Wendell Berry says there are things about a farm that a farmer learns only by living on the land over time, tending to it in season and out of season, watching how the wind sweeps across it, observing how water flows over it, seeing the tracks of animals that call it home, and listening to the wisdom of those who cared for and tended to the land in times past.
Learning to be a Christian is not so different from learning to be a farmer. We tag along behind Jesus, hearing what he trains us to hear, seeing what he points out to us, Sayles writes.
And, a farmer becomes a farmer by keeping company with other farmers and by doing the hard work of farming even before one knows fully why or how to do it. Berry wrote:
My grandson, who is four years old, is now following his father and me over some of the same countryside that I followed my father and grandfather over. When his time comes, my grandson will choose as he must, but so far all of us have been farmers. I know from my grandfather that when he was a child he too followed his father in this way, hearing and seeing, not knowing yet that the most essential part of his education had begun.
And so in this familiar spectacle of a small boy tagging along behind his father across the fields, we are part of a long procession, five generations of which I have seen, issuing out of generations lost to memory ... I am in the middle now between my grandfather and my father, who are alive in my memory, and my son and my grandson, who are alive in my sight. If my son, after thirty more years have passed, has the good pleasure of seeing his own child and grandchild in that procession, then he will know something like what I know now.
This living procession through time in a place is the record by which such knowledge survives and is conveyed. When the procession ends, so does the knowledge.
– Life is a Miracle, pp. 151-153
Learning to be a Christian is not so different from learning to be a farmer. We tag along behind Jesus, hearing what he trains us to hear, seeing what he points out to us, doing what he shows us how to do, and, over time, becoming what he is.
Being a Christian is not mainly ideas we have or beliefs we affirm; it is a whole way of life. Christians are people who are learning, by experience, to do all of life in the Jesus-way.
Jesus teaches us to love, not first by having us read essays on the nature of love, but by taking us where hurting and lonely people are and challenging us to be their friends and helpers.
He shows us how to trust, not first by offering us arguments for the reasonableness of faith, but by coming to our sides in situations where we have no choice but to lean on God and to draw on strength we don't know we have. The theories and the arguments will make sense only in the wake of experience.
Encounter first, then interpretation. Following first, then theology. Practice first, then philosophy. Experience first, then understanding.
Just tag-along with Jesus – everything else will come when the time is right and we are ready.
Guy Sayles is pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, N.C. This column first appeared on his blog, From the Intersection.