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Lessons from a Leader Lost: Examining the Legacy of Fr. Thomas McKenzie

I am a member of Church of the Redeemer, an Anglican parish in Nashville, TN. When our church observes All Saints Day (liturgically the Sunday nearest November 1), we take turns sharing stories about departed loved ones who strengthened our faith through their witness to Christ’s love. In a normal year, these times of sharing evoke both tears and laughter as we exchange remembrances and anticipate our own reunions with all those we have loved and lost. I look forward to it every year as a time to remember that death has been defeated and the Body of Christ exists beyond space and time. However, I never saw this particular All Saints Day coming. This year, my church and I approach All Saints Day with heavy hearts as we remember our beloved pastor, the late Reverend Thomas McKenzie, who, along with his oldest child Charlie, was killed in a car crash in August of 2021.

As much as I wish I never had reason to write this article, All Saints Day seems like the best time to synthesize the myriad thoughts and memories of Fr. Thomas’s ministry and share them in the hope that his legacy will continue to draw people to the Gospel. The following ideas, therefore, highlight the many ways in which Fr. Thomas’s leadership fostered flourishing and suggest how we may learn from his example in ministry.

Because this is about Fr. Thomas, I must start with a story, for no discussion of Fr. Thomas’s legacy could ever be true to that legacy without lots and lots of stories.

The second time my husband and I attended Church of the Redeemer, Thomas invited us to lunch. The first thing that surprised us was that he meant it. The second thing that surprised us was, while at lunch, he told us that one of the great things about a liturgical church is that he could die and be replaced, because, at least in theory, priests have interchangeable heads.

Emphasis on “in theory.”

Six and a half years, dozens of friendships, and thousands of memories later, our church has been thrust into the nightmare of seeing that theory become reality. In the blink of an eye, we’ve lost a leader we admired, respected, and trusted. Thomas spent the last fifteen years nurturing a church body in ways other leaders rarely do, and while no one denies his brokenness, or credits him for the entire strength of our fellowship, his tenure saw our church flourish, and do so largely under his influence. Thomas helped sculpt our unique church culture through his eccentric humor, his fearlessness in truth-telling, his attentiveness to research, and most of all, his stories. Since his death, I’ve seen and heard dozens of accounts of his impact, almost all of them from people grateful to Thomas for helping deepen their understanding of the Gospel and expand their imaginations of what was possible with God. Countless people benefited from his comprehensive and compassionate approaches to complex topics and were healed through his deep focus during pastoral care. I don’t doubt that our church will continue to thrive, but while Thomas might have believed his head was interchangeable, I think most of us at Church of the Redeemer would agree: that particular head was unique.

Back to that lunch. At the time, his comment about being replaceable struck us as bold, shocking, and marvelously refreshing. By the time we moved to Nashville, I had seen my share of Christian leaders obsess over their own gifts and struggles, people who loved the Lord but seemed trapped by temptations to micromanage and retain control. I regularly heard stories of celebrity pastors who attracted followers through their charisma and inevitably experienced a fall. Moving to the South for the first time severely emphasized this pattern. There is a church in our city where the senior pastor’s name is literally carved in stone, as if daring his demons to pick up the pace of destruction. In this context, therefore, meeting a leader who not only embraced his own mortality but also jested about his relative insignificance felt like a cool breeze on a sticky Nashville summer day. Indeed, that comment was central in convincing my husband and me to make Church of the Redeemer our home. (Again, it was supposed to be hypothetical.)

Over the years, Thomas continued to teach and to lead in ways that regularly surprised and refreshed us. In both theology and leadership style, he modeled a thoughtful, and often unusual ministry, one characterized by authenticity, trust, compassion, and never taking oneself too seriously. In the days and weeks after Thomas and Charlie’s accident, I felt a mixture of different griefs: grief for the McKenzie family, grief for my own family and the lost future that might have been, grief for our church’s terrible pain and inevitable changes, and grief for all the people who otherwise might have benefited from Thomas’s wisdom should he have lived to work another twenty-plus years in ministry. But mixed with all this grief I also felt a call to action. I don’t know what exactly God wants me to do with this call, but I do know how incredibly blessed I am for the six years I learned from Thomas and witnessed his unique style of leadership. I want to document and synthesize those lessons so that I can, with God’s help, follow Thomas’ example, and maybe make it easier for others to do so as well.

