Before my talents in internet marketing blossomed, I was better known as “Pastor Mike”.
I guess the crazy, radical, right-wing, evangelical, fundamental, ultra-conservative, bible-thumping, tongue-talking, charismatic, pentecostal, faith-healing, rapture-believing, 1-step away from snake handling figure of speech would be that I was “called into the ministry” at the Assembly of God church camp in Turner Falls, OK when I was 16 years old.
I went into full-time youth ministry straight out of college in 1992… never dreaming the ride would last 12 years. Most guys burn out on youth ministry within the first 6-12 months… they either go broke, go crazy or get invited to “go away”.
I like to say that I didn’t give up youth ministry – it gave up on me. The church I helped pioneer with my father-in-law closed in 2004. After a promising start, attendance eventually fizzled to almost nothing.
There weren’t enough people left to keep the lights on and the doors open… it wasn’t for a lack of trying (i.e. extreme sacrifice, blind faith, wild optimism, etc.) That was 4 years ago and I still can’t figure out what the valuable lesson was… maybe there wasn’t one.
There’s a possibility that maybe, just maybe, a few of those years were well spent on Thomas…
Early in my 12 years of youth ministry I met Thomas Young. It was under rather unusual circumstances… almost everything with Thomas was a tad “unusual” – at least for me.
How did I meet Thomas? Well, I heard a noise outside my office. I was already jumpy about working at the church alone. Eventually, I got up the nerve to go investigate and there he was… a young teenager quivering behind the sanctuary door.
To this day, I’m not exactly sure why he was hiding or who he was hiding from – all I know is that the first time I saw Thomas, he looked at me like a deer in headlights, held his finger over his mouth and whispered “shhh. be quiet.” I held my peace and waited until he felt like the danger had passed – and that’s where the whole thing started.
Thomas started coming to my youth services soon after. Nobody dragged Thomas to church. He didn’t come because he had to. Thomas came to church because he wanted to. When I kept attendance, Thomas was always one of the teenagers with perfect attendance. He hardly ever missed church for a lot of years. Our youth group was called Power House Youth, PH Youth for short.
I Don’t Believe In God
Thomas would tell you himself that he didn’t even believe in God. He would ask me, “Mike, how can I believe in your God when he lets all of these bad things happen to me?” Through the years, Thomas made some extremely good arguments. His points were always well thought out and his logic was sound.
Thomas was extremely intelligent. I figure he was at least twice as smart as me and I always felt like a light-weight in the heavy-weight championship. Each time, I would give him what the Bible said about his concerns. He was respectful of what I had to say, but would eventually return with an argument in the contrary.
Being a good pentecostal, charismatic, bible-thumping youth pastor – I would preach the hell-fire sermons, the “don’t miss heaven for anything” sermons, and the “God loves you so much he would leave the 99 just to find you” messages too. Each one preached with the hope that perhaps that night would be the night that Thomas would respond to the altar call… he never did. (He wasn’t beyond laughing at me during this part of the service, but raise his hand? No, he didn’t do that.)
He never did – until one Wednesday night many years later. I can remember that night as clear as yesterday. It wasn’t because I had prepared a “flames of hell lickin’ your boots” message – as a matter of fact, I remember that I had just phoned it in. No preparation to speak of, no fervor, no zeal, no passion – just an opportunity at the end of my lazy sermon for anyone who doesn’t know the Lord to raise their hand and accept Jesus as their Savior.
And then it happened…
One hand went up. It was the only hand in the room. Thomas looked up at me with his hand held high and I could tell he was serious. My heart jumped out of my chest and I invited him to the front of the room. Thomas prayed with me that night and made a public confession of Jesus Christ before everyone in the PH Youth room… and then he went away.
I hadn’t seen him for many, many years. I knew he had an extremely troubled life. We emailed a few times, but didn’t keep in good contact. It was my fault for not being more proactive. He knew what I believed and didn’t feel comfortable coming around. That’s my fault.
A few months ago, Thomas showed up for service at the community center where we meet for church now. He stayed for the whole service. The Pastor later told me that he was very attentive throughout the entire sermon.
After church, Thomas pulled me aside to tell me he was dying. Years of abuse had damaged his body. His liver was in ruins… the details of which he asked me to keep private “shh. be quiet”.
My Son Is Dead
This afternoon I received a phone call from Thomas’ father – “my son is dead”.
What do you think Thomas came looking for while I was wasting all those years in youth ministry? He came looking for hope… hope that life was more than the sorry sack of crap he was carrying around, hope that God loved him in spite of it all and hope that the next life would be better.
If Thomas closed his eyes hoping that everything I said was true… that’s the best 12 years I ever wasted.