Frail as Summer’s Flower
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Frail as Summer’s Flower

Psalm 90:1–17  (ID: 3172)

People are uncomfortable talking or even thinking about death—yet it will happen to each of us at some point. Teaching from Psalm 90, Alistair Begg contrasts our brief lives with God’s eternity and reminds us that we die because we rebel against His righteous ways. How can we prepare to meet a holy God? Only by trusting in the provision He has made in Christ. As believers rest in His mercy and grace, we gain wisdom to number our days aright.

Sermon Transcript: Print

Father, thank you that in Jesus, “death’s dark night is overcome.”[1] And we pray that as we turn to the Bible, you will teach us about this immense truth in order that our lives might be touched and changed. For we ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.

Well, we read part of Psalm 90. I’d like to read the balance of it if you turn there again. Psalm 90 and beginning at the ninth verse: “For all our days,” writes Moses,

       pass away under your wrath;
 we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
 or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
 they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
 and your wrath according to the fear of you?

So teach us to number our days
 that we may [gain] a heart of wisdom.
Return, O Lord! How long?
 Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
 that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
 and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
 and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
 and establish the work of our hands upon us;
 yes, establish the work of our hands!


I’ve asked for a couple of pictures just to be put on the screen to set the context for our reading of this Ninetieth Psalm. And this is as a result of my travels. You say, “Well, you must be feeling rather morbid or something.” No, not at all. I told you that I visit cemeteries. And this was in suburban Philadelphia about ten days ago. And I was thinking about how quickly life passes, and I’ve been pondering it ever since and want to address it with you this morning.

The writer of Ecclesiastes says it is better to go to a funeral than a party, “because the living should always remind themselves that death is waiting for us all.”[2] “The living should always remind themselves.” That, incidentally, is one of the reasons to have a graveyard in the property of a church: so that as the people routinely come to that church building, it’s virtually impossible for them not to be confronted by their mortality, to be reminded that someone—a loved one or a friend—is there, their earthly remains laid down in that ground, and that one day they, too, will be if Christ does not return to take them first.

So, as we think along these lines, we have to be honest and say, quite honestly, it is the case that we by and large seek to avoid any thought of death at all, and particularly any notion of the prospect of our own death. It is by definition impossible for us actually to imagine our own death, because the only way we can do it is while we’re alive. So you can’t imagine being dead without being dead, and then you couldn’t imagine it at all. So it is a fact that has to be faced. And face it everyone eventually does. The point of Psalm 90 is that it is supposed to be faced by those who are living.

Christopher Hitchens, my favorite atheist of old—the late Christopher Hitchens—tells of how he, unlike other men, discovered the reality of mortality not with the death of his father, which people often say: “When my father died, then I realized that my name was next on the list.” No, Hitchens says—quoting him—“unfilial as this may seem, that was not at all so in my … case. It was only when I watched [my son] being born that I knew at once that my own funeral director had very suddenly, but quite unmistakably, stepped onto the stage. I was surprised by how calmly I took this, but also … how reluctant I was to mention it.”[3]

So, here’s the question: Why do we have to die at all? And why does the prospect come around so quickly?

Now, the Ninetieth Psalm is not unique in this respect. It’s part of a larger body. But nevertheless, it helps us answer that question, and with a very, very solid answer. It is routinely a funeral psalm. I acknowledge that. In the Anglican prayer book, it is one of the required readings, along with the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. And often when it is read—and you will perhaps have heard it read—it is read in such a way that the difficult parts are removed by the minister or the pastor or the vicar. And so, for example, they we will read, “You sweep [men] away as with a flood” and “a dream” and so on. And the poetry of it is all there. And then it drops down: “The years of our life are seventy, or even by … strength eighty.” But what it skips out is “We are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.” And so, hoping to try and, as it were—it’s a strange thought, isn’t it?—to try and clean the psalm up, you know, for the average twenty-first-century listener or participant, the psalm is, then—actually, the message of it is not simply obscured; it is completely destroyed. Often, when you read the Bible—and perhaps you’re wondering about the Bible, and you’ve only begun to read it, and you’re tempted to say, “Well, I’ve got to read only the parts that aren’t the difficult parts.” The difficult parts are all the necessary parts. The difficult parts are all the good parts. It is in those parts that you will find the greatest answers. And so, I think this morning you’ll find that.

