The first time I met Thomas McKenzie, which was about twenty years ago, I said, “Do you want to hang out and be best friends one day?” I was being obnoxious, joking about how cool it would be for a non-Anglican singer-songwriter dude to be buddies with an Anglican priest. Thomas said, “Sure.” And that was that. Because of his quick and ready “yes,” it’s no exaggeration to say that over the years he became one of my dearest friends.
Thomas, my brother and I, Jonathan Rogers, Randall Goodgame, and a few others had breakfast every Wednesday at Waffle House for more than ten years. I broke bread with him countless times, at the Communion table and the Waffle House booth. Today I’m disoriented, shocked, and heart-shattered by his sudden absence. Jamie and I are especially grieving for his wife and surviving daughter. Thomas was an anchoring presence for many of us in Nashville, so dear Laura and Sophie must feel unmoored in ways we can’t fathom. Ella, too, was a delight. I watched her grow up, and asked her to edit Pembrick’s Creaturepedia when she was just sixteen. Her notes made me laugh out loud, and she was smarter than me by a long shot.
Much has been said about my friend on social media, and for that I’m grateful. It’s good to see that Thomas was, and is, seen. My brother wrote a beautiful lament for him, and I’ve read pieces at Christianity Today and Religion News Service, not to mention all the posts on Instagram and Twitter. I’ve been speechless for days, unable to comprehend what happened, let alone write something comprehensible about it. But a friend reminded me that writing is a good way to grieve, so I offer here a few memories of Father Thomas McKenzie, my pastor, my priest, and my dear friend.
At the first Hutchmoot (our annual Rabbit Room conference), which was held at Church of the Redeemer because of Thomas, one of the sessions was a panel discussion about the arts. There was a long table on the stage, a few mics to share, and a quorum of Rabbit Room writers and artists gathered along one side of it, facing the audience. Thomas was at one end of the table, probably feeling a bit out of place because he wasn’t, at that point, an author. Looking back, it feels pretentious that we would sit on the stage, Last Supper-style, bestowing our opinions upon the folks in the pews, but whatever. It was a good discussion. We fielded questions about art, faith, doubt, vocation—the usual suspects. But toward the end of the conversation, after having held his silence for an hour, Thomas said, “None of this matters without Jesus. He’s the point of all of this. If he’s not, what are we doing here?” For me, it was a watershed moment in the life of the Rabbit Room, and I’ve thought about it a thousand times. It’s so easy to get caught up highfalutin philosophizing about art and artsiness and forget the Person who holds it all together. Without Christ, of course, it all falls apart. Thomas snapped us back into glorious reality that day, and it told me a lot about reality as he saw it.
It wasn’t unusual for Thomas to mention his therapist in his sermons. What a bravely humble thing for a pastor to share with his congregation. I grew up, as many of us did, in a culture where the pastor was expected to have things sorted, a culture where the pastor seldom if ever talked about his own sin or brokenness from the pulpit. But here was one who treated it as a matter of course, readily acknowledging his need for forgiveness and counsel.
Thomas could be abrasive. He had such a rascally and (for some) off-putting sense of humor, that Jamie didn’t know what to do with him. I, on the other hand, was drawn to that very thing. I loved the fact that the Thomas you saw in the pulpit was the very same Thomas you saw at breakfast or at a party. He was himself, vices and virtues alike, whether he was serving communion or preaching or eating a biscuit at Waffle House. It gave credibility to his sermons because he didn’t have a preacher voice that he turned on and off. I loved him for it. One morning at Dude Breakfast Thomas told us that the church once got an angry letter accusing him of using the F-word in a sermon. He didn’t believe it, so he went back and listened to the audio of the service. He had been telling a funny story and made a scoffing “pffft” kind of noise that, with a stretch of the imagination, could possibly be interpreted as the Worst of Bad Words. Thomas said he wrote an open letter to the church that said, in effect, he hadn’t said the F-word that time, but that he could see how it might have come across that way. He didn’t stop there, however. He went on to say that he had in fact used that word before, and that it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he would slip up one of these days. He hoped that if he did, the congregation would forgive him for it.
When we first started attending Church of the Redeemer, as I said, Jamie didn’t know what to make of Thomas McKenzie. I was drawn to, even comforted by, his oddness, but Jamie didn’t get it. Laura and Thomas invited us to La Hacienda after church one Sunday, and it was the first time the four of us had shared a meal. After we got in the car Jamie said, “Did you see how much he loved Laura? The way he held her hand while we talked was so beautiful and affectionate.” It was true. Laura had sat there like a queen as her knight adored her. Something clicked, and from that day forward Jamie loved Thomas as much as I did.
Several years ago I experienced a dark night of the soul that lasted a thousand nights. One Sunday morning, just after church, I asked Thomas to pray for me. We ducked into the chapel and he extended to me an empathy that no other friend had, crying with me and praying for healing. He knew his role as a pastor, and leaned into it. He gave me advice, but more than that he gave me his tears.
