Friday, January 14, 2005

tom lopez

Tom Lopez had his chicken dinner on top of the church’s sloped roof that afternoon. It was no easy thing to do. A couple of the church elders perched a square folding table up there with 2 legs on the east side of the roof and 2 legs on the west side. They did the same with the chair. But, that wasn’t the most precarious thing about this heavenly feast. The trickiest part was figuring out how on earth they were going to get Tom to stay up there since he was roughly the size of an African gorilla. Tom was used to the ground. He had played offensive tackle for his college football team and had done some serious damage to his knees doing so.

In spite of all the obstacles, Tom was jolly as usual, like a hefty Latino Santa with wavy black hair and stubby yet able hands. That came as no surprise, since Tom tended to be an optimistic kind of guy. He started this church and, like a parent, had nursed it through some tough times. But difficulty never stopped Tom. He knew how to persevere, to find joy in the midst of trial. Whenever things got sticky, Tom kept plugging away: witnessing to his neighbors, doing them favors, having people to dinner, teaching the youth, taking them tubing, preparing sermons, memorizing Scripture, knocking on doors, praying with fervency, anointing the sick, caring for the poor, baptizing believers, dedicating infants, loving the unlovable, preaching with fidelity, warning about hellfire, dispensing the sacraments, preparing for The Tribulation, anticipating the Rapture, and organizing potluck suppers.

And he did all that with only an antique neon blue station wagon for transport. To understand Tom, you have to understand his car. They say that you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their dog. Well, Tom didn’t have a dog, he had a car. Like its owner, Tom’s car just kept going and going and going and going. One glance at it and you’d swear it was a miracle: perhaps it was the blue star the Three Kings followed, come down to earth. It was just about as loud as it was massive. Those were the days of rear wheel drive, so you had to be careful about driving it on the icy roads of a Minnesota winter. Driving this car on ice was like trying to ride Moby Dick in an oceanic rodeo. Later, Tom would sell The Blue Beast to me for only a dollar. After we bought it, we discovered that the driver’s seat had a hole in it that would suck you into its belly if you weren’t careful. (This had happened on several occasions to my girlfriend who was short and small.)

Finally, one day the car just quit while I was driving to True Value Hardware to pick up my paycheck. We put on the hazard lights (which still worked!) and Heather (my girlfriend!) held herself up behind the wheel while I got out and pushed. “Sally” sat in the parking lot there for maybe a week, at which time we had it moved to our college’s dirt parking lot where she sat like an obese sow in filthy mud and developed a flat tire over the course of a month or more. We called the junk yard and had Sally put out of her misery. We received fifty dollars for her from the junk yard worker, which was a handsome profit over the one dollar we paid to begin with. If only we could have carved her and eaten her for Christmas dinner...

That was Tom’s car. Then, there was Tom’s church. If the church didn’t have a sign out front signaling that this was “Centennial Alliance” in Circle Pines, Minnesota, you probably would have thought it was just an ordinary house. And you would have been right: it was a house. Tom’s house. Or, I should say, Tom’s future house. Centennial Alliance Church sat on a piece of property that had enough acreage to erect a proper church building. But, for now, finances were low and the future Crystal Cathedral was still just a dream, so most of the land lay vacant like a barren woman’s womb. For now, however, that one-story white house was the church building. I think the pulpit was situated where the bathroom was going to be. Either that or it was to become the dining room. I can’t remember now. The basement was unfinished gray concrete. This is where the kids went for Sunday school. The sanctuary could hold about 100 people, but to do so you had to pack them in as if you were stuffing a small turkey carcass with three loaves’ worth of bread crumbs.

