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I wrote the following article for The Center for Healthy Churches. It originally appeared at chcchurches.org.
Recently I returned to my home state of West Virginia to conduct a funeral for a distant relative. Following the service at the funeral home, we drove to the cemetery in a procession. After arriving, I walked to the back of the hearse where I joined the funeral director and six pall bearers I did not know. We stood awkwardly while we waited for others to exit their cars and for the family members to take their places.
While standing there, we heard it A loud, metallic buzz that came from nearby trees. Very loud. It faded slightly and then rose again. The pall bearers looked over their shoulders, trying to see the source of the noise. “The seventeen year locusts,” pronounced the funeral director, who had seen the questioning on all our faces. “They’re back. Its the seventeen year locusts.”
I had not thought of them since I was a child, living with my grandparents. Perhaps I’ve lived in the wrong regions of the country, or in a city, where they don’t’ swarm, but I hadn’t heard them or thought about them in decades. But I remember my grandmother telling me how particular strains of locusts had a long life cycle, much of which approached dormancy. Then, after seventeen years they appeared again in large swarms. Now, here they were, swarming and buzzing, One pall beard noted that they sounded apocalyptic – so great was their noise.
My grandmother warned they’d be back, but I wasn’t paying much attention when I was twelve. I had more pressing things to do in the next seventeen years than to wait on the return of locusts. From the time she told me about them until they returned the first time I would live in four states, get my driver’s license, graduate from high school, college, and seminary. I would marry and be waiting on my second child to be born. With that much living to do, who has time to think about something that takes seventeen years to happen?
Now, in my sixties, I stood behind the hearse and listened to the swarm. I made the quick calculation and realized, that since my first encounter with the locusts, I have lived through three, seventeen year cycles. How long seventeen years seemed back then; how quickly 51 years have gone by since. This is always the problem in taking the long view in life. The future looks incredibly distant from the front side and remarkably short from the back side.
If only we could learn to take a long view of life when we were younger. When I hear an older people say, “If I had known how long I was going to live, I would have taken better care of myself,” I know they wish they had taken the long view. I’ve read articles by investors who wish they had placed more trust in the power of compound interest over time instead of trying to hit the moon every year with a hot stock tip.
I believe the long view of life is the healthiest and most effective. It allows us to be intentional about life and purpose instead of responding to the “tyranny of the urgent” the things which get in our way and demand our attention.
What does it look like to take the long view in ministry? Here is one, simple idea: write down a preferred future for you and your church. It may be a detailed strategic plan, but it may simply be a guiding sentence. Look at it no less than once a month and do one concrete thing to move forward the vision God has given you.
Funerals happen. People show up at your office door unannounced. Interruptions abound. Therefore, don’t get discouraged if you don’t wok on the plan every day or every week. But every month, do at least one thing to move it forward. Do something to move the glacial pace of change and improvement one inch in the direction God indicates. Just one inch.
An inch every month may not seem like much, from where you stand today, but by the time the locusts return you’ve moved seventeen feet. When you take the long view, incremental movement adds up over time.
We can apply the power of long term, incremental change to the churches we serve, or to our personal lives – losing weight, working on a degree, or writing that book we’ve dreamed of authoring. Moving an inch here, losing a pound there, writing a page this month and next. Pretty soon you’ve made progress. Real progress.
The key is to get started today. From experience I can tell you that the locusts will be back before you know it.
Lila is a hard and tender book. Until she arrives in the town of Gilead, the best part of Lila’s life came among migrant workers in the dustbowl, where she was cared for by a scar-faced woman who stole her from a life of neglect. That is a hard life.
But the novel is also tender because Lila perseveres; she fights against the worst of her ghosts and wants to care about others. She cares about Doll, who raised her, John Ames, the elderly pastor who marries her, and the expectant child she talks to for much of the novel. The fact she wants to love and wants to trust at all is a testament to grace.
If there is one word that describes this novel it is grace. It is not a pretty, pretend grace that makes everything rosy. Rather, it is a grace in spite of Lila’s dangerous life that is always on the edge of abandonment, It is a gritty grace that overcomes being a second generation knife-totting woman. The only grace that can touch Lila is a gritty grace experienced in the most dire of circumstances, ministered by the most unlikely of characters.
Reading reviews on Amazon.com is an interesting experience. The people who respond negatively to the book most likely prefer action over character development, which Robinson does so well. With consummate skill, Robinson follows the writers’ adage to “show, not tell Your Domain Name.” Showing the characters in this book takes a while, but seeing their souls grow is worth it.
People of faith and people of no faith are touched by Robinson’s ability to capture the mind of a woman who can carry her worldly possessions in her hands for decades, and how this woman becomes a wife – a pastor’s wife, at that.
Robinson is a rare theologian who can translate the deepest theology into life-giving words. John Ames says:
I realize I have always believed there is a great Providence that, so to speak, waits ahead of us. The father holds out his hands to a child who is learning to walk, and comforts the child with words and draws it toward him, and he lets the child feel the risk it is taken, and lets it choose its own courage and the certainty of love and comfort when he reaches his fathers…I was going to say safety, but there is no safety. And there is no choice, either, because it is the nature of the child to walk. As it is the want of the encouragement and attention of the father. And the promise of comfort. Which it is in the nature of the father to give.
She is also an accomplished student of the Bible, using a book as difficult as Ezekiel as the place where Lila encounters the God who rescues abandoned babies and is the source of hope that seems to grow out of nowhere.
I remember Gilead, as a warm and tender book that a give me much joy to read. Lila is a stand alone prequel to Gilead and a part of a trilogy that includes Home. Any of the three stands by itself. But as soon as I finish this review, I intend to start reading Gilead again, with a new understanding of how the characters arrived to the beginning of the story it tells.
Special thanks to Sam Ratcliff for the great shots from my retirement day. Thanks to Nancy for delivering!
Forgiveness is the number one spiritual problem. That’s my experience after 40 years in the ministry. More individuals struggle with the dynamics of forgiveness than any other spiritual issue. They ask questions such as:
“Can God forgive me for ________.” Fill in the blank. with your own worst sin.
“How can I ever forgive ______ for what he/she did?” Fill in the blank with the name of the person who has hurt you the worst.
“How can I forgive myself?”
I’ve encountered very few people – Christians or non-Christians – who have resolved all of these questions. Consequently, I’ve preached often on forgiveness and collected many books on the subject. One book that I’ve seen referenced, but had not read is Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. Thus, during my first week of retirement I read it and offer some observations.
Those with a decent memory of the Holocaust will remember that Wiesenthal was a Austrian Jew and a concentration camp survivor who went on to be the most effective hunter of Nazi war criminals following WWII. The Sunflower represents his own encounter with the dynamics of forgiveness and is written in two parts.
