Many years ago I was gobsmacked by my own conscience. To this day I cannot tell you what set it off. I do remember I was in my 30’s. I’m not sure if it occurred around Thanksgiving, though that is possible.
But in that moment, totally out of the blue, I realized I had never thanked my mentor and ordaining pastor from Overland Park Christian Church, the Rev. Dr. Forrest Haggard, for all he had done for me and my family over the nearly twenty years since I had first met him.
He had taken me under his wing when I was 16 and I announced one Sunday after worship in the receiving line that I planned to go into ministry. This was really a bizarre moment. I had never formally introduced myself to Forrest before. I had only started attending the church a few weeks, maybe a few months before. But on that particular Sunday I just suddenly announced to him after worship in the receiving line that I was planning to become a minister.
Making this first exchange even more bizarre was the following conversation: Without a blink of an eye, he asked, “Have you ever been baptized?” Only able to think in an immature transactional and pragmatic way the thought immediately occurred to me: maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea.” So, I answered, “No.” But that flash of a moment got the ball rolling onto my long journey into ministry.
Yet, Forrest was only getting started. In April of 1965 I was baptized. In October of that same year, when I was a high school senior, Forrest drove me and several other pastors—I was the only youth on board—from Overland Park to Enid, Oklahoma and Phillips University, where the pastors had a meeting and where I could be introduced to the school. Two days and a one-night stay in a dorm room later I found I was hooked. Four years later in the fall of 1969 as a senior at Phillips I met a very cute, petite, freshman, fell in love with her, and married her on June 4, 1971, after my first year at Vanderbilt. Yes, it was René.
Along the way, Forrest, with his basso profundo speaking voice (he couldn’t sing a lick, so he whistled hymns), could be very direct and intimidating, but always with an air of compassion. He’d say things like, “You know, a lot of churches don’t like people” and “Be sure to go into every new situation like you know nothing at all. You’ll learn more that way.” I still laugh when during a youth class he was leading, during which I’d made some inane remark, he looked at me and said, “If I had your wisdom, I wouldn’t need a brain.” Along life’s way I’ve met similar people like me when I was just 17 years of age. I’ve been tempted to quote Forrest to them.
Forrest preached my ordination sermon. He helped me deal with a troublesome senior pastor. He preached my father’s funeral. He comforted me with something I’ll never forget. After Dad died I discovered my mother always seemed angry with me. I didn’t know why, but found her anger quite unsettling. Ever the wise counselor, Forrest proceeded to tell me that my mother got angry because she felt she could trust me with her anger. She was paying me a roundabout compliment. What Forrest taught me is that in personal relationships we never get angry at people we don’t care about. Think about important relationships you have had where you have known this to be true.
And, while you’re at it, think about who that special person in your life for whom you are thankful? Have you, like me, delayed expressing your gratitude?
There’s a song titled, “Love Them Now” before they’re just a distant memory. One lesson the pandemic should be teaching us, when getting together even with family may contain hidden dangers, is that we need to say, “Thank you, ____________!” Fill in their name and what they did in the blank.
That “Aha!” moment of contrition and thanksgiving many years later has become an extraordinary moment in my life. I still think of it as the moment I became a man. In that moment I became a man because I realized how childish and adolescent I had been all my life until then, when I suddenly felt embarrassed and humbled by my own ingratitude.
Maybe this is what we need to awaken to in our spiritual life with God. How long has it been since we really told God, “Thank you!”? Have we in fact ever told God, “Thank you for all you’ve done for me, for my loved ones, for my world? I didn’t realize how immature I have been!”
Who knows? It may be the day we really become a Christian.