Stepping onto the Common Ground — Jayber Crow Discussion Group (5)

I’ve spent the past week reconnecting with my sister.
She lives in Alaska. I live in Maine.
She has one grown daughter, while I’ve spent the past 23 years living in a boys’ dormitory.
She has lovely nails and her wardrobe demonstrates an awareness of the comings and goings of  style. My hands and my clothing reveal that I have a big garden and are consistent with a life that is lived close to the ground.

For this week, my sister and I have stepped onto the common ground of a shared childhood, a common faith, and the glorious dance of genetic material that rendered her a soprano and me an alto. Geography, being deeply rooted in opposite extremes of the continent, has presented its challenges to our relationship, but isn’t it true that even those who share a zip code can struggle to find common ground?

Be a Conscientious Objector

The combined effects of war and grief formed the common ground of 1940’s-era Port William. When the indignity of a 4-F classification prevented Jayber from “sharing the fate” of his community through active military service, he “felt disgraced by [his] failure to be able to do what [he] did not want to do.”

In a world slowly being populated by special snowflakes who make much of their preferences and feel entitled somehow to special handling (I am not without guilt here), Jayber’s stance on the war effort is remarkable. He did not want to participate in the war, but . . .

“I had a conscientious objection to making an exception of myself.”

This is the kind of conscientious objector I long to be. By contrast, I have an uncanny ability to read the commandments of God and to apply them with skill to others — and then to find a loop hole that excuses my own disobedience.

Fear and Grief

Jayber joins C.S.Lewis in the observation that fear and grief are curiously linked.

From Chapter 1 of A Grief Observed:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.”

And this from Jayber:

“There were many new things to be known and talked about, but nobody spoke of fear. And when grief began to come in and replace fear, the grieved, out of consideration for the fearful, did not speak of grief.”

In tragedy, we are forced to come to terms with seeing “everything as eligible to be lost.” Or, as dear Mat Feltner put it after his son Virgil was reported missing in action, “Everything that will shake has got to be shook.” We feel this as well, when the people and things we thought of as “permanent” begin to disappear. Even tragedies that come to us from a distance (Las Vegas, Puerto Rico) usher in their own brand of fear and grief. Our right response for banishing fear is the “reverence and awe” the writer of Hebrews recommends as we thank God for the reality of His unshakable kingdom.

For Worse — and for Still Worse

Jayber can’t seem to shake the feeling of being despised by Cecelia Overhold, and Wendell Berry gave Jayber an entire chapter to explore the weight of failure that surrounds the Overhold marriage. Oddly, the bachelor barber serves as a handy target for all Cecelia’s disappointment in her husband Ray.

And isn’t it interesting that in all the varied Membership of Port William, there are only two individuals who are painted with an entirely negative brush: Cecelia Overhold and Troy Chatham? Jayber’s resentment of Troy does not do him much credit, but, without giving anything away, I will defend Jayber by saying that events which are yet to come in future chapters have colored Jayber-the-Narrator’s memories of Troy. Our minds are tricky that way, for our knowledge of a person over time can throw a long shadow over what we remember about them from the past.

So, in spite of Jayber’s ambivalence about The War (and all wars) and his determination to come back to Jesus’ instruction to “love our enemies” (142-143), he finds this harder to live out with individuals than with theoretical enemies — who don’t rub him the wrong way in real life.

And so I find myself stepping onto common ground with our friend Jayber. I want to be hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Love your enemies,” and then choose to have “a conscientious objection to making an exception of myself.”

Questions to Ponder

What do you think of Jayber’s thoughts on Miss Gladdie’s grief? He describes Miss Gladdie as “the keeper and protector of the grief by which she cherished what she had lost.” There seems to be wisdom in this, particularly for those who want to hurry their way through a loss, to “get to the other side of it” so that life can return to “normal again.” Maybe it’s just my practical nature, but I enjoy thinking about grief as a means of cherishing, a way of saying, “This loss is worth this much sadness.”

On page 152, Jayber’s thoughts on the church are all tangled up with his strong reaction to Roy and Cecelia’s marriage, but there’s something of value in what he says about mis-uses of the church: as a venue for snubbing the “unworthy,” as a place of discomfort and ill-fitting piety, and as a “lion tamer’s chair.” (153) How’s your relationship with the local church? Does it inspire you to more faithful obedience? Have you walked through hard seasons with the church gathered?

Did you notice Jayber’s story-telling style changes on page 134 when he begins to share his Mattie memories? He goes into a very structured voice: “I will call back now and lay in a row some passages of my early knowledge of Mattie Keith . . .”  Coming where it does, it landed on my ears as a non sequitur. What does all this have to do with the words that comprise one of my favorite Jayber quotes?

