Community, worship & the wisdom of Wendell Berry

One of our sanest writers is Wendell Berry. His contribution as a Christian essayist to the environmental movement has been unique and profound. His poetry, especially his Sabbaths collection, is evocative and wise. But it’s his fiction that has shaped my imagination, especially when it comes to Christian expressions of community and worship.

Berry prefers the word membership over community. Our word membership arises directly from the biblical text. “So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5). This member/body language is key to Paul’s understanding of Christian community in his major letters of Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians.

Berry imports this metaphor into his stories about his fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. The town itself is a membership. Each person participating in the larger life of the community — even if they don’t want to.

In one case, a pretty woman thinks she’s too good for Port William, believing that she ought to be a celebrity in California. The disdain she feels toward Port William is reflected in the disdain some feel toward their church communities. There are always those who are a part of a community while looking down their noses at that community.

At the same time, there are those who live among a community but never become a part of the membership. Interestingly, it’s the pastors in Berry’s stories who never enter in. They are aloof and above the membership, often using the Port William church as a stepping stone from seminary to a church in a bigger city. This leads readers to wonder how many pastors skate over the surface of community without ever taking part in it. I’m guessing that it’s far too many.

It’s a shared place and shared lives that weave a group of people into a membership. But it’s Berry short novel Remembering that best helps us to understand how community/membership works.

In Remembering, young Andy Catlett loses a hand to a farm machine. He’s literally dismembered. His response is to pull back from the community, dis-membering himself from relationships. He then heads to a farm journalism convention in San Francisco, further dis-membering himself by physical distance. There, his dis-membering is completed when he throws away his prosthetic hand. It’s the low, dark place of the story. The place of isolation.

But Andy begins the process of re-membering himself to the community through an act of memory. He remembers. And as he remembers the story of the community, he connects himself to the community again. This is the tipping act from which everything else follows.

From this act of memory, he begins the journey back home, re-membering himself by removing physical distance. And once he arrives in Port William, he embraces the town and those who have loved him, erasing the emotional dismemberment with this final act of re-membering. His hand is still gone, but Andy as a person is fully re-membered.

The key biblical word for maintaining covenant relationships is (yep, you guessed it) remembering.

After the Flood: “I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:15).

Before the Exodus: “So God heard their groaning; and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 2:24).

Before entering the Promised Land: “For the LORD your God is a compassionate God; he will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which he swore to them” (Deuteronomy 4:31).

The forever nature of God’s covenant and memory of it: “He has remembered his covenant forever; the word which he commanded to a thousand generations” (Psalm 105:8).

But not only does God remember his covenant, we are to remember our covenant with him as well. This is what our worship gatherings are all about.

Like Andy Catlett, we remember our stories not so much to learn how to behave (though that is an element of them), but to remember who we are. As Andy remembers the stories of Port William, he reconnects with the membership. These stories of others have become his story. So, remembering them is to remember himself.

When we gather together as church and retell the stories of God, we remember who we are as God’s people. The biblical story has become our story and we are reconnected to God in our retelling. But not only are we reconnected with God, we are reconnected with one another. We become the membership again.

It is fitting that the central piece of furniture in many church buildings is a table with the words “In remembrance of me” carved into it. Communion is not just a tiny snack. It’s an act of communal memory. As we participate in the Lord’s Table, we remember the central and defining act in the formation of the worldwide, history-spanning membership of Jesus.

In offering himself in the breaking of his body and the spilling of his blood, Jesus takes broken and spilled out lives and forms us into one whole body. We become members of one another as we become members of his body.

Christian community is formed by Jesus and sustained by worship, where we remember his story, which has become our story.