John Piper Ruined My Vacation

Tim Brister —  September 26, 2007 — 25 Comments

John Piper ruined my vacation this past weekend.  Let me explain.

At the OneDay2000 meeting, John Piper preached a message entitled, “Boast Only in the Cross.”  I have watched (on DVD) and listened to that message numerous times.  During his message, Piper gives two stories.  Here is the first one:

Three weeks ago we got word at our church that Ruby Eliason and Laura Edwards had both been killed in Cameroon. Ruby was over 80. Single all her life, she poured it out for one great thing: To make Jesus Christ known among the unreached, the poor, and the sick. Laura was a widow, a medical doctor, pushing 80 years old, and serving at Ruby’s side in Cameroon. The brakes failed, the car went over the cliff, and they were both killed instantly. And I asked my people: was that a tragedy? Two lives, driven by one great vision, spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ—two decades after almost all their American counterparts have retired to throw their lives away on trifles in Florida or New Mexico. No. That is not a tragedy. That is a glory.

Immediately following this story, Piper follows up by saying this:

I tell you what a tragedy is. I’ll read to you from Reader’s Digest (Feb. 2000, p. 98) what a tragedy is: “Bob and Penny… took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30 foot trawler, play softball and collect shells.” The American Dream: come to the end of your life – your one and only life – and let the last great work before you give an account to your Creator, be “I collected shells. See my shells.” THAT is a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. And I get forty minutes to plead with you: don’t buy it.

Friday afternoon, my wife and I saw the shells. 

We decided to go to the beach, and it was recommended that we check out Sanibel Island (just a few miles south of Punta Gorda), “the seashell capital of the world.”  My wife and I walked just a short distance down the beach and saw the scores of people walking away with buckets of shells and loads of smiles. 

I wasn’t smiling.

I couldn’t smile because all I could think about was that message seven years ago that Piper preached on that open field outside Memphis, Tennessee.  My mind was taken to the judgment seat of Christ and the picture of my life epitomized by the offer of seashells!  I know this sounds funny, and I did laugh at myself about this (no, I did not take any shells home).  But in the midst of a ruined vacation, I began to praise God for the influence of such an illustration.

‘Tis better to have a ruined vacation than a ruined life.

Isn’t that something worth thanking God for?  To know that my life will hopefully one day amount to more than shells?  Indeed, I praise God and thank John Piper for encouraging me to not waste my life with trivial pursuits in the Disneyland of America.  There aren’t many life lessons that stick for a lifetime, but I know one that has lasted for seven years in mine.  And I do not know what is the span of my lifetime, but I do know that I want it to be spent for the glory of God.

So thank you, John Piper, for ruining my vacation and teaching me not to waste my life. 

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  • I love Sanibel Island, and my wife and I have collected many beautiful shells there over the years. I agree, if that’s all a person can present to God on the last day, that would be a shame, but we can certainly collect shells to the glory of God, too. It’s not a case of either/or but both/and. Sorry John ruined your vacation, but glad you are living for Christ! 🙂

  • Whoops, I also meant to say, that is a great illustration by Piper. I will remember that one, too.

  • Well, I suppose I should say that my comment was tongue-in-cheek, but it was a sobering afternoon nonetheless!

  • I saw that on video some years ago, and it has stuck with me too. My wife became a Christian after we were married, and we still disagree about how to spend our retirement. Fortunately, we’ve got many years to go, and I’m sure her mind will change. I want to be one of those retirees that uses the time for the kingdom.

    Thanks for reminding us of this.

  • My parents used to have a house in Punta Gorda – a retirement home where they spent winters (they moved inland after the last big hurricane) . Yes, they collect shells. No, that is not their focus. Yes, they enjoy their retirement and no, they do not ignore the Kingdom.

    We were created to live on this earth – and to enjoy it. We were made to worship and serve the Creator. Both / and.

  • Thanks for posting this.

  • Timmy:

    After hearing the same exact message several years ago (and then reading it again in “Don’t Waste Your Life”) I have kept my distance from the beach — and I live about 15 minutes away! There are a lot of retirement homes lining the shore and I always walk away from there with the thought of Dr. Piper shouting “SHELLS!” My heart breaks for those people who think they have it made… That message and book has done an incredible work in me as I push toward a strong finish in life (hopefully many, many years away) that will only keep me from preaching because of death or debilitating disease.

    Retirement is a dirty word in my vocabulary.

  • Ellen,

    I met several elderly folks who live in Punta Gorda and the nearby cities who are devoted to the service of Christ. For instance, my wife and I stayed with a dear couple who have a ministry of distributing thousands of sermons on audio to folks in their community and around the world. Another elderly man in Punta Gorda who lost his house I came to find out (though other people) that he ministered to his neighbors during the crisis and continues to be highly respected as a minister to their retirement community.

    I don’t think the purpose of Piper’s quote is to say that living in Punta Gorda keeps you from serving the Lord. You can buy into the world’s goods in Anytown, U.S.A. However, the point of those who retired as described in the magazine excerpt are of a couple whose last chapter of their lives is spent collecting shells.

