I was in seminary, part of a small, neighborhood church in a blue collar neighborhood of north Lexington, Kentucky, when the pastor of our church handed me a xeroxed copy of a Wendell Berry essay. I had studied literature in college and had come across the name before, but had never read any of his work.
Something about this stuck with me, though I don’t remember the particular essay. My experience in this church was deeply forming me in regards to what it means to love my neighbor, my next-door neighbor in my neighborhood, what it means to be a church in a particular place, that relocating to a place for the sake of God’s mission was something people did.
It was some time later that I finally picked up a collection of Berry’s essays, The Art of the Commonplace. There was something to this worldview of his that made complete sense to me. Maybe it was living in Kentucky. Though I’ve read extensively in the missional theology literature of the last twenty years, I don’t think any of it has hit me and shaped me to think about God’s mission in a place quite like the essay “On Native Hill” that appears in that volume.
It’s not an essay about missiology or theology or ministry. Rather, it’s about coming home, about culture, about farming. It’s about soil and land and people and being a faithful steward of the place where you live. And yet, in the same way Jesus’ parables used agriculture to communicate the ways of God’s kingdom, this speaks to me powerfully about the ways God works in the world.
My family and I have recently moved with the purpose of joining God in the neighborhood, feeling it’s rhythms, rooting ourselves in its soil, living into a place. We do this to be witnesses of God’s presence here, and so I find myself going back to “On Native Hill” to remind myself why we’re here.
“We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits.”
I often come at the world with the assumption that what is good for me is good for the world, so I appreciate Berry flipping this script. What if what’s good for the neighborhood is what’s good for me? Can I revel in the necessary humility to receive from the world around me, to listen, and to admit that I don’t yet know what’s best for me, much less the neighborhood?
Jeremiah 29 has been a formational passage in this regard. As we seek the shalom of the neighborhood, we “cooperate in its processes, we yield to its limits.” There are natural, sustainable, slow rhythms of life in which God is already at work. Do I give in to them? Do I fight and resist them? Does the church plant plan or the new ministry initiative take into account the ways God is already at work?
“It was in the woods here along Camp Branch that Bill White, my grandfather’s Negro hired hand, taught me to hunt squirrels…. The rule seemed to be that if I wanted to stay with him, I had to make no noise. If I did he would look back and make a downward emphatic gesture with his hand, as explicit as writing: Be quiet, or go home…. He taught me to look and to listen and to be quiet.“
What an image of the role of the Holy Spirit in our missional work—the guide that teaches us to look and to listen and to be quiet. I imagine the Holy Spirit has a tremendous affection for the world, for our neighborhoods, for the places in which we find ourselves.
There’s a sense of wonder I want to learn, a deep love for the beauty in this place and its people. This is the Spirit’s garden where I am a guest. How do I make space for the Spirit to teach me in this place rather than acting out my own favorite strategies and techniques and plans? We tread lightly. There’s so much to learn. Be quiet or go home.
“I have grown able to be wholeheartedly present here. I am able to sit and be quiet at the foot of some tree here in this woods along Camp Branch, and feel a deep peace, both in the place and in my awareness of it, that not too long ago I was not conscious of the possibility of. This peace is partly in being free of the suspicion that pursued me for most of my life, no matter where I was, that there was perhaps another place I should be, or would be happier or better in; it is partly in the increasingly articulate consciousness of being here, and of the significance and importance of being here.”
I’ve spent much of my life wishing I was somewhere else—planning for the next phase, begging and pleading for the next season, eyes ever on what happens next. There’s a craft and skill to sitting peacefully in the present place and moment, to relishing where I am.
To be wholeheartedly present here. I recently heard someone say, “Why do I always assume that the grass is always greener where you, God, have not watered it?” There is purpose in my presence here and now. There is peace in being present here.
“Though Heaven is certainly more important than the earth if all they say about it is true, it is still morally incidental to it and dependent on it, and I can only imagine it and desire it in terms of what I know of the the earth. And so my questions do not aspire beyond the earth. They aspire toward it and into it. Perhaps they aspire through it.“
Substitute “the neighborhood” for the “the earth” in the above paragraph and it hits home. The prophet Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles urges them to seek the shalom of the city. Their spiritual work is physical participation in the life of the city, to work for its thriving.
Do my questions lead me into the lives of those who walk up and down the sidewalk in front of my house? Do they lead me into the homes of my next door neighbors, into the imaginations of the children playing outside, into the stories of the elderly who have lived here their whole adult lives?
“[The topsoil] is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of season over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. Death is the bridge or the tunnel by which its past enters its future.”
What grows in this place? What grows here is determined by the unique soil and climate. Consider this topsoil as a metaphor for the local neighborhood church—a faithful, patient, peaceful presence generation after generation: “It increases by experience, by the passage of season over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness.”
This reminds of Alan Kreider’s The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. Over the long haul, faithful commitment to the gospel in a place outlasts demographic trends and fads, strategies and techniques, consultants and gurus.
It’s also reminiscent of the creation story of Genesis 2 when out of the topsoil (adamah), God creates the first human being (adam). We are soil. We are earthy beings. We grow and we offer life. In fact, these creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 have much to inform and guide living missionally in the neighborhood.
“A man ought to study the wilderness of a place before applying to it the ways he learned in another place.”
To be a Christian in a place, especially a pastor or church planter, is to be a student of that place. We hold in one hand the stories of God from Scripture, and in the other, we hold the stories of the neighborhood. We learn the history, both the good and the bad, the popular and the untold and forgotten. We learn the wounds and scars and the gifts and graces.
While theological education programs, conferences, podcasts, and certifications all have their place, the neighborhood shows us how the Kingdom of God grows in this place. We may very well find that we learn how to articulate the gospel in the neighborhood more from the local elementary school than from the seminary in another state.
“Too much that we do is done at the expense of something else, or somebody else. There is some intransigent destructiveness in us. My days, though I think I know better, are filled with a thousand irritations, worries, regrets for what has happened and fears for what may, trivial duties, meaningless torments—as destructive of my life as if I wanted to be dead. Take today for what it is, I counsel myself. Let it be enough.
“And I dare not, for fear that if I do, yesterday will infect tomorrow. We are in the habit of contention—against the world, against each other, against ourselves.
“It is not from ourselves that we will learn to be better than we are.”
We will learn to be better than we are from the presence of Jesus among us. If the gospel stories are any indication, his presence may be hidden in plain sight. It may be that flicker on the edge of our field of vision. But we know it when we see it around our tables—our local church communion tables and our dining room tables.
To follow the news, our neighborhoods are desperate for healing. We find this healing not in our own clever and innovative ideas, but in joining up with the God who is putting all things back together.
There is much wisdom in these words.
Find yourself a place that you love the way Berry loves these acres near Port Royal, KY. But don’t love an abstract place, the disembodied idea of things. Love people. Love neighbors. Love children. Love shut-ins. Be available. Be vulnerable. Be embedded in the community fabric of that place. Be nourished in the unique soil of the place.
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