Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Voice in the Wilderness

My brother Roy recently sent me this story:

As a young minister in Kentucky, I was asked by a funeral director to hold a grave-side service for a homeless man, who had no family or friends. The funeral was to be held at a new cemetery way back in the country, and this man would be the first to be buried there. I was not familiar with the backwoods area, and I soon became lost. Being a typical man, I did not stop to ask for directions. I finally arrived an hour late.

I saw the backhoe and the open grave, but the hearse was nowhere in sight. The digging crew was eating lunch. I apologized to the workers for my tardiness, and I stepped to the side of the open grave. There I saw the vault lid already in place. I assured the workers I would not hold them up for long, as I told them that this was the proper thing to do.

The workers gathered around the grave and stood silently, as I began to pour out my heart and soul. As I preached about "looking forward to a brighter tomorrow" and "the glory that is to come," the workers began to say "Amen," "Praise the Lord," and "Glory!" The fervor of these men truly inspired me. So, I preached and I preached like I had never preached before, all the way from Genesis to Revelation.

I finally closed the lengthy service with a prayer, thanked the men, and walked to my car. As I was opening the door and taking off my coat, I heard one of the workers say to another, "I ain't NEVER seen nothin' like that before, and I've been puttin' in septic tanks for thirty years!"

Roy added to the joke: "So now you know about my first funeral."

I suppose Roy can identify with the story now that he's a preacher himself - indeed one who somewhat late in life came to acknowledge his calling as a minister. Prior to Roy's answering that calling (one might even argue "in preparation for answering his calling") he served twenty years in the Air Force as a different kind of messenger, a deliverer of America's warning of sudden destruction from the sky (which - come to think of it - isn't such a different message). In any case, Roy has now laid down Uncle Sam's nuclear arsenal and taken up God's far more potent weapon, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, though God's Word is "alive and powerful", fools are rarely as dazzled by it as they are by a 20-megaton nuke. So I suspect there are times when Roy feels the pain of the fabled preacher who poured out his heart over a septic system. But I'm equally sure the world's complacency comes as no surprise to Roy.

The fact is: This world is a cesspool. And thus (in that sense) every preacher is always pouring out his heart over a septic system. So if Roy's sermons make no splash, my big brother has no reason to be surprised since I know for a fact that it's a lesson God has been teaching Roy since he was in high school.

Well I recall how God was preparing Roy for the possibility that this world would take little note of his work in the Lord's fertile field. In the fall of 1967, our dad's construction company got a contract to build a picnic site in New Mexico (in a section of the Lincoln National Forest known as Water Canyon, located between Socorro and Magdalena). The job involved leveling picnic sites, building natural stone retaining walls, adding rustic trails between sites and constructing lodge-pole framed structures over the picnic tables.

The largest part of the job was a stone restroom that sat uphill from the rest of the site. Now normally, one would place the sanitary facilities downstream of an encampment. But, this was - after all - a government project, so of course neither common sense nor (presumably) the law of gravity applied. The plans called for this massive natural-stone lavatory to rest atop a mound from where (like some back-woods acropolis) it was to preside over its lower, more picnicky outbuildings. Somewhere in the recesses of the design engineer's peanut, the outside chance of ground-water contamination must have risen to the level of conscious thought, so the plans also called for the basement of the latrine to be an eight-foot deep void, cast from one-foot-thick concrete thus assuring that there could be no run-off (but also requiring the park service to occasionally suction out the facility).

Construction in a pristine wilderness area is problematic. Readi-Mix trucks have but two possible sources: El Paso (250 miles to the south) or Albuquerque (200 miles to the north), so getting concrete delivered to the site before it starts to harden involves some careful coordination to make sure that water is added in transit. Since the quality of the hardened concrete depends greatly on the proper proportion of water to aggregate and the timing of the pour after the water is added, the chances of getting a perfect concrete pour under such circumstances are slim at best. So when we removed the forms from the cellar of the outhouse we were expecting to see badly honeycombed concrete. But we consoled ourselves that it really didn't matter. After all, no one would ever look down into this pit and notice what an ugly job it was. But lo, as the forms came off, we stood in awe. There wasn't even the slightest flaw in the concrete's surface. Dad laughed and proposed that we mount a brass plaque in the outhouse, directing future tourists to the quality workmanship that welcomed their effluence.

So as I say, the Lord's lesson for Roy has consistently been: Though your labors for the Lord may make this world a better and cleaner place, the world cares naught about the quality of your workmanship. The world won't just ignore your good work, it will probably take an thoughtless dump on it.


Roses said...


I'm going to mull this one over for quite some time.

Bob said...

Thanks Roses--
Metaphors abound; you just have to notice them.

joyce said...

Seeing as how Roy is driving toward El Paso at this very minute, are you going to tell him to check out this septic tank soliloquy?? Or, maybe Joel's dear daughter will point it out to her Dad, and then Joel will tell Roy?? I sure hope Jerry does not read it and include it in the renewal of their vows ceremony.

Bob said...

I can't believe I forgot to put a title on this post. Well, that was easily fixed.

Jerry will probably read this post, but I wouldn't bet on this story getting into the vows.

Hula Doula said...

Such a ponder. Chaulk this one as another one of my favorite stories.
Waving hello from Croatia

Mrs. Who said...

Excellent, thought-provoking post. I will ponder this quite a bit tonight.

Jerry said...

Hey, I am still wondering whether the Readi-mix came from here in Albuquerque or up from El Paso.

I am betting on El Paso, since it is hard to get anything of quality around here, but many things might have changed since this happened.

I am not planning on incorporating this story into the festivities to come, but I will be surprised if there is not some scatological humor expressed, owing to the crowd at hand. (And I am not just talking about your side of the family, most of you guys have not met my brother, yet!)