Usually, the sanctuary/living room hosted 40 or 50 congregants. The fact that it was a house, however, didn’t stop the congregation from making it as church-like as it could possibly be. Stage left of the preacher’s platform was reserved for the piano, which was utilized for Sunday night service when God’s people sang boisterous praise choruses by request. Stage right, there was a small organ that was used for the more formal Sunday morning service. In the morning service there was always a prelude, during which the pastor, song leader and usually one elder would come out of Tom’s office and file onto the platform, which had two small two-seater pews on it. The threesome (or sometimes foursome) would sit down ceremoniously on those pews, respectfully waiting and praying silently (or perhaps leafing through the Scriptures), facing the congregation while they waited for the prelude to end. Whatever it was they were doing, it was “serious” and for some reason it always filled me with awe looking at them up there. All three men (it was never a woman, as that would be improper) were clad in their Sunday finest. The song leader frequently wore a light blue suit, white shirt, black tie. When the prelude finished, the song leader would come up to the small wooden pulpit with the denominational logo carved on it and ask the congregation to stand. For a kid, it was nice to be asked to stand during the service since the seats (arranged in neat rows) were dark brown metal folding chairs and could get a tad uncomfortable.

We had hymnals and chorus sheets. The hymnals were used in the morning and the chorus sheets were used in the evening. As a kid, I preferred the hymn book over the chorus sheets. For one, I grew to love the old-fashioned hymns like “Victory in Jesus” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness” in their own right and memorized many of them by sheer repetition. But, more importantly, I preferred the hymn book to the chorus sheet because I thought the new-fangled choruses too improper for God’s people. Anything with a beat and everyday language was less holy.

During each morning service we could expect The Pastoral Prayer. This was the time when Tom would pray for anything and everything. Sometimes it seemed like he’d go on with the pastoral prayer for half an hour even. He prayed for the sick, he prayed for jobs, he prayed for salvation, he prayed for rain, he prayed for comfort. He prayed for people by name and never missed a one. Most times, he’d be sweating when he said “Amen.”

The morning sermon was different from the evening sermon in several respects. The former was usually reserved for more “basic” kind of teaching, while the latter delved into things like the book of Revelation (for example, “Why Christ’s Return Will Be Premillenial and The Church’s Rapture Will Be Pretribulational”).

But that wasn’t the only difference: in the evening, Tom would get really “fired up” (to put not too fine a point on it). One time my brother Todd (who was not a believer, but came to church because Mom made us) had fallen asleep during one of Tom’s particularly long-winded sermons. Todd’s head was like a bobber attached to a fishing line signaling that he had caught a walleye in the saliva that was beginning to run down his face. In his sermon, Tom (who knew that Todd was not a believer) was warning us about hell and making a plea that if there were any present who had not accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, they do so today. His voice increased in volume with each round of pleading like an American in Mexico trying to make “the natives” understand him by speaking louder. Finally, Tom reached the climax of his petition and screamed (just as Todd’s head was bobbing), “DO YOU WANT TO GO TO HELL?!” Todd’s head snapped back and his eyes popped open, surprised like a deer looking into the high-beams of a honking, speeding 18-wheeler. I would have laughed, but Todd would have pummeled me later.

Another sermon Tom gave was quite interesting. He was preaching on the text of I Corinthians 14 where the apostle Paul is giving instructions about the use of tongues in the church. Tom was a Latin man and he knew Spanish fluently. Being a congregation of simple folk, none of us knew a lick of any foreign language. So Tom got up and opened his sermon with a prayer—in Spanish. It was like the Holy Spirit had descended that day into our humble house-church! I thought, “It’s a miracle! He’s speaking in tongues! See, that fasting we did sure paid off! Now we’re special!”
I opened my eyes to look at Tom in hopes that perhaps I’d see a tongue of fire over his head or some kind of Holy Aura around him. There was none of that, though (“Maybe I just missed the tongue-of-fire part…Darn it.”). It seemed like he went on forever. No matter: listening to this strange language held this teenager in a trance.

After his prayer, he launched into his sermon—in plain English. Disappointed, I discovered he was just speaking Spanish. It hadn’t been a miracle, after all. He prayed that way to make the point that speaking in tongues should never take place in church unless it is interpreted. After all, no one can understand a word you’re saying unless it’s interpreted. I nodded in agreement (and still do to this day) but somehow, I must confess, I felt a loss inside—like someone had razed a wild, rolling landscape of mystery to quarry stone for an organized flat city, replete with low-rise tenement buildings.

