“The enclosed was the short memorial given at the alumni chapel service last May. I’ve been meaning to get a copy to you, all this time.” --Helen Halsey Haroutunian to Charles Halsey, Sr., December 12, 1954
It is hard for a man to argue any point on which he is entirely convinced. I think that any one of us would feel that the attempt to pay tribute to Jesse Halsey is doomed to failure. There is about all complete conviction a kind of helplessness. And I think that Jesse Halsey would tell us, “Don’t bother.” But that’s what we would expect from him for he was, indeed, “great in all wise men’s eyes except in his own.”
Yet it is not for his good but for ours that we remember this man of God. You men of the class of 1954 are the last student generation to know what this means. For us, Uncle Jess has become the symbol of serenity in a world where all hell seems to be breaking loose. Yet he is more than a symbol. He is—in that phrase to which he gave new meaning—“a living hope.” When we think of the ideal ministry we think of it in terms of Jesse Halsey, and when we try to describe it we find ourselves using the words of Bunyan or MacLaren, friends whom he taught us to know. So we ask your indulgence, Uncle Jess. It’s good for us to remember you.
Jesse Halsey is a living hope because he knew what was in men. He was not surprised by what he saw. When he looked at our faults he was “unshockable.” When our wrongs were most shameful and we found it hard to face ourselves, we heard from him: “I don’t condemn you; go, and don’t do it again.” For he saw us not only at our worst, but he saw what was best in us. There was one lad who drove to Seminary his first year who for three weeks didn’t unpack his trunk because he wasn’t sure he belonged there. But Uncle Jess discovered that boy before he discovered himself. One of my classmates wrote me last week, “It is enough to say that it was Dr. Halsey who sensed that I needed help and gave me the feeling that I had some possibilities.”
How could anyone help but see himself in a brighter light when this matchless man troubled himself in his behalf? Can you forget him trudging up with a tray to some student sick in bed on the fourth floor of McCormick Hall? Do you remember him driving out with you to your student charge at six o’clock on a Sunday morning to administer communion for you—after he had prepared a pancake breakfast for you both at 5 a.m. in his own kitchen? And if we ever wonder whether that kind of performance is worthwhile in our own ministry and we conclude that it is, we can thank Jesse Halsey for making us know it.
Dr. Halsey is a living hope not only because he knew what was in man but because he knew the heart of God. I suppose that this man knew the intimacies and heartbreaks behind the doors of more Presbyterian manses than most of us will sense in our congregations in a lifetime. Like his Master who suffered for us all, Jesse Halsey was hurt when we were hurt. Nor was his own life immune to heartbreak. God knows. But God also knows that his servant learned by suffering. For Jesse Halsey loved his God, and through him we have loved God more. Did weakness and sin about in us? We know it did, but grace did much more abound.
Jesse Halsey had faith. He had so much faith in God that he possessed what we are apt to think is uncongenial to faith—common sense. I presume it was as plumber to Dr. Grenfell that he began his formal preparation for the Chair here at McCormick that he was later to fill. We who were his students learned that Christian faith was nothing if it was not practical. Because he believed in God’s providence Dr. Halsey didn’t consider that the Almighty needed a mouthpiece to justify His every move. His prophet knew when to keep still. He taught us there are times when you don’t say a prayer.
There is abundant evidence about us to shatter any delusions we have of human goodness. What the world needs, we are being told, is Jesus Christ, the Hope of the world. For me the hope of Christ in mortal form is Jesse Halsey, because he not only saw men and God but he believed they were meant to be together.
Take his love for the beautiful. You know how zealous he was for the beauty of worship—that the service be done decently and in order. You know how he delighted in the beauty of the ancient liturgies; or take his handiwork in this chapel. You remember how bulbs and plantings began to sprout at the doorsteps of Chalmers Place—and not only at No. 846. Are these man’s attempt to worship God, or are these manifestations of the beauty of God in the life of man? Whichever way you take it, for Dr. Halsey God and man were meant for each other.
In the little booklet he prepared for servicemen he put this quotation of Lincoln: “Die when I may, I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.”
Not only on Chalmers Place, but in each of us he went about finding the signs of God that we couldn’t see for the thistles. And we came to realize that God meant us to live in a garden—not a jungle.
Circumstances permitted some of us to know him intimately during our student days. For others, like myself, he was not truly known until he came into our homes after we had got into the pastorate. When that happened, as it did all too seldom, he became part of our home. My wife and young children responded to the warmth of his presence. The children invariably were at their best! After my own father died, he was to us in the truest sense of the word a father in God to our family.
You will forgive the personal reference. I make it because I think it reproduces what many of you know to be true. It is good for all of us to remember that here was a man who knew men and who knew God and who believed they were meant for communion. That is why for all of us in time of trouble Jesse Halsey is “a living hope.”
By Donald C. Wilson