R.G. Lee was perhaps the most famous preacher America ever produced. Most notably among his various pastorates, he served as the pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, for over thirty years. While there, he also served four times as the President of the Tennessee Baptist Convention and three times as the President of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is estimated that he preached his signature sermon, Payday Someday, over 1,200 times in places all across America and in other parts of the world.
But the world almost missed out completely on Dr. Lee’s legendary life and ministry because he had a brush with death when he was just six years old. Lee told the story in his foreword to Jerry Spencer’s book, Almost Persuaded to be a Liberal, and I’ll let him tell it in his own words here by offering it verbatim from that foreword:
My father, after being a share cropper for years, was selected by Mr. Eli Springs, a wealthy man from Charlotte, North Carolina, to be superintendent of the Springs’ farm on which was the Springs’ mansion built by slave labor in 1804. On that farm was a big barn. One day my mother said to me, ‘Bobby, I think there is an old Dominique hen on her nest under the barn. Please crawl up under the barn and put your hand under her and see if she has eggs under her body.’
Obediently, with the purpose of pleasing my mother, I crawled under the barn, the floor of which was fifteen or eighteen inches above the ground. When I had crawled under a few feet, I heard a sinister rattle. I thought it must be a rattlesnake because I had seen the farmhands kill rattlesnakes on occasion and had heard rattlesnakes ‘buzz their buttons.’
I crawled up a little further. The rattle, more strident and a bit louder, I heard again. Then, a frightened little boy, I went out backwards much faster than I had done forwards. I ran to the house, where my mother was in a rocker on the white-columned porch. I said, with excitement, ‘Mama! Mama! There is a rattlesnake under the barn!’ My mother, doubt in her voice, said, ‘Oh, Honey, you must be mistaken.’ I said, ‘No, ma’am, I heard it rattle!’
My mother called old Boss, an old Bloodhound that belonged to the owner of the farm, and she and Boss went with me to the barn. I showed Mother the spot where I had crawled under the barn. ‘Sic ’em, Boss,’ she said. The old hound went up under the barn. There was a strange medley of sounds: old Boss growling and the rattlesnake rattling his tail buttons. Out from under the barn came faithful old Boss growling and chewing a hissing, writhing rattlesnake. There was a hoe leaning against the barn. Mother picked up the hoe and chopped at the snake until it was dead.
Ole Boss went right back, and the same growlings and hissings were heard. Boss brought forth the second rattlesnake, larger and hissing more violently than the first. Mother used the hoe, and Boss used his mouth and jaws. Soon the second rattlesnake was dead.
My mother picked me up, carried me back in her arms to the front porch. Then she sat down in the huge rocking chair, pulled her apron up over me and hugged me close — and she said over and over again, ‘Thank you, Lord. Thank you.’ She was thanking God that the snakes had not bitten me. I came that close to dying a terrible death.
In that foreword, Lee uses his life-threatening experience as an analogy of how Jerry Spencer, the book’s author, came perilously close to being bitten by the poison of liberalism only to be rescued by a belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible. For the purpose of this post, however, I want to use Lee’s experience as an illustration of how God sometimes spares lives while other times He doesn’t. I truly believe that it was God who protected R.G. Lee’s life under that barn that day. He protected it because, as Jesus said of the apostle Paul even before Paul became a Christian, Lee was “a chosen vessel” of His to proclaim the gospel to the masses (Acts 9:15).
Let me be clear, though: I don’t pretend to fully understand the providence of God in regards to when He chooses to spare a life from a life-threatening situation and when He choose to let the death occur. There is a mystery to that providence, a mystery that is shrouded in a foggy darkness. The fact is that for every R.G. Lee whose life was spared there are scores of others whose lives weren’t. And we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t stand over the gravesite of such a death and ask, “Why, God?”
Unfortunately for us, the answer to that question will elude us as long as we are in this world. Some things we simply have to leave with God and trust that He knows best and never makes a mistake. I realize it’s not adequate comfort to a grieving loved one, but in such times Isaiah 55:8-9 really is the best answer we can give. And so I’ll offer it as the close to this post:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are my ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (N.K.J.V.)