Keith Heldreth is a man who thinks big. As the pastor of Riverwood Baptist Church, he often conducts ritual baptisms. Opting out of the sterilized bathtub convention of the times, Heldreth and his flock eschew the confines of the common dunk tub and instead take a cue straight from John the Baptist by performing the ceremony right in the flowing waters of the Newaukum River.
Similarly, as a hunter, in his spare time he pursues big game animals through the majestic backcountry where the decorative touch of God is evident to him.
As a timber magnate, Heldreth seeks to grow the largest trees and produce the most board feet per square inch of forest. It should come as no surprise then that when Heldreth decided to ask his congregation a question, he shot straight for the heavens.
Tackling the world’s oldest and most persistent source of contemplation, Heldreth asked, “What is the meaning of life?”
Heldreth, a man of action, posed the question to his congregation about two months ago, then he printed the question up on fliers and began distributing them to whoever would take one.
The idea was to gather a wealth of responses from churchgoers and then pull them all together as a gift of parting advice to graduating high school seniors.
Quickly though, the project jumped the boundaries of the church and expanded greatly in scope.
Members of the Riverwood Baptist Church, which meets in a Grange south of Chehalis, began dispensing the question forms around town. Some posted it on Facebook, and others took them into the Lewis County Jail.
What resulted was a hodgepodge of responses from true believers, thoughtful students, pondering panhandlers, ruminating retirees and jail inmates with plenty of time on their hands. One response was even mysteriously mailed in from the King County Jail. No one knows how it got there.
“People just becaume enthralled by it. It’s actually been quite a tool,” noted Heldreth.
The diversity of responses was a pleasant surprise to the pastor, who took his time mining through the results for hidden gems.
“There were some really surprising trends that I had never expected,” said Heldreth.
For instance, multiple people responded with “pizza” as the meaning of life. While Heldreth sees the humor in the response, he is also certain that it misses the mark.
Another area where Heldreth was disappointed was in the responses from people in what he calls “life and death industries,” such as firefighters, police and EMTs. In this case, it wasn’t the subject matter that disappointed, but the glaring lack of response.
Heldreth said he received only one answer from people in those occupations. Likewise, despite a concerted effort, Heldreth received no replies from other church leaders.
“It makes me wonder why? I know I would have an answer if I was handed that form,” said Heldreth. “It’s kind of been a head scratcher for me, and it still is.”
The bulk of the replies that did come in were submitted by blue collar, salt of the earth types. Heldreth noted that he was surprised with how positive most of the answers were, especially from jail inmates.
“There was just some amazing stuff that came out of there,” said Heldreth.
The pastor noted that some folks had their answer figured out in less than five minutes, while others took the form home and slept on the question, sometimes multiple times over, only to return with but one sentence.
“One of the trends that I found in here is that these teenage kids give as good or better answers than the adults,” said Heldreth.
One of this favorite replies came from Emily Genson, who wrote, “To me, the meaning of life is to simply look at it in a different perspective … backwards if you look at the sentence ‘Meaning of Life,’ and read it backwards, it says Life of Meaning. I believe as long as your life has meaning and follows along with God, you can live the best life possible.”
Heldreth was understandably pleased when church and community members alike remembered to include Jesus in their answer.
After all, the main goal of his church is to spread the message of Jesus Christ to all who will listen. Failed seekers, ponderers and wanderers included.
“That’s always the main thrust of whatever we are doing is to get the Gospel of Jesus Christ out,” explained Heldreth.
The culmination of the project came last Sunday, June 26, when Heldreth presented his well-polished meaning of life sermon. Heldreth noted that there was a larger turnout for church that day.
It seems there are plenty of folks who want to know the definitive meaning of life.
For his answer, Heldreth borrowed directly from the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes. “I take my answer from Solomon in The Bible, which God calls the smartest man who ever walked the Earth, so I figured we could check in with him for the answer,” said Heldreth.
Interestingly, David Bishop, a 68-year-old retiree with a telling surname, was the only person to come up with the same answer as Heldreth, and Solomon for that matter.”
From Ecclesiastes, 12:13-14, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”
Heldreth says most folks think life is about accumulating titillating experiences, or stacking away money, or gathering accolades.
“This is where most Americans get it wrong,” said Heldreth. “They’re still trying to buy a new boat and whatever that will make them more successful.”
With the meaning of life project now in the rearview, Heldreth is happy with the way the project turned out.
“I thought I was going to have a sermon. That’s what I thought I’d get out of this deal,” explained Heldreth. “But, it turned into a much bigger project from the effect aspect.”
Heldreth added, “We’re already thinking about firing something like this up again in the future.” All he has to do is figure out the question.