The first portion of the book describes an event that occurred when Wiesenthal was a prisoner in WWII. One day while on a work detail in a hospital, a nurse approached him and bade him to follow her. Wiesenthal found himself in a room with a single patient, an SS officer dying of grave wounds. The Nazi officer’s head was wrapped in bandages could see nothing of his face.
With great physical and spiritual difficulty the officer described his transition from “a good Catholic” prior to the rise of National Socialism in Germany to an SS officer who participated in a heinous atrocity against the Jewish inhabitants of a village on Germany’s Eastern front with the Soviets. This officer helped corral old men, women and children into a house drenched in gasoline and then set the house on fire with grenades. He and his comrades shot those who tired to escape. He shot one family in particular who stared straight at him in fear and pain as they jumped to their deaths.
The SS officer explained that he did not want to die with this crime on his conscience. He had asked the nurse to bring a Jew to his room in order that he might confess to him (all the prisoners in this context being male.).
Although Wiesenthal shows fragments of compassion to the SS officer during his telling of his story, when the officer asks for forgiveness, Wiesenthal eventually leaves the room in silence, withholding the forgiveness that he had sought. Wiesenthal then struggles with his decision and discusses it with other prisoners. After the war he located the officer’s mother and visited her, offering solace. But he did not forgive and asks the reader whether or not he was right in his decision.
The remainder of the book is comprised of essays by Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist thought leaders who respond to Wiesenthal’s question. Their divergent responses further suggest that forgiveness is a pivotal, spiritual problem. There are themes that appear and reappear, but there is no agreement on what Wiesenthal did or should have done.
Several of the essayists ask whether Wiesenthal had the capacity to forgive on behalf of others. If he was not among the SS officer’s victims, did he have standing to forgive?
Others ask if Wiesenthal had forgiven the SS officer, would he have done justice to the victims. They suggesting that for Wiesenthal to forgive would slight the victims’ injuries; therefore, they counsel that he did the correct thing by not forgiving.
Other writers ascribe impure motives to the SS officer. Was his confession genuine? Did he continue to objectify Jews by asking that a representative Jewish man hear his confession? Why didn’t he confess to a priest? I found the assumptions behind many of these criticisms to be highly prejudiced and unhelpful.
A few respondents, chief among them the Dali Lama, recognized that forgiveness is essentially about the heart of the person offering forgiveness. With that understanding of forgiveness, Wiesenthal could have offered forgiveness from himself to the officer. He could have expressed that the officer’s past actions did not dictate Wiesenthal’s future attitude and actions toward him. This view coincides with my own understanding of forgiveness.
The essays not only point out the critical nature of forgiveness as a spiritual problem, but they also serve as evidence that there is confusion about the vocabulary surrounding forgiveness.
In the New Testament, forgiveness is not presented as the equivalent of full reconciliation or as the restoration of fellowship between two, estranged parties. Forgiveness is the attitude of the injured party directed toward the injurer. In this attitude the heart of the injured does not count the injury as the defining issue between the two. Instead, love – agape love – defines the relationship – at least from the side of the injured. Forgiveness is the removal of the obstacles of hate, anger, or the desire for vengeance which stand in the way of possible reconciliation. In direct relationship to the Greek of the NT, it is letting go of all these negative attitudes.
With humans, this new perspective represents a change from all the negative emotions which had previously defined the relationship between the injured and the injurer. With God, the desire is always there, always reaching toward us. Forgiveness is an expression of God’s constant and abiding love. Romans 5:8 says: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Therefore, forgiveness in the NT is not identified with reconciliation; it is a stage antecedent to reconciliation. It is that which makes reconciliation possible. Repentance on the part of the injuring party allows forgiveness to be received. Then reconciliation may take place. In our relationship with God, it means accepting what God was already offering. This understanding of forgiveness is missing in the majority of essays in the second part of The Sunflower.
Additionally, as a Christian I remember Jesus’s resurrection statement to the disciples in John 20:22-23:
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (ESV)
Christens do have a ministry of forgiveness.
I don’t offer these observations as a debate about the correctness of Christian theology vis a vis Jewish theology, but my tradition does direct my response, just as the Jewish tradition directs Wiesenthal’s.
I wonder what the response of a Viktor Frankl or Corrie Ten Boom might have been. Both were alive and available when the first edition of The Sunflower was published.
Cherry and I have spent our first Sunday of retirement going to church together. We have done that rarely over the past 35 years and it was one of my goals for this new chapter of life. We worshipped at the Chapel on Bald Head Island, NC.
We also enjoyed watching worship at FBC.
Sunday marked my retirement from First Baptist Church of Rome. It is a wonderful church made up of great people.
I’d like to thank the ministers I’ve worked with: Keith Reaves, Music and Worship; Tamara Smathers, Education and Administration; John Uldrick, Students and Missions; Gwen Stephens, Interim Faith Development (Children and Preschool. They are a wonderful group of Christians who are dedicated to their callings. They have made me a better pastor .
I’d also like to thank the church for hosting a marvelous reception last Thursday night. Cherry and I were honored and humbled by the presence of everyone who came. We are not half-way through reading notes, letters, and remembrances that you have sent.
I’m also thankful for conversations that retirement afforded. Concluding my ministry at FBC precipitated the opportunity to express affection, respect, healing, and hope to each other in ways that we might not do if next week looked the same as last week. Routine can kill initiative, but the conclusion of 21 years together made it possible to say things that were long overdue. I am thankful for these exchanges.
John Head mentioned on Sunday morning that I plan to write. You could not tell it from visiting this website over the past weeks. One of my goals is to write here much more often than I haven the past few months. Without a sermon to prepare, The Substance of Faith site will be primary outlet for book reviews and observations. I’ll have more on those future plans soon.
Again, there are no words to express appreciation to the great people of FBC for your kindness and generosity. Cherry and I love you all and join you in praying for the Pastor Search Committee as they continue their work.
He was a bantam weight dog with a heavy weight personality. He was funny and exasperating; loyal and obstinate. He loved people and hated other dogs. He taught me that “terrier” and “territorial” come from the same root.
I’ve written about Rocky twice before. The post on his TV-watching idiosyncrasies was very popular. I also used him to describe our culture’s relationships to pets. He died last Wednesday and like most pet owners, we feel as if part of our family is gone.
It’s been coming for a while. Eighteen months ago he had his first seizure while walking around the block. He lost balance, feel over, and flailed his legs for a moment. The first time I thought he had just lost his balance, but a couple of months later another seizure hit and I knew age was catching him.
