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When Books Are More Than Just Books (part 2)

Warming your heart and mind in your library

In part one of this two-part series, Eclov described ways that books enriched his life, labeling works as "Frontier books," "Q&A books" and "Soul food." Here he offers two more ways that in his library he finds more than just books.

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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