Therefore, what follows are some of my observations of the ways in which Father Thomas excelled in encouraging the flourishing of our church. First, a few caveats: these reflections are not comprehensive; I would never reduce Thomas’s legacy to a few bullet points. But I have to start somewhere. Second, because I was neither a close friend nor a coworker of Thomas’s, my observations are limited to that of a parishioner. I was never privy to his deepest interests, his biggest mistakes, his working style, or any opinions he didn’t share publicly. Given this, readers might see gaping holes or misinterpretations in my reflections. But like I said, I have to start somewhere. Consider this, then, a limited and early mediation on the legacy of Father Thomas McKenzie.

Lesson No. 1: Be a Morpheus.

Back again to that lunch. Thomas also surprised and pleased us with another comment over those club sandwiches. We told him how we had recently moved from Chicago where we had left a robust bible study group and we were eager to join a similar group in Nashville. Thomas told us first that Redeemer often starts groups in September, and as it was January, we might have to wait for a space to open up. Redeemer had not been the first church to tell us that their groups were closed to newcomers. But, unlike the others, when I told him that I would be willing to start a group, he immediately said, “Absolutely. Do it. In fact, you are among several young folks who have come to me asking for more connection opportunities, so why don’t we get you all together for a lunch and see where it goes?”

On the one hand, his response may seem like a logical progression, but not all leaders would have jumped to action like this. For one thing, at that time, Thomas didn’t know us at all. We could have been nutjobs, heretics, or worse. We had been to Redeemer only a handful of times and weren’t even close to considering ourselves Anglican. For another thing, hosting an event would risk wasting a lot of time on an idea that might not yield fruit—a normal concern in a world of limited resources. But he seemed to have no interest in vetting us, in setting the curriculum for a group, or in overseeing its launch or its growth, and he didn’t hesitate on experimenting with a gathering. All he knew was that something was stirring, and he was going to facilitate whatever it was to see if God was in it.

And he was true to his word. A couple weeks later he arranged a lunch for young adults looking for fellowship. He told us he expected a handful of people to come. More than fifty showed up, and from that number we gathered about fifteen to start our Bible study, and that group has been meeting ever since. In the six years of its existence, Thomas never asked to attend, never asked what we’re studying, and never imposed anything on the group. Some people might see this as ambivalence—or even negligence—on Thomas’s part, but as the group’s leader I deeply appreciated Thomas’s confidence not just in me, but much more importantly in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead our group where it needed to go. Thomas only ever expressed joy at the group’s continued existence and helped us whenever we reached out. Whenever I asked Thomas to point new people toward our group, he would seek out folks needing connection. When our group struggled to meet consistently because there were too many toddlers to wrangle, Thomas agreed to have the church pay for childcare. When we needed a new place to meet, he offered his own office.

In a sermon given by Father Kenny Benge, our church prior and now interim rector, Kenny shared that he and Thomas believed that their job was always to look for where the Holy Spirit was working. Kenny said that for Thomas, that meant putting his energies wherever he saw movement through the body of believers. He also said that Thomas would shut ministries down once it was evident that the Spirit was no longer working through them. Both he and Thomas were committed to being leaders who followed this movement, instead of constantly generating activity and busyness. Though it seems self-evident, I must say: more Christian leaders ought to lead this way.

Put another way, Thomas was a Morpheus. I got this idea from my friend, Grant, when he and I were talking about an article our friend Caroline wrote a few days after Thomas died. In the article, Caroline described how our church had lost our Dumbledore and our Gandalf, the wise and confident teachers and mentors from the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings. Like the characters in both of those stories, we were now left on a continuing quest without our guide. Grant liked these parallels, but wished that Caroline had included Morpheus from The Matrix series. To explain, Grant recollected visiting Thomas’s office and noticing a picture of Morpheus on Thomas’s desk. He asked about it and Thomas said, “I use that to remind myself that my job is to open doors for the Holy Spirit to work through other people. I am not Neo. I am not the hero of this story. I just open the doors.” 

Lesson No. 2: Don’t be vanilla. Unless you are vanilla. Then vanilla it up.

As I noted before, I can’t claim to have known Thomas well on a personal level. But in the six years of hearing him preach, interacting with him during events, and the times I asked him for pastoral care, he never betrayed any hint of two-facedness. On the contrary, in the days following his death, many people referenced his occasional abrasiveness, his eccentric sense of humor, his sarcasm, and many qualities other pastors may have tried to tone down, if not hide completely. But Thomas had bigger fish to fry than trying to appease everyone. In fact, he seemed to appease more people by not defaulting to a bland noodle. A friend, Eric, recalled on Facebook how he too went to lunch with Thomas as he considered making Redeemer his home. Eric asked all his questions and suffered an awkward pause, which he broke by cussing. Thomas—clerical collar and all—cussed right back, and a friendship was born.

