Somewhere in the back corner of the building in a small room made smaller by shelves thronged with books and dictionaries and journals and hardback tomes full of history and linguistics and a cacophony of scholarship
and a pair of chairs shoved together beside a lamp or perhaps a couch squeezed between those shelves and facing a heavy desk bedecked with folders and pamphlets and notecards and Sunday School softbacks and a nameplate and a ceramic mug and a near-empty box of tissues
and the blue light of a laptop screen bearing a half-written manuscript stunted by three false starts and stumped by too much exposition and cheapened by chuckle-worthy puns and choked by overly long quotations and blunted by the necessity of reducing six penetratingly perceptive points to an alliterative three
as the silence is singed by the relentless bleet of an open inbox joining the ceaseless shudder of a smartphone with its storage forever over capacity in front of a landline whose garish red light winks with aggression adjacent to a scattering of While-You-Were-Out slips hastily scribbled and triaged for later
parallel to a framed photograph of a bride with sunlight in her cheeks and another of a cerulean sky and four pairs of feet in Florida sand close to a kiln-dried clay cup finger-painted and furnished with pencils and pens next to a stockpile of store-bought thank-you and birthday and get-well and sympathy and just-because cards
and a creaking swivel chair and a creaking filing cabinet and a creaking cabinet door behind a well-worn black suit hanging on a brass hook in front of an inadequate mirror above some water bottles and a spare toothbrush and a stick of deodorant and several more stacks of books,
again you will find him on his knees, pleading for fullness.
A little over a year ago, I took a job teaching literature at a private school just outside Atlanta. I moved my family into a wise old house in a half-horse town about twenty minutes from the school, and we have spent the past year slowly settling in. Last fall, I hired a guy to drywall and circuit part of the house’s ample, unfinished basement, a space I had determined would make a decent office. From a stack of 10′ x 10″ lumber I’ve fastidiously sanded, stained, and sealed, I’m currently outfitting the walls with book ledges. On these, I’ll be able to store the contents of about thirty banker’s boxes full of books, commentary sets, and teaching files from my years of pastoral ministry. It’s as amateurish a work in progress as ever there was, but it’s coming along.
Fittingly enough, I’m doing this because of something a teacher said to me.
Back in seminary, some seventeen years ago, an intimidatingly bright man named Ralph Wood taught my capstone course, which was called Gospel & Imagination. This appropriately vague moniker allowed Dr. Wood, a Tolkien, Chesterton, and O’Connor scholar who primarily teaches literature courses, to compel us Master of Divinity students to read everyone from George Herbert, to Walker Percy, Graham Greene, and his dear Flannery, to Wendell Berry, Stanley Hauerwas, and Cardinal Ratzinger. Dr. Wood was, and I assume still is, a highly opinionated professor. I’ll never forget the way he structured his class: each session would begin with a student providing in-depth analysis of a pre-selected Herbert poem, followed by said student reading a prayer specifically composed for that class session. The prayer was supposed to ask the Lord to bless the group with a productive discussion while simultaneously reminding each of us of the ministerial applicability of Herbert’s theme. Dr. Wood was infamous in the seminary, not simply for having the gall to actually grade these prayers, but for grading them so meticulously that it sometimes seemed even St. Augustine or Thomas Cranmer would struggle to eke out a B-.
The prayer-leader would lose points if he or she paused too long, or didn’t pause enough. The professor lowered scores each time filler words such as “like” or “just” were used, if the prayer was not in third-person plural, or if it dared use the word “share” inaccurately. (Dr. Wood was adamant the actual meaning of “share” is fundamentally misunderstood by multitudes of Christians.) And if the prayer did not open with proper apostrophe to the Lord, he would stop it before it even got started. “God isn’t your buddy!” he lectured us on more than one occasion. “Our words should always ascribe to Him as much of the due power and glory one has the capacity to express.”
This persnickety approach to teaching put off many a student. In the years immediately prior to mine, the roster dwindled significantly. By the time I sat in Dr. Wood’s class, there were only five other students braving the course with me. As a result, this set-in-his-ways professor simply quadrupled the expectations: each student was now tasked with parsing a Herbert poem and leading the class invocation four separate times! Despite the extra work, though, the intimate size of the class allowed us to get to know Dr. Wood in a way I fear most of his students never did. As challenging as his course was, in time the half-dozen of us came to appreciate our eccentric professor’s startlingly profound wisdom. There were innumerable moments throughout the semester in which his unique viewpoint on the Church, academia, or the world at-large would cause our own mental lightbulbs to flicker on. I’m aggrieved that I did not write down more of these thoughts, as I’m certain I could revisit them with as much appreciation as when one picks up an old work of Frederick Buechner’s, or when you come across a lesser-known but no less profound quote by Thomas Merton.
