Credo: Why I Believe What I Believe
October 1, 2013 | Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church
Thank you. I suppose that you can figure out that I have not yet figured out how to retire. I keep trying, and it just doesn’t work. But I’m willing to leave that in The Lord’s hands.
I would ask you, please, pray with me.
Give me Jesus, Lord, give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
I was at my Granddaddy’s house, 1305 Dauphin Street, Mobile, Alabama. The house was a large two-story house, frame painted white, of course, with deep green shutters, a long veranda all across the front punctuated by large columns. The house was set nestled in amongst the safe, protective arms of two magnificent spreading oak trees, both of them ages old. In summer, the rooms of that house were always cool and fresh, as the ceiling fans click-clicked, click-clicked. In winter, the rooms were always warm with the delicious smell of logs burning in fireplaces framed by ornately carved mantle pieces.
I would always enter Granddaddy’s house through the long front hallway. I would pass the stairway on the right, the stairway that led up to the second floor. And then I would pass the tall hand-cranked Victrola, an amazing instrument that used to spin out to me the likes of Peter and the Wolf and Barnacle Bill the Sailor. I would look to the left and see the formal living room, a room filled with antique furniture and fascinating treasures, my favorite being a large gold clock with a spinning pendulum, an eternity clock, time and eternity all wound up in one. That clock was encased in a huge glass dome. I never see that wondrous object in my mind’s eye, that I do not also hear in my mind’s ear, “Look, but don’t touch.” Straight ahead was the dining room with a table so long that four nuclear families could cluster around the table as an extended family every holiday. Oh, how comfortable and secure we were in those great explosions of love and joy and food and unforgettable memories. Do you know, I have to say that all of that, at least in my mind, served as the passageway to my favorite room in the house, the library. It was Granddaddy’s favorite room as well.
The library smelled of old books and heavy wood paneling and the faint lingering aroma of Granddaddy’s smoking tobacco. Quite suddenly, a year before, Granddaddy had stopped smoking. For what reason, I did not know at the time. In the library, the walls were lined with shelves. The shelves were lined with books. Law books, Granddaddy was a judge. History books, he could recount events from ancient history as if he had been there. Books of sermons and theology and Bible commentaries, his faith was towering. And he regularly took to the pulpit as a lay preacher. That night—I was 13 years old at the time—Granddaddy invited me to join him in the library, to sit with him in his favorite chair, because he had something he wanted to read to me. I’d done that so many times when I was younger. I could do it still because it seemed that he was shrinking as I was growing. And so the two of us sat together in that favorite chair of his, a great overstuffed thing it was. He then reached over and picked up a book and started to read to me. I can still see the book in his hands. The cover was dark, something between deep red and maroon. And on the cover there was etched the outline of a great ocean liner.
What he read to me that night was the story of another night, a night in mid-April in 1912 when The Titanic, the greatest ship ever built up to that time, went down in the icy seas of the North Atlantic, her hull carved wide open by an iceberg. The ship people believed could never sink slipped quietly, almost gently beneath the waves, carrying some 1,500 persons to a watery grave two miles deep in the cold and silent sea. And then Granddaddy read me these words. I remember them so clearly. “People have never been sure of anything since. While the unending sequence of disillusion which followed cannot be blamed upon The Titanic, she was the first jar. That is why to anyone living at the time, the Titanic disaster, more than any other single event, marked the end of the old days and the beginning of a new uneasy era.”
Now, years later, I know book and author by name; the book, A Night to Remember; the author, Walter Lord. Then Granddaddy put that book aside. He reached over and picked up his Bible. Its permanent resting place on that table right next to his great overstuffed chair. He picked up The Bible, and he said, “Son, I want to read you a story about another night and another sinking boat.” He opened his Bible up to Matthew chapter 14, and he read these words. “Immediately Jesus made The Disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of Him to the other side while He dismissed the crowd. After He had dismissed them, He went up into the hills by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from the land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When The Disciples saw Him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said. They cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them, ‘Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.'”
Granddaddy closed The Bible. He didn’t read the whole story. He stopped right where I just stopped. “Jesus said to them, ‘Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.'” He then put his arm around me, and he said, “Son, you’re growing up in a most uneasy, uncertain world. But I want you to know that there is something we can be sure of. When nothing else seems certain, Jesus is. When other things change or disappear, Jesus never will.” That’s all he said, or that’s all I remember of what he said. But let me tell you that those words burrowed down into my 13-year-old heart like seeds planted in spring in a plowed fertile Delta field. Other seeds would be sown by The Spirit of God. It took a while for the seeds to grow, but grow they did. And there came a day when I offered myself to The Gospel Ministry of Jesus Christ, believing that I have been called by God to preach something we can be sure of.
You know, as I look back in retrospect, I suppose you could say that that significant step was actually inevitable, given the circumstances of my growing up. You see, I grew up in a preacher’s home, grew up in a home where the air I breathed was filled with The Faith, where I was surrounded every day by the powerful presence of Jesus Christ. There was no part of my childhood that was lived apart from Jesus. I spent an inordinate amount of time in the church. Came to love it, love everything in it, everything about it, everything associated with it. For four generations, members of my family have been engaged in the Presbyterian Ministry, and even those not in The Ministry have been strong lay leaders, absorbed in their commitment to Christ and devoted to the work of Christ in the world.
