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August 12, 2009

This morning I finish up my interview with Burk Parsons. Today he explains how he came to minister alongside R.C. Sproul and shares some of his dreams for the future. If you are just catching up, here are links to part one, part two and part three of the interview.


How did you come to meet R.C. Sproul and to minister alongside him?
I first began listening to RC in 1994. Developing Christian Character was the first series I ever watched. In 1996 I attended my first Ligonier Ministries’ National Conference and met Dr. Sproul. For more than two years I hated Reformed theology and despised anyone who breathed words of Calvinism. I thought it was deadly, heretical, and against the very nature of God Himself. I was a serious Bible-college student, and, as such, had to study the Bible. My studies brought me to a serious crisis of faith late one night in a large field next to the parking lot of Sarasota Baptist Church when I realized that I can either believe the Bible as the authoritative and inerrant Word of God and thus accept the veracity of the doctrines of grace taught therein or reject the Bible as the Word of God. Of course, I had no other choice but to submit to the teaching of Scripture. But it wasn’t easy. It was a real crisis as I literally yelled out to God for direction and an answer. He answered me promptly with a needed admonition from His Word—my mind was immediately drawn to Paul’s stern words: “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (Rom. 9:20 NIV). In the end, having fought against Calvinism with all the free will I could muster, when it came right down to it, it was the clear teaching of the Word of God that convinced me—through and through. In the end, I had spent all my resistance on something, and on Someone, I could not resist. For another two years then, I began to tackle the much bigger, and much more difficult questions of covenant theology, revelation and redemptive history, Israel and the church, infant baptism, church polity, and so on. I’ll spare you the details, Tim, for the sake of your current ecclesiastical and doctrinal associations (I’m smiling).


In 1999 when I started seminary, I needed a job, and the best thing I could find was working with Ligonier Ministries in their development department making calls every night. It was tough, but I had a job. After five months I began to work on frontline (where all the toll-free calls come in to Ligonier) sharing a desk with my dear brother (and one of the finest biblical and theological scholars around) Keith Mathison, we answered theological questions, counseled, and helped students find helpful resources from Dr. Sproul and others. A year later I was invited to help serve in the editorial department along with Keith, and so the story goes.

All the while, however, I was training to serve the Lord as a pastor, and all of my overseers at Ligonier were made aware of that. I was completing my internship as a candidate under care of the Central Florida Presbytery of the PCA, under the leadership of Bob Ingram. Before I completed my internship, several men from Saint Andrew’s approached me about coming on staff, but I needed to complete my two-year internship, and so I did. But when I finished it, in 2002 I made the decision to accept the second offer from RC and the elders of Saint Andrew’s to join the staff. When I met with the elders at their monthly meeting I explained that I was committed to them, to the congregation of Saint Andrew’s, and to RC for the long haul. In 2004 I finished seminary, and on July 18, 2004, I was ordained as a teaching elder (incidentally, I later found out RC was ordained on July 18, 1965).

In 2002, when I started, Saint Andrew’s was a five-year-old congregation, with about 300 or so in attendance, meeting together in a one-year-old beautiful sanctuary. Today, by God’s sustaining grace, the congregation has continued to grow spiritually as well as numerically through the conversion and transfer of both young and old who have left other traditions, i.e. Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist (well, truth be told many are still Baptists, and we love them), and have joined us in worship, discipleship, and outreach. Two Sundays ago nearly 1400 worshiped together in our new building—(some call it a cathedral). It is an astonishing, eighteen-million-dollar project that RC and I have prayed will not be the focus of our attention but a place in which God’s people will gather until Christ’s return to focus our attention on Him—a place from which we will continue to go out into the community and all the world to draw men’s focus to Christ.

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned from ministering alongside Dr. Sproul?
That is a terribly difficult question to answer, Tim. As you can imagine, I learn things from RC every week. But it is absolutely crucial that I also say this: I have probably learned as much from his wife, Vesta, as I have from anyone in my life. Truth be told, she’s the backbone of the entire ministry, and she is like a mother to me. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express adequately what she means to me this side of the new heavens and new earth. She’ll hate that I said even that much about her.

Now, to attempt to answer your question: Among many things, I have learned the following three things from ministering alongside RC: Know the Lord. Know His Word. Preach His Word.

You are still young! What ministry have you been involved with and what do you think (or hope or dream) that God has got for you in the years ahead?
Good question. I am thankful to have a wife who is willing to go anywhere and serve God anywhere He might call us. I am thankful for children who have endured Uganda and are ready to do it again. I am thankful to have an overseer at Ligonier Ministries, Chris Larson, who is the most gifted and godly man whom the Lord has ever raised up to serve Him at Ligonier who wants to be faithful in supporting me in any ministry opportunities the Lord might provide me. I am thankful to have a group of godly elders at Saint Andrew’s who are dear friends and co-laborers in the Lord. There is a love and unanimity among us as elders that is hard to find. You could ask any of them, and they would say the same thing. I am thankful that I serve alongside a man who thinks more highly of me than I think of myself, really. I have a lower opinion of myself and my abilities than just about anyone around me, and I say that not because I am afflicted with false modesty, but because I am simply amazed how the Lord continues to sustain me and entrust me with more every day. We are not adequate in ourselves as to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.

With that said, it has been RC’s express desire for some years now that I take his place at Saint Andrew’s after he has gone to be with the Lord. In fact, a few years ago I spoke with him about my anxiety of having to preach in his pulpit, and he quickly admonished me never to call it “his pulpit” but “our pulpit,” in which the Word of God is preached. If people only knew, RC has a more humble and sober opinion of himself than anyone I have ever met. Most weeks, he’s overcome at how God continues to bless the ministries of Saint Andrew’s and Ligonier. I feel the same way, we are two guys, one young (33) and one old (70) who are beside ourselves that God has chosen us to serve Him in His kingdom as shepherds of His flock. R.C. serves as an under-shepherd to Christ, and I serve as an under-shepherd to R.C.

I should also mention that in the autumn of 1999 I was on my knees praying that God would put RC Sproul in my life as my mentor, and that He would allow me to directly serve him in my life. It was an express prayer that I penned in my journal. To this day, my call is to serve him as I serve the Lord. He is my teacher, and a student is never above his teacher. My sincere prayer is that the Lord would sustain me in pastoral ministry all my life, and that I would remain faithful to God as I remain faithful to the legacy of faith of Dr. Sproul.

I am thankful to serve as editor of Tabletalk—it is a labor of love (well, I also get paid for it, thankfully)—it is something I hope to be doing the rest of my life. As the magazine continues to flourish (it’s amazing considering how many periodicals are unfortunately falling by the wayside), having well over 200,000 readers in more than sixty countries. It remains the world’s largest subscriber-based theological devotional, and it continues to gain the attentions of young and old, from 18-80, around the world—may God be praised. It is our hope to hold the line biblically, doctrinally, and ecclesiastically so that hundreds of years from now, if our Lord should sovereignly tarry (and I hope He doesn’t), that historians will look back and recognize that amid all the doctrinal turmoil of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries there was one magazine called Tabletalk that was faithful and held the line proclaiming the Word in season and out of season. Of course, the designers and other editors have a central part to play in all this, by God’s sustaining grace.

In the last few years I have had wonderful opportunities to serve the Lord in various ways, through conferences with men, such as Sinclair Ferguson and Thabiti Anyabwile (men way out of my league), and through the upcoming 2010 Ligonier National conference at which John Piper will be speaking (I’m terribly anxious; I hope someone will slip Piper some sleeping pills before I speak so that he’ll be sleeping somewhere while I’m speaking). God has given me wonderful opportunities to do some writing, writing not just to publish but to produce some things that I hope will truly help the church and meet real needs where there is nothing else available for the layperson. That’s really my desire, to help produce materials that anyone can pick up, read, and understand.

