The first night I visited Doc, he invited me in and we sat in his living room and talked for over an hour. He told me his story of how he came to Judson and the role he played in making it what it is today. He explained how he used to have visitors over constantly but in his old age, he was no longer as prominent a figure on campus. I realized that night that I had found a cove of wisdom and decided that I wanted to hear all that I could from him.

For the next eight years, I listened to his stories and took in all that I could. Many were repeats, especially as he got closer to the end of his life, but he was remarkably sharp and constantly surprised me with how much he was able to recall. Whether it was sitting on his living room chair, walking through the halls of the Lindner fitness center, or enjoying a meal at Big Skillet, I had a front row seat to Doc’s stories. I got to hear what he remembered and soak in what was important to him. I know what topics he barely touched on and the ones he kept coming back to, no matter where we were in a conversation.

I have been blessed with insights that very few others have had the privilege of knowing. I know just as well as anyone else the mind of Doc Ryder and I think that grants me the space to talk about the things that he wanted to talk about, and hopefully interpret for him. I want you, reader, to know what he cared about in the final years of his life and to explain why I think he cared about those things.

There is no more appropriate topic to discuss first than Doc’s favorite one: sin.

No discussion of sin could ever approach how much Doc loved the topic. This is why it appears so early on in this book and why it’s such a difficult chapter to write. What is there to say? Well… everything. It was fundamental to who Doc was and how he acted in the world. Doc’s understanding of sin helped to shape him into the man he was, for better and for worse.

It may seem odd that a beloved professor most known for his high standards and remarkable generosity had sin at the forefront of his mind at all times. At face value, I completely agree. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the topic – not because it doesn’t matter, but because there are so many other things to talk about. I would much rather discuss grace, mercy, love, joy, peace, charity, compassion, empathy, courage, and the list goes on and on. I think there is so much more to learn from those topics. Why Doc was so interested in sin continues to baffle me to this day.

There is, however, much to learn about Doc and his motivations by engaging with the topic of sin. One of his favorite authors was Puritan and essayist Nathaniel Hawthorne. While Hawthorne is most known for The Scarlett Letter, a story that Doc brought up many times but we never discussed in depth, the stories that Doc always returned to were Young Goodman Brown and the Minister’s Black Veil. In fact, those were two of the final stories that we went through together before he passed. They were fundamental to his character and he would consistently reference them in everyday conversation.

So why? A quick summary of the stories can help us understand. The Minister’s Black Veil is about a preacher who begins wearing a black veil over his face to church. At first, the congregation thinks it’s a sermon illustration that will only last a week, but as weeks and months go by and the minister’s face has not been seen, the congregation worries that he has gone crazy or he is ashamed of some grave sin that he cannot be forgiven for. We never hear the minister’s side of the story, just the opinions of the congregation, so we never learn why he began wearing the black veil, just that he did it every day until his death.

In Young Goodman Brown, we follow a young man named Mr. Brown who is married to young woman named Faith. The story starts with him preparing to go on a journey that Faith is concerned about, although we never learn why. Brown does leave and the narrator hints repeatedly that his destination is not a good one. Along the way he encounters a sinister man (Doc took him to be the Devil) who encourages him to continue on his journey and shows him just how well he knows the other “holy” people in the village, such as the pastor and Brown’s old teacher. We learn that even these people have lived a dark life, which causes Brown to feel despair as he realizes that he will not be able to escape the same fate. The story ends with him arriving at his destination in the forest, only to discover that his wife Faith is there as well. Much like in the Minister’s Black Veil, we don’t get a resolution as the scene ends and we are left to wonder if it was a dream or reality. Whatever the case, we are told that Young Goodman Brown remained in despair the rest of his life and died a depressed man, having told no one of his experience.

These two stories fascinated Doc for many reasons. First, the stories themselves are told very well and the open ended conclusions gave an academic like him much room for interpretation – there was always something new to learn when he picked it back up again.

I think the main reason that he enjoyed them, however, is because they fit his understanding of sin and helped to shape it. Young Goodman Brown shows that sin touches everything and everyone, and that even the greatest saints are equally great sinners. The Minister’s Black Veil uses this idea, but instead of putting on a mask of goodness, the minister chooses to display his sinfulness and make sure his congregation knows that he is just as blemished as they are. For a devoted Calvinist like Doc, both of these elements are crucial, along with the idea that sin corrupts us to our very core, tainting even our deepest selves.

One would think that this view of sin and humanity would cause Doc to despair about the world. How could one think that humanity is corrupt to the core and still be generous and loving at every turn?

It is precisely Doc’s understanding of sin that allowed him to give grace to not only others, but to himself as well. He understood the depth of his sinfulness and embraced that no matter what he did, he could never earn the love of God. In doing so, he was free to give all he wanted, because he knew that he needed nothing. He was able to embrace new theological concepts and ideas, even in his old age, because knew that no matter how much he learned, his theology was, quite frankly, sinful garbage. There was no pressure on him to get it right or do everything correctly and he lived free from the burden of sin, just by embracing the fact that his best actions were tainted with sin.

This also gave him freedom to love and accept others as they were. He knew they would screw up and so he tried to exhibit grace in every failure, whether that be in class or in personal matters. He balanced having high expectations of others with the acceptance that they would eventually fall short. He offered forgiveness when he could and asked for it when he realized he was in the wrong, although it might have taken some extra time for him to get there in both cases. I think this is also why he was such a difficult grader – nobody deserves an A because nobody is perfect.

In thinking of Doc, I’m reminded of Martin Luther’s quote: “Sin boldly, but trust in God more boldly still.” Doc certainly sinned boldly – he made plenty of mistakes that he regretted and would bring them up from time to time. But his trust in God allowed him to live an honorable life and dedicate so much of his time and money to the building and shaping of others. He knew he would make mistakes and that whatever he did wouldn’t be enough, so he did everything he could and took chances where others might have backed off. His understanding of sin allowed him to be adventurous, which eventually led him to a little college in Elgin, Illinois.