What do Wendel Berry and Dale Woods have in common?

What do Wendel Berry and Dale Woods have in common?

Wendell Berry’s poem New Come, We Took Fieldsdiscusses the damage caused by over-zealous farmers who were—it turns out—under zealous regarding sustainability and viability by cutting down woods in an effort to have more cultivatable land; and the long process of bringing the land back to health. One stanza caught my attention when I recently saw him reading it (on youtube)

By leaving it alone, we are

In a manner forgiven. And yet

We must wait long, long—

How much longer than we

Will live?—for the return of what

Is gone, not of the past

Forever lost, but of health,

The promise of life in land

Remade finally whole.

 I couldn’t help, as a Christian leader, but translate the issue into the church world. The longing for a pristine past is a big theme in my world these days. As Berry longs for the land to be healthy and fruitful, so too, many Christians long for such a reality in our churches. We must be careful with the analogy, not let it take us too far. For many today the longed for health happened in this lifetime, Sunday schools full of pupils, pews full of people, ladies guilds with power, men’s’ groups that held men accountable, pot-lucks, plays, large musical performances and all the other trappings of the Christendom heyday.

To go back that far is not to go far enough. Not only because those times have proven to be as anemic or short-lived as the fields wrongly cleared and not long productive (where are all those kids now?) but because we really do have an earlier day to yearn for. Before looking at that I should say that I do not believe laying blame is a helpful practice, either on the poor old farmers who struggled to grow a crop big enough to feed their families nor on those blessed church leaders who did what they thought was best at the time. Blame laying, if it belongs anywhere, belongs on those who are flippant, unintentional, or who should know better, those whose errors come from laziness.

A time of fruitfulness, godliness, faithfulness, of miracles, and of community is what we are looking for. We read about it in the early church as described in the Book of Acts. The answer to the question, “what would health look like,” is a complicated one for the farmer or anyone who would study forests in more than a cursory manner. Just so, the answer to the question, “what would a healthy church look like today,” is a complicated one for any pastor, church leader, or congregant who would study church health in more than a cursory manner. In both cases pre-conceived ideas are in the way and many will stop at those, but for the person willing to dig deeper, the water is quickly muddied.

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Dale Woods, of Presbyterian College, once told me that he was willing to struggle away in what is often considered an irrelevant institution (the seminary) because he had faith in God and trusted that while he would not likely see the shore God had in mind, he would row his section. Berry captures this

We must wait long, long—

How much longer than we

Will live?—

Perhaps we will not be able to agree on a vision, on a set of quantifiable goals, boxes we can check off, that will tell us we have a clean bill of health. Perhaps the best we can do is to trust in the God who created the universe, to place our hopes in him and to walk humbly (avoid doing too much harm and have grace for those who came before us and will come after us), act justly (as best we can), and to love mercy (seeing as how we need it just as much as the next person). Wait! I think I read that somewhere before…

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