Although I was accepted to do Ph.D. work at Edinburgh in 2004, I realized that I already had a good job and didn’t think it would be wise to leave the opportunity God had provided me to serve Dr. Sproul. So a few years ago, I began a to work on a D.Min. through Reformed Theological Seminary under Steve Childers. I am just about finished with my course work. It has been a wonderful program and more rigorous and time consuming than I first thought. I encourage every pastor to pursue further studies. It forces us to interact with many authors that we likely would not otherwise (incidentally, Ligonier Ministries has just started a D.Min. program with an incredible line up of professors.)

Of course, none of us knows what the Lord has in store for us in the future, but I can tell you the desires of my heart. It’s funny, Tim, as I think about this, I already feel as if I have lived a full life, yet I have as much energy and passion for future kingdom service as I have ever had.

I hope to continue to live a simple life. My family and I live in the country, with many neighbors who still need Christ. My family and I spend a lot of time together, and I love every minute of it. I do a lot of work on our property; I still drive a truck, and I listen to old country music, bluegrass, and everything JS Bach ever wrote. I love to hunt quail and big game. I love to backpack with my band of brothers. I love to gather together with the men who are close to me, which I do on a weekly basis (they keep me honest, humble, and real, something all pastors, and all men ad women, need).

I hope that as a part of this simple life with my family the Lord will sustain me in serving Him a pastor of His flock here in north-central Florida at Saint Andrew’s as a hub for the mission field all around us (the world has come to Central Florida). I’m delighted to able to do some writing from time to time, speak at conferences from time to time, and continue to help train other ministers in the church and in the seminaries—but I am called first and foremost to serve the flock of God as a pastor to equip God’s people for ministry. That is my calling and my sincere delight.

Tim, lastly you asked about any hopes or dreams I might have. Well, here are just a few: While I have spent a great deal of time overseas teaching and preaching, perhaps when I’m in my forties, I’ll have the opportunity, by God’s grace, to spend about a quarter of my time overseas with unreached peoples and help convince many other Christians and pastors to do the same using their personal resources. Perhaps in my fifties, I will be able, by God’s grace, to establish a new kind of seminary that actually mentors, disciples, and equips pastors rather than simply gives them things to think about, memorize, and regurgitate. Perhaps in my sixties, I will be able, by God’s grace, to keep preaching in the church and help convince us that conference and para-church ministry is not ideal (something that Dr. Sproul firmly believes, incidentally), but that it is through the simple, ordinary-means-of-grace ministries of local congregations around the world that is where kingdom work is foremost accomplished. Perhaps in my seventies, by God’s grace, I will have good male friends with whom I can still talk about God and His Word and with whom I can still hunt, backpack, and change the world. And perhaps after I’m dead, something I look forward to almost daily, my children and children’s children will know the Lord by God’s grace, and that all those whom I have served will continue to point others to the Cross.


Once more I’d like to express my appreciation to Burk for participating in this interview. As you can tell, I’m sure, this was no small commitment for him.

August 11, 2009

This morning I continue my interview with Burk Parsons. You can find part one of the interview here and part two here.


August 10, 2009

Yesterday I began an interview with Burk Parsons. You can read the first part here. The interview continues today…

August 09, 2009

It was several years ago now that I first met Burk Parsons. If you know Burk (or know his name, at least), it is probably through a connection with Ligonier Ministries or Saint Andrew’s Chapel (where R.C. Sproul is Minister of Teaching and Preaching). At Ligonier Ministries he serves as Editor of Tabletalk Magazine while at Saint Andrew’s he is Minister of Congregational Life. When I first met him it did not take long for someone to tell me a little bit of Burk Parsons trivia that quite surprised me. A mutual friend asked, “Did you know that Burk used to be a member of the Backstreet Boys?” I assumed he was joking but snooped around just a little bit and found out that it appeared to be true; before he was a seminarian and before he was a pastor, Burk was a member of a boy band—and one of the world’s most famous boy bands of all time, at that.

This was something I had to know more about. Recently I asked Burk if he would be interested in talking about those days. The facts of what happened and how he walked away from untold worldly wealth and fame has never really been told, at least not beyond his circle of friends and associates. Yet it is a tale worth telling, I am convinced. As we did this interview, as I heard Burk tell about his call to ministry, about his desire to serve the Lord even at great cost to himself, about the wisdom, even as a young man, to realize that he could not serve two masters, I was greatly encouraged. And I hope and pray and trust that the same will be true for you. Burk’s story is interesting on a human level (how does someone get to be in a boy band and what on earth would compel someone to walk away from such fame?) but there is much interest even beyond that. His story has something to teach us all since his story is just a piece of God’s greater story in which Burk’s chapter, right here and now, gets to intersect with our own.

This tale cannot be told properly without going into some level of detail, and for that reason the interview will be posted here in a few installments. Today Burk will tell about his life and family, how he became a Christian and how he knew that God had called him to the ministry. In the days that follow he’ll talk about his days with Backstreet Boys, tell whether or not it is true that he was also made an offer by which he would be the guy at the front and center of ‘N Sync, and learn about how he came to minister alongside R.C. Sproul. I hope you will check in day-by-day.

Let’s get started.


Burk and Amber

Tell me about yourself, Burk—your family, your job, your ministry.
Amber and I have been married nearly ten years. Amber is a sweet southern Florida lady and the oldest of seven children. She grew up in a Southern Baptist home with a father and mother who pray together as a family every morning before her father (a law-enforcement officer) goes to work. By His grace, the Lord has provided me an overseer and mentor (R.C. Sproul) who is insistent that I have plenty of time to spend with my wife and our children, Claire (5 years old) and Elizabeth “Lizzy” (2 ½ years old). We hope to have more children, possibly through adoption. As you know, I serve as the associate pastor at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, Florida, where Dr. Sproul serves as senior minister. I have served the congregation for eight years, and I have had the honor of serving churches, on staff or as intern, for about fifteen years now. I also have the great privilege of serving as editor of Tabletalk, the monthly Bible-study devotional magazine of Ligonier Ministries, where I have served for more than ten years now. Many people ask how I do both—serving as pastor and editor. It’s really quite simple, I serve the people of Saint Andrew’s all week, and I have set aside Fridays for my Tabletalk and Ligonier related meetings. On Friday mornings I go to the Ligonier offices to pray with the great group of men I have the honor of serving with at Tabletalk, and then I usually lead our weekly devotional time at Ligonier Ministries. Next, I meet with my overseer and dear friend Chris Larson (Exec. VP), and then go into planning meetings with the Tabletalk editors or designers. Often, I do my writing and editing in the early mornings and evenings. Of course, every day of the week I discuss pressing matters with the other editors, and every Wednesday I gather with RC and Vesta Sproul to discuss the ministry of the church and, secondarily, matters involving Tabletalk and Ligonier.

When and how did you become a Christian?
I first heard the Gospel when I was thirteen. My Father (at 65 years of age) had just recently trusted Christ after having lived apart from Christ and the fellowship of the saints most of his life (incidentally, he was the son of a small-town Presbyterian pastor in Missouri in the 1920s and 30s). For my thirteenth birthday, my father told me he wasn’t going to get me a gift but that he was going to take me to hear someone speak at Farhills Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio. The man we went to hear is Arthur Blessit, the fellow who carried the cross around the world in the 1980s. All I remember is my father’s tears after the service. In fact, every time we went to church he cried after the sermon. It always seemed to me his tears were those of a life wasted unto self. He was a very successful man in the world of politics and fundraising.

After hearing the Gospel for the first time, I began to hear it all the time, and every time I heard it I responded doing whatever the preacher told me to do—raise my hand, walk an aisle, stand up. Over and over again, I responded to the call to repent and believe—it was the only thing that made any sense to me.

