Last year when the pandemic was just beginning, mine and Haley’s baby cat, Al, died. He was the first creature that I was solely responsible for and he died sick and helpless in my arms. Meanwhile, friends and strangers alike began to die all across the world to an invisible disease that was ravaging our lives. We, collectively, had to face grief head on.
During a spike in the pandemic and a few weeks after Al died, I realized that I was experiencing not just a profound sadness but also a deep-seated fear. Fear of what was happening in the world, but more personally, a fear of love and a fear of agency. I had opened myself up to love, to commitment, to responsibility, and had lost a precious thing without any sense of fairness. Similarly, people all across the country were experiencing this same feeling collectively, as loved ones were taken too early from this earthly life by a virus. For me, this fear was different than a typical broken-heartedness after a break-up or lamenting a broken friendship. Instead, it was this constant nagging of how it felt impossible to open myself up to love when it would inevitably end in grief, in fear, in death.
I’m in a class this semester on the Gospel of Luke. We were told by our professor to read Luke every day and to let its themes, structure, and theology seep into us. One thing that I’ve noticed during my close reading is the connection between the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims and physical and emotional healing. When Jesus calls the twelve together in Luke 9, he tells them to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” and Luke recounts that the disciples departed, “bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.” Later, when Luke sends out 70 others, Jesus tells the appointed to “cure the sick who are there and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” Even when John the Baptist sends his disciples to see what Jesus is all about, Jesus responds by saying to go and tell John not what Jesus was teaching but that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleaned, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” There is, it seems, a deep, intrinsic connection between this kingdom that Jesus can’t quit talking about and healing and curing.
I keep coming back to this connection when I think about the pain we have experienced as a people, collectively, and in our bones, individually. Our pain comes from a fear that to love in this world means to be broken and in need of healing, eventually. And we’re fearful we will never receive that wholeness.
The good news is that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of healing, of restoration, of oneness. Not brokenness, instability, and division. The story of Jesus of Nazareth does not end with death on a Roman cross. It does not end in systemic injustice winning. It does not end on Good Friday.
It “ends” on Sunday morning. It ends in healing. Healing of relationships, of creation, of us. An invitation to love fully because death does not have the final word.
When despair grows in me, when the act of opening oneself up to love seems like too daunting of a task and an act to be dreaded, I cling to the promise of healing. To the promise that the Kingdom of God that is both already and not yet, inbreaking and expected, in our midst and on the horizon, is a kingdom where tears will be wiped away as the God makes all things new.
So we must sit with Good Friday. We must face our pain and our brokenness. We must lament, cry out, and wrestle in the dark night of the soul. We must never skip Friday and Saturday and go straight to Sunday. But we also must never let our fear and our grief become ultimate. We must yearn for the resurrected Christ and his promise of healing that awaits us Sunday at sunrise.
It is almost the time of year when people begin to fish out an old notebook to jot down a bulleted list of New Year’s resolutions. I’m a sucker for it, too, so do not mistake this as a critique. There is something about a blank canvas that seems so appealing, is there not? All of our bad habits — we can throw them out! All of the things we never have time for — let’s find some minutes for them! All of our dreams — let’s chase them!
I took a class on the infancy narratives this semester and thus have spent a great deal of time studying the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke over the past few months. It wasn’t until after my final assignment was due that I flipped the page in my Bible to Luke 4 where Jesus is now grown up. It’s one of my favorite passages, and I couldn’t help but think how it can serve as a measuring stick for our 2020 and beyond goals as Christians.
In this passage, Jesus stands up in the Synagogue, picks up the reading for the day — Isaiah 61 — and reads:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He rolls it up, sits back down, feels all of the eyes on him, and proclaims — “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Promptly, he is thrown out of the synagogue and the people attempt to throw him off the cliff.
The first real message that Jesus delivers in the Gospel of Luke explains that Jesus came to
bring good news to the poor
proclaim release to the captives
recover sight to the blind
let the oppressed go free
proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
When we make our New Year’s resolutions as individuals and churches, what if we compared them to this list?
Are our actions bringing good news to the poor or spreading the gap of inequality?
Are we proclaiming freedom or confinement to the captives? Are we putting people in cages or are we breaking chains?
Are we agents of healing in our places or are we powers that bring devastating pain?
Are we oppressing others? Are we indifferent to oppression? Or are we working to fight against those who wield power and harm others? Are we holding swords or plowshares in our hands?
