Ben Stewart: The Man Who Mistook His Life for a Barn

Do you talk to yourself? Maybe have full-on conversations, both inside your head and out loud?

If so, you’re not alone. University of Michigan Psychologist Ethan Kross published a fascinating book last year about inner conversations, titled Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. Dr. Kross observes that our inner voice can be encouraging, “You can do it, Ben!” or accusatory, “That’s going to go terribly, and people are going to laugh at you.” That voice inside can be more or less correct, or more or less wrong, and of course that voice sometimes becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One of the things that amazed me in this book is just how chatty we are with ourselves, including how fast our internal conversations unfold. We talk to ourselves in our minds at the rate of about four thousand words per minute, which is roughly like listening to an entire Presidential State of the Union address in just about one minute. Scientists estimate that we have that level of internal chatter going on for about half the time we’re awake, which means that we mentally deliver the equivalent of something like 320 State of the Union addresses to ourselves every day. We thought those politicians were verbose! [Ethan Kross, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (Crown, 2021), xxii.]

We get a glimpse of that kind of internal chatter in the parable from Luke’s Gospel today. After we learn that the land of a rich man produced abundantly, the parable lets us listen in on his internal chatter. “He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said [to himself], ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul: Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

I love that this character doesn’t just talk to himself, but talks to himself about what he’s going to say to himself in the future! It gets a little chatty inside this man’s head, and our psychologist-author from the University of Michigan might tell us that we may be more like this man than we know.

It’s interesting, though, to notice in the parable what sets off this chain reaction of worry, this avalanche of anxiety that leads this man to nervously rehearse future conversations with himself and even imagine the destruction of his own property. The problem is named so simply in the first sentence that we might miss it: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.”

Think about that for a moment. The fruitful earth, overflowing with goodness, like a scene from the first chapter of Genesis, that’s the problem in this parable, the thing that causes a sort of chattery existential breakdown: “Who am I? What should I do?” And the very first action taken to solve this problem of the fruitful earth is an act of destruction – to tear down buildings full of the earth’s goodness. That may sound familiar. Like a parable of humanity’s history with the earth.

The first sentence of the parable sounds very much like a description of the entire earth: “the land… produced abundantly.” Scientists tell us that every day more solar energy falls on our planet than all the energy that human civilization will use for decades; every season the earth produces enough food to nourish every person on earth abundantly; and trees and other plants freely offer oxygen that sustains us from our first breath to our last. As the parable puts it, “the land of a rich man produced abundantly.”

When the rich man in the parable responds to all this goodness with something like the worst State of the Union Address in the world proposing nothing but destruction and hoarding, it’s interesting to notice how God enters the chat. God interrupts the rich man with an Ash Wednesday type of intervention, a reminder of mortality that cuts through the rich man’s chatty spiral. God says, “this very night your life is being demanded of you.”

There are countless strategies that God employs to interrupt the self-destructive spirals we talk ourselves into and bring us back into abundant life, but on this Sunday (in all the complementary lectionary texts) what God uses to jolt us back to abundant life is – perhaps strangely – death.

The first reading from Ecclesiastes reminds us that everything that we mortals strive for eventually passes on to others, and trying to fight it and hoard it for ourselves is a form of vanity. Psalm 49 celebrates that even though the rich and powerful may have lands and cities named after them, “they cannot live forever; they are like [all] the other animals that perish.” And the reading from Colossians uses the imagery of baptism to say that we have died to greed and selfishness and have been reborn in the image of the Creator to become one human family, sharing a common life with one another. All of these readings invoke death to bring us back to life.

One of the most remarkable ways I’ve seen God use death to call us back to abundant life is in something called conservation burial. These are burial grounds that use the legal protections granted to bodies in cemeteries to create something more like a flourishing nature preserve. These places of human death become cathedrals of abundant life – wildflowers, birdsong, sheltering trees and open meadows, a place where humans and a beautiful diversity of other creatures share in the goodness and life of the earth. In these cemeteries, the practice of building bigger barns in death is discouraged: bodies aren’t chemically embalmed, burial vessels are just simple pine coffins or shrouds or beautifully woven basket-like vessels, no concrete vaults under the ground, and no artificial monuments will tower over you.