Tell me about your call to the ministry. When and how did you know that God had set you apart for the ministry?
After coming to Christ, the Lord immediately put me under the care of several gracious men who mentored me—these men came from Southern Baptist, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Charismatic, and fundamentalist backgrounds. Our Lord used them mightily in my life. They were godly pastors and teachers who pointed me to the Word and to our Lord (as I write this, Tim, it’s early morning; I’m in my study at home, and I cannot hold back my tears as the Lord reminds me of these men—it is sobering). They shepherded me with humility and wisdom.

Since the time of my parents’ divorce when I was eleven, considering all that kids have to struggle through when their homes are divided, I was forced to question everything I thought I knew—I was forced to consider the end for which God created the world and the end for which He placed me in it. These are questions every kid thinks about I suppose, but I sincerely asked them and desperately needed answers. And when the simple, clear Gospel of Jesus Christ consumed me at my conversion, my questions were answered. From that point on, the only thing that really made any sense to me was Gospel ministry. It was the only thing I could see myself doing, and it was clear in my mind what the Lord was calling me to do. At fifteen, I was a pretty serious kid, for better or worse, and I always found myself struggling with the deep issues of life and death, which is generally the case with most kids who have to endure the divorce of their parents. God used my parents’ divorce to drive me to depend on Him alone.


Go to Part 2 where I ask, “People may have heard rumors in the past that you were an original member of the Backstreet Boys. Is this true?”

July 10, 2009

On September 28, 2008, I was shocked to read these words on the blog of Terry Stauffer, a man I had met at a couple of conferences and who has long been a reader and commenter at my blog: “Last night at about 4:45 our precious 14 year-old daughter Emily was attacked and killed as she was out for a walk. We don’t know a lot of details, but we know that two young men came upon the scene right away, but it was too late for Emily. I will write more as more details come available. Please pray for us, for our church family who are meeting without us right now, and for family that is travelling. We are realizing from the inside the value of good, Gospel theology right now. ”

Terry is pastor of Edson Baptist Church in the small town of Edson, Alberta. Emily’s murder shocked this small town of less than 10,000 people—the kind of town where this crime is unheard of. I continued to follow Terry’s blog as he dealt with the aftermath—Emily’s funeral, national media attention, the arrest of a suspect and life following the loss of a child. Through it all, Terry’s faith strengthened me from afar. I recently asked Terry if he would be kind enough to participate in an interview and I am grateful that he was willing and able to do so. I offer this interview in the hope that it encourages you in the Lord who promises (and delivers) strength as strength is needed.


In a short note you posted on your blog the day after Emily’s death you wrote this: “We are realizing from the inside the value of good, Gospel theology right now.” Tell me about the value of that good, gospel theology as you began to grapple with the reality of what had happened.

In recent years, my wife and I have been learning that the gospel puts everything else into perspective. Reading good theology books, listening to gospel-centered messages and reading our Bibles with Christ at the center has become a real passion for us. God was preparing us in many ways for Emily’s death. In the past couple of years, we have been growing in our understanding of sin and grace. Submitting to what God says about our sin is essential to understanding the good news.

Perhaps the greatest power of a gospel perspective the understanding that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person - not even the death of a child. The worst thing for anyone is to face the wrath of a holy God in his or her sinful condition. We are by nature children of wrath. Christ absorbed that wrath for us on the cross to bring us reconciliation with God. Of course, the hope of Emily’s resurrection (and ours) because of Christ’s bodily resurrection cannot be overstated - this is our sure hope and it keeps us going.

On a more personal level, on the first morning after Emily’s death, I was overwhelmed with thoughts about what her last minutes must have been like. In the middle of that desperation, I remembered, “Christ was forsaken so that Emily didn’t have to be.” In fact, I wrote that “good gospel theology” line only a few minutes after this realization. Emily’s Saviour brought her to Himself, and Emily is safe and secure, full of joy inexpressible and full of glory. That is a great comfort for us.

As you began to plan for Emily’s funeral you wrote, “The funeral for Emily will not be a celebration of her life, though she will be appropriately honoured. We desire this service to be Gospel-saturated and glorifying to Christ our Redeemer. I can honestly say that’s the way Emily would have wanted it.” How did you use the occasion of her funeral to bring glory to Christ?

We had a sense that Emily’s funeral would be well attended by the community and it was. Her murder rocked our small town - things like this just don’t happen in Edson. We knew that there would be many non-Christians there and we wanted them to hear about Christ and the life that He alone gives.

For ourselves, we just had to major on the gospel. We began the service with the song, In Christ Alone. That gave Juanita and me the strength to make it through the service. The beauty of the gospel is that it fits every need and every occasion. We were in a sense selfish in that we did what we needed to do for our own souls, that is, worship God and cling to the Gospel. But that’s just what everyone else needs, too, even if they aren’t aware of it. If someone doesn’t believe, they need to hear the gospel. If a person is a Christian, they will long for the refuge and hope of the gospel.

We did speak about Emily, we did honour her by sharing memories and a projected slide-show of her life. In her testimony, Juanita said, “I could talk a lot about Emily.” However, we needed to confess God’s glory more than anything that day.

The funeral was widely covered by the media. What kind of reaction was there to this gospel-saturated funeral?
We braced for the media’s spin, or sensationalism, but we were pleased with how respectfully they treated us and relayed the gospel message. I would have liked to have seen more, but compared to our expectations, we were relieved.

We’re still waiting to see what God is going to do in the lives of some people that we were able to talk to. We have heard stories from all over the place about how people have turned to or turned back to the Lord, and for that we are very thankful. We’re still praying for several people that need to come to Christ and hope to hear more stories of grace as time passes.

We could relay several testimonies that we’ve heard about. We’ve been brought to tears several times when we’ve heard stories of how God has used Emily’s death to point people to Christ. 

During Emily’s funeral you said, “When Emily’s death was confirmed on Saturday night, I was shocked and bewildered. All I could pray was, ‘O Lord, Help! Help! Help!’ As I was on my knees, a thought came to me: ‘If all my talk about the Gospel and God’s goodness is not true now, then it was never true.’” Tell me about that, if you would. How did these words sustain you through such pain?
In moments of despair - that first night was just one of them - it was almost as if God put His hand on my shoulder and said, “Courage, now. Go back to the truth - trust me.” I easily spiral down into my own thoughts and feelings, but God is gracious to remind me of His presence and His Word. These times of despair (sometimes they felt like panic attacks) were very humbling, but God kept bringing His Word to mind (sometimes through a song or a hymn), or He drew me to read the Psalms.

In those early days, some people would say, “You’re so strong!” I would suppress a chuckle because I knew the truth. I have never felt so weak and helpless in my life. We said - and say -that God is carrying us. That is so true, and it is deeply humbling. Though I have believed and treasured the gospel for many years, God’s truth has never seemed so utterly true! 

Tell me about the role of the church, and especially the local church, in the days following Emily’s death.
We thought we knew what a great church we have, but we really had no idea. Emily’s murder was a terrible shock for everyone, and people were so helpful and so gracious. We needed the church so much, and they came through.

The first Sunday we were back at church was two days after Emily’s funeral. People were surprised that we were back so soon, but we needed to be there. I was amazed at the tender strength of everyone involved. The songs, scripture readings and sermon faced death head on. There was no equivocating - they saw the enemy and confronted it with the power of the cross. Though we shed a lot of tears that morning, we were significantly encouraged.

People from all the churches in town served us so well, as did many from the community. We were overwhelmed by these expressions of love. Though it was hard to be on the receiving end of so much kindness, we came to realize that these people wanted to do something because they were grieving too - even people that didn’t know Emily personally.

