How Wendell Berry Is Saving My Sanity, and My Ministry

Its that time again. The winter is beginning to fade, flowers are blooming, and TV stations everywhere are being pumped with a 24 hour assault of political mud-slinging. Yes, you know what that means; the country is deep in the thralls of another election year. Airwaves have become battlefields. We are being constantly bombarded with sound bites, statistics and political branding. Candidates are closely monitoring where they stand on the political spectrum of “left” vs “right.” Each potential politician attempts to weigh in at just the right amount of liberal or conservative so that the maximum number of procurable voters will be willing to give up on electing someone that might actually represent their concerns for the homogenized “electable” version of their brand.

America has entered their biennial race to the bottom where the the party that has most successfully presented their contagion of corruption will be awarded a seat at the head of the empire.

I hate election years. Everyday I find I loose more and more hope in humanity. The negativity gets to me. I can’t stand how predictable it all is. As a minister this is particularly difficult. I see relationships that have been growing in the community that I serve in severed overnight by political pettiness. I see the initiatives that were started to serve the community shut down by those who fear that helping someone is somehow a political statement. I see pastors stop teaching about the ethical demands of serving a Holy God for fear that they will somehow get grouped in with “those people”. Its in election years that I need Wendell Berry the most.

Something Naturally Different 

Wendell Berry reminds me that there is a life outside of strictly defined political lines. He maintains a commitment to a different set of criteria than what I am fed day in and day out through news outlets and ad campaigns. Wendell Berry preaches a message that is so different that he can’t be claimed by the forces of the political machine. He speaks too much truth to be condemned and yet remains far to dangerous to be claimed by either side. Wendell Berry offers a narrative that isn’t framed by issues of conservative vs liberal. He offers a narrative framed by community and location. In a world that seeks to solve the problems of society in broad strokes Wendell Berry insists on making small jots and tittles that he makes on each of his handwritten manuscripts that have managed to infect my life, my ministry, my convictions, and even my capacity to hope again.

For those who don’t know, Wendell Berry is a farmer who lives in Port Royal, Kentucky. He has dedicated his life to living in and loving in his community and in his land. He is like countless other farmers and other men and women that have dedicated their lives to their communities and their land. Wendell Berry also occasionally takes the time to write a little about what it means for him to be a man who lives in and loves in a community and a land. He tells the story in poetry. He tells the story in essays. He tells the story in fiction. He even tells the story in academic papers. Ever since I was introduced to Berry I have found myself occasionally picking up his poetry and essays and fiction, and I can honestly say that Wendell Berry has begun to change my life.

Wendell Berry doesn’t sit easily on any political spectrum. The way he talks about the Earth, you think he has got to be just about the most liberal person you’ve ever encountered. But then you start to listen to what he’s saying and its clear that he also has many conservative tendencies so intransigent that they might make William F. Buckley blush. Berry calls me to hope in people rather than politics. He teaches me to be devoted to where I am, even if it doesn’t seem to be a very important place. He convicts me of my tendency to look out for grand solutions to life’s problems, and teaches me to care for the little things around me with a grand love. When I feel overwhelmed by the divisiveness I find its nice to take a dip in a one of his short stories. When I start to loose sight of the beauty of humanity, nothing brings it back like one of Wendell Berry’s novels. When a begin to feel the Earth is lost, I pick up a poem and let Wendell use his wordsmithery to bring beauty back to the simple surroundings I have forgotten to notice. When I have lost hope for the future of public discourse, I make a date with one of Berry’s essays.

In everything that he writes Berry sounds different, but its a natural kind of different. Its the kind of different that makes you think that you should have thought of it yourself. Its not a kind of different that seeks to create something new and better, but the kind of different that reminds you that sometimes there is value in what we cast away as dull and old. Its the kind of different I need.

A Pastor to the Pastor 
Far too often I am as guilty as the politicians of seeking to convert people to my team through contrivances of rhetoric. I am often leading the bandwagon that is carrying off the old to make way for the new. I have found myself, too often, un-rooted in my community, knowing that I am only here for a little while. This is not a healthy way for anyone to live, especially not a pastor.
The word pastor comes from the Latin word pastorem, meaning “shepherd.” It came from a time where people needed a guard over their souls. A pastor was called to watch over those people who had been entrusted to them and offer them means of grace in the midst of a turbulent world. We still need people like that, but don’t often get them.

In the United States, the office of the ministry took on a different function. As feuding christian sects made their way across the wild American frontier, the pastor was replaced by the revival leader, the preacher and the evangelists. The church became driven by great preachers, with great words, spoken to great multitudes. They brought many people in but, far to often, they didn’t know how to care for them after they were converted.

As a result of revivalism, too often, churches in this country appear more like battle fields than hospitals. Pastors are trained to operate within the rhetorical realm of antagonism rather than the discernment of a guide. Leaders are in desperate need of men and women who can implant them in places where life can be sustained rather than extracted and burned over. Churches are in desperate need of true pastors and pastors are in desperate need of true pastures.

Wendell Berry leads me to green pastures. He is a shepherd to my soul. When I feel the pressure of the world that seeks to shape my life into something big, loud and ugly, Wendel takes me down to the streams of quiet water. He shepherds me so I can shepherd others. Wendell Berry doesn’t offer a system that will solve the problems of the world or the Church. What he offers is a space away from the systems that try to save through systems and invites you to look at the community you are in and open your heart to the salvation that is already at work there.

As a Christian, I believe that God has already done the great thing that the world needs in order to be saved; I believe in the incarnation. The kingdom that I now seek to serve was not established by negative campaigning, political venues, polling, or even a vote. It was established by a man who loved people with all he had, even his own life, and in that giving God was seen most perfectly. Wendell Berry recognises that we all can show a little bit of God’s love too wherever we are and through his eyes I see examples of what I’d love to be.

“But now, in summer dusk, a man Whose hair and beard curl like spring ferns Sits under the yard trees, at rest, His smallest daughter on his lap. This is because he rose at dawn, Cared for his own, helped his neighbors, Worked much, spent little, kept his peace” -Wendell Berry. A Timbered Choir: the Sabbath poems 1979-1997. (New York: Counterpoint, 1992), 191.

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