John Powel, a Professor at Loyola University in Chicago writes about a student in his Theology of Faith class named Tommy:
Some time ago, I stood watching my university students file into the classroom for our first session in the Theology of Faith. That was the first day I saw Tommy.
Tommy turned out to be the ‘atheist in residence’ in my Theology of Faith course. He constantly objected to, smirked at, or whined about the possibility of an unconditionally loving Father/God. We lived with each other in relative peace for one semester, although I admit he was a serious pain in the back pew.
When he came up at the end of the course to turn in his final exam, he asked in a slightly cynical tone, “Do you think I’ll ever find God?”
“No!” I said very emphatically. “Oh,” he responded, “I thought that was the product you were pushing.” I let him get five steps from the classroom door and then called out, “Tommy! I don’t think you’ll ever find Him, but I am absolutely certain that He will find you!” He shrugged, left my class and my life.
Later I heard that Tommy had graduated and I was duly grateful. Then a sad report came. I heard that Tommy had terminal cancer.
Before I could search him out he came to see me. When he walked into my office, his body was very badly wasted, but his eyes were bright and his voice was firm when he said, “for the first time …I believe!”
“Can you talk about it Tom?” I asked.
“Sure, what would you like to know? He replied.
“What’s it like to be only twenty-four and dying?”
“Well, it could be worse.”
“Well, like being fifty and having no values or ideals, like being fifty and thinking that booze, seducing women, and making money are the real ‘biggies’ in life.”
“But what I really came to see you about,” Tom said, “is 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 groin and told me that it was malignant, that’s when I got serious about locating God.
“When the malignancy spread into my vital organs, I really began banging my fists against the doors of heaven. But God did not come out. In fact, nothing happened. Did you ever try anything for a long time with great effort and without success? You get psychologically gutted, fed up with trying, and then you quit. I decided that I didn’t really care about god, about an after life, or anything like that. I decided to spend what time I had left doing something more profitable. I thought about you and your class and I remembered something else you said: ‘the essential sadness is to go through life without loving. But it would be almost equally sad to go through life and leave this world without ever telling those loved that you had loved them. So, I began with my Dad. He was reading the newspaper when I approached him.”
“Dad, I would like to talk to you.”
“Dad, I love you. I just wanted you to know that.”
He cried and hugged me. We talked all night, even though he had to go to work the next morning. It felt so good to be close to my father, to feel his hug, to hear him say he loved me.”
“It was easier with my mother and little brother. We shared things we had been keeping secret for so many years. I was only sorry about one thing…that I had waited so long. Here 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. I guess I was like an animal trainer holding out a hoop, c’mon, jump through. C’mon, I’ll give you three days, three weeks. Apparently God does things in His own way and at His own hour. But the important thing is that He was there. He found me. You were right. He found me even after I stopped looking for Him.”
“Tom, could I ask you a favor? You know, when I had you in class you were a real pain. But you can make it up to me now. Would you come into my present Theology of Faith course and tell them what you have just told me? If I told them the same thing it wouldn’t be half as effective as if you were to tell them.”
In a few days Tom called, said he was ready for class, that he wanted to do that for God and for me. So we scheduled a date. However, he never made it. He had another appointment, far more important than the one with me and my class. Of course, his life was not really ended by his death, only changed. He made the great step from faith into vision.
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