I hate books that are mirrors. By that, I mean those books that are so revealing, so convicting, so true to my own situation that I ache when reading the book.
I love reading histories and biographies. This past year, I read two really good books by Max Hastings on World War I and Winston Churchill. I was separated from the subjects by time and experience. I shook my head in disgust at the blunders made by leaders. I gasped at the narrow escapes of historical happenstance. I consoled myself with good endings to bad situations. But mainly, I observed. I observed from a safe and secure distance. I felt like I could be a better history teacher and a better student of mankind, but largely my inner life was untouched by these outstanding books.
Not so with mirror books. More than a year ago, I read Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp. No theological exam could have unnerved me as did this very direct, pastoral, and surgical study of the perils of pastoral ministery. The focus was on personal matters, not church problems. Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung was another convicting book, which I have been too crazy busy to re-read and review. DeYoung’s previous book, A Hole in Our Holiness, was another invading read. Then there were books like The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller (and his wife Kathy) and Momentary Marriage by John Piper. Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas was far too descriptive of my own failings also. Books on marriage and parenting are difficult to read.
Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud was yet another painful and revealing book. It solidified some decisions that circumstances were forcing me to make. There were some “necessary endings” in my life, but I was procrastinating on the decisions. The book was a mirror. Then there was What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman. This book combines some of the best of self-help, motivational, organizational books from the secular world with Biblical principles. The mirror here was not quite so painful, but that was because I read it at a time where my routines had all unraveled. But that book has been bookmarked for a second, more intense reading.
The most powerful, intense, and personally unraveling book I have read, however, is A Small Cup of Light: A Drink in the Desert by Ben Palpant. I first heard of this book when I read George Grant’s list of Best Non-fiction 2014. My interest was peaked by several books on his list, and I happily noted that I already had 3 of the 11 picks. A few others went on my wish list, but A Small Cup of Light didn’t hardly get a second glance.
Then a copy of the book arrived in the mail. It was a gift to my wife Stephanie and me. Since I am prone to lose books in the endless stacks in my reading areas, Stephanie made sure that the book was beside her lamp and chair. At some point before Christmas, I was sitting in that chair waiting on something or someone, and I started reading. I was really happy because this was a short (190 pages) easy read, and I would be able to add this title on to my list of 2014 reads.
Then there was a point where I realized I wasn’t reading a book; I wasn’t adding a title on to my 2014 list; I wasn’t adding on information for whatever purposes information serves. I was gazing into a mirror. I was reading an autobiography. I was listening to a God-sent messenger delivering an indictment against me.
Ben Palpant was a successful teacher in a classical Christian school. Busy, active, energetic (okay, that isn’t like me), he was going about his hectic, full routine of family life, school, church, etc. Then he fell apart. He had a total breakdown. It seems to have come in increasingly intensifying phases. He reached a point where he could not teach his classes, could not function in everyday life, and could not uphold his tasks as husband, father, and normal human being. Some people get hit by severe physical illnesses and others by external problems. Then there are those who go through the Job-like internal experiences. (And thank God when we don’t experience Job’s loss of family, farm, and health.)
I wish I could have been reading this book with these kinds of thoughts: “Interesting. Fascinating,” or “Hmm. I must remember this in case I see someone going through all this,” or “Why this sounds exactly like so-and-so.” This would have been a good objective case study in how a Christian sometimes goes through a total breakdown.
My problem was that this was not a good book that could be read and placed on a shelf. This was a mirror.
This past year, I went through a near total breakdown myself. My breakdown was not as severe as Ben Palpant’s, but there were too many points of similarity. I remember the haunting feeling when I was reading a portion of the book where someone was counseling him and they called him “Ben.” That name, along with the content, hit too close to home. Stephanie and I both had moments of wondering if this book had been written about me.
I spent that past summer wondering if I could possibly ever teach school again. There was a moment or two (or ten) as school was starting where my doubts were almost confirmed. Several doctor visits, various tests, and a sleep study all reveal that I am okay as far as physical health. But I have witnesses hurrican-like gales and waves in the mind and soul.
Ben Palpant has confirmed what I heard from a series of sermons by Joey Pipa. Dr. Pipa was preaching at the Biblical Worldview Student Conference in eastern Tennessee last summer. I was there; it was a bad time for me; but God was reaching out to me in the midst of the storm He had sent me into. Pipa said that we should not pray for our trials to end until we have learned the lessons we need. Sometimes, I have said, “Lesson learned. Resuming normal now.” But God throws me down again, or He shows me how far I am from “normal.”
God sometimes strips away things that make no sense. He doesn’t remove what we perceive to be weeds. He digs up the fruitful plants, whole rows of the garden. God does not want our gardens to obscure the Gardener. The gardens we work in, give ourselves to, spend ourselves for all too often become our idols. Palpant was convicted repeatedly by Scriptures warning against idolatry. Like me, like most of us, we survey the premises, throw out the Baals and Astaroths, melt down the golden calves, brush our hands together, and say, “There, no idolatry here.”
But the heart can be as crammed full of idols as downtown Athens in Paul’s day.
Sometimes, God wants to advance His kingdom by having us do NOTHING. John Milton struggled with this issue. “How in the world can I serve God as a poet,” he asked, “when God has taken away my sight?” In the poem “On His Blindness,” he resolves this tension in realizing that God is self-sufficient and plentously served. “Thousands at his bidding speed.” And then he concludes, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Being sidelined by God, especially if you are playing on an important team (like pastoring a church or running a Christian school), is humiliating, embarassing, demeaning. Yes, we mutter against the Divine Coach, and I admit to telling Him a time or two what I really think about all this. But the funny thing is this: God is not very obedient to us. He is not even reasonable when it comes to hearing our demands. He makes us feel like He doesn’t need us.
Truth is: God doesn’t need us. He loves us and blesses us by using us, but we don’t fill some need God has or His Kingdom lacks. And all that is part of the process that takes us where we need to be. God is a potter. He will crush the wet clay and ruin a pot before He will allow it to think that it is THE POTTERY that makes the rules.
A Small Cup of Light is not one of those amazing, but true stories of something that once happened to someone. This book was about Ben Palpant. It was also about Ben House. The latter Ben would not have understood the book a year ago. It may be about you, your past, your present, or your future. It may be about your spouse, parent, child, fellow church member. It may be about your pastor. It is a mirror. You may read it and say, “I went through something similar,” or like me, you may say, “This is too true. Thank God I am not alone.”
A big thanks to George and Karen Grant for sending this book to Stephanie and me. Thanks to Ben Palpant for sharing his life and struggles with God’s people.