“I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led — make of that what you will.”

I think that in making this connection here, Jayber is tipping his hand about his understanding of his own calling, but remember, he’s writing from the perspective of the future as a 72 year old man.

When I remember that the cloud and the fire led Israel into the wilderness, it helps me to view my own wandering path with a little more grace. And the truth is that sometimes we see the beauty and necessity of our pilgrimage best from the rear view mirror.

I look forward to reading your thoughts so be sure to share insights, blog posts, your response to the discussion questions, and stories from your own experience in the comment space below!

I’ll be here next Thursday (October 12) having read Chapters 15-17.

Here’s the schedule for future discussion topics:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
OCTOBER 5……………………CHAPTERS 12-14
OCTOBER 12………………….CHAPTERS 15-17
OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32

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Sacred Ordinary/Ordinary Sacred

Annie Dillard has (famously) said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  This is a cautionary saying for those of us who live our days as the sandwich-makers, the sock sorters, and the finders of misplaced library books.  Therefore, Liturgy of the Ordinary has landed upon my reading list like a benediction, for in Tish Harrison Warren’s words, I hear the husky contralto sound track of Peggy Lee’s musical question “Is That All There Is?” Thanks be to God, Tish arrives at a resounding “No!”  The daily, mundane tasks that comprise civilization and self-maintenance on this planet are clearly not “all there is.”  On the contrary, they are shot through with the sacred — even all the repetitive and seemingly Sisyphean tasks that, while admittedly are sacrificial, seem hardly to be sacramental.

Liturgy of the Ordinary pushes back against the dualism that differentiates between answering emails and writing sermons, between talking theology over coffee and talking science fair project over milk and cookies because, for believers, ministry and everyday life are “intrinsically part of one another,” (p. 89).

Trish celebrates the reality that the spiritual disciplines that sustain the following life are quiet, reflective, and homely.  The trappings of devotion, even the elements of the Eucharist, can be found in any North American kitchen, and the inhale and exhale of communion with God around a verse of Scripture can, literally, be done with one’s eyes closed.

Since liturgy is, by definition, “the work of the people,” the faithful have been commissioned to do whatever is needful in the name of Christ.  Tish’s liberating thesis works itself out in the unfolding of the ordinary day of a wife, mum, ministry professional, and friend, a woman who chafes against the routine, who longs for a good night’s sleep, and who delights in the simple beauty of a vanilla steamer alongside a great novel.

The Glory of the Embodied Life

When we wake, no matter how  we wake (instantly bolt upright or groping toward consciousness), we begin our day beloved by God, and the staggering truth is that nothing we do in the course of each day will either magnify or diminish that standing.  Beginning each new day echoes that “first gleam of dawn” which characterizes “the path of the righteous” (Proverbs 4:18) at the outset of the Christian life.

Careening toward the age when it takes twice as long in front of a mirror to look half as good, it is a joyful thing to be reminded that “what we do with our bodies and what we do with our souls are always entwined,” (p. 39).  In taking on flesh, Christ decimated the false notion that the body is an evil burden and not worthy of respectful treatment and conscientious care. 

“Because of the embodied work of Jesus, my body is destined for redemption and for eternal worship – for eternal skipping and jumping and twirling and hand raising and kneeling and dancing and singing and chewing and tasting,” (p. 48).

capture

Tish Harrison Warren writes of the believer’s “everyday work of shalom”; of the “third way” in which we are neither Mary nor Martha, but are delighted to find our worship and our work as one; of the ministry of friendship, the sacrament of coffee, as well as the gift of rest.

I hope that you will click on over to Englewood Review of Books to finish reading my thoughts on this remarkable book in which Tish draws a clear line of connection between the activities of her daily routine and the pursuit of holiness.

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This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press,  in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Come Together for the Better

Weekly we gather — seldom daily as they did in New Testament times, the era of ravenous lions and Nero’s flaming, pitch-dipped Christians, human torches to light his gardens.  Lugging our three pound Bibles and a week’s worth of accumulated angst, we gather, having in common our hearts of flesh and likely the scar tissue where hearts of stone rubbed us raw in time past.

“Coming together” Paul calls it at least four times in his Corinthian communiqué, and he chides that congregation for coming together “for the worse.”  By contrast, he launches into what amounts to a reenactment of Jesus’ last Passover celebration in the Upper Room with words that have worn grooves in the church’s collective memory.  “This do in remembrance of Me.”

According to John MacArthur, Paul’s account of Jesus’ last Passover celebration in the Upper Room pre-dates the Gospels, making it the first written record of the event from which we pattern our modern day communion service.  Paul received the story that the eye-witnesses would write about later.  Let that sink in for a moment:  post-crucifixion, post-resurrection, post-ascension, Paul was given the privilege of writing about an event he would never have been invited to at the time.

