Friday, November 30, 2012

Hal Haralson, a man after God's own heart

Hal Haralson knew God intimately, loved Him deeply, and served Him faithfully. Earlier this week, God welcomed Hal into Heaven.

Why did I title this post, "Hal Haralson, a man after God's own heart"? I read somewhere an explanation of that phrase as applied to David in Scripture. It went like this: David was called a man after God's own heart because "David recognized that the only good in him was the God in him."

I think that's an apt explanation, and an attitude that all of us should share, but few do. However, that attitude - that the only good he had resulted from God's presence in him and with him - simply oozed from every pore of Hal Haralson.

If you didn't know Hal, you missed out. Although, I have to add, you can still read his books and feel like you knew him, because Hal wrote from his heart, and he wrote about his most personal struggles, experiences, and even triumphs. There was a common thread running through Hal's accounting of all of them - God's faithfulness, God's grace and mercy, God's constant presence throughout.

Hal studied under T. B. Maston and was instrumental as a member of the Maston Foundation Board and Executive Committee in those founding years of the 1980s. As an attorney, he worked on the official papers that established the Foundation as a not-for-profit corporation with the State of Texas.

Personally, he was a good friend to me and to my parents, and even served as my parents' attorney for a number of years, including the drawing up and filing of their wills.

But it was in his writing that I got to know Hal even better. From the early days of the journal Christian Ethics Today, founder and editor Foy Valentine (and later, editor Joe Trull) regularly published a column written by Hal, in which he wrote - simply but most eloquently - about real life, almost always drawn from his real life.

And you could count on Hal drawing lessons from those real-life experiences, lessons of God's grace and care for our lives, lessons of life's journey, lessons of not giving up no matter what. From some people, such lessons might have seemed trite. But from Hal, they were authentic and reached the depths of one's soul, because you knew that Hal wasn't writing abstractly - if he was writing about it, he had lived it . . . experienced it.

I never missed an opportunity, whenever I saw Hal in those years, to tell him that his column was the first thing I read as soon as Christian Ethics Today hit my mailbox, because I knew that, in reading his story, I would wind up reading my own story as well. You couldn't read Hal Haralson without circling back to - and reflecting on - something in your own life. That was Hal's gift to us all.

Hal published collections of his stories in two books, Gentle Mercies: Stories of faith in faded blue jeans and The Lost Saddle. An autographed copy of Gentle Mercies is one of the most treasured volumes I own, but I just learned about The Lost Saddle from Hal's obituary. Now I'm going to have to find a copy.

This morning, I took Gentle Mercies down from my bookshelves and read back through a few of his stories. Here are a just a few selections. For those of us who knew Hal, they serve as reminders of the friend who just left us. For those who read his stories over the years, they prod us to go back and re-read them, letting God continue to minister to us through His servant Hal Haralson. For those who haven't known or read Hal, they'll give you just a smidgen of insight into a man who truly was a man after God's own heart, and perhaps whet your appetite to buy his books and read more.

Not giving up no matter what? Hal learned that lesson the hard way . . . by first giving up. In "The View from a Padded Cell," he tells of attempting to commit suicide in 1963, setting fire to his house in the process, and ultimately being committed to the San Antonio State Hospital for 3 months. But why suicide? Because the young pastor had, for two years, "wrestled with questions about my 'calling' as a pastor without telling anyone of my dilemma." This had led to feelings of guilt, of failing his wife and congregation, and of wasting his many years of education and other preparation. In the hospital, he was "diagnosed as manic-depressive (later as bipolar)" and advised by a psychiatrist to "find another line of work."

Then a friend, an Episcopal priest, said, "Hal, . . . be of good cheer . . . everything is going to be all right." Hal recognized that he would have to deal with his illness the rest of his days but wrote, "It was as if God said to me through Ed, 'I have been here all along. I will never leave you or forsake you.'"

In "Starting Over," Hal writes about looking for work after leaving the ministry. He listed his abilities and experience, including "good public speaker"; "experience advising students regarding college and job placement . . . [in] my job in public relations at Hardin-Simmons University"; and "good counselor . . many hours [as pastor] helping people with their problems." In all of his job interviews, he was honest about his suicide attempt & mental illness - "I felt then, and still do, that honesty is the only way to go when dealing with mental illness. It takes the pressure off and reduces the stigma that is so often a problem." What a lesson for us in dealing with all of our struggles!

Hal writes, however, that his honesty wasn't very helpful in finding a job. Until, that is, he interviewed with Lloyd Flood at Montgomery Ward. Two days after receiving what he thought was just the "standard brush off" . . . "'We will get in touch with you,'"  he was called back for a second interview with Mr. Flood and offered the position of director of personnel and public relations . . . "speak at civic clubs and schools . . . listen to [employees'] problems in their marriages and with their children . . . employees get into conflict with each other, and someone needs to hear them out and settle disputes . . . interview applicants and place them where they can benefit themselves and Montgomery Ward the most."

Hal goes on to write, "Mr. Flood had just described a job that allowed me to use every experience I had had up to that point in my life. He had just confirmed my belief that, if I had read God right in leaving the ministry, there was a place waiting that would allow me to use my gifts and experience."

In "Perfect Timing," Hal tells of being admitted to the University of Texas Law School in 1968, after making a last-minute plea to the dean of the Law School, despite not having taken the Law School Admission Test (normally a prerequisite) or even having submitted an application. Later, during his third year in Law School, he learned that "between 1960 and 1970, there were three times as many applicants as there were openings at U.T. Law School . . . except for the fall of 1968. The Vietnam War had taken so many undergraduates that there were still openings when school began."

The lesson? "There are times when the presence of God is felt in events in a way that cannot be explained as coincidence."

In "Hiring Cornelia," Hal tells about putting up his shingle and starting his own law practice after graduating from Law School, then hiring his first secretary. She was instrumental in the ultimate success of his practice and worked for Hal for seven years. "Then and now," Hal writes, "I find myself in awe. The people on the journey are all placed there. There are no accidents."

Just permit me two more. I'll leave it to you to read the stories, but it's sufficient here just to repeat the lessons, the "morals" of the stories: "Don't give up if you catch the wrong bus!" ("Mom Goes Back to School") and "Celebrate your differences!" ("Vive la différence").

Hal Haralson celebrated life - the good and the bad - because he had discovered that God is with us in all of it. Hal never stopped learning, because he had discovered that God always has new things to teach us that we can carry with us on the next steps of the journey. Finally, Hal loved people, appreciated their differences, and saw God's being and God's presence in all he met. What a gift!

Thanks be to God for placing Hal Haralson along my own journey.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

T. B. Maston (1897-1988): "One-Issue Christians"

(from pp. 201-202 of Both-And: A Maston Reader; Selected Readings from the Writings of T. B. Maston, published by the T. B. Maston Foundation in 2011, edited by William M. Tillman, Jr., Rodney S. Taylor, and Lauren C. Brewer; this passage of Dr. Maston's originally appeared in the Baptist Standard, May 28, 1969)

One-Issue Christians

There are one-issue voters. There are also one-issue Christians. The former is unfortunate. The latter is more unfortunate.

The one-issue Christian may judge his own life on the basis of one particular issue. From his perspective, he is right on that issue; and, hence, he considers himself to be a good Christian.

More frequently, the one-issue Christian judges other Christians on the basis of one issue. This is usually a pet subject of his and one on which he considers himself to be right.

For some, the one issue will be in the area of personal morality. For others, it will be some phase of social morality. For all others, the one issue will be a particular theological doctrine or perspective. Regardless of other things, one is considered a good Christian if he is "right" on that doctrine or regarding the perspective.

Those who select an issue in the area of personal morality may be negative or positive in their approach but more frequently the former than the latter. If negative, the issue may be swearing, smoking, drinking, or some other comparable issue.

If one is free of that habit or "vice," he is good; if not, he is bad.

For others, the one issue may be in the area of positive personal morality. For example, if one is "honest in his business," a "man of integrity," "a good neighbor," "generous," "kind and considerate," he is judged to be a good man.

Whatever the virtue, it is a pet idea of the one-issue Christian. For him, if one is "right" regarding that issue or virtue, he is considered a good Christian. In the contemporary period, the one-issue Christian will frequently concentrate on some particular social issue. The goodness or badness of a Christian will be judged upon the basis of his attitude regarding this one issue.

The issue may be capital punishment, divorce, communism, foreign aid, poverty, race, Red China, unemployment, United Nations, or war.

The one-issue Christian judges other Christians on the basis of their position regarding a particular one of these issues. If they are wrong from his perspective on the issue, then they are wrong. If they agree with his position, then they are right and, hence, are good Christians.

It needs to be emphasized over and over again that there is no single issue that is an adequate test of the genuineness and vitality of one's Christian faith. The ultimate test is how much we are like the living Christ. This means, among other things, that a Christian's life should be judged by the totality of its impact. One may be right, at least from our perspective, on one issue and yet be entirely wrong on equally important issues. We need to remember that the same thing may be true of us. We all have our blind spots.

Let us in this area, as elsewhere, do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us also remember that one may differ with us on what we consider to be the supreme issue or test of the Christian life, and yet over all he may be a better Christian than we are.

- T. B. Maston