The day was May 31, 1946. It was high school graduation day and as I thought then, “This is my best day ever”. A number of important events proceeded this cap and gown time. I was never good at math and after finals, my math teacher called me in for a conference. “Are you going to be a preacher?” he asked. I replied in the affirmative. “Are you sure?” was his further inquiry. I could smell some note of amnesty. “Yes”, I replied, “I vow it!”. “Well, the very best average I can get of all your grades is a 53, but I’m going to just call it 70 and let you go”. It was a note of pure grace and I will always be grateful to William Potts (we called him Potlicker for short) for allowing me to walk across the stage.
The place was Dasher Bible School, a small private institution near Valdosta, Georgia. I didn’t go – I was sent, as a last resort to try to bring about an ‘involuntary repentance’ for the young life I was living. After arriving there two years earlier, I thought I had found a new life, but it wasn’t long before my old life had caught up with me.
I had fallen in love (?) with a young girl called Nettie. She was all ‘woman’ though just in her teens, and upon returning from her home in north Georgia one early morning, I met her on the campus, and we were loving and kissing up on each other. I just knew that no one was up at that early morning hour. William Potts was up shaving and he witnessed the breaking of school rules with our actions. He came by us both in a huff on his way to see the President of the school. I’m so ashamed now, but I did call him a bad name. That too, was against the rules. When the words fell out of my mouth, I knew I would be sent home.
The special meeting of the Disciplinary council was abruptly called and as all eight of the members sat around a huge table, my sentence was immediate. “Send him home” were the words repeated by seven, when I felt a hand pulling on my ragged coat, and as I sat down, William Potts rose. “I withdraw my charges against this lad!” Above the objections of the other seven, he prevailed and they approved a new rule called, “Eternal Probation”. Just one misstep and the sentence will be re-imposed. The tears in his eyes were more than the committee could over rule.
Two years of High School had passed and ‘ the best day ever’, my graduation had come. As I write this column I am looking at a copy (old and stained) of the commencement exercises. There were 17 in our senior class. Our class motto was, “God first, others second, Self last”. I thought it was the ‘ best day ever’.
I look back over the 57 years and ponder. What if there was no William Potts. What if there was no forgiveness? What if there was no ‘perpetual probation’? What if there was no graduation?
Some 30 years ago, I was a guest speaker with a large congregation in Athens, Georgia, and as I rose to speak, William Potts, with his family came in the main doors. I recognized him immediately, but finding all the back pews filled, they were busy finding vacant seats near the front. On an impulse, I changed my announced subject and spoke on “The Marvel of a Forgiving Heart”. I closed by telling the true story that I have related. When the lesson was over, I said, “William Potts is here today, in our audience”. I called for him to step forward. I was shedding long overdue tears, and his eyes were brimming full and running over. “William Potts”, I asked, “Will you forgive me?” I had never even asked. We embraced and now many in the audience were shedding their tears of joy. Then I thought, “This is the best day yet”.
The apostle Paul wrote, from his prison cell in Rome, to his young son in the faith, Timothy. “I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me, a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me in that day; and not to me only but to all those that love his appearing” (II Timothy 4:6-8) Graduation day was coming for Paul. The Commencement exercises would soon begin. How many books (letters) he had written would not be considered. How many sacrifices were offered would not count? The only credit would be given to Him in these words, “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord . . . and to be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness . . . but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Philippians 3:8-9).
When Paul laid his head down before the executioner, and closed his eyes for the last time – This was the ‘best day of all’.