The Sheltering Space of Books

Last August, I discovered a challenging blog post by my friend Philip Yancey. His words echo my own distress:

“I am going through a personal crisis. I used to love reading. . . . I used to read three books a week. One year I devoted an evening each week to read all of Shakespeare’s plays (OK, due to interruptions it actually took me two years). Another year I read the major works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But I am reading many fewer books these days, and even fewer of the kinds of books that require hard work. The internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around.”

While my reading past has never had the literary sophistication of Philip’s, I have read fairly widely in biblical scholarship, popular science, psychology, biography, history, and novels (especially mysteries and sci-fi). I never went anywhere without a book.

Then I bought a Kindle five years ago. A very basic one, with no internet access. This was more convenient than taking 4-5 books with me on week-long vacations. I wasn’t that enamored with the e-book form, but at least I didn’t have to keep track of library books when out of state. amazon-kindle-fire-hd-corner-2-1500x1000It was also convenient not to turn on a light when reading in bed.

Three years ago I upgraded to a Kindle Fire. Now there are several games on this thing, two email accounts, the Washington Post online and Netflix. My hours of reading books plummeted, just like Philip’s.

This year I too am making a concerted effort to read print books again, to create what Philip calls “that sheltering space” that Christians (and everyone, really) need in order to find nourishment from reading, contemplation, and wholesome silence.

The first book I finished in 2018 was Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Nancy Koehn (historian at Harvard Business School). forged-in-crisis-9781501174445_hrThrough short biographies of five leaders from the past (Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Ernest Shackleton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson), Koehn describes how each developed capacities to inspire and challenge others as they “took responsibility for a big, worthy mission” (page 443).

The phrase “leadership in turbulent times” drew me to this book. As a newly-appointed dean in the turbulent field of theological education, I was hoping to learn how to make my way, and how to work with and encourage others within this setting.

And so I read Forged in Crisis in my “sheltering space” over a period of some weeks, reflecting on past and present times and noting how each person interpreted their calling to make a real difference in this world. I mused and wrote in my journal. I looked for how each person’s faith influenced their outlook and actions. I discovered how all five of them “tried to walk with integrity, thoughtfulness, and a sense of purpose” (page 448).

Every day now we live in extremely turbulent times as a nation and a world. We each have a list of intractable problems that have affected our lives in unique ways—problems that we wish would simply vanish from the face of the earth. Here are some of mine:

  • the anguished situations of refugees and the isolation of immigrants
  • the goal to guarantee respect in our workplaces, regardless of one’s sex, race, or religion
  • sex trafficking and recruitment of child soldiers
  • climate change
  • years-long wars and continuing terrorist threats

To find any solutions to these problems, we need those courageous leaders who will act with the “integrity, thoughtfulness, and a sense of purpose” that Koehn lifts up in her book.

But we ourselves also need to be those very leaders. God is calling us to discern where, when and how we can step into leadership roles to deal with the challenging questions that confront humankind in this historical era. What “big, worthy mission” has God placed in your soul? Where is God already at work and depending upon your particular gifts to expand that mission? How can you become a “courageous leader in turbulent times”?

I’m glad I read Forged in Crisis as my first book of 2018. May the Spirit of God remind me this year how much I need the sheltering space of books.