But I still loved Tom and he still loved me in spite of my imperfections. He cared for me like a parent. When I graduated from high school, Tom gave me a precious gift that is still on my shelf to this day: “The Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary.” On the inside cover he wrote these words: “Congratulations, Troy! Graduating from Sr. High school can be pretty exciting, but as all the celebrating slowly passes you begin to see the reality of what graduating means. We are praying for you as you seek to do the will of God. We hope this book can help you as you study for whatever God leads you into. Love in Christ, Pastor Tom & Joyce Lopez and your family at Centennial Alliance Church.” Tom always gave the best of his heart and he diligently imparted wisdom, love for the Bible and love for the lost to others and particularly to me.

Because of Tom’s encouragement, I enrolled in a special program the church was running called “Evangelism Explosion.” Each participant received a thick binder of materials to teach us to “evangelize” our neighbors. To help learn to evangelize, each of us attended several sessions on Wednesday evenings at the church where we memorized an evangelism “script” that was in the binder. On those evenings we practiced on each other in the church’s unfinished basement under a single naked light bulb. It was as if we were prisoners of war secretly planning a great liberation. After a number of weeks, we were ready for “on-the-job training.” For this, we were paired with a more experienced person and Tom was my partner.

We went door-to-door in the neighborhood asking two questions. The first was: “If you were to die today, are you certain you would go to heaven?” If the respondent answered “no” we would ask “Would you like to know how?” and launch into a presentation of the good news. If the respondent answered “yes” (which is what most people said) we would ask the second question: “If you were to appear before God today and He were to say to you, Why should I let you into My heaven?’ what would you say?” Depending on how the person responded, we would have our answer ready, always transitioning into a presentation of the gospel. Most times, people would say: “Well, I would say to God that I’ve been a good person.” Eventually, that reason would be shot to the ground with the famous Omelet Illustration where we would make the point that “Just one Bad Egg ruins the whole batch” in hopes that they would see: “You’ll never be good enough for heaven because you’ve sinned at least once.” We never saw anyone “Receive Jesus” on those evenings (other teams did), but I still have fond memories walking the neighborhood with Tom, knocking on doors and marveling at his ability to talk to people about faith. Eventually, others in the church gave up on the Evangelism Explosion program but Tom and I continued going door-to-door long after everyone else quit.

Which brings me to a near-tragedy: people in the church started to get discouraged and, despite his usual optimistic nature, so did Tom. All the nay-saying finally took its toll on him like a boxer nearing the end of a long, hard-fought match. One of his elders was trying to buck him up like a coach in the corner between rounds. “Won’t it be great when we have 100 people come to church? Then we can think about building that new church and you can move in here,” the elder said. But Tom responded: “The day we have 100 people come to this church will be the day I have a chicken dinner on the roof.”

Which brings me back to the beginning of this story. On February 15, 1987 (the day my sister and her husband dedicated their four oldest children) over 100 people attended. It blew us all away. Naturally, we didn’t have a chicken dinner waiting in the wings that day, so we had to postpone that part of the deal. Instead, we made a dinner appointment for the church’s anniversary celebration. After church that day, Tom climbed the ladder and tottered over to the table which was being steadied by the blue-suited elder. He took his seat, tucked his napkin into his collar and, with knife and fork in hand several feet above the ground, ate his chicken dinner (which by that time had gotten cold). He smiled and laughed and so did everyone else that afternoon as we looked up to him, shielding our eyes from the bright sun.

Last I heard, Tom was pastoring a troubled church in some inner city. When I heard that, it occurred to me that the city suits a guy like Tom much better than ministry in Circle Pines—a town that you could call “recently rural” in an average Midwestern state. Tom no more fit in Circle Pines than a lion suits your living room. He’s just too big and wild for a place like Circle Pines. But (bless him, Lord!) while he was there, he ministered as a true servant of the Living God: with a huge heart and a sweaty face.

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