He weathered some very tough storms, as a father and as a pastor. I’m not sure what was going on at the time, but I had parked at Waffle House and was heading into the restaurant when I spotted him in his car. He was bent over the steering wheel, sobbing so loudly I could hear him from ten feet away with the windows up. My first impulse was to leave him alone, but I thought it was better to err on the side of saying too much than too little. I timidly knocked on the glass, and it scared him. He looked up through his tears, rolled down his window, and I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s going on, but I want you to know you’re not alone and I love you.” He thanked me, rolled up the window, and kept crying. A few minutes later he joined us at breakfast. I speak from experience that it’s hard to recover from that kind of weeping and keep fellowship with your friends. It took courage and humility to get out of the car and join us.
One night a bat found its way into his bathroom, and he caught it and killed it with his bare hands.
He had a katana for some reason, and one night in a rough part of town he had to pull it out of his car to scare off some hoodlums.
He wrote an unpublished vampire novel.
Thomas bravely preached the truth during these last few crazy years in America, refusing to pull punches on matters of race, politics, religiosity, or neighborly love, always—and I mean always—pointing to the Kingdom of God and the reign of the resurrected Christ. I can’t ever remember a sermon in which he didn’t call for repentance, proclaim the mighty love of God in Christ, remind us that our citizenship is in heaven. His sermons were never merely theoretical. They called us to embody the love of Christ.
Speaking of embodiment, I started attending Church of the Redeemer because they offered Communion every Sunday. I travel for a living, so if a church only offers the Lord’s Supper once a month there’s a good chance I’ll miss it for months on end. I grew up in a tradition that celebrated the Lord’s Supper every week, so I really missed it. I ached for it, really. So we started attending Redeemer and I fell in love with the Anglican liturgy. Part of that love is because it was so clear that Thomas loved it. He understood the drama played out every Sunday, culminating in the Eucharist, the foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb. He kept the feast with a contagious zeal, his eyes twinkling and his voice regal.
Oh, Thomas. I’ll miss you so much. I’ll miss the way you unconsciously scratched your forearm at breakfast while you talked about movies. I’ll miss the way you looked at me like you actually cared if I told you I was struggling. I’ll miss the way you broke the communion wafer and held it out for the world to see, gazing dramatically beyond the back wall of the church, believing in your heart that you were celebrating the perfect sacrifice of Christ’s body, broken for us. I’ll miss the blessing you offered every week, assuring me that in Jesus my sins are forgiven. I’ll miss the way you goofed around in your fancy priest robes in the foyer just before church started, and when Jamie and I would walk in you’d say, “What’s up, AP!” and it was clear that you were eager to let the festivities—and that’s exactly the word for it—begin. I’ll miss your clear, concise, passionate sermons—always without notes, which blew my mind. I’ve never heard a better preacher. I’ll miss the fire in your voice when you really got going. I’ll miss kneeling and saying “Alleluia” when you said, “Christ’s body, broken for you,” placing the wafer in my open hands. Our eyes always met for a second, and you were so caught up in the glory of what you were doing it was like you were looking through me and into eternity.
Your absence is enormous. I feel it in my chest. But it isn't the sudden absence of a loud and clamorous presence, like that of a jackhammer shutting off. That racket is here and will be till the world is made new. Yours was the long and steady presence of a brook coursing over stones, persistent and peaceful, and now the creek has gone dry. Andrew Peterson
I’ll miss your beloved awkwardness. You sometimes seemed like a nerdy kid who was trying to fit in. I wonder if that’s why you so faithfully showed up at Dude Breakfast, because here was a group of guys that just liked to be together, who only expected you to be a buddy, not a pastor. I know that’s how I felt. I’ll miss seeing your tenderness with Laura and your daughters. I’ll miss you celebrating Lent, and Easter, and Advent, and Christmas, because your true belief made it all more believable, and more beautiful. I’m sorry we never got together for that last meal at La Hacienda. Things were just too busy. Thanks for inviting us. And thanks for inviting me to your birthday party. I’m sorry I had a show that night. Thanks for inviting me to the desert for that retreat. I didn’t say yes often enough. But you always did. You came over for movies, and bonfires, and parties. There wasn’t a day that I wasn’t proud to be your friend. Thanks for serving your family, your church, your city, and your King. I know there will be good and beautiful things that will come of your early departure. But right now I can’t stop crying. Right now the world seems a drab place, and Nashville is poorer and sadder and less alive than it was a week ago. Your absence is enormous. I feel it in my chest. But it isn’t the sudden absence of a loud and clamorous presence, like that of a jackhammer shutting off. That racket is here and will be till the world is made new. Yours was the long and steady presence of a brook coursing over stones, persistent and peaceful, and now the creek has gone dry. There is one less counterpoint to the clanging world, the dissonant din of humans attempting to shape things to their own image. But your pastoral love was a quiet water, constant, low in the valley and lowering by degrees into perfect humility by grace’s steady pull to the sea of God. We were shaped by it, made more lovely by your love, and by Christ’s love in you. Thanks for saying yes—to Jesus as a young man, and to me when I asked if you wanted to be friends all those years ago.
“Precious in the Lord’s sight is the death of his saints.”
Oh, God! Help us to see with your eyes.