Practical ways we have been served:

  • Meals for over a month
  • The loan of a house so we could get away to Edmonton for a couple of days in the week following the funeral
  • Housecleaning
  • Gifts for the children - money, stuffed animals, journals and books and a family swimming pass were only a few of the ways they were encouraged
  • Friends who completed a scrapbook of Emily’s life for the funeral (it was mostly done but needed about 20 layouts to complete it)
  • Friends who put together a PowerPoint presentation for the funeral
  • A friend who coordinated the mounting and presentation of some of Emily’s photography for the funeral
  • The freedom for Terry not to preach for over a month
  • Cards from all over the world - from people we know personally to complete strangers
  • Encouragements and small gifts from online friends that have been sent over the months since Emily’s death
  • Two quilts made especially for our family
  • Friends who ask “how are you really doing?”
  • Gifts of encouraging books and journals
  • Prayers of God’s people - still continuing on

Scripture tells us that one of God’s purposes in suffering is to bring both the person suffering and other believers to greater maturity. Have you seen evidence of a growth in maturity in your life, your wife’s life, and the lives of other Christians?

First the short answer, yes, yes and yes.

For me, the biggest thing is that God seems much bigger and I seem much smaller. I think I take life more seriously, and I am more conscious of my sin. If I’m honest, I think I have withdrawn a bit as well; I’m not following up with people like I know I should. Knowing my weakness is a good thing. Submitting to my weakness is sinful, considering what I’ve been given in Christ.

I am amazed at the maturity of my wife, Juanita - and very thankful. She has pressed into God even more since Emily’s death, though her devotional reading was deeper and more consistent than mine before that. I see a growing sense of sensitivity to others as a fruit of this suffering in her life, among other things.

We see fruit of gospel perspective in the lives of several people. Thanks to this question, I’m reminded that I need to follow-up on this and express thankfulness for these evidences of grace to some of these people.

Has Emily’s death given you a different perspective on heaven and eternity? Has it made heaven seem that much nearer? That much more precious?

Absolutely. This has been one of the greatest lessons and benefits of Emily’s death.

One related story: During the last three weeks of August 2008, I preached a mini-series on Revelation 21-22. This led to a great conversation with Emily in early September as we drove to Edmonton (two hours away). That conversation on Heaven and future things is such a precious memory now.

A Spurgeon quote:

“Dear friend, have you found that trouble cuts the cords that tie you to earth? When the Lord takes a child, there is one less cord to fasten you to this world and another band to draw you toward heaven. When money vanishes and business goes wrong, we frequent the prayer meeting, the prayer closet and the Bible. Trials drive us from earth. If all went well, we would begin to say, “Soul, relax”. But when things go amiss, we want to be gone. When the tree shakes, the bird flies away. Happy is the trouble that loosens our grip of earth.” - From Beside Still Waters

Did you ever wrestle with questions of “why?” Do you still?

On a horizontal level, I find myself thinking, “What a waste.” Emily was so talented, growing spiritually, so alive that her death does elicit the question, “Why?” Her murder was so random - broad daylight on a busy path in a small town. It is still hard to process sometimes.

However, God brings me back to the truth of His goodness and sovereignty. We know that Emily’s death was not outside His will and plan for good.

There is a song, So I Will Trust You, from Sovereign Grace Ministries, Come Weary Saints that helps me get back to a healthy perspective at these, “Why?” times. God made me, He saved me, I know He loves me - so I will trust Him. I sang along with that song through gritted teeth a few times early on, but I’m thankful that as I confessed those words, my heart was encouraged.

How is the police investigation proceeding? Have they arrested a suspect and determined a motive?

The police arrested a suspect a few weeks after Emily’s murder, but as for motive, I have no idea. The case is before the courts now. It will be a long process.

Would you like to speak to the man who killed your daughter? If so, what would you wish to tell him?
Perhaps some day. We’re processing what forgiveness looks like in this case. From the day we were told of the arrest, we’ve been talking about honoring God in this whole process. I just preached a message on David and Bathsheba on Sunday and concluded by saying that God can forgive anyone from any sin, even if this forgiveness offends our sense of justice.

Repentance and forgiveness can be a complicated issue. We were given a copy of Chris Braun’s Unpacking Forgiveness and have found that helpful.

In this case, we don’t want to interfere with what is happening in the courts. We’ll take things one step at a time and keep praying for wisdom and courage to do what is right. We have certainly surrendered any sense of vengeance to God, and we are thankful for God’s grace in that.

One concluding thought:

We’re learning that God gives strength as we need it. When people say, “I could never be as strong as you,” I always think - and sometimes say - “I couldn’t either.” There’s no way either Juanita or I could have been prepared for the loss of Emily, or for the attention that we have received since her murder. God gives grace and strength step-by-step as it’s needed.

Emily and Terry Stauffer

May 06, 2009

In 1997, Douglas Groothuis (Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary) published The Soul in Cyberspace. It was, as far as I know, the first Christian book that critiqued and contemplated the darker side of computer-mediated communication. Twelve years is a long time when it comes to technology (and digital technology in particular) but I recently read this book nevertheless, and was surprised by just how relevant it is, even today. Though cyberspace has changed and evolved a great deal, almost all of Groothuis’ concerns remain and almost all have grown even more pointed as the years have gone by.

I recently conducted a short interview with him, asking him to reflect on this book, twelve years on.


One of your concerns in The Soul in Cyberspace was cyberspace taking the place of real, face-to-face human contact. You wrote, for example, of those who sought in cyberspace “the emancipation from the drag of the body?” How have your thoughts on this matter developed in the past decade? Have new innovations lessened your concern? Have your concerns been proven at all wrong?

With the rise of social networking—Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.—the temptation to avoid the face-to-face world has increased. There are more toys to distract one from this mode of being. I wrote of simulated worlds in The Soul in Cyberspace, but they had not reached the proportions of SimLife or SecondLife, which are entire “cultures” for the disembodied.

In your book you wrote, “The compulsive search for diversion is often an attempt to escape the wretchedness of life. We have great difficulty being quiet in our rooms. … Cyberspace may be the greatest temptation yet offered to humanity to lose its soul in diversion.” And this was written long before YouTube. Have things gotten any better in the intervening years? Have things gotten worse?

Yes, things are much worse. The diversions are accelerating at an alarming pace. Consider laptops. I recently had to ban them from my classroom at Denver Seminary because so many students were multi-tasking—shopping on line, checking email, and such like—while I was pouring out my soul lecturing. Now that they are illegal, students look at me and at each other more. Somehow, they still remember how to take notes by hand. However, one student admitted using his pocket device to look of the definition of a word I was using. If he could do that, he could also use text messaging and get diverted from the learning environment of the classroom.

Yes, some students will be responsible and only use the laptop to take notes on the template that I distribute or use them for genuine research related to the lecture. But given the pandemic mindset of multi-tasking, I cannot count on this kind of responsible behavior; so I banned them.

Like nearly anyone who writes on technology, you depended a great deal on the insights of Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan died 29 years ago and Postman died 6 years ago (though his last book was written 10 years ago). Does either man have a successor? Who is advancing their insights to the digital age?

I would add Jacques Ellul to that distinguished roster. He died in the mid-1990s. I don’t discern anyone contributing that quality of insight today—offering anything very original in a constructive sense of social critique. However, Quentin Schulz has brought together many solid insights in his book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age.

You wrote, “The digitized word does not abide forever.” Is there a way in which the digitizing of text has undermined, or stands to undermine, the immutability of the Word of God?

Not in the metaphysical or moral sense of Scripture as divine propositional revelation. It is objectively and eternally God’s holy disclosure of convicting, saving, and sanctifying truth. However, digitizing texts can destabilize our sense our awareness of its immutability, since texts can be manipulated so easily when they are in electronic form. Even the ready availability of Scripture on line can subvert one’s consciousness that texts are part of a larger argument, system, and narrative. We are less likely to lose the context when we read Scripture in book form. Nevertheless, having the text available for “capture” does save key strokes in my own writing. But efficiency has its trade-offs and draw-backs—something Americans are always reluctant to admit (or even recognize).

A quote from your book: “The book, that stubbornly unelectric artifact of pure typography, possesses resources conducive to the flourishing of the soul. A thoughtful reading of the printed text orients one to a world of order, meaning, and the possibility of knowing truth.” Is there a way, then, in which the printed word is inherently superior to the digital word? What do we stand to lose as we transition to the digital word?

