Thursday, May 03, 2007


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 file into the classroom for our first session in the Theology of Faith. 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 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 isn't what's on your head but what's 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 cynical tone,
"Do you think I'll ever find God?"
I decided instantly 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 five steps from the classroom door and then called out,
"Tommy! I don't think you'll 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 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 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, 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 of weeks."
"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 being fifty and thinking that booze, seducing women, and making money are the real biggies' in life."

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, '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. (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, that's when 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 didn't really care about God, about an after life, 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: " The 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.'"

"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."
"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 me and said it 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 me. 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 didn't come to me when I pleaded with Him. I guess I was like an animal trainer holding out a hoop, 'C'mon, jump through. C'mon, I'll give You three days, three weeks.'

"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.' 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 wouldn't be half as effective as if you were to tell it."

"Ooh 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 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. "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 story about 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 or two. It is a true story and is not enhanced for publicity purposes.

With thanks,

Rev. John Powell, Professor Loyola University in Chicago

And for those who doubt this story --- it appears as truth - check the website below:

The story of Tommy, the atheist theology student who was found by God-Truth! <


Royce Ogle said...

Thank you for sharing this story. We need to be reminded that God is searching for, seeking after sinners, not the opposite.

Many of us have the mistaken idea that God is at our disposal as a benovelent being waiting for our command. How utterly foolish!

Just like Saul of Tarsus, God was in Christ to seek and save the lost and the mission has not changed.

Thanks again,
Royce Ogle

Tim said...
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Tim said...

That's a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it.

Oh, and I've just got to tell you that I'm really enjoying reading your book "What Have They Done With Jesus?" I picked it up on Wednesday and by late Thursday had alraeady reached chapter 6, setting aside other responsibilities because I couldn't stop reading.

Alan said...

This is a great story and quite possibly true. I was considering using it for this Sunday's sermon. Yet I wonder about the wisdom of using material from an admitted child abuser. See the following story: So how does grace, truth and justice resolve in this situation?

Alan Miller

Ben Witherington said...

The behavior of Dr. Powell in no way taints the behavior of Tommy, and others in Chicago can confirm this story as well. After all, it is Tommy about whom this story is told-- not Powell.

The Vegas Art Guy said...

Think about God's grace working double time with both Tommy and Powell. Paul had a slightly checkered past as well if I remember Acts correctly, and yet God used him to reach a multitude of people who were just as flawed.

Alan said...

I'm glad to hear that the story was verified by others. I'm not questioning whether God can work through very imperfect people. I am grateful for what he has done in my life. I was questioning the credibility of the source. Thanks again for the story.

Alan Miller

Steven Carr said...

Thank goodness Tommy found a comforting belief to sustain him in his last days.

Religious belief is often such a comfort that many people turn to it in despair.

Anonymous said...

I found this story very confusing.

It seems to imply that the only reason there are atheists in the world is because God has not found them yet. In which case, why would anyone preach to atheists, since people have to wait until God finds them?

And I don't care for Powell's flippant attitude. Is a clever quip really all that stands between Man and eternal damnation?

Edwardtbabinski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edwardtbabinski said...

The story of Tommy the atheist and his new found belief in the power of love is probably an enjoyable story for any theist to hear, be they a deist, a mystic, or a universalist.

The only "theology" in the story is the equating of "God" with "love" and of course the professor pointing to a scripture to that same effect. But it's not Tommy making the scriptural connection but the professor.

The story itself was not even written by Tommy, but by the religion professor who got to frame the story as he wished.

And the youth's sneering in class when the concept of "love--God's love--love of God," was raised could enhance the belief in some theists that "atheists" have no understanding or appreciation of love.

The people who run the "truth or fiction" website claim that they tracked down the priest/professor, John Powell, who was very old. However, they do not say how they tracked him down, how they ascertained he was the same John Powell from Chicago back in the 1960s, nor what shape his memory was in, nor how prone to simply agreeing and saying "yes" he might be after having such a story read to him over the phone.

Did they also ask the priest which "Tommy" he was speaking about, so that a verification of the story might also be obtained from Tommy's living family members? It seems to me that if I wished the world to know the truth of a story about something I experienced, then I might at least let my full name slip out.

And when exactly was the story first written, when did it first appear, and in what magazine, or in what medium? Did Father Powell at least remember that?

As stories go, leaving Tommy's aside, there are also those of priests and ministers who have grown to doubt certain dogmatic and doctrinal beliefs of their respective churches, or priests who have grown more moderate, liberal, mystic, universalistic, or even atheistic over the years.
Some churches today (the Catholic church being one of them) continue to silence, or threaten to excommunicate, any theologians, bishops, priests, ministers who dare to publish their doubts or try to generate discussions of matters that the church deems unorthodox or heretical.

If ONLY the central dogma of all churches was merely that "God is love." Or as Jesus (and another first century rabbi) once taught when asked "How does one inherit eternal life?" "Love God and your neighbor as yourself." I believe those are also the teachings that Lincoln said, if they were posted above the doors of a church as its only doctrine, he'd join.

Duke of Earl said...

Sorry Edward, I'm not sure what point you're trying to make?

Lincoln (I assume you mean the famous President, not some other Lincoln; you could be more specific you know) was raised with a definite Christian worldview and so it's highly likely that he would join a Church whether they had those words above the door or not.

As for your listing of priests and ministers who have come to doubt some tenents that they formerly believed, so what?

Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a historically testable miracle. If certain former ministers have allowed their eyes to come off that fact onto other, less important matters, then more fool them.

For myself I don't regard personal testimony as being of value outside of the encouragement of fellow believers. A reasonable argument based on manuscriptual and circumstantial evidence can be made for the resurrection. This is more important.

PS Steve Carr claims that many people turn to religion in despair. I would imagine that they do. That has absolutely nothing to do with whether the Christian message is true or false. His claims are red, and moreover they smell very much of fish.

Ellen Fernandez-Sacco said...

I found something a bit disturbing about Rev. John Powell, at odds with the Tommy story.

4 Women Sue Priest, Allege Sex Assaults
Longtime Loyola prof, now ailing, accused of abuse in '60s, '70s
By Cathleen Falsani
Chicago Sun-Times
September 9, 2003

Antoinette said...

This story is very heart warming to say the least. Some people judge Rev Powell for things that happened in his distant past, forgetting that no one on this entire earth is perfect. If I remember the Gospels correctly, Jesus told a group of people that the person without sin should thow the first stone to kill a certain prostitute. As the poster of one of the comments in this blog states: after all, it's about Tommy, not the Reverend. This story is being used by God to lead people to Him. That is what REALLY matters. Antoinette