John Powell a professor at Loyola University in Chicago writes about a
student in his Theology of Faith class named Tommy:
Some twelve years 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 first saw Tommy. My eyes and my mind both blinked. He was combing his
long flaxen hair, which hung six inches below his shoulders.
It was the first time I had ever seen a boy with hair that long. I guess it
was just coming into fashion then. I know in my mind that it isnít whatís on
your head but whatís in it that counts; but on that day I was unprepared and
my emotions flipped.
I immediately filed Tommy under "S" for strange ... very strange. 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 for me at times 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 Iíll ever find God?"
I decided instantly on a little shock therapy. "No!" I said very
"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 donít think youíll ever find him, but I am absolutely certain that
He will find you!" He shrugged a little and left my class and my life.
I felt slightly disappointed at the thought that he had missed my clever
line: "He will find you!" At least I thought it was clever. Later I heard
that Tommy had graduated and I was duly grateful.
Then a sad report, 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, and the long hair had all fallen out as a result of
chemotherapy. But his eyes were bright and his voice was firm, for the first
time, I believe. "Tommy, Iíve thought about you so often. I hear you are
sick!" I blurted out.
"Oh, yes, very sick. I have cancer in both lungs. Itís a matter of weeks."
"Can you talk about it, Tom?"
"Sure, what would you like to know?"
"Whatís 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 Ďbiggiesí
I began to look through my mental file cabinet under "S" where I had filed
Tommy as strange. (It seems as though everybody I try to reject by
classification God sends back into my life to educate me.)
But what I really came to see you about," Tom said, " is something you said
to me on the last day of class." (He remembered!) He continued, "I asked you
if you thought I would ever find God and you said, ĎNo!í which surprised me.
Then you said, ĎBut he will find you.í I thought about that a lot, even
though my search for God was hardly intense at that time. (My "clever" line.
He thought about that a lot!) But when the doctors removed a lump from my
groin and told me that it was malignant, then I got serious about locating
God. And when the malignancy spread into my vital organs, I really began
banging bloody fists against the bronze 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 with no success? You get
psychologically glutted, fed up with trying. And then you quit.
Well, one day I woke up, and instead of throwing a few more futile appeals
over that high brick wall to a God who may be or may not be there, I just
quit. I decided that I didnít really care ... about God, about an afterlife,
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 had said: ĎThe 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 you loved that
you had loved them.í "So I began with the hardest one: my Dad. He was
reading the newspaper when I approached him."
"Dad". . .
"Yes, what?" he asked without lowering the newspaper.
"Dad, I would like to talk with you."
"I mean. .. Itís really important."
The newspaper came down three slow inches. "What is it?"
"Dad, I love you. I just wanted you to know that." Tom smiled at me and said
with obvious satisfaction, as though he felt a warm and secret joy flowing
inside of him: "The newspaper fluttered to the floor. Then my father did two
things I could never remember him ever doing before. He cried and he hugged
And 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 see his tears, to feel his hug,
to hear him say that he loved me. "It was easier with my mother and little
brother. They cried with me, too, and we hugged each other, and started
saying real nice things to each other. We shared the 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 didnít come to me when
I pleaded with him. I guess I was like an animal trainer holding out a hoop,
ĎCímon, jump through.í ĎCímon, Iíll give you three days .. .three weeks.í
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."
"Tommy," I practically gasped, "I think you are saying something very
important and much more universal than you realize. To me, at least, you are
saying that the surest way to find God is not to make him a private
possession, a problem solver, or an instant consolation in time of need, but
rather by opening to love. You know, the Apostle John said that. He said God
is love, and anyone who lives in love is living with God and God is living
in him.í Tom, could I ask you a favor? You know, when I had you in class you
were a real pain. But (laughingly) you can make it all 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 wouldnít be half as
effective as if you were to tell them."
"Oooh . . . I was ready for you, but I donít know if Iím ready for your
"Tom, think about it. If and when you are ready, give me a call." In a few
days Tommy called, said he was ready for the 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. He found a life far more
beautiful than the eye of man has ever seen or the ear of man has ever heard
or the mind of man has ever imagined.
Before he died, we talked one last time. "Iím not going to make it to your
class," he said.
"I know, Tom."
"Will you tell them for me? Will you . . . tell the whole world for me?"
"I will, Tom. Iíll tell them. Iíll do my best."
So, to all of you who have been kind enough to hear this simple statement
about love, thank you for listening. And to you, Tommy, somewhere in the
sunlit, verdant hills of heaven: "I told them, Tommy . ... ...as best I