This may be a spoiler

I have just finished reading a well-crafted collection of six short stories that I wish I had read 25 years ago.  The Wild Birds by Wendell Berry honors our human connection with the land, with our neighbors, and with the passage of time.  One of my favorite stories is entitled “It Wasn’t Me.”  Here’s a summary before we get to the quote that I’ve read and reread.

Elton and Mary Penn became tenant farmers on Old Jack Beechum’s farm in Kentucky when he moved into town because he was lonely and not able to do the farmwork anymore.  The Penns not only cared well for the farm but were frequent visitors for Old Jack whose only daughter lived far away.  When Old Jack died, his good friend Wheeler, a lawyer as well as a farmer, handled the estate.  Old Jack left the Penns a sum of money and his daughter the farm, but Wheeler knew that Old Jack’s hope was that his wealthy daughter would sell the farm to the Penns for a modest amount.  Old Jack’s wish was never stipulated in the will, only written on a scrap of paper and forgotten in a coat pocket before he died.  In spite of  her father’s wish, the daughter and her husband sold the farm at auction to get as much as possible.

With Wheeler’s encouragement, Elton participated in the auction although he thought he could never outbid those who had their eye on this good piece of well-maintained property.  As the bidding went higher and Elton was ready to call it quits, Wheeler kept urging him on, convinced of what the land was worth, of Elton’s skills and love of the property, and of his friend Old Jack’s desire that the farm should belong to the Penns.  And so Elton ended up purchasing the farm at a price more than he thought he could afford.

Now Elton is sitting in Wheeler’s office, anxious, worried that the mortgage is more than he can handle if circumstances get the least bit hard. Wheeler, who has studied the figures and believes the Penns are safe enough,  has informed him that he personally has already contributed a small  amount to the price of the farm as a gift in honor of his friend Jack and that he, like Jack, has seen how the land has thrived under Elton and Mary’s care.

But Elton’s pride is getting in the way, and although he is appreciative of  the money inherited from the estate and for Wheeler’s counsel and help, he says he doesn’t deserve the farm if he is not able to make it on his own without having a soul to thank.  Wheeler responds:

Well, putting aside what Mary Penn might have to say about that, and putting aside what it means in the first place just to be human, I don’t think your old friend has left you in shape to live thankless….You’re indebted to a dead man.  So am I.  So was he.  Back of you is Jack Beechum.  Back of him was Ben Feltner.  Back of him was, I think, his own daddy.  And back of him somebody else, and on back that way, who knows how far?  And I’m back of you because Jack Beechum is, and because he’s back of me, along with some others. It’s no use for you to want to make it on your own, because you can’t. …[When] you quit living in the price and start living in the place, you’re in a different line of succession…..The way you got in it, I guess, is by being chosen.

That’s the quote I have pondered.  Of course, as a pastor, I am use to saying that all we have is a gift of God.  That is a “theological” statement,  easily said on the surface, easily agreed with on the surface and hard to flesh out in the depths of living. Wendell Berry’s story does just that in a different way.

What if everything that I had been given, that I did not earn in my life were taken away?  My piano and lessons.  My dulcimer.  The help with the mortgage one month.  Or let’s go deeper.  My marriage.  My children. My education.  My friends.  My call to pastor a congregation.  I’ve earned none of these things.  They were all given by choice.  (Well, I guess my children didn’t choose me; but they are gifts nevertheless, and there were many who helped in the birth, adoption and raising of them.)  And those who gave to me were given to by others.  None of us makes it on our own.  None of us. We earn very little of who we are and are indebted to a long stream of folks and dear ones who have shared of themselves.  We are chosen by person after person throughout our lives.

And this, my friend, is for me one of the best pictures of God, God’s family and grace that I know:  The way we’ve gotten into this baptismal gift is by being chosen.  We don’t earn it, but we can be deeply grateful for all of it and start living into it, passing it on.  

I don’t think I’ve spoiled the story too much.  Read it and the rest of the book!



  1. Fabulous review, insights, food for deep reflection…. thank you my sister, my friend.