Blessing Management: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (Conclusion!)

Last week a huge windstorm felled both trees and power lines, leading to widespread power outages throughout the great state of Maine. By some miracle of grace, we came through the storm with our lights still burning, but my oldest son was without electricity for several days. Since he and his family came here to shower and do laundry, I invited them to stay for supper. This time with much-loved family (and time to hold my baby granddaughter and visit with the adorable grandson) felt like bonus-time, completely unexpected, and owing to something that was a trial for them, but the end result was a gift to me.

Loving adult children seems to require a measure of this kind of blessing management — a rejoicing in the unsought gift of their presence while holding it all loosely and without expectation. I would rather pine endlessly for my sons than be the nagging and needy mother, so when these serendipitous visits happen with no real planning on my part, it’s a source of joy — or as Jayber Crow would say:

” . . . these meetings must not be planned, expected, depended on , or looked forward to. They [are] a hope seen afar, that must be with patience waited for.”

A Book About Love

And so, Jayber found that he also was able to practice blessing management in his happenstance meetings with Mattie in The Nest Egg over the course of 14 or 15 years. In this respect, then, it seems as if  Jayber Crow is a story of how one man learned to love. He denied himself any expression of that love toward its object (other than his immediate and generous response to Mattie’s requests for help in difficult situations). However, his outflow of love toward the Port William membership can certainly be traced back to the commitment he made to Mattie, and, therefore, a commitment to remain as The Membership’s “married ineligible bachelor barber.”

Several chapters ago, Jayber remarked that Port William would break your heart if you let it. I wonder if that is true of any community if only we would  be willing to see the neediness that lies only just beneath the glossy surface. Perhaps Jayber’s commitment is an invitation for the jaded and the “been-burned” to begin handing out second chances to family, friends, community, or the church.

When Jayber reflects on the benefit of this sacrifice to himself, asking himself what possible good he could have derived from the arrangement, his response is deeply moving:

“What good did I get from it? I got to have love in my heart.”

Listen well, O, my soul, for herein lies much wisdom for loving without strings attached.

A Book About Belonging

This outcome of Jayber’s internal argument is consistent with his value system expressed elsewhere in the story. For instance:

“To love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain.”

One of the places Jayber came to love and feel connected to was The Nest Egg because “everything there seemed to belong where it was.” (346) Unlike Troy, he did not have to possess something in the traditional sense in order to enjoy it. Although they were never his, the Nest Egg, the little cabin Burley gave him “the use of,” and even Mattie were all a source of joy. They also anchored him in a community which gave him his first (and only) set of roots since he was orphaned for the second time as a boy.

A Book About Calling

In his informal role as the “bootleg” barber at the edge of the river, Jayber continued to receive the words and confidences of his customers “as water draws to low ground.” For Jayber, it seems as if the minute he stopped trying to “make something of himself,” he became what he was intended to be.

It’s hard to miss the continual contrasts between Jayber and Troy who never did cease trying to make something of himself (336, 341). I wonder if some of the ceaseless striving came because he required so much fuel from outside himself in order to feed his voracious ambition.

Jayber’s calling that transcends even barbering is his love for Mattie, the wife of another man.  Even so, he makes no effort to interfere with the marriage. He never tells anyone else about his love for her, and the “marriage” he initiates in his heart changes him to the core.

A Book About Ending Well

There’s a phrase that occurred earlier in Jayber Crow‘s meanderings and with its second mention, it continued to gnaw at me. I’m thinking about “the leftovers.” In spite of his efforts to avoid living “an unexamined life,” Jayber still had some leftovers (355) which he defined as the “things I might once have done that are now undoable, old wrongs, responsibilities unmet, ineradicable failures — things of time, which is always revealing the remedies it has already carried us beyond.”  He has borrowed the term (268) from our friend Della, Athey Keith’s widow, and it was these “leftovers” that brought her to tears after Athey’s death:

“There are leftovers, Jayber. There are things I did or said that I wish I hadn’t, and things I didn’t do or say that I wish I had.”