Cataracts affected his sight. He operated around the house as if he could see perfectly, but he would walk right by Aggie, a neighboring dog, and never see her. His hearing began to fail and he no longer reacted to the AFLAC Duck on TV, nor hid in the closet during college football games.
Last fall we had our granddaughters for the weekend. Saturday afternoon and evening Rocky hid. Two preschoolers can create a lot of chaos, so it didn’t seem abnormal for him to stick his head under the bed. He thought he was hiding although we could clearly see his legs. Then I heard his breathing and realized that, as a farm dog goes under the house to die, he was going under the bed to be at peace while he slipped away. A quick trip to the vet resulted in a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. All you had to do was hold him as he panted and you knew what it was. The rasping of his lungs sounded wet and labored. Dr. Pate was on call and came in, even though he’d never seen Rocky before. Some medication relieved the worst of Rocky’s symptoms and he came home.
But he wasn’t the same. He slept more and seemed to lose track of when he had gone outside to the bathroom. We could no longer interpret his needs like before. Out? Food? Water? We never seemed to know what he wanted when he pawed at us. I’m not sure he knew, either.
Last week the seizures started daily. Instead of just falling over, he dropped to the ground, contorted, and howled. It was haunting and painful to watch. Kneeling over him one morning as another struck, I prayed this would be the seizure to kill him so we wouldn’t have to make a decision about his life and death. So he wouldn’t suffer any more. After being perfectly still for a minute, he struggled up and pranced into the house. Just when you thought you knew what to do, he broke into that terrier strut.
Tuesday afternoon, through Wednesday morning, he had four seizures. The prancing strut was temporary. Tuesday night he never moved while sleeping. I heard him grind his teeth early in the morning; it was the only way I knew he was still alive.
Wednesday morning we made an appointment at the vet for late afternoon, the first time available. Rocky had another seizure on the way there, leaving no doubt we were doing the right thing. We waited our turn while Rocky quivered. Then it was our turn. I had a brief conversation with Dr. Dixon to say I understood why we had come. Three minutes later it was over.
Several years ago I read a story about Sigmund Freud’s evaluation of a boy whose father had died. Freud was shocked that the boy said he still expected his father to come through the door. Freud thought the boy’s reaction was abnormal.
If the story is true, Freud must have never had family, or a friend, or a pet. I find myself still expecting Rocky to bark at the doorbell, or paw my leg and tell me it’s time to go out, or kick his bowl across the floor, hoping for different food.
Absence is not felt in general, but in the particular patterns which once existed – and now are lost to us. It is felt in those places where our lives were once entwined with the presence of another and now feels frayed. Unraveled.
With people it isn’t just that someone is gone, it is the phone call which can no longer be made, the advice which can’t be sought, the door which a father won’t walk through again. These moments are not part of a theory about grief; they are the concrete expressions of our love and our lives joined to those we loved. Even a pet.
I was cleaning up some computer files and came across the article I wrote about Clarence Jordan in 1998. Clarence’s name a appears on this site in multiple contexts: if you search for the “the substance of faith,” you will likely find reference to his translation of Hebrews 11:1, or a book of his sermons, edited by Dallas Lee. Both of these reference are mentioned on the About page for this website. If you are interested in more information about Clarence Jordan, read on…
CLARENCE JORDAN AND THE INCARNATION
A Paper Presented to the Georgia Baptist Historical Society
by Joel Snider, April 3, 1998
Many southerners over the age of forty remember Clarence Jordan as a true prophet. His homey “Cotton Patch” translations of the New Testament provided keen insight into the scriptures; his progressive stance on racial equality made him a hero of the faith for some white Christians in the south during an era with few such heroes. While many leaders of white churches and denominations were the last crew members to leave the sinking ship of racial prejudice, Clarence Jordan placed his life at risk in order to bear witness to the belief that skin color does not define the limits of God’s love.
It is sad to say we now live in a generation which knew not Clarence Jordan. In March, 1998, a search on the internet for the Georgia native’s name produced only three “hits.” The purpose of this paper is to outline the central doctrine of Jordan’s life and work: the incarnation. Yet, a secondary purpose is to serve as a reminder to a new generation that there once was a prophet among us here in Georgia. By necessity, this paper begins with a very brief summary of Jordan’s life. The main, central section of the paper provides a synopsis of Jordan’s concept of the incarnation. The concluding section briefly demonstrates the relationship between Jordan’s view of the incarnation and his two most famous accomplishments: the establishment of Koinonia Farm and the “Cotton Patch” translations of the New Testament.
Jordan was born July 29, 1912, in Talbotton, Georgia, the son of J. W. and Maude Josey Jordan. The Jordan family enjoyed some privilege: J. W. owned a small local bank, while Clarence’s brother, Robert, eventually served as a justice for Georgia’s State Supreme Court. The available, primary resources tell of an unremarkable childhood. No significant events happened to Jordan that did not happen to his siblings or peers. What was unusual, however, was the sensitivity young Clarence demon-strated toward the issue of race relations. There is no evidence that the typical prejudices of the era bothered many white residents of Talbotton, yet they haunted young Clarence. By high school Jordan was making decisions about his life’s vocation based upon his reaction to the incidents of racial injustice he had witnessed. At first he planned to be a lawyer in order to fight the legal foundations of prejudice in court. Later, after recognizing the prison-like affects of poverty, Jordan decided to become a “scientific farmer.” The hope of being able to teach improved farming skills to poor sharecroppers motivated his thinking. This particular conviction led him to the University of Georgia where he earned a degree in agriculture in 1933.
During Jordan’s college days, the young Georgian came to the realization that the racial problems of the south were not simply economic; they were also spiritual. Out of this conviction, Jordan decided to go to seminary. He never intended to be a pastor in the traditional sense; rather, he wanted a direct and clear understanding of scripture so that no one could use the Bible to outflank his views on social issues. By 1938, Jordan had earned two degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, including a doctorate in Greek. Equipped with degrees in agriculture and New Testament, Clarence Jordan was prepared to begin his unique ministry to impoverished African-Americans in the Deep South.
In 1941, while serving as the Director of Missions for Long Run Baptist Association in
Louisville, Jordan met a furloughing American Baptist missionary named Martin England. England utilized his furlough to speak out against the racial attitudes of white American Christians. He felt these attitudes greatly handicapped his work in Burma. Jordan and England began a strong friendship based upon their similar beliefs about race, non-violence, and material possessions. When World War II prevented England from returning to Burma, he and Jordan decided the time was right to begin a spiritual/agricultural ministry in the rural south. After purchasing four hundred acres in Sumpter County, Georgia, Jordan and England began Koinonia Farm. Anyone willing to abide by the founding principles of Koinonia farm was welcome to join the two men and their families. The founding principles of their inter-racial farming community were: the “brotherhood of all men,” the rejection of violence, and the willingness to share all things in common.1
In the 1940’s and early 1950’s, residents of Sumpter County demonstrated moderate resistance to Koinonia Farm. One of the most difficult moments during these days was the decision by Rehobeth Baptist Church to withdraw fellowship from members of Koinonia. The local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan paid visits to Koinonia, but their usual tactics were simply attempts at intimidation.
