By Casey Tygrett
In 2007, I encountered a book that changed my life.
The book was Hannah Coulter, a novel by Wendell Berry. I had previously read a Berry poem called “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” With a title like that, how could you forget? In fact, one line stays with me even today: “Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.”
Even with that poem in mind, I wasn’t prepared for Hannah Coulter. The characters, the life, the unspoken but ever present faith—Berry’s book drew me in, and I couldn’t put it down.
Once I finished it, I tossed it on the dining room table and announced to my wife: “We’re going to plant a garden.”
Honestly, I don’t know that the whole scene was that dramatic, but I felt I had to reconnect with the dark black ground in the back of our house. I was the preaching minister at a small rural church at the time. We were surrounded on all sides by corn and soy fields with breezes often haunted by the hog farms just upwind of us. It was the most logical move I could make.
The novel reconnected me with the place where I was. It rooted me to the dirt and the land and the people of the land around me. It rooted me in simpler speech, sweatier work, and a love for the unmanufactured stuff that exists all around us.
There is a beauty in Berry’s writing that overcomes any darkness in his characters. He makes the people of Port William so real and accessible, you can’t help but walk with them and bend your back to the work of the tobacco harvest, singing and sweating in line with characters like Burley Coulter, Art Rowanberry, and Elton Penn.
Time to Move?
A little confession here is probably helpful. I live with a hereditary restlessness. It likely comes from my Irish roots, from my ancestors chasing the wild goose that is the Holy Spirit and coming to the United States while Ireland was in crisis. In any case, I get twitchy in one place after a while. In those moments, the temptation is to bolt—to find new pastures and territories.
However, the Jesus we follow is a person of place. He was God-in-place—the incarnation summed up in a phrase. God came to a place and a time so he could speak into every place and time. Jesus stayed. When death came knocking, when popularity faded, when the questions became hard—Jesus stayed.
The Word—the one that became “flesh and blood” and “moved into the neighborhood” in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of John 1 (The Message)—came to a place and time, lived and died and rose in a place and time, and now speaks to every place and time.
The characters in Berry’s novels are bound by his own imagination, to be sure, but also by a time and place. They live in a community, eat in that community, suffer and die in that community, and are ultimately remembered in that community through the concept of the “Port William membership.” Those born there, those who live there, they will die there. Those who come after will speak of them into every time and age to come.
Finding Our Place
We who walk with other broken angels need this reminder. We need to remember there is black earth beneath our feet, people who walk on it, and we’re incarnated with them.
We speak the language, live the stories, and carry the burdens of those around us. Spiritual formation is as much about where we plant our feet as where we plant our hearts. We are called to “be-with.”
We all need Berry’s novels and the people who live in their pages, because in his understated, faithful, and flawed characters we see the fruit of incarnation.
We see jealousy overcome by grace and gratitude. We see longstanding debts and feuds ended by a later generation’s understanding of reality.
The characters in Berry’s novels remind us of the true impact of staying. To live in the Port William membership decade after decade helps each character simplify the way he or she sees each other; knowing not just to love but also how to love one another. To stay means you are in it no matter what, even when it gets dark and even when you aren’t perfect in love and charity.
Stay at the Table
In Hannah Coulter, near the end of Hannah’s life, she still lives in the community. Her husband, Nathan, is gone, and she is fighting off investors who want to buy her farm. She remains hopeful and good even as her body fails and her children stumble out of the membership.
Then one returns: Hannah’s grandson Virge—hobbled by a lack of wisdom and purpose in his life—runs to his grandmother for shelter. He returns to the farm because that’s all he has ever wanted, a place that makes sense in the world.
She welcomes him with a grace that says, “I won’t force you to come in, but you are welcome.” He walks delicately into her home, waiting for permission to reenter a world that was once familiar and comfortable, at least before he left.
This is one of the best pictures of the incarnation I can imagine. Come . . . and stay.
This is Jesus to us—“I will not force you, but there is a table and a seat for you. Even when you’ve failed, even when I know you too well, or you know me too well, here is a table. Here is bread and wine. Come and sit.”
Leaving at What Cost?
What do we lose when we lose our own sense of incarnation? The characters who move on from Port William often become shadow versions of themselves, dark characters who return awkward and bewildered by life in Port William. They lose the understanding of what it means to be part of that place; they become “ex-carnated” and part of another world entirely.
What could be formed in us if we allowed ourselves to be rooted in a culture, a conversation, and a community for years and years?
It is always in place, in context, and in community that we live and move and have our being. God is there hoping we’ll reach for him there, where we are and not where we hope to be. It is where we learn what we need to be righteous, truly, deep down.
In his novel The Memory of Old Jack, Berry writes this about staying put as things change: “A man, Old Jack thinks, has no choice but to be ignorant, but he does not have to be a fool. He can know his place, and he can stay in it and be faithful.”
To be a fool, to be humbled, to know our place and be faithful—that sounds like a beautiful description of a life brimming with fruit and character, doesn’t it?
The Reality Is . . .
My wife and I have talked at length about breaking the “ministry hopping” trend and staying in one place, for the sake of our own formation and the sake of our family growing up in a stable place. I do understand that God often calls and beckons without our permission, but as far as it depends on us, we hope to stay in one place for the majority of our lives.
As we change, as we grow, we wrestle with the place where we are. We wrestle with people, with circumstances, on and on, but at the end of the day, where do we go if we’re committed to incarnation? If we’re committed to a place, if we’re planning to be there instead of somewhere else, what are the options other than staying in both suffering and success?
I have to confess, I’m not perfect at following Mr. Berry’s example.
I ended up leaving that rural church and the enormous garden the author persuaded me to plant. Incarnation doesn’t mean you stay forever, you know? It may mean you stay until you can’t, which is what I did—at least that’s the way I see it. Sometimes I wonder if I left that soil unplanted.
However, whenever I read about Port William, I can’t help but see that white church at the corner of four streets, where the grain wagons passed throughout the fall, and where I learned the lessons of incarnation. It is where I learned place and time matter as much as purpose and mission and plans.
So I look to stay. I look for ways to stay because my soul needs it. One more day with hands in soil, investing in returns that grow only in a season.
Casey Tygrett serves as spiritual formation pastor with Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois.