by jonathan haskell
I received word yesterday that one of my heroes passed away on Sunday. Larry Haag was one of the best kind of heroes. He was a friend and a mentor who enriched my life more than he ever knew. Lori and I met Larry and his wife Sharon in June of 1994 at the ABWE missionary candidate school. Before I got to know Larry, I was really intimidated. We were young and inexperienced. I hadn’t attended seminary and had never held the office of a pastor. We really hadn’t been involved in ministry that long – we just knew that we wanted to be and we felt like God was leading us into cross-cultural ministry.
Larry was everything that I was not. Larry held two doctorates, including one in missiology. His salt-
and-pepper hair and distinguished beard contributed to his scholarly appearance. He and Sharon had once been missionaries in Brazil where they learned the language and raised their family as part of the local culture. They had planted churches and trained leaders. Upon returning to the US, Larry chaired the Missions Department at a large Christian university and taught in the seminary. Now, at the time when many of their peers would be thinking about retiring to a warmer climate, Larry and Sharon were preparing for a third chapter in their ministry lives – helping launch a new ministry team in the former Communist Bloc.
But Larry was the opposite of intimidating. He was a warm, humble, practical “people” person with a great sense of humor. Most importantly, Larry had a passion for Jesus, for God’s Word, and for discipleship. In fact, Larry taught me, in word and deed, the meaning of discipleship.
His role in Central and Eastern Europe was in leadership development. This ministry took place in a variety of ways and in a hundred different settings. He helped national leaders strategize and develop training programs for pastors and church planters. He taught in seminaries and in Bible schools throughout the region. He spoke at camps and at denominational gatherings. He taught in local churches and sometimes even in living rooms. Larry poured himself – his knowledge, his passion and his experience – into anyone who was willing to learn. I was very blessed to have been a part of it.
As it turned out, we settled into the community of Erd, in the western suburbs of Budapest, about two miles from where Larry and Sharon lived. I’m not sure what Larry saw in me, but he took me under his wing from the start. We spent countless hours together in Larry’s office, in their home, in our home, in cafes and coffee shops – talking, studying, praying and strategizing. As I reflect on our time together, there are several things characterized Larry’s discipleship ministry in my life:
• He encouraged me – I would even say he emboldened me. Larry believed in me when I did not believe in myself. His belief in me gave me the courage to step out and attempt things that I might otherwise not have.
• He corrected me when I was wrong. I have always been emotional and tend to take things personally. I deflect tension with sarcasm. If you think it’s bad now, you should have seen me 20 years ago. Larry was a voice of reason and of balance. He spoke up when I needed to back off and he told me when I was out of line – sometimes with just a look. I listened because I respected him and I knew he wanted what was best for me. I really did not want to disappoint him.
• He walked with me. By this I mean that Larry’s ministry to me happened in the course of life. We didn’t go through a book together. There were no assignments or appointments. He was a friend who I knew was there for me. We had coffee together, shared meals, took road trips together. He and Sharon even watched our kids so we could go out on occasion. He introduced me to his contacts and I was thrilled to bring him into my network. We were a great team – I had the benefit of the Hungarian language and the relationships. He had the experience, the wisdom and the insight (and that fantastic grey hair).
• He celebrated with me. Larry couldn’t wait for updates – he wanted to know how the church was doing, how the weekend went, and what came from the meeting. My victories were his victories.
• He pushed me. I felt like Larry was always thinking several steps ahead of me. We would celebrate, but I knew the “now what?” was coming. Most importantly, Larry pushed me to invest in others, to train up leaders and to replace myself with others.
Unfortunately, we kind of lost touch with Larry and Sharon when we resigned from the mission and returned to the US in 2006. I would hear or read of his continuing exploits from time to time, but we never spoke again. I did not realize then how rare “Larrys” are in your life.
In recent months I learned that Larry was battling cancer. Last week I got an email from my dad that Larry was no longer responding to treatment and that his doctors were just trying to make him comfortable. I took the opportunity to do something I wish I’d done sooner – I wrote him an email to let him know how much he meant to me and how thankful I was that he took the time to invest in a young, impulsive, cocky missionary. I don’t know if he was able to read it or not, but I’m sure that by now Jesus has given him a glimpse of the far-reaching impact that his ministry on earth had.
The lingering question I have is this: why are “Larrys” so rare? When Jesus modeled this type of ministry and commanded us to do the same, why are relatively few people taking the time and making the effort to pour themselves into others? Couldn’t we all use a “Larry” in our lives? Could you be a “Larry” to someone else?
Yes, Larry Haag had degrees, but one thing he taught me is that a piece of paper doesn’t define you. And the lack of one doesn’t limit you from having an impact. I committed long ago to live the kind of fearless, selfless life that Larry lived, helping others to reach their potential for the Kingdom. Larry’s legacy will be one of discipleship. Though he is gone, his ministry lives on in the lives of those like me that he poured himself into. What will your legacy be?