Friday, August 19, 2011

The Benefit of Wasting Time Reading

First off, I am not a good reader. By that I mean I struggle with focus whenever there is a book in my hand. Sometimes I think it’s because of my upbringing as my dad was not educated and didn’t put much stock in academics. He was a very hard worker and he taught me that the most worthless thing a person could be is idle. I will forever be grateful to my dad for the work ethic he instilled in me. In his world, however, which became mine, reading would be considered idleness. Even today, for me to sit in my office and read is a chore, a feeling of worthlessness. I am also a bit dyslectic and forever seeing words differently and not being able to pronounce them. I share this flaw only because some people believe that only scholars need to read and they read because they enjoy it. That is certainly not my case. I do not relish a good book; I’d rather cut wood.

Now that I have the disclaimer out of the way, I have learned down through the years the importance of reading. I force myself to read because I know that without it I will not grow spiritually or intellectually. As the old adage goes, “A river will only rise as high as its source.” If I want to know more I must make myself read.

Reading became a discipline for me while serving as a first term missionary in Kenya. My undergraduate study was in theology, but I knew nothing about anthropology. Struggling to make sense of the semi-nomadic worldview of the Turkana and Pokot, I discovered books and articles written by missionaries, which led me to books and articles in anthropology. On a furlough I enrolled in a post-graduate program and fell in love with missiology and the social organization of cultures. The one thing that formal education did for me was to force me to read, spending countless sleepless nights to finish my assignments.

A strange thing happens to many of us after we receive our degrees - because we aren’t required to read we don’t read. Another reason some of us quit studying is because we think we already know it all. I’ve been in the vocation of missions over 35 years and so I’ve seen it all (or think I have) and there really isn’t much new under the sun, or so I am tempted to think. For these two reasons I have created a mechanism of reading with purpose.

First, I scan every relevant article I read about missions, missionary life, raising support, culture or strategy. In the old days I would copy articles and file them in a metal cabinet. With today’s technology I now scan articles and file them on my website. Articles, chapters in books, are no longer a fleeting read but a treasure trove of insights for those who work overseas.

The second purpose for my reading is to be a resource for my students. Articles ranging from child marriages, missionary depression, contextualization of the Gospel to Muslims, circumcision initiation rites for Pokot girls and caste problems in India are all available for those who are in my classes. As a student I discovered the importance of reading articles that was outside my interest and I was forced to read other literature to broaden my worldview. My students are provided with articles and are required to read many of them for my class. With the ever-expanding articles posted, the students have a wide range of reference material that otherwise would not be available to them. (Because of copyright issues, access to these articles are made available only to those in my class or enrolled in our distance-learning course).

Reading will always be a chore for me. Honestly, how can one truly be excited about reading in the American Ethnologist “Materializing Piety: Gendered anxieties about faithful consumption in contemporary urban Indonesia”? Yet, by me wading through such articles and mining the gems between the dusty and unpronounceable verbiage of anthropologists, I become a bridge of meaning to an otherwise waste of paper (read my past blog on how I made this article a bridge of meaning for missions).

Another word of wisdom from my dad was this: “Sometimes in life you have to do things you don’t want to do, but you do them anyway.” I may not always enjoy it but at the end of the day if I have enriched others and myself through my reading it will not have been a wasted day, I will not have been idle.