When from my dying bed
My ransomed soul shall rise,
“Jesus died my soul to save!”
Shall rend the vaulted skies.
— E. M. Hall
My father, George Spence, passed away early Saturday morning, March 19, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Because he had been in a nursing facility for many months, dealing with Parkinson’s disease and a number of other difficulties, we had known that this day would come and so weren’t surprised. This is not, however, the same as being fully prepared for it. That may never have been possible.
Some people are all words and no action, while others are so active that others must speak of them. Dad was one of those people who never blow their own horn, yet he has many colleagues who know what an excellent ophthalmologist he was, many graduates of the University of Virginia School of Medicine who recall his teaching, and many organizations in Charlottesville and elsewhere who know of his generosity. He gave freely of what wealth he had — which he had put together on his own father’s behalf and faithfully managed so that we might be educated and provided for — but unlike some who throw money at problems but never otherwise get involved, he gave freely of his time and skills without expecting anything in return. To us, his children, he gave an example of unselfishness, dedication, and quiet courage. I hope I can somehow live up to even half of his measure.
In a way, Dad is responsible not only for what you’re now reading but for the fact that you’re reading it. We shared a curiosity about how things work and fit together; I suppose that although he wound up in medicine and I in theology, we were both engineers manqués. He was careful about giving career advice — I believe he tried hard to avoid pushing us onto a particular career path, knowing the problems that could cause — but I remember one conversation we had about the late Isaac Asimov’s column, “Isaac Asimov Explains,” in Science Digest magazine. While he was impressed with that column, he told me he believed I too had the ability to use language the way Asimov did, to make complex subjects clear and accessible to readers. In my teaching and in my writing I have tried to do just that (this site is one example). A few years ago, I was interviewing the man on whom I was then writing my dissertation, a close friend of Asimov, and happened to mention my ambition to be “the Isaac Asimov of systematic theology.” He was silent for a moment, and then said, “You’ve set yourself a high standard.” True — but I figured it was doable. I had that on good authority.
My mother considers Dad’s passing to be a blessing, and I believe she’s right. Years ago I mentioned to him a recent conversation with a church official who said, “We believe the Westminster Confession,” adding, with a chuckle, “with our fingers crossed.” Dad retorted that he believed it and didn’t cross his fingers, thank you very much. I’m convinced that he’s finally home with Christ Jesus, freed from the weaknesses of his body and awaiting the renovation of that body to a form that will have no weakness or hindrance at all.
And in the meantime he’s peppering the Lord with fistfuls of questions about the engineering of the universe.
P.S. — Dad was always one for a good pun. My mother swears I didn’t get that vice from her.