I said this morning that everybody’s life, including mine, can be summed up: Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. And I talked about the person who ought to get the glory this morning: God and Jesus Christ our God and Lord.
Now I’m supposed to talk about me tonight, which isn’t as easy. But I tried to think: What are these times for (talking about yourself)? And I don’t think they are to inform you of facts about my 34 years of life, but rather to say the kinds of things that will tip you off to who I am, the way I feel about things, the way I think — to try to get inside my mind and my heart a little bit. I think that’s what it’s all about.
So I looked back over my life and said, “Probably the way to do that would be to focus on those people who have been the real input and shapers in my life and say something about them and why they’ve been that way to me.”
1. My Mother the Planter
Roots are very important, and planters are important. And I am going to talk mainly about one planter and then about a bunch of waterers. The planter I am going to talk about is my mother.
My father is an independent evangelist who works mainly in conservative Baptist and independent Baptist churches. He turned 60 this month and is still engaged in fulltime evangelism, which meant he was almost never home. Three-fourths of the year he was gone; six-week crusades at a time, which meant that I was virtually raised by my mother. And she did a remarkable job of holding down the offices of mother and father and treasurer and educator and disciplinarian — and yet stepping back and letting daddy be daddy when he was home.
My mother was a remarkable woman. She was killed in December 1974 in Israel in a bus wreck. And I wrote a meditation, a kind of tribute, that I have never read to any group before. And I wrote it maybe a year later, so it wouldn’t be too mushy. And I want to read it to you for two reasons. One, she stamped me more than anybody in the world — there’s just no doubt about it. She didn’t give me the content of my theology, because she wasn’t very much of a theologian, but she shaped the way I approach life. She was a dynamo and made me love work. That will come out mainly in this, I think. So I’ll read it and then we will talk about some of the waterers after this giant planter is off the scene.
I never got spanked for dirtyin’ my pants,
but I did for skippin’ church;
which goes to show mama cared more about keeping God’s name
and my soul clean
than she did her own hands.
She let me sleep with my head in her lap on a pew or draw pictures on a budget envelope,
but that was because I was too little to understand the preacher
and preferred mama’s company to the nursery.
Later, when I had to give my first “part” in Training Union [that’s Southern Baptist there],
right after promotion day when everybody’s older,
she showed me how to write the main points on a card
and listened just before supper while I practiced on her;
and never let on it wasn’t life and death.
And it paid off, too.
One night when I was just a teenager mama was extra happy
and then in a kind of by the way fashion she told me why.
Some lady at church told her, “I hope Jim turns out like your boy.”
Well, she deserved that if I didn’t.
But she didn’t get all mushy about it.
In fact, she never did praise me much.
She was too wise.
Didn’t Solomon say a flattering mouth worketh ruin?
Mama knew the Good Book — especially the Proverbs;
years later when I was three thousand miles away
she kept on quotin’ Proverbs in her salutations.
The message was always the same — the pulse beat of her heart —
Be wise son, be truly wise:
Fear God and keep your heart warm.
I wonder how she got on with Saint Paul.
They didn’t think alike.
Mama loved stories and action and light things and sweet things.
And Saint Paul carries an anvil in his pocket and hammers out long, heavy arguments.
I reckon mama read Romans out of duty,
but probably only a verse at a time.
But then maybe Paul couldn’t imitate baby-chatter
or Mrs. Loren Jones or all the characters in a church play;
but mama could — and then how she would laugh!
Why I’ve seen her and Grandma Mohn —
one hundred-thirty years worth of German sobriety —
guffaw till their tears wet the table cloth.
It would start with a short soprano burst
that could split the eardrums;
and her silver head would toss backward
and her long white teeth would flash under the sharp nose,
and her tanned neck would redden as the tendons flinched.
Ah, she was a vision of health and joy;
and I never felt better than when mama laughed.
And I seldom felt worse than when she cried:
I got a speedin’ ticket one night
and she wept like I’d shot somebody.
All the way to the station at midnight she cried,
made me pay it off right then and there.
One thing was for sure:
I mattered a lot to mama.
She showed me how to do everything but golf and fish.
Daddy showed me that.
Mostly she showed me how to work.
Overlap with the lawnmower so you don’t get skippers.
Grab the Bermuda grass at the roots, otherwise it will be back next week.
Hang up your clothes when you take them off and you will never have to clean your room.
Make sure the grease is hot when you put the fries in or they will get soggy.
Run cold water over the pressure cooker before you turn the lid.
And on and on it went, spilling out wisdom for life.
That’s about all she knew, how to live and work.
I never heard a philosophical word come out of her mouth.
She wouldn’t have known what to do with it.
You can’t clean it, store it, put it in order.
