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When Books Are More Than Just Books

Warming your heart and mind in your library

I love my library (a.k.a. my study, or office). My wallpaper is 2,000 books, most of them chosen one at a time. The other wall space is filled with framed calligraphy and pictures of country churches, harking back to my heritage. There's my $1 Rembrandt—a drawing of Jesus teaching—my ordination certificate, and a clock from the wood of a weathered snow fence with the chiseled words, "Things Take Time."

When someone who is not a book lover comes into my library for the first time, they often say, "Have you read all these books?" Of course I haven't. A true book lover wouldn't ask such a question. I think there's a law somewhere that you're supposed to have more books than you have read—sort of like Joseph storing up grain for seven lean years. I have computer software packing scores of books on a CD-Rom, but those aren't really books, of course. They're digital information and I have no particular affection for them even when I use them. But real books—well, they're my teachers, and I often think of them as almost human.

A pastor friend told me once how when he moved, the moving company boxed up his library. In the process, they ended up boxing the books by size rather than in the order he had them on the shelves. Took him forever to get things reorganized.

One of the most important ways God has moved me toward himself is through the writing of other believers.

Like most folks, my books are organized by topic, but if I had to reorganize them completely, I might try the following system.

Frontier Books

Most good books take me to new places, but these books are scouts with coonskin caps that guide me into territory where I've never been. A couple of years ago, my frontier books were about the Emergent church. A year ago, a book about Trinitarian theology put me, like Moses, on a peak looking into a new land. Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and a recent follow-up by Chip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick, got me to thinking about why some ideas catch on and others don't.

An audio book about Venice had me running to the library to see pictures of that city. Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points got me jazzed about using PowerPoint in new ways. Then there was Polio, An American Story, by David Oshinsky, which took me into a world where my father had suffered. My most recent frontier book was Darkness Is My Only Companion, by Kathryn Greene-McCreight, a moving journey into this Christian sister's struggle with mental illness.

Frontier books not only take me into unexplored subjects but they make for a vivid imagination. Creative ideas often come when two entirely different subjects get stuck together in the traffic of my mind. They start talking and—boom—a creative insight!

Q & A Books

They sit there waiting, gathering dust. They're plainspoken and sometimes a bit dowdy, but when you need an answer, they're there for you. My collection started with a one-volume Bible commentary when I was in high school. Then came Young's Exhaustive Concordance (you young whippersnappers with your computer searches can't imagine what it was like to have one huge book cataloguing every word of the King James Bible).

Now I have a wall of Bible commentaries, a row of encyclopedias, the systematic theologies, quotation and illustration books, hymnals, Bibles of every stripe, atlases, and charts. When a question pops up, those books clear their throats. Who was Goethe? What is the intermediate state? How many kings of Judah were there? When will Advent begin next year? What's the deal with the "sons of God and the daughters of men" in Genesis 6? What was Calvin's view of communion? There are some challenges not even Wikipedia is up to.

Soul Food

If in some restless sleep I saw my own version of Jacob's ladder, with angels ascending and descending from heaven, I think some of the stairs would be books. One of the most important ways God has moved me toward himself is through the writing of other believers. Beth-el—"none other than the house of God"—is sometimes a library.

Of course, all other books pale compared to the Scriptures themselves. John Wesley's words often come back to me, surrounded by books as I am, "O give me that Book! At any price, give me the Book of God. I have it; here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [a man of one book]!"

No one can predict which books will stir our souls upward. We have saintly older friends who have read John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress out loud to one another over and over, and it never fails to refresh them in Christ. I have read it more than once, but without that effect. For my part, there was Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and Eugene Peterson's books. Brennan Manning has grabbed me by the face, like a mother getting the attention of a distracted child, and insisted that I listen to the message of God's grace. Even when I think Manning has gone too far, I hear God speaking to me in his books. Two years ago I read The Heavenly Man, a biography by Brother Yun and Paul Hattaway. Yun's love for Christ continues to stir me. Meanwhile, Larry Crabb's ideas in Connecting have changed how I relate to my congregation. Such books are my "soul food"—nourishing me on a regular basis.

