It’s ten minutes before five on a humid Saturday evening September 6, 2014. In a little over an hour we will have the memorial service for Thomas Lowell Craig, senior pastor at Oak Ridge Baptist Church of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Such a formal title. We knew and loved him as Pastor Tom.
It’s been a busy day for us here at the church. The Tom Craig fundraiser started early with Mike beginning his 27 mile run in the pre-dawn Tennessee morning, followed by two successive bike events by groups of riders pedaling routes of twenty and seventy-six miles, with pledges going toward medical and other expenses incurred by the Craig family. We’ve been in open awe at the response to this fundraising effort – it exceeded virtually everybody’s expectations. The original thought was to raise about seven thousand dollars, but at last count the total was over thirty-two thousand dollars, with other gifts still coming in.
The morning was great fun. Rob was goofing around at the grill, making burgers for everybody. Julie was seeing to the food being passed out. Brian was hugging his little one, who crowed happily that “Daddy did it” in finishing the bike event. Deb was directing the riders to the meal tables. Joe was posing on his bike next to his family. Rachel was seeing that Mike got a protein shake after his marathon run. There were balloons, banners and children running across the church lawn. People were laughing, chatting and enjoying the morning.
That was active. That was fun. Too soon the event is over. Now I notice people are adjusting.
We’ve been so busy this past week; now that everything has been completed, we all face the service that is going to be painful.
We’re preparing ourselves.
It’s near five o’clock and all activity has ceased. People have run home to shower and ready themselves for tonight’s memorial service. I walk down the hall and notice a hush over the entire building. The funeral directors have come in, carrying flowers and arranging seating. A few folks have arrived early, no doubt realizing our auditorium, with its capacity of three hundred, will soon fill to overflowing.
I slip into the back of the darkened auditorium and position myself in the sound booth in order to write some notes. In the quietness of these pre-service minutes, numerous out-of-town people have seated themselves at various parts of the room, talking with one another. I catch snatches of various murmured conversations. None are superfluous. Every single one is about Tom.
“He was selfless. He put people ahead of himself.”
“I first met him when I saw him at a camp…”
“I was in his youth group, and he made an impact in my life…”
“He took this church and led it to a much greater ministry than it had ever had before…”
“He showed Jesus.”
This is as valuable to me as anything the memorial service will give. In the quiet anonymity of the moment, visiting out-of-state people are expressing what we often assume was just within our local church congregation, that Tom had been God’s special servant in sacrifice and service.
Soon the parking lot fills up to capacity, and people are parking their vehicles on the adjacent street. I see license plates from various part of the country: Florida, Ohio, South Carolina, Pennsylvania… scores of people smiling and strolling into the building. The early arrivers had guessed correctly; the room is filled to overflowing. There is a live video stream on a screen in a side room.
It is six o’clock. The place is packed. The service begins with songs of comfort:
“Though trials should come… Christ has regarded my helpless estate…It is well with my soul…”
“It’s not a dream, God will make all things new that day. Gone is the curse… No more night. No more pain…”
Jon shares Colossians 1:18, explaining that Tom always put himself in the back and put Christ forward as the head of the church. It was Jesus who receives the preeminence.
Daniel tells a humorous incident of how Tom got behind the wheel and drove the two of them through a snowstorm in order to get back to Tennessee, with unfortunate results – the point being that Tom, despite spinouts and eventually trudging through the snow and abandoning his van, couldn’t stand being away from his family. He was a great father and husband.
Bobby talks about Tom’s joy for life – even in creating an all-church building Nerf gun war – and his passion for ministry. His foot was always to the pedal. He was always serving.
Scott tells how Tom got involved in a food fight with his teens, enjoying and mentoring for Christ and simply, loving everyone he met, whether or not they reciprocated that feeling. “Tom was the most powerful Christian I ever met.”
Paul shares a timeless truth from Tom with a phrase that impacts us enough, I notice people reaching for a pencil and jotting down the words. Tom’s words to Paul will stay with us:
“Don’t worry about being a failure. Just make sure you are never a fake.”
We laugh. We nod in agreement. We mull over spiritual truths. We reflect on the memories.
It’s now 7:55 p.m. and the service has concluded.
People are done speaking. We don’t like this moment. There’s a hush as the funeral director walks toward the front.
It’s as my friend Brandon had said: “Despite the promise of heaven, death is an unnatural thing – it still imposes a powerful impact.”
Now we receive that very impact.
The auditorium collectively holds its breath as the funeral director turns around. This is the most painful part. This is the part we really wish did not happen.
Because it makes it official.
The funeral director motions for us all to stand.
The pallbearers line up.
Tom’s casket is wheeled in front of them, to be taken down the aisle to the lobby.
The quiet procession begins. Down the aisle right next to me. Oh, this is hard. It’s almost too much to bear. Yes, yes, I know that Tom’s soul is in Heaven, enjoying the comforting embrace of God. He’s at peace.
This really means we have lost a good, good man here on Earth. Selfishly, we don’t like this.
We weep openly as the casket glides by.
The graveside service tomorrow will be private. For the rest of us, this was the final farewell.
The group, as one, holds still and incubates their emotions and thoughts, bringing it all together.
Tom ran the race. He ran it well. He’s not suffering anymore. He’s in Glory, and you know, he left us a mighty good example to follow. He loaded us with years of great Bible teaching. He spent countless hours showing us how to love. He made his life a display of Jesus.
Tom, you did good. Mighty good.
You can almost hear an audible sigh. We are accepting this, and coming out the better for it.
The church lobby is soon filled with people who are no longer strangers to one another. I notice this intriguing new atmosphere around me. Our church members have taken on a new role of responsibility that hadn’t been evident only four months ago: a sort of aggressive honest bonding with anyone who is nearby. Our church folks walk over and greet newcomers, openly embracing them in conversation and friendship as if they had been acquaintances all of their lives. Some people are praying together. The last few months have shown us that this is what we should do. Tom has always been the example, and in the past years we might have let him have a bit too much of that responsibility; now it falls upon us. Church members have taken to it eagerly.
But right now I don’t think I want to mingle or talk.
I slip through the crowd and go through a side door. I quietly walk down the short hall to Tom’s office. No one else is around. His doorway is open and the light is on.
I stand at the threshold and look around his room. His desk, papers, books, photos – it looks like he just stepped out for a second. How I wish that were true.
But God needed him more. The Father had other plans for Tom. And for us.
Tom, you really were a good and faithful servant.
Good-bye, old friend.
We’ll meet again.
God bless you.
…but then again, I’m sure He already has.