So I learned to love work from mama.
It just rubbed off.
Don’t you always mimic the people you admire?
And admirable she was.
I never met anybody who didn’t like mama.
She made life lighter because she never gave people burdens to bear.
She was a people person all right.
Never did care much about famous places or popular pastimes.
You couldn’t pry her out of her hometown without the lever of her family.
If it hadn’t been for daddy, we would have spent every vacation in the back yard.
Oh, how she loved to be at home with her family.
She is gone now. Mama is gone.
I don’t write that weekly letter anymore or get hers.
We don’t take so many pictures to send home.
Three new grandbabies have been born she never saw.
The old house is sold.
The roots are severed.
And I look back and feel that it is an unspeakable grace that I was conceived in her womb.
When I was born — the parent, not the child, was God’s gift.
Well, that was the planter and I will never stop thanking God for mother. But that was 18 years worth and now Wheaton College.
2. Wheaton College
Three things happened at Wheaton that shaped me.
2.1. Noël and Love
Noël was the most important thing that happened at Wheaton. I fell in love like a ton of bricks in the summer of 1966. And as I look back on how that happened I can’t help but thank God because she turned out to be such a good mother and a good wife, because I wasn’t always thinking real clear about such things. She was the most important thing that happened at Wheaton.
2.2. Clyde Kilby and C.S. Lewis
But there were two other really important things. One was Clyde Kilby, a literature teacher at Wheaton who is a C.S. Lewis scholar and those two men together — one dead and the other living — conspired to kindle in me a tremendous love for nature and for poetry and for the power and beauty of the emotions in human life.
Lewis goes on having a tremendous effect on me. I have read about 20 of his books, and Lewis moves me because he puts together two things that so many people today think have to be kept apart. Lewis puts together razor-sharp logic and profound emotion. He puts together imagination and reason. You know, the egg head and the warm heart, the cold head and the warm heart — he just didn’t see any need to have such bifarcations.
Later on I discovered Jonathan Edwards at seminary, who now with Lewis is one of the most tremendous influences in my life. Jonathan Edwards lived back in the 18th century. But Edwards is exactly the same way. He can go along giving this amazingly strong philosophical argument for something and then break into a meditation that would warm anybody’s heart. And he never saw any reason why they should be in two different persons. Why not in one person?
2.3. Harold John Ockenga and the Call to the Ministry of the Word
The third thing that happened at Wheaton — and this leads into my seminary experience — I lay in the health center for three weeks with mono and listened on the radio to Harold John Ockenga giving the spiritual emphasis series at Wheaton in the fall of 1966. And I said to myself as I lay there with these huge yellow tonsils and swollen pancreas, “I want to handle the Word like that. Man, do I want to understand the Word like that.”
When I got over that and got out of the infirmary, I had to drop my organic chemistry class. So I abandoned my premed aspirations and headed for seminary with one goal: to know the Scriptures well.
3. Fuller Seminary
When I got to seminary, Fuller Seminary, there another three important things to note.
3.1. Daniel Fuller and Arcing
Dr. Daniel Fuller is probably the most significant living person in shaping the way I think today as far as my theology goes. I took every course he taught and we correspond today and I flew out to California two weeks ago to be in a group with him. He opened my eyes like nobody ever had to the beauty of the sovereign glory of God. And to buttress that, he gave me a technique of Bible study that today forms the backbone of my teaching and shapes my sermons and feeds my heart every day. And I don’t have enough life to live to give thanks to Dr. Fuller for what he taught me.
3.2. Ray Ortlund and Lake Avenue Congregational Church
The second thing that happened was meeting Ray Ortlund, Lake Avenue Congregational Church. Some of you probably have read his wife’s book, Up with Worship. Well, I was a member of that church and that is where I was ordained and I taught Sunday School and I discovered the potential of the local church and worship. I didn’t know what worship was before. Worship in my career had mostly been treated as a means to some other end: raising money or saving souls or increasing church membership. There we worshiped because God on that Sunday morning was worthy of worship and the joy in him was an end in itself. And Ortlund had a way of lifting people to that end and, boy, did I get hungry for that. And that is going to link up to what God has been doing in these past months. But there I discovered the church and I discovered worship and so I put myself under the care of the deacons there. And that led to ordination, ultimately, in 1975.
3.3. The Gift and Experience of Teaching
But the third thing that happened there that shaped the last six years of my life was I taught Greek in seminary and I taught seventh graders, ninth graders, and young marrieds in those two years at Lake Avenue. And the upshot of all that teaching was people said, “You’ve got the gift of teaching. Get on with it.” Which is what the Church ought to be saying to people all the time: “You’ve got this gift or that gift.” Because you can’t always tell on your own.