By the mid-1950’s, things changed. Nationally, events such as the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education heightened racial tensions. Locally, Clarence raised the ire of many Georgians by aiding two African-American students who wanted to register at the Georgia State College of Business in Atlanta. Many residents of Sumpter County demon-strated the typical sense of being fearful and threatened by a changing world. Koinonia Farm represented a concrete example of the changes they disliked; therefore, Koinonia became the target for their anger and hostility. They attacked — physically and verbally– the residents of Koinonia. The physical attacks included the bombing of a Koinonia-owned business and the firing of weapons into the residences of Koinonia’s families. Eventually, the residents of Sumpter County also targeted Koinonia Farm for a devastating economic boycott; few local businesses would sell supplies to Koinonia, and very few local residents purchased Koinonia’s products. The situation caught national attention with Time, Newsweek, and The Christian Century publishing stories on the plight of Jordan and the residents of Koinonia.2
The Cotton Patch Gospel and Later Years
Jordan’s fame and notoriety spread, resulting in numerous preaching and speaking opportunities. He had a wonderful southern drawl, and an uncanny ability to transpose biblical stories into a southern idiom. In 1963, Jordan was invited to speak at the biennial meeting of the Northern Baptist Convention in Detroit. For that particular speaking engagement, Jordan chose to teach the book of Ephesians. He did so for two reasons: Jordan thought Ephesians to be one of the highlights of the New Testament, and because Ephesians deals with the subject of race relations.3 During his preparations for the event, whenever Jordan read Ephesians, he found himself thinking of the parallels between the ancient city of Ephesus, and the southern city of Birmingham, Alabama. Therefore, he “renamed” the book “The Letter to the Christians in Birmingham.” Jordan taught the book using his style of a freewheeling translation from the Greek New Testament, sprinkled with commentary from the current events of the day and stories about life and persecution at Koinonia. The over-whelmingly positive responses to the translation lead to Jordan’s written “Cotton Patch” translations.4 The translations were so popular they were reviewed in the secular press, including Newsweek.5
Eventually, the dire circumstances at Koinonia eased. From the mid-sixties until his death, Jordan focused much of his preaching on the war in Viet Nam and the ministry of Koinonia toward the poorest residents of Sumpter County. During this time, one of Jordan’s most famous disciples, Millard Fuller, came to reside at Koinonia Farm. Out of the lessons and commitments he learned from Clarence Jordan, Fuller went on to found Habitat for Humanity, perhaps the twentieth century’s most effective social ministry.
When Clarence died in October 1969, the local coroner refused to come to Koinonia to verify his death. Several of the Koinonia’s residents placed his body in a station wagon and took it to the coroner. Rejected in life, Clarence was also rejected in death. He was buried in an unmarked grave on the farm he founded. The box from a refrigerator recently purchased by the Koinonia community served as his casket. In 1980, a neighbor of Koinonia reflected, “He be gone now, but his footprint still here [sic].”6
Anyone who studies the life and work of Clarence Jordan will immediately recognize the strong, theological underpinnings of the Georgia native’s life and work. During his lifetime, Jordan received invitations to deliver theology lectures at such well-known institutions as Duke University and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. James McClendon considered Jordan’s theology significant enough to include a chapter about him in Biography as Theology.7 Jordan’s long-time friend, Henlee Barnette, asserted that the most neglected area of study concerning the founder of Koinonia Farm was his contribution to religious thought as a theologian.8
Jordan himself did not believe theology was a discipline restricted to academic circles. He often spoofed academia and its emphasis on the study of God as mental gymnastics for erudite minds.9 On one occasion he characterized Nicodemus as the epitome of a seminary professor. Jordan embellished the scene where the member of the Sanhedrian came to Jesus at night by placing these words in his mouth: “I have my B. D., my Ph.D., my D. D., my twiddle-dee-dee.”10 In Jordan’s mind, theology was only important when it served as the basis for how Christians live their faith. Anyone who wishes to influence the way people live must first influence their theology. Jordan said, “Theology is the mother of sociology; what men think about God today will be reproduced in their social institutions tomorrow.”11 Thus, Jordan’s theology was a practical one which dealt with the expression of doctrine and faith through everyday life.
Jordan cannot be cataloged into any of the twentieth century schools of theology. He rejected liberals for their failure to explore scripture for religious truth behind, what they considered to be, “unscientific nonsense.”12 He was also uneasy with liberalism’s blind optimism about human progress. On the other hand, he rejected fundamentalists for blindly adhering to the words of scripture while ignoring important biblical ideas.13 This misguided emphasis often results in a “characteristic reverse interpretation, whereby scripture is made to say the exact opposite of its original intention.”14
Three other writers, Dallas Lee, James McClendon, and Henlee Barnette have studied Jordan’s theology. If we were to read the works of these writers, we would find three themes repeating themselves: the incarnation, the “God Movement” (Jordan’s description of the kingdom of God), and discipleship. Lee, McClendon, and Barnette use different phrases to describe these themes, but all three agree that they are the dominant categories of Jordan’s life and theology. This writer is in basic agreement with Lee, McClendon, and Barnette, but he firmly believes that the incarnation is the theme which dominates and gives inspiration to all other categories of Jordan’s thought, and to the concrete expressions of his ministry. Were the writer to undertake another complete work on Jordan, the incarnation would provide the framework for the entire document.
THE INCARNATION AND THE HUMANITY OF GOD
Jordan believed everything Christians do should be rooted in the nature of God. They are supposed to reflect God’s nature in all their actions. Instead of speculating about God’s nature, Christians need to look at Jesus, who is a physical demonstration of the Father’s character. Jesus is God’s plan for the world; the Son is God’s “idea” of the way Christians ought to live and conduct their lives. Because ideas are best communicated when given a concrete form, God fully communicated this “idea” to us when God sent the Son to dwell in our midst.