The bread and the cup had once been the centerpiece of the early church’s coming together.  However, in keeping with human nature, it had become a hollow shell.  Indifferent, ritualistic, unrepentant, and greedy, the Corinthians gobbled bread and slurped wine without a thought for Christ’s sacrifice.  It was Paul’s intent to fill that tradition with meaning once again.

Can we say that what happens when we “come together” each week is “for the better” — for the enhancement, the building up of the Body?  Oh, we will not do it perfectly.  Not now.  Not on this planet.  But do we listen more than we speak?  Do we ask questions like a bridge from heart to heart —  and then really pay attention to the answers that travel back to us on that bridge?  Can we bear in mind that the point of our gathering has very little to do with order of service or music style or whose turn it is to serve in the nursery?

Whatever our tradition — bread cubes and grape juice, matzo and wine, daily, weekly, or monthly — when we gather “for the better,” we receive the story anew.  We lift up the Gospel of Truth and put the wonder of incarnation on display, demonstrating that we are committed to a Kingdom that is both already and not-yet.

Here in New England, church attendance is no longer a cultural norm.  Unbelievers (and even some Christians) have accounted for the church in the column labeled “irrelevant,” but — whether by curiosity or by compulsion — if an unbeliever enters our fellowship, what would be his impression of our “coming together?”  It’s no surprise that Paul had thoughts on this.  His goal was that an “outsider” be convicted, called to account, and overcome by the reality of God’s presence.

If awe is a contagious condition, is anyone who wanders into my fellowship at risk?

Are the bread and the cup, the ministry of the Word, the lifting of voices, and the offering of gifts an empty tradition, a hollow shell —  or does grace flow like wine?

Are hearts nourished with the Living Bread until the truth overflows and splashes, soaking believers and unbelievers alike with the glorious outcome of having come together “for the better.”

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Blind Spots: A Book Review

The perversity of human nature shows up even in our strengths.  If it is in my DNA to stand valiantly for truth, I will likely trample the unenlightened.  If my heart bleeds for the underdog, I may provide for them a comfortable path to hell.  If the world is my personal mission field, I may accomplish my goals by building a program of iron that even God himself would not choose to circumvent.  In Blind Spots, Collin Hansen explores this tendency within the church, offering Christ as the plumb line, the point at which courage, compassion, and commission converge.  The degree to which one deviates from His perfect unity is the degree to which one’s blind spots will hold sway.  Could this be why those who believingly follow Jesus are viewed as oppressive or self-interested, when we set out to be ambassadors of peace?

Depending on whom you ask, the failing of the church is either a lack of courage, a failure of compassion, or a breakdown in our resolution to fulfill the Great Commission.  Rather than addressing the issue as a multiple choice quiz and re-casting Jesus in our own image, Collin Hansen urges believers of all stripes to represent the heart, the head, AND the hands of Jesus  in our efforts to be salt and light.blind-spots-chart-07As the graphic demonstrates, no matter what strengths I bring to the kingdom of God, the little red wagon that follows behind me will tote a load of offsetting weaknesses that can serve only to undermine my best attempts at relevant ministry.  Even in Scripture, Paul the Commissioned ran roughshod over John Mark in his impatience to win the lost, while Peter the Compassionate Compromiser feasted on BLT’s with the Gentiles, but tried to hold the line on the Law when in the company of the Judaizers.

Having acknowledged our differences, we must embrace the opportunity they represent, resist the urge to divide, and chart a course that most nearly follows the way of Christ.  Hanson probes with a question:  “Can the love of Christ truly enable me to love a Christian who sins differently than I do?”

Blind Spots  helps us to see that abiding in Christ is the best defense against division, for it is a way that expects opposition but “seeks unity among believers for the sake of the world,” a unity that weeps over the world’s brokenness, but then stops to pick up the pieces.  Following the tradition of William Wilberforce whose war on slavery should foreshadow a battle plan against present-day sex-trafficking, we need “courage to raid a brothel in Bangkok and rescue the women, compassion to nurture them to physical health,” and a commissioned heart to “coordinate an awareness campaign and mobilize the public.”

It is the work of the kingdom that is at stake, and it is God’s glory that will be advanced when His church refuses to separate what God has joined together.  Collin Hansen, in the business of raising a son, has set forth a hope that I share for my own four sons, and for my grandson:  ” . . . that [they] might learn to love and trust the Lord Jesus Christ in a courageous, compassionate, and commissioned church.”

Amen.  Let it be so.


For help in identifying your own blind spots, take the Blind Spots Quiz offered by Crossway!

This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my honest review.

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