A Tribute to John Charles: A Man and his Books
News2Use – August, 2015
My friend John Charles is nearer to the end of his earthly life than is to the beginning of it. He is 85. He has Alzheimer’s. Only God knows how much time he has left.
For me, to be his friend and his pastor these past 9 years has been a true privilege. Pastors are, in a sense, friends to all the church members. And whatever the relationship is, however intimate or distant, when a church member nears death, the pastor is drawn close. This is nearly always the case. Maybe the pastor had not been a large force in that person’s life, but as death closes in, suddenly, the pastor becomes important. No matter how good we are at doing it, we pastors are seen as the guides who shepherd people from life on earth to eternal life in the embrace of God.
In John’s case, it is happening, but with a caveat. Before Alzheimer’s took John away, he and I were close, and it was because of who he is, not because I am his pastor. John has had many pastors before me. And if someone else were here at HillSong, he would be as close to that pastor as to me. It is a mark of his and his wife Marion’s faithfulness that they committed themselves to the life of the church.
Before I mention John’s books, I need to make this clear. Throughout his life, John was a committed Christian who took discipleship very seriously. I remember our men’s Bible study – all men over 70 with 38-year-old me. We were moving furniture into the apartment of a newly arrived refugee. John was on one end of as a couch that we being carried up the stairs. He had the skin on his knuckles ripped off as his hand scraped the brick wall in the stairwell. But he didn’t drop his end of the couch.
John was faithful in service. I remember the times he told me of how members of his family became Christians. He knew what was stake and so, he teared up as he shared the stories. Yes, the stoic bookworm John Charles was moved to deep emotion when he thought about someone he loves accepted Jesus.
John was husband, father, grandfather, brother, friend, teacher, and mentor. He was all these things. He should be remembered for these roles and for the love he had for God and his family. That is John Charles much more than a library.
The library does also need to be mentioned. John Charles was a lover of Biblical scholarship. A Bible scholar is not someone who just reads the Bible over and over. That in and of itself is good and noble and a worthwhile pursuit I recommend to all Christ-followers. And John did that. But he also studied the Bible critically. Doing this did not demystify the Word for him. Rather, critical study increased John’s reverence for scripture as critical study does for anyone who is a person of faith and dares to ask the tough questions.
John studied the scripture in the original Hebrew and Greek, and he studied early commentaries in Latin and commentaries from the great 19th century German scholars. He was a master of languages. He also studied in depth theology, church history, and hermeneutics (methods of scripture interpretation). In terms of scholarship, he was a renaissance man.
Over the course of his life, this study of God through the writings of great scholars was a passion for him and he amassed a library of over 2500 books. A few weeks ago, his family gave me charge of the books. I could keep as many as I liked. The rest I needed to donate to pastors or church libraries or seminaries that would resonate with John’s approach to theological study.
I have long known that the day would come when John and Marion would call me to be the steward of his life’s passion. Now that it is here, I am amazed by the enormity of the task. It is a true blessing. My own pastoral library will just about double by the time I am done. I have taken in great books and it has impressed upon me a sense of responsibility. I won’t be the scholar he was. I am terrible at languages. I muddle along in Greek and am hopeless in the others. But, John left me a lot of great theological writings and Bible commentaries. To honor him, I need to read these works and be shaped by them.
I am going to do exactly that. It will take years and I have already begun. I am studying two works by American scholar Karl Donfried and one by Alister McGrath of Britain. I have changed some things, and dropped some things out of my life to give me time to get a jump on reading these great works. I won’t ever be John Charles. I am not supposed to be him. But his life’s work will have a powerful effect on me living the call God has set before me.
In addition to responsibility, the fact that I am now the steward of a significant portion of John’s life has had a great humbling effect on me. I think I was starting to create an idol – John’s books. I only paid homage to the idol in my mind, nowhere else, but there in my consciousness it was occupying a bigger and bigger space. God freed me from this idolatry when God made it clear that I had to give many of these books away to pastors who I knew would cherish them, read them, and grow in theological knowledge because of them. As we divvied up the books, many times, one of my friends claimed a book I really wanted. It was freeing to let him or her have it. God is the maker of my life as a pastor. The books help, but they shouldn’t just help me. I was humbled to pass John’s blessing on to others and they were enormously grateful.
The responsibility to be a theologian-pastor and the humility to be a giver (and not a hoarder) are truly things God is using to shape my life. Of course my appreciation for John and Marion and my love for them has grown immensely in recent weeks. As time passes, this summer of the disbursement of theological blessing from a man who had more than enough to give will fade in memory.
But it won’t fade too far into the background. There will be an afternoon in the near future when I will be reading. I will want to go over to John and Marion’s home and have a cup of coffee. I can’t drink coffee without thinking of my father and of John Charles. I will want to sit with John and discuss the protreptic purposes in Paul’s terminology in Thessalonians. Of course you don’t know the word ‘protreptic.’ Microsoft Word’s spell checker didn’t know it either. And to be honest, I had to look it up. John wouldn’t.
But, John is not here for that discussion, not anymore. He has eternity in the resurrection ahead of him for he truly is a Christ-follower and will be with the Lord in the Kingdom forever. But he is gone for now. I won’t be able to go talk it over with him and listen as he shares with me how he became a reader and collector of great theological literature. We have had that conversation so many times and now I won’t be able to sit with him again.
And yet, I will. I will sit in my office, look at my shelves, take a sip of coffee, shove my nose back into that book, and John will be there with me.