Tag Archives: Wendell Berry

Builders or spenders?: Five ways to keep building

I read a book about the Byzantine Empire a few years ago. I’m not over it. Periodically, I waft off into a little lesson on Greek emperors. That behavior does not make me popular.  But I just instinctively do it sometimes because I am ruminating  on the lessons their lives are teaching me. Every leader can learn great cautionary tales from history. Don’t you wish the present leaders of the U.S. would would seriously listen to a few tales? One lesson they could learn from the Byzantine emperors is this: humankind is adept at lying, not least of all to themselves.

I saw this remnant of Byzantine glory in Istanbul.

Builders and spenders

As I read the intriguing, pared-down history of the Byzantine Empire, focused on the emperors, I was interested to see that one way I could categorize them was as builders and spenders. Some emperors built up the territory, built up the treasury, built up the walls, built alliances and trade. Their successors regularly lived off or squandered all they had built up. Their successors let the navy deteriorate and lost territory, they spent the treasury on luxury and useless living, they neglected the walls and roads and insulted the allies. Often a new emperor who was a builder would arrive just in time to stave off total disaster and rebuild the place.

Building something is hard. You can see how hard it is when you live in the United States. In our lifetimes, the United States is the Byzantine Empire on steroids. I had one of those “aha” moments about how wealthy we are when I was driving up 95 by the airport and I realized what an amazing road I was on, next to this huge airport! We are rich, rich, rich. People are lamenting the lack of jobs when the unemployment rate is 4.1% (Spain ~ 16%, Congo ~ 46%). Everyone thinks they deserve to be rich as their birthright! The 1% recently harvested the profitability reflected in the low unemployment rate with their “tax reform.” They are spenders. Maybe the whole U.S. Empire is dying. Maybe a new emperor will save it. But right now we are rich. It will take a long time to squander everything the country has created and stolen.

I think it might be hard to imagine building something in the United States (like Circle of Hope in all its manifestations) because it has become customary to train everyone to manage the wealth of others or the wealth they expected to receive [Here are some options for you!] [Here you go in case you are in elementary school.] I know many people consider managing and increasing wealth as a productive enterprise. I think that is lying to oneself. Wendell Berry starts off one of my favorite poems by revealing that lie again.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. — Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,  Wendell Berry, excerpt

He goes on to say that we should get in touch with God and the earth so we can be and can do something real — like grow something, like build a church. Churches seem to have a lot of people trained to perform Christian musicals and create weekly variety shows on Sunday, but do we train each other to build practical things?  (I have to say this, even though I love a good musical from almost any source!). I run into people living like what is built is there for them to manage or perform rather than living like they were meant to build something useful or beautiful or new — like they are creating with the Creator. People come to Jesus like he is another emperor and they are going to manage the wealth he provides. I think the church trains them to do it.  Jesus is, to them, like the founder of the empire and they are the successors, living behind the walls he built, protected from enemies, privileged to have the glory and riches of his kingdom. On one hand that metaphor works. On the other hand, it can be a disaster, since the attitude often means that no one is building anything. And, ultimately, the land is not fat enough for everyone to just live off it.

We’ve got to build something. We usually need to rebuild what has been torn down or gone to ruin. But most of all, we need to build something new with the ever-fresh inspiration of God as Jesus becomes incarnate through us in our era. For instance, as Circle of Hope we have built, by God’s grace, something I am happy to live in. I could probably travel happily on one alley of Circle of Hope — and here we have a freeway (maybe no airport, yet). Even if none of us ever did another creative thing, it might take years to kill us — we’ve been that creative and diligent. But, of course, we need to build something now. Unlike bad Byzantine emperors, we need to scan the horizon, see what’s coming, seize opportunities, care for the big picture, and make the most of what we’ve been given.

Five practical ways to build something

The following are simple things that might help us shake off the empire mentality that stalks us and help us find some fresh new ways to see ourselves in the world as it is now. As Berry suggests:

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it.

I doubt that my suggestions will seem like we are losing our minds altogether. But they might start something fresh building.

1)     Be a friend. The foremost and everyday discipline of a builder is: Build a new relationship and be yourself in Christ in it. This is the crucial building activity that makes or breaks the Kingdom of God. If you already have enough love, enough friends behind your walls, the walls of the Kingdom are crumbling.

