“A disciple of the kingdom…brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” Matthew 13:52
I can count my most significant and/or life transforming moments on two hands. Well, almost.
This list (off the top of my head) would include things such as 1) setting the all-time scoring record for my high school basketball team; 2) coming under David Johnson’s (Church of the Open Door) preaching late in high school; 3) choosing Bethel College over other schools I was considering merely for basketball offers; 4) my spiritual awakening reading the Book of Acts in college; 5) falling in love and marrying the love of my life; 6) accepting my call to ministry on a late night prayer walk; 7) starting my Daily Illumination blog to grow as a writer; 8) saying ‘yes’ to planting a MainStreet Covenant Church; 9) my seminary graduation (’05), ordination (’15), and recent acceptance into a doctoral program with Scot McKnight at Northern Seminary (’17); and, of course, 10) the birth and ongoing nurture of my three children.
Yet, there’s one more magical moment that looms large and strangely significant in my memory that I have perhaps never shared with anyone! Why? Because it seems so incredibly nerdy and academic in nature that few would find anything in this experience they can relate to or even care about. But let me risk mockery and come clean about my #11. For this odd experience has marked me at the deepest level, and continues to whisper to me like alluring sirens across enchanted seas. To truly know me, you must understand my #11.
After the LORD awakened a deep thirst to study and understand the Scriptures in college, I grew especially interested in the life and teachings of the Apostles. My faith was forged in the Holy Spirit fire we see fueling the early church’s life and mission in the Book of Acts. But there’s more…and this I have rarely shared.
I next remember wondering exactly how the church continued to grow and expand after the Apostles had all died off. Who carried on the faith and exactly how? Did anyone pick up where Peter and Paul left off in Rome? Luke ends his two-volume work (Luke & Acts) with a cliffhanger: the message being boldly proclaimed by Paul under house arrest, in the heart of ancient Greco-Roman civilization, under the nose of Caesar and beginning to confront the philosophies of the day. How did this Jewish message about Jesus the Messiah confront and win over the best of Greek philosophical thought over the next couple centuries?
Well, sitting in Dr. Michael Holmes’ class in about 2001, I vividly remember him introducing us to the Apostolic Fathers and their writings. Lucky for us, Holmes is one of the world’s foremost experts and translators of their extant writings. He introduced us to Polycarp, who was a disciple of John (!) and martyred for his faith. I heard about Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch who both left behind letters encouraging their churches that the apostles had originally started. There’s an early community worship manual called the Didache, and an absolute gem of an early apologetic treatise called An Epistle to Diognetus which seeks to win over pagans to the beautiful Way of life in Christ My interest was immediately piqued.
My Library Experience
This next part cannot be adequately captured in words, but I must try. I had a “Library Experience” somewhat comparable to Luther’s “Tower Experience.” During my junior year of college I was momentarily transported, not out of body, but certainly in my mind and imagination, by visiting a particular row of books on the 2nd level of the Bethel library.
It was like finding a portal to an ancient past, or like being strapped momentarily into a time machine and brought back to the doorstep of the first disciples of the disciples. It was like being invited into the inner circle, to sit at their feet and warm my historical imagination by the fire of ancient tradition; to hear them tell stories about old John the beloved disciple, who in his latter years when most of the light had gone out of his eyes, was said to do nothing but mumble repeatedly, “Dear children, love one another.”
Sitting in that sacred circle, I heard stories of what became of all twelve apostles, where they traveled with the gospel after Jesus left the scene, and what kind of a deaths awaited them. They talked about how the sayings of Jesus and stories about him first circulated orally for many years before being written down and formed into the New Testament canon of holy scriptures. They even told of tongue-in-cheek legends that would grow up later (3rd century) around Jesus, his family, his mysterious childhood and other fanciful tales about the apostles evangelizing wild animals and more.
It’s beyond cliche to say that books can transport us to other times and places, but they can and they certainly do. Have you come under the spell of a book? Sometimes the trip leaves such an impression that you can never escape the longing to repeat the journey in hopes of feeling again the ecstasy of that first-contact. C. S. Lewis calls this deep and enchanted desire to get back and recapture a euphoric moment “joy”; and, unfortunately, you can never quite manage it. If you’re lucky, the best you can do is get a faint whiff of the memory of that elusive feeling of “joy.”
