I’m thumbing through my worn copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison”. Good book. Classic book. Powerful book. When the world seems way too bleak for my tired heart to comprehend, I can find solace — sorrow and joy — in Bonhoeffer’s words.
But it’s not just Bonhoeffer’s words that bring comfort and light. The book had a prior owner. Before leaving, Pastor Calvin dug through his many books and then offered me a magnificent gift: I could take as many as I liked to prepare for my time at seminary. Greek lexicons, textbooks, classics… talk about me being a kid in a candy store.
When I first picked up Bonhoeffer’s books, I discovered that I’d been triple-gifted. Not only was I the recipient of some amazing volumes, but they were volumes that belonged to a good friend, mentor and pastor. As I leafed through poems, letters, papers & words by Bonhoeffer, I found a name inscribed on the first page:
Carl A. Kopperud.
All used books have histories. Whether those histories are short and new, or long and tangled, every used volume once rested in the hands of another human being. To me, that is one of the single greatest treasures of coming by used books. It’s not only the stories contained within the pages that bring it all to life; the lives of those who’ve searched these stories before ignite a deep and dormant spark as only the spanning of generations can.
I don’t know much about Carl A. Kopperud. What little I know, however, has polished the gold these book-gifts have become to me. He was Lori Skriver’s late father (Lori is Calvin’s wife). Already the meaning — in sorrow and joy — is dawning on me like a sunrise too bright against the sky. He was a pastor; he wrote lyrics to familiar hymn tunes; and he was a father to amazing children (one especially), and husband to a beautiful and kind woman. Calvin inherited many of his books from Carl, his father-in-law. Both pastors. Both seeking God in peculiar places. One the elder; one the younger; and I am the younger still.
I can agree or disagree with the theology of Bonhoeffer, while still being astounded at the wisdom found in his words. But the pages themselves — once held by Calvin… before that held before by Carl — are what make the book a gem. Sometimes we can glean all we can from written words and sense a peculiar connection with the author. Not always.
But when that connection is compounded with the reality that this wisdom and insight was formally ingested, absorbed and wrestled with by other people who have made such impacts on my world, on the worlds of the people I care about, on the world at large, I almost want to shut Bonhoeffer away in a glass case, carefully preserving him so I can preserve the presence of those who have gone on before.
But that would defeat the life of these used books. It would kill the gift. In this circumstance, life is quickened from one generation to another, one person to another through the use and study and meditation and transformation of the current holder.
In this way, I do not consider myself the “owner” of Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison”. Not of this copy anyway. I’m merely it’s keeper until such a time comes when someone else comes along who might have need of it. Then, in sorrow and joy, I will pass Bonhoeffer along.
And… hopefully… I will have the opportunity to share the rare gift of sharing with the new keeper the lives of those who have gone on before.
Sorrow and Joy
By Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Sorrow and Joy:
startled senses striking suddenly on our
seem, at the first approach, all but impossible
of just distinction one from the other:
even as frost and heat at the first keen contact
burn us alike
Joy and Sorrow,
hurled from the height of heaven in meteor fashion,
flash in an arc of shining menace o’er us.
Those they touch are left
stricken amid the fragments
of their colourless, usual lives.
ruinous and compelling,
Sorrow and Joy
–summoned or all unsought for–
Those they encounter
they transfigure, investing them
with strange gravity
and a spirit of worship.
Joy is rich in fears:
Sorrow has its sweetness.
Undistinguishable from each other
they approach us from eternity,
equally potent in their power and terror.
From every quarter
mortals come hurrying:
part envious, part awe-struck,
swarming, and peering into the portent;
where the mystery sent from above us
is transmuting into the inevitable
order of earthly human drama.
What then is Joy? What then is Sorrow?
Time alone can decide between them,
when the immediate poignant happening
lengthens out to continuous wearisome suffering;
when the laboured creeping moments of daylight
slowly uncover the fullness of our disaster
Sorrow’s unmistakable features.
Then do most of our kind
sated, if only by the monotony
of unrelieved unhappiness,
turn away from the drama, disillusioned,
O ye mothers, and loved ones-then, ah, then
comes your hour, the hour for true devotion.
Then your hour comes, ye friends and brothers!
Loyal hearts can change the face of Sorrow,
softly encircle it with love’s most gentle unearthly radiance.