Be Remembered: My Grandpa, the Bridge Builder

A few hours ago, my grandfather, Dr. Warren Wiersbe, breathed his last breath in his earthly body and took his first breath in glory. Here’s an irony: I’m writing about this man, my Grandpa Wiersbe, who was himself a prolific writer. As I write, I can’t help but imagine him hovering in the background and trying to find a way to edit what I’m writing so that it reflects a crisp tone with active voice and genius alliteration. (Grandpa mutters the phrase, “write for the ear, not for the eye!” but what does that even mean?!)

The words I want to spend on his behalf cannot do justice to the legacy he has left behind. I’ve often thought about this moment, what to say and how to feel. Our family has watched life change for him these last few years, despite his doctors curing all sorts of ailments in his life. At every juncture, the words from another sage pastor, the guy who wrote Ecclesiastes, rings in my soul that “time and chance happen to all.” (Grandpa strikes out that part to make sure I know it was Solomon who wrote Ecclesiastes. “What did they teach you at Moody?” he laughs.)

The metaphor for his life is rather simple - he wrote it in his autobiography - he was a bridge builder. When he said it, he meant that he had a knack for filling leadership roles as the interim between giants. The hallmark picture of this has always been his tenure as senior pastor at the historic Moody Church in Chicago. (Grandpa high-fives that I mention the historicity of the place.) The outgoing pastor, George Sweeting, had just been installed as president of Moody Bible Institute. Enter Wiersbe. After a handful of years of faithful preaching, leading the church out of debt and setting the congregational chaos into order, my grandfather kept “arranging” for a young professor named Erwin Lutzer to preach on Sundays. (Grandpa recites the line I’ve heard him say most of all, “You know the best thing I ever did for that place was leave so that Lutzer could pastor there.”)

The bridges I’ve seen him build are far more impressive. His preferred tools were words, his blueprints were the Scriptures, and his workspace was a self-assembled library. Grandpa knew he was a bridge builder, not a home builder, nor a museum builder, but a bridge builder. Bridges are functional, yet only some are remarkable. I think he had the writing chops to weave together his own Buechner-esque fairy tale, but he stuck to expounding Scriptures, practically helping people move closer to the destination of Christlikeness. He wrote over 150 books. I don’t think anyone knows the exact number. (Grandpa whispers a joke about his publisher’s royalty check sizes reflecting this truth that nobody knows how many books he’s written or else he’d be paid more.) But bridge builders don’t do it for the money, they always build bridges with the utilitarian purpose of helping others get to the other side.

Grandpa built bridges from the world of the Bible to the world of today so that we could get to the other side of glory in Jesus. “There’s not a passage in the Bible I haven’t first looked up what Wiersbe has said on the topic,” most pastors tell me. In multiple languages, his words have helped many handle God’s Word with some sense of accuracy and fidelity.

Grandpa was a bridge-builder across cultures. I’ve always been fascinated by how a German Swede whose favorite entertainer was Jack Benny and whose idea of the perfect vacation was traveling to England could have possibly found a way to bridge the black/white divide in American Christianity, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. But one of the greatest gifts my grandfather gave me was a collection of his early sermons and radio shows (think podcasts) where he would rail on hippies for not loving their neighbors who don’t look like themselves. He wrote a very good book with E.K. Bailey called Preaching in Black and White and his ministry always carried with it the sense of grace toward one another regardless of race.

But the bridge I am most grateful that he built is the bridge that I’ve walked across myself, and which I’m reminded of tonight. It’s the bridge of family heritage. One of Grandpa’s favorite verses was Psalm 33:11, “But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” My Grandpa was a generational bridge builder. Many generations came before him who prayed for the generations of our family to love Jesus and serve him in preaching the Word. To the best of my knowledge, my Grandpa Wiersbe was the third generation of preachers in our family. (Grandpa jumps in, “Beware of the third generation, they mess everything up…”)

When I was in high school, I recall feeling this burning passion for knowing God’s Word and for preaching it. I deeply sensed I was made to help people understand the beauty of God and his surprising gospel of redemption. When I told him I was going to study to be a pastor, he said to me that he wasn’t surprised. He actually prayed for my generation of the family for over 40 years that one of us grandkids would grow up to preach the Word, and that he was simply carrying on the prayer of his great grandfather who prayed the same thing. 

At that moment I realized my future depends on the prayers of those who have come before. And I’m soberly grateful for the hundreds, possibly thousands of prayers Grandpa prayed for me.