When time began, the Idea already was. The Idea was at home with God, and the Idea and God were one. This same Idea was at home with God when time began. . . . Well, the Idea became a man and moved in with us. We looked him in the face–the face of an only son whose father is full of kindness and integrity.15
God’s Action in Jesus
The hope of the Old Testament was not that humans might scale mountaintops and see God, but that God would come down to earth, in order that God might truly be Immanuel.16 The New Testament has revealed the fulfillment of this hope. God humbled Himself and dwelt among us in Jesus.17 According to Jordan, the overwhelming concern of the New Testament is with the humanity of God as opposed to the divinity of Jesus. It stresses incarnation, not deification.
The author and Perfecter of our faith, the Lord Jesus Christ, is no mere mortal. He is truly the divine Son of God. And yet, the thing that escapes us . . . is that the opposite side of the coin of the deity of Christ is the Humanity of God. The two like heads and tails of a quarter are absolutely inseparable, and to separate one from the other is to destroy our theological currency.18
Thus, to overemphasize the deity of Christ is to end in the same position as docetic gnostics who thought Jesus was an apparition of a deity. They claimed he did not actually exist in human form. Jordan thought many contemporary Christians fall victim to the same heresy, and they avoid the emphasis on the humanity of God because it puts God in this world instead of a safe distance away in heaven. An incarnate God threatens our values and beliefs. People deify Jesus to remove him from the present and put him in the past. Then they substitute lip service for obedience, contemplation for action, and hope of heaven in place of the responsibility for this world.19 Jordan understood the biblical view of incarnation to say God has come in Jesus because God is concerned with flesh and blood rather than angels, and with the here and now rather than the “hereafter.”20 Consequently, the “cotton patch” gospel stresses the humanity of God and God’s earthly connection which began in a special way with Jesus of Nazareth.
The virgin birth. The major events in Jesus’ life were reported by the gospel writers in such a way as to emphasize the humanity of God. The reports about the conception of Jesus begin this emphasis. Technically, there is no doctrine of the virgin birth taught in the New Testament, but there is the affirmation that God is the Father of Jesus. Jordan believed Jesus’ “sonship” was not physical or biological; rather, it was spiritual, and had legal or “political” ramifications.21 God’s special relationship with Jesus, the unique manner in which God was present in the carpenter of Nazareth, gives him the right to rule and exercise authority like his spiritual Father. The accounts in Luke and Matthew which tell of the special events surrounding the conception of Jesus are trying to convey the transcendent truth that God has come into the affairs of humanity, and, thus, now dwells among us in the son of Mary.22 Early in his ministry, Jordan accepted the traditional doctrine of the virgin birth. Later, he reevaluated his position in order to emphasize the truth behind the doctrine as opposed to the literal meaning which many conservative Christians gave to it. This position greatly upset many of his listeners, but Jordan responded that the truth of the doctrine was not contingent upon the literalness of scripture.23 In a letter to a critic of his view, Jordan wrote:
I . . . believe that Jesus Christ is the Divine Son of God and particularly believe that God emptied Himself and was found in the fashion of man and that this man was Jesus of Nazareth. This belief has nothing to do with whether or not Joseph was the physical father any more than that Mary was the physical mother . . . . The truth of the matter is that Jesus had two fathers, as Mary herself believed and as no doubt Jesus believed. . . .
But all of this is of little or no consequence in understanding the real, deep, religious truth of the Virgin Birth. Surely you will admit that “sonship” to God is not a physical relationship.24
These comments make it clear that although Jordan used the term “virgin birth,” he used it to speak of something different than what the phrase often means. To Jordan, the virgin birth was the New Testament’s metaphorical expression of the fact that God “sired” Jesus in a spiritual manner. The gospel writers were not reporting the biological functions out of which Jesus was conceived; they were reporting the “theological truth” which science can never verify or deny. This theological truth which Matthew and Luke tried to communicate was that God had come in human form, and to read the birth narratives as the accounts of a woman giving birth to a god is to miss the point. The virgin birth says to the world that the incarnation has begun.25
Jesus’ earthly life. Just as Jordan saw the New Testament witnessing to the humanity of God through the accounts of Jesus’ birth, he also found it emphasizing the incarnation in its record of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The gospels constantly show Jesus as a real human being with the emotions of joy, anger, frustration, and sorrow. Jesus was a passionate man who had desires and needs like all human beings.26 He longed for friendship, he hungered for food, and he was tempted. The gospels do not paint the same picture of Jesus as the illustrators of modern Bibles. As Jordan came to understand the implications of the incarnation, he rebelled against his early, unrealistic images of Jesus.
I saw Him as the Good Shepherd with a little lamb in His arms and a pretty staff in His hand walking along with the daisies tickling His toes complete with well-manicured toenails. To me, He had long, beautiful, auburn hair falling down on His neck, and all fixed up as though He had just had a Head and Shoulders shampoo and finished it off with a Toni.27
Jordan’s theology dismissed the “stained glass” Jesus for an authentic human being who lived like other men and women.
Outside the gospels, Jordan found additional comments by biblical writers which stressed the humanity of God in Jesus. Jordan’s translation of the introductory verses of 1 John underlines the author’s emphasis:
In order that you-all, too, might be our partners, we’re plainly telling you about something that’s real, something that we ourselves heard, that we have seen with our own two eyes. It’s about the idea of life which we looked at and even felt of with our own hands. Now the life took shape and we saw it, and we are giving you our word, and plainly telling you about the spiritual life which was with the Father, and which took place in front of us.28
Later, in Jordan’s translation of the same book, one reads, “Here’s the way you recognize God’s spiritual man: Everyone who takes a stand on the humanity of Jesus is rooted in God.”29
Jesus’ resurrected life. While many Christians point to the resurrection of Jesus as evidence of his divinity, the New Testament record of the forty days between Easter and the ascension is careful to preserve his humanity. This record emphasizes Jesus’ hunger and the sharing of food with his disciples. John also records the encounter with Thomas where Jesus asks the doubting disciple to touch his wounds. This exchange obviously emphasizes the physical nature of Jesus’ body.30
The ascension itself did not mark the end of the incarnation, nor did it terminate the “bodily” presence of Jesus on the earth. The disciples never thought of Jesus as leaving; rather, his bodily existence changed form. The ascension freed him from the limitations of space.31
The book of the Bible called the Acts of the Apostles is inappropriately named, it should be called the Acts of Jesus. In the gospels, Jesus worked through one body; in Acts he worked through a collective body of women and men called the Church.32 But now, instead of two hands he had dozens of hands . . . instead of one voice he had many.”33 It was the same Christ performing the same ministry but with a different body, the body of believers. In Jordan’s mind, the humanity of God continues, even today, through the church.
