15 December 2017

Not Now or Never, but Now and Forever

This is no eulogy. Those are best written by those who know the subject in only one or two dimensions, as the kind of objectification that’s required to eulogize comes easier to the writer who hasn’t had to put up with the humanity of the subject for any length of time. What’s more, many eulogies about religious leaders are often total snoozers, amounting to little more than pious gobbledygook. At least this offering will put you to sleep for other reasons.

True to my self-absorbed proclivities, what follows is a brief reflection on the time in which my life intersected with R.C. Sproul, who died on December 14, 2017.

It’s an odd thing to say, and I trust it'll be taken the right way, but I’m more saddened and melancholic upon hearing of his death than I anticipated. I had been watching the updates regarding his declining health and felt emotionally distant, but now that he’s gone, I’m sad. If you’ve ever had the chance to exchange witty banter with him and share in a great, big belly laugh, or found yourself in his line of vision as his eyes narrowed and his Pittsburgher growl aimed itself in your direction, you’ll know what I mean. The challenge now is to put some words down that don’t succumb to over-sentimentality.

I worked for R.C. (and Vesta) from about 2002 to 2011. They were deeply formative years. More than half of them were spent living the idealized life of DINKs (double income, no kids). Ligonier provided me with my first real taste of putting one’s professional loves into practice (out of college I did a brief stint as a high school sports beat reporter; emphasis on beat). I struggled hard with the Reformed tradition and eventually found a comfortable place within it. We traveled the world, bought our first house, adopted our first dog. Both our boys were born, the eldest of whom was baptized by R.C.

Before that, I don’t remember exactly when it was that I came across his writings, though he was one of the reasons I chose to enroll in seminary at RTS-Orlando (come to find out, the spring semester prior to the year I began was his last as an adjunct there), another reason being its proximity to Tampa, where my immediate family resides, and yet another reason being that location’s broadly Reformed ethos (at the time at least). I have a sketchy memory of my older brother forcing Grace Unknown upon me during college. After both our “conversions” to Christianity, we continued fighting about almost everything like we had before then, only now it included doctrine. He became determinedly Calvinist and, I think he’d admit this, one of those zealous types that proceeded to try to get most people around him to give their hearts to Calvin as well. For my part, I had been ravished by the Renaissance humanism of Petrarch and the Romantics and subsequently the Transcendentalists: if I couldn’t imagine a loving God sending folks to hell by their own choice, how could I entertain the possibility that they had been consigned there by an absolute decree of reprobation?

Grace Unknown went a long way into undoing some of my misconceptions about Reformed theology that I had gathered from liberal Christianity. For a while, the more Christian I became, the more I just Christianized my pluralism and universalism (e.g., God sovereignly and unconditionally saves everyone, etc.). By the time I went off to seminary and even into my Ligonier years, I simply became a recovering universalist, and a closet single-predestinarian (having made my peace with at least one side of the election coin). Nevertheless, Grace Unknown impressed upon me just how amazing and, well, unknown divine grace is. It set me on a trajectory that would forever shape the course of my journey, both in aligning and in contrasting ways. Other works of his that affected me were his Consequences of Ideas and The Last Days According to Jesus.

I only “knew” R.C., however, for a handful of years out of that decade. Unsurprisingly, it grew out of our travels together. The Sprouls adored my then wife, Liz. Not only did that help me get a job at Ligonier, but it also provided me with a great buffer when rubbing shoulders with them. I’m not a particularly friendly or open person, and am usually quite content to remain silent in most acquaintance situations when it comes to giving opinions about this or that current event or idea. Perhaps to no surprise, I found R.C. far more willing to engage in sports chitchat (with a notorious focus on the Steelers) than anything else. I get that. His day job was to have opinions, and no doubt he was constantly asked for his. In private company, when dusk fell and the wine glass half-empty, he’d talk about anything other than history or theology, probably also because he was somewhat of an angry theologian (other angry people and diplomats call this “passion”), and his blood pressure would noticeably rise. The niche that he cut out for himself in the world was oppositional, resistant. More on that later.

