“Buy Bierma’s book. I’ll even pay for it if you’d like.”
That, in essence, is what I did with my 100 bucks. Almost my entire congregation therefore decided to buy and read the new 2005 book, Bringing Heaven Down to Earth: Connecting This Life to the Next, and there was also widespread impact outside the immediate community.
If you like short stories, you can quit now...
However, the longer tale is actually even more interesting.
The author of the revolutionary approach to the upper realms had kindly volunteered, at the conclusion of a 2-week course we both participated in, to come to Toronto some far off day in the future and speak to any people in my congregation who would read his new tome.
My initial reaction was timid and cheap. I immediately worried about how my church could possibly pay for mileage from Grand Rapids to Toronto, for example. Or would there be a speaker’s fee? My congregation is small, about 100 regular worshipers. I did not spontaneously and enthusiastically appreciate the depths of Nathan’s generosity. I was like people often used to say of my dad: “He always sees bears on the road.” We do revert to form, don’t we? A counselor once said to me “The apple never falls too far from the tree.”
Anyways, eventually I said “Sure, I’ll see what I can do to get people interested in your book.” (I had not read it yet. Poor Nathan – I sure took the fun out of his unguarded initiative!)
When I got home I read the book and found it scintillating and insightful, and also formative for world-view. Like an Emily Dickinson poem, it could literally change your general approach to life. I felt it was extremely worthwhile and well-written. I even quoted it at length in a sermon soon afterwards (something about the environment, if I recall correctly).
I had told my congregation that I was going to receive 100 free dollars from my course sponsor to randomly dispense with as I chose. “Does anyone have suggestions?” There was a bit of buzz about this, but not many ideas were generated. Eventually I decided to use my pot to subsidize the purchase of Nathan’s book for any congregant who desired help. Subsidies large and small would be completely confidential, I declared. This monetary backing had the consequence, which I had not fully anticipated, that it magnified in people’s minds the extent to which I was enthusiastic about the book. “Look at that, he’s even throwing money at it.” Even though I stressed it was not actually my own money!
Then, alas, I received the discouraging news that we actually would not be receiving one hundred dollars after all! I contemplated sabotaging the very doctrine of heaven, but decided against that alternative.
Instead I determined, along with my 16 colleagues in the course who were all pursuing projects of their own, to put my own personal money into the equation and replace my lost loot. It was also, in my unique career situation, pastorally important that I not reveal to my congregation that the money supporting my cause was now actually coming out of my own pocket. I felt that this revelation would corrupt the pastor/parishioner relationship and confuse all the normal parish dynamics. People might feel sorry for me. People might feel I was overinvested in an idea. People might worry that Nathan had bribed me to be his publicist. Whatever. I decided that true giving meant just keeping my mouth shut and supporting the project unselfishly. Like many of my classmates, I also seemed to have a sudden miraculous influx of one hundred dollars in my life, due to some ridiculous coincidence (in my case, a publisher remorsefully paid for an article they had posted on a website without my permission). So I genuinely didn’t care about the money. I kept up the pretense that I had been deluged with an unexpected handout.
Lo and behold, 42 people proceeded to order the book!! In such a small place, when you consider multiple readers and extended families, etc., that is basically the whole church. (“Who’s all on your list? O, I see my dad already ordered one, I’ll just read his, thanx”).
It took a long time for all the books to come dribbling in. They arrived at the massive bookstore two or three at a time, because they had to be requisitioned from remote warehouses all over North America. (“It is probably not a very common item” said the bookstore dealer to me with a tinge of embarrassment.) Eventually they got to know me in person, since I was constantly coming back to pick up a few more copies. They were leaving messages on my voice mail and eventually my email. This huge bookstore at a major Toronto intersection now knows the pastor from the church six blocks away. They also suspect his church is a cult that is very interested in heaven, but the pastor swears the book is not what you would think! I encouraged all the sales clerks to read it.
Because I ordered such a large quantity, and because I have a membership card at this store, I got a big reduction in price and cheap shipping. I put it all on my credit card, $647.64, achieving extra Air Mile points as well. (I deserve to keep that perk, I figured.) The final result was $15.20 Canadian per book. I did not feel like fooling around with quarters, dimes, or nickels, so I told my church “Pay me either 15 dollars, 16 dollars, or 20 dollars.” (Sixteen works in Canada because we have “toonies”, which are two-dollar coins.)
Many people paid 20. They wanted to be as nice and carefree as I seemed to be. There were also various people who quietly asked for diverse subsidies, including the total price. (I did not relate any personal disclosures even to the Deacons!)
Honestly? I don’t think I lost a single penny out of my 100 dollar investment.
I have scribbled messy lists all over the place, who paid what-when-where, but I have no desire to total everything up or collate my lists.
I’m a big picture person. I don’t care about details. I’m not like my dad, who always used to see bears on the road.
I used the constant flow of cash as a riotous petty fund. It was really cool to not withdraw any money from the bank for a long time. I paid off the credit card bill like I always do every month (my dad taught me that), and I stopped withdrawing cash. I think I got ahead, actually.
People are still coming up to me and saying “I don’t think I paid you yet”. I am too lazy to confirm. I think some people have paid me twice. (“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, declares the Lord.”)
I think that sometimes husbands and wives paid without knowing their partner had already coughed up. I could double-check that, but I prefer to store it as a mental pastoral note. (Visit them some day. Their communication may be off. Vice-versa, they may be really happy and not care too much about details.)
>A long-range benefit is that the congregation has discovered that it likes the idea of book-clubs. We might form a few of those. We might even invite the authors sometimes. Maybe we can even do something for the mileage. A lot of authors live right in Toronto.
Another long-range benefit is that friends and relatives from other cities have now read the book because my parishioners are excited by the practical insights and invigorating perspectives offered by the book. Readers have resonated with the ideas of hope, glory, earthiness, affirmation of urbanity, a cosmic sense of redemption, and many other features. One elderly relative far away, recently bereaved, reportedly was disappointed when she was about half way through because she was only looking for a comforting answer to one single question: Where’s my husband? Nathan writes about that very pastorally after page 122, so she must not have arrived at that section yet, which deals wisely with what theologians have often called “the intermediate state”.
A few visitors who ordered the book have not returned to church in the past four months and have left no contact information. I explained to my council: They may have gone to heaven.
One member of the church told me that an atheist friend of his had read the book because of all the excitement that had been stirred up in our church. Perhaps the visitors who have disappeared from our radar screen will meet the atheist in Moses’ library some day.
Lay up For Yourselves Treasures in Heaven.
I am having only one problem. Nathan hasn’t given me a date yet. He seems very vague about the particulars. Perhaps he is not coming at all. Perhaps it was a scam. More and more parishioners are asking me, “When he is coming?” I tell them honestly, “I don’t know.” I am concerned about the delay of the parousia. Maranatha, “come, dear Nathan.”
“Buy Bierma’s book. I’ll even pay for it if you’d like.”