Wendell Berry Takes Me to Church

Literature, lament, and getting through loss together

Published
painting by Jean Paul Lemieux

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved fiction. It’s a portal into someone else’s life. I want the characters to sweep me away. To tell me about their lives and their history. To give me a deeper picture of what this life could mean. I want them to give it to me straight. But not too straight. Deliver it to me gently. What could my life mean? We all know that pull, that ache. All is not as it should be. We all have ways we numb the ache of being alive. I have yet to read another author who writes as intricately, tenderly, and bravely about this ache as Wendell Berry. 

Winter of 2021 was approaching when I cracked open Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow. Since March of 2020, life had been one big blur. You felt it then I’m sure—a different kind of crack. Systems —nervous, political, health, religious, educational, justice—collapsing. The Christian tradition I was brought up in, the Evangelical Church, began to show its cracks as well. We reached too high towards the heavens, attempting to gain God-like power and control, so God mixed up our language. Our tower fell and we dispersed into the wilderness, looking for those who spoke the same. Now some of us are trying to rebuild, failing to see the grace in losing control. While some of us are still wandering around the wilderness looking for the Word Made Flesh. 

Here is where I found myself: Walking by the windows of my local church, exhausted. Most Sundays, my family and I still went. But inwardly, I had entered a desert. Where could I put all my angst? My anger? My disillusionment? Instagram wasn’t helping. I needed a better story to help me find my way. In states of despair and dysregulation, we need someone else to imagine a better way for us. 

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Loyalty As A Spiritual Discipline

[Jesus heals the paralytic at Capernaum, Galway City Museum, Ireland]

By trade, Jayber Crow was a barber, a gravedigger, and a church cleaner. He was loyal to the people of Port Townsend, cutting everyone’s hair just the same for 30 years. Several people would come sit in his chair and talk and talk and talk. Usually he just listened. Early on, he realized they didn’t need him to say much. But sometimes, one would challenge his patience. One such man was Troy.

Troy also became a fierce partisan of the army and the government’s war policy. The war protesters had started making a stir, and the talk in my shop ran pretty much against them. Troy hated them. As his way was, he loved hearing himself say bad things about them. 

One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, the subject was started and Troy said – it was about the third thing said – 

‘They ought to round up every one of them sons of b—–s and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.’

There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it. I thought of Athey’s reply to Hiram Hench. It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.’

Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. ‘Where did you get that crap?’

I said, ‘Jesus Christ.’

And Troy said, ‘Oh.’

It would’ve been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.

After laughing at this story, I was quickly humbled. I knew people within my own Christian community who were Troy. At least on social media. Love was either thrown out or manipulated into their idea of truth. If I was to go on professing Jesus Christ to be true and real, I knew that love indeed was to lay down my rights and accept that God who is Love is drawing all people in. Alone in my living room, the Holy Spirit convicted me. Did I want the Troys of my world to experience grace and forgiveness? To be truly known and loved? To have a chance?  The Church cannot be unified until we see our own relatedness in each other, and our own belonging within the relationship of the Trinity. False loyalty would be for my sake, but loyalty as a spiritual discipline requires deep humility.

In times when the current of western culture flows in the direction of canceling and judgment, it is no small thing to remain tethered to one another. To remain in community in the midst of vast chasms that divide requires us to put the stones down, shut our mouths, and ask God for mercy. Out of this place, love for our neighbor is born. Sometimes the cry for mercy will get you cast out, but what a miracle it is when repentance is near. 

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Too Tightly Tangled Together

[The Holy Trinity, Andrei Rublev, 1411]

I was immersed in the story now. Even though much of it brought me to tears, I knew those tears were trying to tell me something worth listening to. Jayber continued to wrestle with grief and madness over the Vietnam war. I wore these same feelings on the edge of my skin over political divisions in the Church. 

