Thursday, October 18, 2007

Wendell Berry

Last week, I attended Pastor's School and Convocation at Duke Divinity School. This event is hosted annually by the Divinity School and provides a wonderful opportunity to see old friends and learn something new. I learned a lot last week - not new things, necessarily - but things I needed to hear.

The event was headlined by Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer who has authored over 30 books - mainly fiction and poetry. Several of Mr. Berry's books were assigned to me when I was a student at Duke. Other books have crossed my desk after being highly recommended to me. Some of the books have resonated with me. Yet, I must confess that I never really understood or appreciated his poetry and his writing - not until now - until hearing him and seeing his witness.

Mr. Berry is in his 70s. He rarely leaves the state of Kentucky. His comfort zone is on the farm, and his community is his family, his neighbors and his characters. In fact, one of the individuals who shared the stage with him said that while most of this society is attached to prestige and money, "all the things the minor prophets denounced...Wendell is still attached to his family, children and grandchildren." While he was introduced at Duke by Time magazine's "America's Best Theologian," Mr. Berry is filled with humility, and he captivated an entire audience of preachers and budding scholars. He captured us with his ability to talk about rest - about living the Sabbath - about keeping life holy - and about being the church Christ has called us to be.

Mr. Berry is a no-nonsense kind of person - not the kind that puts others down - but the kind that wants the best for others and for this land. He lives his faith, and he wants others to live their faith, too.

He started his part of the conversation last week with the words, "You can't practice Christianity just in church. Sometimes I don't know what you do in the church other than just letting your mind wander." He then described for us what a neighbor really is - what authentic Christian community looks like - what the church is called to be when we practice our faith faithfully.

People in community are not just people who live near each other. They are people who need each other.

Loving your neighbor as yourself is supposed to be a virtue which is the most boring subject. If you love your neighbor as yourself or have the sense to act like you do, the result is you have a neighbor in the operative sense, and if you have a neighbor in the operative sense, then you have help. The key is you have to keep your neighbor close to yourself.

What a blessing to think about these words - to imagine a people who need each other and who help each other. Too often the church is filled with people who come in and go out. They meet for a weekly gathering and then go off to do their own thing during the week. I prefer to imagine a church filled with people who need each other and who help each other.

I imagine my friend Louie who is in the hospital today - how he needs our prayers - and how his wife needs our support - how she needs someone to take her to the hospital to see her sick husband and how she needs people to call her so that she can talk about how hard it is to see him so sick and to not be able to communicate with him. They need us.

I think of the woman who has lost both a cousin and a college friend to death this week - even though they were both in their 20s. This woman needs our support right now. She needs us to pray for her and to journey with her during this difficult time. She needs us to listen when she is mourning the loss of these individuals and when she is shouting out her anger or doubt with God. She needs us.

I think of the individuals in our church who are no longer able to get out. I know how much they love to be visited and how they would take delight in our stopping by more often - with communion or a word of cheer. They need us.

And, I think of how we all need one another on this journey called faith. We need to learn from each other. We need to hear how God is at work in each other's lives so we can see more of God in our lives. We need people to hold us accountable. We need individuals who know everything about us (or almost everything) and love us in spite of it all.

On the second day Wendell Berry spoke, he said this, "When the people have made dark the light within them, the world darkens." He's right. We all have a light to shine. Some of us share our light with others - going out of our way to share our God-given light and gifts to those around us. Others prefer to keep the light to themselves, hoarding it away, keeping the world around them a little dark. Yet, if we are all living in community - in authentic community - we cannot help but to allow our light to shine. What a powerful image!

I'll continue to think about this kind of community while working hard to see how we can better embody it at Mount Vernon Place. In the meantime, I am also reading Mr. Berry's poems on Sabbath - on working for six days and resting on the seventh - so that I might better see God at work in my life and in the world around me.

Thank you, Mr. Berry, for leaving your farm in Kentucky in order to share your time with a bunch of pastors in North Carolina.

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