Thoughts on the Death of R.C. Sproul

Sometimes just mentioning a man’s name makes a statement. I am not alone this week in mourning the loss of R.C. Sproul. He died just days ago near his home in FL. His ministries are manifold. They include Ligonier Ministries, sermons, lectures, teaching series, apologetics resources, CDs, and books, books, books. For me, R.C. Sproul made more than a statement. He formed and re-formed much of my thinking. Sproul’s ministry legacy will endure. Why? He was a stalwart defender and soldier of Christian orthodoxy. He had a pastor’s shepherding heart. He had a sharp theologian-philosopher’s mind. He had the sensitivity and attention to detail of a poet-writer.

When I was grappling with intellectual questions surrounding the problem of evil, R.C. did not sidestep tough questions surrounding the sovereignty of God and the existence of evil. He wrote volumes about how God is altogether holy, altogether sovereign, and how evil is obviously part of God’s decree to exalt Christ while calling all men to repent and turn to the saving gospel. Sproul did not evade tensions that thoughtful seekers asked. Through Ligonier Ministries and R.C.’s books, I discovered answers to tough questions.

Like thousands of others, my first exposure to R.C. Sproul was through his book The Holiness of God. I can still remember reading of his descriptions of Isaiah 6, and of how Isaiah learned of God’s consummate holiness. In light of God’s glory, Isaiah saw his own sinfulness, and the atoning work of God through the gospel. To read, and then later to listen, to Sproul explain the gospel by plumbing the holiness of God shook my thinking to its foundations.

After I read The Holiness of God, I went on to read and study Sproul’s other works. They are too numerous to mention all of them here, but they’re easily found. I remember reading Chosen by God and The Consequences of Ideas and Lifeviews. For me, those books were especially meaningful. Why? Because Sproul, and this is so important to me, he did not evade the thorny issues. He tackled the Bible’s teaching of predestination head- on in Chosen by God. He did not pander to keep from hurting feelings. He was, in short, faithful to God’s Word, but kind in his delivery.

In The Consequences of Ideas, Sproul walked me through the history of thought and showed how the Bible cohered where Greek ideas came up short, and/or omitted parts of universal human experience. He showed me (again) how the empiricism of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume failed to account for all the data. He showed me how Kant and Hegel fell short of answering fundamental questions and experiences. He showed me how existentialism and secularism had their philosophical feet planted in midair. In Lifeviews, Sproul tackled head-on the tendencies that many people have to settle for sentimentality, pragmatism, pluralism, and hedonism rather than the truth.

When my wife and I went to R.C.’s church in FL a few years ago to hear him in person, I was thrilled. I’d read his books for years. I had listened to him on teaching conferences. I had watched his lectures on Reformed theology and apologetics. And after his sermon, he sat on a chair in the church narthex and greeted us. My wife and I stepped up. He had breathing tubes in his nostrils. He shook our hands as I introduced us to him. True to form, he was gracious. He asked where we were from and where I’d studied during seminary years, etc. But he was a pastor, too, a gracious, faithful, gentle giant and theologian, one for whom I’m grateful. As just one more who is in your debt, R.C., thank you for your faithfulness to use what God granted you. Well done.

The End of the Matter (Part one)

“Lily, where are you going?” Nathanael asked quietly.

“I forgot something. Will you excuse me?”

“You’re leaving—now? Just when class has started?”

“I’m sorry. I will explain later. I will be back.”

Nathanael looked back at Tim in an effort of maintaining decorum. Alice faced Beth and Desiree, who sat adjacent one another. Beth’s bracelets formed brass-colored columns of Slinkies up both wrists and forearms, black polish on the ends of the masculine hands, but her countenance had changed. When Lily crossed out of the room, Beth sat higher in her silver folding chair, appearing taller.

“I don’t understand,” Alice said.

