The other day, I gave some Henri Nouwen to a friend who was thinking about the ministry of presence and absence. I photocopied the pages from a book whose binding is so worn, I hold all the pages together with some rubber bands. The book has an inscription to a guy named Ben, “on the day of his baptism.”
I don’t know who Ben is; I bought the book on speculation for a dollar at a Friends of the Library sale.
I picked up the book without knowing much about Henri Nouwen, but I recognized his name from another book I was reading by Phillip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church. I got this book because Yancey’s “mentors” were mine: John Donne, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, G.K. Chesterton, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Paul Brand (a man who treated leprosy and talked about the gift of pain.) Incidentally, Yancey also pointed me toward Annie Dillard–who, in print, is one of the most influential women on my life.
A college friend living in Seattle recommended the Yancey book as I wailed week after week about people, christians, the mediocrity of christian subculture, the impossible task of community, my non-existent fellowship. Loneliness plagued my days and I angry.
Those were really lonely days.
Bottom-of-the-well days, like Joseph, son of Jacob.
Dark-cell days of waiting and lamenting like he had later in Egypt.
I was living in a place I hated, having just ended a relationship I thought would last, alone in my apartment, misfit and outsider to the small town and local church.
This was a nasty contrast to college life I’d left a couple years prior: all my favorite people lived within 5 miles of the school we attended together. College is great that way. It affords a unique proximity and liberty that fuels intimate and powerful community.
Thousands of miles from that world, I was bereft. And “bereft” turned to bitterness real quick.
Without a tribe–without a people of my own, without anything to do, without anywhere to go–I turned to resentment.
I lived in this (adorable) lofted apartment for 4 years without TV or the internet. When I moved in, I vowed I would have something to show for this time, despite deep disappointment. I read–for real–at least two hours a day, 4 or 5 on weekends. I spent the Christmas and Summer holidays (as a teacher) the same way– only the half-days of reading would be for weeks.
While I was in that season, reading was distraction from my loneliness. The time to do it was a kind of consolation prize for that unwelcome life. The books were my deepest, most consistent community.
All at once, I decided to move. Armed with a phrase I discovered reading, I set off.
“I surely have to be where God is.” (Nouwen).
It won’t surprise you to learn my hardest California packing decisions were about which books to bring. It was a dire situation: Not only did all the books have to fit in a milk crate, but I expected my books to go on being at the center and height of my days.
If that’s the case, what books must go into the Great Unknown?
It was the weirdest assortment.
The massive Gardner’s Art Through The Ages textbook went in first. Followed by a fat Norton Anthology of British Literature. (I always said that if I were exiled, the Norton Anthology and the Bible were all I’d need to be happy.) Then a few books on writing, the Henri Nouwen reader (he’s why I’m going, after all), three by Annie Dillard, Kerouac for festivity’s sake, my Jane Eyre copy from college, the Penguin Collection of Metaphysical Poets, and Discovering Marin: A Tour of Cities and Towns (Another find Florida booksale find I was taking as a Divine sign.) With a little space leftover, I tossed in a history of Guinness, a comparative religions text, and a couple literary novels.
I packed and re-packed that crate, changing my mind. How could I know what I’d need for the road ahead? What from my shelves would be irreplaceable? Indispensable?
The crate load was ridiculous and so was the gravity of the deliberation.
Trying to fill the crate, I couldn’t see that, with these empty years, God had been filling my cup all along.
Through the reading, He had transformed my mind and heart, and all of that went with me. Through the reading, He prepared me to see the adventure and community I was desperately seeking. Through the reading, He gave me something to give them when I got there.
It’s impossible to read like that anymore. These days overflow with students, surrogate family, church, and a relational ministry. They have the ocean, adventure, and music. This life is much closer to the one whose absence grieved me so much, but it takes up a lot of time. Now, time with pages is hard-won by fighting and careful carving.
I often miss the days where the time for reading and contemplation came easy. I miss that gratification. But I know now that when I had it, I was reading then for the wrong reasons.
The reading was never supposed to be for self-medication. It was never supposed to fill the emptiness or bring me peace. It was so I would one day love better. All the revelation I gained reading was a Gift, and it was always supposed to be about love.
Whether it comes from a book or a person in my community, all revelation and knowledge comes from Love and exists to be in service to Love.
I think again about what Joseph had to offer his visiting family when he’d worked his way up, with dreams and revelations, to becoming the Egyptian king’s right hand.
I draw from the storehouses I filled during those years–the years I felt famine–in order to feed my local family all the time. I depend daily on what I’ve read to offer counsel and experience. I quote those “mentors” constantly. I have passages or books to recommend because I was able to read them first.
I have always struggled to accept the tenet that God redeems ALL things–that ALL things–even the most painful situations–work for our good by the Hand of a good God. That every failure, struggle, wound, collapse–all of it–will not just be repaired but used for good.
I look back on those years in Florida, and I would have called them famine years. Remembering how painful they were, I would still. But I look at the chance I had to offer my friend comfort and insight because I had already read it. I look at how much of my relationship to my people here is fed by what I’ve read.
Perhaps my struggle to accept God’s total redemption is a function of poor classification. It’s not really “famine” at all. What I perceive as famine may actually be storing an abundance I can’t discern.
Of course the Kingdom Economy turns “famine and feast” on their head.
And it’s faith that will ultimately convert the Famine I perceive today to the Feast I was promised.
Dear Jesus, have mercy on me. Guard my heart against discouragement, and help me to view today’s poverty with eyes of faith in your goodness. Grant me the grace to remember I have Hope in You and Your work in my life. In each field of “famine” in my life, help me to wait joyfully for the feast to come. Amen.