Thirty-nine years ago, I fell in love with reading. I was in first grade, and by October I had read all my assigned literature books for the entire year, and started in on my sister’s books that were several grades in advance of my own. Before I turned ten, I had begun collecting books, lining them up along the edge of the floor in my room as I had no bookshelf. By the time I was twelve, I had begun serious reading, including Edward Gibbon’s massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I had found haunting the stacks of the Girard Free Library. As a teenager, I discovered the classics of English, Russian, and American fiction, rummaging around in Dickens and Hugo and Scott. In high school, I discovered L’Amour and Asimov, and entirely out of step with those devoured John R. Rice’s academic tome on inspiration. College and the first five years of a bi-vocational pastorate left little time for reading, but when my church grew enough to support me on a full-time basis I happily rediscovered the joy of books. Now, for almost two decades, I have delighted again in study and, not surprisingly, become an author myself.
Throughout these four decades, I have slowly gathered a library one book at a time. I hoarded books like other men hoard tools or collect baseball cards. For years they traveled with me from place to place in boxes. I would store them anywhere I could, and dream of the day I could unpack them all, and put them into a permanent home. Yet as the years passed, and my boxes of books multiplied, the spaces of my life proved too small to contain them. I crammed them into this spare corner and that one. I stowed them precariously along the stairs, banished others to the basement, and stacked still more double-deep on the shelves lining every square inch of my tiny church office.
Last Fall I accepted the pastorate here in Dubuque. The first load that got moved was my books, this time housed in brand new plastic totes, an entire truckload of them. They got piled up on every available surface, including the floor, of my new office. One by one, my new church members would wander back to my office to see if the rumors were true. Did I really have that many books? Where was I going to put them all? Good question, I thought.
Across the hall from my new office was another empty office. It would make a fine conference room, I thought, somewhere to hold deacon’s meetings and disciple new converts during the Sunday School hour. Then it dawned on me – why not line the walls with bookshelves and kill two or three birds with one stone? I could have space to breathe in my office, my books could finally have a permanent home, and the church could have a very usable mentoring/meeting space all at the same time.
Eighteen years ago, God blessed our home with a fiery red-headed boy. He has challenged me and delighted me more than anything else in my life for the past almost twenty years. Three years ago, he began to develop an aptitude for working with his hands. At first, he built benches and boxes, carefully laboring over the tiny details. He spent hours on Youtube studying cabinet making and applying what he watched. Every bench he sold he plowed right back into buying more tools. Over time, he acquired machines and skill both unusual to find in a self-taught home-schooled high-school kid. He moved on from benches to tables and from tables to massive crosses and finely detailed pulpits. He was building a business right there in my garage. Then we moved.
I stood in the empty room across the hall from my office that day and decided that I would risk my unproven capital at my new church. I did not understand how they functioned, financially, nor did they understand how I lead. But the father and the pastor in me both knew this was a good idea. Instead of just throwing up some shelving and calling it a day I would go to bat for the money necessary for the right materials. I would enlist Jack. And I would build a conference room and a permanent home for my books.
The next day, I dragged Jack into the empty office. For two hours, we laid out a library. Oak. Built-in. More shelving space than I needed for once in my life since I have yet more books to acquire in future years. Different sizes of shelves. Decorative elements. Hand-made panels and pillars. Crown molding. The only thing I turned him down on was a coffered ceiling. We used every available inch of wall, including a closet that needed to be accessed but at the same time covered in shelves. Jack was delighted at the thought of building a secret door. Neither the father in me nor the pastor in me wanted to ask him to donate all of his time. His skills were beyond that. This was going to take hundreds of hours. He deserved to be compensated. But he would not be. He knew it, and I knew it. And he agreed to it without hesitation.
For the last six months he has lived in that room, practically. Each day, after finishing his school work, he would head to the church. With his own money, he bought yet more equipment, the portable kind necessary for on location construction. All through the winter he worked. Everything but the finish work had to be done outside. He shoveled snow off of his work area, and learned to ignore the cold of an Iowa winter. He set up tents tied down with bricks and chairs to keep the rain off his equipment. He battled a room where every wall and the ceiling and the floor was out of square. He crafted each bookcase as a unit, and we carried them in together and set them in place. He moved outlets and heating vents. He fought the secret door tooth and nail for a couple of months. Along the way, he celebrated his eighteenth birthday. Last week, I helped him with the homestretch, and together we spent hour upon hour hand-rubbing Danish oil into the wood, watching the grain come alive.
Many men are proud of their sons. They sit in the stands and watch them hunker down over the line of scrimmage. They schlep them from game to game, from tournament to tournament. At every chance, they brag to their friends of how smart or talented or dedicated or athletic or clever their sons are. That is natural. I am all for it. But – and forgive me for this – I do not know another father of my acquaintance whose teenage son has given him such a princely gift as Jack has given me. Because he loves me. Because he loves the Lord. And because he loves to do fine work. I do not know what he will do with his life but I have told him again and again that I cannot wait to see. Whatever he does, he will do it with excellence. The proof is right across the hall from my office.
It is not enough, but this blog post is all I can offer by way of repayment.
Thank you, Jack.
I am proud of you.
And I love you.