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Saturday, 4 December 2010

Wendell Berry and pastoral theology - Part 3

As discussed in the two earlier blogs on this theme, Wendell Berry has provided us with some closely observed and challenging accounts of pastoral care, in which a one way relationship often assumed on such occasions is challenged and something closer to a mutuality is demonstrated, a mutuality that challenges the expectations of the clergy involved.

In a recent engaging collection of essays, Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven's Earthly Life edited by Joel James Shuman and Roger L Owens, (for an interesting review of the book see the review "Living the Incarnation" by Ragan Sutterfield) there is an essay by the Baptist minister Kyle Childress "Proper Work: Wendell Berry and the Practice of Ministry".

Berry is a farmer. How, asks Childress, are we to read him as a pastoral theologian?

"I engage Berry as a guide to good pastoral ministry" says Childress, "by starting where he starts, with his place. Place is a beginning from which to counter disincarnate forms of the Christian faith that raise the hackles of Wendell Berry and go against the grain of biblical faith that is lived out in the flesh."(p.73)

Childress reported that he wanted to commit to a congregation for the long haul - to pastor like Berry farms. "Just as Berry committed to staying on the farm, somewhere along the way I decided I needed to do the same - commit to a particular congregation of people over the long haul." (p.73)

The chapter is a report that bounces Childress's experience of pastoral ministry over 15 years at a Baptist church in rural Texas against insights from Berry's writing particularly his stories and novels.
Instead of designing  a blueprint for how the farm ought to be and then reworking the farm to fit the design, Berry pays attention to the particularities of the land itself and listen to others who might have wisdom about what has worked well in this place and what has not.  He works patiently and humbly and lovingly. There is a kind of "hermeneutics of farming" similar to the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder's hermeneutics of peoplehood", in which one patiently and humbly listens to the sense of the congregation and the Bible and the Spirit in a particular context.  (p.76)
Childress explains what this has meant for him with regard to dealing with issue of racism. He started out in the full prophetic "thus says the Lord" mode.  But after  conflict and near brawls with some people ... I began to pay attention to my congregation and to what God was saying through themas well as to them. I began to learn he says, to do a hermeneutics of peoplehood, sitting on front porches, and working gardens with the people, and drinking iced tea afterward while listening to their stories, including their stories of race and fear. As a result my preaching and teaching changed. I still talked about race, but how I talked about it was different. My sermons began to grow out of a conversation between the people and the Bible and the place where we lived. (p.76)

Childress points that while Berry's writing is drenched with the Bible, one of the key stories and images is that of the lost sheep and the lost son in Luke 15. These stories provide a lens through which he explores how he sees what community, friendship and the extended family look like. Stories that reflect these images include "Making it Home" in which a lost son who has been away at the war is journeying back home, "Thicker than Liquor" is about a nephew seeking his lost drunk uncle and bringing him home, "Watch with Me" is an account of a community watching out for a lost member who has had a "spell" come over him and concludes with a sermon from the one who was lost on the parable from the point of view of the sheep that was lost.

This is truly a counter - cultural account of what pastoral care is all about in shaping ministry by the images of being an attentive patient farmer and in the rejection of the model of a professional career with the implication of needing to move on and climb the ladder.

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