Bookselling, Vocation & Making a Difference

Dear Gordon:

    In “The Pretender,” one of our favorite Jackson Browne songs, he painfully cries out a prayer of concession, “I’m going to rent myself a house in the shade of the freeway. I’m going to pack my lunch in the morning and go to work each day.” You know the words, how he gives in to meaninglessness and a quick paycheck to get “the things that money can buy.”

     Gordon, I have no way of knowing your deepest heart of hearts, but I observe that, like a later Jackson song says, you are a “Hold Out.” The Pretender gives up on “the changes that love would bring,” were they only the fitful. dreams of some greater awakening?Ó) but the Hold Out hangs on, against all odds, to the idealism of that dream. Of course, you bring an out-spoken Christ-centeredness to the vision and frame it in a full-orbed Kingdom context, but you and your family hold on and hold out for those changes that only love can bring. Adamantly (and accurately) you believe that books are part of the way to bring loving change, to the deepest corner of a solitary soul, to the fuzzy arenas of family and friends, within church and state, culture and world. You know that the history of redemption is full of bookish moments; writers, poets, singers, teachers, readers; from Ezra to the Irish monks who “saved civilization.” From Augustine’s “take up and read” to the Reformation’s use of Gutenberg’s printing press to Wesley’s carriage with a library to C.S. Lewis’s marvelous description of the stacks of books in his parents’ home to Bruce Cockburn liner notes citing Brennan Manning. On and on the great anecdotes go of significant folks who were touched by the printed page.

     You are deeply aware of this truth. We did not teach it to you; you knew it when you came to work with us a decade ago. (We are sure, though, that your experience here has done nothing but underscore and confirm your sense of the importance of books in people’s lives.)

     We are not alone in our belief in the redemptive power of good books. There are even books about books. Less considered, however, is the importance of the seller of books. We know it is a labor of love (and sometimes a hard labor at that.) All of these historic incidents of a book in the hand changing the reader (and sometimes the world), where did they get them? Erasmus’ famous line about using his food money to buy books presumes a lucky seller. Calvin must have bought Luther on Galatians from somebody. Some bookseller sold old George MacDonald to C.S. Lewis. The old woman who gave Kuyper the novel that converted him, she bought it somewhere. The Lewis that cut Chuck Colson to the quick was purchased by Tom Phillips at some shop in New England. (Indeed, the Abraham Kuyper Colson now cites was bought from some cluttered little place in Pennsylvania.) As Kathleen Norris desribes her Dakota reading of the Desert Fathers we might wonder: where in Dakota did she buy such stuff? And could they imagine the impact it would have? More recently, how did our troubled President learn of Gordon MacDonald? Someone purchased his book and it ended up in the White House.

     And what if the book clerk recommended an unwise choice? For instance, what if Colson hadn’t been given Mere Christianity but, say, any number of the goofy titles we so often bemoan? What if he was given a book and it was not compelling to his rigorous mind? As we honor you this night, it may be good to remind ourselves of the signficance of our task. God’s sovereignty notwithstanding, the role of the bookseller is absolutely strategic. Though often unsung, you may be, literally, a history-maker.

     I think of the witty saying that the difference between a word and the right word is the difference between a firefly and fire. Likewise, the difference between a book and the right book. We praise God that you are so often graced with discernment and know-how when it comes to recommending the right book. Much of the time, it seems that God’s Kingdom is advanced, neighbors are well-served and our business is made to look good. Thank you. We are well aware that such discernment takes effort and diligent study. Even as I write this today, you are researching a request for a solid commentary for one who has immense influence over scores of others. The substance, tone and shape of that ministry will unfold to some extent guided by the insight and direction given by the books you recommend. Although our work is not recognized as apostolic by our churches, the biblical warnings and guidelines offered for such strategic and influential leaders within the Body surely apply. As you know deep in your bones, this is very serious business.

     And so, God uses your knowledge and passion to give Kingdom shape to the lives we touch, to help others learn, to find encouragement, godly hope and Spirit-given healing. You are a bookseller/educator/missionary called to fulfill the prayer of Jesus: “Thy Kingdom Come, On Earth!”

     Books are (peaceful) weapons in the battle for “hearts and minds”; indeed, the scope of the warfare is immense and includes the entire planet, what Lewis, I think, called “contested territory.” May God continue to equip you with dedication to the fight, behind the scenes as it may be, providing “shot and shell” for the struggle for God’s world.

     It was the communist convert to the gospel, Douglas Hyde, who first gave us this metaphor. Books were strategic in his Marxist rethinking of everything and in their efforts in leadership development. Upon becoming a Christian, you’ll recall, he was amazed that Christians didn’t similarly strategize to lead others to a coherent Christian perspective on life. He was astonished that we didn’t more effectively use Christian literature like they used their Marxist books. In Dedication and Leadership, he called for serious, Christian organizing, leadership development and intentional, culturally-engaged discipleship; getting the needed “shot and shell” into the hands of those who are engaged in the battle.

     The Presbyterian, Annie Dillard described her own sense of the subversive impact of reading in her Pittsburgh memoir, An American Childhood. “Those of us who read carried a secret around with us like martyrs, a secret knowledge, a secret joy, a secret hope: There is a life worth living where history is still taking place; there are ideas worth dying for, and circumstances where courage is still prized. This life could be found and joined, like the Resistance.” Your job, Gordon, these past years, has been to be a catalyst of the Resistance. Soli Deo Gloria!

      A final point. We have honored you for your intellect, your appreciation of good writing, your vision for the reformation of culture. We have affirmed you as a purveyor of good books and music. You are gifted and very well-equipped for this work. But are you called? Is this, for you, vocare? Perhaps such a question is best discerned in the intimacy of family, the quietude of prayer, the care of your own church community. Confused packing lists, lost phone orders and bounced checks aren’t the most inspirational of icons. Despite the crazed pace and less than optimal work space, we believe this has been a location of holy revelation. We think we have discerned some of God’s voice about you. We want to share our observation that you are more than diligent, better than good, observably passionate beyond duty. Customers, authors, clients and sales reps repeatedly confirm our assessment: you are called by God to this line of work. You don’t need to be reminded of the great reformers who insisted on the doctrine of Christian vocation for the laity. You know the spirituality of the ordinary. You’ve resisted the debilitating sacred-secular dualism and thereby carry the dignity of a worker who serves God in his daily tasks.

     We assume you’d carry this wholistic, reformational perspective wherever you worked. But we are grateful to God and to you that you have served here on Main Street. We affirm that you are called to a vocation here. Parker Palmer has come to understand vocation “not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received, calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

      It is nearly an unspeakable mystery that some of what God has willed from eternity for you is that you have become who you are, in part, by serving with us here. It has been, as they say, a good fit: who you are and what we are trying to do. In the now-famous line from Wishful Thinking, Buechner says, “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Could your role as a Hearts & Minds bookseller be more aptly described?