So I took the advice of some of my teachers and went on for the last degree that you are supposed to get before you can teach and got that and then came to Bethel. For six years I have been teaching biblical studies at Bethel. And now what has happened is something like this.
The Transition to the Pastorate
I told you this morning of basically what’s happening. Those yearnings that Ray Ortlund sowed in me, those seeds that he sowed back in 1970–71 are starting to bear fruit in the sense that I am just not content anymore to explain Scriptures in a classroom setting. I want to unfold it and apply it in a church and worship setting, which is why I am making the move that I am making.
The college classroom is an exciting place to work and I’ve seen lots of good things happen there. People have even been converted in my New Testament history classes. Not many, not enough to my satisfaction. But college students are all pretty much the same in that they’re all 18 to 22 years old, or a little older, which means the nature of the problems you deal with and the age span is very uniform. And I’ve had this increasing desire to see the Word of God applied across a broader range of problems in people’s lives and a broader range of ages. And that has probably figured as much as anything in causing me to make the move.
I want to address a flock week after week and try to draw them in, like I said this morning, to an experience with God that gives them more joy in him than they have in anything else and thus magnifies Christ. And so back in October the desire became irresistible. I talked it over with Noël a long time. I sought counsel from our assistant pastor and everybody confirmed me in the direction I was moving. So I went over to the Baptist General Conference, talked to Dick Turnwall, with Delmar Dahl, filled out one of their ministerial forms, and sent one down here to Warren Magnuson. Then Marv called me on the telephone. And I’ll probably let them take it from there. We have had some good conversations together and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the trust they have put in me so far and Char’s words at the beginning are very valuable to me because we both really need wisdom at this point. When I look at this church, when I look at any church, I shake in my boots, frankly, because the responsibility of being a pastor is so awesome. And in a church like this, with around 700 members, with a very complex structure and tremendous amount of history and tradition behind it, it’s a little bit awesome and you need to think very seriously about whether you think somebody like me is capable of it. When I ask myself: “Are you capable, Piper, of stepping into a situation like that or any other situation?” My answer is always, “No way. Who is sufficient for these things?”
And then I read a little farther down in the chapter of 2 Corinthians 3 where Paul says we are not sufficient for these things, but our sufficiency comes from God (v. 5). And so if I am to make it in any church, whether it be a little one or a big one, it’s going to be with God’s help and, as has already been indicated, with the help of the prayers of God’s people.
My Father’s Letter
Here is a two-page letter from my daddy. And his influence goes on, you see, even though mother’s is over.
My father knows churches. He’s been in hundreds of churches, almost all Baptist churches. He has seen every kind of deacon board and every kind of pastor there is. And here I come along and write him and tell him, “What do you think, dad? I’m gonna quit teaching college.” He’ll be real proud of me going into the church wherever they will take me.
So he writes me this letter. I am just going to read four paragraphs here. He has never heard of Bethlehem and I hadn’t been in contact with Bethlehem when he wrote this, because he says some pretty negative things about churches, because what he’s trying to do is talk me out of it so that I will really mean it if he doesn’t succeed.
This is what he says.
Now I want you to remember a few things about the pastorate. Being a pastor today involves more than merely teaching and preaching. You will be the comforter of the fatherless and the widow. You will counsel constantly with those whose homes and hearts are broken. You will have to handle divorce problems and a thousand marital situations. You will have to exhort and advise young people involved in sordid and illicit sex with drugs and violence. You will have to visit the hospitals, the shut-ins, the elderly, a mountain of problems will be laid on your shoulders and at your doorstep. And then there is the heartache of ministering to a weak and carnal and worldly apathetic group of professing Christians, very few of whom will be found trustworthy and dependable.
Isn’t that awful? Where has he been? He is not in the conference. He has never been in a conference church. Or has he?
Then there are a hundred administrative responsibilities as pastor. You are the generator and sometimes the janitor. The church will look to you for guidance in building programs, church growth, youth activities, outreach, extra services, etc. You will be called on to arbitrate all kinds of problems. At times you will feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. Many pastors have broken under the strain.
If the Lord has called you, these things will not deter nor dismay you, but I wanted you to know the whole picture. As in all of our Lord’s work, there will be a thousand compensations. You will see the people trust Christ as Savior and Lord. You will see these grow in the knowledge of Christ and his Word. You will witness saints enabled by your preaching and to face all manner of tests. You will see God at work in human lives. And there is no joy comparable to this.
Just ask yourself, son, if you are prepared not only to preach and teach, but also to weep over men’s souls, to care for the sick and dying and to bear the burdens carried today by the saints of God.
No matter what, I will back you all the way with my encouragement and prayers.
And that is the only hope that I have entering the church no matter where.