But O, We Have Our Seashells

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John Piper gave a formative word as May began to close in 2000; he stood before a Memphis crowd of young adults (“for the first time, I was feeling fatherly towards [a] crowd,” he later recounted[1]) and charged them with these important four words:

“Don’t waste your life.”

It’s an easy rally cry for those not-yet-old-enough to be sobered from idealism and naivety, but Piper’s preaching that day jarred the twenty-somethings standing in front of him well enough that the sermon nearly time-stamped the life and culture of the American church. It would go on to propel the desiringGod ministry and media, and begin to make “John Piper” something of a household name. The message became a book, Don’t Waste Your Life, that continues to sell in record amounts.

So it’s had a pretty sizeable audience. Only eternity will reveal its impact.

What galvanized this message was its illustration: the contrast of two elderly women—one an eighty year-old lifelong single woman who’d served in Africa as a missionary nurse for decades, who both died in a car wreck while serving amongst formerly unreached people groups—with a younger (mid-fifties) American couple who retired early to spend decades made of years made of months made of weeks made of days made of hours spent “liv[ing] in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells.”[2]

The atrophy of a life spent collecting seashells—when the hour is urgent,[3] and we are to “redeem the time, for the days are evil”[4]—horrified many in the crowd then, and the idea of it should horrify us now. 

Bob and Penny, the thankless retired couple featured in the Reader’s Digest story Piper quoted that day, were baby boomers born within single-digit years of World War II’s end. If they are still breathing on this earth, they’re likely confounded by iPhones and Instagram and hashtags. They’re probably nibbling on some Key Lime Pie while they admire photos of their grandkids on their fridge. They’re probably nothing like us.

But o—they are.

Because we have our seashells.

Fifty-five year-olds don’t wake up one day and decide to squander their (presumably) wisest years on Florida’s shores. Those decisions began when they were fifteen. They were reinforced at twenty-five. They were on cruise control in their thirties, and thirsted for in their forties in order to be admired in their fifties. “Early retirement,” they said to each other one day, nodding in eager agreement. “We never have to work again.”

My concern, to be clear, is not that millennials are going to check out in twenty years and start scouring beaches.

My concern is we already are.

If an asteroid struck the earth today and froze us all in time for someone to dig out our global Pompeii centuries later and the only remaining sociological record was Instagram, what would be said of America’s* able-bodied strength right now? That we had cute succulents and clever felt board signs? Funny tweets and dog vines?

We’re meant to give ourselves to something that matters. We’re built to go all-in.[5] We’re meant to invest our numbered, ever-limited days in this age into the next, into the Kingdom coming. I can’t tell you what that looks like for you. Only your Maker can, because He wired you for something magnificent and particular for you. Something that’s too good for a curated Instagram feed and branded profile. Your mouth is meant to declare a message that will resound throughout eternity. We’re going to stand before Him and “give account,”[6] and I hope we give ourselves to braver answers than “yes, but look at this time I saw a waterfall in Iceland!” (Or, “yes, but look at all the hours I spent looking at other peoples’ photos of a waterfall in Iceland!”) We’re meant to answer “What did you do for the least of these?”[7] with something better than “but Jesus, look at my succulent! And did You taste my pour-over? I am so good at pour-overs….”

It’s 2018, so I feel like I have to qualify all these statements. I use Instagram. I so appreciate a good pour-over. I specifically and deliberately follow funny accounts and watch dog videos on repeat. I really want to go to Iceland. And I’m committed to exalting Jesus and prioritizing places and people groups that don’t yet. Those things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. But I think we’ve collectively checked out much sooner than Bob and Penny ever did.

You don’t have to get on an airplane to be a hero, or go die on some foreign field to leave a legacy. (And if those are your motivations, you really shouldn’t go anyway.) But if you are looking for something that’ll survive the fire when He comes,[8] I would like to invite you to consider going where no Christian has gone before and tell Gospel-ignorant hearts about the wonder and beauty of Jesus. And I invite you to consider getting trained well enough to pronounce it properly when you do.

We’re accepting applications for our 2019 Al-Raed Arabic Program. The deadline is just after (American) Thanksgiving, so you have a little more than a month left to get your name on the roster.

I urge you to consider doing one of two things:

Sign up. Move to the Middle East. Get trained in the context of a field community. Learn the language. Then move somewhere really isolated and find out how it feels to make much of Jesus where He’s never been heard before.

Send someone. Language acquisition is not for the faint of heart, and neither are its costs. Help pay someone’s tuition costs, and begin to build a long-term relationship to get rope burns on your hands. You don’t have to move abroad to join the team.

Alternatively, consider enrolling in Emmaus Online. If you love Jesus, this program is for you. If you have internet, this program is accessible to you. Wherever you are, and whatever you do, get further equipped in your God-given giftings to better carve out your God-ordained legacy. If you’re looking for a short-term immersion overseas, check out our Emmaus Intensive.

All programs launch in February. We hope you’ll jump in.

because Jesus,
Stephanie Quick
Director, Emmaus Online





Stephanie Quick is a writer and producer serving with Frontier Alliance International in the Middle East. She is the author of To Trace a Rising Sun and can be found on on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Sign up for her ministry updates here and receive a free copy of her book Confronting Unbelief. She can be reached at stephanie@stephaniequick.org.


[1] Zylstra, Sarah E. (2017). How John Piper’s Seashells Swept Over a Generation. desiringGod. Retrieved from https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-john-pipers-seashells-swept-over-a-generation/
[2] Piper, J. (2017). Don’t waste your life: Seven minutes that moved a generation. desiringGod. Retrieved from https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/boasting-only-in-the-cross/excerpts/dont-waste-your-life
[3] See 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 1 John 2:18; Revelation 1:3; 22:20
[4] Ephesians 5:16
[5] Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Matthew 22:36-40
[6] Matthew 12:36; Romans 14:12; Hebrews 4:13; 13:17; 1 Peter 4:5
[7] Matthew 25:31-46
[8] See 1 Corinthians 3:10-15