By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
Thirty years have come and gone, and he's still preaching the same message.
It's tradition for the retired Rev. Joe Baisden of Belton Church of Christ.
'I'm honored that the congregation regards the sermon so fondly,' Baisden said. 'And it's an honor to be invited back each October to give it.'
Baisden's been preaching a sermon called 'Come Before Winter' the first Sunday of October since 1971, his first year as pastor at Belton Church of Christ.
'It's the same message,' said Judy Cass of Belton, a longtime church member. 'But it never gets old. He presents the lesson from so many angles that it's always fresh and new and interesting.' Based on Paul's second letter to Timothy, Baisden's annual sermon teaches the dangers of procrastination.
'It's a powerful reminder for me not to take the people in my life for granted,' said Rebekah Jarratt of Belton, who's been listening to 'Come Before Winter' for 25 years. 'You've got to say the things that matter before it's too late.'
Each October, Baisden uses poems, stories, songs and images to illustrate his theme.
'I'm also in the habit of taking notes throughout the year when something interesting happens,' Baisden said, pointing to a three-inch thick file folder full of 'Come Before Winter' drafts.
It's this personal touch the congregation finds so endearing.
'There's something special and personal every year, it's a gift to all of us,' said Cindy Warrick of Belton, a church member. 'It's always something we can use in our lives for the better.'
When Baisden gave his first 'Come Before Winter' sermon, he wasn't intending to make it a habit.
'It was a sermon I had already developed when I was preaching in Abilene in 1969,' Baisden said. 'The congregation there took well to it, so I tried it when I got to Belton in '71.'
That led to a second run the next October and a third.
'But in 1974 by the time October rolled around, I had figured it was enough, so I didn't plan on it,' Baisden said.
The pastor felt he should give a new sermon, so his congregation wouldn't grow weary of the lesson.
'But I was wrong,' Baisden said. 'The first Sunday in October came without the sermon, and Monday morning there was a knock on my door. It was Alton Martin wanting to know when there'd be another 'Come Before Winter.' So I kind of froze for a second, and then I promised it was coming along.'
It was November when Baisden gave the sermon that year.
'I learned my lesson,' Baisden said smiling. 'There wasn't going to be any going without the October sermon.'
There wasn't a single 'Come Before Winter' delay or cancellation in the three decades that followed.
The tradition had a brief hiatus in 2005 when Baisden retired.
'I wanted to make room for a new pastor,' Baisden said. 'I wanted the new person to bring his message and start new traditions.'
But the Belton Church of Christ didn't find a new long-term pastor. A series of interim ministers led the congregation in the years that followed.
In the October of 2007, the church elders called Baisden back to the pulpit for 'Come Before Winter.'
'It's a part of our identity,' said elder Wade Jessup. 'It's such a wonderful sermon, in big demand not just at our church but at the other churches he's guest pastured at since he retired.'
So Baisden delivered version 34 of 'Come Before Winter' that year.
And tomorrow he'll be giving version No. 36 in the 10:15 a.m. worship service.
'Of course there's going to be something new about it,' Baisden said.
Hinting at the topic, Baisden said the sermon will focus on O.L. Frazer, a 96-year-old church elder who died earlier this year.
'I got a letter from David Allen,' Baisden said. 'He said Mr. Frazer meant a great deal to him, he learned a lot from him. The young man said he wished he had had the opportunity to learn even more. So that's what we need to do, ask the questions that need to be asked now, learn and love while we can.'
His voice was steady as he spoke, but his eyes were full of emotion.
The lesson's an important one to him, partly because he's seen people suffer with regret and partly because he knows what its like to have time slip away from him.
'I had a friend die in 1984,' Baisden said. 'He passed away without me saying some things that I wanted to say, things that I should have said.'
So in October that year, 'Come Before Winter' No. 14 was about him and the loss he felt.
'The lesson was on me, I was preaching the lesson to myself,' Baisden said. 'I promised myself I wasn't going to let anybody else die on me without saying the things that are on my heart.'
So he told the congregation to expect random visits and impromptu speeches.
'I told everyone I might come to their house one evening to visit and say what I'd say at their funeral,' Baisden said. 'I wanted to say those words while they could hear them.'
So the sermon became more than a tradition. It became a renewed calling for the congregation to devote time to their loved ones, and it became a promise between a pastor and his church.