When we think about what our goals are for this new year, I hope we take a sobering look at the words of Jesus. Instead of looking to find a comforting word, we ought to see a lifestyle that pushes and challenges our deeply seated comforts and convictions.
In anticipation of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s return to the Koka Booth Amphitheater in late June, here is my review from last fall’s set, with an added emphasis on Isbell and practical theology.
Switching back-and-forth between his favorite Telecaster and Gibson guitars on a buggy Friday evening in Cary, North Carolina, Jason Isbell and his 400 Unit band delivered a performance nothing short of revelatory. In-between the 100 decibel alluring guitar licks and Isbell’s Muscle Shoals, Alabama southern drawl blaring over the speakers, rapturous applause was all that could be heard from the Koka Booth Amphitheater crowd.
Isbell and the 400
Unit Band took the stage after the Milk Carton Kids’ opened with a quiet,
acoustic 45-minute set. Isbell and the 400 Unit, often labeled as members of
the Americana genre, are a five-piece band which leans on the slide guitar of
Sadler Vaden. Smoke machines and overbearing light shows may be typical of the
21st century rock concerts, but Isbell’s 400 Unit does not follow
suit. The only decoration on the stage is the band’s logo – an anchor and
sparrow, in part inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” – in stain
glass form on the backdrop. The typical rock-and-roll conventions may be
absent, but the deafening sound is still there. Isbell, as he noted throughout
the concert, loves to rock.
Even the slow ballads that Isbell and the 400 Unit performed – like “Cover Me Up” and “Flagship” – become something of a spectacle in concert. Isbell’s lyrics are littered with references that have never been more personal until his voice ripped through the amphitheater. He sung about the desire for unending love in “If We Were Vampires,” of leaving home in “Speed Trap Town,” and of the fragility of life in “Elephant.” When Isbell sings about county fairs, high school football games, and endless highways he imagines the images are as clear in your mind as they are in his. His voice – which elicits the same sensation one gets when watching a purplish sunset or eating cookies fresh out of the oven – may be what the fans come for, but it is the lyrics that have the ability to move anyone to tears. Much like his lyrics, Isbell’s voice is unassuming and honest. It is practical and piercing. It is his vehicle for telling stories.
The divine was mentioned in passing throughout the concert. Isbell sings in “24 Frames”, “You thought God was an architect, now you know, he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow. And everything you built was all for show and goes up in flames.” Later, during “Something More Than Free” Isbell sings the refrain, “Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church, but I thank God for the work.” And in his latest tune “Maybe It’s Time” – performed by Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born” – Isbell writes, “Nobody speaks to God these days. I’d like to think he’s looking down, laughing at our ways.” Passingly throughout the rest of his catalogue Isbell touches on his thoughts about God, however a constant theme does not occur.
Isbell does have a
practical theology, though, which focuses on loving others as yourself and
seeing potential in the world. After finishing “If We Were Vampires” on Friday
evening – an award winning, gripping, tear-jerking love song – Isbell stripped
his guitar, stepped to the microphone, and spoke, “Y’all take care of each
other, you hear? Be good to one another.” Isbell preaches loving others – and
his sermons are his songs.
This was evident when halfway through the concert Isbell and the band played “White Man’s World” which challenges the racial and gender inequalities built into the American psyche. Isbell sings, “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war. Your creature comforts aren’t the only thing worth fighting for. If you’re still breathing it’s not too late. We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.” “White Man’s World” elicited one of the strongest reactions from the crowd all night – a standing ovation from most.
The band followed it up with “Relatively Easy” off of Isbell’s solo record Southeastern. It seems the song is about people living a much more comfortable life than many around the world and not understanding their privilege. The chorus repeats, “Still compared to those a stone’s throw away from you, our lives have been relatively easy.” Isbell also performed “Cumberland Gap” which touches on the effect of strip mining and “Dress Blues” which challenges the purpose of war.
Isbell and his 400
Unit are extremely conscious of the world around them and the way the songs can
enforce change. In an interview with NPR last year Isbell noted, “If we’re not
talking about the things that we believe, then we’re not really using our voice
to their full potential, and we’re not really making art.”
When Isbell was asked what influence he would like to have as a musician, he
said he wants people to “see(ing) that something is possible” and that
something is different for everyone.