Grandpa taught me what it is to pray. I think it was only two or three years ago this month that I spent a weekend with him. At many junctures along our days he would stop me and say, “let’s have a word of prayer together,” and he would acknowledge the Lord. I got the sense from him that he knew Jesus better than I even thought possible, and his life was lived in daily, sometimes hourly admission of his need for Christ in prayer.

But the best part for me is the part he didn’t get to see. Because when I shared the news with my older two kids that my Grandpa had died, my kids, who are just 5 and 4 years old, they comforted me with the sweetest reminders. “Daddy, I feel so sad for you,” my little daughter said to me. “But is Grandpa in heaven?” “Yes, Grandpa is in heaven because he loved Jesus and I am certain he is in heaven.”

And then with all the theological prowess of a prophet, my little girl told me, “Then daddy, if Grandpa loved Jesus, then Jesus is welcoming him home today. Because Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins, we can be right with God, and when we die, we know we will live forever with him in heaven. That means Grandpa is finally able to see what Jesus looks like and meet him face to face. And I love Jesus too. I’d give Jesus 10,000 stars if I could.”

I think it serves his memory well that his great-granddaughter heard her great-grandpa died and was moved immediately to preach the gospel to her daddy. Because the bridges my Grandpa built didn’t just span little creeks or rivers in time, but rather, he built overpasses that stretch back to the beginning and show us how to find eternity. He built bridges that connect us to the narrowest, but most important road. He led me and my family to Jesus.

So I write these words tonight reminded of the way my grandfather would end his letters, “The best is yet to come!” But I know the best has come.

From a grateful grandson. (In the background he whispers, “To all generations.”)

Dan and Grandpa Wiersbe in the late Summer of 2018.

Dan and Grandpa Wiersbe in the late Summer of 2018.

Now. (Four Simple Words of Christmas #4)

Sitting in the passenger seat of the car at the stoplight, I have vivid memories of watching the red light and calling out “Now!” More often than not, the light would still be red. “NOW!” I’d repeat, but everyone knows only the first attempt matters in this game. Every once in a while, I’d get lucky and my command would float across the intersection and touch the light, flicking it green. 

We’re impatient people who get lots of satisfaction when the wait is over.

If we hate to wait at stoplights, we have a hard time comprehending the generations who lived and died, each awaiting the day when God would fix the brokenness in the world. Generation after generation, God delayed.

Matthew and Luke each open their gospels with lists of names, a family tree of sorts. Matthew wants us to see the perfect symmetry between Jesus and the Exile, the Exile and David, and David and Abraham. What I’m always struck by Forty-two generations. That’s a long, long time.

He came as a baby, born to young parents, started from the most helpless state in life and grew. As Jesus launched into the public eye and was performing miracles, he warned his followers to be patient and wait to disclose his identity as the Son of God, for his time had not yet come. His coming, his living, all of it is so patient.

Do you know who isn’t so patient? The enemies of God. As far as they are concerned, Jesus can take his time. When Jesus encounters a man with many demons, and upon seeing Jesus, the demons recognize him and are caught off guard at his coming, literally asking, “Is it already that time?” (Matthew 8:29). Revelation accentuates this in its portrayal of the dragon being flung from heaven to earth and thrashing about, “knowing his time is short” (Revelation 12:12). 

While the build up took generations, Jesus’ victory did not take long to accomplish. His life was but thirty-some years, his ministry only three of those. Once the world saw the advent of Christ and his kingdom, our impatience didn’t subside, rather it increased. Armed with the Holy Spirit, who is literally God dwelling within those who have faith in Christ, we long all the more for the full presence and rule and reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. The cry “Come down here” is punctuated with great urgency, “now!”

No longer are we Simeon, able to die in peace having seen the long-awaited savior, but rather we are John the Revelator crying out at the end of the story, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).

Because Advent is a time of anticipation and reflection, we need James’ encouragement, “You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:8).

James bridges two worlds for us in this one verse. Between the time of the coming of God and the time when he comes again is the patient establishing of our hearts. This is what Christmas does for us. It reminds us that while we cry “Come down here now,” God is already presently establishing our hearts. 

This is Spirit work. The Holy Spirit causes us to groan for a better future, but the Spirit is also showing us so many ways God is at work right around us, right now. It’s the Spirit who pricks our hearts when we sin, the Spirit who revives, the Spirit who guides our days. The Spirit is God’s preemptive response to the cry “Come down here now!” 

I sometimes wonder when we cry “come down here now,” God isn’t saying, “I’m already there! I sent my Spirit to you to to be a constant comfort and presence!” (John 14:26).