There was one piece of advice, however, that I vividly remember to this day. On the afternoon it was offered, a few of us had walked across campus to hand-deliver a paper assignment. The office Dr. Wood kept was in the old Tidwell building of Baylor University (which I hear was only recently renovated). It’s a location that always reminded me of the clock tower courthouse from Back to the Future. Yet inside the bowels of the building, the place held an austere, almost crypt-like solemnity, and Dr. Wood’s top-floor office remains the largest professor’s office I’ve ever seen. It was like something out of Dead Poets Society, the kind of place from which one imagines an uppity, pipe-puffing, tweed-clad academician might compose bitchily erudite essays for prestigious literary journals no one’s ever heard of.
The space was quite narrow, but also quite long, like the nave of a church. The ceiling was almost as high as the room was long. Wooden catwalks lined both walls, their two-and-a-half-foot platforms accessible by ladders. The whole office bore the feel and scent of a dusty cathedral. You half expected to see ropes dangling from a lofty belfry and a pallet of straw and blankets where Quasimodo slept. And yet, the most extraordinary part was that, lining the walls all around from door to far window to soaring roof, were shelves upon more shelves upon evenmore shelves of books. Novels, poetry, plays, anthologies, biographies, essays, histories, criticisms, compendiums, commentaries… Books of every shape, size, and age lined every available space. They were stuffed, spines facing out, from one end of a shelf to the other, while smaller paperbacks were crammed in the remaining free spaces between the spines and the shelves above.
If you guessed that Ralph Wood had every one of these books scrupulously organized, categorized, and alphabetized, you are, of course, spot on. You could tell he liked it when students had to visit his office. It was not the intimidation in their expressions that he looked for. No, it was the dumbstruck wonder that spread over the entirety of our bodies as we slowly turned circles in that narrow space, necks craned to sky, pondering in astonishment if such a place could really exist outside of a Victorian-era novel. We knew the guy was a literature professor, but we never expected… this.
We students took all this in, the light of an autumn afternoon spilling through the tall window behind the professor’s desk. Our pathetic, six-page papers were clutched in our sweaty palms, completely forgotten. Dr. Wood stood up from his desk. Behind his thick glasses his eyes were bright, and he was wearing a toothy, self-satisfied grin. He swept an arm in the direction of one wall, and then he spoke three words that we had heard him speak multiple times in class but never really heeded. Usually he said it when we were finishing one novel and preparing to start the next. He would urge us not to be so hasty to sell off our textbooks at the end of the semester, no matter how much they might’ve cost us. And there, in his office, he repeated the phrase we had heard before, only this time it landed with greater weight, as our extraordinary surroundings seemed to amplify his words like a symphony hall.
“Build your library,” he told us. “Build your library.”
Now, as I sweep my stud-finder over the drywall of my new basement room, marking the spot where I will drill pilot holes and affix sturdy brackets to hold my homemade book ledges, Dr. Wood’s encouragement comes to mind. As I lug banker’s box after banker’s box into the room, I consider the wisdom of those words. Certainly, with the endless digital conveniences of our technologically-dependent age, owning a roomful of physical books can seem these days like an unnecessary chore – a waste of space and, with each new purchase, a waste of funds. The device on which I write this post could, in seconds, provide me with probably 90% of the words that I find in these works, which now litter the cement floor of this office-to-be, awaiting their assigned ledge. Why would I spend so much time, energy, and money constructing shelves for thousands (I haven’t counted, but I would estimate in the thousands, or close to it) of volumes, most of which will simply sit there catching dust for months, even years, before I ever consider pulling them down and flipping through their pages again?
These thoughts notwithstanding, I am struck by a deeper quandary as well, because the vast majority of these books concern subjects I am no longer tasked with explaining. Because I am no longer a pastor. I teach literature and composition to high-school students. Today, the commentary sets, Bible dictionaries, and tomes of Church history stare back at me blankly, as if wondering, “Why are we still here? Do you even need us anymore?”
When I was forced to resign from my pastorate two years ago, I had boxed these books up in the belief that somewhere soon, in another office on another generous set of bookshelves, I would unbox them. Somewhere in this post-Christian nation of ours was a community of faith who would trust me to lead them. And this library I had carefully curated, in obedience to my wise professor’s advice, would indeed come in handy in that work. Now, here they sit, these wonderful, wonderful books, full of insights and truth that just can’t be included in the brief, rudimentary lectures I now deliver to classrooms of half-asleep fifteen-year-olds, some of whom can’t be bothered even to bring their copy of Much Ado About Nothing to class (let alone preserve it for their own fledgling library).
