Black Dirt and Old Bones: Meditation on Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes 1:4 says “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.”

After the deaths of two old men I understood that verse for the first time.

I grew up in Linn County, Oregon. When I was a kid my Dad was the pastor of a sixty person church, with farmers and truckers making up most of the assembly. I remember the scared hands and missing fingers when the communion cups tipped and the offering plate was passed. After the benediction I would sneak by circles of them telling stories about brushes with death while in the woods or jobsite, and I listened with reverence. Men like that don’t die.

In my hometown, if you were old enough to steer machinery or lift hay bales, you were expected to work harvest. I would spend my summers from the age of fourteen cutting, sacking grain, or pulling a plow. The dawn to dusk work six days a week was tedious, but interactions with ancient farmers at church and in the field usually broke the monotony.

One of these old farmers was Charlie Bearly. He could always be heard walking into Sunday service because his right boot heel was an inch taller than the other. Part of his foot got blown off in a hunting accident. When I summoned enough courage to ask him the story he only pointed at his boot and said “Remember young man, that’s happens when you hunt on a Sunday.” Charlie knew Linn County like an old friend. He worked plow horses in his youth and was known for herding mustangs over the Santiam pass. He was the last of the real cowboys.

He slowly succumbed to Alzheimer’s in his eighties. Dad would take me into the nursing home and read Louis Lamour paperbacks to him. I would sit there silently and watch as Charlie would sometimes laugh, sometimes cry—his eyes full of fading memories, happy moments and regrets. Charlie talked to Dad about his sin, saying he had done a lot of people wrong in his life. After he died there wasn’t an empty seat at his funeral.

I began working at Cross Roads farms in 2004, and there I became acquainted with Willard Keen. He had lived through the days of the Spanish Influenza and Great Depression, rarely leaving Linn County for ninety years. His vision was poor at best, so I’d be careful whenever he would start the forklift or fire his twelve gage. Willard had looked death in the face several times. One instance machine blades caught hold of his arm in the warehouse. It’s said he calmly wrapped his lacerations in rags, crawled over the cat walks, and down a twenty foot latter. After seeing his jagged scars I told my friends that the Grim Reaper had visited the Willard multiple times, but the old man always chased him off the property with his own scythe.

Willard was always trying to bring dead things to life. Every day he’d put a battery charger on a water truck that hadn’t run since the sixties. When that didn’t work he decided the spark plugs had dirty contacts and nearly destroyed my fingertips when he made me hold all eight of them up to a welding torch to “burn the dirt off.”  I would accidently break brooms and cheap tools only to find them put together disjointedly with masking tape. Grain bins in the warehouse were so old and worn that they would leak seed and Willard plugged the gaping holes constantly with burlap sacks. His thin, old frame never stopped moving. I was convinced he would outlive me.

Willard saw his last harvest at the age of ninety nine. They mentioned that in his twenties he had plowed with horses like Charlie and that his father had told him that the tractor craze was never going to last.

When I was seventeen I ran a John Deer with an eight bottom plow, working the same valley ground. I thought about plow horses eighty years before, lathered in sweat as they pulled with the young hands of Willard and Charlie straining to keep the main share straight from dawn to dusk.

I find my mind attempts to put flesh to fading memory—to revive dead things. Maybe Willard taught me that.  Sometimes like Charlie I lie in bed at night haunted by past happiness and regret. One day I will be as old as they were, and shortly after our bones will all be together in the dark soil. A sermon I heard many years ago in my little church comes to mind. A voice asks in the desert “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I think about the cycles of the earth: the new life in spring after winter; the green stalks of wheat before harvest; new dawns after new moons. I think about working in the same red twilights as Willard and Charlie, smelling the same fresh soil and watching the hours turn into days and days turn into years and I reply, “You alone know.”



The End of the Great Depression

“What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth. Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”? It was already done long ago, before our time… I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I decided to carefully and thoroughly examine all that has been accomplished on earth. I concluded: God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied. I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile—like chasing the wind! What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10, 12-15

The world of Ecclesiastes is old, stale, and hopeless. Solomon, husband of many wives, victor of many battles, possessor of great wealth, wonders if any of it is worth it. If the wise die in the same way as the foolish, if the rich suffer the same fate as the poor, if the good man fares the same as the evil man, why even make an effort? Even his last words carry the same sense of melancholy and hopelessness. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Fear God and obey him, because it is your duty: it will not help you in life, it may not help you in death, you will still die the same as an evil man… but it is your duty nonetheless.

And that was the end of the matter. There was nothing more to said, nothing more to be heard, because even the words of the wise were vain and meaningless.

And then something happened that had never happened before. A new star appeared in the heavens and a company of angels sang to the shepherds of Bethlehem, because God had been wrapped in swaddling clothes and was lying in a manger. A living child had been born into a world of skeletons. Here, finally, was something new, something that that was not vanity and a chasing after the wind.