These are cautionary words from fictional characters from whose story arc I want to learn and benefit.

Jayber calls himself a man of faith even though “faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark.” (356)  Faith does not exempt the faithful from pain, Jayber says, but assures that “there is a light that includes our darkness, and day that shines down even on the clouds.” (357)  Faithfulness, for Jayber, is not about getting something for one’s efforts but is in itself its own reward.

It is not until the last paragraph of the book that we see any ray of hope for Jayber’s heart in his poured out life, and I can’t resist sharing his words of longing for this “good-good-good” life:

“I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say “Good-good-good-good-good!” like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. I am a man of losses, regrets, and griefs. I am an old man full of love. I am a man of faith.”

May I ask, when is the last time you read a novel in which the culmination was a chaste and selfless love? In fulfillment of I Corinthians 13,  Jayber’s love “suffered long,”  did not “seek its own,” as it “hoped and endured all things” rather than allowing the weight of his desire to crush the beauty of its object. With the careful paintbrush of a poet, Berry suggested rather than described the understanding between Jayber and Mattie in the book’s final paragraph, and I expect (because, I ask you, who can resist thinking about a fictional character’s life beyond page 363?) that Jayber lived the rest of his days with the memory of that “smile that he had never seen.”

Looking Forward to 6:30 . . . 

This is a bittersweet moment as we come to the end of our discussion. When I’m in the middle of a series, I am convinced that I’ll never survive to the end and make all kinds of rash vows that include the words “never again.” I guess I’m a little bit like Jayber with the hands of my clock permanently pointing at 6:30, keeping things open-ended. However, I’m already starting to think about books for the next round, so stay tuned!

As ever, be sure to share links to any blog posts you write on Jayber Crow or related topics, especially if you decide to throw caution to the wind and write about “texts” and “subtexts” you’ve found, or if you attempt to “explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand,'” because then we can all be exiled together and enjoy “the company of other explainers.” Wherever the exile ends up, I’ll bring a thermos of English Breakfast Tea and some disposable cups.  See you there!

Many thanks to all who persevered to the end! It’s been a great experience to spend some time as honorary citizens of Port William with you!

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Musings — April 2017

Returning from a family vacation (and a blogging break!), it’s great to be rested and to have stored up some delightful memories with my patient husband, our two youngest sons, and with dear friends who love us so much and so well that they even welcomed our big slobbery dog!

Did you know that the roller coaster was invented by the French in 1817? Two hundred years later, our guys enjoyed this “history lesson.”

 

Obviously, the cool people are sitting on each end.

On the Nightstand

Not because I deserve it, but because God is gracious, I have a friend who has stuck with me through a dozen or more years of reading Scripture together.  Even though we are geographically far apart, we read the same passage each day and hold one another accountable to the practice of showing up in the presence of the Word.  Our plan for the foreseeable future is to read through the book of Jeremiah, using Eugene Peterson’s Run with the Horses as our road map.

“Before I shaped you in the womb,
    I knew all about you.
Before you saw the light of day,
    I had holy plans for you:
A prophet to the nations—
that’s what I had in mind for you.”

Jeremiah 1:5  (MSG)

Already, the first chapter is breathtaking with its reminder that we are known before we know, that we have been enlisted by God before we were even qualified for anything.  Then, since “giving is the style of the universe,” we have been given to our families, our friends, our neighbors — and to our enemies.

“Our life is for others. . .  We don’t think we can live generously because we have never tried.  But the sooner we start the better, for we are going to have to give up our lives finally, and the longer we wait the less time we have for the soaring and swooping grace of life.”

This was true of Jeremiah, and it is certainly true of believers in 2017.

On the Blog

In April I shared my first offering as a contributor to God-sized Dreams, an on-line community where you can say your dream out loud and find the glorious encouragement of others who are also familiar with the joys and pitfalls inherent to dreaming.   When fear threatens to extract all the air from my dreams, I’m thankful for the courage and strength that come from an upholding God.  You can read more here about letting your fear drive you to the One who casts out all fear.

