Full Circle

“Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!”

What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea. Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content.

History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, “Here is something new!” But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new. We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11, NLT)

These words from the Teacher in Ecclesiastes may sound discouraging, but as I see it, the Teacher was describing the cycles we experience here “under the sun”—cycles that drive an amazing conspiracy for life. We have all watched the seemingly meaningless cycles of beginnings that lead to endings, and ultimately to death. And the longer we live, the more we see it, and the more trapped we can feel. But if we end our observation with a focus on death, I think we miss the clear reality. In any viable ecosystem, death is the source for new life. (Take a look at reflections along this line in the grassland ecosystem and with the planting of seeds.) Birth may lead to death, but then it leads again to rebirth. Many of our problems in life come from refusing to accept this natural cycle. We want to break out of it—and as a result, “we are never satisfied.”

In the western world, huge industries are built around our desire to subvert the cycle. The cosmetics and diet industries are fed by the longing for eternal youth. We don’t want to grow old, and we do everything possible to delude ourselves about the fact that we are aging and moving inevitably toward death. We fail to see that living well involves living with the recognition that we will soon die, and that we need to prepare the next generation with our wisdom. If you attend the funeral of a person who has lived well, the stories of that life have the potential to touch and transform your own story and the stories of all those you come in contact with. Death can lead to life.

For confirmation of this, I don’t need to look further than my compost pile. In my compost bins, I pile a combination of organic material that has given up its life, either in the production of food or in the creation of beauty through flowers. Some of it is direct plant material, coming in the form of grass, leaves, or vegetable waste; some of it is indirect plant material, coming in the form of manure from poultry or a grazing animal. The heat of chemical reactions, along with activity of thousands of microbes, worms, and other wiggly creatures turns this material into the soft soil of compost. This, in turn, feeds the soil in my gardens and the plants that the soil sustains. The death of many plants leads to the sustenance of life for subsequent generations in the garden.

The martyrs also remind us of this truth. Lives offered up in God’s service, even if cut short by forces of evil in this world, often have a far greater impact through death than they ever could have had through a long life. Life often springs from death. The self-giving of Christ is the supreme example of this.

It is certainly sad when a life passes on, even sadder when someone we love dies prematurely, but there is a conspiracy for life woven into the fabric of creation. Everywhere around us, things are dying, yes—but also life is springing from the death. When we play the part we have been given in the drama of history, life wins. There are constantly sacrifices being offered, but they are being offered in the service of life. It is when we go our own way and run along out of sync with the cycles of creation—with no regard to the consequences—that things fall apart. It is when we grow dissatisfied and make unsustainable choices that forests begin to fall, without time to rise again. It is we who create factory farms, whose discharges cannot be absorbed by the surrounding land and eventually run off to poison our streams and wells. It is we who have created the polluting fuels that, in turn, fuel an economic system that devours and poisons rather than cultivates and heals.

What is the secret to finding our place in the circle of life? It is accepting aging and death as it comes, but also embracing the gifts of the short time of life we all have, and passing the wisdom we’ve gained to the next generations. It is living in the way of simplicity, the contented, sustainable way—the way that puts love of God and neighbor ahead of our personal comforts—not the profligate, prodigal way of our time, that takes far more than it gives. It comes in our acceptance of the truth that we cannot always have it our way, as is demonstrated in this poem by the Teacher.

For everything there is a season,

a time for every activity under heaven.

A time to be born and a time to die.

A time to plant and a time to harvest.

A time to kill and a time to heal.

A time to tear down and a time to build up.

A time to cry and a time to laugh.

A time to grieve and a time to dance.

A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.

A time to embrace and a time to turn away.

A time to search and a time to quit searching.

A time to keep and a time to throw away.

A time to tear and a time to mend.

A time to be quiet and a time to speak.

A time to love and a time to hate.

A time for war and a time for peace.

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, NLT)

By following the path of simplicity and acceptance, coupled with diligent and selfless service to others, there is some hope that we might leave a sustainable future for those who come after us. It is by living in sync with the ways of the Creator that we become a force for good in the world He has made. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes concludes his sometimes discouraging reflections with some real wisdom: “Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, NLT)

Garden Tip: If you have a yard and garden that generates organic waste of any sort, set aside some space for a compost pile. And if you already have a pile, look for ways for improving its production of compost. Here are a few tips:

  • When you put organic material into your compost pile, try to mix high nitrogen items (like grass, garden greens, kitchen scraps, and manures) in equal amounts with high carbon items (like dry leaves, wood chips, straw, or even shredded paper). This will create a rich environment that feeds the microbes and other small creatures that will help break down the material; the resulting balanced pile will heat up well without generating strong-smelling gases.
  • Make sure your pile has enough moisture to encourage the growth and reproduction of microbes, worms, and other wiggly creatures, but not so wet that it smothers the pile. Too much water will dispel the oxygen necessary to encourage microbial life and decomposition and drown many of the other helpful creatures. Turning your pile regularly, especially when it’s wet, will help replace the oxygen supply and encourage the decomposition process.
  • Avoid putting weeds or other plants that have set seed in your pile. If you do and your pile doesn’t heat up adequately, the resulting compost will be filled with weed seeds. (This isn’t horrible, since it is easy to pull the weed seedlings that will sprout after you spread your compost, but “clean” raw materials will generate a cleaner compost.) Also avoid putting diseased garden plants into your pile, unless you plan to do the work necessary to keep it hot for an adequate period of time. Otherwise your compost may harbor bacteria and spores that cause plant diseases.
  • The finer you chop the leaves and other materials in your pile, the more quickly it will decompose and produce excellent compost for your use.
  • The hotter you keep your pile by turning it regularly, keeping it moist, and building it with a balance of carbon and nitrogen materials, the more quickly it will produce finished compost and the cleaner that compost will be. A hot pile will kill most of the disease-causing bacteria and fungi that exist, along with most of the weed seeds that may have found their way into your pile. But if the hard work of turning the pile is beyond you, a slow pile is still a worthwhile endeavor.

As you spread the finished compost, celebrate the sacrificial gifts offered by the plants that came before. Also celebrate the many sacrifices made to give you life and that make it possible for you to enjoy life. All of us—even the most forsaken of us—are the recipients of many gifts, seen and unseen. Remembering this may start you on a journey toward having a grateful heart.