Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 2, Number 2


A Coat, Some Books, And Writing Material

Ed Mathews
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas

He was a prisoner. Winter was coming. The damp and lonely cell would be very uncomfortable. Therefore, the apostle wrote, "When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments," II Timothy 4:13. Paul had left his heavy winter overcoat--a coarse woolen garment without sleeves that had an opening in the middle of the top for the head to go through-- with an unknown man, perhaps a Christian, named Carpus of Troas. Winter was on its way, II Timothy 4:21. The coat would be needed. Since Timothy was en route from Ephesus, he could bring it to his father in the Gospel.

A Common Experience

Suffering the discomforts of prison confinement is a common experience for those who serve the Almighty. William Tyndale, translator of the English Bible, wrote from his prison cell:

    "I entreat your Lordship, and that by the Lord Jesus, that, if I must remain here for the winter, you would beg the commissionary to be so kind as to send me, from the things of mine which he has, a warmer cap...I feel the cold painfully in my head...Also a warmer cloak, for the one I have is very thin...He has a woolen shirt of mine, if he will send it. But most of all, Hebrew Bible, grammar, and vocabulary, that I may spend my time in that pursuit."

Obviously there resides here an insight into the sense of values one has when placed in a constraining environment. Under such conditions, values are narrowed to few essentials. For Paul it was a coat, some books, and writing material. The coat was certainly important. Winter in Rome (in an unheated room) can be a trying experience. It seems, however, he longed for his books even more. And, above all, he desired the parchments.

The books were no doubt papyrus scrolls. No one knows what-- if anything--they contained. Perhaps, they were blank rolls of writing material. Nevertheless, many want to believe they were religious books with which the missionary wished to feed his mind during the lonely hours of imprisonment.

The parchment, a very expensive writing material, was intrinsically more valuable than the papyrus scrolls. This superior value may explain the words "above all." What these parchments were is not known. Some believe they may have been official documents (such as proof of Roman citizenship). Others conjecture that they may have been portions of the Scripture (though this seems unlikely). Perhaps, they were merely writing materials which the apostle had laid aside for future use. Whatever the truth of the matter is the world of Paul had narrowed considerably. His desires were few. A coat, some books, and writing materials were requested.

There are other prisons common in life which constrain human vision to a narrow outlook unless a release is found. These prisons come in the form of the routine of everyday life, jealous nationalism, blinding secularism, fear, anxiety, or living in another culture. Release is possible for those who can live in the larger world of books - especially those books that open to the mind vistas of truth found in the Bible.

As Paul wanted his faith reinforced by the fellowship of his friends, II Timothy 4:9, so he seemingly longed for the strengthening that comes from books.

An Uncommon Suggestion

Missionaries are often regarded as speakers in churches who use slides, display artifacts, and ask for money. And, if the members of the church do not talk in depth with missionaries, they will likely retain this unfortunate perception. An informal visit with those who take the Good News to people in other cultures can lead to some eye opening discoveries. As one woman remarked, after keeping missionaries in her home,

    "I listened in wonder as one after another the husband, wife, and children described their life on the field. Could I have done what they did? Somehow I truly doubted it."

Whether this conclusion is accurate or not, the woman had gained some important insights into her life and the life of missionaries. She realized that they are more than pages out of a book, more than slide projector operators, more than fund raisers. Missionaries are real people. They are filled with the same emotions experienced by folks back home. They have their own prisons which narrow their focus and squeeze their faith. They may have hearts of gold, but they certainly have feet of clay. They need their vision broadened, their hope rekindled, their faith reinforced.

The missionaries were grateful for the hospitality. After showing appropriate gratitude to the lady, the missionaries went on their way. Soon they were back at their mission post serving the local people they had come to love and appreciate.

The women pondered the lives that had recently graced her home. She said,

    "I could not get them out of my mind. I prayed for them regularly. One thought kept returning to me: Does God want more from me?"

The lady confessed she had a heart for mission (though she realized she would never be a missionary). "What can I do?" she asked. Without a clear answer, she wrote her recent guests. "What can I do to help?" Within days she received a reply (that set in motion a ministry to assist missionaries):

    "Do you have any books we could read? I am concerned about our nine year old. She loves to read, but we can not keep her supplied with christian books. Can you help us?"

