Word of the Week

Saying Goodbye to Tom

Attending a funeral for someone you love is difficult for all of us. It something that most of us dread. Crying in public never seems to be anyone's favorite thing . . .

But have you ever thought about what is like to be in the position of leading a funeral, especially someone in whom you knew well?

As a pastor, it is one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences you can have in the course of your ministry. With your whole career being about building authentic relationships, there is a deep sadness in you when someone you have loved passes on.  During a funeral service, as much as you want to cry and grieve along with others, you know it is your job to be a beacon of strength, to provide the hope we know in the Christian faith, and to be a presence of compassion to the family.

Such is the opportunity and challenge I had last night. I led an informal service for my dear friend, Tom, a long-time member of the church I previously served in Gaithersburg, MD.

The following are some of the words that shared at the service. Even if you didn't know Tom, my hope is that you would be encouraged by the legacy of this great man of faith. (The picture to the left is of me with Tom and is wife and some other of our friends at a lunch back in November of 2008 during my last days of service there).

When I first met Tom upon coming to be one of the associate pastors at his congregation in 2006, I quickly learned that Tom was not your ordinary guy. He often did things around the church and for his family that others really didn’t want to do. If his grandchildren needed anything, for example, even if it meant being silly with paint or dolls or food, Tom was in and he’d just say later, “Well, it was what Elizabeth wanted to do . . .” Or when I’d ask about the items in his van, he’d say that they were Lisa and Betty’s—left from a recent road trip somewhere. “Those two sure do know how to pack up a car,” he’d say.

At church, “for fun” on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoons, Tom would often stop by the church to do the work of ministry that few are interested in doing—namely, signing checks and checking up on the financial statements. And, frequently during one of his signing check visits, Tom would find his way into my office and share with me a joke or two. He would begin with something like . . . “I hope you aren’t too offended by my off color humor . . . “To which I wasn’t and we became quick friends.

Soon the two of us along with his lovely wife Betty Jo were planning special events together for the “seniors” of the church. Organizing lunches, gathering and even a “field trip” one afternoon to the Jarvis’ in Gettysburg that included Tom and I picking up a rental van—which was always an adventurous pre- outing in itself. I thought the rental place was never going to let the two of us out of the parking lot with that van.

In all of these things, the spirit of Tom was always about service. It was about community and being the “glue” that kept good people on the right track doing good things. He was person who held together many things at his home, kept stressed out pastors sane at church and kept together networks of relationships from within the community with the help of his lovely wife.

Tom was the kind of guy that you could call on at the last minute if you needed something because you know he’d be there. No questions asked.

One of my most favorite memories of time that Tom and I got to spend together was in the wee hours of the morning when he had volunteered to drive me to Dulles airport so I could go to my wedding in Georgia back in October of 2007. We talked about various things over the course of that longer traffic filled morning. But, most moving of them all was his encouragement to me. He told me after spending a couple of minutes critiquing my speech patterns in my most recent sermon: “You’ve got a talent for this pastor thing. I think you should just keep doing what you are doing and God is going to bless you richly.”

While Tom was not big or flashy about his words, and never really wanted to be the center of attention about anything, he brought gifts of authenticity, love and support to those surrounding him. Since I became the pastor of Washington Plaza in 2009, Tom checked up on me from time to-time. He asked frequently if folks there were being nice to me. If not, he said, he’d gladly come over and agitate things a little. I’m going to miss this open invitation offer of his . . .

Like the Apostle Paul, I know many of us will have many occasions to thank God for Tom’s memory. There is so much we will miss about him not being with us anymore here on earth.

In all of these things, Tom knew that ultimately relationships were most important—both to God and to one another. He knew that doing what he could to encourage, motivate and bring people together was essential to the Christian life. He knew it was his responsibility to care for his family. Like the rest of us, Tom made his share of mistakes, but he wasn’t one to let his mistakes keep him down or his cancer in the last months of his life, willingly getting out to come to church even if it meant coming with an oxygen tank. 

When you and I die, only one thing matters: not how much money we have, not how many flowers decorate the alter, not how many people attend, not how many groups or societies we belonged to—only one thing, as it was with Tom last Friday—is it well with our souls? Are our lives in harmony with God?  Are our lives being used for the good of building bonds in Christian community or are they centered only on ourselves? The Bible says: what will profit a man or woman if he or she gains the whole world and loses their own soul?

It’s not easy to think about such hard questions as Tom did—even Jesus didn’t say it was easy. But Jesus did say in the tough times, he would be with us always, he would never leave us.