God’s Action Through Believers
The transition in the incarnation which is marked by the ascension (the body of the one man, Jesus, giving way to the body of believers) is crucial to the theology of Clarence Jordan. In a much repeated phrase, he proclaimed, “The incarnation of Jesus is not a point, but a process.34 God’s dwelling in the midst of humanity continues as a reality. “It (the incarnation) is not a point in history in which God invaded the earth and returned (to heaven); it is an invasion which is continuing.”35 God’s decision to become incarnate was not a temporary decision, nor was it a decision which God would allow foolish humans to short-circuit by crucifying the son.
God did not raise Jesus from the dead as an invitation to go to heaven when we die, but as declaration that He himself has established permanent residence on this side of the grave . . . .He planted himself eternally in the midst of our present affairs . . . .36
The incarnation continues because it is God’s chosen way of self-revelation, and because “the world has no way of seeing God except through the image of Christ which is formed in the hearts of those who love and obey Him.”37
The spiritual birth of believers. Although God is the spiritual Father of Jesus in a unique way, He is also the spiritual Father of all those persons who identify with Jesus and call him “Lord.” Just as His action in the beginning in Jesus’ life is symbolically spoken of in terms of divine impregnation, the action of God in the beginning of a believer’s spiritual life can be described with a similar analogy. There is a sense in which all Christians are “virgin-born.”38 Jordan’s scriptural basis for this teaching is found in the third chapter of John’s gospel. Most translations of this passage record Jesus saying to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” Jordan points out that the Greek verb meaning “to give birth” is tikto. In the conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses the verb gennao, or “to sire.” Gennao represents the father’s act in conception; tikto describes the mother’s act in delivery.39 The adverb translated “again” also means “from above.” Therefore, Jordan thought a more accurate translation of the passage was, “Except a man be sired from above. . . . .”40 Every person who is alive has been sired physically, but only those who have been sired spiritually are alive with respect to God and the kingdom.
In spiritual birth as well as physical birth, the Father transmits His own nature to the child. In spiritual birth, the Father gives His child a new heart which enables the believer to seek after the Father and His will.41 This new heart helps transform the children of God into the image of their Father. Christians bear the image of Christ and, consequently, the Heavenly Father when they display the same characteristics which Christ displayed. Jordan said, “I think when people see people of peace, of reconciliation, of humility, of kindness, they look upon these and say, ‘I know who you are, I’ve seen the image of the Father. You’re God’s boy.’”42 When this image is born in believers, the incarnation continues.
This spiritual birth is a gift from the Father and cannot be earned, but those persons who wish to belong to His spiritual family must prepare themselves to receive the gift by “changing their whole way of thinking.”43 This complete change of attitude (metanoia) is necessary because the mind of God and the mind of the world represent opposite poles in human experience. The person who is geared toward the values and priorities of the world is incapable of participating in a relationship with God and cannot be sired from above. Only those men and women who have conformed their lives to God’s plan for the world, those who now value the kingdom of God and its virtues, are prepared to be members of God’s family.
Jordan rejected “repentance” as an appropriate translation for metanoia because of the emotional overtones and the gloominess which the English word had gathered.44 To experience metanoia is not as much an emotional response as it is a decision of commitment; it is forsaking an old way of life and putting in its place a new way.45 Neither is the experience of metanoia a sad event; rather, it is a moment of great joy because persons now have an alternative to futility, despair, and eventual destruction.46 Metanoia begins the only true life there is and represents the happiest point in a person’s existence.
The nature of faith. Faith is the ongoing relationship between Christians and God. Because Christians’ lives are the continued expression of the incarnation, God’s activity in the world, the relationship between Christians and their spiritual Father must also be active.
Faith is more than a state of existence, and belief is more than intellectual assent to propositions.
Now faith and belief in the New Testament are interchangeable. . . . We have come to dissociate belief from faith and we think of belief as a way of thinking when the original intent was not to describe a way of thinking but a way of acting. Actually, our English word belief comes from the old Angle-Saxon be, which means “by,” and lief, which means “life.” What one lives by is actually his belief or his by-life. This is the New Testament meaning of belief and faith. It is what you live by, it is the kind of life you live.47
The “what” that Christians live by is the incarnation present in themselves. The invisible yet very real presence of God directs their aspirations and actions so that they work to fulfill God’s redemptive plan. Therefore, “faith is the turning of dreams into deeds; it is betting your life on the unseen realities.”48
Because God’s mind is totally opposed to the mind of the world, the life based upon His principles will be radically different than the life directed by the attitudes of the world. Christians must live in the world and love the world as God loves the world, but they can never make peace with the world. If they should make a truce with mammon, the Spirit of God will depart from them and they shall no longer be God’s children. Even when the world persecutes believers for their life-style, they must remain faithful to God and the way of Christ because they are under an obligation to live the message despite the costs.49 For Christians who have entered into a relationship with God and pledged their lives to God’s service, “persecution is a terrible thing, but unfaithfulness is far worse.”50
The people of God are not chameleons who are able to blend in with the secular age; rather, their glowing faith causes them to remain distinctive.51 There is no middle ground in Christianity, nor is compromise a term used in the New Testament. When speaking of conduct, the Bible makes it clear that if believers do not gather, they scatters; if they do not love, they hates. A Christian who tries to be neutral is a dangerous liability to the kingdom.52 Therefore, faith is living God’s way in spite of consequences, and the incarnation is a totally captivating way of life through which God continues to be in the world, reconciling it unto Himself.53
Already, it should be clear to the reader that Jordan’s purpose for living was to make God a concrete reality in his own life and the lives of every person he encountered. His approach to all of life was, indeed, incarnational. The writer believes that neither the establishment of Koinonia Farm, nor the writing of the “Cotton Patch” translations can be understood apart from Jordan’s convictions about the incarnation.
Jordan held the traditional belief that God dwelt among humanity in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. As Jordan put it: “The idea became a man and moved in with us.”54 Clarence simply took the idea a step further; he believed the process of the incarnation continues through a group of believers who lived together in community. Therefore, the body of Christ “moved in” when Jordan and Martin England established Koinonia Farm in Sumpter County, Georgia. Like Jesus, this body of believers demonstrated God’s love through their actions and ministry to society’s poor and outcasts. Like Jesus, this body of believers was rejected and persecuted. Like Jesus, they did not resist evil or strike back. Jordan’s commitment to nonviolence was not a part of a strategy “to win” in encounters with opponents; rather, it was a commitment to act like Jesus and be seen as a child of God.55 As a part of the incarnation, as the very real continuation of Christ’s presence on earth, Jordan believed he had no choice. Thus, Koinonia Farm was, in Jordan’s mind, the logical outcome for Christians who wanted to be a part of the continuing incarnation.
