By the Book

“I really do need all these books.”

That’s the message on a coffee cup that sits on one of my bookshelves. I have several bookcases—a whole wall of shelves, in fact. It is part of who I am as a pastor, teacher, counselor, writer, blogger, and person of endless curiosity. I have books on theology, philosophy, homiletics, counseling, leadership, literature, psychology, poetry, world religions, and more. I have a whole set of volumes of O. Henry’s short stories. I have books in Greek and in Hebrew and in Spanish. It’s a lot of books.

Being a pastor means that I’ve spent a lot of time in the Good Book. We Presbyterians send our pastors to seminary where they spend lots of credit hours learning about the Bible and its mechanics and meaning. We insist on our ministers having knowledge of the original languages.  We pass a Bible Content Exam that displays our familiarity with the Book. We are people of the Book, and the Bible is at the center of how we live and practice our faith.

Being Presbyterian also means that we have a Book that details our beliefs and life together. Our Constitution includes both our Book of Confessions and our Book of Order. We have spent a lot of time working through the history of the church and where we decided to take separate paths from others; we value history and know that we are not the first people to ask some of these questions or face some of these issues. The Confessions give us historical and theological grounding as expressions of how people have read the Book in their own context.

The second section—the Book of Order—is all about how we work through the practical matters of trying to live as the church. It tells us when we shall do certain things and how and when they shall occur. It is not the most exciting reading one can do, but the truth is that it is not meant to be read but to be referenced as needed. It proscribes our polity—our understanding of relations and regulations that keep us together. It, too, is a history of how we have worked our disagreements and disputes while trying to hold everyone together.

We tend to do thing ‘by the book.’ It’s a common expression meaning that we are working on sound standards. The Book tends to have an air of authority that defies argument. It can be a quick way to cut off conversation—“It’s in the book!” If someone thought enough about something to write it all down, then we are more likely to trust their thinking rather than doing any of our own. Once it is written, then it takes on an aura of authority that becomes hard to challenge. If it was worth writing, then it was worth repeating. If it was worth repeating, then it was worth reinforcement. Pushing a pen around leads to pushing others in a particular direction. Before long people no longer question what’s in the book—they simply repeat it.

I found myself staring at my shelves the other day. I was reflecting on how many thousands of pages were sitting there. I was imaging how many millions of words I have read to get to this office and station in life. I was struck that much of this collection of wisdom in words was thousands of years old. Some of them are quite recent. Truth be told, I’m expecting a delivery of even more books today. So many books.

Even a glance at a title on the spine is enough to bring stories and ideas to mind. Some of these books are dear friends that I have visited with time and time again. Some are interesting conversations that yielded insights and information that I would not have had otherwise. Some of them truly are authorities for me proven over the course of a lifetime.

Yet, there is not among them a book that tells me the best way to minister through a pandemic. The Bible speaks of pestilence but does not offer much in the way of medical guidance for dealing with it. The Bible speaks of healing and offers prayers that may be useful. The Psalms depict the range of human emotion but still wait for resolution. Jesus heals and casts out demons and brings wholeness. In the midst of these dark days there is a sense that the Book was then and not now; there is a feeling of longing for that power and presence to be up walking amidst our masked and distanced daily life. Honestly, right now it feels as if we do not know how to do this “by the book.”

That holds true for some of our Presbyterian practices as well. When we elect leaders in our congregations our Book of Order proscribes that we will have a Service of Ordination and Installation. There are questions to answer and prayers to pray. One of the most moving and meaningful moments is the laying on of hands. Of course, we’re not getting close enough to lay on hands at the moment. Like so much of life we are doing that symbolically and from a social distance, we have to adjust for our current context. Those who put the Book of Order together did not envision such circumstances. Shall and should not are in tension at the moment.

Indeed, the writers of the Good Book and the Book of Order and a host of other books that I deem worthy of reading and repeating—none of them were looking at a global pandemic. They did not know the kinds of political tensions we would be experiencing. They did not have the understandings of psychology or sexuality or genetics that we have discovered. They spoke to their context and created their content not knowing we would be reading it centuries and decades later.

I have learned a lot from all those books on my shelves. One thing I think I am learning more and more these days is that I am less concerned with arguing the details that they contain, and more concerned with moving in the direction to which the best of them point.

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