‘The Word Preserved From Flesh’: Wendell Berry on the Unbelonging Pastor

As much as I love my theology books, I am also an avid reader of fiction. A while ago I started reading Wendell Berry’s Port William Membership series, beginning with Jayber Crow. Ever since I have been growing in my appreciation for Berry as a writer and a love for the fictional place he has imagined. But Berry’s Port William is more than mere fiction; it is a profound guide to the human soul, human relations, and human communities in inextricable connection to their place. Berry succeeds best in putting into words the inexpressible depths of human experience. Particularly for myself, as others have also attested, spending time in Berry’s Port William is teaching me how to better pastor my community. In a “Christian” culture that adulates book contracts, conference slots, and massive numbers of podcast subscribers, Berry’s stories reveal the beauty and power of ministry that is small, ordinary, daily, and faithful.

Sometimes Berry does this by way of negative example. Consider the following story, taken from his novel A Place on Earth, in which pastor “Brother Preston” reflects on his failed attempt to comfort the Feltner family that is grieving the loss of their beloved husband and son Virgil. Back at the church his thoughts are interrupted by the townwendell_berry1 gravedigger, “Uncle Stanley”. Their encounter provides an ironic commentary on why Brother Preston will never be able to truly minister to his parishoners:

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.

But now, sitting on the hard bench in the chilled odors of stale perfume and of vacancy, he feels that he has come again within the reach of peace. On the back of the bench in front of him, like some cryptic text placed there for his contemplation, are the initials B.C. in deeply cut block letters four inches high. Leaning forward, his finger absently tracing the grooves of the initials, he bows in careful silence while his mind seems to stand in the pulpit above him, praying as always: “Our gracious and loving Heavenly Father, we are come into Thy Presence today with our burdens, our troubles, our sorrows.”

The afternoon goes on, and he continues to sit there, his mind coming slowly to rest. He leans back, his hands folded and idle in his lap. Showers come and pass over without his hearing them. The outside door clatters and slams, and footsteps tramp in. The vestibule door is bumped open, and Uncle Stanley appears at the head of the aisle. In one arm he carries a load of kindling, in the other hand a gallon bucket of corncobs soaking in coal oil. Loaded as he is, Uncle Stanley manages a whole chorus of gestures which greet and exclaim and apologize. Peeping over his load, waving the bucket of cobs, he shuffles down the aisle, his walking cane, hooked into his hip pocket, trailing on the floor behind him like a tail. “Go right on, Preacher,” he yells. “Go right ahead. Don’t mind me. Keep right on a talking to Him. I know you got it to do. Byjuckers, if you can squeeze it in anywhere, you can tell Him about me.”

He drops the wood with a racking crash down against a leg of the stove. He opens the fire door and lays in cobs and kindling, and douses in coal oil from the bucket. He tosses in a lighted match, the fire ignites, and the crackling of the flames is immediate and steady. In all this he makes a large avoidance of looking at Brother Preston or speaking to him, leaving him to his prayers. He goes out, and returns carrying two buckets of coal which he places beside the stove. He adds more kindling to the fire, throws in a few lumps of coal, and goes to the nearest bench and sits down, still wearing his hat. He has gone about his work, and now sits and rests, with utter familiarity toward the place. His attitude intimates that he is a fire builder by profession, the best in the trade, and that his skill and responsibility require a certain indifference to all other considerations. A large chew of tobacco is actively at work in his jaw.

Not wanting to appear unfriendly, Brother Preston comes back and sits near the old man—trusting that, by keeping a distance of four or five feet between them, he can hold the conversation to an exchange of formalities and then leave in a few minutes. But he is exactly as much mistaken as he was afraid he would be. Uncle Stanley gets up and spits into the stove, and then sits down next to him and claps a hand down onto his knee. “Yessir! By grab, last thing I’d want to do is break in on a fellow’s praying. I reckon there’s plenty of need for it around here. I reckon I ought to know that. But I had to get that fire to going for the prayer meeting tonight. Take the damp outen this air.” He laughs knowingly, slapping the preacher’s knee again. “Take their mind off of their old bones while you say your say to ’em. We all got our calling. You got yours and I got mine. And we go about ’em and get along. Ain’t that right, Preacher?” “That is so, Mr. Gibbs,” Brother Preston says.[1]

When I first read this passage, I was completely undone. I have tried to minister like Brother Preston more times than I care to admit. I have substituted busyness in my study for connecting with people in my community. I have viewed unplanned encounters and conversations as interruptions rather than opportunities. I have tracked progress in terms of measurable accomplishments instead of the more intangible work of the heart. And I have gauged success more on the basis of numbers of programs and tight schedules than on the inefficiency of being generous with my time. In a phrase, I have often tried to be “a bringer of the Word preserved from flesh”.

But thankfully there is always grace and mercy for the chief of sinners. I have a long way yet to go, but through the Berry’s stories of the Port William membership, I am slowly learning the art of being a pastor who truly knows, loves, and belongs to his people and place. Thank you Wendell Berry. I look forward to the many more visits to Port William that I will make in the days to come.

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[1] Wendell Berry. A Place on Earth (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2001), Kindle Locations 1280-1305.

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2 thoughts on “‘The Word Preserved From Flesh’: Wendell Berry on the Unbelonging Pastor

  1. Dawnae 6 September 2017 / 22:30

    Jonathan, I appreciated this post. Thank you. Have you had the chance to watch Look & See: A portrait of Wendell Berry? I have heard good things about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 6 September 2017 / 22:40

      Hi Dawnae, you’re welcome! I have not seen Look & See, although I have read about it and would very much like to. It looks great. Also great to hear from you! Say hello to JT for me!

      Like

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