Saturday, June 2, 2018

Years Well Spent

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. 




24 comments:

  1. Love your Dad. He meant a lot to me and my family during our seminary days at RTS, and he continues to help, encourage, and strengthen us with his books and on-line sermons. Currently reading The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life, and really enjoying it. I think if someone began reading aloud something that your Dad had written, I would recognize his voice without having to be told he was the author. We are truly grateful for his faithfulness. He has always been an example of a great preacher, great teacher, and great scholar. At the same time, he has always modeled humility and love for folks in the pew. I can't say enough about your Dad; I am glad that he has left a legacy of books and sermon recordings as well as the legacy he has passed on to his students, readers, and congregants!

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  2. Many thanks, Randall! The strengthening that he has passed on to others displays the durability of God's grace, which God delights to have mediated from one life into others. May the Lord bless your work.

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  3. Luke, I am an Australian and am wife to a pastor who is much the same age as your father. We have never met your father or mother in person but we thank God for his work in their lives. We have many sermons and interviews given by your dad and even one interview where your mother speaks. I listen to your father preaching often and we have all of his books. My personal favourite is the commentary on 1 Kings although all of them are of great encouragement to us. His speaking and writing make me run back to God's word and my husband and I love his sense of humour. I love the way he speaks about vintage Yahweh. We are retired too but have many opportunities to talk to others about following Jesus. I imagine that your parents will be used by God in many ways in the remaining years that God gives them. Praying for a fruitful and joyful retirement for them both, Bronwen Cox

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  4. Thank you, Bronwen! People from around the globe have been mentioning how they have been fed much solid food through Dad's preaching and writing activity. And that will undoubtedly continue...Dad's working on a commentary on Luke's Gospel as we speak.

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  5. Luke, I couldn't agree more. How about if he takes a "retirement gig" back up here in Chesapeake presbytery?!! I have often said that he was able to plumb the depths of a passage but yet preach it so that everyone benefited. --a good and faithful man!

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  6. Alas, Tom, they've built a house up in the Greenville-Spartanburg area and will be bunking there until the Lord calls them home. But much appreciated!

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  7. Luke, I have been blessed by your Dad's preaching and writing. Its hard to imagine him really retiring. Will he still be preaching around, and writing commentaries?
    Jim Richter

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  8. Thanks, Jim. I'm sure he'll take the occasional preaching engagement, though he'll likely stick to stateside rather than hopping across the pond. He is still writing a good bit (commentary on St. Luke's Gospel to come).

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  9. Your dad's commentaries brought life to passages I thought were a valley of dry bones. His works on the psalms and OT historical narratives in particular have been key in the spiritual growth of many in our church. It is good to hear that the seam of spirituality ran through his home-life just as much as his preaching and writing. His kind are rare.

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    1. Indeed. And when he preaches through OT narratives and snags the "grace thread" that runs through the passage and also demonstrates how all the layers fit together, you're like, "Of course...why didn't I see that before."

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  10. I never made that connection till now! And it was a friend from Aberdeen who tweeted the link to this blog - funny, small world we live in. Thanks for this.

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    1. That is crazy, Chris. Thanks for this, and I pray you are finding wonderful soil for the Gospel in London.

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  11. He was my favorite prof at RTS, because his classes invited his students to come alongside him as he wondered at the glory of God. They were worshipful, and had a huge impact on me. Honestly, his comment on one of my papers helped me to truly believe that the Spirit really was at work in me, and helped convince me to become a pastor -- it was that kind and encouraging. It's funny to hear these words from his son, because the father you describe is also the way he treated his students. So thankful for his ministry, and glad to hear he'll be retiring in my neck of the woods. I'd love to see him again.

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    1. Glad to hear it, Tim. Many have said that his OT classes were really homiletics classes (although I know Martin Lloyd Jones would disdain that word!) in disguise because his question was always "How could we preach on this?" Very happy to hear he's circulating your way. We'll be visiting them at Christmas.

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  12. That is a superb tribute, Luke. I’ll be reading this to our freshman Pastoral Ministries class. A great example of the Pastor-Theologian-Original-Languages-Ninja-Little-League-Fan-Man-of-God. Every blessing to you and your family.

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    1. Well, you earned your place in the quote pantheon when you coined the "Hebrew ninja" term! Hope all is well at TMS!

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  13. So very thankful for your father's faithfulness in writing. Been working through the OT in Sunday school for more than five years now and his commentaries are indispensable. Thanks for sharing him with us!

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    1. Sure thing, Ryan! Glad his work is profiting you in your labors.

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  14. Thank you Luke! Why didn't we have your dad at St. Elmo? I never knew. We missed out.

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    1. Well, Mom and Dad were always well outside the Chattanooga orbit at the time, but now they are loving up I-26 to the Greenville area. Just a hop, skip, and jump from Chattanooga if you ever need him to come over to St. Elmo! BTW, many fond memories of my time there, and there are plenty of moment in my work in Christian education that I proactively think about how to face a matter in the humble spirit you so often exhibited. Many thanks to you!

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  15. Luke,
    A very well spoken tribute! As someone who discovered your Dad's writings at the close of his career I can't help but feel like I have missed out on a great deal. That said, his ministry has and will continue to bless me, and my reading and expositing of the Word will never be the same in all the right ways.

    Ben Trice

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    1. Thanks, Ben! His writings will always be around (and expanding...he is working on a commentary on Luke's Gospel). Glad you have found his work spiritually profitable.

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  16. Thank you so much for this tribute . It was very well said. My 13 year old son spends his Sunday afternoons listening to your father's sermons .To me it's an incredible gift when adults as well as young people enjoy listening to a man preach the word .Your father has blessed our family so much .

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  17. Wow! What an amazing hunger for the Word! Very glad Dad's work has grown your family's desire for Holy Scripture.

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