Moses, the Man of God

What I want to do is just trace a line through this psalm. If your Bible is open, you will notice that it is “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.” So we know who wrote it. Moses, who led the people out of Egypt, who led them in the wilderness, has penned this psalm somewhere along that journey. And he begins addressing God as the eternal and unchanging, immortal God. It’s a wonderful beginning: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”

Now, think of that for just a moment. They had no dwelling place, did they? They had come out of Egypt. They were wandering in the wilderness. They were in a kind of tented facility. They were migrants. They were moving about here and there. They had the symbol of the presence of God among them in their camp. And so Moses says, “We want to affirm the fact that you, actually, are our dwelling place.”

And if you are a believer today, God is your dwelling place. Colossians 3: your life is “hid with Christ in God.”[4] “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from [there] we await a Savior,”[5] and so on—so that our true identity, as we’ve been seeing in Ephesians, is that we have actually been lifted up and raised into the heavenly realms in Christ. And Moses is anticipating all of the fullness of that. When he gave his blessing to his people before he died—and you can read it in Deuteronomy 33—one of the parts of the blessing is to say to them, “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”[6] They’re inevitably saying, “Well, what’s going to happen now, when Moses, the man of God, is taken away?” He says, “I want to commend you to God, who is the everlasting God. He is the dwelling place through all generations. It’s not going to end at this moment. It was so before, and it will be so afterwards.”

Now, this is what the Bible says. And man—that is, men and women—in our rebellion against God push back on what the Bible says. The Bible says that the things that are evidences of God both as Creator and as the sustainer of the universe are “clearly” seen. And men recognize them because he “has shown it to them.” But although they are “clearly perceived” and man is “without excuse”… “Although”—and I’m quoting Paul now—“although they knew God”—i.e., they knew that God existed and that he created the universe, and so do you. “Ever since the creation of the world” these things were there. “They knew God”; they “did[n’t] honor … God”; they didn’t “give thanks to him … they became futile in their thinking … their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be [really bright], they became fool[ish],” and they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God”—that is, the God who is our dwelling place through all generations—they exchanged that “for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things,”[7] so that even today, you can just go right out here. Go to Blossom Time, and you will see sort of twenty-first-century evidences of the fact that man has decided that God’s revelation of himself, although it is undeniable, is unacceptable; and what is far more acceptable is to believe what I want to believe and to apply my mind to it in that way. Well, it doesn’t alter the fact.

God’s Immortality and Man’s Brevity

So, God is immortal. “Before the mountains were brought forth…” I was reading just yesterday—I think I was reading out loud to Sue. I’m not sure she was listening. But I was reading about Stonehenge and how old Stonehenge is. And somebody in the book said, you know, people used to believe that Stonehenge was like fourteen hundred years old, but now we know that it is, you know, like fourteen million years old, or whatever crazy thing it was. Well, I said out loud, I said, “Who says? Who says? And even so…” You can do with that whatever you want, but let me tell you what: before Stonehenge, “before the mountains were brought forth,” before “you had [ever] formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you [alone] are God.” That’s the foundational piece. That’s where it starts. That’s why [Spurgeon] says this is where man must start. We are tempted to begin with ourselves and then extrapolate to divinity. [Spurgeon] says no. It is when we descend from “a devout musing upon … the Godhead”[8] that we then are able to understand ourselves and why we were made and to what purpose. Well, that is how Moses starts: “God, you are immortal.”

Second point: we are not. “You are. We’re not.” Look at verse 3: “You return man to dust.” “To dust.” That’s why in the funeral service, in the words of committal, the minister will eventually say, “And we now commit the body of our dear brother to the ground, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” It is a reference to the early chapters of Genesis: “On the day that you eat of this, you will surely die”[9]—and you will return to dust. People push back on this. And yet I see them, because they tell me, “I won’t be here for a few days, because I’m taking my loved one,” you know, “to the Poconos,” or wherever it is. Why are they going there? “Well, I’m going to scatter them there.” Scatter what there? Oh, you mean scatter them like Psalm 90:3? I get it. And people who actually want to deny the reality of things carry with them the very evidences of the truthfulness of the Scriptures: “From dust you came, and to dust you will return.”[10]

And so he takes these metaphors. You see? “You sweep them away as with a flood.” What happens? It’s like you’re just swept away on a flood. Or “like a dream”: “Did I dream? Did I dream just now, or was that last night?” It was here, and it was gone. The grass that looked so fresh and bright in the springtime looks so withered and dry now. These are all the pictures. Isaac Watts, the hymn writer, picked them up and put them in his hymn “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” And that’s why when we sing the words “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away,”[11] we’re actually singing a paraphrase of Psalm 90:5.