Somewhere underneath all of the politics, the ambition, the harsh talk, the power, the violence, the will to destroy and waste and maim and burn, was this tenderness. Tenderness born into madness, preservable only by suffering, and finally not preservable at all. What can love do? Love waits, if it must, maybe forever … For a while again I couldn’t pray. I didn’t dare to. In the most secret place of my soul I wanted to  beg the Lord to reveal Himself in power. I wanted to tell Him that it was time for His coming … But thinking such things was as dangerous as praying them. I knew who had thought such thoughts before: “Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Where in my own arrogance was I going to hide? Where did I get my knack for being a fool? If I could advise God, why didn’t I just advise Him (like our great preachers and politicians) to be on our side and give us victory? I had to turn around and wade out of the mire myself … I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn’t, He hasn’t, because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. Even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in Him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended…We are too tightly tangled together to be able to separate ourselves from one another either by good or by evil. We all are involved in all and any good, and in all and any evil. For any sin, we all suffer. That is why our suffering is endless. 

There it was. For any sin, we all suffer. How we hurt ourselves and each other. The sin of pastors and ministry leaders giving into the temptation of power. Really it’s no surprise. We’ve been living in this cycle ever since Eve saw and took the fruit in the Garden. We see the platform, we take and devour. 

In our state of not knowing our left hand from our right (Jonah 4:10-11), Jesus demonstrated a way of dying to self for the sake of the world. For our sake. To save us from ourselves. The invitation in our suffering is always to follow Him. I think of Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days. What happened right before he was sent out? “After being baptized … the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.’” (Matthew 3) It was out of Jesus’ belovedness that he went out into the wilderness. Out of a secure and loving relationship with the Father and Holy Spirit, he doesn’t give into temptation.

This is the miracle! The Church has forgotten how to look at herself. Without a loving, secure relationship we can rest in, to walk as Jesus walked is impossible. It seems that a lot of us are still walking around in condemnation, with our fingers pointed at ourselves and each other. But, as Thomas R. Kelly once wrote, in the kingdom of God, “there is a mysterious manying of God as the Trinity pours forth into the universe, so there is a oneing of those souls who find their way back to the Trinity who is their home. And these are in the Holy Fellowship, the Beloved Community, of whom God is the head.”

I looked around this small bride gathered in NE Portland and saw how incredibly loved we all were. I knew we were all trying so hard to keep up good appearances for Jesus, on our mini platforms of power and influence. But none of that is real if we do not know in our bones that Jesus looks upon us and loves us. None of it matters. We are too tightly tangled to make it without Jesus. True beloved community requires us to make friends out of enemies. It’s become more popular now to think that we have enough forgiveness and grace within ourselves to forgive ourselves and others. Rather, what a gift it is that our very nature can be used to show us that God’s been there all along. All the ways of God are redemptive, including our suffering. Often, it is through that suffering that we are drawn closer to each other and God. 

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Open Stained-Glass Windows

[Old Laurelhurst Church, Portland OR. Janell Downing]

In general, I weathered even the worst sermons pretty well. They had the great virtue of causing my mind to wander. Some of the best things I have ever thought of I have thought of during bad sermons. Or I would look out the windows. In winter, when the windows were closed, the church seemed to admit the light strictly on its own terms, as if uneasy about the frank sunshine of this benighted world. In summer, when the sashes were raised, I watched with a great, eager pleasure the town and the fields beyond, the clouds, the trees, the movements of the air – but then the sermons would seem more improbable. I have always loved a window, especially an open one. 

At times our closeness with each other can feel too heavy. Our shared burdens weigh us down. At my church, we just finished going through the book of Judges. I don’t know about you, but the last time I read Judges all the way through was twenty years ago at Bible college. It was … devastating. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, generational feuding and trauma, violence, the degradation of women, rape and trafficking, it unfolded onto our own stories. Mirroring the world we live in now, we grimaced as the You Do You world of Judges overlapped with ours. Don’t tell me we have it within ourselves to do better. We’ve tried it over and over and we are consumed and exhausted by our failings. Tell me that I can cry out to God for forgiveness so that there is even the possibility of forgiving the other. I am in awe of God’s faithfulness and patience. And a little dumbfounded that God didn’t just break his promise and wipe them out completely. Some of us were surely thinking it. We were desperate for open windows to look out —a break in the story.