The same logic of the incarnation expresses itself in Jordan’s translations. Clarence had a high view of scripture which was largely inspired by the piety of the surrounding, southern culture. He saw the book as a biography of God, authored by individuals who “traffic with the invisible.”56 Yet, his seminary training revealed to him that the Bible was, in part, the product of human hands. Clarence believed the writers of scriptures used normal ways of expressing the message which God had revealed to them. The transcendent nature of God’s word required them to use historical facts, imagery, poetry, parables, and other “devices” to convey adequately the message to their readers.57 The authors of the books of the Bible never gave primary consideration to objective facts and verifiable data; in fact, they were “quite capable of shifting scientific fact at will in order to illuminate religious truth.”58 Thus, the Book is not necessarily accurate in its reports of every historical fact or scientific detail. God is the fact, and all other details are simply support material. “Had the Bible been a science book of facts, it would have been outdated before the ink dried on its pages.”59
Because the biblical writers used “devices” (i.e., figures of speech, etc.) to communicate God’s eternal word, the truth of the Bible contains is not always clear to the reader. Therefore, in Jordan’s mind, anyone wishing to study scripture must use scholarship, discrimination, and imagination when reading the facts of scripture if he or she is to comprehend fully its message.60
When Jordan studied the Bible, he was searching for the truth behind the words, actions, parables, or miracles which the scriptures contained. He had a high view of inspiration and the consequent authority vested in the Bible by God. Yet, he was keenly aware of the human element involved in scripture, and readily applied the historical-critical approach in order to make an accurate interpretation.
Therefore, when he translated or interpreted scripture, Clarence Jordan tried to make the ideas of the Bible come alive in the minds of his listeners. He saw that the events of the Bible were “news” in the age in which they occurred, but, through the passage of time, that news had become history. Jordan intended to make the events and ideas of the Bible news once again.61 In order to do this:
We ask our brethren of long ago to cross the time-space barrier and talk with us, not only in modern English, but about modern problems, feelings, frustration, hopes, and assurances; to work beside us in our cotton patch or on our assembly lines, so that the word becomes modern flesh.62
This quotation is the key to recognizing that the incarnation is the overriding principle guiding Clarence Jordan’s hermeneutic. Above all, the Georgian wanted the ideas of the Bible to be real and meaningful for those persons who heard him proclaim God’s word. He wanted all Christians to be participants in the message they were hearing.63 “The scripture should be taken out of the classroom and stained-glass sanctuary,” Jordan said, “and put out . . . where people are toiling and crying and wondering . . . .”64 Jordan sought to make the Bible live so that people would no longer think “the Word became a mummy and dwelt in our archives.”67 He wanted the ideas of scripture to become flesh and dwell in us.65
When Jordan combined his incarnational approach to scripture with his philosophy of biblical truth, he developed his personal method of retelling Bible stories with contemporary settings. Because the biblical writers had no qualms about shifting facts in order to communicate their message, Jordan himself did not hesitate to use a form of “poetic license” to convey their ideas in his proclamation. The freedom he found in this approach allowed him to call Ephesians “The Letter to Birmingham,” or to say David “shipped Uriah off to Vietnam.” Through Jordan’s translations and preaching, the incarnated Word came to dwell afresh in the southern culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s. This writer suggests that an appropriate investigation for a future student of Clarence Jordan would be the examination of how Jordan’s translations reveal the sociology of the Deep South during this time period.
Finally, we can affirm Clarence Jordan as a powerful theologian. His ministry of proclamation, his translations, and his life are witnesses to his absolute commitment to demonstrate Christ’s continuing presence in the world. For Jordan, the incarnation was more than the dominant doctrine of his theology, rather it was the life of Jesus Christ present in him. It was a presence he could not deny, ignore or forsake. It was a presence to which he was a faithful witness.
1 Clarence Jordan was predisposed to identify with groups which have been discriminated against in one form or another. The reader will quickly notice that Jordan would likely have been sensitive to the issue of gender specific language. Yet, Jordan lived in a time when this particular issue was still in its infancy, so he uses phrases such as “the brotherhood of all men” in complete innocence. Because this paper is a historical work, the writer is obligated to use Jordan’s own language in many instances. Such phrases are crucial to the understanding of Jordan’s thought.
2 See, “Embattled Fellowship Farm,” Time, September 17, 1956, p. 79; Argument Turns to Violence,” The Christian Century, 72 (June 26, 1957), 780; and “Every Man’s Land –Or No Man’s Land,” Newsweek, February 25, 1957, p. 37.
3 Clarence Jordan, Lectures on Ephesians, Vol.I, an audiocassette, (Americus, Georgia: Koinonia Records [nd.]).
4 See the Bibliography for a complete listing of Jordan’s translations.
5See Religion, “According to Clarence,” Newsweek, February 26, 1968, p. 61.
6Koinonia Newsletter, Summer, 1980. The most complete collection of newsletters is contained in the Scrapbooks of Koinonia Farm.
77James William McClendon, Jr., Biography as Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974).
8 Henlee Barnette, Lecture (The Clarence Jordan Institute), The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, April 9, 1982 (audiocassette available at James P. Boyce Library).
9 G. McLeon Bryan, “Theology in Overalls,” Sojourners, December, 1979, p. 11.
10 Clarence Jordan, Lectures on Ephesians, Vol. I, an audiocassette (Americus, Georgia: Koinonia Records, n.d.).
11Clarence Jordan, Episodes From Acts, Vol. I, an audiocassette (Americus, Georgia: Koinonia Records, n.d.).
12 Clarence Jordan, “The Humanity of God,” an original manuscript of a lecture given at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, October 2, 1968, The Clarence Jordan Papers of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department of the University of Georgia Library, Athens, Georgia, Box 16. Hereafter, this collection will be referred to as The Jordan Papers.
15 Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John (New York: Association Press, 1970), p. 101, John 1:lf. Hereafter, references to Jordan’s translations will be designated by the biblical book, chapter, and verse with the designation CPV (Cotton Patch Version).
16 Clarence Jordan, “Humanity,” SBTS.
17 Clarence Jordan, The God Movement, Vol. I, an audiocassette (Americus, Georgia: Koinonia Records, n.d.).
18 Clarence Jordan, “Humanity,” SBTS.
19 Clarence Jordan, “Humanity,” SBTS.
20 Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts (New York: Association Press, 1969), p.8.
21 Clarence Jordan, The God Movement, Vol. II, an audiocassette (Americus, Georgia: Koinonia Records, n.d.).
22 Clarence Jordan, “The Sons of God,” The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons, ed. Dallas Lee (New York: Association Press, 1972), p.19.
