maybe it’s coming near physical death or enduring deep emotional pain. Maybe it’s a source of fear, a threat on your family’s well-being of some kind, and you do not know what lies before you or how far this valley extends.

The “way of the sea” is stepping day by day through the muck and darkness, with your only assurance being the voice of the Holy Spirit saying, this is the way, walk in it.

If you are walking through fear, grief, anger, or fighting sin tooth and nail, know that God’s intention is to make glorious this way. He wants to define your life with his rescue in it. He wants to teach you to listen to his voice even when the sound of the waves he’s holding back are churning in your ears. (I wonder what sounds the Israelites were hearing when they walked through the heaped up waters with thousands of people in their company and an army of chariots behind them.)

The most dangerous thing to do when you’re walking through a valley with God is to turn aside, off the path. Once you’ve started on a way with God, breaking off from him to chart your own way is sure to fail and to bring great destruction. Imagine a man in the multitude passing through the Red Sea freaking out and deciding to swim instead, or turning back to attempt negotiation with the enemy. No, the only wise choice is to march forward in the narrow strip of mud with massive tons of water held up in gravity-defying formation.

There are paths through the sea in our everyday lives. And some of us may be walking through a long, life-defining one right now.

The glorious way of the sea today may be allowing ourselves to feel sadness or boredom and talking to God or someone we love about it, instead of turning on Netflix or scooping another bowl of ice cream. It may mean buckling down and doing the tasks required of us, even though we’d like to search for a new job during work hours. It may mean turning our thoughts from angry blame to patient blessing when someone has wronged us.

The path through the sea may be shrouded in darkness, loss, and fear. It may not look very glorious now. But by bringing up this story over and over, the Bible authors are reminding us that this is God’s way. That the muddiness and even the drama are not indications that one has ventured out of God’s will. They can become evidence of his rescuing love.

God has made glorious the way of the sea. Let us walk in it today.

Recommended reading: Psalm 77

Two new articles

I’ve had the privilege of writing for the Assemblies of God’s magazine, Influence, which is geared toward ministry leaders throughout the U.S. This article is a reflection on the many times I sensed God highlighting misdirected motivations in my devotional life.

Choose this day whom (your devotional life) will serve

Don’t spill your coffee, girlfriend.

I also did some research on kids and stress. It seemed like my kids were acting funnier than usual as school approached, and I wanted to understand the ways kids express stress differently from adults. The trickiest thing is both disciplining misbehavior and meeting their emotional needs all at once.

Signs your elementary kid might be stressed out

Not my kid, but she looks like she’s doing a great job.

Have a wonderful week, everybody!

The Faithful

“The faithful are not from here, and the faithful are not staying here.”

Pastor Jay Greener, based on Hebrews 11

Faith is one of those things that’s easier to see in other people than in ourselves. It’s also easier to see looking into the past. And faith is by definition oriented toward the future.

In other people

The faithful are not from here: like Abraham, the faithful are travelers in a foreign land, called out from that which is known into the unknown, because there is something that isn’t yet known to be found.

The faithful know themselves to be from somewhere else: like Moses, the faithful look in the mirror and see themselves dressed in the costume of a foreign people.

The faithful are not staying here: like Noah, the faithful readily use their material resources to prepare for the coming age, when all those material things will be underwater anyhow. No sense preserving either gopher wood or social standing.

Listing off Abraham, Moses, and Noah, along with many others in Hebrews 11, gives the impression that “the Faithful” are the greats. The A-listers, the best in class But that’s not the point the author of Hebrews is making. He precludes his list of the Faithful with these words:

Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward….We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

Hebrews 10:35, 39

His point is, in speaking to believers, that we are to see ourselves as one of a long line of faithful ones, peoples who lives illustrate a dogged belief in something greater and in Someone better.

In the past

To shift abruptly into personal reflection, I’ve found it much easier to discern whether I’ve been acting in faith when there are a few years’ distance between me and my actions.

The fact that I can reflect on our missionary career (my husband’s and mine) without too many regrets is a faith builder in itself. God made it his own prerogative to see that our motivations were saturated in faith, born out of belief that he rewards those who diligently seek him.