2)     Start the project. Build the next church, don’t just make cosmetic changes and tell yourself you’ll get to the real project when the rest of life settles down. For some reason, practically serving Jesus is easy to put off. He often takes second place to the latest lover or the newest employer.

Right now, God help us, we are considering buying the biggest mess we have ever bought in the neediest neighborhood at the highest price we’ve ever paid.  It is the building in the picture above at 115 W. Chelten. We may not decide to do it, but just thinking about it has already started to reshape us and inspire us. I talked about it all through snow day and I am pretty refreshed right now, and impressed with the leaders who are daring to dig into the idea.

3)     Pitch in. Add your capacity to the work. Don’t assume someone else is going to do it, just because someone else has provided what you presently enjoy. Yes, that means all of us should pitch in, not just the leaders. Please don’t say “that’s not my job” too often. It is not the leaders’ church. Everyone has the job of being a builder; Jesus resides in each of us and all of us.

I am certainly not saying, “Get busy you slackers!” Our church is a beehive of activity.  LOTS of us love to pitch in. The newest congregation we just hived off is the one with the audacity to consider a huge building!  All the congregations can tell stories about what they have been building, lately, this week! (Maybe they will tell them in the comments).

As far as attitudes that ground being a builder and not just a spender go:

4)     Own the whole thing. You may be a barista in someone else’s store, but in the church, you are an owner. Don’t let the subjugation you experience in the world leak over into the church. Don’t be a mere spender of what someone else has collected.

5)     Spend on the future. The walls are not just the “government’s” responsibility. I’m talking metaphorically, here, not because we should build walls or we care what the government does. The walls were symbolic of Byzantium’s strength. When they were in good order it was because a builder cared and spent time and money to repair them. Jesus does not do the work of the church by himself. If we are living off whatever is there, the walls are crumbling. The church is an expression of whatever life in Christ we have; it is not a hobby we enjoy when “life” isn’t too busy. What is worth our lives right now and tomorrow? That’s a Christian question.

Five lessons are enough for now. But I hope there is some small inspiration here to build the church with Jesus. I think most of the leaders in the U.S. government and elsewhere have been living off the spoils of the empire and don’t care much about building the future. The attitude has trickled down to us regular Joes and Janes until a lot of us never even think of building something. We just “get ours” and assume there will be more to get later. That doesn’t work in the empire and it certainly does not work in the church.

That sound is Trump tromping on the Paris Pact for Pentecost weekend.

The howls of protest from around the globe are hopefully ringing in the president’s ears. Donald Trump’s executive order to leave the Paris Climate Agreement has been generally decried:

  • CNN: Trump to Planet: Drop Dead
  • The New Yorker: Donald Trump’s “Screw You” to the World
  • Foreign Policy: Abandoning Paris Is a Disaster for America
  • Esquire: Are You Proud to Be American Today?
  • Slate: We the Victims
  • The Guardian (UK): Trump Just Passed on the Best Deal the Planet Has Ever Seen
  • Washington Post: Trump is Abdicating All the Country’s Moral Power
  • TalkingPointsMemo: Paris Decision Was Driven By the President’s Rage and Fear
  • Arnold could not resist his regular Trump takedown

Most of the time, activist Christians just join the howl. There is room for that. But Pentecost, yesterday, promised more, didn’t it? Surely Jesus was fulfilling the beautiful, old promise of Isaiah as the Spirit was poured out during the festival of the first fruits; it was the ultimate demonstration that God’s word waters the earth and brings sustenance – all the way from the seed to the bread seeds provide.

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.” — Isaiah 55:10-13

Like the trees miraculously clap, it is just as amazing that we have become God-praisers who dare to hope — and dare to act on that hope in desperate times.

Trees Clapping by Brenda Bogart

The climate catastrophe makes it clear that we live in desperate times. We need to repent in order to survive. Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping seem to know this. The president elected by evangelical Christians seems to think the 70 jobs gained by opening a new coal mine in PA is worth ecological disaster.