“Perhaps she is returning to Rook,” Beth whispered contemptuously, but laughed loud enough for the others to hear. Alice looked at Desiree Dramal whose long legs coiled about desired objects, seeking warmth. Desiree did not speak.

“Desiree, what happened?” Alice asked. Desiree cut her eyes at Beth instead and smiled but did not answer Alice.

Nathanael looked at Tim and waited for him to resume teaching.

“You were saying, Alice, that trusting God involved trusting his nature, right?”

But Alice now thought only of Lily. She wanted to know where she had gone and why. She looked at Tim, at Nathanael, at Beth and Desiree. Lily’s scent hung in the classroom.

“Tim, we’ll move over up closer to you now, if that’s alright,” Desiree Dramal said, sliding onto the chair Lily had left.

Nathanael straightened his spine and pressed his Oxford shirt with his right hand inside his sport coat, as if he were suddenly cold. Desiree and Beth wound around him. Alice remained where she was, uncertain what to do or where to turn. For the first time, Nathanael seemed unsettled, like scales had turned.

Hearing with Faith

Lily twitched birdlike at Nathanael’s touch. Nathanael was refined in his speech and manners, so Lily was embarrassed at her nervousness. The cantaloupe in her throat swelled.

“I did not mean to startle you,” Nathanael said softly, as Beth prattled.

“I’m sorry. Yes, Glim is fine. Finding my way, you know, my place.”

From his stool, Tim saw Beth make herself the focus of attention again but he was patient.

“Yes, of course. Desiree, welcome back. We are thankful you have come. And Alice, welcome,” Tim said.

Beth sat with both legs pressed firmly onto the classroom floor, arms akimbo on her hips, waiting for Tim to congratulate her.

“And Lily, welcome to you again, too. We are grateful you have all come. I think everyone else is our marrow. Glad to be gathered with you all,” Tim continued.

Beth glowered at Tim, crossed her arms over her chest, and the sleeve of bracelets on her arms looked to Lily like a brass Slinky toy.

Lily’s eyes twinkled when she looked amusingly at Nathanael. He sat composed with his coffee, apparently thankful for Tim’s acumen.

“We will resume in the story of Ruth this morning,” Tim said. He had a worn Bible on the music stand serving as a lectern and colored Post-its and bookmarks taped throughout with annotations. Suddenly Lily thought of her own Bibles and books of literature and writing in her classroom and in her apartment with their notes and her musings on her reading. She warmed to Tim more each time she came to Beulah.

“Let’s review, shall we? First, there was a famine in Judah, the hometown region, if you will, of the main characters—Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth. Naomi, along with her husband and two sons, travels to Moab out of desperation. The sons married Moabite women. But Naomi’s husband and two sons die, and she is left with two Moabite daughters-in-law. She is a widow in the ancient Near East. She had gone seeking relief from the famine and instead found herself a widow, a decade later, with daughters-in-law, bereft, and longing to return to her home back in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah.”

“As I said last time, Tim. Remaining at home and fighting for what’s yours is often the best way. That’s what Naomi should have known,” Beth interjected.

“Really?” Tim asked. “You think that’s what is going on here? After all, Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, was taking his wife, Naomi, and their two sons to Moab in hopes of providing for them because there was a famine in Judah. Yet you think Naomi should have remained in a barren land to fight for what was hers? What exactly was hers? And what would she have been fighting for?”

Lily and Nathanael smiled to themselves and fought the urge to look at Beth.

“I just know that moving away does not win any victories,” Beth exclaimed.

Looking up from his Bible, Tim asked, “Do others have thoughts about this? Would Naomi, as Beth suggested, have been better off to remain and, as she said, fight?”

Nathanael sipped his coffee as if pleased with the class’s silent response. Lily stared at the empty seat between Nathanael and her; she wished it were not there.

“Tim, I know I’m a guest, but I see something here.” It was Alice.

“Yes, what is it, Alice?”

“It reminds me of a book I read recently about hearing from God.”

“Can you explain? I’m not sure I follow you.”