He could have tried to be more neutral, more diplomatic, more—well, vanilla. This may have put some people more at ease. But he didn’t. He was a whole human, uninhibited by expectations of decorum or coolness. He sang Bon Jovi karaoke at the top of his lungs. He recounted adolescent stories about setting a car on fire and finding a dead body in a river. He relished burning Christmas trees in the Epiphany bonfire. He frequently referenced the violent and explicit television he regularly consumed. He hosted a Dungeons and Dragons gathering in his office. He wouldn’t shy away from talking about current events from the pulpit, knowing full well he would insult multiple people simultaneously. He would greet people with, “Oh, it’s you,” or “What are you doing here?” and if you didn’t realize he was being sarcastic, he wouldn’t help you get there. Even if he greeted you normally, he was terrible at small talk (I should know—I’m the worst).

I think he knew that compromising his authenticity would have done more damage than good. I think he knew that he couldn’t argue from the pulpit that Jesus loves us as we are if he didn’t demonstrate vulnerability and honesty himself. He knew that churches are, paradoxically, where people often feel the need to hide their humanity the most. I know there are probably many things he didn’t share with us, and probably for many different reasons. But what he did share was genuine, and he won not only our affection, but also our trust.

And with this trust he did wonderful things. He argued uncomfortable truths without losing credibility. He prayed from the heart during pastoral counseling without sounding artificial. He made kids feel as welcome and respected as the adults, because he never took himself too seriously. He helped people feel their feelings and not be ashamed.

In the midst of paralyzing grief, and on this All Saints Day, I sense the Holy Spirit calling all of us who were blessed by Thomas’s life to make use of our blessings, to ponder the grief alongside the wisdom he leaves behind, and to commit the work of our hands to the God who promises resurrection and the hope that we will see Thomas, Charlie, and all our beloved lost again. Emily Capo Sauerman

This brings me to a huge point: through his openness and vulnerability, Thomas modeled a theology of emotion. He expressed emotions regularly and publicly, and encouraged us all to do the same, even when those emotions involved anger and sadness with God. One of the first times I visited Thomas for pastoral counseling, I mentioned losing my mother to cancer, and I immediately burst into tears. I think I apologized for crying, which, incidentally, is a knee-jerk reaction many of us do too often, even if the person in front of us is a pastor. But Thomas seized the moment: “Why are you sorry? That’s really, really sad. Be sad.” It was such a simple thing. I didn’t need permission to feel sad; except that I did, and a lot of us do. In fact, in the week after Thomas died, dozens of people shared stories similar to mine, of Thomas modeling and encouraging emotion, legitimizing it in our minds and our hearts, and overcoming a variety of cultural, familial, and theological barriers to the flow of emotion. Thomas encouraged us to see how often God acknowledges and invites emotion in Scripture, how deeply Jesus felt the joys and sorrows of his earthly life. God can speak to us through feelings as much as through our thoughts, and they are an important part of the mystery. I think it’s safe to say that if Thomas had a battle cry, it would be: FEEL YOUR FEELINGS!

So many of Thomas’s sermons focused on the invitation to emote, and none more poignant than the sermons addressing Leah Stufflebaum’s death. Leah was a friend of mine who found out she was pregnant, and then discovered she had cancer. As the parish administrator with her own spirited personality, she was both a friend and foil to Thomas. Leah fought her way through her pregnancy and gave birth to a healthy second son, but ultimately lost her battle a few months later, in October of 2019. Thomas made no secret of his fury with God. He hated everything to do with this loss. He hated not having the answers. He modeled lamentation and drew our attention to the huge portions of the Bible that invite and encourage us to lament, whether or not our theology is completely orthodox in those moments of pain. He also always, always drew our attention to the Table where, through Christ’s mysterious power, we share the Body and Blood with all believers across space and time, including with those saints who died before us. He reminded us that our sorrow is not for nothing, that it has an end, and that when we eat and drink, we kneel at the same mystical table with all Christ’s followers: with my mom, with Leah, and, now, with Thomas and Charlie.

Lesson No. 3: Be rad and ready.

While reminiscing about Thomas, our friend Brian told us about how he had called Thomas three weeks before he died. He reached out on Thomas’s personal cell number, and Thomas picked up in spite of clearly not being in the office. He was in fact on a long walk to train for the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage that he had planned to take for his sabbatical. He took the call even though he was out of breath, and spoke with Brian as if there was no intrusion into his final preparations before what would have been a ten week trip. Even before the accident, Brian was grateful, and marveled at Thomas’ generosity.