    The retirement mentality for Americans is the idea that once you have paid your dues in the workforce, you have the right to kick back and enjoy the pleasures of what this world affords in a comfortable, easy environment. I also find it that folks in retirement like to be kept to themselves, away from regular engagement from the world. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of the most secular places in the world can be found in the most world-embracing retirement communities in America. To me, this speaks of an enormous task for the Church and a terribly deceptive reality for many in that ethos.

  • Timothy, I agree with you – but the point should not be that nobody nowhere can enjoy collecting shells. That is not the point either.

  • So Ellen, do you believe that the story depicted in the Reader’s Digest is not a tragedy?

  • I remember reading that same story in “Don’t Waste Your Life” (page 45, citing the Feb 1998 edition of Reader’s Digest to be exact)… and it’s been seared into my mind ever since too.

    I also recall in my mind images from OneDay03, where numerous people ran to the foot of the massive cross in the field… “Oh the wonderful Cross, bids me come and die — and find that I may truly live”.

  • I was in attendence when Dr. Piper brought that sobering message to finish life with the same zeal for the glory of God in the world that I have now. I have to say that, while owning the worlds goods is not inerently evil, Jesus has some strong language for those whose coffer is filled with coins. Jesus Himself did not “have a place to lay his head.” For one such as I, owning a condo on the beach would absolutely be wrong–my money is so much better spent on reaching the nations. Our nation as a whole, and certainly the American church, has lost the essential subject of “simplicity” in our lifestyles. It breaks my heart to see church parking lots filled with cars that are worth more than houses. I wholeheartedly believe it is sinful.
    Piper has an incredibly insightful chapter on simplicity in his book, Desiring God. If this post caught your hearts strings that chapter should climb near the top of your “To Be Read” list.

  • “So Ellen, do you believe that the story depicted in the Reader’s Digest is not a tragedy?”

    I’m not Ellen, but I have to say that even Rick Warren would think of the RD story as a tragedy! 🙂

  • Timmy:

    Great story. I am glad your vacation was ruined. 🙂 Kinda makes Sanibel (and Punta Gorda and Ft. Myers and Cape Coral) sound a bit like an ideal place for the rescue shop CT Studd spoke about. American playgrounds may provide nation’s biggest gates to hell.

    Press on,

  • I’ve always found it interesting that:

    1) God told man (Adam) that he would earn his keep from hard work and someday he would die

    2) Americans spend and waste probably more time than any other culture trying to avoid both of those.

  • Tom,

    I’m glad you guys realized that several decades ago!

    It’s weird thinking about storming the gates of hell when you drive up to a plush, extravagant retirement community! Studd’s story of sacrificing wealth and riches for the sake of the gospel made a HUGE impact on me and missions early on in my spiritual formation. I also think of a book by Tozer called This World: Playground or Battleground that also spoke very pointedly about this as well.

    I trust you had a safe flight back yesterday. The weather was quite stormy last night.

  • Timmy:

    I think that realization dawned slowly on us over the years–the playground is a battleground, but it is easy to forget that.

    I got home with no difficulties. I switched my usual aisle seat for a window and had a stunning view of a nearly full moon reflecting off the Gulf waters. Psalm 8:3-4 came to mind. At 30,000 feet, no seashells were visible!

  • Mary Vanderkooi

    There is nothing so rewarding as investing one’s time in the next generation in a place where it really counts, where if you don’t do it, it won’t be done. In the States people crawl all over each other to minister to trivial needs and wants of people whose problems are largely their own fault. In my area, southern Ethiopia, it’s a matter of deciding which life one will save because it can’t be all of them. Sure, collecting shells isn’t wrong. Collecting grateful patients and adoring, enthusiastic students to welcome one into the kingdom on the other side is so much more fun.

  • Jim Pemberton

    I just realized in reading this that I haven’t taken my family on a vacation in three years. I’m not joking – I honestly haven’t thought about it. We’ve been spending any vacation time in the mission field. No one has complained or mentioned vacation except to suggest a camping trip one weekend here before it gets too cool. It doesn’t seem to be a priority with any of the kids.

    I need to ask my wife if she’s thought about it.

  • Letitia Wong

    Wow, that just floored me. Not that I didn’t know that was true already, but to put it into perspective like that is powerful.

    I’m reminded of the pastor that was electrocuted in the baptistry at his church one Sunday because of touching a live microphone. He had a wife and three kids. It seems a tragedy, until you think that this man died doing exactly what he was supposed to do…baptizing people. Amazing!


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  • Allyson

    fabulous.. i’ve read about this. and for that, i can’t look at a seashell without thinking about what piper defined as a tragedy. and wanting to pursue a life worth living for Christ and His glory.

  • That’s right Allyson! May we all live as Piper calls a “God-entranced” vision for all things! Thanks for commenting.

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