Old Friends

These are books that mean more than they say. I have a ragged paperback copy of Gordon MacDonald's Ordering Your Private Word. A friend sent it to me years ago, scrawling in the cover an order to read it because he was worried about me. He was right, and the book helped immensely.

I love my Aunt Hilda's old Bible. She was a missionary, and I have the Bible she read in her retirement. She capitalized every single personal pronoun for God, unhappy with the lower case h for he and him in her NIV. Sometimes she jotted the pre-dawn hour of her devotions in the margin and wrote notes from sermons and her Precepts classes. It is a beautiful book.

Books that elevate language elevate me, helping me see common things afresh.

Reclining along nearly four feet of shelf space is my most revered teacher, Alexander Maclaren. This giant of the British pulpit died in 1910. He was an austere, shy preacher-scholar who spent most of his career in Birmingham, England. He was a gifted and disciplined expositor of Scripture, but also an eloquent, eminently quotable speaker and writer. I read that when he went into his study, he'd put on work boots. I've learned, like countless readers before me, not to read Maclaren too soon in my preparation (lest I despair of ever saying anything as well as he).

I've collected several books of his sermons and a book of his pulpit prayers, but it is the 31 volumes of his Expositions of Scripture that I love best. I found my set when digging for gold in a retiring pastor's library sale. Published just after Maclaren died, they are big books, with golden brown bindings and pages that I often have to slice apart. Sometimes when I go to pull one from the shelf, I imagine myself, hat in hand, quietly rapping on the great man's door: "Dr. Maclaren, I'm sorry to trouble you, but could you help me with this passage?"

There are many other books written by friends and professors of mine and even one very special book dedicated to me. I have a special affection for Peculiar Treasures, the little book of mini-biographies of biblical characters by Frederick Buechner. I still remember the day over 25 years ago when I started reading it and discovered his rare whimsy. I think of how the scripts from Dorothy Sayers' radio plays, The Man Born to Be King, lit up my imagination. All of them are dear old friends.

Things of Beauty

Some people press rose petals between the pages of books. Some pages are rose petals. These books are bouquets of beauty—fragrant and lovely. I felt that way when I first began to read the poetry of George Herbert, an English pastor from the 17th century. He described prayer this way:

God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, the heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth …

I loved the beauty of recent novels like Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I treasure every book of calligraphy by Timothy Botts because they help me see the words of God better.

I love books where the words are themselves beautiful—those of Annie Dillard, T. S. Eliot, Frederick Buechner (sometimes), Eugene Peterson, and Mark Buchanan. Books that elevate language elevate me, helping me see common things afresh. Some never leave me. I often think of James Weldon Johnson's prayer for the preacher in God's Trombones:

And now, O Lord, this man of God,
Who breaks the bread of life this morning,
Shadow him in the hollow of thy hand,
And keep him out of the gunshot of the devil.
Take him, Lord—this morning—
Wash him with hyssop inside and out,
Hang him up and drain him dry of sin.
Pin his ear to the wisdom post,
And make his words sledge hammers of truth
Beating on the iron hearts of sin.

Then there's my favorite passage in all of literature, from John Bunyan's follow-up story to The Pilgrim's Progress. This passage describes the passing of a faithful saint, Mr. Valiant-for-Truth.

After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant-for-truth was sent for by a summons … When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then said he, "I am going to my Father's house: and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the troubles I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought his battles, who will now be my rewarder." When the day that he must go home was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which, as he went down, he said, "O death, where is thy sting?" And as he went down deeper, he cried, "O grave, where is thy victory?" So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

My dearest book, of course, is my Bible—a first-edition NIV that I've been carrying for almost 30 years. It's the only Bible I've used through all the years of my ministry. When it fell apart a few years ago, I found a fellow who recovered it beautifully. Sometimes I just love to hold it, it is so precious to me. I reckon I've preached over 1,000 sermons with that Bible open before me. The footprints of my soul are in that book; the milestones of my life crop up from tissue pages like bronze roadside markers. Here I was wrestled into surrender. Here I was grace-kissed. Here an enemy fell. Here I saw the Lord, high and lifted up. Here I was loved. All in the pages of a Book.

Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.

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