New Wendell Berry video and book on the way.
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New Wendell Berry video and book on the way.
The Beloved Community: We All Have Work To Do
One of the biggest problems with spirituality in our land is the separation between our minds and our bodies. Spirituality is thought to be for disembodied souls—religion as a pep-talk, a spiritual enema, maybe an injection to forget about life as it is. Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh. True and perfect religion, the Bible tells us, is deeply connected with our bodies. We are so fleshly, so in this world, that we are vulnerable to suffering and temptation, to being stained. But James 1:27 connects approved religion with looking after the fatherless and widowed in their distress. What is their distress? Economic disempowerment. And looking after them means including them in the household of faith.
When Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”(Jn. 13:34-35, NIV) he did not mean to get all dovey-eyed with each other, but he meant that we are part of His Body, His household of faith. This household has an economy. The word “economics” is derived from oikonomikos, which means “skilled in household management.” As we get to know how the household of faith works, we can begin to understand our worth as persons and how our work produces services that empower people and glorify God.
Ephesians 2: 19-22 tells us something amazing about what God did in Christ:
19 So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. 20 Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. 21 We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord.22 Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.
Brief primer of Bible history and Jew and Gentile relations: fierce enemies, nothing in common, no reason to relate, together by faith, now one household.
This is what Jesus does when we follow him. He places us into a family of faith with people we would otherwise not be with and he uses us to build the Beloved Community. Now, for those who are in the house, you know that that means a lot of work! We have to be constantly communicating, constantly forgiving, always cleaning, always directing, always yielding, always making more room.
In faith we connect our minds to our bodies. We stay active in our obedience to God and in our work for one another. This is all part of what it means to love one another. In Christ’s love we find the freedom to be ourselves with one another. We learn mutual submission again and again. We speak truthfully about the hurt we cause one another and we forgive again and again. Some days this is so painful it feels impossible, but the Holy Spirit gives us what we need one day at a time.
Some people think that the role of a pastor is just to stand for authority and protect the image of the organization. I used to hate the idea of being a preacher because I suspected that preachers did nothing but speak and pray. A lot of people seem to think that. In Wendell Berry’s novel, “A Place on Earth”, Virgil, Son of Mat and Margaret Feltner, is believed to be Missing in Action, and they await official word. Wendell Berry describes the pastoral visit of Brother Preston. He “looked like a saint. But not a fisherman saint like Saint Peter or a carpenter saint like Saint Joseph; his mild scrubbed face shone with a kind of congenital goodness, as though, before birth, he‘d washed his hands of the whole world (32).” (http://everydayliturgy.com/mourning-with-those-who-mourn-common-grief-in-wendell-berrys-a-place-on-earth/)
Later in the book, Berry writes, “He came away from the Feltner house grieved by the imperfection of his visit. It was not, as he had hoped it would be, a conversation, It was a sermon. This is the history of his life in Port William. The Word, in his speaking it, fails to be made flesh. It is a failure particularized for him in the palm of every work-stiffened hand held out to him at the church door every Sunday morning—the hard dark hand taking his pale unworn one in a gesture of politeness without understanding. He belongs to the governance of those he ministers to without belonging to their knowledge, the bringer of the Word preserved from flesh.” (pg. 102)
Brother Preston is not our model for ministry. In the household of faith we are never so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good. The Bible is not a reference manual full of lofty syllogisms. It is the Word of God for the People of God. We are literally living now the next act of God’s divine drama. How we act now as the Body of Christ speaks to this world about who Christ is. In Berry’s novel everyone knows their place and what they do, but not Brother Preston.
The Bible has a lot to say about work. Both Old and New Testaments encourage labor of all kinds and assume that making a living is not an impossibility. That assumption is connected to the People of God fearing the Lord. If God’s people do not love God with their work, they will do a lot of work and still not make a living. How you work makes a difference. What you are working for makes all the difference in the world. The Bible wants work to be intentional. Don’t work for want of something better to do. Don’t work simply to pay off bills. Work as unto the Lord for the household of faith.
Colossians 3:18-4:1 gives a concise example of the household of faith at work: “18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. 20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. 22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.”
You might ask, what do all these household rules have to do with money or an alternative economy? Good question. In looking at these verses we see a functioning community, which is what every money-making venture needs. Most businesses follow a transaction model of interaction between parties. You have that $50 bill and I have this service that you need performed—detailing your car after your children vomit in it. But the Bible starts with a person-centered model of community. Each person has value, not just for doing what is needed, but for doing with their whole hearts, for the Lord, and not for the market.
Perhaps our most detailed example of work and industry in the Bible is found in Proverbs 31 in reference to a wife to be desired. All that she does follows her relationship to God. She is a woman who fears the Lord. I believe that her ways are an example for men. The writer (King Lemuel) is instructing his son to live in a household with a woman like this. Her household rises and calls her blessed. “Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”
Let me give a few examples from how we do things here at NewLifeEvangelisticCenter.
Missouri Renewable Energy (www.moreenergy.org) is NLEC’s business venture that teaches care for the earth and work for the Kingdom of God. Mike McKim joined our 90 day program for homeless veterans. He then joined the 2 year Leadership Training Program. He became an instructor in renewable energy. He finished the 2 years and then became a full time staff member and received a living stipend. After five years here he was offered a place at the Veterans I-T Center. They knew of Mike’s faithful service here and offered him a place there. Mike has recently come back to volunteer twice a week with MORE because help was needed.
One could argue that NLEC gives too much away for free. (Free renewable energy education on D-TV 24.2 and on http://americanrenewableenergy.org) We redistribute too much wealth and time to the community instead of making people pay for it.