The woman had shelves filled with storybooks, novels, biographies, and devotionals. For the first time it dawned on her that she could be a vital part in the lives of missionaries through books.

A Worthwhile Ministry

The woman decided to start a circulating library for missionaries. The result was a blessing for those at home and those in the field. The circulating library required five essential steps.

  1. A list of missionary families was compiled for each continental area of the world. Letters were sent to each family explaining the project and inviting participation. Those who were interested supplied the name, age, and sex of each family member with his or her particular reading preference.
  2. Books were donated by generous Christians at home. Big, little, hardback, paperback, worn, or new were contributed. By the time the first shipment was posted to the first continent, there were over 300 volumes in the missionary circulation library.
  3. The books were catalogued by recording a minimal amount of information, for each book on an index card: Author, title, subject, fiction or non-fiction, and age range. As the books were boxed for mailing, each was assigned a permanent package number. This number was recorded on the catalogue index card along with the address and date the box of books was mailed. From the latter information, the whereabouts of each book could be determined. Moreover, inside the front cover of each book, two slips of paper were pasted. One gave the same information as the catalogue index card, the other had space for readers to record their names, the date read, and comments on the book. This helped weed out the "undesirables."
  4. The missionary families in each continent were divided into three groups according to the ages of the children. A box of books was chosen to fit the tastes and needs of families in each group in each continent. At least two books were chosen that might appeal to each family member. Finally, three book boxes--one for each group--for each of the six continental areas--Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Oceania--were ready to ship. Overseas mailing requires secure, strong packaging. The eighteen boxes of books were sent "book rate" which is the cheapest and slowest. Amazingly, no books were lost!
  5. A few months after each shipment, a letter of instructions (on where to send books after they were read) was mailed with news from home. A reply card was included to inform the library when the books were received, when they were mailed and where they were shipped. Upon receiving the reply card, a new box was sent to the first family in each group. When a box of books had completed its circuit, it was returned to the home library in the states.

Missionaries gladly paid the postage on their end. They were happy to bless others as they had been blessed.

From Little House on the Prairie to Through Gates of Splendor, books were not just read, they were devoured. "What a wonderful gift. It really filled a need," one missionary wrote. "Thanks" or "God bless you" was the most frequent response.

The library was a fulfilling ministry for the giver and the receiver. The books entertained, informed, and shaped lives. One grateful missionary wife said:

    "Do you have any idea how hungry our hearts become on the mission field? As we minister to the local people, many of us starve for spiritual food. We have needed someone to minister to us. You have filled that need with books. There is no telling how many of us have gained new resolve to serve more because you served so much."


The lady who created the missionary circulation library described above has gone on to her reward. Her good works will surely follow her.

Someone should reactivate the ministry. Through the fellowship of books as well as the exchange of letters, this saintly woman came to know many missionaries intimately. Children from numerous families became her pen pals. She was their "adopted" grandmother. And, with a twinkle in her eye, she could say assuredly, "it is more blessed to give than to receive."

Such a ministry could be done in many different ways. On a smaller or larger scale, the benefits would still be the same. As recent research confirms, one of the top four or five greatest needs among missionaries is spiritual nurture for themselves. They constantly give out much but take in little.

Could you meet this need? Would you encourage someone to begin a missionary circulation library? Is there a brother or sister in your congregation who would serve the missionaries you support? Who would adopt the missionaries on a particular continent? Who would serve rather than be served?

Many saints have a heart for missions who will never serve on the field. Nevertheless, they can pray, write letters, and nurture missionary families through books.

Missionaries and students of missions often share a newly discovered book that speaks to their ministry. The compilers of each of the following bibliographies have attempted to gather a collection of books which represent current, quality books and articles that would be of interest to the missions community. The bibliographies are not exhaustive, but they are offered as a good starting place for research. The editors hope that such bibliographies will continue to expand and be updated periodically. We would be happy to know of any books you have discovered which do not appear on these lists.

--- The editors


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Mirrored by permission of ACU Missions Personnel
Direct questions and comments to Ed Mathews,

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