29 August 2008

Thy rod and thy staff shall stay at the gate

I saw this sign while doing some driving for a temporary job. I'm still not sure what the problem was that necessitated this sign. It's not like there are a lot of shepherds in Milford, Ohio. Actually, shepherd rods are devices used to hang flowers over a grave marker. So it does make sense; it just took me about three weeks to figure it out.

26 August 2008

Book Review: 90 Minutes in Heaven (Part Two)

(Note: this part won't make as much sense unless you read part one below)

Theological Accuracy: 20/40 Why the low score? The question ought to be this: why the high score? The score is not lower because, for once, the low number of pages actually dealing with heaven helps him here. Surely he cannot err too many times in 16 pages?

Here's what makes grading this so difficult: how do you say to someone, "your experience was wrong"? You really can't. You can say, "Your experience is different from the experience of other, more trustworthy, people who claim the same thing you have." And that's what I'm doing here. The "other, more trustworthy" person in this case is the apostle John. But we can say Piper is wrong because when you say something different from what the Bible says (for example, the Bible is the Word of God, but so is the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, etc.), that is wrong. The Bible is the standard against which we measure our experiences. Scripture is the filter for experience; experience is not the filter for Scripture. In other words, the Bible tells us what our experiences in life mean. It is not "our experiences tell us what the Bible means," as is the mistake of so many.

Back to Piper. Here are my biggest peeves with his experience of heaven.

1) He believes there is no sense of time in Heaven. Apart from some philosophical objections to finite creatures living in a timeless existence, my concern is biblical. He writes, "I'm not sure if they actually said the words or not, but I knew they had been waiting and expecting me, yet I also knew that in heaven there is no sense of time passing" (25). Here he's speaking about loved ones who came to greet him in Heaven. Piper betrays his own conclusion about there not being a sense of time when he "knew" they had been waiting and expecting him, things no one can do without a sense of time. If we look in Revelation, we see more than once a sense of time: Rev. 6:10-11: the martyrs (in Heaven!) "called out in a loud voice, 'How long, Sovereign Lord, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?' Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed." See also Rev. 8:1 and every reference containing the word "then" (about 53 times in Revelation).

2) Piper believes there are no songs in Heaven about Jesus' death. "As I stood before the gate, I didn't think of it, but later I realized that I didn't hear such songs as 'The Old Rugged Cross' or 'The Nail-Scarred Hand.' None of the hymns that filled the air were about Jesus' sacrifice or death. I heard no sad songs and instinctively knew that there are no sad songs in heaven. Why would there be? All were praises about Christ's reign as King of Kings and our joyful worship for all he has done for us and how wonderful he is" (31). This has to be one of the most mind-boggling contentions in the whole book. A few notes here:
  1. There are indeed songs about Jesus' death in Heaven (Rev. 5:9-14). According to the song in Rev. 5, the reason Jesus is worthy to open the scrolls is "because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation" (5:9)!
  2. Every mention of Jesus appearing as a Lamb is a reference to his death (5:6, 8, 12, 13; 6:3, 5, 7, 16; 7:9, 10, 14, 17; 12:11; 13:8; 15:3; 21:9 to name a few). Even if these are not songs, Jesus being the slain Lamb is a central theme in Revelation. Apart from the OT imagery of sacrificing lambs to atone for sins, this metaphor would not make any sense.
  3. How could there be songs about "all he has done for us" if those songs did not include his death for our sins? The greatest work of Jesus was done on the cross; "all he has done for us" is almost meaningless apart from the cross.
  4. Are songs about Jesus' death really sad? I would submit that songs about Jesus' death are some of the happiest, most joyful songs we sing. His death and resurrection is the good news!
3. Piper did not see Jesus in Heaven. In the 16 pages describing his experience, he makes no mention of seeing Jesus there. Friends and family come out to meet him, he mentions hearing songs praising God, but nothing about Jesus. This does not necessarily disprove his experience, but it does seem strange. What makes Heaven Heaven is that Jesus is there! Otherwise it's just a really nice place. I can't wait to meet family and friends who have gone before, let alone the apostles and other giants of church history. But the one I most want to see is Jesus (Rev. 22:4).

