“Reading is a form of prayer, a guided meditation that briefly makes us believe we’re someone else, disrupting the delusion that we’re permanent and at the center of the universe. Suddenly (we’re saved!) other people are real again, and we’re fond of them.” —George Saunders
The first book I remember lusting after was concerned with the intricacies of the mysterious Babylon mentioned in the Bible book of Revelation. I’m not sure what attracted me to this book? I do recall that the cover was interesting, exotic, and scholarly. Perhaps I was convinced that the contents of the book would distinguish me from my peers with secret knowledge that I could leverage to impress them, and maybe, just maybe, girls would find me more attractive. In my mind, it was biblical knowledge with benefits. Upon reflection, I now know this book was anything but scholarly. It was filled with conspiracy speculations as to the identity of the Antichrist, (Henry Kissinger was a leading candidate) and fear mongering concerting the coming cashless society. But even given all of its pedantic content, nevertheless it was a book that lended itself to a certain evangelical gravitas, and I was the preteen nerd reading it. This had to be worth religious brownie points. If secret knowledge was the avenue to join the religious elites, I was well on my way to being counted among them. Or so I thought. It is amusing to think about my early junkets into the scholarly religious tomes. This love for books was cultivated, in part, by an unlikely book salesman who was a part of our church.
Brother Matt became a part of our church through a series of events that led him into our version of Pentecostalism. As I recall his story, it was among a group of younger people discussing ideas surrounding the impending Apocalypse that first attracted him to Christianity in general and Pentecostalism specifically. Matt had an inquisitive nature and outgoing personality. As such he was a perfect convert to become our church’s resident doctrinal apologist and was a leader in influencing others to the truth of our church’s beliefs and practices. He was the first person that I can remember in our church that seemed to genuinely care about theological precision in matters of belief and practice. And he is the first person that I can remember pointing to the benefit of other books to inform our faith alongside the Bible. Because Matt held this conviction, he persuade our pastor at the time to allow him to set up and operate a bookstore in the back of the auditorium of our small church. This book store was open immediately following every service and became a place for me to peruse the books that he would put on display.
Mostly the books consisted of material published by our religious organization, but included other material from the larger Christian community, including the very popular Chick Tracts. These were small books written and illustrated in the style of comic books that centered mostly on the epic apocalyptic themes surrounding the second coming of Jesus Christ, along with all of the cataclysmic judgements that would befall those left behind. They made interesting reading during service especially when the sermon was boring. Matt sold these tracts relatively cheap so they were very popular and on occasion you could just find them about the church and read them for free. Matt was that unique person, among a group that encouraged and rewarded compliance, who was courageously willing to explore alternative narratives and opposing perspectives and even recommend books that did so. I really appreciate Matt for his willingness to do this in the midst of our community that largely seemed uninterested in doing so. For my early religious formation, he provided an important example for the person I would become.
Matt was the first one that I can remember who encouraged and modeled teaching home bible studies to prospective converts. He gave me my first bible study chart and even bought me a bible or two along the way. I remember sitting across from him and answering questions about the students at my school that I was soliciting to join me in a bible study group. He treated me like an equal when he inquired about those I was teaching. This was a formative moment in the direction my life would take, and Matt maintained this disposition towards me throughout my life. Later, he would open an actual bookstore downtown. A bookstore that I frequented, and through the years, he would recommend books for me to read and we would spar over the latest iterations of theological and denominational challenges to our church’s views. They were always friendly, inquisitive, and thought provoking, even when we disagreed. Matt always had a smile and was genuinely interested in my life pursuits.
Matt found a way to serve churches of all denominations. He developed his business into a ministry that served churches with furnishings and baptistries. It was nothing to pass his home and see various steeples decorating his front lawn. Matt loved the church right down to the chairs, baptistries, and steeples that would occupy houses of worship across the region.
Brother Matt is now measuring a heavenly tabernacle for new furnishings. Or at least that is what I like to think. Matt died this past weekend. Far too soon, leaving a beautiful family of sons, daughter in laws, and grandchildren. Along with his surviving wife Chrissy, I have no doubt the legacy he leaves behind will be well served.
Last year, I had the opportunity to worship with Matt while visiting my mother in Arkansas. He and Chrissy were always so faithful to see to it that my mother had a ride to church. A relationship that is a powerful testimony to Matt’s ability to win folks over. There was a moment in their history when my mother wasn’t too keen on Matt, it involved Matt’s romantic interest in my sister. But even then, I remember Matt’s ability to engage in positive communication and his trademark smile won my mother over, if not my sister, as the romantic spark never seemed to ignite. But Matt had this ability to be everyone’s friend. A characteristic that served him well throughout this life. And a characteristic that we would all do well to emulate. Imagine how much better the world would be if we greeted each other with the words “Hello my friend, let me share a book recommendation with you!”
The restrictions on travel given the worldwide pandemic kept me from visiting Matt. At our last interacting he expressed a desire to get together and catch up. I’m sorry we never got to have those conversations. I could always count on Matt for a thoughtful question or two and a word of encouragement. Both rare commodities in this world and now even more so with his departure. I’m certain Heaven’s conversations are enriched with his recent addition.
I never knew Matt to hold a grudge or have an unkind word to say to anyone. Most certainly this was a fruit of the Spirit that was evident in his life, and maybe it was also a benefit of being in such close proximity to so many books throughout his life. In his honor, I’ll pick up another book and continue to read. Would you like to join me?