Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Chapel is designed to be a meeting on your part with the King of kings and the Lord of lords himself. Over the years, there has been the same, basic objective: that chapel is to be a time of worship. Not a lecture, not an entertainment, but a time of meeting the King.

Those were some of the closing words from a man’s final minutes on earth. The preacher is V. Raymond Edman. He’s 67 years old. It’s a Friday-morning chapel at Wheaton College, on September 22, 1967, five and a half decades ago. His sermon is titled “In the Presence of the King.” Edman preached for about eleven minutes, paused, collapsed, and died — and entered into the presence of the King of kings. A stunning event.

In chapel that morning, along with about two thousand other Wheaton students, was 21-year-old John Piper. And Pastor John, you rarely ever mention this event: once late in an article you wrote in 1995, but nowhere in a book or sermon, and never here on APJ. So, take us back to Wheaton in 1967. Who was V. Raymond Edman? What do you remember about that fateful Friday morning? What impact did the chapel have on your ministry? And as you listen to the audio recording over 55 years later, what strikes you now?

The room we were meeting in when “Prexy” (as those who knew him well called him), V. Raymond Edman, died was called Edman Chapel, named after Dr. Edman in 1960 when it was built. So, the building in which he died bore his name already. It’s a large, concert-like venue, beautifully white and blue, with huge chandeliers. It holds about 2,400 people, with a main floor where the students sat during chapel and then a balcony behind.

Chapel was required of all students in those days, so the main floor was almost always mostly full. I was sitting near the back on the main floor on the right-hand side as you face the platform (I think my row was about three or four from the back). We sat in alphabetical order. So, nobody chose whom they sat with.

Discipline of Stillness

So, what do I make, then, as I listen to these last minutes of Dr. Edman’s life (which I did in getting ready for this)? What an amazing experience to listen. Frankly, if you listen to the whole thing, I think you can hear Dr. Edman — in his voice and in the content of his message — that he was displeased with the casual way students were treating chapel.

His entire narrative of his meeting with Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian king, with its elaborate protocol of bowing and silence as one approached the earthly king, was designed by Dr. Edman to encourage students to come to chapel and meet the King of kings in that spirit. That’s the whole point of his message. “Stop talking as you enter the foyer,” he pleaded with them. He pleaded that, when they walk into chapel, they wouldn’t talk with each other, but cultivate what he called the discipline of “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

He had written a book of devotions called The Disciplines of Life. I had the book. I can’t find it right now, but I remember reading it while I was still at Wheaton. His burden in the book — and in the chapel message and elsewhere — was paradoxical, like the Christian life. He knew on the one hand that the deeper life — “the exchanged life,” as he called it (he was very influenced by Hudson Taylor, by the way, in that regard). He knew that the deeper, exchanged life — Christ for mine, mine for Christ — was a profoundly free and Spirit-inspired life.

“Speak in a way that you would be okay with if a recording of your last minutes were played over and over again.”

Yet on the other hand, this life was marked by rigorous disciplines that flowed from the Spirit. And he saw those disciplines being eroded in the 1960s in the church and in the students at Wheaton. And that book and this chapel message were his way of earnestly calling students to discipline themselves to be still and know that God is God. And so, he lamented the roar of student conversation in chapel. He even asked — with, I think, only partial humor — “Is it louder than the lions at Brookfield Zoo?” I didn’t hear any laughter when he said that.

Final Moments

So, we were all sitting there when, suddenly, he stopped for no apparent reason. There were a few seconds of silence. He turned to his left and just collapsed. It was not a gentle collapse, as I recall. He hit the floor like a log, and the sound was frightening. He didn’t crumple. You thought it was quiet before? Good night. Now it was breath-holding quiet as two thousand students trembled inside. “Oh no. What has just happened?”

Dr. Armerding, the new president, who was sitting right behind him in the main chair behind the pulpit, immediately knelt down over Dr. Edman. Then he stood as medical people were coming to the platform, and he said with beautiful, perfect equanimity and the dignity he was known for, “Let us pray.” And he prayed briefly for Dr. Edman and dismissed us in silence.

So, I went to my classical Greek class with Gerald Hawthorne in Blanchard Hall, and after we prayed, we tried to go on with our lessons. But soon the chapel bell tolled a long series of solemn bells. And we assumed that meant the chancellor had died. And he dismissed class, and that’s basically where my memories stopped.

Verge of Eternity

As I listened to those last minutes of the chapel message, about eleven minutes before he collapsed, several things struck me.

As I listened yesterday, I was trembling inside. I had this awareness, “This man is going to meet Jesus in eleven minutes.” It was as though I were there, and I knew something he didn’t know. “You’re going to die in eleven minutes. 10, 9, 8, 7 . . . You’re going to meet the King of the universe face to face in eleven minutes. You will not finish this message, Dr. Edman. You will not finish anything that is not finished now. Your life will be over in eleven minutes.”

I actually looked over to my computer screen at the numbers ticking off the seconds. And they felt like heartbeats to me. And then he stopped. Now, I’m ten years older than Dr. Edman was when he died. This was a good rehearsal for me. That’s what this is for. This is a rehearsal.

I think the final minutes of Dr. Edman’s life and message have been a bit romanticized. It’s more realistic to say that in those last minutes, not only did he speak of entering the presence of the King — that’s what’s been remembered, and rightly so — but he was also dealing with student misbehavior, just real down-to-earth, inglorious, practical, disappointing behavior. And he talked about speakers who come to chapel and are bad speakers. “They tilt like windmills,” he said, and say things unhelpful. That’s not glorious.

Ordinary Deaths

This is the way it struck me: that’s the way most of us are going to die. We won’t be on some mountaintop of sinless spiritual fervor. We won’t. We’ll be dealing with some mundane, frustrating, ordinary issue like students making a ruckus coming into chapel, speakers that are embarrassing to listen to — trying to say something helpful about this frustrating reality. And here’s the beautiful thing: in the midst of dealing with ordinary, mundane, frustrating disappointments, Christ will shine through. And he did.

The very last things, the very last words out of Dr. Edman’s mouth, were an exhortation not to return evil for evil, or (to say it positively) to treat disappointing chapel speakers better than they deserve — that is, courteously. Here’s what he said in his last words, words of counsel about how to treat unhelpful speakers. He said, “Our part as Christians is to be courteous. Any indication of disinterest or displeasure on our part would be an unnecessary discourtesy to him, and so I would ask you to desist.” And he fell over. So, the last word, the very last word, was, “Treat them better than they deserve.” Just like Stephen, right?

That’s the way the Christian life is going to be at the very end. I think it’s going to be a mixture of mundane, frustrating, disappointing reality and shafts of light — shafts of light from the word of Christ breaking in, and yes, the glory of the King just over the horizon, a moment away.

Live with the End in View

As I listened and counted down, I thought, “These could be my last eleven minutes right now.” Even as we talk, right? I could drop over here at my desk. I’m standing. I could fall to my left, fall to my right. So, Piper — here’s the admonition that’s landing on me — speak in a way that you would be okay with if a recording of your last minutes were played over and over again on earth and in heaven.

My prayer after listening to this message again after 55 years is that when I die, I would be found like Dr. Edman, commending the love of Christ — and that while I live, I would be found like Dr. Armerding, beautifully discerning what love calls for in every unexpected moment.