God’s methodology in properly grounding our motivations had a lot to do with restraint. Knowing how generous he is, I imagine it was hard for him to wait to give us the rewards we were asking for. Instead, he gave us the gift of himself as a personal trainer, working with us toward a longer-lasting version of what we were requesting.

Let me speak in plain terms about our experience as campus missionaries. When we sought to establish a new ministry, we didn’t expect it to grow overnight, and we enjoyed the beginning. Starting with about 15 students (several of whom are still close friends), we added about 5 people per semester in those first few semesters. We thought that was pretty great.

We were learning a lot, praying a lot, pastoring our students to the best of our ability, and attempting to train students to lead others into the faith.

After a few semesters, we began to see some stagnation in our growth numerically, even though we were seeing many of our students grow deeply on a personal level. We were trying to establish a living, growing community, and we were living but not growing. Additionally, some of those we helped to get started in their faith had walked away from Christ shortly after. Others walked away from our community, leaving with critical words or callous indifference.

In the midst of all this, we experienced the death of two loved ones. My father and one of our young staff members.

Those years felt like tilling the hardest of soil. Although we were not fruitless and enjoyed the fellowship of many sweet students and staff, we had to work so hard for every inch of ground.

The effect of these dry times was to send our roots pushing into deeper ground in search of water. Again and again we had to ask ourselves, “is this worth it? [yes]; could someone else be doing this better? [yes!]; are we going to struggle like this forever? [maybe].” And each time, God gave us the grace to eventually remember—after plenty of bad attitudes and tears—that he is our commanding officer, and the results of our obedience are his concern. He rewards obedience, not success.

We also had to nurture the belief that faith is a seed that starts very small and grows into something expansive, but its growth is slow and mostly underground.

Had we experienced immediate raging success, we would’ve had a whole other set of temptations to fight, different lessons to learn, and a different type of battle scars. Still, we often caught ourselves wishing for that kind of struggle, the one where you try to stay humble and keep your head when everyone’s shouting your name.

Looking back, I feel at peace about our journey, and I feel great joy about the students and staff who now call our community their family.

So what does it mean to be faithful? For us, it has meant being empty and God coming along and filling us with the belief that what we see now is not all there will be.

Looking ahead

The true reward for our service in campus ministry is not the years of simple growth and enjoyment that followed those dry years. It’s not even the individual faces that fill our minds when we remember the goodness of God.

Our true reward in the present is the water that comes up through those roots, the Spirit of God himself. And our reward looking ahead is the promise of a greater capacity to be filled. To know him as we are known.

May this day be another step towards that great day.

Close to home: writing about leadership transition

This week, I wrote an article for Bible Study Tools that shares “Lessons on leadership from the Book of Joshua.” My editor thought that was a simple title, but really this article is for followers. Many church members have been through the wringer lately with leadership transitions that are both public and messy.

As my family has experienced, even leadership transitions that are relatively healthy and scandal-free can be very difficult. Maybe they always are?

This May, we moved from Indiana to the Chicago area, leaving our “baby”—the campus ministry we helped to establish—in the care of new leaders, who are very capable and very dear to us. The real lessons are probably being learned now in our absence, but we discovered how closely one clings to the mast of Christ at these times.

Though Joshua lived long before the time of Christ, he found his moorings in the same spirit of wisdom that stabilizes us today. I hope this article is helpful whether you’re a leader, church member, or onlooker of the messy church world.

Lessons in Leadership from the Book of Joshua

I wouldn’t want to be God

God gets the worst presents. I give him my worries, my fears, my anger. The other day, I was headed into a doctor appointment where I feared bad news. I told God, “Lord, I’m just giving this to you.” Wow, happy birthday, God. Have some unfounded, overly dramatic fear because I love you so much. And then in return, he gave me peace and hopeful expectation, and an “all clear” from the doctor.

God also gets my songs that are too embarrassing to share with humans. And a daily rundown of the things I hope will happen and things I need his help with. He gets a shopping list of things I’m not sure how we’ll pay for. (And I wonder if he’s got a separate list of all the stuff he’s planning to give us that I don’t think to ask for.)

So I really wouldn’t want to be God, because he gets the worst gifts. But then again, maybe it would be nice to God, because he seems perfectly happy to receive them.