Thirty-five years ago this summer, I came to Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary for a preliminary class before my fall entrance into the Master of Divinity program. In those days, beginning pastoral students needed to have a year of Greek before entering seminary. So RPTS hosted an intensive course called “Summer Greek” that offered a year’s worth of that language in eight weeks for those like myself that did not meet that requirement. All I knew about my teacher was that he was visiting from Ireland, exchanging places that summer with another Irishman, New Testament Professor Renwick Wright. As I sat down that first day at a table in the library (one of the few RPTS rooms in those days with air conditioning), I met for the first time Ted Donnelly.
What a transformative summer that was for me. I was quite new to the Reformed Presbyterian Church, having only joined it two years prior as a graduate student at Purdue University. Soon afterward, the Lord confirmed a call into the ministry. I entered that class utterly intimidated by the thought of learning this Biblical language. But I soon began to realize I was in the presence of a master teacher. Professor Donnelly’s enthusiasm and encouragement quickly warmed me to the subject. As we worked our way through Greek vocabulary, paradigms, and syntax, Ted’s incredible insights into Biblical interpretation, his pastoral heart, the shepherding experiences he shared, his clear love for Christ, and ever-present Irish humor permeated his teaching. When one class ended, I could not wait to rush home, tell my new wife what I had learned, and then eagerly wait for the next day.
Then, my father died.
I had left for RPTS that summer knowing that the cancer that had resulted in my father having two-thirds of his liver resected the previous year had returned. Following the fourth chemo treatment to battle the reappearance of cancer, Dad had a toxic reaction. Thus, at the end of the fifth week of the Greek class, I rushed back with my little family to Michigan to see Dad in the middle of the night. I reached him just an hour before he died. I spent the next week tending to my mother and the funeral, not sure what my future held.
During that long week, Ted called. His pastoral concern was evident in his voice and manner. He shared with me a story. Back in the sixties, when he had come over from Ireland to study for a year at RPTS, his father had also died. After returning from the funeral a few weeks later, he relayed to me the kindness his professors, most notably Clark Copeland, had shown to him. He said Dr. Copeland had not only helped him recover in his studies but cared for him in the loss of his father. He pledged to me that, similarly, he would help me in any way he could if I wanted to return.
Knowing I would have to delay my seminary studies for a year if I did not complete the Greek course, I made the decision to return after that week. Ted (and other students) helped me finish the course. He and his dear wife, Lorna, hosted Miriam and me at their home to share our grief and Christ’s love during that time. I also heard him preach for the first time during those days. I sat spellbound as he showed me Christ in new ways in the Scriptures.
After that memorable summer, we communicated occasionally in those days before there were email and cheap phone calls. After I graduated from RPTS in 1991 and started church planting in Kokomo, Indiana, I recall the day in 1992 when I received a letter from overseas that I still possess. Ted wrote, explaining he would be speaking at a Reformed Baptist conference at a small college 90 minutes away from where I lived. He wondered if perhaps we could get together.
So that week I readily drove up each day to hear Ted speak on the theme “Paradoxes in the Gospel of John.” Once again, I was enthralled by God’s Word as I listened to Ted preach – how the backdrop of darkness shows true light, how death brings forth life. The most influential message on me that he preached that week, from John 17, was how in suffering God’s glory at the cross was revealed. I can still see him preaching in my mind’s eye - I hear his voice, recall his words, and remember his illustrations from that message. After the morning sessions, when he was available, we would get lunch together and fellowship. From that time forward, a pattern was established.
For the next decades would find Ted, often accompanied by Lorna, coming to America to speak at the various churches and conferences he was so frequently invited to visit. When time and travel allowed, they would make plans to come and stay with Miriam and me. We marveled over how they would give themselves to us on those trips, often for a week at a time. On a few occasions, we were privileged to go see them in their homeland. Our memories are full of wonderful walks and conversations, from the woods of southern Indiana to the beaches of Lake Michigan to the rocky coasts of Ireland. Each time was like my own personalized, pastoral retreat, as Ted invested his wisdom in a young pastor. Together, he and Lorna became a father and mother to us in the faith, loving us by sharing our burdens, praying warmly for us, and bestowing such kindness on us.
Indeed, like a father, Ted taught me so many valuable lessons needed in the church these days. Rejoicing like a child in the daily gifts God gives to us, be it familial love, a special meal, beauty in creation, or reading a good book. Being a faithful churchman with true convictions held but with a sincere, gentle concern for everyone, especially your adversaries or those in another denomination. Gladly visiting God’s people and truly enjoying them as you do so. Marveling over the kingdom of God being manifested in other nations and investing in seeing those lands blessed by the gospel. Modeling a standard of gospel preaching that possessed an exacting Biblical acuity that always showed Christ while combining that with a heart beating for the people before you where you always – always! - communicated love even when dealing with the most difficult of topics. Giving time to writing but, like the Apostle Paul, always thinking first of the church as “his letter.” In God’s wisdom, I had no idea during those years that He was using this president of the Reformed Theological College of Belfast to train a small-town pastor for a similar role in which he would later serve.
I continue to weep since I heard of Ted’s death, feeling the finality of his passing and knowing how I will miss his fatherly voice in my life. Yet I cannot think of him without smiling at his humor. He employed it carefully and masterfully in the pulpit. But he enjoyed using it gently toward others on occasion. So many stories come to mind, but these two will suffice.
Currently, we are finally renovating the basement of Rutherford Hall, the main building of RPTS, which contains our kitchen and dining area. This lower level has been in desperate need of restoration for years. In 2018, RPTS bestowed on Ted the Faithful Servant Award as one of our graduates who had demonstrated a lifetime of faithful service to Christ (the picture above is Ted accepting this award). While visiting RPTS at that time, Ted came downstairs and walked into the kitchen. Looking around, he said with his boyish grin, “Well, I see things haven’t changed much since I was a student here fifty years ago.”
Speaking of kitchens, at the end of a two-week stay at his and Lorna’s home, I must have been rather enjoying my breakfast at their kitchen table before we departed for the airport that morning. For Ted looked lovingly at me across the table with a smile and, just as I was in mid-bite, said, “Barry, I suppose I shall rather miss you when you are gone. But one thing I will not miss is watching you eat a hard-boiled egg each morning.”
Sadly, these last years of Ted’s earthly journey were filled with the suffering of various illnesses that kept him from writing, preaching, and traveling as much as he would have liked. Indeed, we had plans to visit him and Lorna last fall – so I could eat an egg for him again! – that we had to cancel due to his hospitalization. As I have prayed for and thought about him across the ocean that divided us (and know now an even greater one does), these past days my mind has returned to that sermon from long ago.
For even in Ted’s pain and anguish, God’s glory was clearly seen. In dear Lorna’s constant care for him and the love they shared together for so many years. In his children’s willing attentiveness always and especially throughout his illness. In the Trinity church he loved and served for so many years honoring and visiting him. In Christians around the world, blessed by his ministry, showering their appreciation on him. And by Ted himself who, despite his pain, kept loving his Lord and God’s people to the very end.
Jesus prayed that night before He died, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:1-2). How we can take comfort in knowing Ted is experiencing that eternal life in more fullness now as he looks upon the Savior he so loved, preached, and shared with so many of us who were blessed to have known him.