Many of the tunes
Isbell and the 400 Unit played were peppered with a longing for change, and a
wistful yearn for comfort in a world of pain. These lyrics about longing and
searching for this time when what we yearn for becomes possible – perhaps a
world full of justice and mercy and truth and love – may be what draws
listeners the most. Isbell taps into the part of humanity that is always hoping
and searching. That piece inside of every human that recognizes fallenness and
dreams of change. The hope for Christians – the coming kingdom – is never
specifically mentioned by Isbell. He never sings of “thy kingdom come” or the
time when “every knee will bow,” but his lyrics express the longing that
everyone faces and the brokenness that everyone feels all too well. And that is
a sermon that everyone needs to hear.
Convenience is king. It may not be initially apparent, but that is because the art of convenience – being able to get what you want, when you want it, and as quickly as possible – has become so deeply embedded into the American psyche that it is hardly noticeable. With the rise of technology, the average American can now get their groceries and household necessities without ever stepping foot into a grocery store, much less coming within a thousand miles of where the food was physically grown. A few clicks, taps, and of course a Credit Card number, and “fresh” fruits and vegetables are brought out to your car at the local grocer or even delivered to your doorstop next to the morning paper. It’s in with the new – convenience, ease, and expediency – and out with the old – namely, any type of connectivity with the land. With this loss of connectivity to the land has gone any semblance of a genuine food culture. In turn, we have lost what Jennifer Ayers calls the process of “thoughtful eating.” Ayers defines thoughtful eating as the understanding that there is “no human fellowship without a table, no table without a kitchen, no kitchen without a garden, no garden without a viable ecosystem, no ecosystems without the forces productive of life, and no life without its sources to God” (Ayers, p. 59). Essentially, thoughtful eating is understanding that food does not just drop onto your plate out of thin air and instead arises from a complex web of occurrences from planting to transportation and many steps in-between (Ayers takes it all the way back to God). In this essay I will argue that the lack of connectivity to the land has directly led to a loss of thoughtful eating. First, I will examine Americans continued distancing from the land and how it has in turn created a lack of thoughtful eating, then move to the role education has played in creating this phenomenon, and conclude with theological emphases that can help reinvigorate a culture of thoughtful eating.
Americans are more distanced from their food than ever before both figuratively and literally. This, I argue, is the fundamental reason why thoughtful eating has gone to the wayside. In her chapter, “Called Home” in Animals, Vegetables, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver lays out the hard facts: in the modern U.S. city “virtually every unit of food consumed there moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away,” the average food item on a grocery shelf “has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacation,” and the water is “pumped from a non-renewable source – a fossil aquifer that is dropping so fast, sometimes the ground crumbles” (Kingsolver, pp. 3-5). Two of the most basic ingredients of sustaining human life – food and water – are increasingly being imported from afar rather than being grown or obtained locally. And although this process is often labeled as convenient, it cannot be deemed healthy for humans, animals, or the environment. Food insecurity and food deserts are rampant, workers of the land are treated poorly in their labor conditions and in their pay, the earth is given no time to rest, and animals are treated with no dignity. Michael Northcutt sums it up best when he says that this distancing from the land along with the increase of the global and industrial food economy has had direct effects on the way people eat and think about how they eat (Northcutt, p. 214).
