Pastor Tom Clark is dying. His esophageal cancer was diagnosed at the beginning of 2012, and after several rounds of chemo, radiation treatments, and surgery, the doctors have given up. Six weeks ago, they told him he had only a few weeks left.
Earlier this year, Pastor Tom celebrated twenty-five years of ministry at Tri-City Covenant Church (TCCC) in Somersworth, New Hampshire. Over the same period, he’s taught at the church’s Christian school, everything from Bible to computer basics. His role at the school opened relationships with families who are not members of his church but who look to him for pastoral guidance.
He counts the local Catholic priest and the Congregationalist minister among his closest friends. Fr. Michael stopped by a few weeks ago to perform evening prayers and lay hands on him, and the Congregationalist pastor has promised to join Pastor Tom’s family at his deathbed.
A veteran, Pastor Tom is the chaplain of the local American Legion post, as well as chaplain to the Somersworth police department and the ambulance service. He’s been so deeply involved in the life of the town that he was awarded the Somersworth Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year award in 2014, this in a New Hampshire town that not long ago elected the state’s first openly gay mayor. “As a pastor, you have to fall in love with your community,” Tom says.
My son and I had lunch with Pastor Tom and two of his children at the Oaks, his golf club, last week. He doesn’t eat much, but even if he were ravenous he wouldn’t have a chance to eat. As soon as he walks in, he stops by a table to give a hug to a bulky man with a ponytail. When a friend drops by our table, Pastor Tom quickly turns the conversation from his own condition to the condition of the friend’s father-in-law, also suffering from cancer. When that friend leaves, another comes by the table to ask how Pastor Tom is doing.
Though I’ve known him for two decades, I wouldn’t have recognized Pastor Tom if I had passed him on the street. Once a strong, athletic man, he’s now withered, frail, and gaunt, his cheek bones prominent beneath nearly transparent skin. He looks decades older than his fifty-nine years. If we talk for more than an hour at a time, his speech slows, his eyes droop, and he talks like one slipping into sleep. I’m afraid I might talk him to death.
“I know how I look,” he says. “This is how death looks. I wasn’t going to hide.” He’s concerned with our tendency to hide from death and to hide death, and he was determined to buck the system. He never considered retiring from his pastorate. During his illness, the church has expanded its pastoral staff, and guest preachers sometimes fill in. Mostly, Pastor Tom continues to preach. Not long ago, he Skyped a sermon from his hospital bed.
When he’s able to get to church, he’s too weak to stand, so he sits at the communion table to deliver his sermons. He says that even if he were to survive, he’d stay seated for preaching. From the pulpit, he looked down at his congregation and too often talked down to them. Now he sits like a father at the head of the table, leading an intimate conversation rather than delivering a lecture or harangue. There is no bitterness or self-pity, but he’s frequently in tears as he exhorts his people to trust the Lord, and so is the congregation. After the service, everyone lines up to have a moment of conversation. They know it may be their last time to see him.
Pastor Tom considers the last two years the most fruitful of his long ministry. He often speaks of his gratitude for the work the Lord has done during his illness. With his time shortened, he’s more attentive to the moment. “I see things and I hear things that I didn’t see and hear before.” That attentiveness has enriched his prayers. And he notices when members of his congregation become estranged, and he urges them to reconcile quickly and not give Satan a foothold. His illness has brought reconciliation, as estranged friends have contacted him seeking forgiveness for long-past wrongs.
Pastor Tom receives a constant stream of visitors at his home, and they don’t want to talk about the weather or the Red Sox. They want to talk about life and death and the mercy of God. Everyone listens to him as if he were an oracle, because they want to learn how to die. “If God wanted to teach a congregation about the efficacy of suffering, who would he choose for that role if not the pastor?” Tom asks.
Pastor Tom is an icon of the suffering Shepherd, a living memento mori both to his congregation and to his town. His very presence at the Lord’s Table, in his living room, or at the Oaks is a reminder to “number your days, that you might apply your heart to wisdom.”