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Good books

I’ve been reading a book this week. As in, one of those things consisting of a bunch of pages held together at one edge, that you actually have to turn as you read. It’s been a strange experience. I had to get used to holding the book in my hand in such a way as to keep it open as I read, a position that used to be very familiar to me, but one that I haven’t had much practice with recently. I do all my reading on my iPad these days. As I’ve mentioned before, that includes reading the Bible. (Side note: What has me really drooling over the iPad mini is that its size and weight (from what I’ve heard) make it pretty much the most perfect reading device ever built. Whenever it gets a Retina display, perfection has been achieved.) I have a couple dozen books on a shelf that I have from before I started phasing out books that take up space on a bookshelf and pounds in a suitcase in favor of books that take up megabytes of digital storage. I hope to replace them with their digital counterparts eventually, but until then, I’m hanging on to the paper versions. But anything new I get, I get digitally. My textbooks this year are all digital rentals. Except for Waking the Dead, one of those books I mentioned that sit on my physical shelf, my entire John Eldredge collection resides on my iBooks bookshelf. I could go on.

Reading on an iPad has literally changed the way I read. I can’t bring myself to markup pages of books. But in iBooks, with highlighting and note tools built in and a swipe or a tap away, I find myself doing it more and more. When I picked up this book this week, several times I have really wanted to reach out and slide my finger along a sentence that really struck me, before I remembered that, well, that doesn’t work on this kind of book. I also wanted to tap on a word several times to bring up a definition. But, well, that doesn’t work either. And then when it came time to stop reading, it was really a jolt to remember that I needed a bookmark. I put the book facedown on my desk, open to the page, while I started searching through my desk drawers for my collection of bookmarks from back when I was an avid reader of the kind that required such things.

I actually didn’t start writing this to discuss paper versus digital, but I couldn’t resist recounting my experiences with this ancient technology. Anyways, you may be wondering what the book is, and why I’m reading it in this form factor. And where I’m going with all this.

The book is Confessions of a Caffeinated Christian, by John Fischer. (Kind of interesting given the image I’ve been using for my blog, which I took a couple years ago and started using for this blog when I started it in the spring. I wasn’t even thinking about this book, either when I took the picture or when I set it as the header image of my blog’s first look. In a case of interesting timing, though, my second redesign places the picture prominently again.) I first read it in tenth grade. It was one of the few books I checked out of the high school library during my time there. I checked it out because, being a coffee lover, it sounded interesting. I wasn’t prepared for how much that book would speak to me. It was incredible how much I could relate to the author, and not just in his love for coffee. He is, like me, an introvert. Not just an introvert. A loner. Much of his time growing up was spent on his own, doing his own thing. At one point he describes how much he enjoys sitting in a Starbucks with a cup of coffee, just watching the world go by. Watching everyone doing their thing, and just being removed from everything, in no hurry. He could be talking about me. In fact, I felt like that in a lot of the areas he discusses. The book is pretty much a compilation of anecdotes from his life that he uses to make a point. In almost every one of them, I could very easily put myself in his shoes. I just remember being struck by that, and really challenged in a lot of the things that he talks about.

Recently I remembered this book, and wanted to get my hands on it again. On looking into it, I learned that it seems to be out of print. This means there is no ebook version of it. Not on iBooks, not on the Kindle Store, not anywhere on the web that I could find. The only way I could find to get it was in paperback, used, on the Amazon Marketplace. After a lot of deliberation, I decided I wanted this book enough to do what I thought I was done doing—buy a paperback again. I bought it “Like New” through Amazon for a penny. Plus $3.99 shipping.

It arrived on Monday, and I picked it up from the mail room on Wednesday, and over the last five days I’ve had to force myself to put it down each time after reading several chapters a day. I don’t want to read it too fast, because then it’s done, until I read it again sometime down the road. I want to try and make it last at least a little while. I’m on track to finish it within about a week of getting it. I’d be finished in a day if I let myself.

Why does this book capture me so much? Part of it is the way coffee is kind of a staging point for almost every story, and each point he makes about some profound eternal truth. There’s something about relating profound eternal truths to something so ordinary and everyday. I mean, look at what Jesus did. The difference is that Jesus compared the kingdom of God to everyday things in the lives of first-century Jews. Fischer compares it to Starbucks. Another part of why this book grabs me is the numerous ways in which I can relate to the writer. But I think a lot of it is just how down-to-earth, how real he is. There’s just something about reading about someone else going through life, and all that it brings, and finding God in it. There’s no front, no facade. He’s brutally honest about what he’s thinking and feeling in the situations he recounts. Even when it’s not pretty. But then he gets to the good part, where God teaches him a lesson through the situation, in spite of his thoughts and feelings. Lessons that most of us need to hear. And most of the stories he tells are not spectacular events or anything. They’re the mundane, the everyday scenarios and encounters. That, too, makes the stories that much more powerful, in my mind.

Something that keeps coming to mind when I can’t put this book down is: why is this rarely the case with the Bible? Why is it that, more often than not these days, when I do read the Bible, I’m happy to put it down and check it off my list for that day, so I can get on with what I’d rather be doing?

