I was thirty years old before I became a student. It wasn’t until then that I understood the value of intellectual discipline, and I set about to learn how to think. Before that I coasted on the data I learned and the experiences I had when I was younger. I had a very rich spiritual upbringing thanks to family and church, and another deep infusion of spiritual truth while I was in college; I taught and I lived from those past experiences and stories for too long.
Here’s what happened: I heard a set of talks (on cassette tapes) by motivational speaker, Jim Rohn. He was the first voice I heard that encouraged a systematic and intentional life gathering and capturing knowledge. He said, “How many people keep a list of the books they read, and a journal where they capture quotes and ideas? Very few. It will put you in the top ten percent.”
What he said changed my life. Not only did I start reading again, but I kept a list of books I’d read and started keeping a to-read shelf at home so I would have the next book ready. I started regularly checking the new-book section at our local library and I’d grab anything that caught my attention regardless of topic or author. Mr. Rohn made me hungry to learn. I wanted to be in his top ten percent.
And then, a few years later, I took another hit from another teacher.
It was a Sunday evening in 1994 and I remember sitting in a metal chair taking notes from a lesson on church history taught by our pastor, Jim Denison. As I listened to Dr. Denison answer questions and dig deep into far-ranging topics, I realized two things: (1) he might be the smartest man I’ll ever know, and (2) he hasn’t stopped learning. He was teaching from fresh learning; he wasn’t pulling out his threadbare notes from university days, but giving from what he’d just learned. Jim was actually engaged in his own education, even as an adult, even though he already had a PhD. The light came on in my head – the gravitational pull of learning seized me. I decided that very evening that I wanted to be just like him and pursue knowledge, wisdom, and insight for the rest of my adult years.
As soon as class was over, I asked Dr. Denison for a reading list, and a few days later I received two lists – one with ten books about church history, and the other with ten books about theology. It was a killer list, too; seminary-grade reading.
In fact, the list was a bit more than I’d planned. I worked hard tracking down books in that pre-internet pre-Amazon era. I learned how to use the interlibrary loan system. I wrote book reports and sent them to Jim, hoping to keep my reading honest and my study on track.
So why am I telling these old stories, you ask. Because of something I read in Gordon MacDonald’s book, A Resilient Life. He told a personal story about a time when he was caught unprepared as a young pastor, when one of his church members was killed accidentally on a hunting trip. McDonald felt inadequate and spiritually dry while trying to minister, with nothing to offer this family. He wrote, “It was a most miserable moment, a scary one for a youthful pastor … I determined I would never again be caught with an empty soul when others needed spiritual resources.”
As I read MacDonald’s story I realized I felt the same way. I don’t want to be caught spiritually dry while trying to minister. The classes I teach need a teacher who is growing and learning right alongside them.
MacDonald wrote, “I came to see that I owed my congregation a filled-up soul.”
Yeah, me too. I owe those God has entrusted to me a filled-up soul. I now see learning as an obligation. To do any less is to sacrifice the gift.
And so, here is my appeal to you. I am always on the lookout for my next influence, for smart insightful writers. Who are your current favorites? Let me know. I have some space on my to-read shelf.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32
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