The Look of My Church [Part 2.5]: The Story of Jayber Crow

As if I could just let go of a topic! Well, Grace has recently posted an entry titled Walking Away and, for those of you who are trying to keep up with my writing, this is one of the themes I made mention of in the letter I shared along with my last post. She quotes Jonathon Brink and another author in order to ask the question: “Walking away, to where?”

I am certainly struggling with this question right now. In fact, a good friend of mine (also the assistant pastor at the church I attend) wanted advice or some support around leading our community, especially in light of day-to-day pastoral busy-ness and the shape we give to mission. Unfortunately, my advice sounded a bit like get-rid-of-the-system, which may not have been all that helpful to him. Nevertheless, I am more and more convinced that the life of my community will not take place among those who (must?) see church as the event-on-Sunday-morning. I guess I am slowly walking away–if not literally, than emotionally and imaginatively. A few of my favorite quotes (from Wendell Berry’s character Jayber Crow–barber/grave digger/church janitor) expresses this sentiment well:

One day when I went up [to the church] to work, sleepiness overcame me and I lay down on the floor behind the back pew to take a nap. Waking or sleeping (I couldn’t tell which), I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them as I had seen them (from the back pew) on the Sunday before. 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 crisscrossed 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 (p. 164-165).

This vision came to him as a revelation and yet the trajectory or course he would take ended up surprising even the best intentions or guesses he had of where it would lead. It would finally deposit him, along with a vision of the ‘gathered community,’ into the membership of a place. Along the way he describes what I will call his ‘hermeneutic of surprise.’ Listen as he tells it:

Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark of Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led–make of that what you will (p. 133).

He issues a wise acknowledgment of our inherent human ignorance as well as of the grace we all receive without knowing. This ‘hermeneutic of surprise’ will eventually lead him to revise, or rather, to reimagine the vision he had in the church. He would need this expanded vision in order to accept the invitation of membership as an integral (and eternal) part of his community. He writes:

My vision of the gathered church that had come to me after I became the janitor had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on. If you could go back into the story of Uncle Ive and Verna Shoals, you would find, certainly before and maybe after, somebody who loved them both. It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.

And so there we all were on a little wave of time lifting up to eternity, and none of us ever in time would know what to make of it. How could we? It is a mystery, for we are eternal beings living in time. Did I ever think that anybody would understand it? Yes. Once. I thought once that I would finally understand it.

What I had come to know (by feeling only) was that the place’s true being, its presence you might say, was a sort of current, like an underground flow of water, except that the flowing was in all directions and yet did not flow away. When it rose into your heart and throat, you felt joy and sorrow at the same time, and the joining of times and lives. To come into the presence of the place was to know life and death, and to be near in all your thoughts to laughter and to tears. This would come over you and then pass away, as fragile as a moment of light (p. 2o5-206).

So, in a sense, walking away isn’t as simple as forgetting what lies behind. In fact, part of me thinks walking away may actually be a process whereby we re-learn to walk-along-with community or enter into this mystery called membership–and eternal life. It would seem that by ‘walking away’ one must leave it all behind and yet we see in Jayber Crow that love for one another envelopes our most ardent histories and asks our most difficult thoughts, even as our lives are taken in divergent ways. So, “Walking away, to where?”: to community, to membership, to place. Not in order to isolate or lose memory. Instead, as mission and freedom–alive in the world and with the Lord’s grace.

The Look of My Church [Part 2]

Man, it’s been hard to find the time and right space to actually unpack what church should look like. I wanted it to be simple (or easy)–and I know a few of the steps are just that–but more and more I’m realizing that there is so much complexity and art involved in making even the smallest choices.

In part one, I suggested that something broad or systemic was at stake–more than just a particular “church” meeting or gathered occasion. And to be sure, I have a few ideas about how this change could/should eventually take shape. But before I go “answering all the questions” (as if that were possible, right?), first let me invite you, the reader, into some of the confusion and messiness.

So, without further ado, check out this letter I wrote to a fairly new acquaintance who pastors a neo-monastic community in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Hi Mark,

Hopefully, my name will ring a bell. Back in June, my wife (who is from Peru, like Carmen), my sister, my niece, and I came by for a Weds. meal at Missio Dei while we were visiting the Twin Cities. We had a great time hanging out with the Missio Dei gang (and eating some great food to boot). Anyway, I’ve been thinking through a few ideas related to new monasticism and I’m wondering if you would be able to offer me some of your experience. I understand you are super busy, so respond if and/or when you can.

My mains concerns have to do with the small community I lead. We are young (in age) and mostly all Christian (evangelical). This small community (about 6 years old) is technically a Vineyard “small group” or “care group” or something like that, though more than half of the members either do not attend church or do not attend church at the Vineyard (where I have attended, btw, for the last 12 years).

After visiting Missio Dei, I was encouraged about the actual possibility of experimenting with new monasticism within my small community (since we have done a lot of the same practices “new monastics” might do, but without the name or conversation). For the summer, we tried to adjust some of our weekly rhythms and to add a few new ones in light of my new enthusiasm. It went all right, though there were some rough spots along the way as might be expected. But, throughout the whole thing, the one thing that stood out was that I want something more than either my church (on the one hand) or my small “missional” community (on the other hand) are willing to experiment with. At church, everyone is ok with worship and singing and prayer and bible study etc., while in my small group, the feeling is more mixed about typical “churchy” things. Also, in my small community, there is a tendency for us to accommodate ourselves too easily to a reductionistic understanding of mission–into something like a social gathering for the disenfranchised. It rarely (in a consistent fashion) seems probable to move beyond that. So, I’m left with the urge (need?) to live communally as the embodied alternative I think we’re supposed to be and yet, so far, that has meant either leading people in a small community who would rather forget the bible and the church or nagging hopelessly the Sunday morning congregation at the Vineyard to support/enter into community when they have very little intention to do so. I’m starting to think it would be best if I went back to square one: stop attending “church,” find two or three other people to explore or experiment with and see how it goes.