I’ve always been especially proud of the witness of my mom and dad. My dad preached every Sunday. My mom sang in the choir every Sunday. Well, that left my two younger brothers, Will and Van, and I to be seated out in the pews without benefit of parental supervision. It landed us in trouble on occasion until—and I have to tell you, just thinking about it right now gives me a measure of pain—until one Sunday, right in the middle of his sermon, my dad stopped, pointed at us in the pew, corrected us from the pulpit, and then right in front of God and everybody else ordered my brother Will to get up and move to another pew. And then my father just picked his sermon right up where he’s stopped. But let me tell you, from that time on we were most attentive.
Through it all, I loved what I heard, and I loved what I saw. My dad would go out on Sunday afternoons and evenings and preach in little rural churches. At one point he had seven little churches on a circuit in South Alabama. And I would go with him to keep him company on those trips. And it was then that I came to appreciate the transforming power of the preaching of God’s Word in people’s lives. So it was, in that kind of home and that kind of atmosphere that I grew up, and as a result, Christ and the things of Christ and the thoughts of Christ and the teachings of Christ came as naturally to me as eating or sleeping or breathing.
I will confess to you that there were times earlier in my life when I actually was envious of people who had dramatic conversion experiences to which they could point and from which they could draw powerful testimonies. Only the wisdom of the years has taught me that that envy was misplaced. You see, I’ve come to realize that God uses dramatic, even supernatural means to call people to himself only when those people are far removed from Christ and The Kingdom. Paul, for example, he needed that cataclysmic experience on the Damascus road because, in order for God to capture his attention, God had to hit him over the head with a 2×4, he was so antithetical to The Kingdom.
Well, I didn’t need a dramatic conversion because all I have ever known, for my whole life long, all I have ever known is Jesus. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t exchange for anything in all of the world the joys of my childhood growing up in such a loving and faithful home. However, I think it’s important for me to remind myself, for sure, that God did orchestrate a wondrous event in my life. When I was a senior in college I fell in love with a beautiful blond-haired, blue-eyed girl. Trisha eventually became my wife, but at that point, she was the instrument God used to inject new life into my journey with The Lord. She had a great faith of her own, and she would prod me with questions about my faith. And as a result, I came to see that that faith that I had so cherished from my childhood had become layered over with a veneer of selfish desire and pseudo-sophistication. She encouraged me to strip away the veneer and to embrace The Christ. And I did, and suddenly was confronted with the great, undeniable, unmistakable reality that God was calling me into the Gospel Ministry to preach something we can be sure of.
To be sure, through all of those long years in the ministry, that call has undergone a small course correction or two. Even been a couple of times along the way when it wavered just a bit, but it’s never died, never even come close to dying. And in fact, there’s a greater urgency to it now than ever before. To be sure, there have been those times when I have been wrapped up in fear and uncertainty, just like those Disciples in a small boat on the Sea of Galilee. But Jesus, who can calm any fear, calmed their fears. Jesus came to them and said to them, “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.” And they discovered that Jesus was all they really needed. And I discovered that Jesus is all I ever really need as well. And so through a lifetime in The Faith, and through long years in The Gospel Ministry, I have managed to forge three great priorities, priorities which govern every single dimension of both my living and my serving. For whatever it may be worth to you, I share those priorities with you now.
Priority One: put Christ first.
For more than four decades I’ve carried this note in my Bible. It’s a note written to me by my mother-in-law, Margaret Dodson. Early in my ministry she heard a sermon I preached, and in response she wrote these words to me. Listen: “Dear Howard, I thought your sermon was well thought-out and beautifully phrased. However, I feel like the woman who pressed a paper in her minister’s hand one Sunday. On it was written, ‘Sir, we would see Jesus.’ Howard, only the church has the unique message of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior of All, who can transform people’s hearts and change the world. Paul and Peter took every opportunity to preach that message. Now the opportunity is yours. Through you, we would see Jesus.” I carry that with me always to remind me always, but always, to put Christ first.
You see, through the years I’ve learned that when you put Christ first people are motivated to begin to share their faith. An evangelistic fervor begins to take hold, and a church begins to grow and thrive. I’ve learned that when you put Christ first people are transformed. They develop caring hearts and compassionate souls, and they pour themselves out sacrificially, generously in order to meet human need in whatever form it appears, wherever it appears. I’ve learned that when you put Christ first racial barriers come a-tumbling down like Jericho’s walls after the trumpets, that social demarcations are obliterated like sand castles in the oncoming tide, that economic differences are ground away like boulders under the ceaseless pressure of a glacier, and that people, people who otherwise have absolutely nothing in common, suddenly discover the uncommon commonality that they have in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be able to see the value of that, to be sure, in building a significant church, but much more to the point, to build a significant life. Put Christ first always.
Priority Two: stir what you got.
