‘The Impeded Stream’

When it is cold out – particularly on a morning where laziness is not just OK but expected – I often wake up and am unable to understand where I begin and my bed ends. In the moment when the mind stirs from slumber there is a certain comfort that envelops and inundates to the point that movement of the smallest degree becomes the utmost of adversaries. The ephemeral – yet desirably eternal – feeling of lying half-awake under the covers on a chilly morning, basking in the warmth of the moment, and hoping to never move a muscle, is the only way I know to describe my relationship to the writings of Wendell Berry.

Habitually when I am reading Berry’s words I wonder if the 84-year-old Kentuckian has been inside of my mind and put poetic language to my deepest convictions or instead if I have been inside of his so much that I cannot begin to separate the way I think, identify, and act without using his very language.

The comfort and contentment sprawled in bed on a chilly morning is truly the only way I find that I am able to communicate what certain pieces of art or their creators mean to me. The peace and interconnectedness between the spiritual and the physical that art can bring is so cavernous that words, images, or musical notes seem to lose all meaning and context and instead turn into an energy beaming from the soul.

Wendell Berry, and especially his writings on the necessity of a certain healthy criticalness and skepticism, has been the warm blanket that swathes me as I wake and pray to God.

As a boy I was always inquisitive – some would say to a fault. I wanted to know about the presidents, so I memorized them in order in first grade and recited it whenever mom and dad wanted to show me off. I loved Atlanta Braves baseball, so I watched them every night and threw a ball against the garage wall every day until someone corralled me in. I went to church every Wednesday and Sunday, so I read my Bible, prayed, and most importantly, wanted to know more.

For me, part of wanting to learn was asking questions. If I got to ask what John Quincy Adams did as president or question whether or not Bobby Cox should go to the bullpen in the eighth inning, I surely was going to wonder about things like heaven, hell, and everything in between.

It wouldn’t be much later that I would stumble across a poem – Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front – that would become the chorus of my intellectual (and thus theological) life. Nestled amongst a couple dozen get-off-my-lawn type poems in one of Berry’s many books of poetry was a page of writing that would not just change my life because of its words, but more importantly push me headfirst into a love for Berry’s writings. In this poem I read lines that made me feel alive intellectually like never before:

Every day do something that won’t compute…Praise ignorance. For what man has not encountered he has not destroyed…Ask the questions that have no answer…Be joyful though you have considered all of the facts…Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.[1]

After picking up my jaw, I read it over, then again, and once more for good measure. Then I flipped a few pages and found The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer and discovered lines such as

‘Dance,’ they told me, and I stood still, and while they stood quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced. ‘Pray,’ they said, and I laughed, covering myself in the earth’s brightnesses, and then stole off gray into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan. When they said, ‘I know my Redeemer liveth,’ I told them, ‘He’s dead.’ And when they told me ‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing every day in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’[2]

Berry spoke to the contrarian within me. The child who asked when he was told to listen. The teenager who poured over books that congregations would prefer be banned. The young man who dreamed of a church that questions instead of nods.

The central tenant of my epistemology, which in turn reflects the way I form my theology, is the idea that critical thought and questioning is not just a part of but central to the Christian life. Nothing is off the table. When the father of the child Jesus heals cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief,” I take that verse to heart.[3] Some days my unbelief may deal with scripture, other days it could be metaphysical, and often it may be scientific – but my refrain that I pray is always that of the man crying out to Jesus. I find that when I come through bouts of unbelief, my belief in turn becomes stronger. Learning, for me, has always been about not just discovering information but processing how I felt about it, if it was applicable, and asking questions.

I find that what many people see as the solid ground that Jesus talks about in Matthew 27 – built on words like fundamental, inerrant, infallible – is often a sandy foundation that floats away when the slightest push or prod comes. Rather the bedrock of a solid foundation is built upon not just a healthy skepticism, but perhaps more clearly as Berry says, a willingness to “praise ignorance” and “be joyful though you have considered all of the facts.”[4]

In an essay entitled Poetry and Marriage Berry eloquently says, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”[5] This became a mantra of sort for the way I formed my theology. When I read the Bible, look at the world, and dream of a better future, I ask myself: Am I becoming complacent in the way I think and am I allowing myself to be influenced by people that are different than me? Am I allowing my stream – my way of life – to become disrupted? Because it is in those moments that beauty (singing) comes.

Berry solved two major problems in my early intellectual life and these poems happen to highlight them most prominently. First, I wanted to think, but felt like I couldn’t. Or wasn’t allowed within Christianity. Berry says that thinking should never be spurned. In fact, it is the mind that is “baffled” that is truly thriving.