I say “we” need to repent because, whether we like it or not, the United States government has drawn its boundaries around us. But I also can say that “we” of Circle of Hope, probably have a lot less to repent of when it comes to climate change. From the beginning of the church we have been aware and active. Lately, we even have a compassion team devoted to the new concept of “watershed discipleship,” which calls us to live as partners in our respective watersheds, connected to the earth and connected to others who share our bioregion. Long before that new concept, we were going with the old, Biblical teaching of being a tribe inhabiting our place, forming a new community that was not beholden to the arbitrary lines of the political map, but connected as a people filled with the Spirit. We loved trees, but even more, we loved with those hand-clapping trees Isaiah sees — enlivened, as we are, with the new energy of God’s redemptive presence.

One of our friends treated us to Wendell Berry via Daily Prayer not long ago. He also claps with the trees. More than a quarter century ago Berry was arguing, before it was fashionable, that “global thinking” was often a mere euphemism for an abstract anxiety or passion that is useless in the struggle to save real places. “The question that must be addressed,” he contended, “is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land.” Only love and responsibility for specific places – what native Hawaiians call aloha ‘aina – can motivate us to struggle on their behalf.

Some people are working toward Berry’s vision from the outward in by rediscovering a bioregional identity. That’s great. I come at it from a more Anabaptist approach. In a real sense, I think we are more like the Hawaiians who carry the reality of aloha ‘aina in them. They identify the watershed; they love it; they aren’t created by it. The Holy Spirit is alive in us. The earth does not make us. Like our Cell Plan teaches about being an organism:  “We aren’t waiting; we aren’t merely prospective; we aren’t laboring under the condemnation of some structure to which we need to conform. We exist as who we are. We are being built by God. We feed on the Spirit and develop.”

Image result for watershed discipleship team

Even though we work from the inside out, wherever we are planted, there is little doubt that the movement of the Holy Spirit right now must include “re-place-ment.” Our Watershed Discipleship team is an outpost of an intellectual movement (mostly fronted for us by Ched Myers) that reflects Kirkpatrick Sales’ 1985 primer Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. Sales defined a bioregional sense of place: “Bio is from the Greek word for forms of life . . . and region is from the Latin regere, territory to be ruled. . . . They convey together a life-territory, a place defined by its life forms, its topography and its biota, rather than by human dictates; a region governed by nature, not legislature. And if the concept initially strikes us as strange, that may perhaps only be a measure of how distant we have become from the wisdom it conveys.” Ched Myers and others are even more specific, and talk about being “intertwined within a larger system called a watershed” in which the inhabitants are linked by their common necessity and use. In a sense, we are cradled in the basin of our watershed where the organisms are interconnected and interdependent.

I find Myers’ imagery appealing. It fits us and it fits the Bible. Our approach to social action as Circle of Hope has always been to embody it. We are an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, living in our own skins in our own place. While reactive people are howling at Trump, we may join the chorus, but we do so from a place. No one can deprive us of our connection to the Creator and the creation. We are the new creation in Jesus. We have never been subject to the “political geography” of dominant cultural ideation (at least that is our conviction), so when someone calls us into the “topography of creation,” they seem to be describing our native territory.

Trump’s blatant skepticism of climate change highlights a moment when our sense of being grounded by the Spirit in a community living in a discernible place becomes an even more relevant aspect of our mission. As Myers teaches, we are in a “watershed moment of crisis.” Acknowledging a bioregional sense of place helps the unaware become part of the context they are missing. It is time for restoring humanity’s right relationship with creation, which can be clearly experienced in our watershed. The Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum is often paraphrased to sum it up: “We won’t save places we don’t love; we can’t love places we don’t know; and we don’t know places we haven’t learned.”

In the face of humankind’s self-destruction, Isaiah’s vision is one of joy, not despair. The Lord is the Creator. God’s renewing presence waters the earth and makes it like our mother. Everyone is an armchair evolutionist these days, so they think the earth is all we’ve got, so the earth is our mother. From that viewpoint, Trump’s poor leadership is even more horrifying. But we “go out in joy,” knowing that the hope of the world, the hope for our watershed, the hope of our church and our cell is the promise of God delivered in Jesus. Everywhere we turn, we deliberately and relentlessly plant trees and clap with them and in that become spiritual redwoods ourselves.