“Build your library,” Ralph Wood told me, and I have done just that. And where has it gotten me?
What my professor did not tell me, but what hundreds and even thousands of those books thronging the shelves in his medieval castle of an office might say if they could speak, is, Build your library not for what it will do for you, Bo, but for what it has already done. In your moments of triumph as well as tragedy, let this room remind you that no good story, no meaningful history, is without its own highs and lows, its own mountains and valleys. As you live your story, heed that which you’ve learned from all these others, the fiction and the non, the beautiful and the heart-wrenching. Here, Bo, here is the cloud of witnesses – the factual and the fantastical – surrounding you, teaching you, comforting you, correcting you, and drawing you deeper into mysteries that have no bottom. Pray with them. Alongside them. Pray with that depth of reverence your professor modeled for you. Build your library, Bo, not that it may prove you worthy of some measure of honor or respect, but rather that you may honor all those who poured pieces of themselves out for your edification.
Build your library, yes. Build it, that you may be reminded it is not about you at all.
All right, then. Build it, I shall. May each screw find purchase. May each bracket sit true. May each ledge bear the weight not merely of all the pages set atop it, but of all the life that surges and swells within those pages. For all the hardships and disappointments I have known in this life, including the ones that has led me to this wise old house and this still-unfinished basement, may these freshly painted walls, makeshift ledges, and wonderful library remind me I am not alone in this long, strange sojourn. I am surrounded by a multitude of voices, many of whom proclaim from their pages the greatest truth of all – that the Father of our faith, and the Author of all my prayers, surrounds me as well, each and every day.
I’m thinking about you today. I want you to know that I’m hopeful for you, concerned about you, nervous for you, appreciative of you, and fearful for you. Most of all, though, I want you to know how much I admire you. It hasn’t been easy, has it?
I write to you out of my own experiences, but truly it is you I hold in my mind. I know our circumstances aren’t identical, of course, but the equivalencies persist. Whether you serve a small church like I do, or a large church, or something in between, none of us found ourselves exempt from this struggle.
The Teacher says “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9), which in one respect is true. But, still, no one we know has gone through this before. No professors, no mentors, no older pastors we look up to and occasionally call for advice. Sure, there have always been hard seasons. As we’ve told many a church member over the last few months, every generation goes through trying times, frightful times, life-altering-and-redefining times. There’s wisdom to be gleaned, for sure, and we have squeezed every last drop from that sponge. Yet the unprecedented nature of these times remains; we’re still waking up each morning under a dark-cloud reminder that the old rhythms have withered and ministry has become far more improvised than we would prefer.
I admire you for sticking with it. If I’m being honest (and what’s the point of writing to you if I’m not), at times I’ve wondered whether I could stick with it. I’m trying, and I know you are, too. Some days are better than others. I place my faith in the truth that God is faithful. But those who claim this faith is easy are most certainly false prophets.
First, there’s the struggle of “doing church online.” Just the phrase itself is rife with problems, both grammatical and ecclesiological.
I don’t know about you, but I was already frustrated with social media before this crisis. The fellowship it offers isn’t genuine. The connections and dialogue made available within its parameters are only phantoms, bearing no real substance. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok… they serve a purpose, sure, but you and I both know they cannot sustain the deep needs of the human heart. After all, what does it profit a man to get a hundred Likes for posting a politically snarky meme, yet forfeit his soul?
When we try to use social media to foster genuine fellowship, it’s like trying to slake our thirst with a spoonful of salt. Now, however, we have little choice. We face a circumstantial compromise – for a season we must figure out how to conduct the genuine fellowship we once knew within the dimly lit halls of the social media complex, while all around us flutter a thousand and one black-winged temptations, the unspiritual disciplines of conspiracy theories and clickbait, the rotten fruits of screen addiction and instant gratification. It is not the catacombs of old, by any means, but ours is a harrowing time nonetheless.
I’ve gotta ask, how have you been delivering your sermons? I’ve been preparing them as best I can, though my preferred weekly schedule was quickly tossed in the garbage. But then I’ve had to set up cameras to film them myself, then download to my laptop, then teach myself how to use video-editing software… Preaching the sermon used to be the finish line of a weekly marathon filled with reading, prayer, reflection, research and writing. Once you finally preached it, though, at least you were finished. There wasn’t another four more hours of footage adornment and audio adjustment on the back end to make up for the handicap of it not being delivered in-person.
