The Gift of Belonging
Wendell Berry’s book, Jayber Crow, is set in the 1930’s and centers on a small-town Kentucky barber who bears the title’s name. More broadly, the story is about the whole membership of that town as Berry refers to it elsewhere. For in Berry’s estimation, individuals are interesting, important, and even worthy of recording in story; but it is only when individuals are bound together in community that they become fully human. The man who belongs to others and to a world bigger than himself is a rich man - a man truly alive in the midst of a people truly alive.
At one point, Berry takes up the story of Athey Keith, a highly respected and very fruitful farmer. Late in life, Athey and his wife have their only child, a beautiful daughter by the name of Mattie. In time, Mattie marries a boy from town, Troy Chattham. Together, the newlyweds moved to Athey’s farm where Troy began working both as an apprentice of his new father-in-law.
But from the very start, the apprenticeship, the inheritance of land, the inheritance of knowledge, and the legacy of the family were all doomed.
Berry skillfully sums up the devastation with one brief paragraph:
Athey was not exactly, or not only, what is called a ‘landowner.’ He was the farm’s farmer, but also it’s creature and belonging. He lived its life, and it lived his; he knew that, of the two lives, his was meant to be the smaller and shorter. Of all this, Troy had no idea, no suspicion. He thought the farm existed to serve and enlarge him.
Reading these words laid me bare. In them, I saw my character and my desires for what they indeed are.
You could just as well confuse me for Berry’s character, Troy – this dead-beat son-in-law of Athey Keith. Like him, I have drunk deeply of our current age and its worship of self. (Or maybe that’s simply the snake-oil of every age.) Like Troy, I believe that freedom comes from being master and commander of all: beholden to nothing and no one. Like Troy, I’m inclined to look upon people and positions and wonder how they serve to enlarge me. And it continually escapes me – as it did Troy – that this freedom can come in belonging to something bigger than yourself. Yet Athey knew something completely different. He knew that the seemingly small life of belonging to family, land, neighbors, and vocation is a rich life.
In hearing those words about the elder, Athey, I am moved both to repentance and longing. Forgive me Lord for I long to be a man like this Athey, and yet I am not.
And so I made my mark here in my copy of Jayber Crow – the whole paragraph underlined. It made its mark on me, and so I returned the favor. But of the two marks, it’s the first mark that is stronger. For even after I put this book back up on the shelf, it was this passage that kept coming to mind. When a friend asked me what I thought about the book, it was this passage that I reached for once more.
And it was this passage that again came to me a few weeks later, but this time, on the far side of repentance and longing. It came with joy and homecoming. I had picked up Luther’s Small Catechism and happened to be doing some work on the Apostle’s Creed – the three-part confession of the person and works of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Luther lets each of the three articles stand on their own, and then he asks of each one, What does this mean? So what does it mean to say that we believe in Jesus Christ, the Father’s only Son, our Lord?
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.
Did you catch some of the good news in there about the membership of Jesus? Jesus redeems those condemned like me. Jesus purchases and wins a people to be His own – to belong to Him – and to live with Him as his people. He hasn’t left me, or you, or us, to the doom of belonging to ourselves or any other false master. He gives us a life to live and a place to serve in a kingdom that is bigger than us, a kingdom of his own making that includes us. Jesus makes us fully human and exceedingly rich by making us alive and giving us a people to belong to. And Jesus has accomplished all of this and secured it by his suffering and dying, and by his rising and giving gifts of life, forgiveness, and salvation.
Wendell Berry may have had the brilliant words with which to mark the distinction between a Troy and an Athey; me and the me I want to be. But Jesus has the gifts and the goods by which he makes new men and new women out of the old ones. He makes saints out of sinners through his suffering, death, and resurrection. He makes a people belonging to Him in this life and in the next.
He has done this for me. He has done this for you. Thank God for His gift of Christ Jesus our Lord.