In the Mad Farmer Manifesto he praises the idea of “ask(ing) the questions that have no answers,” as well. This was the biggest problem for me once I adopted a mindset that was centered around critical thought. How can I ever find peace amidst a mind that is constantly criticizing, questioning, and burdened? How can I find a healthy balance between skepticism and incomprehension? Further, is there ever contentment there, or is it a life muddled with a sense of uncertainty?

Berry answers, “praise ignorance” and to “give your approval to all you cannot understand.”[6] He backs up his idea that “the impeded stream is the one that sings” by also noting that there is a type of ignorance that should be praised – it’s not born from a failure to think, but a willingness to let go at times. Further, Berry argues that it is in the moment when we “no longer know which way to go, [then] we have begun our real journey.”[7]

As I made my way through the scores of Berry’s writings what stuck out to me more than any of his breathtaking fiction or thought-provoking poetry was a tiny book both in size and length. The book – Blessed Are the Peacemakers – was what initially consoled me after the depressing response by many Americans to the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. I wondered to myself how anyone could call themselves a Christian and not stand up for change? It was the first time in my life that I can remember wanting to draw a line between myself and “the other” within Christianity. On the first page of Blessed are the Peacemakers Berry writes,

Especially among Christians in positions of wealth and power, the idea of reading the Gospels and keeping Jesus’ commandments as stated therein has been replaced by a curious process of logic. According to this process, people first declare themselves to be followers of Christ, and then they assume that whatever they say or do merits the adjective ‘Christian.’[8]

But instead of Berry continuing his essay by bashing people who adhere to this process, he turns to the text. He goes on to list every place in the Gospels that Jesus speaks about strife, compassion, peacemaking, and forgiveness. He does not add any commentary. He just lists them. Berry allows the reader to look at the words and decide on their own what Jesus is advocating for. Berry calls for a renewed emphasis on re-reading the words of Jesus. He asks for the reader to think about how the words of Jesus affect the way we live. He is not afraid to look at the world around him and wonder if it couldn’t be a little better.

After going through the list of verses, Berry tackles what he calls “the burden of the gospel.” For every verse that makes perfect sense, there are also those that “sometimes raise the hardest of personal questions, sometimes bewildering, sometimes contradictory, sometimes apparently outrageous in their demands. This is the confession of an unconfident reader.”[9] And he ends his beautiful book by asking a question instead of answering it: “It is a question that those humans who want to answer will be living and working with for a long time. Meanwhile, may Heaven guard us from those who think they already have the answers.”[10]

It is for these reasons exactly – asking questions, being content in not knowing the answer, and shunning those who say they know it all – that Berry most readily affected my theology.

The best type of art, in my opinion, is that which reminds us of the fragility of life and inspires us to live more passionately in its stead. In Berry’s writings I find myself constantly broken yet immediately uplifted. I am reminded of my smallness, my incompleteness, and my inability to understand God’s ways. And then told that I am not alone. In Berry’s words I find pain and peace, ignorance and clarity, and doubt and trust. I find struggles and praises, sorrows and worship, and fear and hope.

[1] Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 18-19.

[2] Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 7-8.

[3] Mark 9:24, (NRSV).

[4] Ibid, 19.

[5] Wendell Berry, Standing By Words: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2011), 97.

[6] Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 7-8.

[7] Ibid, 93.

[8] Wendell Berry, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Christs’ Teachings of Love, Compassion, and Forgiveness (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009), 3.

[9] Ibid, 53.

[10] Ibid, 68; The question Berry asks is, “How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and in all His creatures?”

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dwelt among us

when will we wake up

to

the lord

in the garden

who sweats and prays for strength

 

when will we wake up

to

the son

in the wilderness

who sees past the material

 

when will we wake up

to

the baby

under the stars

who cries and screams

 

when will we wake up

to

the Christ

on the couch

who praises the anointer

 

when will we wake up

to

the logos

on the mount

who blesses the peacemakers

 

when will we wake up

to

the healer

at a pool, in a home, on the road

who corrects our blindness

 

when will we wake up

to

the king

at the table

who breaks the bread

 

when will we wake up

to

the mother father

on a knee

who calls for the children

 

when will we wake up

to

the man

in the river

who is blessed by the dove

 

when will we wake up

to

the shepherd

in the field

who never abandons her flock

Famous Flower of Manhattan

One of my favorite Avett songs deals with the natural tendency to want to hold on tightly to something meaningful and beautiful and stow it away for onseself. Scott Avett writes about finding a flower in the middle of New York City and wanting to take it home with him. To tear it from the bricks that it lay in and save it from city strife. Instead he leaves it there, realizes his selfish desire to uproot it, sees it flourish from afar, and notes how the flower is much prettier than here with me. 