With Northcutt’s statement in mind, I
will now turn to how this distancing from the land has changed the way
Americans eat. Food, which at its best can “provide powerful pathways for
sharing and sustaining beliefs, and for passing on and retelling memories,
narratives, and traditions” has been individualized to a great degree
(Northcutt, pp. 214-215). A once communal, deeply involved act of growing,
preparing, and eating has now been relegated to “pre-prepared and pre-packaged
food from a factory or fast food outlet,” consumed often times alone
(Northcutt, p. 223). Northcutt argues that this individualized eating is
indicative of the growing global, industrial food economy. The process of
making food has become delegated to professionals and more and more people have
detached the process of making food from their daily routines. The question
becomes apparent: how can someone develop a genuine love for food, its origins,
and its effects on the land and animals, when they have no attachment to it
whatsoever? Further, if thoughtful eating is the process of understanding where
food comes from – starting with the table and going all the way back to God –
how is it possible to retain this in a day-and-age dominated by pre-packaged,
ready-made, fast food? The lack of connectivity to the land has created a food
culture that does not think about the consequences of eating and instead
Before any answers, we must quickly turn to the ways that education has enhanced this issue. Education, both secular and theological, is undoubtedly partially to blame for this problem. Education has moved from the realm of practicality to the realm of theory in most modern universities, in turn emphasizing the “presumption that education is a key to moving away from manual labor, and dirt” (Kingsolver, p. 9). Kingsolver notes that as more Americans walked away from the land (a product of the educational systems), our understanding of food production went with it (Kingsolver, p. 12). When defining the land and the jobs which are associated with it as lower and less important, food culture (in particular what Ayers calls “thoughtful eating”) disappears as well. This is because food culture arises “out of a place, a climate, a history, a temperament, a collective sense of belonging” and cannot be sold to people (Kingsolver, 17). If a love for the land dies, so too, will a desire to understand the processes in which the land produces. Theologically, there has been a lack of emphasis of humans as members of creation and on the Eucharist meal in many traditions (Ayers, pp. 71-72). Instead of membership, we have settled for dominion. Instead of meaningful Eucharist meals, we have turned to a superficial, ambiguous understanding of Eucharist as a token event done once in a while during Sunday services. As we turn to what ought to be happening, I argue that it must start with understanding humanity as a member in creation and Eucharist as “faithful feasting” (Northcutt, p. 266).
Moving to the normative task, I argue that a reinvigoration of humans as members of creation is the one way to regain thoughtful eating. Ayers and Wendell Berry are both extremely important in developing this concept of membership. Ayers emphasizes that through Christ God has gifted us with a “radical gift of membership” that gives humans the “sacred obligation to continually seek, tend, and nurture the bonds of connectedness in God’s whole creation (Ayers, p. 71). Berry states that in order to live “we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation,” and when we do so with care, “it is a sacrament” (Ayers, pp. 69-70). On the other hand, when done out of ignorance and greed, “it is a desecration” (Ayers, 69-70). To build off Ayers and Berry, if humanity sees itself as members of creation, the land and animals become brothers and sisters to us. The desire to take better care of the environment, to fight for animals’ rights, and to re-connect with the processes of food making will be invigorated. When properly oriented as a member (and not dominator) of creation, thoughtful eating becomes second nature (or perhaps it was natural all along).
Another way that theological education can help create thoughtful eating is through the sacrament of Eucharist. Although every scholar that I read on this topic approaches food culture in different ways, they each presented a renewed understanding of Eucharist as part of the solution. Fred Edie suggests that Eucharist is a key component in developing an ecological catechesis for Christians. Edie develops the idea of Eucharist as a “regular and discernibly robust ritual meal shared in community” but additionally a way to explore a “care for the land, sustainable agriculture, just practices of food distribution, and limited economies of sufficiency (Edie, pp. 10-11). Similarly, Northcutt suggests that there is “an urgent need to recover the full agrarian and social significance of Eucharist in Christian worship” (Northcutt, 224). Northcutt believes that if Christians come to understand Eucharist as a truly holy meal of “faithful feasting” then all meals will become holy. If so, “all meals should be accompanied by prayerful recognition of the gifts of creation,” which, I argue, Ayers would understand as thoughtful eating (Northcutt, 266).
Christians should take seriously these recommendations for a multitude of reasons, but perhaps none more poignant than out of an understanding of the sovereignty of God. If Christians take seriously God as creator of the Heavens and the Earth and Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor (who can be seen as both the ground being tilled and the tiller), the desire to eat thoughtfully and live in membership with creation is a natural extension of those principles. As Edie points out, Christians have not done very well at this historically – specifically the ‘Christianized West’ which has “proven to be the most rapacious and least earth-friendly on the planet” (Edie, p. 1). Living sustainably does not mean living conveniently. Living sustainably does not mean living short-sightedly. Living sustainably means being thoughtful, humble, and aware of our effects on the world, and I argue that regaining a food culture of thoughtful eating is a great place to start. Theologically, through a better understanding of humans as members of creation and the Eucharist as a robust, communal, and fundamentally ecological meal, there will be a natural growing into a re-connection with the land and a more productive way of eating thoughtfully.
Sources (and for further reading)
Ayers, “Making Room at the Table” in Good Food
“Ecological Catechesis for Holy Things” in Call
“Called Home” in Animal, Vegetable,
“Faithful Feasting” in A Moral Climate:
The Ethics of Global Warming
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.
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.’
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. 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.’
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.” 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.”
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.
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.