Wendell Berry: identity, autonomy, privacy, competition

We had a winter wedding and draped the sterile “sanctuary” in ivy filched from front lawns all over town and made into garlands by loving friends. We thus began our somewhat-ignorant stumble into fidelity. On the occasion of our anniversary this week, my very-deep wife found an essay by Wendell Berry that eloquently summarizes much of what we instinctively discovered and practiced. What she focused on was Berry’s piece of wisdom that we have found to be true:

“No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.” We have practiced that in marriage, family, church and city.

The-Unsettling-of-AmericaThe essay she quoted was written in 1977 as part of his book: The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Berry wrote his prophetic book as the American Empire flowered and turned to fruit, and as the society began to democratize and monetize everything. If you are a Christian who longs to be a humble creature, you might like to read it all: [link].

For today I offer you two long quotes from it that seem to go together to me. Berry makes important points about topics we have been exploring for a few years as a Circle of Hope. He is writing at a time when the adoption of the concept of “identity” and other new definitions are beginning to bud. By our time we have eaten the pie.

“The so-called identity crisis, for instance, is a disease that seems to have become prevalent after the disconnection of body and soul and the other piecemealings of the modern period. One’s “identity” is apparently the immaterial part of one’s being–also known as psyche, soul, spirit, self, mind, etc. The dividing of this principle from the body and from any particular worldly locality would seem reason enough for a crisis. Treatment, it might be thought, would logically consist in the restoration of these connections: the lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarks, by connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would learn to stay put in the body to which it belongs and in the place to which preference or history or accident has brought it; it would, in short, find itself in finding its work. But “finding yourself,” the pseudo-ritual by which the identity crisis is supposed to be resolved, makes use of no such immediate references. Leaving aside the obvious, and ancient, realities of doubt and self-doubt, as well as the authentic madness that is often the result of cultural disintegration, it seems likely that the identity crisis has become a sort of social myth, a genre of self-indulgence. It can be an excuse for irresponsibility or a fashionable mode of self-dramatization. It is the easiest form of self-flattery–a way to construe procrastination as a virtue–based on the romantic assumption that “who I really am” is better in some fundamental way than the available evidence proves.

The fashionable cure for this condition, if I understand the lore of it correctly has nothing to do with the assumption of responsibilities or the renewal of connections. The cure is “autonomy,” another mythical condition, suggesting that the self can be self-determining and independent without regard for any determining circumstance or any of the obvious dependences. This seems little more than a jargon term for indifference to the opinions and feelings of other people. There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence. Inevitably failing this impossible standard of autonomy, the modern self-seeker becomes a tourist of cures, submitting his quest to the guidance of one guru after another. The “cure” thus preserves the disease….”

wendell berryBerry goes on to apply his thoughts on identity and autonomy to marriage. He has a lot to say to us in a time when single parenthood or parenthood by less-committed cohabitors is common:

“…Failing, as they cannot help but fail, to be each other’s all, the husband and wife become each other’s only. The sacrament of sexual union, which in the time of the household was a communion of workmates, and afterward tried to be a lovers’ paradise, has now become a kind of marketplace in which husband and wife represent each other as sexual property. Competitiveness and jealousy, imperfectly sweetened and disguised by the illusions of courtship, now become governing principles, and they work to isolate the couple inside their marriage. Marriage becomes a capsule of sexual fate. The man must look on other men, and the woman on other women, as threats. This seems to have become particularly damaging to women; because of the progressive degeneration and isolation of their “role,” their worldly stock in trade has increasingly had to be “their” men. In the isolation of the resulting sexual “privacy,” the disintegration of the community begins. The energy that is the most convivial and unifying loses its communal forms and becomes divisive. This dispersal was nowhere more poignantly exemplified than in the replacement of the old ring dances, in which all couples danced together, by the so-called ballroom dancing, in which each couple dances alone. A significant part of the etiquette of ballroom dancing is, or was, that the exchange of partners was accomplished by a “trade.” It is no accident that this capitalization of love and marriage was followed by a divorce epidemic–and by fashions of dancing in which each one of the dancers moves alone.”

Identity, autonomy, privacy, and competition have come to “encapsulate” most of the people we know. They are concepts that form new sanctuaries and they can’t be disguised by draping the ivy chains of our Christianity over them.

