Father 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 fileinto the classroom for our first session in the Theology ofFaith.That was the day I first saw Tommy.My eyes and my mind both blinked. He was combing his long flaxen hair,which hung six inchesbelow his shoulders. It was the first time I had ever seen a boy withhair that long. I guess it was just coming into fashion then. I knowin my mind that it isn't what's on your head but what's in it thatcounts; but on that day I was unprepared and my emotions flipped. Iimmediately filedTommy under "S" for strange... Very strange.Tommy turned out to be the "atheist in residence" in my Theology ofFaith course. He constantly objected to, smirked at, or whined aboutthe possibility of an unconditionally loving Father/God. We lived with each other in relative peace for one semester, although I admithe was for me attimes a serious pain in the back pew.
When he came up at the end of the course to turn in his final exam, heasked in a cynical tone, "Do you think I'll ever find God?" I decidedinstantly on a little shock therapy."No!" I said very emphatically."Why not," he responded,"I thought that was the product you were pushing." I let him get fivesteps from the classroom door and then called out,"Tommy! I don't think you'll ever find Him, but I am absolutelycertain that He will find you!" He shrugged a little and left myclass.I felt slightly disappointed at the thought that he had missed myclever 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 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 wasvery badly wasted and the long hair had allfallen out as a result of chemotherapy.. But his eyes were bright andhis voice was firm,for the first time, I believe."Tommy, I've thought about you so often; I hear you are sick," I blurted out."Oh, yes, very sick. I have cancer in both lungs. It's a matter ofweeks." Tommy replied."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.""Like what?""Well, like being fifty and having no values or ideals, like beingfifty and thinking that booze, seducing women, and making money arethe real biggies in life.."I began to look through my metal file cabinet under "S" where I hadfiled Tommy as strange.(It seems as though everybody I try to reject by classification, Godsends back into my life to educate me.) "But what I really came to see you about," Tom said, "is somethingyou said to me on the last day of class." (He remembered!)He continued, "I asked you if you thought I would ever find God andyou 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. (Myclever line. He thought about that a lot!) ."But when the doctors removed a lump from my groin and told me that itwas malignant, that's when I got serious about locating God..And when the malignancy spread into my vital organs, I really beganbanging bloody fistsagainst the bronze doors of heaven. But God did not come out.In fact, nothing happened. Did you ever try anything for a long timewith great effort and with no success? You get psychologicallyglutted, fed up with trying. And then you quit.....Well, one day I woke up, and instead of throwing a few more futileappeals over that high brick wall to a God who may be or may not bethere, I just 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 doingsomething more profitable.
I thought about you and your class and I remembered something else youhad said:: " The essential sadness is to go through life withoutloving. But it would be almost equally sad to go through life andleave this world without ever telling those you loved that you hadloved them.'"So, I began with the hardest one, my Dad. He was reading the newspaperwhen I approached him. "Dad.""Yes, what?" he asked without lowering the newspaper."Dad, I would like to talk with you.""Well, talk.""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." Tom smiled at meand said it with obvious satisfaction, as though he felt a warm andsecret joy flowing inside of him."The newspaper fluttered to the floor. Then my father did two things Icould never remember him ever doing before. He cried and he huggedme. We talked all night, even though he had to go to work the nextmorning. 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 withme, too, and we hugged eachother, and started saying real nice things to each other. We sharedthe things we had been keeping secret for so many years."I was only sorry about one thing --- that I had waited so long. Here Iwas, just beginning to open up to all the people I had actually beenclose to. "Then, one day I turned around and God was there. He didn'tcome to me when I pleaded with Him. I guess I was like an animaltrainerholding out a hoop, 'C'mon, jump through C'mon, I'll give you threedays, three weeks.'""Apparently God does things in His own way and at His own hour....Butthe important thing is that He was there. He found me...! You wereright.....He found me even after I stopped looking for Him."
"Tommy," I practically gasped,"I think you are saying something very important and much moreuniversal than you realize.To me, at least, you are saying that the surest way to find God is notto make Him a private possession, a problem solver, or an instantconsolation in time of need, but rather by opening to love.You know, the Apostle John said that... He said: "God is love, andanyone who lives in love is living with God and God is living inhim.''"Tom, could I ask you a favor? You know, when I had you in class youwere 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 themwhat you have just told me? If I told them the same thing itwouldn't be half as effective as if you were to tell it.""Oooh.. I was ready for you, but I don't know if I'm ready for your class.""Tom, think about it. If and when you are ready, give me a call."
In a few days Tom called, said he was ready for the class, that hewanted to do that for God and for me. So we scheduled a date.However, he never made it. He had another appointment, far moreimportant than the one with me and my class. Of course, his life wasnot really ended by his death, only changed. He made the great stepfrom faith into vision. He found a life far more beautiful than theeye of man has ever seen or the ear of man has ever heard or the mindof man has ever imagined.
Before he died, we talked one last time."I'm 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. I'll tell them. I'll do my best."So, to all of you who have been kind enough to read this simple storyabout God's love, thank you for listening. And to you, Tommy,somewhere in the sunlit, verdant hills of heaven --- I told them,Tommy, as best I could.If this story means anything to you, please pass it on to a friend ortwo. It is a true story and is not enhanced for publicity purposes.
With thanks,Rev. John Powell, Professor, Loyola University ,Chicago