23 Clarence Jordan, “Jesus Formative Years,” an original manuscript of a Bible study lesson, p. 1, The Jordan Papers, Box 14.
24 Clarence Jordan, Letter to Charles Kirtley, June 11, 1969, The Jordan Papers, Box 8.
25 Clarence Jordan, “Humanity,” SBTS.
26 Clarence Jordan, “Jesus’ Formative Years,” p. 4.
27 Clarence Jordan, “One Jesus for Another,” Christian Living, October, 1965, p. 21.
28 I John 1:1-4, CPV.
29 I John 4:2, CPV.
30 Clarence Jordan, “The Resurrection,” an original manuscript of a Bible study lesson, p. 5, The Jordan Papers, Box 14. See also, Clarence Jordan, “Humanity,” SBTS.
32 The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts, pp. 8f.
33 Clarence Jordan, “We are the Witnesses,” an original manuscript of a sermon delivered in Honolulu, Hawaii, March 29, 1964, p. 5, The Jordan Papers, Box 16.
34 Clarence Jordan, Incarnating Brotherhood, an audiocassette (Americus, Georgia: Koinonia Records, n.d.).
35 Clarence Jordan, “Incarnational Evangelism,” The Substance of Faith, p. 34.
36 Clarence Jordan, “We Are the Witnesses,” p. 2.
37 Clarence Jordan, The Sermon on the Mount, revised edition (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Judson Press, 1970), p. 43.
39 Clarence Jordan, “Metamorphosis,” The Substance of Faith, p. 95.
40 Ibid., p. 96.
41 Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount, p. 32.
42 Clarence Jordan, “Taking the Name in Vain,” The Substance of Faith, p. 137.
43 Clarence Jordan, “Metamorphosis,” p. 94.
44 Clarence Jordan, Power From Parables, Vol. II, an audiocassette (Americus, Georgia: Koinonia Records, n.d.).
45 Clarence Jordan, “Repentance,” an original manuscript of a Bible study lesson, p.2., The Jordan Papers, Box 14.
46 Ibid. See also Power From Parables, Vol. II.
47 Clarence Jordan, “The Substance of Faith,” The Substance of Faith, pp. 42f.
48 Hebrews 11:1 CPV.
49 Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount, p. 12.
50 Ibid., p. 39.
51 Ephesians, Vol. I.
52 Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount, p. 33.
53 Barnette, Lecture, April 9, 1982.
54 John 1:14, CPV.
55 Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount, p. 34.
56 Clarence Jordan, “Why Study the Bible,” an original manuscript of a pamphlet prepared for the Baptist Youth Fellowship, p. 9, 1953, The Jordan Papers, Box 10.
57 Ibid. p. 7.
58 Clarence Jordan, Letter to Charles Kirtley, July 14, 1969, The Jordan Papers, Box 8.
59 Clarence Jordan, “Why Study,” p. 7.
60 Clarence Jordan, The God Movement, Vol. II, an audiocassette (Americus, Georgia: Koinonia Records, n.d.).
61 Clarence Jordan, “Scott Morrison Interview,” an audio recording of an interview with Clarence Jordan for the Mutual Broadcasting System, The Jordan Papers.
62 Paul’s Epistles, p. 7.
65 Clarence Jordan, Letter to Wilfred Sager, February 16, 1966, The Jordan Papers, Box 7.
Last January I made the decision to retire from the active pastorate. I informed my wife on a Friday and we began to consider what life would look like after retirement.
On Saturday I went to my office at the church and looked at my shelves, filled with a couple thousand books. When I retire, what will I do with them? Books are my life – on a number of levels.
I’ve loved books since I was a small child. Just this winter I’ve given my grandchildren Little Golden Books that have been mine since I spelled my name with a backwards “J” on the inside cover. In the sixth grade I made a pledge to myself to read a book every day, a pledge I kept for months.
When I entered seminary, I started reading and collecting books in earnest, purchasing them by the dozens each semester. My library expanded when three minister friends died and their wives allowed me to go through their libraries and take what I could use. The churches I served offered book allowances which allowed me to read and study as much as I could. I’ve spent 40 years gathering professional books, personal interest books, and books for pleasure reading. Shelves at home and in my office at church are the only reasons I’ve been able to keep so many.
About ten years ago I foresaw the foolishness of it all. At that time I began to part with a book every time I obtained a new one. I knew I’ve never have room for them all.
But I’ve loved them so. Many writers have described how books open new worlds and new ways of thinking. I can never describe how my understanding of Jesus has expanded from studying the works of others.
Now, facing retirement, what do I do with all these books? On that Saturday last January, I saw the futility of thinking I could keep them all. Painfully I began to pull many off the shelves and put them in boxes to discard. Once I had three boxes I had to stop. I was not ready to tell the congregation of my decision and surely someone would notice the absence of so many books from my office. And, after a flurry of activity, I couldn’t make any more decisions about books that helped me articulate my first sermons; books from the libraries with the name of friends who are long gone from our sight; books that had provided insight, understanding, and joy. I couldn’t give up any more.
The moment I knew those three boxes were not enough to discard was when I came across a quote from E. B. White:
Every morning, when I left for work, I would take something in my hand and walk off with it, for deposit in the big municipal wire trash basket at the corner of Third, on the theory that the physical act of disposal was the real key to the problem. My wife, a strategist, knew better and began quietly mobilizing the forces that would eventually put our goods to rout. A man could walk away for a thousand mornings carrying something with him to the corner and there would still be a home full of stuff. It is not possible to keep abreast of the normal tides of acquisition. A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day — smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them. Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. Books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ballpoint pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I had a man once send me a chip of wood that showed the marks of a beaver’s teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the flood. This steady influx is not counterbalanced by any comparable outgo. Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in.
My desire to keep so many books was really an inability to admit that I will never be able to keep them all – that I don’t need them all. My struggle was with “stuff” that had dug in and didn’t want to let go. I realized that I was deferring my “stuff” problem to my children. Until that moment I thought, “Let me keep them all, my daughters can get rid of them someday.”
Retirement is not death. But it is a shrinking of life. It is a preview for those who will pay attention. Like those who have downsized to assisted living or the mother-in-law suite, the day is coming when we will have less. And, if we are surrounded by the people we love, we will have enough and be satisfied. Maybe God has been teaching us this lesson all our lives, but I have just now paid attention. It is easy to become too attached to the temporal. It is easy to think that life is made up of the material and more of is will make us happy.
Thus, I have begun anew the task of getting rid of many books. These old friends. Filled with dust mites, faded highlighting, and inscriptions from people I have loved, many of them are leaving as I work toward a more manageable collection of core books.
My life is richer for having read them, and for learning to let them go.