What I’ll cherish most is that pasta al nero di seppia on Murano in Venezia before riding a gondola to close the evening, or the family-style feast in a Firenze buca, or that lunch in a garden off the Appian Way right outside Rome, or the impromptu seafood extravaganza—in an effort to escape the cruise’s cuisine—on the isle of Rhodes, or standing on the exact spot where the Diet of Worms took place, or gazing at the intricacies of the library fa├žade in Ephesus, or the grandeur of the temple ruins in Corinth. R.C.'s presence in the party was as integral as anyone else's on these occasions—he didn't monopolize the conversation or command the room—and it’s when I got to know him as much as I ever did. We traveled overseas three times in three consecutive years (2002–2005), not to mention the many times we traveled all over the States for conferences and whatnot (but most of those times were much less intimate).

I had been to his home a few times, and once knew both his German Shepherds by name. They were good and obedient dogs, if not slightly supercilious. If I remember correctly, he had been to mine on at least three occasions, one of which was to welcome us into our new home and the latter two being baptismal parties for our sons.

My first gig straight out of seminary consisted of working directly with R.C. in developing manuscripts for publication. The preparation entailed taking a transcript of an audio/video series (e.g., Defending the Faith) and turning it into legible copy. I’d then pass that on to him and after engaging it on his own, he’d come by my office and we’d hammer out edits, trajectories, methods, arrangements, etc. For those who care about this sort of thing, imagine first getting paid to do this sort of work, and then imagine also the intimidation you may feel as a wannabe theologian in your late 20s sitting across from R.C. as he talks through and often challenges how you’ve taken this or that approach or used this or that word or phrase. On many days, it felt like sparring, and he was always gracious enough to allow it, even if what he really wanted more-or-less was a solid writer who didn’t think too much about the theological or methodological details. With no small amount of irony, it so happened that during the writing of Defending I was concurrently enrolled in John Frame’s apologetics course at RTS-Orlando. Those in the know will recognize the humor in sitting under a dyed-in-the-wool Van Tillian for three hours in the morning and then heading to the office to work on and engage with a staunch classical (Thomist) apologist. I worked very hard to keep anything that smacked of Frame out of my writing and speaking during the course of that project.

Writing like that is intense and laborious. After that first project ended, we moved on to the next one, which eventually became R.C.’s three-volume commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (Truths We Confess). But after the first volume wrapped up, thankfully a position on Tabletalk magazine opened and when asked if I’d like to join that team, I ran at the opportunity. Ghost-writing is thankless and, as I mentioned, labor-intensive work. I figured if I was going to spend any serious time writing anything of value, I’d sure like my own name on it.

By the way, therein lies an inextricable part of this story—my own name. The idea of creating a name for oneself in the cult-of-personality evangelical world was intoxicating, and the untouchable air that its leaders put off, whether they knew it or not, only drove that desire harder.

R.C. was grandfatherly by that time though. His name was secure. His place in the story of the resurgence of Calvinism (e.g., Young, Restless, Reformed), while not front and center, was nevertheless essential to its telling. Nothing he did or said seemed to come from a motivation to make his name greater than it already was. But he sure did enjoy the perks of popularity—and who wouldn’t?—the status, the financial gain, the respect, the aloof protectionist way of being in the world (after all, you’ve got to save something for those you love most). Like many successful folks he was also generous, both (from what I know) personally and professionally. He didn’t truck with the notion that just because Ligonier, for example, was a nonprofit organization that it should make a habit of compensating its employees under market value. And he also gave of his own surplus to others around him, and my family received with gratitude that generosity when it was offered (I’m still driving their 2000 Camry, which was barely broken in when I purchased it for well under the bluebook value).

I went to seminary to obtain a masters in theological studies, with no intention of seeking employment inside the institutional church, planning instead to blaze through my studies, hopefully getting grounded in the tradition along the way, and then move on to doctoral work in literature (with an eye on religion). It was not to be. I found myself “enjoying” (that’s really not the right word; it’s more like “suffering joyfully”) work in the church—teaching, mentoring, discipling, performing liturgies, and so on. There were bits of it I downright disliked as well—hospital visitations, preaching (though I have a feeling this might’ve grown on me the more I believed in myself and in the name I was making), and tolerating the conservative politics of many of the parishioners. With a great gig going at Ligonier (writing and editing and traveling the world!), I was in no hurry to get on with post-graduate studies, and when I was presented with the prospect of becoming a ministerial intern at St. Andrew's Chapel, I went for it. It’s the kind of internship most MDiv programs require of their students in order to be given a stamp of approval of fittingness for ministry. I can say with all honesty that during this decade, especially the first half of it, I felt like I was beginning to hit my stride, professionally and spiritually. (I also went through some of my darkest days in my mid-30s, suffering with a couple bouts of depression and incessant generalized anxiety. It’s not unrelated from my work both at the office and in church, but it was wrapped up primarily in my life at home, so that’s another story for another time.)