Meanwhile, you ache for your worship pastor, who is simultaneously engaged in his own struggle to lift congregants’ spirits and inspire them to raise their voices in their own living rooms, all while deprived of his full band or vocal team. Your Children’s Pastor is wracking his brain to somehow convert all his high-energy, hands-on activities to a video stream. And your Student Pastor, whose heart continues to fall as with every passing week fewer and fewer teenagers exhibit the patience necessary to gather online for Bible study because, for crying out loud, they’ve already spent hours on Zoom trying to complete their schoolwork. You want to encourage them, but what is there to say? This is not the way the church should function, and the proof is in the pudding.
I admire you, because despite these setbacks and the completely unexpected load of extra work, you’ve plunged forward into this unsettling new world. “To the work! To the work! In the strength of the Lord,” as the old hymn declares, “and a robe and crown shall our labor reward.” You’ve kept your eyes on the horizon, though it’s been hard, especially when you see the number of views or shares decrease (the cyberspace equivalent of a shrinking attendance), or when your deacons report that some church members don’t have a good enough Internet connection to even access what your team has labored over, or when you speak with church members who remind you that no amount of online content or phone calls or even cards in the mail (old school!) can combat the cruel loneliness that comes with protecting ourselves from the pandemic.
So Many People, So Little Time
Pastoral care was difficult even before Covid-19. When you become a pastor, you quickly understand the apostles’ decision in Acts 6 to establish and specify helpers. It’s hard to balance all our other expectations – directing the vision, collaborating with staff, planning worship, and preparing multiple sermons and Bible lessons, and interceding for the congregation and the community – with the personal attention people expect from their spiritual leaders. You try your best to get out of the office, to make phone calls at appropriate hours, but you quickly find the hourglass has once again run dry. There’s always tomorrow, sure, though tomorrow brings its own fresh set of challenges. What a blessing it is when your people call or visit you, because sometimes you need it more than they do.
Is it me, or has this working-from-home thing only made the sand drain away faster? All this extra work, all the challenges of trying to deal with ministerial issues and maintain congregational projects without being able to meet with all the players in person… It’s maddening how much more time-consuming that has become. Sure, I marvel at some of the technology we’ve been able to employ to keep things running these last few months, but I also know that the only Zoom meetings that run shorter than normal meetings are the ones in which people get so annoyed with the connectivity bugs that they give up and sign-off early. It may help us sustain productivity, but I haven’t experienced any advancements in efficiency, have you?
You want to go visit people. You really do. Here and there, you make a socially-distanced drive-by. You even take your family along, because you’re keenly aware you’re not spending enough time with them these days either. But even if some of your congregants wouldn’t mind having you in their home, you recognize the risk of that, and one thing you must do as a pastor-shepherd is protect the flock, even if that means protecting them from you. In between all your projects, you make phone calls or write notes. And you pray. Oh, how you pray!
At the end of each day, you feel like Oskar Schindler at the end of Spielberg’s film, insisting you could have done more, couldn’t you? You fall asleep thinking this, only to dream of CDC guidelines and controversial recommendations. You awake with a mounting burden of ignorance, of not knowing for sure how your congregants are doing.
You Shall Know the Truth
Top all this off with the struggle you’re now experiencing to determine whether reopening/regathering/resuming (call it what you will) is the right call, and, if so, what precautionary steps should be taken to protect the people even when it’s become virtually impossible in our country for people to agree on which precautionary measures are sound and which are bogus. Sure, you consult the CDC and the WHO, among others, because certainly it is for such a time as this that they were commissioned, but then you discover some folks are skeptical of these organizations. A few even consider them part of a massive hidden agenda to keep us all desperate and fearful. So it is, to your utter exasperation, that determining a set of health guidelines is to flirt with controversy, and the last thing you want to do is stir the already roiling pot of controversy. You want controversy and partisanship and all those awful, divisive poisons as far from your community as possible, but lately there seems no way around them. The truth feels elusive, camouflaged, and so you spend your days researching even more – health reports and medical journals and watching online seminars with epidemiologists – which only adds to your fitful sleep and the weird dreams you’re having at night.
All you want is to regather your church, to call them back from this forced hibernation, to provide space to connect with God and one another, to experience anew the sacred relationship between worship and fellowship. With the mounting unrest in our society, and anguished voices crying out louder and louder each day, never has it been more important to gather in the Name of the One who makes all things new.
