I’ve been thinking a lot about membership lately. This is mostly thanks to Wendell Berry, whose novel Jayber Crow I finished earlier this month. It’s the story of Port William, a small farming town in Kentucky, the people who live there, and the way a place lays claim to us.
Early in the novel, Jayber, a twenty-something man who was orphaned as a child and has moved increasingly farther away from his hometown, decides to return home. His parents are long dead, as are the man and woman who raised him. He has no siblings. Jayber hasn’t been back to Port William since he was a kid. Alone in the world, he moves about in it unknown and unnoticed.
His solitariness sinks into loneliness, which sinks into desolation, which prompts his return to Port William, never mind that it’s during the heaviest rainstorm in Kentucky’s living memory. He packs all his things into a box, buys himself a sturdy rain jacket, and heads home on foot. As washed-out roads force him to reroute, the twenty-five mile trip turns into a weeklong saga.
His journey requires that he cross the river, which, at this point in the storm, has flooded its banks. The water churns and thrashes and threatens to take out the bridge he needs to cross. A policeman at the bridge refuses to let Jayber pass. Suddenly overcome with homesickness, Jayber whispers, “I’ve got to get to my people down the river.”
Out of some compassionate corner of his heart, the policeman moves aside. Jayber crosses to safety and to his people, whom he and we come to know through the course of the novel.
That crossing is a kind of baptism for Jayber: though the waters roar and foam, he passes through the darkest part of his existence. He’s got to get to his people. He dies to little lost and orphaned Jayber and comes to life again, belonging, as he says, to the Port William membership. By virtue of his crossing the river, the story of Jayber Crow and the story of Port William become a single story, stretching out for years beyond that moment.
And isn’t that the way of baptism? There’s a membership to which all Christians belong, as ones who have been baptized into the dying and rising of Jesus. The Spirit hovers over the chaos and brings life. We die to our orphaned selves and are adopted as into the membership of Jesus Christ. That’s where life begins, where our story joins the larger story.
Shortly after I finished Jayber Crow, I visited the CarePages site of a friend diagnosed with cancer. When I signed in, a new window opened with the word “membership” at the top. It hit me: this is the very membership that Wendell Berry writes about. This is the membership of the body of Christ. Though my friend is enduring the beast of cancer, he’s not enduring it alone. In the one Spirit, we’ve all been baptized into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13). Along with the host of the baptized, we hold membership in the same body, and one part cannot ache without the other parts aching too. His story is my story is our story.
In the waters of baptism, we’ve already crossed the river, have been claimed, and now belong. And like Jayber, who never strays far from the river, we stick close to our baptism. Every Easter, we’re reminded that Christ has died and was raised and that we too have died and are raised. We suffer with Christ (and each other!) so that we may also, someday, be glorified with him (Romans 8:17). We belong to a membership, a body of lives not our own—and yet also our own, with whom we laugh and weep and pray and live, from birth to death and into birth again.
They’re our people. Christ is our people. We’ve got to get to our people.