What Jayber Crow Understood

            For the first 25 years of my life, the idea of becoming a pastor was inconceivable to me.  I had not been raised in a church and had no interest in organized religion.  But life has a way of surprising us, it seems, and here I am, 41 years after my ordination. 

            It’s hard to explain why I have found it so meaningful; I often feel like I have never really fit in.  But one day I picked up Jayber Crow, a novel by Wendell Berry.  Jayber is a seeker, a barber, a grave-digger, and a church custodian in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky.  I came across this passage, where he is sitting at the rear of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning:

            The sermons mostly were preached on the same theme I had heard over and over… we must lay up treasures in heaven and not be lured and seduced by this world’s pretty and tasty things that do not last but are like the flower that is cut down. The preachers were always young students from the seminary who wore, you might say, the mantle of power but not the mantle of knowledge.  They wouldn’t stay long enough to know where they were, for one thing.  Some were wise and some were foolish, but none, so far as Port William knew, was ever old. They seemed to have come from some never Never-Never Land where the professionally devout were forever young. They were not going to school to learn where they were, let alone the pleasures and the pains of being there, or what ought to be said there. You couldn’t learn those things in a school.  They went to school, apparently, to learn to say over and over again, regardless of where they were, what had already been said too often. They learned to have a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works — although they could tell you that this world had been made by God Himself.

            What they didn’t see was that it is beautiful, and that some of the greatest beauties are the briefest. They had imagined the church, which is an organization, but not the world which is an order and a mystery. To them the church did not exist in the world where people earn their living and have their being, but rather in the world where they fear death and Hell, which is not much of a world.  To them, the soul was something dark and musty, stuck away for later. In their brief passage through or over it, most of the young preachers knew Port William only as it theoretically was (“lost”) and as it theoretically might be (“saved”) and they wanted us all to do our part to spread this bad news to others who had not heard it — the Catholics, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Buddhists, and others — or else they (and maybe we) would go to Hell. I did not believe it. They made me see how cut off I was. Even when I was sitting in the church, I was a man outside.

            In Port William, more than any place I had ever been, this religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world was a puzzle to me. To begin with, I don’t think anybody believed it. I still don’t think so. Those world condemning sermons were preached to people who, on Sunday mornings, would be wearing their prettiest clothes. Even the old widows in their dark dresses would be pleasing to look at. By dressing up on the one day when most of them had leisure to do it, they signified their wish to present themselves to one another and to Heaven looking their best. The people who heard those sermons loved good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs; they loved flowers and the shade of trees, and laughter and music; most of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasures of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries. While the wickedness of the flesh was preached from the pulpit, the young husbands and wives and the courting couple sat thigh to thigh, full of yearning and joy, and the old people thought of the beauty of the children. And when church was over they would go home to Heavenly dinners of fried chicken, it might be, and creamed new potatoes and creamed new peas and hot biscuits and butter and cherry pie and sweet milk and buttermilk. And their preacher and his family would always be invited to eat with somebody and they would always go, and the preacher, having just foresworn on behalf of everybody the joys of the flesh, would eat with unconsecrated relish.

            “I declare Miss Pauline,” said Brother Preston, who was having Sunday dinner with the Gibbses, “those certainly are good biscuits. I can’t remember how many I’ve eaten.”

            “Preacher,” said Uncle Stanley, “That’s making eight.” (160-161)

            …The people didn’t really want to be saints of self-deprivation and hatred of the world. They knew that sooner or later the world would deprive them of all it had given them, but they still liked it.  What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another’s help and company and divine gifts, their hope and experience of love surpassing death, and their gratitude. (162-163)

            I thought of the people and congregations I’ve served.  Like Jayber, I never believed those kinds of sermons. I do believe in the “beauty and goodness of this world,” the sanctity of the ordinary people I’ve known, “cherry pie,” “good biscuits,” our “wish…to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven,” the “hope and experience of love surpassing death,” and gratitude.

            “…. for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:21, RSV)

Wendell Berry, age 88; Credit: New Yorker Magazine

Notes

  1. For a recent profile of Wendell Berry in the New Yorker, go to https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/02/28/wendell-berrys-advice-for-a-cataclysmic-age
  2. I had the privilege of seeing Wendell Berry in person twice in my life. The first was in the 1980s at the Campbell Farm in Wapato, Washington, where he spoke on land stewardship and rural values. The second was at Campbell Hall at UCSB in the 90s, as part of an “Environmental Poets” series. A very shy man, he was wearing overalls and a John Deere hat that night – clothing one doesn’t often see in Santa Barbara. That night he read from Jayber Crow. In the Q and A, someone asked him if, given his lifelong advocacy for sustainable agriculture, he would endorse requiring a gardening class in high schools.  After a long pause, he said, “No, I think young people should be required to read Homer and the Bible, so they will know the problems they are facing are not new.” The “educated” crowd seemed bewildered by his statement.

2 Comments

  1. elsakaye says:

    I guess I was fortunate to never have been a member of a church like Jaber Crow described. Even our Southern Presbyterian church of my childhood was not like that. But we did dress up and have fried chicken for Sunday lunch as was the tradition of the south. And my parents did stress that Sunday afternoon was a time of rest and reflection. On Sunday, all shops were closed in town so workers had a day off. It is interesting how traditions have changed over time. As Wendell Homes intimated in his answer at the lecture, the problem of power over others and the exploitation of the environment rather than love between others and a sustainable agriculture is a never ending problem of humankind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Cohen says:

    Wonderful passage Steve. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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