(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.])
Most of our people have no idea what two or three new messages a week cost us in terms of intellectual and spiritual drain. Not to mention the depletions of family pain, church decisions, and imponderable theological and moral dilemmas. I, for one, am not a self-replenishing spring. My bucket leaks, even when it is not pouring. My spirit does not revive on the run. Without time of unhurried reading and reflection, beyond the press of sermon preparation, my soul shrinks, and the specter of ministerial death rises. Few things frighten me more than the beginnings of barrenness that come from frenzied activity with little spiritual food and meditation.
The great pressure on us today is to be productive managers. But the need of the church is for prayerful, spiritual poets. I don’t mean (necessarily) pastors who write poems. I mean pastors who feel the weight and glory of eternal reality even in the midst of a business meeting; who carry in their soul such a sense of God that they provide, by their very presence, a constant life-giving reorientation on the infinite God. For your own soul and for the life of your church, fight for time to feed your soul with rich reading. Almost all the forces in our culture are trivializing. If you want to stay alive to what is great and glorious and beautiful and eternal, you will have to fight for time to look through the eyes of others who were in touch with God….
We think we don’t have time to read. We despair of reading anything spiritually rich and substantial because life seems to be lived in snatches (66).
I love to read! But a busy church planter and professor, I have to fight for time to read.
I grew up in a home where reading was a priority. When I was a young child, my mother would say to me, “read everything.” (Thank you, mom!) Reading relaxes me, refreshes me, rebukes me, reveals new ideas and new possibilities to me, stretches me, and deepens me. I fear not being able to offer my people deep treasures of God’s word or to expose them to the glory of God in all things. I do not like when the candle-burning thing reduces my reading time to “snatches.”
People who do not read, in my humble experience – which I must admit is largely, but not exclusively, African American – are not simply disinterested in books or untrained in interpretation and meditation. Instead, they are fearful of learning new things, undisciplined, arrogant, shallow and petty. This is more true for the pastor who does not read (but instead watches Soap Operas and endless reality courtroom TV) – another criticism which is also drawn largely from my experiences with the aforementioned group – or reads only popular-level and pragmatic works. He is doomed to become a depleted barrel, feeding his people from the dregs of spiritual and intellectual insufficiency.
What the non-reader misses is enjoying the fact that others have done great thinking! (One individual cannot do all the good thinking in this world!) Others have said things in imaginative, creative, inspiring, striking, beautiful, unusual, poetical, God-revealing and people-motivating ways that any one of us might not have been able to say in the same manner!
For example, I love the way Psalms 8 and 24 speak of our Sovereign Creator, and of how Piper draws out the Scriptures to describe him as “the eternally happy God.” But I also have fallen in worship after reading C. S. Lewis’ depiction of God through the theophanic figures of Malacandra and Perelandra in Perelandra, of his Space Trilogy series (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength). In one scene, the two god-like figures, one male and one female, known as eldils, attempt to reveal themselves to the protagonist, Ransom, a human, so that they can evaluate if they can take shapes appropriate for creatures to see. Here is the extended description:
“The very faint light—the almost imperceptible alteration in the visual field—which betokens an eldil vanished suddenly. The rosy peaks and the calm pool vanished also. A tornado of sheer monstrosities seemed to be pouring over Ransom. Darting pillars filled with eyes, lightning pulsations of flame, talons and beaks and billowy masses of what suggested snow, volleyed through cubes and heptagons into an infinite black void. ‘Stop it… stop it,’ he yelled, and the scene cleared. He gazed round blinking on the field of lilies, and presently gave the eldila to understand that this kind of appearance was not suited to human sensations. ‘Look then on this,’ said the voices again. And he looked with some reluctance, and far off between the peaks on the other side of the little valley there came rolling wheels. There was nothing but that—concentric wheels moving with a rather sickening slowness one inside the other. There was nothing terrible about them if you could get used to their appalling size, but there was also nothing significant. He bade them to try yet a third time. And suddenly two human figures stood before him on the opposite side of the lake.
They were taller than the Sorns, the giants whom he had met on Mars. They were perhaps thirty feet high. They were burning white like white-hot iron. The outline of their bodies when he looked at it steadily against the red landscape seemed to be faintly, swiftly undulating as though the permanence of their shape, like that of waterfalls or flames, co-existed with a rushing movement of the matter it contained. For a fraction of an inch inward from this outline the landscape was just visible through them: beyond that they were opaque.
Whenever he looked straight at them they appeared to be rushing toward him with enormous speed: whenever his eyes took in their surroundings he realized that they were stationary. This may have been due in part to the fact that their long and sparkling hair stood out straight behind them as if in a great wind. But if there were a wind it was not made of air, for no petal of the flowers was shaken. They were not standing quite vertically in relation to the floor of the valley: but to Ransom it appeared… that the eldils were vertical. It was the valley—it was the whole world of Perelandra—which was aslant. He remembered the words of Oyarsa long ago in Mars, ‘I am not here in the same way you are here.’ It was borne in upon him that the creatures were really moving, though not moving in relation to him. This planet which inevitably seemed to him while he was in it an unmoving world—the world, in fact—was to them a thing moving through the heavens. In relation to their own celestial frame of reference they were rushing forward to keep abreast of the mountain valley. Had they stood still, they would have flashed past him too quickly for him to see, doubly dropped behind the planet’s spin on its own axis and by its onward march around the Sun.
Their bodies, he said, were white. But a flush of diverse colours began at about the shoulders and streamed up the necks and flickered over face and head and stood out around the head like plumage or a halo. He told me he could in a sense remember these colours—that is, he would know them if he saw them again—but that he cannot by any effort call up a visual image of them nor give them any name” (C. S. Lewis, Perelandra: A Novel. New York: Collier Books, 1944: 197-199).
What a description! Yet what fuels worship and feeds our souls is not the words themselves, nor the Scriptures from which the images of theophanic revelations are drawn (although my mind has reflected on many during the rereading and writing of this passage). The worship is fueled by knowing that even the picturesque descriptions by Lewis do not come close to what it will be like to stand in the presence of God! Reading Lewis fuels and recharges the shepherd. The words also give me a means to speak to my people poetically about God!
Piper’s challenge to the non-professional is to read faithfully, daily, for twenty-minutes, three times per day. I say shepherd and sheep alike should take him up on the challenge so that we might finish off works like Perelandra, or those that Piper recommends: The City of God, Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, and Pilgrim’s Progress to name a few. (Pilgrim’s Progress is a great book to read together with your children, or to read together as a couple! It is a great – if not the all-time most sold and read – Christian classic.)
Piper is not looking to make us readers for reading’s sake however. Quoting Spurgeon, he reminds us that “a student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which he has merely skimmed, lapping at them” (68). As he concludes, “the point is not to read many books. The point is to stay alive in your soul, to keep the juices flowing, to fan the flame again on Monday and have it burning bright on Saturday night” (71). Brothers, let’s read and fight for our lives.
If you want to work on becoming a better reader, I would highly recommend Susan Wise Bauer’s, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (Norton), James Sire’s, How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension (Shaw), and Gene Veith’s, Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (Crossway). Of course, there always is the classic by Mortimer Adler and Charles vanDoren, How to Read a Book (Touchstone).