‘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.

 

 

 

 

— 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

Change in Direction

Some personal news that I felt may be worth sharing as I head into my senior year at UNC.

  • I am giving up my sportswriting responsibilities. Surely there will be moments in the next year where I may do a little bit of writing on the side for extra money or writing for a publication because of something pressing, but I’m going to be stepping down from any positions I hold. I have greatly enjoyed my time with both The Daily Tar Heel and Sports Illustrated Campus Rush, and am very grateful for the opportunities that I have been given with those outlets. However, it seems pretty clear to me that pursuing a career in sportswriting is something that I am no longer interested in, which means I should probably start focusing a little harder on the things I want to do. And with that…
  • I have dropped my journalism major to a minor. In all honesty, once you decided you are done with something, you really want to be done with it. I have already fulfilled my journalism minor and that will be it for me at Carroll Hall, it appears. I have met many close friends and mentors in the J School and am lucky to have spent three years there, but instead I will be spending my time…
  • I am going to write a thesis. So my last year at UNC is going to be one of a lot of reading, writing, and researching. I am writing a thesis with Dr. Bart Ehrman. You have probably heard of Dr. Ehrman before, either because  a Christian at UNC told you he was an evil agnostic teacher of the Bible or because he is a New York Times best-selling author and writer of over 30 books. I hope it’s the latter. Dr. Ehrman is in no way an evil agnostic teacher, and is in fact, a really great man who does incredible amounts for the community and is extremely thoughtful and caring toward students. He is going to teach me a lot. He has very graciously decided to be my thesis advisor even though he is extremely busy, and I will spend next year writing on Jesus’ treatment of women in the canonical gospels and its reception in early Christianity.
  • I am interning at Chapel Hill Bible Church. Next year I will be interning with the Bible Church’s college ministry. I am lucky to call the Bible Church a home, and I am really excited to be a part of the leadership team, lead a life group, and grow as a member of the church. I don’t have a clear outline of exactly what my duties will look like, but I am really looking forward to being more involved at church and getting to be a friend to our entire college ministry. As I continue to think about what I want to be when I’m a grownup (haha), the idea of working in a church is one that comes up often. And as I get closer to applying for Divinity Schools, I really am pumped to get some first-hand experience in the work we do over at the Bible Church.
  • I am still attempting to write a book this summer. I have seven locations spanning from North Carolina to Washington State that I will be traveling to this summer over a five-week period. The Morehead-Cain has given me three wonderful opportunities in the last few summers, and this, to me, is the one I’m most excited about. I am pumped to start meeting incredible people living and working at loving places, and I’m praying that I can do their communities justice in my writing. Whether or not this ends up as some perfectly woven together book or not, I know that it is going to be a fruitful experience for me as a person and writer.  And I’m even more excited about 6,800 miles on the road!

I think that’s it! It’s been a busy year.

“Everyday do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it.” –

-da

The Stories We’ll Tell

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.

And once more, a banner to raise.

-da

The Book

As daunting and absurd as it may seem, next summer I will be spending my days writing a book.

I will be traveling across the states (and possibly across the pond) to write a book about loving your neighbor as yourself. To paint a broad stroke, I will visit people, churches, and communities that are doing a great job of loving their neighbors, as we were called to do by Jesus.

The very core of my idea came from Wendell Berry’s “Blessed are the Peacemakers” which outlines the concept that it is fashionable to be a Christian, but not fashionable to act as Christ taught. And although Mr. Berry goes onto specifically discuss the concept of peace and war, he brought me to my own idea: Why do we so often neglect the central tenant of Jesus’ teachings to love our neighbors. From gender to race to socioeconomic status to much more, I hope to find places where people are taking a step further than writing a check once a year, and are desiring and living in a community centered on loving those around them, as Jesus taught.

I am very gracious of the Morehead-Cain for funding and giving me the thumbs-up to road trip around the country and write and meet great people and see beautiful places.

Although I have quite a few people set in stone that I would like to meet, speak with, and spend time with in their respective communities, I am always looking for other ideas and would love to hear any people or places you’ve come across.

–David Ray

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” –Henry David Thoreau