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Fare Forward, Thomas McKenzie

For more than a decade, Thomas McKenzie was a beloved member of the Nashville community (and far, far beyond). Yesterday, on August 23rd, 2021, he was killed in an interstate crash along with his oldest daughter, Charlie (Ella).

This loss is unreal and unfathomable to many of us. He was husband to Laura, father to Charlie (Ella) and Sophie, pastor to the Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, author of books beloved to many, speaker at nearly every Hutchmoot, lover of stories (especially movies), lover of the Body of Christ the Church, and my favorite person on earth from whom to hear the Gospel preached. He was also my dear friend. He was the reason I met my wife, and he married us.

For the past decade, Thomas and I met every Wednesday at Waffle House for “Dude Breakfast,” along with my brother, Jonathan Rogers, Randall Goodgame, and a wealth of others down through the years, folks like Steve Guthrie, John Cal, Josh Shive, Rob Wheeler, even my dad. Thomas, though, was the anchor. If I overslept on a Wednesday, it was Thomas’s text that woke me up wondering where I was, and I’d hightail it to the booth by the window (usually) to order up my eggs and fixin’s, served by our delightful waitress, Moe. Thomas knew all the waitresses better than I did and he liked to keep them on their toes by refusing to settle into a “usual” (the man wasn’t afraid of a Waffle House cheeseburger at any time of day). And so for a decade we told our stories and shared our burdens and wondered over just about anything there was to wonder. There was a lot of laughter. It was good.

Of stories told over eggs and waffles is fellowship formed. Thus has it been since time began. Thus it was for us. Thus will it be.

It seems trite now to recount all the ways Thomas loved us, all the ways he loved his wife, all the ways he loved his daughters. Those who grieve nearly always make such accountings. Yet, I think anyone who knew Thomas would tell you he was a breed apart. As a pastor he was blunt, matter of fact, and could be shockingly irreverent, yet his love for Christ and his church was apparent beyond the rags of his indisputable humanity. And it was those ragged edges that drew many to him. It was those ragged edges that made us love him, because he was also kind and thoughtful and gracious in ways that never ceased to surprise and amaze me. He loved us as Christ did, and we did our best to return the favor.

I received the Eucharist from his hands untold times. I admired his commitments to kindness and justice and love of his neighbors. He often spoke up when others thought he should have been silent, and the world is better for his voice and its wisdom.

I can say with certainty that Thomas McKenzie is one of the reasons for my love of the Gospel today. I saw it in him. And because of him I wanted people to see it in me too.

But yesterday his part in the epic story of Creation came to an abrupt halt. His thread in the tapestry was clipped and tied off. And for now, we go on without him. The fellowship is broken, and we cannot now know the full measure of his contribution to the great Story. But I see evidence of it everywhere. And while I trust in that day when the Storyteller will weave all things right and new, today the world is plainly broken and what I know seems so much smaller than what I don’t.

This I know: My friend, long present, is now absent, and the unique shape he filled in our lives, in my life, no other human can assume.

Damn death.

And yet here we are. So be it. Fare forward, Thomas. Not fare well, but fare forward. Forward into the fulfillment of promises made when the world was young. I’ll meet you in the renewal of all things. There will be eggs and waffles.

Until then, I will miss your laughter. I will miss your mostly-right opinions on movies. I will miss your wake up texts for Dude Breakfast. I’ll miss my dungeon master on D&D nights.

But amidst all the things I’ll miss, I also recall how he loved his daughter and I find myself thinking over and over again that maybe in some way, by leaving us here, he was present, ready, and eager to escort his beloved child into the throne room of the King. When I try to see it in that light, I find I’m willing, perhaps, to carry my own missing of my friend a feather lighter.

Maybe. Maybe not. It seems a thin comfort. Certainly it’s a mystery, and we do not sit well with mystery. I don’t know.

Today I’m in a studio in Nashville recording a piece of a new stage musical. In the room next to me as I write this, a group of wildly talented musicians and singers are piecing together a song out of nothing, bringing art out of thin air, order out of chaos. The song they’re singing is called “Broken Things,” and it feels truer today than it did yesterday.

“We’re in the business of broken—” goes the tune. “Holding our world up with clothespins / We might never break, but we’re still incomplete / in the business of broken things.” The song winds to a close and a character says “We run an orphanage. We’re proof that things have gone very wrong indeed.”

That’s the business of hope: broken things. And days like today make it clear that things are off the rails. We’ve got our work cut out for us. Oh God, there’s a new widow in the world. Our hearts are broken with her and for her. And only a mystery can heal them. Put me to work, Lord. Let me be about the business of the broken until it’s made right.

As Thomas blessed all of us so often at the close of the Sunday liturgy, I offer back this blessing for him:

“Thomas and Laura and Charlie and Sophie, may the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. And may the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be with you, and remain with you always.”

Come, Lord Jesus.


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