Persuasion: 10/25 I am not persuaded because of two factors: 1) the glaring theological errors, and 2) the self-centered nature of the entire book. Yes, it's autobiographical. Yes, it's about experience. But at times it goes beyond "telling my story" to "promoting my story." Take this excerpt for example: "I'm writing about what happened because my story seems to mean so much to people for many different reasons. For example, when I speak to any large crowd, at least one person will be present who has recently lost a loved one and needs assurance of that person's destination. When I finish speaking, it still amazes me to see how quickly the line forms of those who want to talk to me. They come with tears in their eyes and grief written all over their faces. I feel so grateful that I can offer them peace and assurance" (128-129). Me, me, me, me, me, me. Forget the Bible, I'm just glad my story can help people. How arrogant! Mr. Piper, you can't truly give assurance of anyone's destination; how do you know?

There are other things about this book I just don't like, little statements here and there that get me bent out of shape. He says that "I've changed the way I do funerals. Now I can speak authoritatively about heaven from firsthand knowledge" (129). To me, this says, "I trust my experience more than I trust Scripture. I could never speak authoritatively just using the Bible." Doesn't that sound crazy? Later he talks about knowing that heaven is real because he's been there (195). Pardon me, but I know heaven is real because Jesus said it was. I knew it without having to go there first! Does Piper need to go to hell to know that it, too, exists?

Conclusion: I don't recommend this book to help people cope with death or uncertainty about Heaven. I recommend Scripture for that. It's a somewhat interesting read, but I grew weary of reading about how much pain he suffered in his leg and how depressed he was. I really grew weary of him describing how much he (not God) has helped people with his story.
Something happened to Don Piper that day, but I don't think it was a trip to heaven.

22 August 2008

Book Review: 90 Minutes in Heaven (Part One)

I read Don Piper's 90 Minutes in Heaven as part of my research for a series of lessons I taught on Heaven to my Sunday School class at church. After reading it, I must say I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I don't think he's lying; I think he had some sort of experience, and as far as we know, he really was dead at the scene of the accident. On the other hand, his experience is not consistent with what the Bible says about Heaven. But we'll get to that in a little bit.

Since this is my first book review, I am devising an arbitrary grading matrix for book reviews. I will give the book up to 100 points, split up into the categories of Readability (15 points), Theological Accuracy (40 points), Accomplishment of Thesis (20 points), and Persuasion (25 points). If I don't like this setup, I'll change it for the next book review.

Here's the basic story of the book: Don Piper, a Baptist minister, was driving home from a convention in Texas on January 18, 1989. While crossing a bridge, a large supply truck from a prison lost control and hit him head-on, crushing his little Ford Escort and killing him instantly. He was declared dead by EMTs at 11:45 am and was left in the car until the coroner arrived. Meanwhile, a fellow Baptist minister and convention attendee came up on the scene and felt a strong burden to pray for the then-unknown man in the car. After persuading the EMTs to let him pray for the dead man, he climbed inside the car and laid a hand on Piper's good shoulder (the left was barely still there) and prayed for quite a while, intermittently singing hymns. At 1:15 pm, during a song, the dead man began to sing along with the minister. Piper was rushed to the hospital and the rest of the book details his time in Heaven, his recovery, and his subsequent ministry.

So here we go. Readability: 10/15. Piper and co-author Cecil Murphy are not the best writers I've read. They're not bad, either. At times, you can sense them struggling for the right words to express what Piper experienced, and sometimes it just ends up summarizing overwhelming experiences with somewhat cliche wording: "I still didn't know why, but the joyousness of the place wiped away any questions. Everything felt blissful. Perfect" (23).

Accomplishment of Thesis: 10/20. The reason for the low score is because when I bought this book, I expected it to be a book about Don Piper's 90 minutes in Heaven. Only 16 out of 205 pages actually describe his time in Heaven, a major bait-and-switch. The book should be called Back From the Dead: One Man's Painful Journey of Recovery After a Fatal Car Accident. Nearly 170 pages chronicle his physical and emotional recovery.

Stay tuned for part two.

14 August 2008

On Becoming a Father, Part One

Assuming our little guy waits until the week of his due date, we have three and a half weeks left until we become parents. This is one of life's milestones that sticks with you and cannot be undone (even if your child dies, you are still a parent to that child, or at least you would say you have been a parent. But let's not be too picky). And it cultivates the kind of love inside you that you did not think you have: complete love for a total stranger. We've never actually met face-to-face, yet I would give my life for him. This love comes bursting out in certain moments, like when I imagine his sleeping on my chest, so small, so innocent, so fragile, so beautiful, so trusting, so lovable - I often cry for joy and love at such thoughts. There are such intense emotions connected to becoming and being parents. One minute I cannot wait to meet him and hold him and hear his coos and touch his face, and the next minute I am terrified that he is completely our responsibility for the next 18 years or so. But I'm sure it will all be just fine.