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his own encounter with a book — Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf:
But then…like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner’s Drama and read, “I heard a voice that cried, Balder the beautiful Is died, is dead.” I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, and I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described…and then found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.
Then Lewis says what I’ve been saying all along in this very personal piece:
The reader who finds [this] of no interest need read this no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else. For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to these experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.
Like Lewis and Balder the beautiful, I knew nothing of Athanasius or Tertullian when I first opened these ancient volumes, and yet I was lifted to huge regions of long-preserved ancient treasures. Before I reveal my exact portal to the ancient past, let me first say a word in defense of the historian and their craft.
Ancient historians and their students are grossly mischaracterized. While they often conjure up images of dry, boring academics with soft hands and pale sun-deprived complexion, historians should really be viewed alongside the great sea explorers like Magellan and Columbus, or quirky mystery-solving investigators like Sherlock Holmes, or the brave hero of an epic quest drama like Indiana Jones. Or, closer to home, historians are like that fun couple you know (and secretly envy) who find ways to travel to all kinds of exotic locations and never tire of telling stories of the places they’ve been and the people they have met.
So, finally, which shelf of books became a sacred portal to a far-off time and place that left me with an undying historical curiosity about the early church and its development? The answer is the Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Church series. I would return often to those giant old books, and dig around in them looking for ancient treasures and newfound friends.
My mom and dad don’t realize this, but the greatest Christmas present they’ve ever given me (as an adult, anyway) was the Ante-Nicene Fathers series I asked for in about 2004 while I was in seminary. This 10-volume set provided me with my own time machine and sacred portal right in my own personal study. I could now journey back and forth whenever I heard the siren’s whispering across the vast and bottomless seas of time.
My appetite for recovering our ancient roots has come back in full force lately, ever since I began my doctoral program at Northern Seminary. A one-of-a-kind Doctor of Ministry program in New Testament Context with Scot McKnight sends church pastors and Christian leaders of today back into the ancient world of the New Testament, pursuing a deeper understanding of the ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman world of the New Testament in order to shine new light on our faith and church life today. This degree has me jumping into Josephus, filling up on Philo, digging through the Dead Sea Scrolls, perusing the Pseudepigrapha, mining the Mishnah, probing Plutarch, Seneca, Epictetus and other Greco-Roman philosophers. And occasionally jumping ahead to the early Church Fathers.
I share this never-been-told story of my library experience because I want others to know about this hidden, subterranean stream that feeds my soul. I share also to let others out there who are like me know that they are not alone! I didn’t choose to be wired this way. I come from a long line of farmers and blue collar workers who have made their living more with their muscle than their mind. So, I was surprised myself when I first found myself drawn to the smell of old books and the green and red sight of the Loeb Classics.
Some people are moved to tears watching a beautiful film. Others lose control of themselves at a concert of a favorite musician. Some experience goosebumps being in nature, just watching a sunset. Others can’t resist sharing every little thing their young children are doing day to day on Facebook. Some live for the next physical fitness challenge or adrenaline rush. Others live to create beautiful art. Some live to travel the world and gain broader perspective.
I am driven to plummet the depths of biblical wisdom. I long to journey back in time to discover how the life and legacy of Jesus lived on in subsequent generations, sweeping the globe, transforming cultures, transcending languages and buttressing entire civilizations with its moral and ethical vision. I live to know more and more of God’s faithful servants who faithfully passed on and propagated his teachings afresh in their own day to their own people. The journey is exhilarating, the discoveries make the hair stand up on my neck, and the treasures to be found are simply endless.
Once every few years, I’ll wander back to the 2nd level of the Bethel University library and retrace my steps back to that holy ground where the light of historical curiosity once split the sky and blinded my time-bound vision long enough to glimpse Eternity through ancient eyes. I haven’t been able to recapture that original feeling of “joy”, but sometimes, if I’m lucky, I might just catch a glimpse of its backside as it passes by on its way to woo another young, unsuspecting student.
“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask about the ANCIENT PATHS, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16).