“Naomi was learning that hearing from God involves trusting his nature, especially when tragedy strikes.”

“That is excellent, Alice. Can you continue?”

“Naomi and her family were desperate. They left looking to God to provide for them. She was doing what any reasonable believer should do—go. Go, but go trusting God.

“And as she went, more tragedy struck. The men in her life died and she was now more destitute. But she was about to hear from God, even through the tragedies, right?”

“It is as you say, Alice. Thank you for that,” Tim said.

Lily pictured the unread book about hearing from God on her kitchen table and burned in shame.

(To be continued)

 

 

 

The Lump

Lily’s Adam’s apple transformed into a cantaloupe, she believed. Suddenly she felt unable to swallow. Beth’s voice crashed inside Lily’s ears and the ruined hair appeared garish gold under the Sunday school room’s fluorescent lights.

“Good morning, Alice. It’s nice to see you,” Lily said.

“You bet!” Alice said smiling.

Lily turned next to greet Desiree Dramal but was interrupted.

“Looks like someone finally got to a classroom before you,” Beth said. “I came early with two of my oldest friends.”

Lily smiled in silence at Beth.

“Ms. Rood, have you been visiting Beulah long?” Desiree Dramal asked.

“Since moving to Glim, yes,” Lily said. “And you?” Lily longed to elude being the subject of public conversation.

Desiree shifted one long leg six inches behind her as if she were coiling to strike. “Not exactly, Ms. Rood. My family and I are members of Beulah but we don’t feel obligated to attend as if that were more pleasing to God. We know better.”

Lily felt the cantaloupe in her throat again. Is it possible, she wondered, for Beth Aims and Desiree Dramal to be more loathsome? Did evil replicate more than good?

“Lily, welcome back. I’m glad to see you have met some more new friends.” Tim had seen Lily enter and disappear into the den of Beth, Desiree, and Alice.

“Thank you, Tim. I was eager to hear you teach again,” ignoring the part about new friends.

“We’ll be in Ruth again, okay. Anyway, I’ll let you ladies continue. Just wanted to welcome you back.” Tim walked back over towards his stool and lectern. Lily glimpsed Nathanael sitting where he had sat before when his parents came. Nathanael sat sipping coffee in equipoise and resumed a subdued conversation with Tim. Nathanael looked at Lily and smiled and said “Good morning” silently with his lips.

“Lily, sit here by Beth, Desiree, and me,” Alice said. “I saved a seat for you.”

“Thank you, Alice, but I was sitting over there this morning,” nodding in the direction of Tim and Nathanael.

“It’s okay, Alice. Not to worry,” Beth said. “We’ll see Ms. Rood soon enough.”

“You bet, Lily,” Alice said.

Lily walked over towards Nathanael and sat next to him with one seat empty between them, opened her Bible app again on her phone, and felt stares upon her. When she looked over towards Alice in hopes she had not hurt her feelings, Desiree Dramal had her right leg twisted around her left one like wild ivy vines around a tree. Lily felt the cantaloupe in her throat.

“Good morning, everyone,” Tim said, settling onto his stool behind a black music stand serving as a lectern. “What an impressive group we have this morning.” Lily felt her throat muscles begin to relax when the sound of metallic bracelets filled the air.

“Tim, I wanted everyone to see two of my dearest friends—Desiree and Alice. Please make them feel welcome,” Beth interjected.

Lily’s cantaloupe pushed against the walls of her throat as Nathanael touched her on the shoulder.

“Good morning, Ms. Rood. Glim treating you well so far?”

(To be continued)

 

 

 

 

Sunday Morning

Lily awoke in the predawn. Mauve light bathed her bedroom walls and bed. She cherished early hours, especially sunrises, as if they declared messages. Her worn copy of Wuthering Heights had tumbled onto the bedroom floor beside the bed. Lily leaned over the side of her bed and retrieved the novel. She placed it on her nightstand beside the other books. She showered and dressed for Beulah. She brewed coffee and toasted an English muffin for breakfast. Finally she brushed her teeth and checked herself in her bathroom mirror again before driving to Beulah.

