In epic tales, the spiritual mentor dies just when the quest is at its most precarious. As a member of Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, I felt this way when we lost our beloved priest, Thomas McKenzie, to a car wreck this week.
In Lord of the Rings, the fellowship is already weary and raw after narrowly escaping a mob of orcs. Then the Balrog shows up. Gandalf stakes his staff into the ground and utters his famous, “You shall not pass,” line, saving his friends, before the Balrog drags him into the abyss.
In Harry Potter, Snape casts a killing spell on Dumbledore, throwing him down from the Astronomy Tower as Harry watches, invisible and immobilized. Later, Harry “tried to absorb the enormous and incomprehensible truth: that never again would Dumbledore speak to him, never again could he help.”
These mentors didn’t perish at the end of the tale; they didn’t wait until evil had been vanquished. In fact, they died when it seemed like a sure bet that darkness would overpower the light.
I’ve been in shock for the last two days. Every few minutes it hits me that I will no longer see Thomas walking around my old neighborhood and praying. I’ll never again laugh at one of his quirky, slightly off-color jokes. He’ll never touch my son’s forehead and say, “May the Lord God watch over you and keep you, now and always.” And each time I realize these things and feel my tears well up, I find myself wanting to email — of course, who else? — Thomas.
In these books, the members of the quest can’t envision a future without the guidance of their leaders. As a reader, I remember sharing their concerns, especially when it came to the ragtag fellowship team in Lord of the Rings. Seriously, there was no way that this team of complete misfits could organize a bake sale together, much less successfully deliver the ring to Mordor.
Like them, I relied on my mentor, Father Thomas, for hope, comfort, and courage during the early chapters of the pandemic. Back in March 2020, we were huddled at home watching the first of many Facebook sermons. “I don’t know why this is happening,” he said. “Just like I don’t know why the Nashville tornado knocked down one house and spared another. But I do know one thing: God will be glorified in it.”
For about 5 years, my husband and I weren’t just members of Thomas’s church; we were also his immediate neighbors. When the world first started shutting down — my son’s school closed, my husband was furloughed, and we had a newborn — we received a letter from Thomas. He’d sent one to everyone in the neighborhood, saying that if we needed any kind of help, to please contact him because he had a church full of people ready and willing to serve. Thomas was checking in on us while also enlisting to help those in need.
He wasn’t just watching to see how God would be glorified. He was literally canvassing for needs and volunteering his church members to meet them.
During the pandemic’s biggest surge over Christmas, I emailed Thomas to complain. While we had endured a quiet, lonely Christmas at home without family (or the childcare help they provide), I saw so many others posting pictures of their large get-togethers, including family who’d flown in from all over the country.
“How do I keep from becoming a bitter, judgy curmudgeon?” I asked him.
“Laying down your life is hard,” he said, “especially when others aren’t doing it. For me, I need to remember that I have an audience of one. In one sense, I’m not laying down my life for anyone but Christ. He’s the only one I’m here to please. Judgment belongs to God alone.”
I agree with him, even if most days I feel like I’m doing a pretty crappy job.
After surviving 2020 and waiting patiently for my vaccine, I’m depressed every time I read about the Delta variant. My children are not old enough to get vaccinated. Wildfires scorch the West and show no sign of stopping. Western Tennessee, an area that’s already poverty-stricken, has just seen devastating floods. The Taliban has retaken Afghanistan.
I keep wishing that I had one of Thomas’s sermons to look forward to on Sunday. He would know how to see the quiet, slow, redeeming work of God amidst all the suffering.
In both these stories, the main characters are granted glimpses of their mentors after they die. Gandalf comes back as Gandalf the White. Dumbledore appears to Harry in a dream. And Thomas’s sermons have also started to return to me, sometimes, when I need them.
On the day that Thomas baptized my daughter, I was praying that his preaching wouldn’t be too Christian-y, since several of the people I’d invited weren’t believers. None of that weird transubstantiation nonsense, I prayed as I settled myself into the pew.
It turned out the sermon Thomas preached that day was very deeply and profoundly Christian, but in a way that drew people in rather than alienating them. He spoke about the character of God and how “a bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.” We can trust God because He will not, in other words, kick someone when they’re down. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church loved people this way too?
“The reason priests wear these funny clothes,” he gestured to his robes, “is to depersonalize us. We look the same but with interchangeable heads.” Up on the altar, he said, he was serving as a representative of Christ, not as Thomas.
“So hear this, not as Thomas, but from the Lord: You are my beloved child. I am very happy with you.”
In my mind, there’s nothing interchangeable about Thomas. I don’t know how our church will ever be okay without him. But he made sure that we knew that the story wasn’t about him. Our quest was to love people as God loved us: to scaffold the bruised reed so it can heal, to cup the smoldering wick and shelter it from the wind.
As I look at the world, I see so many reeds and wicks. I know that I can’t heal all of them; the story isn’t about me, either, the same way it’s not about Thomas. But his death has made me realize that this is the story I want to be a part of. For now and always.