Maybe we’re trying to follow Christ and his economy. While our capitalist economy gives so much public money away to rich and powerful companies who keep it and don’t reinvest it, we take money and use it for Kingdom purposes, teaching renewable energy, respect for life, hope for the homeless and most vulnerable.
We’re learning that our labor is not just to support ourselves or the ministry of words, but is also for strangers in need. A woman who is a stranger in town came in today. Her bus tickets were lost or stolen at the bus station. She has an apartment at her destination paid to the end of the month. She is a senior. She has no money and no one to help her. Where is she to go? Is it her fault that she is suddenly homeless without clothing, food, or shelter?
Some might argue that anyone in America without income who does not protect themselves against theft should not be trusted. There are too many liars, drug users, drunks, and cons out there so just leave her be. But I ask you, should she be left in downtown without a shower, without clothes, without attention? Yes or No?
You already know that I’m going to say NO! Why? Because she is a human being. Because she bears the image of God. And because, she has value. With her gratitude, with her presence she shares a little bit of God with everyone she encounters. That has an inestimable value. Who knows but that she is not a messenger from God with a word from Him of encouragement, of Hope, that He is in Control? Yes it can happen! You might call me crazy but I believe that! So in sharing our space here for strangers like this woman, offering her food, clothing, shelter, and assistance in transportation, we are living the Beloved Community and building the Kingdom of God.
We are connected to this city, to this land with a sense of Place. Since 1976 this building has had doors that opened and closed and welcomed strangers as overnight guests. It has had a family of Christians who educated one another in the Scriptures, who led new friends in a profession of faith and into Christian faith, who received donations and gifts and then redistributed them to those who had need. It has trained laborers for the harvest of the Kingdom of God and with gratitude has enjoyed the presence of faithful saints. We connect church goers with desperate people who need Jesus. We encourage hospitality and the dignity of the work it takes to share a household together. Finally, let these words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct” ring in your ears:
“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.” (http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/)
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Chris Rice
More Scriptures on Work in the Household of Faith
Work to the Glory of God, that is what work is for.
Luke 18:29-30; Eph. 4:28; Eccl. 12:14; 2 Thess. 3:8
Acts 18:1-3; 20:33-35; Philippians 4:14-16; Philippians 2:13
1 Thess. 4:11; 1 Thess. 2:17; 2 Thess. 3:10; 1 Timothy 5:18
Did you know that women worked to support the Church in the New Testament? Some were skilled laborers, artisans, and cooks. Women in the New Testament worked hard! Marg Mowczko has a blog post that discusses this in detail: http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/new-testament-working-women/
I’m still reading Wendell Berry’s novels. I finished Three Short Novels and believe Remembering stands hand and shoulders out among the other two. Seeing Jayber Crow recommended in different Facebook groups and by word of mouth I put a copy on hold at my local library. I’m about halfway through it now and look forward to my time with it every night. I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to have a new favorite passion for literature. Wendell Berry has brought me a new vision for prose. I’m really bothered by this thought that novels are best used as means of escape from the mind. This will sound quite harsh, but I find that sentiment disgusting. I suppose I still feel passionate about words. The internet has brought us an ocean of words, and yet very little tools for using them wisely or deciphering their meaning. Wendell Berry is a man who weighs his words very deliberately. I consider him a teacher as well as a writer. By focusing his gaze on life’s little intensities, he demonstrates the grace that is being alive. One of the central complaints Jayber Crow levels at preachers and the church is their ambivalence for bodily concerns. Everything is about the sins of the body and the hereafter. Jayber says he doesn’t believe the preachers really believe their own preaching, because they love to eat, they love to relax, kiss their wives, and warm their bodies. For Wendell Berry the natural world itself is God’s gift for enjoying and that our first sign of God’s grace and mercy is this bodily life. In this same way, words are things. They don’t just point us to ideas or help us escape them, they themselves can instruct our gaze back to the beauty of this bodily life and our place in it. These words don’t come easy. I suspect that Wendell’s craft has been fashioned slowly, deliberately, painfully. This is why there are few writers like him.
BTW, thanks for the link MWBOK. That was a delightful surprise and you have a nice new blog.
I recently received a review copy of Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader’s Guide by Matthew J. Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens, Brazos Press. Dipping into it has piqued my interest in Berry’s novels, as I’ve only been reading his essays and poetry up to this point. I checked out a copy of Three Short Novels [Nathan Coulter, Remembering, A World Lost]. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002.] from my local library and went to work on Nathan Coulter.
In a word it is delightful. It’s his first book and I’m reading it slowly every night, allowing its lessons to soak in. I say lessons, and this sounds odd because the story is told by a boy who is himself ever perceiving and is only so self aware, but the way he sees his father, Grandfather, brother and uncle are so rooted in longing for more. Everything is broken in a way: the land, the work, and the heritage. I read portions aloud for my wife hoping she’ll find them funny, but she remarks that they are sad. And it doesn’t occur to me that the cruelty to birds (a blasting cap in a pet crow’s bung-hole, ducks tied to rocks at a carnival and forced to “duck”) or fish (dynamited out of the stream) is sad. I feel a kinship with the character’s outrageous antics for something to do.
What I appreciate most of all is the sense of place in this story. The tragic and broken and sympathetic and wonderful are all woven together into one simple place with so much attention to detail that I really care about this world. The book teaches me that with story it’s far less about what happens than about what it looks like. The why always follows the where, and sometimes there is no why and that’s okay.
If, like me, you’re traversing the world of Wendell Berry for the first time you must see the Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky pages. One visit there and you’ll feel ever the neophyte, but we must start somewhere right? Of particular help is The Port William Membership page, a geneology of sorts for all the families in Berry’s books.