Thursday, June 24, 2004

Closing the Books

Yesterday, I wrote an e-mail to Bill W., the current missionary in Cameroon, and asked him about the number and type of books that I ought to consider bringing with me.

I am very worried about my library. I know that I can’t bring all my books – I can’t afford it, and it wouldn’t be practical. But surely there’s a place for some classic Barth, and some recent Len Sweet, and – a guilty pleasure – an unread bio of Bob Dylan?!! I’ll need at least one set of commentaries, if not two. And my favorite translations of the Bible?!

I am sad to report that Bill W. wrote back with the following sad news. Let me quote him directly:

“The water runs deep and wide as concerns your books. I was cured of this in (another African country). I had 90% of my library with us, (including) many notes and books that William Barclay had given me when I was studying at Glasgow University and he was my faculty adviser. But, Wes, the war took them all. I got out with only one suitcase of clothes. I have never rebuilt my library and things have gone well for the most part. Here is what we suggest: Bring 12-20 books maximum.”

Wait just a minute. I can handle doing without sports talk radio. I can sacrifice Starbucks. I will even give up my DSL line. But my books??!!

I’m not sure why this causes me so much anxiety. I don’t think it’s simply a matter of personal pleasure, the way that I’ll miss certain aspects of American pop culture. And it’s not even that I use all my books very often. I have a few that are regularly consulted and used, but those are the ones that will make the cut. Most of my books are simply titles on a shelf, which have been read one, or fewer, times. Seriously, when is the last time that I picked up that book on feminist postmodern readings of Yahwist texts?

No, it goes much deeper than that. The more I think about it, the more I come to realize that my library may have become simply a safety net. Those books on the shelf made me feel like I knew what I was doing in the pastoral office. When it came time to prepare the sermon, I could turn around and pull volumes, scan titles, and actually feel like I was doing professional research.

However, the truth is, when it came time to actually write the sermon, I found that the books were largely unhelpful. I always came back to my own congregation, its needs and fears, hopes and desires, and found a way to speak God’s words of mercy or self-examination to them in their own language.

Books only helped rarely, to be honest. To be sure, I’d find the occasional relevant story or anecdote. I quoted monks and mystics, as well as historians and theologians, from time to time.

But when it came time to connecting the Bible to the people in the pews, books are only one source of inspiration. I probably quoted more often from Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Dylan and Bono.

Seriously, what does it matter what Niebuhr thought about ethics? What does it really matter what Spong thinks about the atonement?

It always comes back to the way God’s word needs to be heard, and made incarnate, in this situation, in this day and time. What is God saying now, and how can the people of God hear that word in a clear and helpful way?

I have a feeling that I already know everything I need to know about doing effective ministry. I don’t mean that I don’t have a lot more to learn, for I do. And I’m not saying that I know everything about ministry, because I certainly don’t.

But I don’t need more books in order to do what God has called me to do. I don’t need more schooling, nor anymore classes. God wants me to get busy putting to use what I already know.

It reminds me of the summer I signed up to play Little League baseball. I showed up at the first practice, bragging to the coach about all the baseball books I’d read.

He looked at me and chuckled, “Son, I don’t care what you read. I just want to see you play ball.”

I spent most of the season sitting on the bench. I discovered the hard way that I’d just spent way too much time reading, and not enough time swinging the bat, fielding grounders, and running the bases.

Well, guess it’s time to play ball!