After all, the Bible is by far the most dynamic book ever written. I mean, think about it. You’ve got genres across the board, from detailed chronologies and tables of figures to intense, R-rated action scenes and murders, to poetry and shockingly explicit love songs. And everything in between. You’ve got the Psalms, which range from cries of anguish and depression to songs of praise and intimate worship to prayers of vengeance against God’s and the psalmist’s enemies. There are the prophets, who put everything on the line to carry God’s message to his people, and in one breath pointed out the rebelliousness of Israel and Judah in incredibly graphic analogies, and then professed God’s undying love and offer of mercy to them in spite of it all. Everything I’ve just described can be found in just the Old Testament. Are you seeing it yet? I mean, if Hollywood picked up the story of the life of David (and if people could get past the stigma of it being a “Bible story”) it would be an instant blockbuster. It’s got everything all the hit action movies are known for. If you don’t believe me, seriously, read 1 and 2 Samuel. Approach it from that angle, not with the mindset you typically have of the Bible, but more like when you pick up The Lord of the Rings. And David’s just one example. From cover to cover, you find stories of individuals, from shepherds to fishermen to kings, going through life, and answering God’s call. Not perfectly, by any means. The Bible is also brutally honest, refusing to sugar-coat its heroes. Their failures, some pretty big ones, are immortalized for all to see in its pages. And yet you see how God used them anyways. You can relate to them. Some more than others, and not always in their specific circumstances, but in their humanity. Their hopes and dreams, their successes, their failures, their strengths, their flaws. These are things we all have. And when you take a step back, you see how each of their lives plays into this plot of epic proportions that is woven throughout, from Genesis to Revelation.

And of course, in four books tucked in the middle somewhere is the centerpiece of it all, who is right at home in all this. Jesus is undoubtedly the most dynamic person to ever walk this earth. This rabbi from the backwater town of Nazareth, who touched lepers, hung out with notorious sinners, and picked fights with the religious leaders, was a far cry from the one-dimensional person he is mistaken for much of the time. He welcomed kids with open arms when his disciples thought he wouldn’t have time for them. He had compassion on the blind, the lame, the grieving, and set things right. He invited himself over to a tax collector’s house for lunch, and changed the guy’s life. He overturned tables in the Temple and sent merchants, money changers, and livestock scattering—not losing control in a fit of rage, but in an act of premeditated aggression, in which he took the time to braid a whip to do it more effectively. He cursed a fig tree and made it wither up because he was hungry, but figs happened to be out of season. He told his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood. He made a name for himself with his teachings and miracles, but shunned the popularity and skipped town to go preach and heal elsewhere. The crowds were amazed by the authority with which he taught and flocked to him. The Pharisees hated him for stubbornly refusing to stoop to their petty interpretation of God’s Law. He cried out to his Father in anguish in anticipation of the torture, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, that he was about to go through. But then he quietly took the beatings, the mocking, the rigged trial and unfair death sentence. The crowd who had hailed him days before asked for his crucifixion and the release of a revolutionary instead. And with legions of angels at his command, ready to obliterate his executioners and establish his rule on earth, Jesus allowed nails to be pounded through his hands and feet into the wooden beams that he hung on until his strength gave out, and he suffocated. He allowed the weight of the sin of the world and all its consequences to be placed squarely on his shoulders. And then he willingly released his spirit.

But he wasn’t done. Not by a long shot. He wrestled the keys of death and Hades from the devil and walked out of that tomb on Sunday morning. But instead of showing up at Herod’s and Pilate’s and saying, “Nice try,” and proving to the world once and for all that he is the Messiah, he showed himself to his followers, and told them to tell the world.

Who is this guy?

And yet, for all this, so much of the time the Bible can seem dry. Too familiar. I’ve heard it all so many times that sometimes the power of it is lost on me.

I think I’ve rambled enough. What’s the takeaway point here? I think there are a couple.

One is that, as great and important as Scripture is, sometimes God speaks to us other ways. As John Eldredge said, “Truth doesn’t need a verse attached to it to be true” (Waking the Dead). The implication of this is that time spent connecting with God does not necessarily have to be time reading the Bible. For me, it’s often reading books, like the one I’ve been reading the past several days. Sometimes God seems to be speaking far louder to me through those than he is through the Bible. Other times, it’s listening to music. Other times it’s just sitting in silence and reflecting. Sometimes it’s blogging. It can look like a lot of things, and can look different for different people. We don’t have a relationship with the Bible. We have a relationship with Jesus. I think it’s more important to be open to the way God is working than to blindly read the Bible “because I should.”

The caveat to that entire paragraph is that the Bible is the only book that can claim to be God’s inspired word. Even the books I read that point to Jesus are only lenses through which to see the truth of the Bible. Of course, it also is important to make sure that they do line up with the truth of the Bible. These other things can ultimately only supplement Scripture. A Bible-free diet is not recommended. While every chunk of time we set apart to connect with God doesn’t necessarily have to be reading the Bible, we do need to be reading it.

Which brings me to my other point. As I pointed out above, the Bible is an incredible book. Unlike any other. When I get past the mindset that I’ve read it all before, and look at it with fresh eyes, I can be blown away. Sometimes I envy people who are reading the Bible for the first time. While I have an understanding of it that only a lot of experience with it can bring, I don’t always have that wide-eyed amazement at what I’m reading. Many people who start reading it for the first time just can’t get enough of it. It’s so fresh and real to them, and unlike anything they’ve ever read. I can’t remember the first time I read most parts of the Bible. I was far to young to really grasp how incredible what I was reading was. By the time I could, I’d already read it a bunch. The downside of having a lot of verses memorized from when I was young is that it’s easy to rattle them off or read over them without grasping what they’re saying. There are still definitely moments where something strikes me that I’ve never realized before. That’s the beauty of the Bible. There’s always something new to discover. A passage that you’ve read a million times can speak into your situation in a way you’ve never thought of it before. But if you’re just reading it to check it off your list, skimming because you already know what it says, you’ll miss these moments. This is why I said go into it with a different mindset, looking to read it from a new perspective. Asking God to make it come alive to you. More often than not, the times that I get the most out of my time with the Bible are the times when, before I start, I specifically ask God to speak to me through what I’m about to read. And then I go into it deliberately reading with fresh eyes.

Like I said, read the story of David’s life like you would a novel. It’s pretty intense.

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