|Tom and Me in 2012|
When I first moved to the small town in Missouri where I was going to plant my first church, I went with a lot of excitement and too much bravado. I was going to change the world by planting this church. Within the first few years I managed to build a church of about 20. The most people to ever attend the church was just over 30 on a Sunday morning. Needless to say I felt a great deal of failure.
But early on I received a phone call from someone in the community asking me to do a funeral for her mother. I met the family, who was leery of pastors, and performed the funeral. Something I did must have won some appreciation because they came to respect me.
One member of the family started attending the church, and brought her young niece along. A few months later, the little girl invited her father, Tom, to attend our Father's Day service with her. Tom became a regular attender.
Over the next few years he became more and more involved in what we were doing at the church. From the beginning we did a ton of compassionate and servant evangelism style outreach events. Tom fell in love with serving people.
To be honest, though, I wasn't sure where Tom was spiritually.
It has been more than 35 years since he had even set foot in a church. He had faced some difficult physical struggles. He was on kidney dialysis three times a week, and within two years of knowing him he had a kidney transplant.
So one evening I presented the Gospel to him using the old bridge drawing. When it came to the appropriate time, I asked him, "If you were to put yourself on this drawing, where would you be? Would be ready to cross the bridge and accept Jesus? Would you say you are in a relationship with Jesus?"
"I wouldn't even be on this piece of paper," Tom said. "I would be down the block!"
I was surprised. I would say that he had been following in the way of Christ since he got to the church. He had been following after Jesus harder than anyone I ever knew. I learned it was probably more baggage from his upbringing than anything thing else.
Tom explained, "I have been holding God a long way off for a long time, and He has been drawing me closer and closer. Before I started coming here and got to know you I wouldn't have even been in this state."
I told him I would be praying for him as he continued his journey. He asked if he could keep the piece of paper, and then explained. "Hanging on the wall in my garage is a blue pillow in an old plastic grocery bag. That is the pillow I used for years to rest my arm on during my dialysis. The first time I did dialysis my arm hurt so bad when I left because it sat on that hard wooden rest. So I got the pillow. When I got the kidney transplant, I hung that pillow on the wall so that every time I pull my truck into the garage I see the pillow and know what I have come through. Maybe one day, I will hang this picture up there with that pillow as a regular reminder that I have fully crossed over and started following Jesus."
Over the next few years, things didn't improve at the church. I struggled emotionally, physically, financially, every possible way you can think of. It beat me up. I finally resigned in 2006, and was pretty sure I was down planting, and maybe even done pastoring. God had other plans; though. He opened some doors for me to move back to Ohio and work toward planting what is now my current church.
On the evening we were packing the truck to move, Tom came over and worked like mad to make sure everything we had fit into the truck. When he finally had to take off, he asked me to take a quick ride with him. I had less than 12 hours to finish packing the rest of my house, get it loaded into the truck, and get on the road...but it was Tom...There was no way I could refuse him anything after the years and years of friendship he had given me.
I got in the truck, and he drove us to his house. He opened the garage door, and there, hanging on the wall was the blue pillow. Pinned to the front was the picture I had drawn for him 3 years earlier. He said, "I just wanted you to know that I'm all in!"
I struggled to keep from crying, and when I got back home had to find a private place away from everyone so I could cry.
Of all the memories I have of Tom...playing tennis with him in bibbed overalls and work boots...him getting a bouncy castle and a large Barbie cake for my wife's 29th birthday just to keep things fun...every birthday and family function he included me and my family in...of all those things, I remember him most for his determination to serve and love others. I felt like a failure because of that church plant. I was defeated and broken. Tom's encouragement enabled me to stick things out on so many occasions.
Right now Tom is struggling for life on a ventilator. Whatever ends up happening, I know Tom will be ok. He will either recover and keep fighting and serving and loving people...or He will go home and give Jesus a run for his money. I can only write a rambling blog post, but even this can't put into words how much I care for Tom and his family; how much he means to me.
On the journey of life, we get the privilege of meeting some people who impact our lives forever. Most of those people will never be famous. They will never do anything amazing enough to be written about in newspapers or books. They will just live the best life they know how to live and care for people along the way...that is Tom.