Wendell Berry used to spend his Sundays writing little pieces that he called Sabbath Poems. One of my favorites from this Kentucky farmer is called, “An Inventory of Wonders and Uncommercial Goods,” which sounds to me like a saner version of my Amazon wish list. In this week of all weeks in the year, and in our two congregations of all gatherings in the world, I can’t help feeling that we should follow Berry’s example and take inventory of wonders together.
Berry has inventoried a good many wonders in his decades of writing. You might try, for instance, his novel Jayber Crow, a book I know that Pastor Geoff and Jennifer Ziegler have relished. This story reminds me of a problem Presbyterians and other folks hailing back to the Protestant Reformation sometimes have. The Reformation did a wonderful job of celebrating ordinary life—the stuff of Thursday afternoons. All of life is worship, we say. Every job is ministry, we say. Heaven is not our home; this world is our home, we say, and heaven’s coming here. All that’s right and biblical to say, but sometimes the celebration of this worldly life can blind us to the importance of a proper kind of heavenly mindedness.
I know. I know. We are sometimes suspicious of being too enthusiastic about the next life. It sounds retreatist or escapist or dualist or rapturist or fideist or some other ist we use as grist for distinguishing ourselves from otherworldly Christians. Don’t be too heavenly-minded for any earthly good. I hear that.
Let me run some of Berry’s lines by you all the same, because I do think he’s on to a kind of heavenly mindedness that’s important, not least in the week of Thanksgiving.
First let’s begin with a bit of backstory. In the novel, a woman named Della is grieving the death of her husband, somehow, she finds the faith and hope to anticipate seeing him again. A barber named Jayber, the main character in the story, responds by saying,
"She went her way, then, and left me standing there still as a stone, all filled to running over with the force of what she had put into my mind.
It was the thought of Heaven. I thought an unimaginable thought of something I could almost imagine, of a sound I could not imagine but could almost hear: the outcry when a soul shakes off death at last and comes into Heaven. I don't speak of this because I "know" it. What I know is that shout of limitless joy, love unbounded at last, our only native tongue.”
The sheer happiness of that passage gives me pause. Is it wise, to so scrub from our tongues all otherworldliness that we scrub out our own joy? Besides, thinking about the world to come is hardly the only way to be an escapist. Think about it for a minute. To speak only of the concerns of this life can be an escapism of its own sort. For example, to speak in the ironic and worried dialect of on-air pundits and podcasters might sound like social engagement and civic responsibility, but it might really be a kind of detachment. We’re never fully (much less thankfully) present in the moment because we’re always worrying about this or that problem.
What would our speech sound like if, unlike the folks on NPR or Fox News, we made room in our speech for the thought of shaking off death and coming into Heaven? Mightn’t we stop, really stop and be, for a moment like a stone, all filled, as Berry says, to running over?
Those things that the pundits and commentators alert us to are things we should be alert to, by the way. Those problems matter, all those concerns for scarcity and devastation and inequity in our world. We live by bread, as Jesus said. We need to do what we can to make sure others have bread, too—and clean air and sustainable water sources and adequate employment. But we do not live by bread alone. Those things matter, but their mattering depends on, well, Heaven.
So, at the Thanksgiving table, on the walk you and your family take after the Thanksgiving Table, let the thought of Heaven come, let it come fully, and let it leave you standing still, filled to running over with the almost imaginable.
Put that on your Inventory of Wonders and Uncommercial Goods. I’ll do the same.