Some 14 years ago, I stood watching my university students file into
the classroom for our opening session in the theology of faith. That was
the day I first saw Tommy. He was combing his hair, which hung six
inches below his shoulders. My quick judgment wrote him off as strange
-- very strange.
Tommy turned out to be my biggest challenge. He constantly objected
to, or smirked at the possibility of an unconditionally loving God. When
he turned in his final exam at the end of the course, he asked in a
slightly cynical tone, "Do you think I'll ever find God?"
"No," I said emphatically.
"Oh," he responded. "I thought that was the product you were pushing."
I let him get five steps from the door and then called out. "I don't
think you'll ever find him, but I am certain he will find you." Tommy
shrugged and left. I felt slightly disappointed that he had missed my
Later I heard that Tommy had graduated, and I was grateful for that.
Then came a sad report: Tommy had terminal cancer. Before I could
search him out, he came to me. When he walked into my office, his body
was badly wasted, and his long hair had fallen out because of the
chemotherapy. But, his eyes were bright and his voice, for the first
time, was firm.
"Tommy! I've thought about you so often. I heard you were very sick,"
I blurted out.
"Oh, yes, very sick. I have cancer. It's a matter of weeks."
"Can you talk about it?"
"Sure. What would you like to know?"
"What's it like to be only 24 and know that you're dying?"
"It could be worse," he told me, "like being 50 and thinking that
drinking booze, seducing women and making money are the real 'biggies'
in life." Then, he told me why he had come.
"It was something you said to me on the last day of class. I asked if
you thought I would ever find God and you said no, which surprised me.
Then you said, 'But, he will find you.' I thought about that a lot,
even though my search for God was hardly intense at that time."
"But, when the doctors removed a lump from my body and told me that it
was malignant, I got serious about locating God. And when the
malignancy spread into my vital organs, I really began banging against
the bronze doors of heaven. But, nothing happened. Well, one day I
woke up, and instead of my desperate attempts to get some kind of
message, I just quit. I decided I didn't really care about God, an
afterlife, or anything like that."
"I decided to spend what time I had left doing something more
important. I thought about you and something else you had said: 'The
essential sadness is to go through life without loving. But, it would
be almost equally sad to leave this world without ever telling those
you loved that you loved them.'
So, I began with the hardest one...my Dad."
Tommy's father had been reading the newspaper when his son approached
him. "Dad, I would like to talk with you."
"I mean, it's really important."
The newspaper came down three slow inches. "What is it?"
"Dad, I love you. I just wanted you to know that."
Tommy smiled at me as he recounted the moment. "The newspaper
fluttered to the floor. Then, my father did two things I couldn't remember him
doing before. He cried and he hugged me. And then, we talked all
night, even though he had to go to work the next morning."
"It was easier with my mother and little brother," Tommy continued.
"They cried with me, and we hugged one another, and shared the thing we
had been keeping secret for so many years. I was only sorry that I had
waited so long. Here I was, in the shadow of death, and I was just
beginning to open up to all the people I had actually been close to."
"Then one day, I turned around and God was there. He didn't come to me
when I pleaded with him. Apparently he does things in his own way and
at his own hour. The important thing is that you were right. He found
me even after I stopped looking for him."
"Tommy," I practically gasped, "I think you are saying something much
more universal than you realize. You are saying that the surest way to
find God is not by making him a private possession or an instant
consolation in time of need, but rather by opening to love."
"Tommy," I added, "could I ask you a favor? Would you come to my
theology-of-faith course and tell my students what you just told me?"
Though we scheduled a date, he never made it. Of course, his life was
not really ended by his death, only changed. He made the great step
from faith into vision. He found a life far more beautiful than the
eye of humanity has ever seen, or the mind ever imagined.
Before he died, we talked one last time. "I'm not going to make it to
your class," he said.
"I know, Tommy."
"Will you tell them for me? Will you . . . tell the whole world for
"I will, Tommy. I'll tell them."