Even if we were to live for a thousand years—if you just let your eye go down—even if we were to live for a thousand years, then it’s nothing. Because a thousand years is as a day in relationship to God.[12] It’s like somebody who has tons and tons and tons and tons and tons and tons of money. A hundred-dollar bill is nothing in comparison to all of that cash. Now, if you live to be a thousand, then that would be like three hours in God’s time, forty winks. And here’s the deal: you’re not going to live to be a thousand, and neither am I. So if you live to be seventy or maybe eighty, it isn’t even five minutes. That’s a life: gone!

The universal fear that underlies every fear is the fear of death. That’s why the Bible addresses it.

Now, why does the psalmist do this? Is this some kind of morbid introspection? Has Moses just been having a really bad day and wants to just give everybody else a bad day? No, he is doing, under the direction of God’s Spirit himself, that which is necessary in order to bring foolish humanity to its senses. It runs the whole way through the Bible. Elsewhere in the Psalms he says, “Show me, tell me, how fleeting I am.”[13] “My days are [faster],” says the prophet, “than a weaver’s shuttle.”[14] James says, “My life is like a morning mist: it appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”[15]

No, we can’t escape this. Verse 10: “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty.” “Eighty.” Now, you just—some of you are actuarial people. You’re in the insurance industry. You use these actuarial tables. And we know that life expectancy is different in the Western world than it was fifty years or a hundred years ago. But by and large, it’s sure not pushing the limits, isn’t it? And our attempt to say that seventy is the new fifty is just part of our ability to try and push it back as far as we can. Because we don’t like the numbers getting that close. We don’t like walking through the cemetery now, because the dates seem to be catching up with us. It used to be easy. You would say, “Oh, look at that! I can’t imagine. Somebody was born in 1927.” Now they were born in 1949, 1951, 1952. “Whoa! This is a little too close for comfort.” And that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be! Death has not yet reached you, but let it shake the chains, rattle you, confront you, wound you in order to heal you, scare you in order to grant you security.[16]

You see, the very thing that we want to run away from… I mean, when McCartney and Lennon recorded “When I’m Sixty-Four,” I was fourteen. That’s fifty years ago! I’m amazed that I can even remember something that happened fifty years ago. Well, it’s just indicating what it is.

Can you imagine us years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy!

Like an “old friend.”[17] You’re staring it in the face, Begg. And so are you.

God’s Wrath and Man’s Sin

Now, why do we have to die? Why? From whence cometh death? The atheist has no answer. The secularist has no explanation. The Bible has the answer. It’s right here in verse 7: “We are brought to an end by your anger; [and] by your wrath we are dismayed.” What is he saying? He’s saying that death is the punishment for man’s rebellion. You remember in the garden? “You mustn’t do this, but in the day you do, you will definitely die.”[18] And death enters into the world through sin. And you don’t need to simply stay in Psalm 90. Read the rest of your Bible. Read what Paul has to say, for example, in Romans chapter 5.

Now, before recoiling from this, think it out: God—who is perfect, immutable, eternal, perfect in his justice, perfect in his wisdom—is not indifferent to man’s rebellion. You don’t want an indifferent God. You don’t want to play golf with someone who says there are no rules. You don’t want cardiothoracic surgery from somebody who says, “Hey, what’s an artery between friends?” You want to make sure that that person knows what’s in and knows what’s out. Therefore, how could it possibly be that the eternal, perfect creator of the universe would then say, “Oh, your rebellion doesn’t matter”? It matters. And he dealt with it. And in the flood he dealt with it. And in banishing them from the garden he dealt with it. And in the flood, he provided a way of escape;[19] and in banishing them from the garden, he provided them clothing and covering for their nakedness[20]—all ultimately pointing to the fact that death is dealt with in the provision of God’s perfect Son.

So, God’s settled reaction to man’s rebellion has brought death into the world. And that notion is challenged, as we saw in Romans 1, not just by people in the street, but it’s also challenged by pastors in their pulpits. Many a man who is apparently a teacher of the Bible does not really believe this stuff. I say it to the shame of it all. But if we’re going to hold to the Bible, we have to believe in it. The indignation of God is seen in the frustration and in the envy and in the decay and in the transience of our lives. If we live for eighty years, if you go into extra time, as the FA Cup Final did yesterday—although many of you won’t care about that. But nevertheless, Manchester United won in extra time yesterday afternoon. There are ninety minutes, and then it’s extra time. There’s seventy years, and then it’s extra time.