Ruby Magazine included a couple of my book reviews in their April edition.  I always enjoy sharing children’s books, and, of course, the best part is test-driving the books with the adorable grandson.

The most viewed post in April was my review of Gary Thomas’s book, Cherish:  The One Word that Changes Everything for Your Marriage.  Gary encourages his readers to go beyond merely loving our spouses and to live our way into “a marriage that feels more precious, more connected, and more satisfying.”

Just for Joy

What is it about fiction and the imagined words and experiences of well-developed characters that can leave the heart aching with the beauty of truth?

In The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, Toby leaves his wife Lou and moves to Maine with Deary.  Twenty years pass, and with Deary in the process of dying, Toby falls, breaking both arms.  He returns to Lou and asks her to care for them both.

Spoiler alert:  She says yes.
All incredulity aside, this excerpt from Lou’s processing of the decision stopped me in my tracks:

“At this age, forgiveness could be child’s play if you know the ropes.”

Is this “knowing the ropes” another word for grace?
Am I better at forgiving now than I was twenty years ago?

What are you working on these days?
Are you seeing evidence of God’s knowing, choosing, and launching you into His agenda?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, and am thankful for your eyes in this place at the end of another month.
Blessings and love to you.

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The Broken Reaching Out to the Broken

Six years ago, Ann Voskamp took the dare to dive deep into a lifestyle of gratitude.  Could she record one thousand gifts from God and let her heart be changed by the knowledge of all the ways that God loved her?  She wrote about the dare in her first book, and suddenly the Greek word for thanksgiving, eucharisteo, was on everyone’s lips.

In 2012, I began my own gratitude journal.  By Thanksgiving Day, I will have recorded my five thousandth gift, so the release of Ann’s book about another dare is timely for me, especially since I recently heard Katelyn Beatty’s quip on a CT podcast that writers should “go vulnerable, or go home.”  Without a doubt,  The Broken Way jumps into the deep end with Ann’s memory of cutting her own skin with shards of broken glass as a young woman, her own makeshift release valve for all the anguish that had nowhere else to go.  This latest offering chronicles Ann’s living her way into the answer to the question we all ask from time to time:

“How in the world do you live with your one broken heart?”

Her answer?

“You give it away.”

This is a strong argument, because hurting people are not interested in hearing about anyone’s “perfect” life.  They are not encouraged by the knowledge that I’ve checked off every single item on my to-do list (I haven’t) — or that my boys all do their chores without complaining.  (They don’t).  They want to hear about how I handle disappointment and about all the times I have had to apologize to my kids for losing my temper.  Offering up my own brokenness kills perfectionism and opens the way for a true communion in Christ — who redeems everything.

When gratitude has paved the way to acceptance and peace, but the broken world rubs up against the rough edges of your own broken heart, the broken way, the cross-shaped life, becomes the way of abundance:

“If eucharisteo had been the first dare, the first journey of discovery into a life of letting God love me and counting all those ways, could this be a dare for the next leg of the journey, the way leading higher up and deeper in, daring me to let all the not-enough there in my open hands – let it be broken into more than enough?  A dare to let all my brokenness — be made into abundance.  Break and give away.  The broken way.”

The truth is that relationships on this planet are a matter of the broken reaching out to the broken, and Ann’s message tumbles out in a series of personal stories supported by poignant metaphors:

  • We remember Christ in communion, and in coming together around His broken body, we affirm that we are a “remembering people,” and in the gathering, our own broken hearts become re-membered.
  • One day, on a whim, Ann picked up a pen and inked a cross over the scars on her arm.  Daring to live a cross-shaped life reveals that the “bad brokenness is broken by [the] good brokenness” of Jesus’ sacrifice.  The Beatitudes gently reinforce this beautiful truth about an Upside-down Kingdom:  dare to be poor in spirit, to mourn deeply over your sin, to meekly come to Jesus with a hunger and thirst that can only be satisfied with His righteousness.
  • An old blue Mason jar full of wheat kernels becomes an image of our span of life, our one container of days.  Just as the grain must first be broken before it becomes bread, “the way to break time’s hold on me is to be broken,” to live an inconvenient life in which I may be called upon to be sown into the broken ground of another of God’s image-bearers.