You know people are trusting you and – if you have one – your staff to make the right decisions, but man! It’s so easy to second-guess and third-guess decisions right now. If you don’t have a staff to collaborate with, I pray an extra gift of wisdom and discernment for you. I can’t imagine doing this all alone.
Of course, you’re not alone. None of us are. That’s what I have to keep reminding myself. This stay-at-home stuff would have us believe we’re doing this solo, but then we talk to those church members who are doing everything they can to support us and each other. Those deacons who are faithfully calling the people. Those prayer warriors who have not missed one day interceding for us all. We are not alone. Our churches will always be more than me and you, and thank God for that! They are strong not because we are strong, but because the Savior is strong. “His power is made perfect in our weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
So, I admire you for keeping the faith. Now we know a little more about what Paul means when he says, “I have fought the good fight” (2 Tim. 4:7) – there are days when this is indeed a fight. We are contending not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities that would use our doubts, our shortcomings, and our character flaws to quell the Spirit’s fire and deal a mortal blow to our faith. Thank goodness we need not fight this battle alone.
Hang in there, Pastor. The struggle is real, but so is Jesus. This too shall pass, but even if it doesn’t, salvation remains. Remember the God of the ages is with you. He blesses, he keeps, he makes his face shine bright to those who seek him.
My father is a retired Air Force pilot. He flew missions in the Vietnam conflict as well as the Balkans. During Operation Desert Storm, he spoke to an assembly of my entire middle school student body about the reasons for the war and the United State’s objectives in aiding the Kuwaitis. Throughout his career, he flew everything from bombers to F-4 Phantoms to the A-10 Thunderbolt (a.k.a. the “Warthog”). I still remember occasionally looking up to the sky during afternoon soccer practice and seeing that funny-looking, green warplane, with its massive front cannon, gliding across the sky. It would suddenly bank to the side, circle around, and fly over again, this time dipping its wings back and forth. This, I knew, was my father returning to Bergstrom Air Force Base after a trip. He had adjusted his flight-path in order to say a quick hello to his son (while simultaneously solidifying his status, in the eyes of all my teammates, as the coolest dad in the world).
Growing up, I played with models of various airplanes – A-4 Skyhawks, F-14 Tomcats, F-15 Eagles, F-16 Falcons, the list goes on. I watched Top Gun so many times as a kid that to this day I can still quote the final air battle scene in its entirety. And I stood in awe at airshows watching jet pilots scream across the sky performing barrels rolls and synchronized maneuvers. More than anything, though, I loved watching that twin-engine monstrosity roar in low and reduce a targeting shack to a billion exploding splinters of debris.
Eat your heart out, Tony Stark.
I am exceedingly proud of my father, for his service, for the career he chose, and for what he taught me about discipline, honor, and respect for our country. I do not take it lightly that people like him (not to mention his father and two of my cousins who served in the Marine Corps) have dedicated their lives to protecting this country and its interests. And while I realize not every modern military conflict is directly concerned with our personal freedom, I still recognize that the freedoms we enjoy in this country and the possibility for an even brighter future is what inspires men and women like my father to serve.
I did not choose the line of work my father did. A thousand Top Gun viewings notwithstanding, I was afraid of flying. I still am. I’m also terrible at math, which any jet pilot will tell you is an integral part of the job.
Not the best place to run out of fuel because you forgot to carry the one.
Instead, I entered another form of service. I dedicated my life to preserving and furthering the freedom of a different kind of country – a freedom, I believe, that is far more precious than even the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. And, on this Veterans’ Day, I recognize that my father’s military service has helped me comprehend a much deeper truth about my own choice of career.
As a pastor, I am tasked with teaching the disciplines of this othercountry we call the Kingdom of God. It is my job to incite respect and encourage honor for the interests of our Creator and his people. And just as our commander-in-chief, Jesus the Son of God, laid down his life for the sake of every kingdom citizen, so must I be ready and willing to sacrifice my own for the sake of his gospel. This isn’t just a job. It’s a calling. A way of life. And I do not undertake this service merely because I am commanded to, but because, like a good soldier fighting to preserve the interest of the country he loves, I am irrevocably inspired by the freedom I have in Christ, and the promise of a bright, shining future.
Without realizing it, the dedication my father exhibited to his career in the Air Force was at the same time preparing me for my own career in the fields of our Lord. And for that, above everything else, I am abundantly grateful.
So, thank you, Dad, for the discipline, honor, and respect you taught me. Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for the missions. Thank you for your life of service.
And thanks for those fly-bys over soccer practice. That was freaking awesome!