One day in 1977, about halfway through my time as a student at Mercer University, while sitting across the dinette table from my father, I looked at him and said, “You’re footing much of the bill for my education, so I think that I should tell you that I think I’m becoming a liberal.” Now, given that my father was a good, hard-working, intelligent textile mill worker and rural Southern Baptist church deacon, I expected him to fall off his chair, throw a salt shaker at me, or tell me that I was never going back to that institution of higher learning again.
Instead, he asked me a question: “What do you mean?”
I responded, “Well, I just mean that I’m questioning a lot of things, wondering a lot of things, and doubting a lot of things.”
He said, “Tell me this—do you still believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?”
I said that I did.
And then my father gave me the greatest single piece of advice that I have ever received in all my almost fifty years of living: “Son, just hold on to that. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Back in 1949, my late mentor Dr. Howard Giddens was preparing to leave the pastorate of the First Baptist Church in Bainbridge, GA to assume the same position at the First Baptist Church in Athens, GA, home of the University of Georgia. He was anxious about making the transition.
“That church is full of professors and administrators from the University,” he told Mrs. Giddens. “What do I have that I can say to them?”
And then Mrs. Giddens gave Dr. Giddens some of the best advice he ever got: “Well, Duke (that was his nickname), don’t those Ph.D.s need to know Jesus, too? Then just tell them about Jesus.”
Back to the basics—that’s what both stories are about. We in the pulpit—we in the Church—need always to remember and never to forget that it’s all about Jesus. Doctrine matters, theology matters, hermeneutics matter—but nothing matters like having a personal relationship with Jesus and following Jesus matter.
That’s why I have lately added something to our liturgy. I still read the Scripture, I still preach the sermon, and I still pray the prayer. But now, after the prayer and before the hymn of response, I say something like this: “Jesus Christ is the Son of God; he is the Messiah; he is the Savior. He came to this world and lived a life of perfect obedience. He died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, he rose from the dead on the third day to give us the assurance of eternal life, and he ascended to the right hand of the Father from where he will come again to judge the living and the dead. He is the way to God. It is he who calls you to salvation today.”
It’s part of my effort to remember the advice of my father and the advice of Mrs. Giddens. Whatever else I do and say, I need to hold on to Jesus and I need to tell them about Jesus.
Getting back to the basics is a continuous and necessary process.