Advent is about Christ, for sure. But we cannot discount the work of the Holy Spirit richly establishing our hearts as we patiently wait for the return of the Lord. 

Until then we may feel like the kid in the seat looking at the light saying, “Now… Now! Now!! Now!!!”

Here. (Four Simple Words of Christmas #3)

I am always here. I cannot escape it, like the perpetual bondage of the present, I exist here. In the past or future I might be there but presently I’m always where I am and where I am is here. You might be there. God might be there. Only when we are together are we all here.

When tragedy strikes in a family member’s life, where you are geographically in relation to the other person matters. I remember a few years ago my phone buzzing in the middle of a Sunday church service. Glancing down at my lock screen, I saw a bit of the text from my mom, “Grandma had a stroke and it’s really…” I swiped the phone open to read the rest of the message. “… bad. I’m trying to get out there ASAP.” My grandma lives three states away, and in that moment I was thinking of all the friends I have in the airline industry who might be able to get me out there fast.

Because you can’t send comfort from afar. You send sympathy. You send condolences. Comfort requires closeness. To hug and to hold. To be here.

Here, then, is a lot less about geography and way more about the comfort of proximity. It’s a word of nearness, of knowing, of connection, of presence.

Along the parade of prophets announcing the coming of the Messiah were also the pronouncements of comfort for the people of God. Isaiah is one of these prophets who announces the physical restoration of Israel out of exile back to their homeland. And amid the reassurances of restoration, he prophesies about the spiritual restoration of the people.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
— Isaiah 40:1-2
For the Lord comforts Zion;
he comforts all her waste places
and makes her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.
— Isaiah 51:3

For the Israelites, Here was a world of warfare. Here was a place of iniquity. Here was a place of spiritual poverty. Livinghere was like living in a wasteland. Yet Isaiah gave hope, specifically the thought that when the Lord brings his long-awaited comfort, he will bring peace and forgiveness and abundant blessings and prosperity. If that could happen, all who live here would want to live there.

There is a term the Israelites used to describe this hopeful expectation, this renewal of the earth and the Israelites to their former blessings and special relationship to the Lord. They labeled it the “Consolation of Israel.” At the core of this hope lay the sentiment, “God, would you come down here?”

People today are torn over the state of the world, the state of the country, the state of society. It won’t take long in your imagination for you to conjure up some recent tragedy we all wish weren’t so, and some politician who did x idiotic thing, and some business that has y scandal. On a much more intimate scale, our families have our own pains and hurts and concerns. We utter nonsense like, “In a perfect world,” and “it is what it is.” We long for here to be like it is with God there. In many of the same ways we are people living in exile, just like the Israelites. We feel that here is a place to improve, perhaps even escape. Our systemic issues run so deep we might even ask, “God would you come down here? We need you here!”

Advent is a glorious reminder that God came down here. Not just to us, not just in our direction, but to our location and our dysfunction. He came to earth. _Here_is not an abstract realm to God. He knows the geography and climate and geology of our earth. He knows the structures of our society. He knows the challenges of running a small business. He knows the wickedness among us. He knows the systemic injustice found in our governance. He knows what it is to be here. Here’s a beautiful byproduct of God coming here: he knows, sees, feels, and has walked the road with us here.

In coming down here, Jesus indeed consoled God’s people. Simeon was an elderly Jewish man living at the time of Christ’s birth. Luke records his story in Luke 2:25, and as Luke introduces us to Simeon, he says Simeon was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Simeon groaned for better days. He desired the Lord’s righteousness to abound around him. Upon seeing the eight day old baby Jesus, Simeon took the baby in his arms and praised God, saying “I have seen your salvation. You prepared it in the presence of all people.” Few had the privilege like Simeon to wrap their arms around the one who came to us to comfort us. It was so moving for him, he literally says, “I’m finally able to die in peace.” God is here!

As Jesus would grow, he would hint at his mission to bring comfort to the world. In one of his most famous teachings, Jesus promised, ”Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). And later in his life, as his disciples were learning what Jesus was all about, they asked him to teach them to pray. So he prayed, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, (here) on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

So much of the life of Jesus was tied up in the restoration and consolation of God’s people to himself, and not in ways where we have to wait to go there to where God is, but to see God has come here to where we are!

Rejoice. Ponder. Reflect. And find rest in the fact that our God sees us here. He is bringing about his peace and comfort to us, which he initiated those centuries ago in Bethlehem… On earth as it is in heaven.