And yet, it was within the time of the Judges that a quiet and kind story unfolds—the story of Ruth. Like a prayer shawl in times of suffering, her story wraps around us and draws us to Jesus. Her mother-in-law Naomi’s story, one of deep sorrow and grief, tells us: hold on. God is not against you. Chapter 4 of the story is coming. 

How we need something to keep us soft, something to keep us from taking the bait of outrage and reaction. How do we as the Church remain in a witnessing position instead of becoming the judge and jury? How do we remain hopeful? For my church, Communal Lament has become that open window. It blew in with the Pandemic and cloaked our small, diverse community in belonging and love. Instead of sitting in judgment and death, this practice brought an age-old language of life and renewal. Three times a year, we move together through God’s faithfulness, our complaints, confession and communion, asking boldly for help, and renewing our commitment to trust in God.

Lament is not a quick fix. It’s a place where the Church can yield into the hands of God and not be consumed. In order to do so, we must be awake to our suffering and the suffering of those around us. Going through this together has strengthened our belonging to each other and to God. It is vulnerable, and full of honesty, freedom, and hope. As William Blaine-Wallace puts it in his book, When Tears Sing: The Art of Lament in Christian Community, “The terrors of our lives and worlds are stark. Like a stained glass window, which bends light into colors and configurations that bless, we do well to bend the more intense glare of fear, dread and pain into shades that allow us to feel, name and engage a broken world.” 

When a church mourns together, that too keeps us soft. Over time, there is heartache, grief and loss, and death. It’s the stuff of life that we give into as we give into each other. We start to see Jesus once again, His wounded hands encompassing the “stark terrors of the world and our lives.” Lamentations 3:22-23 in the middle of grief. Ruth in the middle of Judges. Through Him we are not consumed. The work of our lives becomes our prayer. We put away our swords and plant in hope. We till and mend in faithfulness, and sometimes we see the fruit. Sometimes we don’t. Spiritual work is always the longer way around, rarely just around the corner. Thankfully, a thousand years with the Lord is like a day (2 Peter 3:8.) Take heart dear one, the patience of God is a mercy. “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good word and deed.” (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17.) Sunday morning gatherings become a reflection of the light of our everyday lives, mirroring Who we reflect. God lifts up our heads as we lift up one another. And sometimes we get glimpses of what’s to come. 

One day when I went up there (the bell tower) to work, sleepiness overcame me and I lay down on the floor behind the back pew to take a nap … I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them in all the times past and to come, all somehow there in their own time and in all time and in no time: the cheerfully working and singing women, the men quiet or reluctant or shy, the weary, the troubled in spirit, the sick, the lame, the desperate, the dying, the little children tucked into the pews beside their elders, the young married couples full of visions, the old men with their dreams, the parents proud of their children, the grandparents with tears in their eyes, the pairs of young lovers attentive only to each other on the edge of the world, the grieving widows and widowers, the mothers and fathers of children newly dead, the proud, the humble, the attentive, the distracted – I saw them all. I saw the creases criss-crossed on the backs of the men’s necks, their work-thickened hands, the Sunday dresses faded with washing. They were just there. They said nothing, and I said nothing. I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me. 

When I came to myself again, my face was wet with tears. 

If we can stay with each other through loss, this will bind us. Loss is the way of Eternal Life, having lost everything we find everything. Along the way we can rest by the stream and watch life float by when it gets too heavy. The Holy Spirit will bring back around again what we need to keep. We can rest and eat at other tables of grace gathered in the name of Jesus as we journey through the wilderness. 

I lay down for a nap, setting the book on my floor, a companion now. I lay down my control. I lay down my head and rest. 

  • Janell Downing

    Janell Downing lives in Portland, OR with her husband and two boys. She holds a BS in Theology & Music from Multnomah University and is currently on her way to become a Spiritual Director. She enjoys living a life of hospitality for weary travelers of the faith with books, movies, coffee, and music always close by. You can find more of her writing at Substack and Mockingbird.

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Joey Goodall
1 year ago

Thanks so much for writing this for us, Janell!

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