People at these cemeteries tell me stories of the trees they climbed in childhood, a special body of water that they came to love, fresh produce from the garden that they’ve eaten over their lifetime, sunrises and sunsets they’ve known, or a park that gave them refuge and peace when they were regularly surviving some form of violence, and at the end of their life they want their final act to be giving something back, a way of saying “thank you” for all that the good earth has given them over their lifetime. Their burial even becomes something like an embodied prayer for the healing of the earth, for the life of the world to come.

On Ash Wednesday we are confronted with the truth that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But biblical scholars tell us that the Hebrew word for dust might be better translated as topsoil – the “productive land” that is the “arable soil of the biblical hill country.” [Theodore Hiebert, “Rethinking Dominion Theology,” Direction 25, no. 2 (1996): 22–23.] “Remember that you are topsoil, fertile ground, and to the topsoil you shall return,” is something like what we’re saying to each other on Ash Wednesday.

St. Augustine in his Confessions called our bodies “the earth we carry” – earth that for a time is scooped up and filled with the breath of God, able to sing, hold someone’s hand, taste ice cream, upload a video to YouTube, or maybe try knitting or surfing – all before we are retuned again to the earth from which we came.

That sacred Ash Wednesday memory seems to be part of what is drawing people to conservation burial grounds. They have remembered they are good topsoil, held within the goodness of earth, in death and in life.

So, what is your Ash Wednesday memory like these days? The chatter in our world and in our minds sometimes convinces us that we are barren ground, and nothing good will come of us. Sometimes, like the rich man in the parable, we can see the fertile ground, but we talk ourselves into believing that our role is not to be rich topsoil ourselves but to be a Fort-Knox-style barn.

Part of what happens in the parable and throughout the readings this Sunday is that God uses death to jolt us all back into life, to remember that we are both physically part of the good earth, and spiritually too, made from good soil, fertile ground, created to participate in the generosity of the earth rather than to fight against it, to share in it rather than trying to contain and hoard it. “Remember,” God helps death say to us, “you are fertile ground, rich topsoil.” Rich topsoil: this may be something like what Jesus means by saying in this parable that we are created to be “rich toward God.” Rich topsoil.

The rich man in the parable thought that he had a bad barn, but what he actually had was good soil. Or we might say, the rich man had forgotten that he was rich topsoil, created to be a fruitful part of “the land that produced abundantly.”

The rich man in the parable – or a society structured around accumulation and destruction – might talk themselves into believing that they can gain true security by becoming indestructible barns. But in a sermon in the fourth century, St. Basil the Great spoke directly back to that kind of internal chatter:

[After you tear down your barns and build bigger barns] “If you fill these [new] larger [ones], what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again? [Basil continues,] If you want storehouses, you have them in the stomachs of the poor. [He preached,] The bread that you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes that you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, and the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy.” [St. Basil the Great, “I Will Tear Down my Barns,” in On Social Justice (Popular Patristics Series Book 38), translated by C. Paul Schroeder, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (Yonkers, New York: 2009), 47-48.]

St. Basil vividly illustrates that what can look like life and security – bigger barns beyond what we need – is actually an exhausting project of plunder that exhausts not only us, but the people around us and the earth itself that gives us all life.

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are topsoil, fertile ground, made of the good earth and filled for a while with breath of God. In baptism, our bodies – the good “earth we carry” – receive the rain that comes down from heaven and we are watered deeply to bear good fruit. On this Sunday in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, this week’s texts interrupt whatever destructive chatter is around us, and they invite us to look out over the land that’s producing abundantly, and to recognize ourselves in it, what we have been created to be: not barren ground without hope, not an impermeable fortress for hoarding and violence, but fertile, good soil giving and receiving the abundance that flows by the grace of God through us every day and that sustains us even in death, carrying us even there into abundant life, and the life of the world to come that’s already springing up around us.

Let us close then with this wonderful prayer, that’s appointed in some traditions as the opening prayer for Ash Wednesday:

Gracious God, out of your love and mercy you breathed into dust the beath of life, creating us to serve you and our neighbors. Call forth our prayers and our acts of kindness, and strengthen us to face our mortality with confidence in the mercies of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

[Alternate Prayer of the Day for Ash Wednesday. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Leader’s Desk Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 615.]