The printed word, as a unique medium, has strengths (and weaknesses) not shared by the digitized word. I appeal to McLuhan: “The medium is the message.” Or, to dilate a bit: each communications medium shapes its content distinctively and shapes the perceiver necessarily. For one thing, we lose a sense of history when we move from books to screens. Books can be old friends, both the content (which stays in our minds) and the artifacts themselves, which we treasure. For example, I would not part with my 1976 edition of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There, which I read shortly after my conversion. It was that book, those ideas, that sparked my vision for Christian ministry. Moreover, I love the cover of that edition and enjoy looking over the many notations I put into the book through multiple readings. Having the same book in a digital form, while worthwhile in many ways (for example, I could capture text and put it on my blog!), would not be the same. Much would be lost.

You said “Ours is an age infatuated with, addicted to, and voraciously hungry for ever-increasing doses of information.” Is this hunger for information in some way dangerous to the soul?

Yes, since we have limited capacities for knowledge and wisdom. Knowing what matters most—truths about God, ourself, and creation—takes time and effort. Being awash in information is not the same as gaining knowledge (truth received in a rational way). Americans are usually well-informed ignoramuses. We have oceans of facts or information at hand, but little knowledge. Wisdom is the proper use of knowledge. Americans typically have no idea how to handle all the data thrown at them: the more information, the less meaning.

“Instant access to all kinds of information may corrode a sense of coherence and meaning if the information is not put into an appropriate framework.” Postman makes the point that once we commit ourselves to technology, we feel that only technology can solve our problems. Has technology come up with an appropriate framework to understand and use information? Or do we need to look for solutions outside of technology?

Technology cannot explain itself sufficiently and does not attempt to do so typically. We get so immersed in the use of technology (and there are so many new gizmos to figure out) that we fail to ask questions about the meaning of technology: What does it do to our sense of self, of others, of God, of time, of death, of politics, and much more.

If our sensibilities are set by the capacities of hypertext, we may begin to relinquish our grip on the very notion of authority. Has hypertext changed the way we perceive authority? Has it changed the way we read and interact with text?

We tend to skip around instead of reading from point A to Z. This makes for superficiality and incoherence. We get a data-fix and move on. Moreover, most on-line text is surrounded by flashing, moving images that distract us from text qua text.

You wrote the book before anyone had heard of social media. Yet you said, “the notion that ‘community’ can thrive in cyberspace challenges the very meaning of community and the nature of our sociality.” You found it contradictory that the technologies that have isolated us from personal contact (radio, television, computer) could bring us into a global village of intimate connection. Have the years between then and now proven your fears correct? Has cyberspace brought us some kind of community? Or has it endangered true community?

Some technologies can further significant human encounters not available otherwise. For example, I met two wonderful young people in Hungary in 2007 at a conference. My emails, Skype (which I have only done once!), and instant messages have been meaningful because I met them face-to-face previously and because these technologies provide a kind of communication not possible otherwise. However, if these technologies did not exist, I could still write letters—which is becoming a lost art, sadly.

But overall cyberspace (and hardly anyone calls it this any more) has diminished community if one means by that embodied relationships bound by troth, friendship, citizenship, and physical proximity. People practice an “absent presence” constantly as they talk on cell phones while checking out at the supermarket or at Starbucks, as they send text messages during classes instead of attending to teachers and students, as they play video games instead of getting to know their spouses and children. One could go on.

This seems very perceptive in light of what I see on the Net today: “The soul in cyberspace may easily habituate itself to browsing, data-surfing, and skimming in exchange for analysis, reflection, and discourse.” Is there something inherent in the digital medium that leads us to browse, to skim, to reject real analysis, reflection and discourse? Is there anything we can do about it or is this just the nature of the beast?

I think I covered the problem above. What we can do about it is to create engaged classrooms, discussions, church services, and reflective reading of significant texts, especially the Bible. This means putting aside multi-tasking and immersing oneself in propositional communication of various forms. One illuminating exercise I require of my students is to abstain from one major electronic medium for ten days. This reorients their awareness and shows them the possibilities for unmediated communication—and for silence.

As I understand it, the ultimate purpose of your book was to try to understand how this medium of cyberspace shaped us, our families, our churches, our nations, our world. In the front of the book I jotted this, my one big takeaway from the book: “Christians are specially equipped to think rightly about technology.” Is this the case? What do Christians stand to lose if we do not understand the effects of technology in each of these areas? What do we stand to gain?

As recipients of salvation by God’s grace in Christ, we can gain a proper relationship to God and a proper perspective on God’s world. But this is not automatic. Sadly, for many reasons, Christians are often the least reflective people about technologies. Our populism and pragmatism get the best of us and we fail to step back and ask the more philosophical and theological questions of our technologies. Yet Christians should ask God to grant them wisdom to discern God’s kingdom purposes for technologies. If we fail to gain discernment, the result is simply worldliness: we engage technologies in ways that undermine virtue, make us less sensitive to good, evil, and God himself. These are no small perils. See Romans 12:1-2; I John 2:15-17; Hebrews 5:11-14.

August 05, 2008

Jim Spiegel is on a blog tour to promote his book Gum, Geckos and God (He is also author of The Benefits of Providence, a book I highly recommend). He asked if I’d like to participate in the tour and I thought that would be a great idea. So here are a couple of questions combining themes of both books.

In several of your other publications you defend a high view of divine providence. In Gum, Geckos, and God we see how you share this perspective with your kids. In what way do you think this doctrine is important for a child’s spiritual development?

I think it is extremely important for several reasons. First and foremost, it is biblical. So recognizing the sovereignty of God from an early age will help one to make sense of the many Scriptural passages—from Psalm 139 to Romans 9—which so strongly emphasize this point. Secondly, a high view of providence is a tremendous comfort during times of trial. As with any adult, if a child knows that God is fully sovereign over even a painful event, then they can know that it is not random or without purpose. And the sooner a child can begin to see God’s hand in their suffering, the sooner they will grasp the profound truth of Romans 8:28. And this is a huge boon to faith. Finally, the high view of providence encourages us to take a humble posture before God, which is essential to spiritual formation. The more readily we recognize that God is sovereign over our lives, the more ready we will be to surrender all aspects of it to him. A high view of providence encourages an attitude of self-denial. And children need to learn this as soon as possible.

Speaking of spiritual formation, how do you conceive of the relationship between God’s role and our role in sanctification?

This is one of those biblical paradoxes (or “mysteries” for those who don’t like the “p” word). I think Scripture is clear on both of these points: 1) God is fully sovereign over our spiritual development, graciously endowing us with whatever spirital gifts and fruit we have and 2) we are morally responsible for our spiritual development and must work hard to grow and become mature disciples of Christ. The Scriptural evidence for each of these points is vast, but Philippians 2:12-13 actually affirms both of these truths together, as Paul writes: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Clearly, then, a high view of providence should not tempt us toward fatalism, as some critics falsely charge. Rather, it should encourage us to be that much more diligent in doing good works and practicing the spiritual disciplines (e.g. prayer, fasting, bible study, etc.), because we have this promise that God himself is behind all of these good choices and acts. How encouraging!

May 01, 2008

The Economic Stimulus Payment is on its way. In the coming weeks Americans will be receiving a check, courtesy of the government. Eligible people will receive up to $600 ($1,200 for married couples), and parents will receive an additional $300 for each eligible child younger than 17. This is going to be quite the windfall for many families.

John Piper recently wrote a short blog post he entitled Economic Stimulus Payment & Christ in which he encouraged Christians “to be radically creative and hedonistic” with this money. “Before the check comes dream of some person or ministry which might make much of Christ because you treasured him above your next home project. The reason God created money and enabled us to earn it is so that we could show by the way we use it that money is not our treasure, Christ is. That’s why the checks are coming. So we can make Christ look great.”