May you have some time this Advent, away from the monetization of our holy-days, to do a ring dance, to spend some time in the wilderness rediscovering how you are a much-loved creature, and to celebrate your responsible dependence

  • on God (who gives you yourself and gives himself to you in Jesus),
  • on your spouse (if you are given one) and
  • on your community (which you have been given).

We are the sanctuary in which God’s Spirit dwells. During Advent, as we remember how God comes in to our creatureliness in Jesus, it is a good time to remember how that same Spirit makes us God’s dwelling place as a people in our own time and place. This is also a good verse for a Christmas card: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.  Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:16-18).

Kristen and the Sword of Wendell Berry

I have been meaning to tell this little story about Kristen for a few weeks. The Monday after resurrection Sunday seems like a good time to tell it. Our good feeling of new life is going to meet up with our schedules. The resolve we honed with our Lent disciplines is going to meet up with opposition. The week after Easter can be such a let-down because we get tested and we don’t meet the test as well as we would like. So I thought I would offer you a story about how Kristen got tested met the test. I think of her up on her soap box quite often, making herself heard among the big loud men speaking for the empire. I appreciate her example, because I also need the courage to open my mouth and speak my heart. Like her, I am also confronted with a world that desperately needs what has been lavished on me in Jesus.

She was doing a summer internship last summer at a farm in Massachusetts. It was some, wonderful organic farm that invites the kids up to do some work, get themselves dirty and get reconverted to humanity. One of the farm’s outlets for their produce was the farmer’s market in a village nearby. Kristen went along to help sell the kale and whatnot.

It happened that the village had a good Massachusetts tradition of having a “speaker’s corner.” When there was a farmer’s market, they set up a place where people could exercise their right of free speech. Since it was near the Fourth of July, speakers were feeling especially patriotic and quite a few people were getting up to say something. The rhetoric was tending to lean Tea Partyish.

One man got up and read a familiar paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. — That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it…”

He thought that the government was doing a relatively admirable job of securing our rights with its various wars. He exhorted the crowd to support the troops. Kristin was not having it. She had been reading Wendell Berry. She was about ready to join Shalom House for a couple of years (at least). So she decided to get up on the soapbox and speak back with poetry. She whipped out the sword of Wendell Berry and said: 

The year begins with war.
Our bombs fall day and night,
Hour after hour, by death
Abroad appeasing wrath,
Folly, and greed at home.
Upon our giddy tower
We’d oversway the world.
Our hate comes down to kill
Those whom we do not see,
For we have given up
Our sight to those in power
And to machines, and now
Are blind to all the world.
This is a nation where
No lovely thing can last.
We trample, gouge, and blast;
The people leave the land;
The land flows to the sea.
Fine men and women die,
The fine old houses fall,
The fine old trees come down:
Highway and shopping mall
Still guarantee the right
And liberty to be
A peaceful murderer,
A murderous worshipper,
A slender glutton, Forgiving
No enemy, forgiven
By none, we live the death
Of liberty, become
What we have feared to be. — 1991 – I

Her new friends at the farm we a bit concerned. Not only were her listeners the prospective buyers of farm-fresh organic tomatoes, they later told her that they were not entirely convinced that the villagers would not do her harm if she kept reading her poetry. But sometimes when Kristen gets going she needs to complete her thoughts. So she kept going and closed with this: 

 Now you know the worst
 we humans have to know
 about ourselves, and I am sorry,

 for I know you will be afraid.
 To those of our bodies given
 without pity to be burned, I know

 there is no answer
 but loving one another
 even our enemies, and this is hard.

 But remember:
 when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
 he gives a light, divine

 though it is also human.
 When a man of peace is killed
 by a man of war, he gives a light.

 You do not have to walk in darkness.
 If you have the courage for love,
 you may walk in light. It will be

 the light of those who have suffered
 for peace. It will be
 your light. 

1995 – V To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzak Rabin, November 6th 1995.

Thank God for people with the courage to share their heart for peace! Jesus died on the cross for reconciliation with God and others. Jesus pointedly did not raise an army to achieve his ends. Jesus rose again and continues to rise in people who have the courage to be the light. The light comes from being at peace with God. But peace with God that does not make peace on earth doesn’t really have much to get up on the box and say, does it? Let’s meet our tests this week with audacity and hope.