One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years. In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal. In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a different way. These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.
When I checked into the Salt Lake City hotel as our 8-state, 3745 mile road trip came to an end, the young woman said, “Wow, that sounds like an amazing time. Was this like, a ‘bucket list’ item for you, or what?”
My first thought was, “Hey, kid, how old do I look to you, anyway? Do I LOOK like I’m close to needing to check items off my bucket list?”
But upon reflection, I realized that she was right. There was a lot about this trip that was “bucket-list-able”. And I’ve been thinking about the fact that I’ve buried a lot of friends who are younger than I am, and about my own sense of accomplishment at having to made it to age 59 after my mother’s death at age 58. We mustn’t take these things for granted, friends.
Having prefaced this entry with the above, it’s not a little ironic that the last real “stop” on our great adventure was the Dinosaur National Monument, which spans areas in both Colorado and Utah. We spent the night at a campground on the Green River just a mile or two away from where Andrew Carnegie’s chief fossil collector, Earl Douglass, unearthed an incredible trove of bones belonging to such amazing creatures as the Apatosaurus that is still on display in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. Between 1909 and 1924, he shipped more than 700,000 tons of bones and other materials back to Pittsburgh until finally, the museum decided that it had all of the Jurassic bones that it needed.
Here’s the crazy thing: there are still more of them there – just sitting in the ground. I mean, it’s crazy – walking down the path and seeing a giant bone protruding from the dirt. Touch it. Climb on it. We have more… In fact, the Quarry Exhibit Hall is built right into the side of a hill, and visitors can see, exposed in the dirt, more than 1500 fossils. Walking along the trails of the Monument, we saw not only dinosaur bones, but fossils of other creatures including clams and some prehistoric dolphin-like fish.
Scientists have some theories about why there is such an immense quantity of bones at this particular site. There were wetlands here at one time, and the thought is that during a time of drought, a large number of these creatures gathered looking for water. Then an unexpected flood came and many dinosaurs perished at once. Their bodies were swept to a certain location along the floodplain where they were covered with silt and sand and the process of fossilization began on this “logjam” of dinosaur bones.
Obviously, the easiest answer to the question “why are there so many bones here?” is this: “because so many animals died here.” While the dinosaurs obviously didn’t vote for or decide to do this, they got overwhelmed by a flood or stuck in the mud and that was it. They became fossils.
We knew we’d be seeing bones on this visit, but we were delighted to see something else – something even cooler, to my mind: a vast treasure trove of petroglyphs: etchings on the rock walls of these canyons that have been here for hundreds and probably thousands of years. As we wandered through the park, we saw dozens of these markings – lizards, dancers, hunters, necklaces, and more. Many of the sandstone faces of these cliffs are a darker hue on the outside – it’s called “sandstone varnish” – the wind and elements have apparently scorched them a deeper shade. At some point between 200 AD and 1300 AD a group known as the Fremont People lived in this area. Using sharpened rocks, they chiseled away at this varnish and left petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings) on the walls. While they are of great beauty and interest in and of themselves, what fascinates me even more is the fact that some of these pieces of art must have taken months or even years to complete. Which means that someone in that community had the luxury of some free time – that not every second of every day was devoted to the same old grind of hunting and gathering, hunting and gathering. This also tells me that those who left this art behind were doing more than simply waiting to become fossils themselves – they were leaving fingerprints all over this desert in the hopes that their peers and their children and grandchildren would find the land a little more hospitable, a little more welcoming, and a little more beautiful.
So here’s the deal, beloved, as I conclude this part of the sabbatical. Each of us, sooner or later, has the opportunity to become a fossil. One day, the folks will stand around me in a circle, throw dirt on my face, and then go back to church and eat some cheesy potatoes and ham. There’s nothing I can do about that – I’m no better off than those bones in the Carnegie Museum in terms of my earthly mortality.
But I can choose to use the time I’ve been given to leave my fingerprints in places that will, I hope and pray, lead to beauty and joy and reflection; I can work to shape the environment so that my child and grandchildren will have more keenly developed senses of awe and wonder because I’ve walked these paths; I can be grateful for those moments of leisure and reflection that I’ve enjoyed. This is the difference between fossils and fingerprints: a fossil says, essentially, “Well, I made it this far, and then I died.” Fingerprints say, “While I was here, I did this. And then I went on to somewhere else, and did something else.”
I am trying to be grateful, and I am trying to remember that I am still on my way. And I challenge you to be the same. Think about your own “bucket list” – what is something you can do todaythat will allow you to resist the rush towards fossilization and give you the chance to shape someone’s world with hope or beauty or joy? Do it.
Since I’m on Sabbatical, and I’ve been thinking and reflecting in a different way, I’m remembering poetry that has shaped me. One work that has shaped me for several decades – and in fact has been clipped and rides inside my Bible everywhere I go – is by Scott Cairns. Listen, and remember:
The thing to remember is how
tentative all of this really is.
You could wake up dead.
Or the woman you love
could decide you’re ugly.
Maybe she’ll finally give up
trying to ignore the way
you floss your teeth as you
watch television. All I’m saying
is that there are no sure things here.
I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,
and she’ll probably keep putting off
any actual decision about your looks.
Could be she’ll be glad your teeth
are so clean. The morning could
be full of all the love and kindness
you need. Just don’t go thinking
you deserve any of it.
– from philokalia, ©2002 by Scott Cairns