My uncle, Dr. Andrew Edington, now with The Lord, was for many years the president of Schreiner College over in the Hill Country in Kerrville, Texas. He was an amazing man, noted popular teacher of The Bible, did some astounding things in his life. One of the most astounding was one that most people weren’t even aware of. Every Sunday afternoon, he would leave his home in Kerrville and drive all the way to Huntsville, Texas to the Texas State Penitentiary. And there he would teach The Bible to the inmates on death row in the maximum security wing. And when he would finish, then he would turn around and drive all the way back to Kerrville, arriving, usually, in the very early hours of Monday morning.
One Sunday evening, late, he was on his way back home. He decided he’d stop in a roadside diner in a little Texas Hill Country town. Wanted to get a cup of coffee. Went in, ordered the coffee, and like all Edington males, he proceeded to use all of the packets of sugar the waitress left for him. But he wanted more, and so the next time the waitress passed by he said, “I’d like some more sugar, please.” The crusty old gal wheeled around, put her hands on her hips and leaned over him and said, “Stir what you got!” Oh, that lesson has served me so well. You see, when you encounter the everyday challenges of life, what do you do? You stir what you got.
The very first church I served was the First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore, Texas, back during the East Texas oil boom. That church had nine oil wells on the church property. They pumped the oil out from under there so fast, the ground shifted and the church fell in. They used the oil money to build a beautiful new sanctuary. And then for many years that church thrived on that royalty money from the oil. Wouldn’t you know, the month I arrived in Kilgore, Texas, the last royalty check arrived. Not long thereafter, I was meeting with some of the elders, and I said to them, “Well, now that the oil money’s no longer here, I guess we’re going to have to have a stewardship campaign.” They looked at me with blank faces. Finally one of them said, “What’s a stewardship campaign?” Ooh, what to do? Stir what you got. I figured I was going to have to find all new ways to do ministry in that place. But I can tell you, the training I got in those years has served me so well for all the subsequent years in my life.
Yes, stir what you got. It’s even true in the really tough times in life. Trisha and I lost our son, John David, killed in an automobile accident when he was 22 years old. Devastating to us, and I can tell you, the pain of that has never, ever left us. It’s the toughest experience we’ve ever known. So what do you do? You stir what you got. We both knew that 80% of the marriages, 80% of the marriages where a child is lost to death, 80% of the marriages end in divorce. We were determined that we would not be a statistic. And so we poured ourselves into working for and with each other to make our marriage stronger than it had ever been before. Stir what you got. One day Trisha came to me, and she said, “John David loved Christmas, and you love Christmas. To his honor and in his memory, I wish you would write a Christmas book.” So I did. It’s entitled The Forgotten Man of Christmas. It’s the story of Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph. The book was featured in Time Magazine several years ago. What do you do? What do you do in the toughest moments in life? Stir what you got!
Priority Three: Don’t settle for less than your best.
I told you that my first church was Kilgore, Texas. My very first Sunday there the Session, the Elders were to meet between Sunday School and Worship. And they were to meet in my office. That was a fact which I neglected to remember. And so here I was on my first Sunday in this church, and I was nervous and frantic and harried. I’d peeled off my suit coat, and I’d loosened my tie, and I was desperately trying to get my head and my heart ready to preach. Suddenly the door flew open, and all the Elders paraded in, ready for their meeting. I hadn’t put on my pulpit robe. I hadn’t put my suit coat on. I was disheveled, collar undone, tie loosened. I went on and had the meeting. Afterwards, LeRoy Rader, one of the truly great men in Christ I have known in my life, LeRoy Rader pulled me aside, and he said, “Son, don’t ever conduct a Session meeting without your coat and tie. The People of Christ deserve your very best all the time.” Believe you me, I never repeated that mistake.
But you see, the real lesson was a lesson in excellence. Notice I didn’t say success. I said excellence. Success means being the best. Excellence means being your best. Success means being better than everyone else. Excellence means being better today than you were yesterday and striving to be better tomorrow than you were today. Success encourages expediency and compromise, prompting us to love things and use people. Excellence, on the other hand, encourages principles and consistency, prompting us to use things and love people. Success means being the best. Excellence means being your best. Understanding the difference can make all the difference in your life. It certainly has in mine. Don’t settle for less than your best.
Priority One, put Christ first; Priority Two, stir what you got; Priority Three, don’t settle for less than your best.
You know, my Granddaddy, he was right all those years ago when he said things will change or disappear. Four years later, he was dead after a long, lingering, losing battle with cancer. That great extended family, now spread all over the country, never manages to be together in one place at one time. Even that stately house at 1305 Dauphin Street is gone, just a vacant overgrown lot to mark the spot where so many memories were born. Those two magnificent oak trees long since gave way to the stormy blasts of Hurricane Camille. Yes, Granddaddy said things will change or disappear, but Jesus never will. Yes, Granddaddy said when everything else seems uncertain, Jesus is. I have lived by my Granddaddy’s words. I shall die by them as well.
Pray with me, please.
God on High, hear my prayer. Wrap Your great, loving Spirit around each one of us that we may live every day always and only to Your Glory through Jesus Christ, who died that we might live, live here and live hereafter. Amen.