Jayber Crow

And you couldn’t forget that all the people in Port William, if they lived long, would come there burdened and leave empty-handed many times, and would finally come and stay empty-handed…. I think whenever we stand before something larger than ourselves – being immersed in a small, yet majestic corner of creation, watching a child being born, standing in a graveyard where loved ones are buried, hearing about oppression – we feel the tension that Jayber speaks: “I wanted to make my heart as big as Heaven to include them all and love them and not be distracted.

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I’m reading a novel called Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry.

Jayber Berry is a brilliant essayist and poet. Eugene Peterson, author of the The Message, has been reported to have said that every pastor needs to read every work written by Berry. Wow!

The novel is set mostly in the small town of Port William, Kentucy in the 1930’s. The story is about a young man named Jayber Crow and his life’s search. His search begins as a ‘pre-ministerial student.’ While in seminary, he realizes that he has questions that do not have easy answers. In fact, he has a conversation with a professor who tells him, “You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers.”

Jayber ultimately becomes the barber in Port William. It is there that he lives out his questions and discovers that while the answers don’t come easy, they are embedded in the life of the community. There is a very poignant section when Jayber talks about how he also became the town’s gravedigger and how it impacts his life:

“Barbering is a social business; it involves conversation just about by necessity. For me, grave digging was a solitary business… It was hard work, and often it was sad work, for as a rule I would be digging and filling the grave of somebody I knew; often it would be the grave of somebody I liked or loved.

“It was a strange thing to cut out the blocks of sod and then dig my way to the dark layer where the dead lie. I feel a little uneasy in calling them ‘the dead,’ for I am as mystified as anybody by the transformation known as death, and the Resurrection is more real to me than most things I have not yet seen. I understand that people’s dead bodies are not exactly them, and yet as I dug down to where they were, I would be mindful of them, and respectful, and would feel a curious affection for them all. They all had belonged here once, and they were so much more numerous than the living. I thought and thought about them. It was endlessly moving to me to walk among the stones, reading the names of people I had known in my childhood, the names of people I was kin to but had never known, and (pretty soon) the names of people I knew and cared about and had buried myself. Some of the older stones you could no longer read because of weathering and the growth of moss. It was a place of finality and order. The people there had lived their little passage of time in this world, had become what they became, and now could be changed only by forgiveness and mercy. The misled, the disappointed, the sinners of all the sins, the hopeful, the faithful, the loving, the doubtful, the desperate, the grieved, and the comforted, the young and the old, the bad and the good – all, sufferers unto death, had lain down there together. Some were there who had served the community better by dying than by living. Why I should have felt tender toward them all was not clear to me, but I did.

“There were a lot of graves of little children – most of them from the last century or before – who had died of smallpox, cholera, typhoid fever, diphtheria, or one of the other plagues. You didn’t have to know the stories; just the dates and the size of the stones told the heartbreak. But all those who were there, if they had lived past childhood, had twice in this world, first and last, been as helpless as a little child. And you couldn’t forget that all the people in Port William, if they lived long, would come there burdened and leave empty-handed many times, and would finally come and stay empty-handed. Seeing them come and go, and come and stay, I began to be moved by a compassion that seemed to come to me from outside. I never said to myself that it was happening. It just came to me, or I came to it. As I buried the dead and walked among them, I wanted to make my heart as big as Heaven to include them all and love them and not be distracted. I couldn’t do it, of course, but I wanted to.”

I think whenever we stand before something larger than ourselves – being immersed in a small, yet majestic corner of creation, watching a child being born, standing in a graveyard where loved ones are buried, hearing about oppression – we feel the tension that Jayber speaks:

“I wanted to make my heart as big as Heaven to include them all and love them and not be distracted. I couldn’t do it, of course, but I wanted to.”

I think Berry has captured the essence of being God’s image-bearers. Daily we are part of something much larger than us. And it makes us yearn to become something much larger than what we are. And that’s the rub – we bear the image of a great God in frail bodies of mud. We are dust enlivened by divine breath. We bear the contradiction of embodying both heaven and earth – earthen mirrors reflecting God’s glory. So we long to be like the one we reflect, but find ourselves limited by who we are.

Ultimately, that’s okay, because that’s what was intended from the beginning. Our small reflections do illuminate the lives we live with. And we find that for them, our hearts may become as big as Heaven.

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