Shaking Hands With Giants

At risk of exposing how much of a geek I really am, I thought I’d expound a bit on my random, SUPER EPIC encounter with that colossus of pretty unimposing physical stature, John Piper.

The first half of Friday night’s lecture ended on an expectant note. Despite my painful thirst, I would gladly have given up a break in order to dive right back into the second round! I rose to shake out some cramps (the pews are surprisingly close to one another in Bethlehem, leaving very little room to get comfortable for dudes like me). I figured I would scope out a drinking fountain to quench the burning in my throat, but I quickly forgot the molecular make-up of water when I saw Piper hanging out up front, talking to people. After about two seconds’ consideration, I purposed to have a chat with John Piper. (Cue Orff’s “O Fortuna” as I make my way down the aisle toward the man.)

The prospect of speaking with the man prompted a hard fought battle to suppress the nerdy fanboy tendencies that never truly die, even in the regenerate. I felt like I was in high school again, fanning the flame of manufactured courage to risk talking to a girl. Except in this scenario, the girl was John Piper! Disgusted with my sweaty palms, I attempted to demoisturize them with the strip of denim above my knees, repeating in my head, “He’s just a dude- he’s just a dude!” Alas, it was no to avail. Like a fourteen year old teenybopper asking Justin Bieber to sign her face I made my approach, desperately trying to play it cool.

Luckily, the gentlemen ahead of me were infinitely more dorky than I was. Looking like a couple of flannel warriors ripped out of the pages of a mid-1991 grunge fanzine, these fellows were positively gushing over Piper, alternately shouting and whispering with gestures twice as big as Piper’s infamous solar system-sized hand jives.

The Kurt Cobain-lookalike who I took to be the leader handed me his high-tech, tres chic camera and chokingly asked if I would oblige him. I snapped a picture of them posing in one of those clearly fabricated shots that are meant to communicate that you’ve always been ultimate bros with the centerpiece of the photo. I was there, and they can’t fool me. I sketched a blueprint in my mind of how to be soooooooo the opposite of that and settled on the punk rock antidote to undue adoration: pretending there’s no difference whatsoever between you and the colossus you look up to. Slightly disingenuous? Absolutely- but it was my best bet for not blowing what might be my only chance to talk to Piper this side of the new heavens and new earth.

He finished hugging the plaid-clad Beatlemaniacs ahead of me. When they finished wiping their tears away that meant only one thing to me- my moment had arrived! I steeled my nerves and prepared my intellectual taste buds to drink deep draughts from the wisdom of Dr. Piper. I shook his hand and introduced myself, silently taking notice of how frail his hand felt in mine. He mentioned earlier in the lecture how even the titans of evangelicalism possess feet of clay-perhaps he meant hands as well?

“I have a biblical theological question that I know you won’t be able to answer tomorrow with a gajillion and a half Twitter questions flying in every second,” I intoned very carefully, “but when you inevitably write a book about worship perhaps you could try to respond to this objection a lot of Reformed guys will bring up?”

Piper immediately assumed the “I’m the most intense man alive and will meditate on the precise phrasing of your question for the next 72 hours until in a ‘Eureka!’ moment the question unfolds and answers itself in this brilliant way no one else has the insight to see” stance by leaning back, stretching his left arm across his chest and grasping his chin with his right hand, index finger reaching heavenward over his lips, Profound Thinking Mode engaged in that theological supercomputer he calls a brain. I summoned every available nerve to sputter out my question.

“We all are aware that Jesus Christ fulfills the Old Testament’s types and transforms them by packing them with brand new meaning. However, longitudinally, doesn’t that also mean that something exists from the writing of the New Testament on that is similar to the Temple worship, though centered on the person and work of Christ? And wouldn’t those things be normative for the Church’s worship, then?”

Intense nods and deep, bassy refrains of “Mmm-hmmm, mmm-hmmm…” from Piper punctuated my short paragraph of inquiry. A pregnant pause silently filled the space between us like carbon monoxide. Except non-lethally. From the depths of that labyrinthine depository inside his skull came the long awaited, sage-like response.

“Well, of course those things pertain to us, because Jesus is those things for us,” he offered at long last. “But as for something left over that the Church must incorporate in her worship… That I’m not so sure about. I know those Regulative Principle guys would have a lot to say about that, but we live in the reality of what those things in the Old Testament pointed to. So why use something that is only kind of like Jesus?”

Moments like that are living proof that I don’t know much of anything. Even though in a doctrinal statement I would affirm the substance of almost everything he said right there, somehow that combination of words he uttered unlocked the whole shebang for me. All I could do was laugh in astonishment and joy at seeing truth unpacked so simply! Why bother carrying around these postcards when we have the Person right here in our midst? “I see, I see,” I said a couple of times, glimpsing the truth behind phrases like “Christ-centered” in a spectacularly bright new light. There was no better phrase in that moment: “Right on!”

Many times when I become deliriously happy I go through an initial innocent burst of pure joy which quickly careens into something altogether more sarcastic but no less delighted. This burst of unadulterated soul satisfaction was no different; enter the sarcastic stage. “Hey, maybe you could give Joel Beeke a call,” I chuckled to Piper. “You could duke it out onstage debate-style!

Piper seemed to think that was the funniest thing he had heard since the one with the punchline “chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.”* He roared riotously heavenward, his head thrown back in the throes of the Guffaw to End All Guffaws. “Yeah!” he shouted, chortling. “We’ll call up ol’ Joel- he’s always itchin’ for a fight about something!”

Yeah. Where were you then, guy behind me who could capture the perfect snapshot?! ‘Cause me and Piper? We’re bros.

*A group of chess nerds checked into a hotel and were standing in the lobby outlining their recent tournament victories. After about an hour of this, the concierge came out of his office and ordered them out..
“Why?” they asked, shocked at the concierge’s outburst.
“Because,” he said, “I can’t stand chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.”

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