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.