There are some complications with that, however:

1. My wife and I are having a baby. He/she will be born in Dec! But that makes me even more motivated to put into practice a different way of living, and to do so in community (i.e., new monasticism).

2. My wife is not as interested in all of this as I am. Perhaps for good reason. I can get overly enthusiastic at times.

3. I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing. Leading my small community could be compared to a crippled man teaching blind people how to dance.

4. I’m super busy (although mostly with stuff related to intentional community).

5. Warts and all, I love both my communities…and what will happen to them if I leave?

6. Is it possible to transition from “community” as we know it into something more intentional? What are the roadblocks likely to be? How can I start from where I’m at? etc.

Anyway, that pretty much sums up what’s puzzling me. If you could email (or call) to talk about some of this stuff, I would so appreciate it.

On a similar (but less urgent) note, did you and your wife have a baby shower for your son? What about a registry? I have been somewhat resistant to the idea of a registry (even though I know we need some basic baby things) because it seems to be a tricky way for the culture to get people to want more and buy more. Do you know of any “anti-consumerist” strategies for celebrating a new baby and providing basic needs?

Thanks for reading about my struggles with community. Sorry it got a bit long. Hope all is well with your family and Missio Dei.


Jason Winton

I make some pretty broad generalizations in that letter about both the small community I lead and the large Sunday morning gathering we belong to. I do this for the sake of brevity and to make a point that will come across clearly to an outsider. Those who belong to both communities should not be held accountable for my questions, descriptions, or far-fetched ideas. Guilt-by-association isn’t good judgment, after all.

And, lastly, though I enjoy a good controversy (I mean conversation!), love is the primary motivation I would like to see take shape. So, please take this as an invitation to participate with our beloved community as we try to find our way.

Did my letter stir something up for you? Clog your imagination? How would you respond?

Homelessness and You

Editor’s note: Jessica DePriest is a friend who, as you will tell, has a passion to communicate. In this challenging and personal missive she invites each of us to truly know our neighbors–no matter where they live or sleep. Read and let her know what you think.

It seems an epidemic is rising and not just here in Chico. There is an overwhelming growth of homeless people than ever before. Some of you may not even care that there are families out on the street, or that there are struggling drug addicts. I say to look at it in a completely different view.

Homelessness is a growing problem for many United States cities. It is starting to become a more and more widespread problem due to our ever not recovering economic situation. There is a dwindling amount of jobs and opportunity in the work force.

The homeless situation is a sad one. Most people just look away and have nothing to say because it is more of a gesture that if people don’t or choose not to see it. It is not happening. Well folks and readers it is. Going once every few months or even monthly to a Jesus Center or a Soup Kitchen is not enough. These people need more than just average or punitive attempts to make you feel better. Most need clothes or shoes. Some just need someone to talk to and have someone listen instead of trying to talk to Joe or Bob that has heard it all and seen it all being one of those loveable tramps we all know and see.

In Sacramento there is an overwhelming growth in the homeless community. They have about 2500 homeless and down on their luck men women and children. The even sadder thing is that there is only accommodation for about 1200 people and that is only more so in the winter time. There’s absolutely nothing more shameful than when you have to ask for someone for a few bucks or whatever they will give you. It is sad to hear some of the things that passerby’s will say or do to you just because you do not have what they do.

Personally to me the over egotistical college kid that brings money into Chico is half the time or more responsible for the vandalism, DUI’s, Assault and Battery that happens in this town but is so eagerly overlooked for the sole purpose that they bring in money.

There is too much that the college kids get away with and it is a shame. Now do not get me wrong I have seen my own fair share of what the homeless community has done but it is not all of the community that even does stupid antics. On another note it is also a saddening thought that even in the most powerful and socially booming country that we even have to call the homeless a community.

Also, In the close of this rant and rave. Please make an effort to go out and do more for the community as a whole not just the areas that you are comfortable in. There is so much that you can do for your country and your community. I say to you No, I challenge you to stand up and make an effort for the good and not for the comfort ability that is so near to you and yours.

Jessica DePriest

Truly a Summer in Paradise

Some of you know that Julissa, Santiago, and I spent the summer up-the-hill in Paradise, Ca with the kind and generous folks at the Abbey. I’m not going to get into all the self-reflective spiritual stuff that came out of those friendships and experiences…not yet, at least. It’s enough to say that they gave us a real welcome and reminded me–un(self)consciously–of why Jesus loves these weirdos, ragamuffins, sinners, and saints.

I will, however, pass on some very cool liturgical links influenced by my time with Joshua and company.

Rich Mullins (wow!! I had no idea how cool he was…The Jesus Record…have you ever even heard of a hogan? me neither…until I read about Rich)

COTA (get their free podcast, with the best contemplative music/meditation combinations I have ever heard)

Church of the Beloved (sister church to COTA, also giving away free liturgical stuff…nice music, I mean really well produced…for free)

St. Gregory of Nyssa in SF (no direct link to the Abbey folks, but the inspiration to check them out came to me because of our experiences over the summer…and the liturgy at St. Gregs turned out to be over-the-top-fun, participatory…and also we learned a new group dance!)

That’s it for now…bye, bye.