When she arrived at church, several cars were there. Deacons and elders, she assumed, came early to prep the classrooms and church grounds for Sunday’s services. The sun grew higher in eastern sky. Lily planned to sit in her car to gather her thoughts before going to Tim’s class. She opened her purse, retrieved her iPhone and checked her Bible app. She began to read. Suddenly the shadow of someone darkened her side of her small car, startling her. She looked up nervously from her car. Donald smiled down at her. Lily smiled and exhaled. She opened her car door and grabbed her phone.

“I hope I didn’t scare you, Miss Rood,” Donald said. “I saw you pull in and thought I’d be sure you were okay.”

“I won’t lie. You did scare me, but I’m glad it’s you,” Lily said.

“Hopefully coming to Beulah does not frighten prospects,” Donald said, smiling. “May I walk you in?”

“Yes, yes. Please. No, I enjoy Beulah very much, but I had some interesting encounters at Glim’s Wal-Mart. I’m skittish now.”

“Wal-Mart? Well, I’ve lived here before Wal-Mart came, and I went there as often before they came as I have since.”

Uncertain whether she understood Donald, Lily smiled and raised her eyebrows to signal him to continue.

“I’m a farmer, Miss Rood. Well, I was. Now my boys run it. For me, Wal-Mart signals a huge shift, one I’m not sure I’m fond of.”

“I see.”

“But you said you had an interesting encounter? I hope you were not in danger,” Donald said.

“I was accused by a couple of hitting their car door with my car door in the parking lot,” Lily said, “but I didn’t. I parked about as far away from the front as possible and this couple parked right beside me when there must’ve been four acres of parking lot they could have used.”

“Sounds like there’s more to this, Miss Rood. Perhaps we can continue over coffee this week with Thomas, if you have time,” Donald said. He opened the church doors for Lily and they both entered Beulah’s narthex.

“I’d welcome that, Donald. Thank you. I know where Tim’s class is, so I’ll go on alone. I’m good now.”

Donald extended his hand and Lily inhaled the Jergens.

“Is it okay with your wife if I hug you?” Lily asked.

“I’m old enough to be your father, dear. I don’t think there’s any danger of jealousy.”

When Lily turned towards Tim’s classroom down the corridor, she heard voices issuing from within. She checked her iPhone to confirm it was on silent mode and crossed into the class, looking for Tim and Nathanael.

“Lily!” Beth said. “Welcome back. So glad you came again. I’ve brought two of my oldest friends. You know Desiree and Alice, of course.”

(To be continued)

Night

The sounds of the soldier’s voice stayed with Lily. She heard his measured tone in her mind—the way he said “Likewise” when he donned his camouflage patrol cap when leaving Waffle House. It was now after midnight as Lily drove back to her place. The March night sky was clear. Tall pines lined the two-lane blacktop highway to Glim. She thought of the soldier from Waffle House, and of the embarrassing scene with Darlene, Brandon, and their LTD in the Wal-Mart parking lot early that morning. She bristled at the thought of encountering them again.

She thought also of why Desiree Dramal had asked her to work with the spring play. How and why was Desiree Dramal involved with theater? Had Nathanael prompted that? If Nathanael wanted Lily’s help with the theater department and the spring play, why had he not asked her himself? And why was Beth being allowed to work with Desiree at all concerning Covenant? Since Covenant’s board had replaced her, she should have no say concerning Covenant, right?

The tall pines flickered past Lily’s car windows on her return drive as rapidly as the questions flashed upon her mind. When she pulled into her place, it was nearly one a.m. She opened the apartment door. At once she saw Alice’s book about hearing from God on the kitchen table. Suddenly Lily felt ashamed for not having read and returned it to Alice. Lily knew Alice was sure to ask about the book again Monday.

