It was one of those phone calls that freezes time around you. One where even the “How have you been?” is laden with foreshadowing.
Hi, Steve. How have you been?
Ron! It’s great to hear from you again!
I’ve got some bad news that I thought you would want to know. Tom died…
It was 1980, and Tom Jenkin’s lanky frame loomed imposingly over us. As the flickering campfire created shadows that lengthened his already impressive stature, he began to talk about a life well-lived for Christ. I sat spellbound under the stars on that hillside at Camp Ridgecrest contemplating my sixteen-year-old life, and even though I had been baptized at age 7, this was the first time I felt confronted with the weight of Christ’s claims upon my life and with my need to begin responding more faithfully. And that night I did.
In the years to come, Tom kept in touch, periodically checking up on my growth as a Christian. Tom was good at that sort of thing because he was a teacher and a coach who had taught in schools from Rabun Gap, GA to Oneida Baptist Institute, KY. It was at Oneida that Tom responded to God’s call to teach missionary children in a New Tribes Missions school in the jungles of Brazil. He raised his own support, taught literature and drama, and wrote letters from the Amazon rain forest that rivaled the epistles of Paul. He wrote about God’s grace in 110° heat and 100% humidity, of God’s goodness while swimming with piranhas and snakes in the Amazon, and of God’s love opening the hearts and minds of students through soccer and basketball games played on a dirt court.
Tom signed all of his letters the same way: “3”. He felt like overuse had trivialized the phrase “I love you” and so he wouldn’t say it. You shouldn’t have to say it, he said. It should be obvious. So he used the number “3” instead.
After embarking on this adventure, I usually saw Tom about once a year. I never knew when he was going to call me, but in the providence of God (long before cell phones!) I was always in the office when the call came, and the schedule always worked out for me to pick him up from the train station before he began his fundraising tour that would enable him to go back and teach another year. We always had great visits, and he even spoke to my youth groups in Tampa and Paducah. And when it was time to go, we always said I’ll see you later… and then Tom would hold up 3 fingers, and I would do the same.
My mind snaps back to the present as I hang up, and I find it strange that I have been laughing on the phone with Ron. It seems like this news should have brought tears to my eyes, but I can’t help myself. I am smiling with satisfaction because I know that Tom’s life well-lived in Christ is also bringing laughter and joy in another place.
I’ll see you later… 3
(I was reminded of this experience recently and of Tom’s life while I was cleaning out some old files and discovered a version of this that I had written in 1995 for Immanuel Baptist Church in Paducah.)