Who Has the Words of Eternal Life?

I like to think I am not like Peter, the regretful, faltering, denying follower of Christ, but I am more like him in my heart than I pretend to be in my flesh. I think a lot about his question to Jesus, “Master, to whom else would we go?” He follows it by an assurance of his commitment to Jesus, but one can’t help wondering if his question betrayed beneath it the possibility that if another more compelling voice came along, he’d be down for it.

I read an interview with the great thinker Wendell Berry this morning on The New Yorker. It was a long one, but these are the best kind, allowing the interviewer to peel back layers, the interviewee to grow more relaxed, and the reader to exercise attention for longer. The whole piece is good and I recommend it, but one section in particular remains in my mind:

“As I understand my effort, it is to deal with the problems of, for example, land use, in their real complexity. And of course, I’ve failed. I get invited to talk to a lady at Time, and we have a very nice talk, and I answer five questions. It’s obviously inadequate. And then there’s this thing I wrote, “Eating Is an Agricultural Act," I’m so sorry about. By itself it’s baloney.”

Did you hear that? “I failed.” “Obviously inadequate.” “I’m so sorry.” “Baloney.”

What strikes me in this interview (and really has always struck me about Berry’s writing) is his absolute willingness to own his past mistakes. To say something he worked on was inadequate. To admit failure and be sorry about what he said, what was published, and what others read.

This past week on social media I shared a snapshot of a book I read in an afternoon. Within seconds of sharing it, the messages started rolling in. “You’re an influencer, you shouldn’t share this book…” “You’re a public figure, you should consider how you’re leading others astray…” “You’re spreading the gospel of Satan.” The latter in particular tickled me because if there’s one thing I know about Satan it’s that he doesn’t have any good news. But the accusations were similar: because of who I was, I shouldn’t share the imperfect words of a fellow sister in Christ, one who displayed humility, care, attentiveness, and a willingness to be wrong in her book, simply because she runs in different theological streams than I do. Several things strike me here: The first is that I am not the Christ. The second is that I have never called myself an influencer. And the third is that we are very quick to assume it is we who have the corner on the words of eternal life and not, perhaps, someone else who loves Jesus just as much.

What is the common campfire round which these anecdotes gather? It is the warmth and goodness of a willingness to be wrong. To be doing our very best to do what makes sense, what compels us, what draws us in and delights us, but to be willing to say at the end of it all, “Jesus, you alone have the words of real life, eternal life,” which means we do not. Peter. Wendell Berry. The author of the book I read. Me. My ardent followers on social media. We do not have the words of eternal life. We simply carry the words given to us in broken earthenware jars, sip by sip, bit by bit, to our fellow humans, pointing always to the One who does.

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