My Uncle Ed spent several decades as a missionary in Africa, and I’ve never forgotten a story he once told when I was a kid and he had returned to Canada on a furlough. He’d gone up into the Ethiopian hills one day to visit a farmer, and found him out ploughing in a field. But not the way Uncle Ed would have done — not by a long shot. The farmer’s ox was dragging the plough here, there, everywhere, cutting furrows this way and that, and wandering the field in whatever direction its ox’s heart chose.
Uncle Ed said, “Man! why don’t you plough in a straight line?” And the farmer said, “Ah, what’s the difference? It’s all got to be ploughed anyway.”
When I was a pastor I told this story one Sunday morning to my congregation. I saw a few raised eyebrows, as if I had belittled the poor African farmer with his primitive ways. Actually, I had meant it in just the opposite sense, as an illustration of the Taoist principle that there is a type of action forever busy which accomplishes very little, and a certain “non-doing” which nonetheless gets everything done.
It’s much like the old theological conundrum: are we justified by works, or by grace? Tom Mullen lampoons the western blunder of busyness like this: “We work extra hard at extra jobs to earn extra money to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.” And Jerome Bruner notes that this kind of “work” ultimately leaves us little more than “burned-out remnants of the rat race.”
There are some kinds of activity that stem from human self-righteousness. In Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory there is a priest who “worried about the fate of the pious. He was frightened for them: they came to death so often in a state of invincible complacency, full of uncharity.” And there’s another sort of labour hardly better than a slave-like obedience, which remains as empty as the activities depicted by Mullen and Bruner. All of us are confronted by endless appeals, both external and internal, and because we aspire to be decent people we can be left reeling from overload, feeling exhausted or guilty, or both.
I often ponder St. Paul’s writings about faith and works. He has much to say about this, yet when he concludes his theologizing he says, “The only thing that matters is faith which works by love.” Not faith or works, not faith and works, but faith-which-works-by-love. This is the substance of things.
One Sunday I asked my congregation to estimate how many people in our city had contacts each week with this one church of about 350 members. Some university professors, I guessed, would have upward of 500 contacts with their students and colleagues. On the other hand, I could imagine some widows and widowers having fewer than 10 contacts in their long and lonely week. On average, it seemed 50 encounters per person per week was a realistic if not too-conservative figure, and my own primitive math skills calculated this as between 16,000 and 20,000 people in our city with whom we did things between weekly Sunday services. How foolish it would be to expostulate about some ideal “social activism,” I thought, and only wondered aloud what kinds of contacts we were making. Were they bridge-building, or wall-building? Did they spread joy, or did they gather gloom? Were we perhaps those people Paul Scherer described, who go around “breaking one egg after another in the effort to provide an ultimate omelette which we hope sometime later to enjoy?”
That was why I remembered the Ethiopian farmer, and why I recall him today. He was more relaxed for sure, and for all I know more joyous, than Uncle Ed, or than many of us are in our mean-business doings.
We’re all going to be ploughed anyway.
Ratzlaff is the author of three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press: The Crow Who Tampered With Time (2002), Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), and Bindy’s Moon (2015); and editor of Seeing it Through, an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.