Lily laid her car keys and purse on the small table by the apartment’s entrance and walked over to grab the book. She glanced at the back cover and read two of the reviews: “A feast for modern Christians discontented in their pews” and “A welcome antidote for an era when doctrinal wars have created spiritual orphans.” Lily rolled her eyes and returned the book to its place on the table. It was one a.m. and she had drunk too much coffee. She removed her shoes and checked her door. She began to undress. She lay upon her bed in sweat pants and t-shirt, and looked over at her nightstand bearing Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Shakespeare’s sonnets. She laughed at herself, at the absurdity of her day, and turned again to the moors where Catherine and Heathcliff thrashed in their doom.

Sea to See

I think it was Melville who said something to the effect of contemplation being wed to the sea. I’m no different, I suppose. Not approaching the talent of a Melville, that’s certain, but I too find my mind reflecting upon time at the beach. Is it presumptuous to think we people drive or fly to the beach for reasons all that different from one another? I bet we’re more alike than that. To find reprieve from the mundane? To escape busyness and hectic schedules? To recharge our souls? To make memories with our loved ones? To gorge on crab, oysters, scallops, and shrimp? I went for all of those reasons and more. But the question remains: what did I go to the sea to see?

Back home at my desk, the small of my back hurts from many hours behind the steering wheel during the drive back. We’ve fed our pets and picked up the mail. We’ve plopped luggage down in the living room to put away later. And it’s good to be back. But what did I go to the sea to see?

First, to get away with my loved ones. Though my daughter could not go due to her schedule, the rest of us did get away. Metro Atlanta’s city lights faded into the Carolinas’ sands and brilliant stretches of sun on the Atlantic. Wispy clouds, whose shapes changed with the breezes, arrested my eyes more than a few times. Hours away from home but it felt like a universe away. But what else did I go to the sea to see?

Second, to leave the tyranny of the present. I did not take my schedule out of my backpack once. I’m a Luddite re technology. I still use a paper calendar and write my appointments in pencil to chart each day’s planned events. When most people operate comfortably on their smartphone calendars, I’m the holdout with a paper calendar and pencil. But hey, my pencil is mechanical, so there’s that. I only checked office email once, I think. I used my smartphone to take pictures of scenes I did not want to forget, but tried to stay away from news, social media, etc. It’s amazing how one’s mood improves the farther one gets from the barrage of information overload. But what else did I go to the sea to see?

Third, though not in the order of importance, is what I think I went to the sea to see. It’s one thing, I think, but it’s multifaceted. Here’s the way it washes over my mind’s eye: When my ten-year-old said each day, “Dad, let’s throw the football some more!” and I looked up from my folding chair on the sand, and he’s standing five yards away tossing the pigskin back and forth between his hands in a small spiral, and the sun’s rays shimmer off the waves over his shoulders, and the fall winds lift his blond hair as he walks closer to me shouting, “Dad, Dad, come on.” And I put down my biography of Emily Dickinson and look up to see him smile when he sees I’m coming his way to throw.

And there are the images of my wife walking barefoot up the shore looking at the shells around her tanned feet, and I can see her face brown already from a few days of sun, and I know these images will fill me long after we’ve driven west back to GA. She’s prettiest to me when she does not know I’m watching her and loving her from afar.

And I hear the gulls circling near us as we toss the football, and the pelicans fly in formation two hundred meters out, and blue pigeons strut incredibly close to us on the sands as if to let us know we’re the visitors.

It’s the wash of these sounds, the sea smells, the sun-drenched days, the unmistakable gait of one’s loved ones. The images of the leather spiraling in the sun, of one’s wife walking the beach afternoons or under stars and moonlight so bright it would be shameful to question God.

These reflections come into precious focus now, after I’m back at the desk and hear voices call my name to tell me it’s time to eat. It is as if I’m beginning to understand what I went to the sea to see.