And the settled reaction of God is revealed not only in the passing of time through our fingers but in the reality of our guilt. Verse 8: “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.” Oh, here’s the rub, isn’t it? Here are the two great fears. The universal fear that underlies every fear is the fear of death. That’s why the Bible addresses it. And accompanying that and adding power to its terror is our personal awareness of guilt—that we know ourselves to be guilty. We know that there are things we ought not to have done; we know that there are things we ought to have done. And judged by the standard of God’s perfection, there’s not a person, save God’s own Son Jesus, that stands guiltless before the bar of his testimony. And it is before that God that we will eventually stand.

So, the idea that my iniquities have been set before him and my secret sins are known in the light of his presence—either I’m going to have to reckon with that, or I’m just going to have to do a cover-up. I’m going to have to do a Paul Simon on the whole project. Right? (This is ’60s Sunday.) “Through the…” (You say, “It’s always ’60s Sunday with you.”)

Through the corridors of sleep,
Past the shadows dark and deep,
My mind dances and leaps in confusion.
I don’t know what is real,
I can’t touch what I feel,
And I hide behind the shield of my illusion.

So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
That my life will never end
And [that] flowers never bend
With the rainfall.[21]

Now, it rained yesterday. If you have any children of any age or size at all, they know that with sufficient force, flowers bend with the rainfall. To say that it isn’t so is to deny reality. “So I’ll continue to continue to pretend that my life will never end.” Why? Because it suits me.

Woody Allen is the archetypal nihilist. I’ve said that to you before. Somebody gave me a wonderful quote from him just recently. This is what he says: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. … I want to achieve [immortality] through not dying.”[22] “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.”[23] That’s funny! But it’s dead honest, isn’t it? Why? ’Cause he’s got no answer. And because he knows he’s guilty, whether he’ll admit it to me or to you or not. But to himself he must. And because he knows that death is coming for him.

The Bible is so wonderfully clear. But here’s the real question, isn’t it? Verse 11: “Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?” In other words, who puts these two things together? By and large, people don’t. People will say all kinds of things about death: “Well, it’s just inevitable,” or “Won’t be there when it happens,” or “There’s nothing to fear, because there’s nothing there.” And they say all kinds of things. Or they’ll say, “We’re going to go on and on and forever and ever.” But it’s all an attempt to wrestle with the fact that we fail to put these things together, considering the power—the justifiable power—of God’s anger to punish sin, the right execution of his wrath against our rebellion and our indifference, and to say, “Golly, unless this same God before whom I stand condemned does something on my behalf, I’ve got no hope.” That’s what we’ve been studying in Ephesians. Isn’t that what we saw? Paul says to the Ephesians, he says, “Remember that before you understood who Jesus is and what Jesus had done, you were like other people: you were without God, and you were without hope in the world.”[24]

A String of Requests

So, the psalm ends with just a string of requests, doesn’t it? “Teach us to number our days that we may [gain] a heart of wisdom.” Strange request, isn’t it? Is this a request for mathematical ability? No. But it is estimated that fifteen thousand people died annually in the wilderness wanderings—fifteen thousand a year. So you’ve got fifteen thousand people dying since January 1 through the end of the year, and you need your leader to have a prayer: “O God, teach us to number our days aright.” What, like you can’t see fifteen thousand people dying?

Yeah, but it happens all the time, doesn’t it? You walk through the cemeteries like me. Do you say to yourself, “I will never be here; this won’t happen to me”? You attended your friends’ funerals. You went with the guys who got killed on the motorbike. You’ve gone through all of that stuff. And somehow or another, if you’re not in Christ, you just walk away from it again and again and again. It’s like a child putting his fingers in his ears and his hands over his eyes: “Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah! No, we’ll be fine. Turn the radio up. Let’s go get something to drink.” Doesn’t work.

We need to be taught. “Give me a heart of wisdom.” What does that mean? Well, part of the nature of our rebellion against God is that we just don’t want to do this. Ecclesiastes 7: someone who’s always thinking about happiness is a fool; a wise person thinks about death. A wise person thinks about death. “Teach us.”

“Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!” You can imagine Moses there, in the middle of all these wilderness wanderings. He’s saying, “You got us out of Egypt, and look at the mess we’re in now. Could you come and do something again?” In fact, when you read that quote, it’s almost a direct quote from Exodus 32. It is the context of the golden calf, remember? “Lord, intervene on behalf of your people once again.”

“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Well, there’s a shaving mirror verse if ever there was one, huh? There’s one of your little things for your dashboard. It’s a lovely verse, isn’t it? But where does it come? What makes it so lovely? The background! “We’re brought to an end by your anger. You’ve set our iniquities before you. Our secret sins are known to you. Our life is ebbing away. Satisfy us. Satisfy us.”

