The clock is ticking down to an event, and a transition, that very few people outside of the Palmetto State's capital city will notice. But it's worth heeding.
Sometime during the hour between 6 and 7 pm Eastern time tomorrow night, June 3, 2018, my father, Dr. Ralph Davis, will enter the pulpit at the historic First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC (the true Columbia of the Southeastern Conference, just so Mizzou fans are aware). He will open to Luke 13:1-21, more likely in his Greek New Testament than any English translation. He will read the Scriptures to the congregation (in English as he translates, not in Greek!).
And then he will preach the final sermon before he officially retires at the close of the service.
There have been truly great men in the history of the Church. There have been honorable individuals in church history. And there have been great preachers.
Call it seeing it through Davis eyes, but I think my dad is one of the few who happens to be a godly pulpit titan of deep integrity.
No, Dad never led a megachurch. No, he was never president of a seminary or international ministry organization. Those things aren't bad things. They just weren't Dad's things.
Dad has always believed Calvin's motto of sixteenth-century Geneva, "After darkness, light." God's people have their eyes and hearts enlightened when Scripture is preached clearly, accurately, and authoritatively in their midst. And there is no shortage of evidence Dad has done this immeasurably well, in locations as diverse as Baltimore and Columbia, SC, among others. Whether the sermon has been three, four, or five points in structure, the main thing is that the content and directives were patiently and clearly drawn from the text. These are no motivational speeches or self-help chats that marks much of the neo-Platonic homiletics of American evangelicalism. The questions Dad has dealt with have been "What does this reveal about God, about Christ, about our need, about our redemption, about grace?"
Those questions meant Dad can preach on any text and do it extremely well. And do so at times that would normally seem odd. Who preaches on Job 19 on Easter Sunday when Job cries "My Redeemer lives!" in the midst of deep anguish? Who preaches on Genesis 38 and the hanky-panky between Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar and show clearly where grace resides in the passage? Dad found a way.
To my knowledge, no one prepares for preaching in more careful, reverent, or exacting fashion. Dad can take the Hebrew Old Testament into the pulpit and translate into English as he reads the text to the congregation. One seminary professor told me last year on Twitter that Dad was a "Hebrew ninja" and I think that's quite correct.
But one can over-prepare and the sermon can still be dull. Sometimes seminary can ruin people. Somehow Dad snagged a Ph. D. in Old Testament Studies and has kept a streak of humor and creativity miles wide and fathoms deep through his preaching, writing, and everyday life. The connecting point between biblical truth and personal belief for many in our postmodern culture is the leverage of story that engages. Dad has always been a preacher for and ahead of his time.
Pastors, though, can do their work with a fair bit of pride and chest-thumping. But Dad has been content to fit his gift-matrix to places where God uses him effectively, not where he'd be the most visible. The message has always been clear: You don't need attention. The important thing is God wants your faithfulness.
Yet a pastor exhibits his gifts best when he faithfully leads his own family above and beyond the church family. In an age where pastors train-wreck their lives, families, and careers on the sharp rocks of adultery, neglect, or disdain for those who need help the most, Christian leaders need to demonstrate integrity and proper headship more than ever. I am hard-pressed to recall any time Dad was not at one of my game to watch me throw a ball into the stands from third base or experience marginal success on the offensive line in high school. There was never a moment of chastisement or discipline that did not have love and tenderness in its wake. And there has never been a hardship in my life where Dad's wisdom has been lacking. Once I was overlooked for a job and vented about the perceived injustice to Dad. He was able to pick me up through his own experience when, after he finished a second master's degree, he wasn't allowed to continue on to a Ph.D. at the same school. He said, "I remember pacing the floor at 2 a.m. wondering what God was up to, but in spite of it all, God led us to Louisville where I got a better education in Hebrew than I would have where we were." Once again, a clear message: God's durable goodness is there no matter how dark the road may be. It's a lesson I make often to my own kids.
Once on Facebook, another pastor found out Ralph Davis was my dad, and he promptly said: "Wow, he's a phenomenal preacher."
To which I replied, "Yes. Amazing preacher. But an even better father."
Yes, retirement calls, but I'm grateful for a father who knows there is no retirement from the gracious call of the Cross.