By Bert Crabbe
I love books, especially old ones. I love my Kindle too, but ultimately, I’m an ink and paper guy. The great benefit of being able to travel light and still have an abundance of reading material with me keeps me tethered to my tablet when I’m away or in the air. But at home? There’s nothing quite like the feel of a book in my hands.
However you’re taking in your media, “Pastors need to read” seems a widely accepted (and fairly self-evident) maxim, and for more reasons than one. If you’re a preacher, that means you’re dispensing information, advice, and God’s Word on a regular basis. You’re generating and delivering content.
Sherlock Holmes was fond of saying, “Data, data, data, I can’t make bricks without clay.” In other words, if there’s going to be output, there must be input. And for me, the most helpful input comes from topics that intrigue me.
For purposes of this article, I assume that pastors are reading the Bible on a consistent basis. Whether it’s a bound copy, an mp3, or a YouVersion app on a smartphone makes little difference to me. The point is we need to feed ourselves on the Word of God, and I’m treating this as a given. Our intention today is to discuss extra-biblical reading.
When it comes to daily reading, there’s nothing quite like a newspaper to keep one current. I had a seminary professor who told our class we must preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Actually, I’ve seen that quote attributed to Charles Spurgeon, Karl Barth, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The point, I think, is that it’s true. For some pastors, efforts to be “in the world but not of it” go to an extreme, and the result is a preacher who is ultimately out of touch with the people in the congregation. If we are going to rightly apply the Word, we need to stay abreast of what’s happening in our communities, our nation, and the world.
So by all means, grab your iPad or smartphone (or even an actual newspaper!) and increase your cultural awareness.
If you really want to force yourself to read widely, make it your goal to read the good stuff from at least one periodical per week. I subscribe to several monthly magazines, one of which is in my computer bag at all times. Right now in any given month, I’m rotating through Rolling Stone, National Geographic, Leadership Journal, Christian Standard, and the Harvard Business Review. All have given me sermon ideas, and I like to leave the Harvard Business Review lying around because it makes me look smart. This alone is worth the cost of the subscription.
Use Your Curiosity
But the extra-biblical reading that does me the most good—the reading that results in the most kingdom impact—happens when I find something that piques my curiosity. When a topic or a fragment of a storyline whets my appetite for more, it usually means there’s a sermon in there somewhere.
For example, I was walking through a bookstore when I spotted a book called The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft.
I was intrigued. I brought it home and learned of Isabella Stewart Gardner, a wealthy socialite who turned her home into a stunning art gallery, and upon her death, left it to the people of Massachusetts as a public museum. There was one important stipulation: the trustees were NEVER to change a single piece of art or furniture in the house. Any change at all, however tiny, and the whole collection would be donated to Harvard University.
So, when thieves infiltrated the museum in 1990 and stole 13 works of art, exceeding $500 million in value (making it the largest private property theft in recorded history), the trustees were in a real bind. In many cases, the thieves cut the paintings from their frames for transport, leaving the frames where they were.
Normal art world protocol is to sweep up the mess, rearrange the paintings, and reopen the gallery as if nothing had ever happened. But obviously, that would violate the sole stipulation of Gardner’s will.
The Supreme Court ruled that the only way the trustees could honor the will of the museum’s founder was to leave the empty picture frames where they were. So, to this day, people form huge lines to see the empty frame where Rembrandt’s only surviving seascape, Storm on the Sea of Galilee, once hung.
The galleries with the empty frames are far and away the most popular rooms in the museum. People linger long in front of these sad reminders of what was stolen. That mental picture of a person staring at the empty frame of something once possessed but now missing gave me the core of a message.
How many times do we revisit what was stolen from us? How often do we dwell on empty picture frames and past losses at the expense of the many beautiful things God has for us today? This thought evolved into a whole series of messages called “Heist”—each week a different lesson learned from a famous theft.
Another such instance occurred when I read a newspaper article about the tragic story of Centralia, Pennsylvania—a tale so strange it strains at credulity. Here’s the short version: in 1962 the town was tidying up for its annual Memorial Day parade when municipal workers dumped a load of garbage down a mine shaft to burn it. On that fateful day, an underground seam of coal caught fire, and it’s still burning more that 50 years later.
The fire slowly smoldered through miles of anthracite, eventually approaching the town limits. Meetings were held. Suggestions were offered. Attempts to extinguish the fire were made, but the entire process was bogged down by bureaucracy and a constant shifting of blame.
Soon, people began to suffer from headaches. Smoke was seen rising from the hill behind the cemetery. Route 61 collapsed and had to be rerouted around the town. Eventually the local gas station was discovered to be dispensing fuel at nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
The U.S. Government eventually concluded that the cost of extinguishing the mine fire exceeded the value of the land and homes above it, and it was decided to abandon all efforts to stop the fire’s progress.
Today, every building in Centralia has been reclaimed by the government via eminent domain, and the city’s zip code has been revoked. The town, essentially, has ceased to exist. The only remaining evidences of its past are a few stalwart holdouts who refused to leave their homes and the overgrown grid of empty streets and telephone poles that could easily be the shooting location for a zombie apocalypse film.
It’s estimated the problem could have been fixed for about $1,000 if it had been handled right away—$10,000 if handled within the first month. Today, an entire town is gone.
It wasn’t long before I had a message outlined and was standing if front of my church asking them, “What’s smoldering in your heart today? Who haven’t you forgiven? This town lost everything because they didn’t know how to deal with their garbage. Let Jesus help you deal with yours.”
Both of these illustrations (and countless others) would have blown right past me if I weren’t reading widely. Newspapers, magazines, and bookstores hold untold treasures, and not just in the “religious” section. Some might provide you with a vivid illustration of a biblical truth. Others will simply amuse or educate. But you must have clay to make bricks.
And besides that, there’s nothing cooler than uncovering fascinating tidbits about the world we live in. The best leaders are lifelong learners.
Read well. Read widely.
Bert Crabbe serves as lead pastor with True North Community Church in Bohemia, New York.