Because I live in Canada, the fifty-first state of the Union, I will not be receiving this payment. However, I did have a question about it. I began to wonder, as have others, whether Christians are in some way morally obligated to spend this money (thus stimulating the economy) or whether they can legitimately give it to one ministry or another or perhaps use it to pay down some high interest credit card debt. And that opened up a few other questions. I turned to David Kotter, whom you may know as the Executive Director of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and a regular contributor to the CBMW Blog. Before turning to ministry and accepting his current position David taught economics and contributed to Wayne Grudem’s Business for the Glory of God (and this followed a stint as a finance manager for Ford Motor Company). He seemed an ideal candidate to answer a few questions about the intersection of theology and economics.

So I offer this primarily to my American readers (which is most of you, really) and hope it benefits you.

What is the purpose of the Economic Stimulus Package?

The Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 is primarily intended to remedy slower growth and address short-term economic uncertainties by allowing “Americans to keep more of their money to stimulate consumer spending,” according to the White House fact sheet. The assumption is that most citizens receiving a rebate check will spend it quickly on domestic goods and services. Since every purchase funds a paycheck for someone else, the hope is that the suppliers will in turn spend part of their added income on yet more products, and so on and so forth until there is a multiplied boost to the U.S. economy.

While not explicitly stated, this law also seems to be designed to give a boost to presidential and congressional approval ratings. When economic storm clouds are on the horizon in an election year, it is helpful for politicians to be able to point to something that they have done to help. Few things improve the mood of voters like receiving an check in the mail.

Is this a workable solution to an economic problem? Or is this merely a means to a very short-term rally?

Unfortunately, this stimulus plan fits the scenario of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” A tax rebate is just the return of money that was previously taken from someone’s paycheck. While people receiving the checks may spend more, the workers who are funding the checks will certainly spend less. Even if the money is borrowed, it is borrowed from someone who won’t be spending. This offsetting effect is why Milton Friedman was fond of saying, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

To use an everyday example, the price of corn has dramatically increased, and farmers have spent their growing profits on updated tractors, better hybrid seeds and other farm goods. On the other hand, people paying higher prices for food have less money to spend on other goods. The stimulus in spending in the agricultural sector is exactly offset by lower consumer spending in other parts of the economy. No free lunch here, nor with the tax rebate.

Nevertheless, there may be a small boost or short-term rally as money is taken from people who are more likely to save and given to others who are more likely to spend. According to the Internal Revenue Service, 97% of all federal income tax receipts were paid by half of the taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes above the $30,881 median in 2005. The other half of the taxpayers accounted for only 3% of tax receipts, and in fact 42 million paid no taxes or received net payments from the government in the form of funded tax credits. Under the Economic Stimulus Act, the people who paid little or no taxes will all receive maximum payments (not actually “rebates”). Higher earning taxpayers who tend to save more and pay the vast majority of income taxes will not receive a tax rebate.

In short, many people will receive a rebate from someone else’s taxes, and that makes it easier to spend more.

The government has earmarked this money specifically so Americans can pump the money back into the U.S. economy. The governments wants its citizens to spend this money and to spend it fast! Do you feel that there is a moral obligation to obey their wishes by spending this money?

The Stimulus Act does not explicitly require consumer spending with the checks, so Christians are not morally obligated to spend money quickly in order to be “subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1).

But the law does rely on what the Wall Street Journal calls “The Splurge Urge.” People are more likely to spend newly found money, like an unexpected bonus or one-time tax credit, than they are to splurge with a hard-earned paycheck. For this reason, when the checks arrive Christians should avoid undue excitement and especially pray for self-control. Jesus specifically cautions, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Is there a possibility that believers could negate some possible good that the government is anticipating?

Christians are sojourners and exiles in this world (1 Peter 2:11). Therefore it should not be a surprise to anyone that we do not fit into the mainstream of the national economy. Our values are fundamentally different and we are accountable to God for our financial decisions. Paying off debts and saving money is wise stewardship but not the best for the aggregate economy in the short term. Sending money from a stimulus check to a missionary overseas definitely will not boost the domestic economy in the way the government hopes, but it is still pleasing to God.

Over the long term, however, Christians generally make outstanding economic citizens who “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23), subdue creation in their daily jobs, avoid lavish spending, give generously and save diligently. The overall economy would improve dramatically if everyone used the tool of money in biblical ways.

How should Christians think biblically about these economic stimulus payments?

For many Christians, they are actually being entrusted by God with the earnings of someone else. For other believers, this is simply the return of their own money and should be treated like any other financial stewardship. All of the typical considerations for wise stewardship should apply as believers give, save, and spend this money.

Hopefully, many believers are already living with a “wartime” mindset and are spending less than they earn. This stimulus check is simply more resources to be used for Kingdom work. John Piper was exactly correct in encouraging believers to use these rebate checks, and all other money of which they are stewards, to make much of Christ. Piper says,

Nobody in the world will see you spend your money on yourself and conclude that Christ is your treasure. They will assume you are just like them, no matter how loudly you thank God for this boon. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend it on yourself (the way we do with most of what we earn). But everything we do can look different from the world — eat, pay utilities, fill up the car, wear clothes (even thrift store clothes). And yes, we hope (somehow) that spending on ourselves in some way contributes to our being more Christ-exalting people.

As Christian voters, we should not be fooled by fiscal maneuvers that take money from one group of people and give it to another in the name of boosting the overall economy. The economy only grows if more goods and services are produced, not when money is transferred from one person to another.

Finally, we can be grateful that economic stimulus plans are restricted to this world. The One who spoke the universe into existence and owns the cattle on a thousand hills does not need a plan to boost the domestic prosperity of heaven. Jesus Christ is the ultimate treasure whose glory will infinitely outshine any pleasure we might receive from a rebate check.

April 27, 2008

The Elisha FoundationIn the past months you may well have heard me mention The Elisha Foundation. This is a foundation I first discovered through my pastor (who is a regular speaker at the Foundation’s annual retreats) and subsequently learned about more when I designed a new website for it. I quickly came to respect what they do and wanted to share with you an interview I conducted with Justin Reimer who founded and still heads up the organization.

What is the Elisha Foundation?

The Elisha Foundation is a non-profit organization created to provide encouragement and resources for families of people with special needs (kids and adults). Our primary vehicle of ministry is through small and intimate Family Retreats geared towards biblical encouragement and disability specific resources. Soon we will be providing monthly respite resources for families in our area as well.

When and why did you begin the Foundation?

My wife, Tamara, and I started the foundation in the Fall of 2005 after years of anticipation. Though the idea started some 10 years ago through a series of Sovereign circumstances preparing us for our calling when our first child, Elisha was born. Just hours after his birth he was diagnosed with Down Syndrome and was admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit due to medical complications. During the early hours of this new and blessed addition to our family we were overcome with the moment. God saw fit to make us stewards of such a wondrous and enigmatic blessing as a special needs child. The enormity of this responsibility was only made more sweet by the grace of God. This was a defining moment in our young lives with profound impact on our faith, goals and dreams.

Prior to the birth of our son Tamara and I shared the ambition of one day being missionaries to a foreign country. With the new direction our lives were taking we were left wondering how we could minister to the needs of others. Early on a sweet lady put it plainly to Tamara in this way, “Instead of you going to the mission field, the mission field has been brought to you through Elisha.” So simple yet so profound was that little morsel of wisdom. It helped us to look beyond the circumstances and realize that God had given us a new direction, to minister to those with special needs and their families.