It is a lovely tune with a great banjo part and it feels more like a story than a song most times that I listen to it. He gives another example about how people want to put bluebirds in cages, but then the world can’t hear them sing. I have always loved Famous Flower of Manhattan because the story Scott is telling is my own in many ways.

While Scott finds something he holds dear and wants to keep it for himself, so too am I notorious for finding something I love deeply whether it be a band or a movie or a place and become so passionate about it that I don’t want to share it with anyone else.

Sometimes I can’t help myself and I eventually force Place Beyond the Pines or Al’s Burger Shack onto everyone I come across, but a lot of deeper, more meaningful things than a movie or a good burger I struggle with presenting and want to pluck up, like Scott’s flower, and keep. So, when the time presents itself to speak on behalf of this thing that is so dear to me, I flail. I balk. I hesitate.

This happened recently to me when I stumbled across Bob Crawford at a local church and had the hardest time expressing to him what he meant to me. How is it possible to explain the peace Don Sutton’s voice calling an Atlanta Braves game on the radio brings to me? Or the deep resonation that Wendell Berry’s The Mad Farmer Liberation Front brings to my soul? David Foster Wallace touches on this when he writes, “How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.”

This period of my life has really engulfed me into these types of feelings. I am graduating from UNC, which is home, and my family is moving out of the house I grew up in, which is home.

There is so much there to talk about. The friendships I have made, the moments I will forever remember, the walks home from campus, the wonderful teachers, the brilliant classes, the sprints to Franklin Street, how? How? How is it remotely possible to attempt to eloquently explain what these four years have meant?

The backyard baseball, the sprinkler in the front yard, the meals in the kitchen, the laughs in the dining room, the songs in the den, the games in the computer room, the thousands of days spent with my family in that house, how? How is it remotely possible to attempt to eloquently explain what that house has meant for 19 years?

My first inkling is to keep these things to myself. To withhold emotion. To contain the sorrow. To forbid reminiscing. To pluck the famous flower. These thoughts are too meaningful, too important for me to attempt to elucidate what is bubbling beneath the surface.

But instead, as graduation comes and the move begins, I will do my best to let the flower grow. To appreciate the place UNC and 1414 Deborah Circle will always have in my heart. To allow those places to forever remind me the space they have had in my life over the years, for good and bad. To yearn for the good ol’ days and fight for what is ahead. For we must practice resurrection.

 

 

 

 

-54-

the sign of a doer rests not in the mind

nor bound shelves or desirable degrees

social provocation or party destinations

checks cut or figured salaries

worn crucifixes or alter calls

the sign of a doer rests on the feet

grass stained and torn

blistered and cracked

dirty from toil

cut from strife

tired from pursuit

laced from posture

doers rest on bended knees

while others nod and clap

the weight of anticipation forces

itself on the silt-filled feet of doers

who have done what needed done

for kingdom come.

— 27 —

pray

without ceasing

they said

but

there is

life to live

people to love

places to go

books to read

music to hear

flowers to smell

rivers to see

mountains to climb

the well

runs

dry

there

in

the days

with no numbers

amongst

the morning breaths

and enemies

the city fights

and bad harmonies

the unmade beds

and crying babies

the poisoned streams

and wet tent memories

pray

without

ceasing

May It Last

I write about the same things because I struggle with the same things. One of those lately has been the idea of creating and living and the purpose behind it. The concept that what we do and what we make should be because it’s what we want and not because it’s what’s expected or ingrained in us from upbringing.

There’s no value in my Christian faith, for instance, being my faith if I haven’t thought critically about it and pushed myself and asked questions and had concerns and thought deeply. The intent behind it shouldn’t be that my mom and dad made me go to church every Sunday and Wednesday, rather it should be from my own mind and my own heart and my own soul that I want to walk with Jesus and act accordingly.

But outside of religion, this is something that I wonder about and find myself struggling with constantly.

I love things like granddad hats and talking about my weird theology and wearing sandals with pants and my love for Wendell Berry certainly not because it’s cool or “in” or what will make people like me, but because it is something that I love and find joy in so much that I want to share it. Almost like I would not be me, without these things. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I find in our culture that it’s much more popular to be “in” and wear the right clothes and say the right things OR be “out” and do the opposite, leaving no room for this middle ground of just…feeling….and doing. Creating, because, it’s a weight on you that you can’t shake. Not because you want the likes on Instagram or claps after your soliloquy. But because without my work, my thoughts, my feelings, who am I? Compared to this idea of being a mosaic of what the world wants me to look and act like.

