Madison Monday: the membership

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I went home this weekend for Father’s Day and found out a teacher of mine from high school had a stroke. He’d been retired for many years, but as a teacher, he was prone to throwing erasers at students from time to time (mostly when they were sleeping). He was a good teacher. He taught me that I was not really bad at math. He taught me to enjoy trigonometry. So he taught me a new level of confidence in my own abilities. And he cared for me as a person in the way the best teachers do.

jayber crowLike many of my teachers growing up, he knew my parents. He knew my siblings. He’d known my grandparents. In the place where I grew up, he is part of what Wendell Berry calls the membership.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about membership. I’ve never read anyone who captured the idea as beautifully as Berry. Maybe a sociologist or two, but some of the complexity is surely lost.

I wonder if every place has a membership. I know Madison does, even though I may not fully be a part of it, at least not in the same way I am in the place where I grew up. Part of a membership, it seems to me, is knowing a person as a set of relationships. You are not just Robyn, but Tom and Shirley’s daughter, Julia’s granddaughter, Wes and Wendy’s sister. To be known this way is, of course, both comforting and stifling. Sometimes more one than the other.

Are some of the places we live in today too busy for membership? Too bruised and battered? Can the membership grow to include new people, people whose relationships aren’t well-mapped? I don’t know.

Here’s I guess what I’m thinking. Maybe membership is a sacrament, like marriage and parenthood. Made sacred by some idea of god, if that’s what you want to believe. But more than that, made sacred by the way in which membership can pull us outside of ourselves. Membership is no easy thing in a world where it’s so easy to pick up and leave. Perhaps membership is something we must commit ourselves to.

I find myself wondering what that would look like. How would that be?

“My vision of the gathered church that had come to me… had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on… It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.” 
― Wendell BerryJayber Crow

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