Tilling, Working, Naming (174)

[Genesis 2:15-20; Psalm 8]

What are people for?

Some of you will recognize that question from the title of a little book by a farmer-poet. That’s the first place I can recall seeing the matter put this way. It’s a good way to ask the question, isn’t it? What are people for? The question upends things.

We have recently welcomed several new babies into our congregation. At the same time a number of us have said a final “goodbye” to someone we love. And some of us are going through the torturous process of wondering if it is our turn for such a goodbye. Birth and death are the bookends. But what about the time in between, where we all are, soaked in the bliss, the pain, the boredom. What is that? What are people for?  

One of the places the Bible deals with this question is in the opening book, right here in the early chapters of the Genesis. Maybe at one time or another you have found yourself in a part of a store where you don’t usually go. Maybe you were looking for the first time at specialized automotive tools or strange kitchen implements. You had no idea what you were even looking at. One of the things the early chapters of Genesis are intended to do is to answer those kinds of questions about people–about ourselves.

With such a question in mind we notice that the original person, the ‘adam’, is given several jobs. The adam is to till and to keep. This strange tool, the human creature, is for tilling and keeping a good creation. Further along in our passage we read how the first step was to start naming things. Many of us do work that we can’t wait to quit. I can’t but wonder if one reason might be that much of our work has become abstract. We spend our days doing things that are so far removed from the basics of tilling, keeping and naming that it hardly seems worth the hassle.

First, the keeping. Medieval castles had a “keep.” It was the most secure part of the fort. It was the inner sanctum, a refuge of security. Soccer goalies are sometimes called “keepers.” They are the last defenders, the end of the line. Then there is the “tilling.” In a pre-industrial setting tilling implied an intimate relationship with land. It was hands-on. It required knowing a place in all seasons, knowing strengths and limitations. Tilling, in the biblical sense, required giving of yourself. It required being aware that the land you work will one day need to provide for the people you love most. Tilling and keeping, Genesis tells us, are what people are for.

And then there is “naming”—not creating, but naming. To name requires attention. It requires the ability to notice similarity and difference. Naming requires understanding. We name the things we take pleasure in: children, an old car, a pet, a cottage. We leave unnamed the things we merely use: the bus, a phone, cheap furniture, spoons and forks, the fridge (okay, sometimes we name the fridge). What are people for? Genesis tells us that people are for tilling, keeping and naming.

Verse 20 of Genesis 2 ends with an open gesture. The opening is created by the fact that we can’t do these things alone. We need others; we need partners. So maybe we should add relationships to our list of what people are for. We till, keep and name with others. Elsewhere in Genesis we read that people are given “dominion” over creation. In our age of fading empires we are especially conscious of how this idea of “dominion” has been used as an excuse for abuse and discrimination.

It’s helpful on this account to turn back to scripture itself. If we read scripture with more care we notice that having dominion means being empowered to care for something that is not ours. Having dominion involves authority, yes, but not without responsibility and accountability. To be given dominion, as Psalm 8 suggests, is to be held accountable. What are people for? They have power, there’s no arguing with that, but for that power they must give an account. Keep the books carefully. The creator wants to know.

Enough of all this toying with words. What does this feel like? For that let’s turn to the farmer-poet. Many of you will recognize the name of Wendell Berry even if you haven’t seen his book What are People For?

One cold afternoon in late autumn Wendell Berry was asked to watch his granddaughter. He figured that his farm work that day was not especially dangerous and that she could join him. Their goal was to haul several loads of dirt to repair a barn floor. Berry still worked his farm with horses, so he and his granddaughter drove the team. They traveled back and forth along a lane beside the creek. It was a path known well by both his own mother and his granddaughter’s mother. Now his granddaughter learned to know it too. After a while he let the girl drive the team. She did well. He told her how proud of her he was. They worked on, grandfather, granddaughter and a team of horses.

Later in the afternoon the sun was low and the air turned cold. But the job required them to make one more trip. The grandfather, worried that the girl was miserable and maybe a little homesick. She sat beside him, watched the horses and said nothing. He didn’t know what to say to her. How could he comfort her in the bitter late afternoon wind, when work still needed to be done, when it was impossible to hurry? The grandfather said nothing but sat quietly on the wagon seat hoping the girl wasn’t suffering too much. But then, as the silence began to stretch impossibly long, she turned her face toward him and said simply, “Wendell, isn’t this fun?”

A cold afternoon. Work to be done. A grandfather and granddaughter. A task fitted for a pair. Fun indeed.

The goodness of God is in the fact that work can be so much fun. What a world God has given us! What beauty! How marvelous are the ways of plants and animals, soil and water. On this Thanksgiving weekend we remember how only a few months ago we planted seeds and now we have fruit. Two days ago our family picked up a 14 lb. turkey. Two days before that, the farmer told us, the bird had been walking around. Not six months previous, the creature had hatched from an egg. To till, to keep and to name in the company of others—in such a world—isn’t this fun!

Let me share one more observation from the farmer-poet before I close. For many years, Wendell Berry tells us, he has walked past an old fence row in a wooded hollow that was once his grandfather’s farm. Near the top of that hollow there is an old galvanized bucket hanging on a fence post. It has been there for years. Every time he passes Mr. Berry looks into that bucket. What he sees, he describes as, “the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of.” The bucket “is making earth.”

Over the many seasons it has hung there the bucket has collected leaves, rain and snow. Insects have fallen in and decayed. Squirrels have left the shells of nuts. Mice have left droppings. And here I must quote directly. Wendell Berry says,

This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus. I look into that bucket with fascination because I am a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts, and I recognize there an artistry and a farming far superior to mine, or that of any human. I have seen the same process at work on the tops of boulders in a forest, and it has been at work immemorially over most of the land surface of the world. All creatures die into it, and they live by it.

The biblical poet sees the handiwork of God in the heavens, the one from Kentucky sees it in the decay of an old bucket. Both are right. And it is in this world, exemplified equally by buckets and by stars, that we find ourselves, tilling, keeping, naming. Isn’t this fun? What a world God has given us! What beauty! How marvelous are the ways of plants and animals, soil and water! Surely it is right and proper, surely it is fitting and appropriate that we give thanks! That is what we are for.

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