Over the next seven years we lived in six different states and experienced the disability resources and programs that each state offered. Though each offered great things none provided the foundational emphasis on family and definitely not on Christ. Through these travels and experiences our hearts desire was to provide an environment for families with disabled family members where the emphasis is on familial growth in Christ rather than on “dealing with” the disability. A place where faith in Christ is strengthened, love is flourished, passion is reformed and intimacy is encouraged. What greater resource than to build the family on those four fundamentals - faith, love, passion, intimacy in Christ. We experienced great growth in these areas through our own trials and experiences. We have had three more sweet children (and another on the way!) since the birth of Elisha and have been greatly encouraged by their interaction with Eli as well as the opportunity for them to recognize and minister to the needs of others of lesser health or condition.

Most confirming to us in our pursuits with TEF was our most recent Retreat. We had a family there who had a daughter with an extremely rare genetic disorder. So rare that the doctor’s gave her little chance of survival and recommended abortion. She is now 4 years old and although there are great delays in her development she is exceeding anything the doctor’s thought possible. It is a rough road though, be it feedings every 2 hours for the first three years of her life, the growth hormone shots, or the litany of other care she needs. She cannot sit up on her own and when she is ill she suffers from seizures. Along with raising her, her parents have six other children to not just care for, but to raise.

We invited them to the Retreat knowing that there was a good chance they wouldn’t be able to make it due to her situation. It was a stretch for her to be around a large group of people possibly carrying the latest flu strain. But they were able to come although under slight duress. By the end of the Retreat they were overwhelmed by how much they needed that time away as a family. You see it was the first time in three and a half years that they were able to worship together as a family. They had to take turns going to church and no one offered to help them with her so that they could go together. In tears, the dad stated what the whole weekend meant to them and that there were not words enough to describe the benefit to their family. He is now a dear friend of mine and his family has been challenged anew by the Word being taught at the Retreat and by simply being together and having people help them there be unencumbered.

How does the Foundation seek to serve families of people with disabilities?

Of primary importance to TEF is to see that families make much of Christ in their circumstances, not to make much of their circumstances with a side order of Christ - so to speak. It is common place to see a family put so much emphasis on their circumstances (autism, Down syndrome, etc.) that that becomes central to who they are as a family and , in a way, defines who they are. We know and understand the challenges from our own experience but by God’s grace He has compelled us to keep Christ central to our lives, not Down syndrome, and that is what ultimately should define our family - lives centered on Christ no matter what.

God has placed within our stewardship the blessed parent child relationship with a special needs child. We have been and will continue to be challenged and encouraged by this great blessing.

As our faith in Christ has been strengthened through this relationship we have sought to aid the growth of the faith of others in similar situations. Teaching them to love Jesus more deeply, develop a passion for the unique circumstance that God has placed them in and develop a more intimate relationship with Him out of which flows a more intimate relationship with God and family.

When focusing on the vehicle for this objective our minds were immediately set on a retreat. A quiet, beautiful, peaceful, rejuvenating place that would be conducive to allowing people to let down their guard and relax while providing them with pampering not common to them nor even available to them. And to provide focused Bible teaching to edify and build up the Faith.

Who typically attends the Elisha Foundation retreats? Who is permitted to attend?

We specifically chose a broad “label” to target our field of ministry - “special needs”. We have had varying levels of severity of diagnosis’ from Asperger’s to autism, from Down syndrome to Hunter’s syndrome, from extremely rare genetic disorders to malignant teratoma’s and even leukemia. One of the unique aspects of the environment we aim to create for a Retreat is that by having needs from a wide range of spectrums each set of parents is drawing from the diversity of experiences of the other parents.

For example, I have a child with Down syndrome and another parent has a child with Hunter’s syndrome. I can learn a lot from that parent as they may have a very short time on earth with that child and the window of interaction with the child is brief, where I see through a long term window for my child. It reminds me of the brevity of life and to treat each day with more earnestness; whereas, they can learn from our experiences perhaps in how we educate our son or even a level of endurance as we will care for our son until we pass from this life.

To answer your question, anyone who has a “special need” be it a disability, medical condition or other chronic issues is welcome to our Retreats. If they aren’t sure about how they might “fit in” they can call us and talk it over with us. Our future plans include Retreats for those who have lost children and for our wounded military veterans as well. If people are hurting we want to help them see Jesus in it and through it.

Are there any books you have found particularly useful in helping people come to terms with disabilities within their families or their churches?

The most obvious and significant answer is Scripture; however, God has Sovereignly placed the likes of Joni Erickson Tada in the midst of the Body of Christ to encourage support and help people come to His terms with their appointment in life. When God Weeps by Joni is a must read and is a book that we give to every family that comes to a Retreat. She and Steve Estes do a great job of applying the Christ to painful situations with experience and biblical conviction.

What books do you recommend on the subject of suffering?

With today’s technology sermons are a great source of encouragement, keep in mind some of these families can’t always make it to church, etc. Sermons by the likes of Paul Martin, John Piper, John MacArthur among others have been a great encouragement to my family and to others that I have been able to pass them along to. As for books, I guess I gave some of it away already but in addition to the aforementioned book there are a couple of others I would recommend.

The Holy Bible, by God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Suffering and the Sovereignty of God by Justin Taylor, John Piper, Mark Talbot, and Stephen F. Saint

A Path Through Suffering by Elisabeth Elliot

The Power of Suffering by John MacArthur

Also, we have found biographies to be very helpful as well. The likes of William Cowper, Fannie Crosby, William Wilberforce, etc.

What can local churches do to better serve families that have a family member with a disability?

This is a good question as it doesn’t start with specialized programs. It starts with the Body of Christ first enfolding that family or person on a practical relational level. This is a challenge as many of us don’t feel comfortable around a person with a disability. Consider this, is a person with “special needs” any less created in the image of God than you or I? Answer, no. With that in mind I would challenge every believer to do something so sweetly simple when you see a needy person or family and you don’t know what you can do to help them. Just ask!

When a family walks in the door and you recognize that perhaps they may have a child with special needs, ask them what you can do to help them worship together with you. “May” is italicized intentionally as not all of us can spot and name a child’s “special need” so even if you have a suspicion offer to help. It is okay to not know or even be uncomfortable with a special needs situation. It may be awkward to you but think of what some families are faced with when they attend church and are told to leave the service because their autistic child yells out involuntarily.

This is an area of great concern as in certain parts of the country the willingness to approach someone in a needy situation is lacking. If a church finds themselves in a position to target a special needs ministry then there are two books I would recommend:

Special Needs Special Ministry by Jim Pierson, Pat Verbal and Louise Tucker Jones

Let All the Children Come to Me by MaLesa Breeding, Dana Hood and Jerry Whitworth

The simplest and, in many ways, the most helpful thing someone can do is to simply offer to be a special needs persons “buddy” on Sundays. Assist in whatever way needed to facilitate that family and that persons Lord’s Day.

How can Christians support the Foundation?

Praying, volunteering and giving. We have sought to have TEF not be exclusively Christian in our servicing these special families. At each of our Retreats we have had non-believers and believers alike in attendance. Pray that we would continue to have opportunities for the Gospel.

Volunteering is a vital part of all that we do. During a Retreat we have 20+ dedicated, full time volunteers. We have been richly blessed by our volunteers as we push them to the point of exhaustion but they see it as an act of worship. We are always looking to add to our book of volunteers. If anyone would like to volunteer please contact us we would love to have your help.

Giving is vital to us as well and is not my favorite subject but it is necessary for doing what we do, this includes not just our monetary needs but books for our Retreats as well. Right now we have no paid staff and schedule Retreats as we have funding.

If a person is interested in learning more about the Foundation and its ministries, how would they do that?

The web site is the easiest way to find out about us but you can contact myself (Justin.Reimer {at} TheElishaFoundation.org) or our newest Board Member, Chris (Chris.Wick {at} TheElishaFoundation.org) directly. My phone number is 541-419-6007.

April 03, 2008


This marks the third interview I’ve completed with artists involved in various disciplines. I first interviewed Max McLean about performance art and then Makoto Fujimura on his abstract art. Today I turn to photography and interview Lukas VanDyke, a photographer I have met at several conferences. Lukas is an exceptional photographer and I enjoyed his responses to these questions. I hope you do too!