One of my favorite features of Ann’s writing is her ability to riff on gospel themes in ways that take me right to the core of the Truth — but in a new way.  Let this one soak into your tired heart:  “The wondrous order of Christianity isn’t ‘go and sin no more and Jesus won’t condemn you.’  The order of Christ and Christianity is ‘neither do I condemn you — go and sin no more.'”

Ann’s celebrity has taken her into hundreds of personal stories about gratitude and the positive changes that have grown from “eucharistic living.”  She has also been invited into the deep hurts of this world, and she responds by opening her own life and allowing readers to sit with her in her brokenness: a parking lot disappointment over a careless son’s failure to love; a broken-hearted mama loved Velveteen with tears running down cheeks like wrinkled silk; a texted rebuke — the faithful wounds of a true friend who doubted the reality of Ann’s highly polished love.

To “live given” is to live with vulnerability and humility — but out of that risk grows a harvest of true, biblical fellowship.  The message of The Broken Way  is that there is great yield from our yieldedness.

From the moment of conception, with the first cell division, the broken way begins.  Because tender hearts get scarred, coping mechanisms are implemented early on, and we seek warmth and light around our own small self-ignited flame — until, by grace, we learn the daring path into abundant life. The koinonia of mutual burden bearing,  forgiveness of the unforgivable, and the turn-around-in-your-tracks of repentance, Jesus first word of the Gospel, become the broken way home to God.

“Out of feeling lavishly loved by God, one can break and give away that lavish love — and know the complete fullness of love.

The miracle happens in the breaking.”

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Oil and Dew: Two Reasons to Give the Church Another Chance

When my husband and I were still a “young couple,” we used to laugh over an imagined scenario at our church:

“What ever happened to that young couple with all the boys?”

“Haven’t you heard?  They divorced – someone said that they just grew apart, that they didn’t know each other anymore.”

“No!  They were here at church all the time!  How could something like that have happened?”

Truly, it’s not funny, but we laughed because we knew that even though our church family loved us,  if we had said, “Yes,” to all the ministry opportunities that were pressed upon us,  it wouldn’t be long before this was our fate.  Fortunately, we were able to remember their love for us as we made decisions to become the guardians of our own margins and boundaries.

For many people, the church has a reputation to overcome.  It’s hard to trust The Body when you’ve been burned by its members.  For various reasons,   believers are staying home on Sunday mornings, and the experts say that only 20% of Americans attend church regularly.  Certainly, anyone who has done time in the pew can find a reason to gripe:  lack of appreciation; not liking the pastor/the music/the sermons/the color of the carpet; unsatisfying or turbulent relationships.   All of this should be no surprise to us, for even the healthiest, most vibrant fellowships are populated with . . .  well, sinners.  There’s really no one else to come to church!

[Please note:  I’m not talking about cases of spiritual abuse in which people who have no business being in ministry use their position to take advantage of others in order to meet their own needs.  I’m referring to interpersonal conflict, disagreements of style and method, and the misunderstandings that often lead to grudges.]

Even if you feel as if you have been burned by the body of Christ, the church is still God’s means of providing fellowship and spiritual food for His flock.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a single man whose life was cut short by a Nazi noose while he was still in his thirties, managed to capture the essence of fellowship in the body of Christ with these words:

“The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself . . .”

To me, this “speaking God’s Word” to one another is the way we stay on the path, the way we persevere in the life of faith.  In his book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer referenced Psalm 133, an anthem that celebrates unity and community, and, in the psalm, two metaphors emerge:

 1.  Oil:  a sign of God’s presence and a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

“Life together” for Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant that the believer is anointed by the Spirit to speak truth into the life of another because “Christ in his own heart” provides stability, making him a “bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.”

