A few weeks ago we got a fundraising letter from Desiring God, who we support from time to time. It had a sweet story about a couple who used to organize John Piper’s sermon tapes.
This week Olive Nelson passed away at age 94. Olive and her husband, Arnie, were members of Bethlehem for decades until 1994. From 1978 to 1994 (16 years), Arnie and Olive faithfully operated Bethlehem’s tape ministry as volunteers. They diligently ran a tape library for BBCers and they managed a tape subscription service that began to grow significantly during Pastor John’s first 14 years.
Arnie would come in every week and duplicate tapes. I can still see him. He was tall and slim and dignified and had a head of thick, silver hair. He was soft-spoken, and I loved to listen to him. Olive was bright, assertive, and organized. She managed the tape ministry administration by hand-typing all the tape labels (for probably 150-200 tapes per week), and hand-typing all the mailing labels, and she and Arnie would package and mail the tapes. Olive’s database was a black notebook where she meticulously hand-recorded every transaction for every person.
It was the Nelsons’ decision to retire in 1994 that prompted John to pop into my office and say, “We need to do something with the tape ministry. I’d like you to make it happen.” The birth of Desiring God as we know it has its genesis in that statement.
In the summer of 2003 I read Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, which described the kind of pastoral ministry I’d envisioned but couldn’t quite put words to. I decided I’d read whatever Piper stuff I could. My next selection was The Pleasures of God. A footnote on page 142 made me stop in my tracks. This is a story for another time, but the short version is that reading this book changed my life. It was like I had discovered a whole new wing in the library of my knowledge of God, and I didn’t want to stop exploring.
So here I was immersing myself in a new world of learning about God, learning about the Bible, but the only tool I knew about was the work of John Piper. Turns out he had a website, Desiring God, where you could read any of his sermons from 1980 on, as well as countless articles, conference messages and the like. You could even download some things and burn them to a CD, if you knew what you were doing. By the end of the year I had a 3-ring binder stuffed with printouts and goodness knows how many CD’s labeled with Sharpie markers. But I also knew a lot more about the Bible, and had an increasing hunger to know God, a growing passion for his glory. That year of scouring Desiring God for anything I hadn’t read yet changed the shape of my walk with God, my vision for ministry, and my future.
“God causes all things to work together for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). It’s dizzying to think of the things he works out. He saved Arnie and Olive at some point, whether by placing them in a Christian family or some other way. He brought them to Bethlehem, probably sometime before he brought Piper there. He moved them to do a small thing– organize and distribute copies of their pastor’s sermons– and worked out everything so that when I began to read and listen to those materials I was primed to learn from them. A million little pieces had to work out just right so that all this came together, and my current and future life and ministry have been shaped by it. What an amazing God– who works all things according to the counsel of his will, and uses small things like sermon tapes to change lives and spread his kingdom.