I love the Avett Brothers more than just about anything in this world. They mean more to me than I’m able to put into words, and that may sound foolish and hyperbolic, but it’s true.

For the past five summers I’ve been away from home for a significant amount of time and their melodies and lines have always been within me carrying me through the difficult days. Seth and Scott’s songwriting connects with me on a level that only scripture can surpass. I could write a book on this, but I’ll just stop there for the sake of brevity. Last night when I went to see the documentary that Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio directed, on the history of the Brothers and their recent album, I wasn’t expecting any insight on my whole purpose and creation fascination/dilemma.

But as the film winded down so beautifully it climaxed with a scene of the band recording their song “No Hard Feelings.” The tune, written by Seth Avett, is one of the most beautiful, introspective songs they have ever released, and and after the song is over, tears well up in Seth’s eyes. The folks around him applaud, hug him, and tell him ‘good job.’ But his brother Scott sits quietly, with a haze of bewilderment over him.

Outside the studio Scott explains what’s bugging him so much to Seth. It’s that Seth cracked open his heart, dug deep into his soul, and wrote something that mattered to him. It was a product of divorce, loneliness, confusion, and pain, and this wonderful diamond emerged from the dirt. And as Seth cries, finishing the song, singing “I have no enemies,” he is welcomed with applause and hugs. Scott’s not upset about the hugs and kisses, but upset with the fact that we have become so jaded and sterile to our thoughts and feelings on the outside that when we do let others in, they applaud. They say ‘bravo’ and pat us on the back for being real. Why isn’t it like that in the first place? Why don’t people understand that every song, every line that we write is because it is weighing on us. Not to sell records or pay the bills. This is what we have to do. If we weren’t doing this, we would be finding a way to do it.

It struck me. Sometimes, especially in college, you get so deep in the homework and reading that you forget why you’re doing it. You forget that it’s for more than a grade and there’s a deeper purpose behind it. It’s the same with post-college life, too, I know. The 9-5 and the commute and the kids and the chores pile up and it’s probably really easy to forget about who you are and what is weighing on you so hard that you just can’t shake it. It’s easy to begin to identify yourself with what the world says about you — your roles, your relationships, your collections — instead of your heart and passions. It would be a different world, sure enough, if instead of asking people about their hobbies we asked them about what makes them lie awake at night in awe and wonder or pain and sorrow.

Coincidentally, the best advice I have heard on how to live this out comes from the Avett’s themselves: Decide what to be and go be it.

And may it last.

Loving Our Global Brother and Sister

An excerpt from “As Yourself” Chapter II.

Lately I’ve been struggling with the competition between my desires to unplug and focus on the world around me with my desire to completely focus in to help fight the injustice and issues plaguing our society.

There’s part of me that hates getting constant notifications of what is wrong in the world. Some days it feels like that’s all I see when I scroll through my phone. Four dead in an attack, health care bill fails, Trump said something crazy. That can get really depressing, and sometimes I find myself in this daze of gloom because I can’t believe what’s happening around me. I feel so saturated by negativity that it’s hard to remain uplifting to those near me. It makes me want to throw my phone in a lake and lay in the grass. Just so I can forget about it all for a moment.

But then there’s the other side of me that wants to share every New Yorker article I read. I wake up in the morning reading the bad news but instead feel this inward pull to go and fix it. I see those notifications and I wonder what my role is in helping. I call it my Don Quixote complex — my mission to civilize. It’s when I feel like I can change the world, I can fix the system, I can affect the way others think and act.

I’ve felt this battle lately because of politics, but I’ve felt it for even longer when it comes to our role as neighbors to those who live thousands of miles away. It’s really easy for me to get caught up in what’s going on locally and even nationally and completely forget about those suffering elsewhere. And it’s even easier to do this in the day and age of Trump. There are so many things to get angry about that I use up all my anger on things around me and forget about the things plaguing the world as a whole.

It’s kind of the reverse of what I was talking about earlier. I can often get in this mindset of an almost hyper-local identity where I’m so focused on what’s happening around me that I forget there is more to this world than the ground I’m standing on.  

My favorite writer is Wendell Berry. He writes fiction, poetry, and essays, and is as an agrarian as much as he is a writer. Berry himself is very reserved and old-fashioned. He refuses to be videod and still uses a typewriter. When he was young Berry spent time in some of the world’s biggest cities from New York to Paris to Rome, but eventually resigned from his day-job and made home on a 125-acre farm in Henry County, Kentucky. He’s a critic of the industrialization in agriculture because it removes, in many ways, the human connection to the land. Later on when we talk about the earth as a neighbor, we will talk about Berry at a great extent. But what interests me about Berry in this context, his his assertion that he belongs to his place as much as he belongs to himself…