One of the greatest gifts you can receive is the gift of guidance and encouragement from someone who has blazed a path before you with distinction, understands the demands of the journey, and believes in your ability to climb the mountains which lie before you.

God sent such a person to me in the fall of 1986. Dr. Hugh Kirby traveled to the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., to interview candidates for the Minister of Youth position at Hartwell First Baptist Church.

Although I had been trained for the ministry, I didn't feel prepared to pastor a church. I thought some time in another area of ministry would be beneficial before being yoked to such a difficult job. Hugh Kirby and the members of his church gave me an opportunity to minister to a wonderful group of teenagers. While I gave leadership to them, I watched Hugh and learned how to pastor a church.

The quality that has most resonated with me about Hugh through the years is his genuineness. In working with Hugh, I had an opportunity to see him at work and at play. There was never any grandstanding. He was the same person in the pulpit as he was in the deer stand. Of course, when we were together we had conversation that we wouldn't have had with others, but that's part of what friendship is all about.

The point is that Hugh was real. He showed me how important it is to live every aspect of your life with integrity. Hugh worked hard at practicing what he preached.

Sometime during my years in Hartwell, I heard the story of "The Velveteen Rabbit." In fact, I think I heard this story from Hugh as he told it to the children at church. "The Velveteen Rabbit" is a classic fable about a toy rabbit who becomes real with the help of a boy who loves him very much. But the process is painful. In becoming real, the rabbit's fur got shabbier and shabbier. The pink rubbed off its nose. His seams began to show and his button eyes lost their shine. In becoming real, the rabbit made some sacrifices.

Hugh taught me that sacrifices have to be made to minister effectively to people. Giving of yourself is costly. If the gospel is going to be real to others, it must be lived by those who proclaim it. Unless we are genuine, how will people know that the gospel we proclaim can be believed?

The pastorate is a very demanding occupation. Hugh taught me that ministers are called to make sacrifices as we strive to become more like Christ. Giving of ourselves to others is often the catalyst that makes the gospel come alive. More of the gospel is caught than taught.

What I caught from Hugh is that being authentic and genuine creates opportunities for ministry. It attracts many more people than it repels. Some people use religious language and scripture and go through the motions of church attendance without ever being real to anyone. For a minister, this is a recipe for unhappiness. It also leads many people to have an unhealthy view of Christianity. Many ministers have crashed and burned because they were not honest with themselves or others, believing they were as wonderful-looking and grand as the "skin horse" in Margery Williams' story.

Hugh's journey to a place where he was at peace with himself and his direction in life didn't come overnight. After making some mistakes as a typical workaholic in the church, he learned the value of living an introspective life. He discovered the value of journaling. He found the value of working through issues with people wise in counseling (pastors need a pastor, too). He carved out more time for his children. He found opportunities for solitude and he made a commitment to travel with his wife, ensuring that they would have great memories outside the walls of their home and church.

While serving as a Minister of Education, Hugh was encouraged to enroll in a doctoral program by one of his mentors and prepare himself for the pastorate. In achieving a doctorate, Hugh rose above his boyhood expectations.

Hugh taught me that one of the things that cannot be taken away is an education. Because of his encouragement, I enrolled and completed a doctoral degree at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. Having completed his own doctoral work there, Hugh could vouch for the process. When it came time to choose the project for my thesis, once again Hugh was influential. I chose to research how humor is used in the Bible and how it can be used as a tool in ministry. I'd seen this joyous quality in Hugh's life and wished it were more a part of my own.

One of Hugh's most endearing qualities is his good humor. When I worked with Hugh, I could often hear him laughing down the hall, even though his door was closed. Hugh taught me that we cannot control circumstances but we can control how we respond to them. He once said to me, "Joy is an attitude. I believe a person can have an underlying attitude of joy even in the most desperate situation." He taught me that good humor is contagious and we need to learn to laugh at ourselves most of all.

"Christians have the responsibility to see the funny side of things and let people laugh at us," he said. "We need to promote the concept of joy in the lives of Christian people."

In spite of his formal education, Hugh would tell you that the most important education he received was in his mill village home. There the spiritual foundation for his life was laid. I came to understand that Hugh's love for people was greatly influenced by his mother.

Getting to know Hugh's mother was a real gift. She was a simple woman with an unwavering faith who had unconditional love for all her children and the people she met.

It took Hugh a while to understand that his humble upbringing was an asset and not a liability. As he matured, he learned to embrace the lessons he learned among the rows of small, look-alike mill village homes, and in the mill village church.

Back in the 1970s, Hugh's work as the Minister of Education at Dunwoody Baptist Church in the Atlanta suburb was trend-setting . He outpaced most of his peers with innovative approaches to ministry. He did pioneering work in religious broadcasting. Yet it has been in his 24 years as a pastor that he has done his best work.

Hugh is a good preacher. He is a scholar. He is a thinker. He is a visionary. His greatest attribute is his desire and ability to befriend others. Some of his best work has gone unseen except by God and those whom he has helped put the pieces of their lives back together. Jesus once said, "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." Matt 6:3_4 (NIV)

Hugh has been a friend to those who have loved him and to those who have wounded him. He has always strived to treat people fairly, even those who may have treated him unfairly. He has held strongly to a biblical Christ-centered ethic, seeking to live as Christ teaches and seeking to lead the church as Christ directs.

He has been willing to admit his shortcomings and to seek the forgiveness of those he may have wounded. He has sought to reach out and bring together people of opposing viewpoints and to keep everyone headed in the direction of God's kingdom. He has shown great passion in being a husband and father -- and now a grandfather. The success of his children speaks well of his and Deane's parenting, although he gives most of the credit to Deane.

Now, at age 65, Hugh is retiring from the pastorate. He looks a bit like the Velveteen Rabbit. The pastorate has left him without any hair. His body is not as proportionate as it once was. He looks a bit shabbier than he did when he accepted his first pastorate in Indiana 24 years ago. But like the Velveteen Rabbit, he is the better for it because he has never been more loved.

Hugh has earned the opportunity to be a full-time "honey-doer," grandfather, fly-fisherman, canoe maker, book reader, ham radio operator, hiker, coffee drinker, and traveler. Soon he will no longer be pastor of Hartwell FBC but Hugh will always be a pastor at heart; he will always be a friend to whoever needs one; he will always have a special place in the hearts of many, many, people; he will always be my mentor.

The Rev. Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.

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