When I am allowing God to work in me, the oil of the Spirit lubricates my rusty, crusty, and complaining relational joints.  He keeps me from throwing sparks, and He smooths the places where my ideas rub roughly against another’s.

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brethren to dwell together in unity!  It is like the precious oil upon the head, Running down on the beard, The beard of Aaron, Running down on the edge of his garments,” (Psalm 133:1,2)

To be honest, my stain pre-treating, laundry-doing, 21st century heart quails at the mention of all that oil running onto Aaron’s robes, but for the sojourner, traveling to Jerusalem and singing Psalm 133 on the barren and dusty Judean roads, the song would have carried a message of refreshment and relief.  Likewise, the work of the Spirit in those who believingly follow Jesus in my church community provides renewal and refreshment for me.  Sharing the way God’s Word is changing them, testifying to the evidence of His active presence in their circumstances, they are precious oil, for even during times when God seems silent in my own world, I am encouraged by His “very present help” in their lives.

 2.  Dew:  a symbol of refreshment and blessing

Mount Hermon, with an altitude of over 9,000 feet, would have seen some dewy mornings, much to the envy of those living in barren, dry Jerusalem.

It is like the dew of Hermon, Descending upon the mountains of Zion; For there the Lord commanded the blessing— Life forevermore.  (Psalm 133:3)

In the same way, I am refreshed and renewed by the enthusiasm and spiritual hunger of the women in my Sunday school class.  From my “forever young” octogenarian to the twenty-somethings with their passion for outreach, each week their love for learning God’s Word and their compassionate impulses fuel my flagging spirit.

“How can I send help to that family who lost everything in the flooding?”

“Can we put together a special encouragement package for our pastor’s wife?  I’ll bring the basket!”

Oh, honey, yes!  Bring the basket!

Bring on the dew!

Let the oil of the Spirit run, and let this delightful community of faith flourish under His renewal, His strengthening, and  His encouragement!


Image credit:  Many thanks to Jen Ferguson.

Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

“Are We O.K.?”

 

Early in our marriage, my husband and I stumbled onto a means of cutting to the chase in determining the state of our union.  Protracted silences, a perceived “mood,” a brusque response, or an air of impatience always triggers THE QUESTION:  “Are we o.k.?”  Of course, the success of this little drill presupposes a level of honesty, transparency, and a willingness to change on both sides, but it has been a path toward maintaining our marital peace for nearly twenty-five years.

In Chapter 13 of John Owen’s Mortification of Sin, he warns against a false peace in our relationship with God.  “Take heed thou speakest not peace to thyself before God speaks it, but hearken what He says to thy soul.”  The impression I gained from this rather lengthy chapter was that our Christian life must be viewed as a relationship rather than as a transaction.  There is a tendency to base the entire foundation of one’s faith on a prayer that was prayed at the age of six, and, therefore, “I’m safe!  I can do as I please and know that I’m forgiven.”   This reduces the blood of Christ to a token that is slid into a vending machine for the prize of forgiveness.

The kind of thoughtful, discerning attentiveness to the Master’s voice which John Owen describes in Chapter 13 comes only through relationship.  “Faith knows the voice of Christ” in the same way the sheep know the shepherd’s voice.  If the relationship is otherwise sound and being maintained through regular communion in the Word of God and a right understanding of it, a vibrant prayer life, and a ready obedience, then the least grain of sand in the works of that relationship will bring the gears to a grinding halt, prompting the question:  “Are we ok?”

When forgiveness of sins is transactional instead of relational, it is possible for the wound of sin to be healed lightly.  However, if the heart of the believer is committed to “acquaintance and communion with Him, you will easily discern between his voice and the voice of a stranger.”   If prayer is a formula in which forgiveness of sin is listed along with a variety of other requests, then the voice of the stranger may be our own feelings, speaking peace to us because of a callous conscience.  (What would you do to a friend who lied to you as often as your feelings have?)  But if prayer is a time in which the heart is present to God in submission to the searchlight of His Spirit and the washing of His Word, the conviction of peace can be trusted.

Joining with friends at #livefreeThursday!  Won’t you meet us there?