Woody Allen again. Listen to this! Can you believe this is Woody Allen? “There will be no solution to the suffering of mankind until we reach some understanding of who we are, what the purpose of creation was, what happens after death. Until [these] questions are resolved, we are caught.”[25] Absolutely true. I’d love to have the chance to share Psalm 90 with him. But he’s not here. So I can only share it with you.

What is this steadfast love? What is this covenant love of God? Where does it ultimately find its fulfillment? It all points right through to “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”[26] “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son [to be] an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”[27]

I wonder where you are in relationship to this this morning. I know some of you think, “Golly,” you know, “just ’cause it’s his birthday, he thinks he can lay this on us? It’s terrible. He’s having his own personal crisis.” Well, I may be having a crisis, but that’s none of your business. I’m just telling you about Psalm 90 right now.

You see, our death has been handled by the death of another. Our life is found in the life of another. Our destiny is, before the throne of God, to give an account. “It is appointed unto man once to die”—there ain’t no second go-around—“and after that comes the judgment.”[28] And the story of Christianity is that God in Christ has entered into our death, into our rebellion, into our suffering, into our sin, and has taken upon himself these things so that those of us who turn from ourselves to embrace him as a Savior need not fear that day but may rest in the provision of Jesus.

Townend and Getty have done us a great favor, haven’t they, with their songs?

Jesus is Lord—the tomb is gloriously empty;
Not even death could crush this King of love.
The price is paid, the chains are loosed, and we’re forgiven,
And we can run into the arms of God.[29]

Have you ever run, as it were, into the arms of God? Such a wonderful picture there in Luke 15, isn’t it? Of the guy who’s a complete wreck, a mess, overburdened by his sin, and he runs into the arms of God, represented as the father.[30]

Well, you may be just a youngster today. Don’t wait until you’re old.

Remember your Creator
 in the days of your youth,
before the [time] of trouble come[s][31]

—before you’re older, losing your hair, “many years from now,” wondering if anyone will still send you “a valentine, birthday greetings, a bottle of wine.”[32] You know, that kind of thing. Now is the time. Now is always the time.

Father, thank you for the insistence of your Word. Thank you for the clarity of the Bible. Thank you that you confront us with these daunting and very clear statements concerning our own transience in order that we might discover all that is ours, made available to us in your eternal Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We remember how he said to the sisters, “I am the resurrection and the life; [and] he [that] believes in me, [even] though he die, yet shall he live, and who[so]ever lives and believes in me [will] never die.” And then he said, “Do you believe this?” Lord, grant that we might answer, “Yes, Lord; I believe.”[33]

Hear our prayers. Let our cry come to you. For Christ’s sake. Amen.

[1] Kristyn Getty, “What Grace Is Mine” (2008).

[2] Ecclesiastes 7:2 (GNT).

[3] Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22: A Memoir (London: Atlantic, 2010), 340n.

[4] Colossians 3:3 (KJV).

[5] Philippians 3:20 (ESV).

[6] Deuteronomy 33:27 (ESV).

[7] Romans 1:21–23 (ESV).

[8] C. H. Spurgeon, “The Immutability of God,” New Park Street Pulpit 1, no. 1, 1.

[9] Genesis 2:17 (paraphrased).

[10] Genesis 3:19 (paraphrased).

[11] Isaac Watts, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” (1719).

[12] See 2 Peter 3:8.

[13] Psalm 39:4 (paraphrased).

[14] Job 7:6 (ESV).

[15] James 4:14 (paraphrased).

[16] Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, a Time to Dance, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1976), 104.

[17] Paul Simon, “Old Friends” (1968).

[18] Genesis 2:17 (paraphrased).

[19] See 1 Peter 3:20–22.

[20] See Genesis 3:21.

[21] Paul Simon, “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall” (1965).

[22] Woody Allen, quoted in Eric Lax, On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy (New York: Charterhouse, 1975), 232.

[23] Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation with Stig Björkman, interview with Stig Björkman (New York: Grove, 1995), 105. Paraphrased.

[24] Ephesians 2:12 (paraphrased).

[25] Woody Allen, quoted in Michael Green, Critical Choices (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1995), 28.

[26] John 1:29 (ESV).

[27] 1 John 4:10 (NIV).

[28] Hebrews 9:27 (paraphrased).

[29] Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, “Jesus Is Lord—the Cry That Echoes through Creation” (2003).

[30] See Luke 15:11–24.

[31] Ecclesiastes 12:1 (NIV).

[32] John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “When I’m Sixty-Four” (1967).

[33] John 11:25–27 (RSV).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.