When you’re on a backpacking trip in the Appalachian Mountains, you look forward to seeing the next landmark, whatever it is. Most of our trails wind their way through trees in an indistinct way, so that one mile can look much like another. Even something as simple as a particularly large rock or a sharp turn in the trail can be an encouraging indicator of forward progress.
During our trip through the Tennessee mountains in July, we had this landmark to look forward to one day: Uncle Nick’s tombstone.
Needless to say, that created even more than the usual amount of anticipation. We don’t wander past many graves along the Appalachian Trail. As we climbed closer toward this landmark my curiosity increased with the elevation. What did Uncle Nick’s tombstone look like? Would it be cool and creepy?
Yes and yes. Uncle Nick did not disappoint.
Nick Grindstaff was born on December 26, 1851. By the age of 3 both his parents had died; he and his siblings inherited their farmland when Nick turned 21. Local history maintains that he sold the farm to go out west to seek his fortune, but the details get hazy: he got married and his young bride tragically died, or he got married and she left him for another, or he was lured in by a woman whose partner robbed him of everything he had. One way or another, Nick returned to Shady Grove, TN a changed man. He purchased land on Iron Mountain and lived his remaining 40 years as a hermit, coming to town a couple times a year to get supplies and a haircut. His only company was his down, Panter, a cow, and his pet rattlesnake.
In July of 1923 his friend went up to check on Nick and found him dead, apparently for several days. Some will tell you that Nick died of a snakebite – presumably, the same snake he kept as a pet. Panter was there, guarding his body all the while – by some accounts, so diligently that the dog had to be tied up for anyone to get in and remove the body. Eventually, there was a burial service and this monument was erected. It’s still there today; this is what we were rewarded with after a half-day’s hike:
“He lived alone; he suffered alone; he died alone.”
I had to read it twice when I first got there to believe that someone actually had that on their tombstone. What a depressing epitaph.
In one way, none of us here today would have that on ours, right? We are gathered here with other people. We are not living like hermits up on Wayah Bald. We get our hair cut more than twice a year.
And yet – sometimes, we’re not so different. Sometimes we are living alone and suffering alone, and if we’re not careful…
…well, you see how it ends.
Take Moses as an example. Moses had the amazing and challenging job of leading the Israelites out of slavery, through the wilderness, and to the brink of the Promised Land. You might remember that the Israelites were not always the most grateful or obedient followers. They seemed to come by complaining and rebellion as naturally as the love-child between James Dean and Lucy from Peanuts.
Moses was never alone – he was leading, by some estimates, 2 million people around. And yet, Moses must have been often alone, because there was only one person who could create plagues for Pharaoh, only one person who parted the Red Sea, only one person who could go up on Mt. Sinai, and only one person whose face shone because he came that close to God.
One day, Moses’ father-in-law encounters him as one man standing alone among a throng of people. Moses is holding court. People are waiting – all day – to bring their cases before Moses.
Two million Israelites, and one judge to handle all their issues.
“What is this that you’re doing for the people?” Jethro asks. (Can’t you just see the expression on his face? Eyebrow raised in confusion; nose wrinkled and corners of his mouth turned down in disapproval.)
“Why do you sit ALONE, and all the people stand about you from morning till evening?” (Exodus 18:14)
Then, to drive home his point: “the task it too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (Exodus 18:18).
To make the point clear, imagine what would have happened if Moses hadn’t listened to his father-in-law – if he had brushed this off as unsolicited and unhelpful advice. What if Moses had kept holding court all day, with a never ending line of Israelites in front of him?
For one, they sure wouldn’t have made it to the Promised Land. They’d still be hanging out in Rephidim, waiting for the day when there were no problems for Moses to address – a day that would never come. For another, Moses would have lost his sanity long before he could check off this “to do” list of Israelite issues. He’d have a nervous breakdown, take to drinking, find himself unable to get out of his tent in the morning.
And in the end, they could write on his tombstone:
“Lived alone, suffered alone, and died alone.”
That is not what God wanted for Moses, or for Nick… or for me.
I’ve just started a Doctor of Ministry, a degree that pastors can work toward while continuing to serve their churches. The program I’m doing will involve two years of 900-level coursework and a thesis paper longer than anything I’ve ever written in my life. I’m totally excited about it and how it’s going to help me become a better pastor. I’m also totally terrified of the extra work I’ll be juggling into a life already made full by church and family.
My theory so far has been that this will be simply a game of addition. I’ll add hours in the morning by getting up earlier, add hours in the evening by reading theology rather than watching The Walking Dead. But as our professors walked us through a semester’s worth of reading and papers and online classes, I formed a sneaking suspicion that addition alone would not solve this equation.
Like a modern-day Jethro, one professor brought it home: “You cannot do this by simply adding things on. You are going to have to give some things up.”
This is not the plan I prefer. I would rather do it all, a pastor-mom with a superhero cape who never misses an appointment, prepares a healthy dinner every night, and gets all her reading done on time. Is that too much to ask?
Yesterday morning, as I cleaned house and thought about the sermon I would preach today, it dawned on me that I was setting myself up for a depressing epitaph:
“Lived alone, suffered alone, and died alone.”
That is not God’s plan for me. I live in a house with three other people in it, and they are going to help me with this. Granted, most of this help will come from my amazing husband who is taking on even more laundry and bathroom cleaning and dinner preparation to make this possible. But the two little people are not incapable of contributing; just yesterday, they participated in housework by cleaning (sort of) their rooms. They even liked it.
I also serve a church with 323 other people in it, every one of whom is someone God has uniquely gifted to minister in this community. No, I won’t be asking any of you to ghost-write my sermons. But yes, we are in this together, and the success of this church – D.Min. or no D.Min. – will increase as the number of people involved increases.
God isn’t calling us to live alone, suffer alone, and die alone. Because of Jesus Christ we are called to live together, to suffer together, to celebrate together, to die together… and then, to live together again.
If you are trying to live like Uncle Nick or Moses, let me be your Jethro. Let me tell you: “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you.” I know it’s hard to ask for help. I know it takes more time to train someone else to do a job than it does just to get it done yourself. I know it’s annoying to wait to work with someone rather than just go it alone. I know that someone else might not do it the way you’d do it. Even knowing all those things, this is still true:
“What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you.”
It’s possible that you’re an Uncle Nick or a Moses in another way, though. Maybe you’ve noticed some ways you could help out, but you’d rather stay at home in your “soft clothes” instead. Yes, do that sometimes… but if sometimes has turned into every time for you, then there are some people out there like me who need you. People who are ALONE and tired and driving ourselves crazy. Don’t let us live alone and suffer alone and die alone.
Come join us in this life God has given us.
Let’s live together. Let’s suffer together. Let’s celebrate together. Let’s die together. Let’s live again together.