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…
The most amazing part of the scene on Franklin Street last night wasn’t any fire or tree-climbing hooligan. It wasn’t a camera or a stolen street sign. Nor the sweat dripping from the 55,00 feral bodies littering the streets.
Instead it was the thousands of stories playing out in front of my teary eyes.
There were sons on dad’s necks, with hands raised toward the sky in elation. There were couples kissing. There were sighs of relief. There were grandparents in jerseys. There were grown men brought to their knees. There were tears of joy — and tears for our beloved Marcus and Brice.
Each one, with a different story to tell.
Of course, all of them were elated, but to each of us it means something different. There were no two people on that crowded street that felt the same thing.
For many, it was about redemption and the difference a year makes. For others, it was about seeing that big grin on Theo’s face. For some, it was crying as Roy Williams cut down the nets.
For me, I will remember this team as a bunch of guys who were fun to be around. Sure, I will remember the pain I felt walking into the locker room after the loss last year, but now it will be filled in with the beauty of the confetti falling on their faces.
For Kennedy, Isaiah, and Nate, it was the storybook ending.
It wasn’t a flawless journey and maybe they would do things differently if they had it to do over again, but their journey ended at the pinnacle of their sport. Kennedy cleaned the glass, Isaiah turned it on when we needed him most, and Nate was a calm, steady hand in the backcourt.
For the rest of their days they will say they finished their careers in Chapel Hill as champions.
For Justin, Joel, and Theo, it was their team.
You can make the case that this class will go down as one of the most decorated ever, if they all choose to come back, especially. Justin, a record-breaker, an all-american, a quiet assassin. Joel, the hardest worker I know, a put-the-team-on-my-back type of player, a terror to defend. Theo, a class clown, an incredible passer, a heart and soul of the team.
For the rest of their days they will say they fell, fought back, and found glory.
For the youngsters, Luke, Tony, Seventh, and Brandon, it was their pleasure.
To assist the guys who had been here before, to hit daggers to save the season, to provide crucial minutes off the bench. They learned what it meant to be a Tar Heel. To fight and to rally and to redeem the very depths of a city.
For the rest of their days they will say they learned, executed, and performed when it mattered.
For Roy, it was his life.
It may sound extreme, but you could see it in his eyes. After the Georgia Tech loss to open ACC play. After the big time wins against Louisville and FSU in conference play. After the trials and tribulations of a season. This team, this chance at a title, this journey of redemption — this meant the world to him. To get this group of men, the most fun he’s ever had, on a ladder, in Phoenix, with a pair of scissors in hand.
For the rest of his days he will say he coached a team who believed in him.
Who knows how many people flooded to the streets after the final buzzer. Who knows what was really in the minds of the players and coaches on the floor. Who knows when we’ll be here again.
What I do know, though, is that we all have one hell of a story to tell for the rest of our days.
After my grandfather passed away, I started writing about him. I started to recall some of my finest memories of him — his smile and laugh, his working in the garden, his dinner table stories. It was my way of trying to suffocate the pain I was feeling. I would try to extinguish the midnight tears with the memory of him sitting at the head of the table doing math on a napkin at dinner.
My grandma has enjoyed me writing about him with one stipulation. She wanted me to write my memories and feelings about her before she was gone from this temporal world. I’m not sure that she wants the confirmation that she did a good job in raising me, because I tell her that quite often. But it’s certainly nice to hear people say nice things about you, isn’t it?
But for some reason I’ve had a really difficult time putting her into words. She means more to me than most anyone, yet I’ve had a strange inability to express exactly how she has impacted me. And that’s not a bad thing, in any light. Sometimes when people have such a profound impact on you it’s hard to pinpoint where to begin. I could tell you she is the most strong-willed woman I’ve ever met, and that would be true, and good. Or I could tell you that she is brutally honest and yet filled with an ocean of grace. And maybe I could tell you she is a rock of faith and more eager than anyone to be reunited with her Lord in Heaven.
I can also tell you I’m not ready for her to go.
OK, so, my favorite memory?
She picked me up twice a week to get allergy shots when I was a boy. There was always a Hershey Kiss awaiting me in the seat, and that was far from the best part of our trip. There was Tic-Tac-Toe in the waiting room, when she always let me win a few. And a trip to the drug store next door where she let me get a bottled Coke and PayDay bar.
She spoiled me rotten with her love.
