When I was a boy, my father would take me and my brother and the dog up to the bald top of a mountain to pick blueberries. There wan’t anything picturesque about the place. Its most notable feature was a radar station that buzzed intermittently, looking northward, I guess, for Russian missiles sailing over the pole.
We’d take our pitchers and hunt from scrappy bush to scrappy bush, among the white birches, lichens, moss, mushrooms, coal-rich dirt, and the boulders deposited by glaciers twenty thousand years ago. The dog rummaged about, scaring away copperheads and nibbling berries from the bushes. Birds whose names I didn’t know twittered away.
We didn’t twitter. My father said that you had to keep your mouth shut if your hands were going to work. He and his brothers and sisters used to climb to a place they called Whiskey Springs, to pick blueberries during the Depression, which in our part of Pennsylvania began in the thirties and lingered on and on, like malaria.
They picked berries because they needed the money. They’d sell them in town for twenty-five cents a quart, so the berries had to be presentable. None green, no leaves, no sticks, no dirt. They’d also top off their pails with the biggest berries they could find, those shy fellows in the shade of a heavy branch, like fat dewdrops after a cool night.
It was fun – they took Italian bread along, and pepperoni, and drank cold water from the spring. It was also serious business. In other words, glorious.
My father told me these things. I loved to pick the berries, too. Every once in a while I’d pop one in my mouth, but not too often. I wanted to get in those two quarts before we had to leave. We never said much. “They’re good over here,” someone would say, or “I’m getting seven in a bunch.” Sometimes when my father called, I could barely hear his voice, as we’d wandered silently apart, but not apart, for the better part of an hour.
One time when I was eight years old my father was leaning against a fence, chatting with an old man on the other side. The topic was picking berries. “The young fellows don’t pick anymore,” said the old man. “Tony here is a picker,” said my father. “He’s a good one, too. He picks them clean.”
That was a bit of an exaggeration – I never picked as clean as my father did. But the praise meant a lot to me, and over such a simple thing! Years later, when I was about to change my major at Princeton, my father wrote to tell me that I was the smartest person he’d ever known.
That should have meant far more to me than to hear, “Tony here is a good blueberry picker,” but it didn’t. At the time, it even irritated me. But the other – I still remember it, and treasure it.
And that brings me to a mystery. We know that pride is the primal sin, but when my father praised me to the old man, I was mighty proud. And I’d have been ungrateful or callous if I had not felt proud. What is the difference between sinful pride and the desire for praise?
When, in the parable, the lord returns to his country and receives ten talents for five, he bursts out into praise, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Isn’t it the sweetest part of the servant’s reward to hear those words? He basks in the light of his master’s countenance. “Enter into your master’s joy,” says the lord.
I like to read Scripture in other languages, because the strangeness of the words helps me to appreciate the strangeness of the message, and you never know whether another language’s resources, or limitations, will illuminate something that your own too-familiar language leaves in the shade.
Here’s what the Welshman hears: Da, was da a ffyddlawn! Meaning, with brutal literalness, Good, servant good and faithful! The adjective and adverb are the same, the utterly simple da. The servant is good, because he does good.
It’s the fundamental thing we want to hear. “Good,” says the Father; and that praise already implies the invitation, “Enter into the joy of your master!” For only the Father is good.
The flatterer is a liar and an enemy. He whispers that I’m good when I’m not, because he wants to fool me, to wheedle himself into my favor, to destroy me. Satan was a flatterer and a murderer from the beginning. “You shall be as gods,” he said.
My father told me I was the smartest person he’d known, and, in my sulk, I felt little gratitude. But what was that to my father or me? I didn’t make myself. My father didn’t make me. A little bit of brains beyond the average can as well alienate as unite. A man with powerful shoulders can clear a field or crush a skull. Churchill had a way with crowds. So did Hitler.
But when he said, “My son here picks blueberries,” it meant a lot to me, because I wanted to please him. I saw that what we were doing was good, and I was grateful that he taught me how to do it. He wouldn’t have taught me it if he hadn’t cared about me, and I wouldn’t have learned it so well if I hadn’t cared about him. We never put it in those words, but that was how it was.
Jesus tells us we should be humble, and say, “We are unprofitable servants,” which is the truth. But it’s a truth that only a loving servant would say – while still hoping, trusting, that the Lord who condescends to “need” our work will say what he teaches us to long to hear. Da, was da a ffyddlawn!