The Mind Alive

Reading can stimulate growth, but only if we find the time, the right material, and a way to remember it.
The Mind Alive

I remember my senior-class dinner at Princeton Seminary. The speaker was George Buttrick, pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. He challenged our class of future pastors in two directions.

First, he urged us to be with the people, to be listeners in the marketplace in order to understand what people are thinking and feeling. His second counsel seemed to contradict the first: "When you are at Coney Island, don't tell the people of the concessions on the boardwalk, about which they know; tell them of the mystery of the sea, about which they do not know."

He went on: "Don't read only what your people are reading. Read what your people are not reading."

Buttrick was impressing upon us the importance of having a mind that is alive. As well as: being physically well and spiritually committed, we need to be intellectually growing if we're to be effective Christians in the world. We need to learn the mystery of the sea if we're to explain that mystery to others or understand it ourselves.

There are various ways to keep our minds alive, but I think Buttrick was right to emphasize reading. The desire to read raises three questions, however. First, how can I find time to read about the mystery of the sea when I have so many important responsibilities among the concessions? Second, when I've found the time, what should I read? Third, if I do read, how do I remember what I read? Let me reflect on my experiences with these three problems.

The Gift of Time

Each of us has been given the gift of time and the privilege of organizing it. None of us has more time than any other.

This gift has its snares, of course, especially to those who aren't self-starters or who allow the hours of the week to become a jumble of low-quality segments. This means the first challenge confronting the person who wants to study and read seriously is to have a clear philosophy of the week.

For my life as a pastor, the key to having quality time for my family, for spiritual formation, for reading, for ministry to people, for writing, and for recreation is to have a rhythm in each week. This means first of all that I think primarily in terms of seven-day periods rather than years, months, or days. It is no mistake that the seven-day week is the most basic biblical yardstick for life measurement. "Six days thou shalt work, and one day thou shalt rest": thus is a rhythmic week ordered in the Fourth Commandment.

My goal, then, is to divide each week into a rhythm of work, rest, worship, and play: of work with people and work alone; of worship with the community of faith and worship alone; of discussion and reflection. I can take in stride high-intensity demands if there is also built into my life the opportunity for an easing up of demand. It's also true that I'm able to enjoy rest if time allotted to rest follows real work. I'm talking about a rhythm that includes fast/slow, many/few, rich/lean, exterior/interior.

I divide my week into two major parts: In the first part I place Sunday morning through Wednesday evening, which are for the large-group meetings and worship services, counseling, small-group study meetings and teaching sessions, and administration and staff obligations. Thursday and Friday are days for study, reflection, writing, and reading. Friday evening through Saturday evening is family recreation time-a time for total change of pace.

My study goal each week is to complete by Thursday noon the sermon for the coming Sunday. When this is achieved, Thursday afternoon and Friday are available for long-term study for future sermons, and also for reading and writing. I find that if the immediate teaching and preaching preparation is not completed by Thursday, that unfinished task threatens Friday and Saturday.

My week is intense at the beginning and eases toward the end. Both halves are of a better quality, it seems to me, when there is such a rhythm.

Choosing What to Read

Having scheduled the time and made it rhythmic, however we choose the segments, now the question is: What shall I read? The rhythm principle applies here, too. I want to read intensively and also extensively; light and heavy; prose and poetry; theologically and geologically.

My first intensive reading challenge is the main book of my life, the Bible. This means having access to the original-language texts and major translations of the Bible now available. It means a working library of historical background and technical books: books by J. Jeremias and F. F. Bruce on New Testament history; by Bruce Metzger on the New Testament text; theological dictionaries of the Old and New Testaments; the Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew lexicon; and so on. I purchase exegetical and theological commentaries on a book-by-book basis.

To keep myself intellectually involved in theological dialogue, I have pursued two reading goals. First, selected heavyweight theological books, for which I've found two ways in: through the front door or by the window-that is, from the first page onward or through its topical, biblical reference index. Both are valid entrances. Often I find that the window route has coaxed me into reading the whole book.

A second way to keep engaged with current theological discussion is through journals and magazines. I read one set of journals faithfully: Christianity Today, Christian Century, Sojourners, Wittenburg Door, Radix, Theology Today. There's another set of scholarly journals I try to catch up on each time I visit a seminary library.

Another kind of reading has also been rewarding. There are several authors with whom I have developed a special sort of friendship (they do not know me, but I know them). I am trying to read all they have written. They aren't masters of my mind, because I don't always agree with what they write; they're more like companions who especially challenge me and encourage my pilgrimage as a Christian. They are my mentors. I feel I understand how they think and how they approach the serious questions. I not only read these writers, but I also reread them-the real test of a book.

Still other books I need because they open up implications of faith I must pursue. I'm thinking of books on the world family, economics, politics, and psychology; books that demonstrate communication skills; books on the arts and music; books on Christian apologetics.

Each of us also has special interests, and our reading should accompany us into these. Since my college days as a political science student, for example, I have been vitally interested in political issues, so I subscribe to Foreign Affairs and The Christian Science Monitor.

How to Remember

Now comes the tough third question: How can I ever keep track of what I read and remember what needs to be remembered?

For me the answer begins with the way I see the study task of my ministry. Is the pastor a collector, an assembler of the conclusions of others, or is the pastor a scholar who studies toward the goal of creative contribution?

The second model is the harder but by far the more rewarding. All my reading is a vital part of the total research task that goes into a sermon or a teaching assignment. My goal as a teacher and preacher is to present the results of original hard work on the text. Since this is so, holding on to the discoveries from reading is essential.

My method is not complicated. I have found that to remember what I've read, I must read carefully and, therefore, slowly. I take notes in the book or on a separate page, or I make coded marks in the margins of the book. I don't skim or speed-read important books. At the ends of chapters, I ask myself to recount from memory the major arguments of the chapter.

When I've found an unusually impressive book, I offer a small-group seminar on it. This is another way to study a book creatively, as well as to see it through the eyes of other people.

A book is a friend, and it is best remembered when we have respect for it. When I quote from authors in a sermon, my approach is to quote few but long. This means allowing the quotation to speak from its own setting; it means reading enough so the author is really heard and not used simply to focus on what I'm saying. This approach involves more work for me homiletically in establishing the context for the quotation, but it also has the benefit of encouraging listeners to read that author for themselves.

Describing the Mystery of the Sea

As a pastor, I stand in a long and good tradition of learning and of concern for truth. Books have their unique part to play in this lifelong obedience to truth. Electronic media, TV, and films play an increasingly influential part in human communication, but when it comes to the image building of that greatest of all collectors of dreams and ideas-the human mind-there is still nothing to match a book read aloud.

In The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis described Jill's encounter with the lion Aslan: "The voice was not like a man's. It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way." No TV set is able to capture the vast features of that golden lion quite so wonderfully as the human imagination set in motion by the words of a book.

The Book and books make it possible for us to describe the mystery of the sea.

Adapted by permission of InterVarsity Press from The 24-Hour Christian, c 1987 by Earl Palmer

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