God was a child. He had friends, he played games with them, he skinned his knees, he was hungry and thirsty and tired. And then God grew up and was a man. He was sarcastic and biting towards some people and utterly kind and gentle towards others. He was enraged at the misuse of the temple and driven to tears by the death of a friend. He had friends and ate and drank and slept under the stars when he could have had an angelic canopy.

And as we think about these things we must remember one simple truth: God does not do meaningless things.

And this does not just apply to his “kingdom work.” The ultimate proof of this is his very first miracle in John 2, unplanned and spontaneous. This is evident from his response to Mary: “What does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Such a response indicates that the forthcoming miracle has nothing to do with “his hour,” his primary purpose. But he does it anyway. He has the jars filled with water and by the time the first cup reached the master of the feast, it is no longer water but the finest wine that had yet been served.

God does not do meaningless things. There were any number of ways to make his disciples believe in him, if that was his only goal. There were many ways to demonstrate his power, his authority, his deity. He could have made the water disappear: he could have turned it into grape juice (as some Christians fervently wish he had). But instead he chose to turn it into wine, and not  just any wine; he turned it into the finest wine of the feast, wine so good that it made all the other wine pale in comparison. We must acknowledge this amazing truth: that God did something not just to further his mission, not just to make his disciples believe in him, but to help people celebrate a wedding with the best wine of the feast, the ultimate example of extravagance.

God does not do meaningless things. And that means that the world of Ecclesiastes is gone forever.

Because of Christmas, everything is no longer vanity and meaningless: instead, everything assumes a colossal importance. Even “neutral” things like eating or sleeping become full of meaning when we consider that God himself has done these things as well. When we eat, even a snack, we are reminded that God has done the same. When we sleep, we are reminded that God did too. When we attend a wedding, we remember that in doing so we walk in the footsteps of Christ.

Life is full of meaning: I might even say full to bursting. Serving God is no longer a mere duty; it is instead a privilege, an honor, a gift, as we walk this new world and think of Christ taking his first steps in Bethlehem.

Sacrifice vs. …Sacrifice? : Doing What You Love

Seth Godin recently pointed his blog readers to a heart-warming—and considerably thought-provoking—documentary. Appropriate to Godin’s field of work, “Lemonade” interviews over a dozen laid off advertisement professionals who use their new found freedom to pursue work and recreation that they truly enjoy.

If you scroll down to read some of Hulu’s viewer comments, you’ll notice that the concept of “doing what you love” full-time is controversial. Many argue that “pursuing one’s passion” is often mismanaged, resulting in failure, the loss of other opportunities and a decrease in quality of life. The potential for success may not be worth the enormous risk.

Of course, it’s normal for us to seek pleasure over pain, happiness over unhappiness. There is logical consistency in choosing activities we enjoy over those we despise. Pursuing work that inspires us can be opposed to our basic needs or our familial responsibilities. Even the non-basic comforts of our lifestyle are enough to hinder us from pursuing a motivational occupation because we can’t bear the loss of them. Consequently, immediate needs usually take precedence over long-term goals.

Achieving success while doing work we enjoy is also not as predictable as, say, a corporate job. Some individuals see their corporate work as a service to others, whether they’re serving their coworkers or indirect recipients. But more often than not, it’s the paycheck that keeps them in their offices. Money, after all, can open doors for activities we really enjoy. Saving and preparing for a family’s future is also one of the major reasons people choose higher paying jobs. None of these are unworthy goals.

The potential pitfalls of choosing work solely because we love it can be numerous. Seth Godin—who, if you don’t know, advocates the pursuit of meaningful work—outlines these pitfalls thoroughly in an article from a couple of years ago.

Yet choosing work we enjoy can be rewarding, not only for ourselves but for our families and for our community. Making a documentary about surf camps, for example, “that provide free, therapeutic surf lessons to kids with cystic fibrosis” is a powerful way to impact a community; something as simple as home roasting coffee beans and selling them at the local farmer’s market is yet another way to link people together.

If we truly love the work we do, we’ll be devoted to it, willing to suffer for it, and consequently, be much better at it.  There are times when hard work is not enough to accomplish something. Usually we need certain knowledge or the right opportunities in order to achieve success. But success isn’t possible at all without devoted persistence.

As human beings created in God’s image we find the most enjoyment and meaning when we act according to our natural skills and abilities, which includes the act of creating. By doing that which most fits and inspires us we’ll be able to more fully serve our community (and create better art) as a result.

Even though money itself can be a means to better things, we frequently make the mistake of building our lives around it. Some people are able to make lots of money doing what they love, but for those of us who can’t, is the loss of money worth the loss of utilizing the gifts God has given us?

It’s okay for us to simply live and be and do. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes reminds me that, first, “all things have been done before,” but also that living humbly, I can do work which is most suited to me. It isn’t worth wasting time and energy in an attempt to achieve material wealth when it is not ultimately for the good of our families, for our community or for our own well-being. We should know who it is we want to be and what it is we want to do. Whether it means working to make money for the good of one’s family and for added opportunities, or giving up material goods for the pursuit of higher things (like art, invention, discovery or the betterment of our community and society). ‘