A few experiences in my ministerial internship are perhaps worth retelling, but the one I remember with R.C. was when I served at his side as liturgist on a Lord’s Day. Nothing felt more natural in my service to Christ and his church, despite the apprehension and nervousness one may feel when working so intimately alongside someone like R.C. He put all that to rest. The time we spent together in prayer before the divine service began changed everything. His petitions were salve to whatever thoughts I had about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the experience confirmed for me the direction I had been heading for so long—the liturgical tradition, which actually provides a decent segue to the next turn in this story.

R.C. has made a name for himself over the years by being willing to divide on very few grounds. He hated Pelagianism wherever he caught whiff of it, whether an apparition (among his own fellow Reformed confessionalists) or semi-bodied (among evangelicals and Roman Catholics). The inerrancy of the scriptures and justification by faith alone were perpetually live issues for him, and soteriological monergism may have been his most beloved prolegomenon. Perhaps unfit to be included in this list was his utter disdain for what he deemed to be “epistemological fideism” (read: Van Tillians, presuppositionalists). But to his mind, those Reformed fideists were little better than the neo-orthodox dialecticians who were content to forgo consistency for the sake of sola gratia but who in the process lost the very (logical) holiness of God. And, as he used to say, the one thing the Reformed tradition simultaneously has in common and in contrast with the rest of christendom is its doctrine of God.

I say he was willing to be divisive on very few grounds because R.C. was also known for his generous theological spirit; the hills upon which he chose to die were, indeed, very few. This would become less so during the 2000s, but I chalk that up to his being increasingly surrounded by those TR© boys we all love to whip (of which R.C. had made a career of decidedly not being).

As a personal example of that odd amalgamation in R.C. of generosity and anger, when I was "let go" from Ligonier (essentially) for being confirmed in and serving as a subdeacon in the Episcopal Church (I made this move a few years after my internship), the severance I received was quite generous (not being an executive and all) for the nonprofit world. I know that this was procured by others in Ligonier's administration, but if the boss let it go (assuming he knew about it), then I considered that an act of grace on his part. Sure, the whole circumstance was a total bummer in every way (two little kids and a stay-at-home mama, a mortgage, car payments, etc.), but, hey, I found new and sustainable work while still in that severance zone. Of course it should come as no surprise that I never saw or spoke to the Sprouls again. It would’ve required an effort that at the time just wouldn’t have made any sense.

The thing was, I understood the reasoning (I think I may be less understanding now, if for no other reason than my being far less tolerant of unnecessary division today). Ligonier is a ministry that has centered on making very clear the difference between soteriological monergism, which was ensconced clearly in the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity, and every other soteriology on offer in the global church, past and present. While Ligonier expanded that work later on, its main focus was still on Reformed soteriology and it used even those expanded practices (like, e.g., translation or missionary work) to promote it. Nevertheless, like most Christian organizations, there are shibboleths that one would express at his or her peril. Joining ranks with an “apostatized church” (like the ECUSA) was one of them. It made no difference that the Central Florida Diocese was (and is) one of the last orthodox bastions within that national institution. In short, these were churches that had not only denied soteriological monergism (and thus sola fide) but had bent to every wind modernity blew. On second thought, it came as no surprise. What really have I got to criticize? 

"Every cup of cold water that you give to a thirsty person counts," R.C. wrote some years ago, "and it counts forever."

In the end, I can only be thankful for R.C. and Vesta, for all that they are. Everything they taught me and everything they gave, not least that cup of cold water to a thirsty dilettante. For the better, I’m in large measure the professional and the churchperson I am today because of their willingness to allow me to grow under their care. Perhaps for the worse, I’m no longer Reformed in any way that they’d recognize. But if anyone understood what was at stake for Luther when he said that “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe,” it was R.C. 

In the meantime, I know the family finds comfort in the fact that their Pappy’s happy.


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