Then after the car ride home, we would swing in the backyard, and she would make me a plate of eggs. As far as I’m concerned, no one has made a better egg on this earth. She has the grandmother’s sixth sense to know when I want some — at this point, I don’t even have to ask.
And I’ll never forget your face the first time I recited the 23rd Psalm to you. It was like you won the lottery.
Well, those are memories, and there are plenty of them, and certainly I could go on for quite awhile about what I remember.
But instead, grandma, I want to tell you how I will remember you. Because, today, you remember our times together, just like I do. So instead, maybe it’s best to tell you what has stuck with me the most over almost 21 years.
I treasure your love for the Braves. Even though you don’t like my favorite player, Chipper Jones, because he cheated on his wife and you don’t stand for that.
I learned from your love to read. I think you passed that straight to me. To me, you will always be the woman curled up in your recliner — warm pack on your shoulders — reading a novel.
I am inspired by your love to garden. I will always remember our sleeves rolled up canning fresh green beans.
I smile at the very whisper of your laugh. Infectious, growing, deep, and warm like a blanket.
I delight in the Lord because of your teachings. Not a day has gone by when we are together that you haven’t shown me how deep the Father’s love is for us.
I appreciate your beginnings. The ninth of ten children, the little girl, the humble start.
I cry at the thought of your pain. When granddaddy died, you were rock-solid, but aching underneath as your partner departed.
I feel empowered by your strength. How you never faltered. How you gripped my shoulders as we hugged. How you ended each meeting with an “I Love You” growing in pitch, with each word.
I find great joy in making you proud. I have gotten the chance to do some incredible things in incredible places over the past couple of years, and not once — I promise — when I walk out of a stadium or saw my name in some newspaper did I not think of you and granddaddy.
I am who I am today because of the way you have cared for me.
I will love you for the rest of my days. I will tell my children and their children and their children, if I’m lucky, how much my grandma loved them and how one day, we will all sit at the Lord’s Table together, hand-in-hand.
And I bet you there will be scrambled eggs waiting.
But until then, grandma, we have more memories to make.
A story, from the Gospel of John, for our New Year:
One of my favorite chapters in the Gospels is actually the last one of them all. John 21. For some reason the mystery and beauty of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples has always stuck out to me. What would he do now that he’s back? Would he slap Peter for being a coward? Would he flip over the tables in the Temple, again? Would he yell at Pilate?
Of course not. He would make a little fire on the beach and wait for his friends to return from fishing. Duh.
You probably know the story. When breakfast was over and Jesus and Peter were staring at their empty plates, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three times, in fact. A reminder of what his denial a few days before. And each time Peter said he loved him, and Jesus replied, OK then, “feed my sheep,” “feed my lambs,” and “tend my sheep.”
It’s beautiful. And to me, it’s a grand image to start the New Year with. The past, the denial, the death, it’s gone. It is forgotten and forgiven. Instead, Jesus gives a simple command: “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus says, hey, do my work. Do good work. Take care of yourself, but take care of your neighbor. He says feed my people. Clothe them. Tell them the Good News. You denied me, but that isn’t what is important. What’s important is the work that sits ahead of you to do.
What comes next in John 21 is often forgotten and overlooked. Heck, if I was preaching a sermon on this chapter, I, too, might try to forget this happens.
You see, the King of Kings came back to Peter and helped him catch fish and prepared a fire for him. Then, he redeemed him. He pulled him back into the fold. But the next thing Peter says is: “What about him?” pointing to the disciple John.
After one of the most beautiful moments in the history of humanity occurs, Peter can’t help but wonder about the guy sitting next to him. He wants to know what Jesus thinks about the other guys. Will they be forgiven? Will they die or will they be taken with you? What’s the deal?
Jesus looks back and says simply, “What is it to you? Follow me.”
How often we look around us to see how he/she is doing. We want to know what’s going on with everyone else’s grades and followers on Instagram and internships and you name it. We have to see how we stack up. And if Peter does it after an encounter with Jesus, you know we all do it.
But Jesus’ reply is the command I hope I can stick with and remember in the fresh start of 2017:
“What is it to you? Follow me.”
It’s the idea that the it in “what is it to you?” isn’t just the guy sitting next to you — it’s everything that keeps you from being with Him.
What is worrying about the future, what is worrying about who has been to Sunday School the most, what is worrying about being accepted, when you should simply trust and follow?