Tell me a little bit about yourself—who you are and what you do.

Who I am? I tend to be very introspective and have piles of journals to prove it. So I will keep this short. I’m a Christian, and want to live a life to glorify God. There are two general questions I often ask myself. First, what am I known for right now as I live. And secondly, what will be I remembered for when I die. And for both questions I want the answer to be that I am living/lived my life with the kingdom of heaven in mind. To God be the glory.

Practically I am 26 year old guy who lives in Los Angeles and loves everything about his life. I love living in LA, I love my church, I love my friends, and I love my work. I started out in the Midwest when I was little, but ended up in Los Angeles in 2nd grade. I have been at John MacArthur’s church since then and can’t express my debt to the teachers there for the clear exposition of the scripture and its application on my life. The fellowship, love, and God centered focus of the body of believers I am part of makes me long to spend eternity with them doing what we do every week only free of our imperfections.

Vocation wise I actually do a number of different things. I am currently the Senior Network Analyst at The Master’s College. I’ve worked there consistently for the past 7+ years. However, ever since I opened my photo studio I have cut back my time there to give me the chance to shoot more. I love the impact I am able to have at the college and it is definitely a ministry which is worth ones time, but I also have a passion for photography. When I am fully engaged in a shoot the whole world around me disappears and it almost feels like magic. I guess it’s the thrill and passion of creating art. I love the experience. Which would lead one to ask what I shoot? Mostly I do fine art wedding coverage and couples portrait sessions. But I also do enjoy the abstractness of doing the cover art for various bands and other musicians. It’s a charge listening to the music and attempting to create images which define the music without sound. I also do some family portraits and free prayer cards for any missionaries who ask me. And within the major categories of what I do one of my favorites in conference coverage. I cover the Shepherd’s Conference at Grace Community Church every year, I also cover the Resolved Conference, and have done coverage at Steve Lawson’s church. And recently I got asked to start doing coverage for Ligonier Ministries and have emails to potentially do a few others. I love the conferences because I love meeting new people, and being able to help in any way with the impact these conferences have on the world.

Tell me how you came to be a Christian.

When I was five my Dad explained that if I were to die I would go to hell, and then explained a basic gospel. I repented and prayed a prayer to God. After that point all through my childhood I remember seeing consistent fruit in my life. I think I probably became a Christian at the point. However, I did still have a lot of doubt all through grade school and junior high. I prayed the prayer of salvation almost every night. I think this was probably because although I had an understanding of the tenants of gospel I couldn’t clearly articulate it with scripture. It wasn’t until I got into a small discipleship group when I was in junior high that I became surer of my faith. In small group we systematically went through some different core truths. We discussed God and who He is, memorizing verses such as Gen 1:1: and Acts 17:24-27 showing God is the creator of the universe. We talked about man and his sins and memorized Rom 3:23, 6:23 and other such scripture related to our total depravity and inability to come to God. We dived into Christ’s death and redeeming work on the cross in John 3:16 etc… And finally we talked about how man through nothing in himself can accept this gift and memorized Eph 2:8-9. We also practiced role play situations and learned how to clearly articulate this to others. It was a wonderful experiencing bringing me to a more scriptural based understanding of my sanctification. I also learned the 5 points of Calvinism and their scriptural basis in junior high. This clear teaching at an early age built a foundation for the growth and struggle for sanctification I have seen since then.

How is photography a form of art?

lukas3.jpgPhotography is an art in one sense of the word in that it requires skills on a multiplicity of levels. The creation of fine art images requires technical speed and skill with the camera. It assumes understanding of the complexity of color and light and how to use and bend such to make an image bleed with color. It necessitates an ability to understand and capture or evoke emotion from the subject or situation. This is followed by the process of fine-tuning the hues, saturation, and overall feel in post processing. All of which is just a brief synopsis of the complex mental and emotional process which goes into the creation of images. In the above definition of the word “art” my aim is to create images which, I hope, will take on an objective quality of excellence.

But overlying the technical aspects of image creation my internal validation stems from a different goal. I think the following really defines photography or anything else as art. I strive to create images which bring people into a realm which they have not yet or currently are not experiencing. I want to introduce them to a reality outside the mundane, bending their emotions, and driving them to an action which otherwise may have never caressed their mind. My passion draws the fibers of my inner being to produce, create, and define people’s conception of reality with the truth of things which exist outside the mundane of their world. In the case of fine art portraiture this might be as simple as conveying expressions of love or joy between couples in a beautiful way. However, in the case of international photos essays I bleed to show people the existence of the church, and people’s lives around the world. A life exists within the people I photograph. A life behind their eyes. Yearning hearts exist beyond the stereotype we throw at one another. Though the appearance of a person I photograph often shows their personal manifesto towards life, it isn’t always fair to classify every individual within that social group as one holding to those ideals. Are they not still people? I want to bring the world beyond their conception of the ordinary into the unseen and unheard and unspoken of.

Is photography your only artistic outlet or do you enjoy creating other kinds of art as well?

lukas4.jpgAlthough I would consider myself weak in the area, I do enjoy writing. For the same reason as I love photography, I love creating visual pictures that move people to see the pleasure I find in so many things.

When did you first discover your abilities in photography and your love for it? Have you received any formal artistic education?

During high school and in my first year of college I had tinkered with a point and shoot camera and I guess someone liked my work and asked me to shoot their wedding. All of a sudden something snapped in me and I decided to go all out. It’s actually a lot of really amazing stories which would take to long to write here. But in the course of a few months I started working for another wedding photographer and ended up with a good set of professional equipment and was shooting like crazy. I took a few basic classes to learn how to shoot manual, use studio lighting, and some journalism related classes, but for the most part it’s just been thousands of hours of work. Looking at other images and absorbing the feel and what I like about them. Doing intense criticism on every aspect of my own work looking for any area I could improve, and adjusting pushing myself and learning. I shoot around 200,000 images a year right now. I love it!

How do you seek to bring glory to God through your art?

Well I think anyone from custodial to the corporate executive can bring glory to God through their work. It’s working with fervor, with excellence, with diligence, with a love for those around us which shines the light of Christ. But aside from the above I specifically seek to bring glory to God through art by building bridges from the mundane to the passionate. God has given each person an allotted amount of time in life. We all have the choice as to how we use this time. I strive to show images which make people want to act. It’s actually been really amazing over the last few months, I have been see how emotional God has created us, and really starting to understand more the joy, sorrow, and passion we can live our lives with. God has given us an amazing world.

Which of your photos or series of photos are your favorites? Why?

lukas2.jpgA few years ago I went to Berlin, Germany for a couple months to do some work with our missionaries over there. While I was there I started a project photographing extremely close face shots of the beggars all around the urban center of Berlin. A year later I did a second series of beggars in the heart of Mexico City, Mexico. I took all these images with a wide angle lens from within 18 inches of my subjects face. These are by far some of my favorite images. They are context free portraits of people’s eyes. All of these eyes have a story behind them which I don’t know now nor will ever know. They are representative of lives filled with love or hatred, dreams or despair, hope or misery. Each has a story, each has a reality, and each has a need for a savior. I currently have an entire wall in my office filled with 16x20 inch prints of this series. But I love any image which has emotional passions, from images of prayer meetings in the mud brick slums of Brazil, to a crowd of anxious Russian seminary students leaning over Rick Holland to hear about the Word.

What are your hopes and dreams for your photography? Do you hope to build this into a full time occupation?

My hope would be to use something I love to further the Gospel of Christ. Right now this is a two part goal. One I want to be able to impact people for ministry through visual images. Second I like it because it gives me the flexibility to volunteer my time for missions for months at a time when the need arises. And obviously those things don’t generate any income, but I LOVE shooting weddings, and portraiture, and commercial images also. So for now it is just expanding what I do in every direction!