I love reading Wendell Berry. So many times I have savored my way through a paragraph, reread it to make sure I took in as much as I could, and then just sat there in wonder at his ability to make the people of his novels come alive with his words. I break the tenth commandment every time I read him, but I love it.
In his book “A Place on Earth,” one of the most poignant and pastorally painful scenes is one where the Port William preacher goes to pay a visit to a family grieving the death of their son. Seeking to comfort them, he speaks eloquently of the Heavenly City where their son has been welcomed and is now at peace. But as true as his words may be, he realizes he fails them. His words –the Word – has failed to become flesh. His words and his life stand apart from the reality of their grief and loss.
“He came away from the Feltner house grieved by the imperfection of his visit. It was not, as he had hoped it would be, a conversation. It was a sermon. This is the history of his life in Port William. The Word, in his speaking it, fails to be made flesh. It is a failure particularized for him in the palm of every work-stiffened hand held out to him at the church door every Sunday morning – the hard dark hand taking his pale unworn one in a gesture of politeness without understanding. He belongs to the governance of those he ministers to without belonging to their knowledge, the bringer of the Word preserved from flesh.”
The hope of the grieving family, and their sorrow, lies “in this world, and in the bonds of their own love.”
As a pastor, I feel for the pastor. I can recall the times that words I have uttered – even good words of hope – have failed to cross the divide into the sadness and brokenness of the person in front of me. We work each week to craft words that we hope will inspire, that will make a difference in even one life, let alone this crazy world. But we wonder. Are our words, wrestled each week onto paper and out of a pulpit, God’s Word? And do those words ever become flesh – in our lives and in the lives of those around us?
I’m not to the end of the book yet. I’m still hoping for some lift before the end – some relief for the suffering family – some sign of the Word made flesh.
I hope and pray for it here and in our chaotic world as well.
Dan Love is Co-Pastor at the Rye Presbyterian Church.