There is a Christian buzz term that’s been around for a while now: radical generosity. I have no qualms with the term or the concept, but too often we think about generosity as having primarily to do with money. There are so many other ways to be generous. As someone who struggles with limited energy, for instance, I catch myself obsessing about how to best spend my hours, in the same way I often obsess about how to spend my money. Some people can be generous with their energy, always ready to assist people in need with ideas and hands and connections. One can be generous with time, and be available to friends and neighbors to listen thoroughly and to serve. One can be generous with their attention, and make people feel like they are always the highest priority. There is a generosity of hospitality, to provide an atmosphere of uninhibited welcome. And there are many more.

When I think about Thomas, I want to gather several of these generosities together under umbrella term because his leadership style exemplified so many of them. Thomas modeled something more like radical readiness: he made himself available to meet whatever tasks God placed in front of him, and he approached them with focus, energy, dignity, and thoughtfulness. He excelled in preparing himself for action by setting healthy boundaries, and then he met the tasks in front of him with a thoughtful philosophy of service. These together formed the blessing of his radical readiness, which enabled him to be radically generous in a multitude of ways.

First, the boundaries. We all know Thomas was prolific, but to my limited knowledge, Thomas was not a workaholic. Maybe people who knew him better would disagree. But he seemed to know when he needed to rest, and he thoroughly advocated for Sabbath rest in various forms. Before Covid, Thomas always went to see a movie in a movie theater on his day off. It was one of his favorite things to do, and it was a non-negotiable form of rest for him. Thomas was an oblate at a monastery in the New Mexico desert, and he went there once or twice a year to completely disconnect. For many years he and his wife Laura would vacation in Martha’s Vineyard where he would be revived by the ocean and would collect shells to use for the upcoming year’s baptisms. Around the time my husband and I began going to Redeemer, Thomas had been going through a terribly dark time, and he took a leave of absence knowing he could not minister well until he reestablished a baseline of health. In that moment, Thomas knew that he needed to stop, so he did.

In addition to rest, Thomas knew that his work would suffer if he failed to guard his closest relationships. Several of Thomas’s friends noted this in their eulogies, both at the funeral and printed elsewhere. Thomas met every Wednesday morning with a group of friends at what they called “Dude Breakfast,” where they would gather to enjoy one another but also to share what was really going on in their lives, their minds, and hearts. Having never been a pastor, I can only imagine how emotionally weighty the role must be, and Thomas found critical support in his commitment among the closest of friends. These friends also emphasized Thomas’ devotion to Laura and their daughters. Several of the friends commented on how eager Thomas was to serve his wife, often in the smallest ways: to get her a diet Coke, to kiss her during communion, to hold her hand during meals. Thomas’ friends also made clear that he constantly strived never to prioritize work over quality time with his girls.

So, going back to Brian’s story, I do wonder why Thomas picked up the phone. He didn’t have to. He could have let it go to voicemail and called back at a more convenient time. His commitment to boundaries would suggest that he should not have answered. But my guess is that it was precisely his commitment to boundaries that allowed him to answer and to focus on Brian’s question. Thomas was about to go on a sabbatical. He knew he needed closure on many things before his absence. He also knew Brian needed closure on his own question, and in that moment Thomas could provide it. He also loved Brian, and he answered out of this love.

In other words, Thomas was ready to serve generously. If he wasn’t ready, he would have stepped back until he was. This isn’t to suggest he did this perfectly every time, but I have never seen another leader appear so focused in a conversation, produce such concise and well-researched sermons and lectures, and model such decisiveness all in the same role, and I think these boundaries are why. At least in my experience as a parishioner, Thomas never seemed harried or tempted to multitask. He never seemed to wish to be somewhere else or talking to someone else. He didn’t check his phone during important conversations. He was ready to address the needs in front of him with a generous spirit. He was ready to take cues from the Holy Spirit, and if that’s not the true goal of ministry I don’t know what is.

This brings me to the philosophy of service. Thomas always emphasized our human limitations, and so to be ready often meant being simultaneously realistic and prayerful. One of the ways in which he illustrated this was mentioned by Father Kenny in sermon a few weeks after Thomas and Charlie’s accident. Kenny said that he and Thomas embraced the limitations of the church building. They both believed that if the church outgrew the space, it was neither an indication to add another service or to add on to the building, but rather to plant another church. Kenny said that Thomas believed that there was no point in having a congregation so big that it would outgrow the staff’s ability to meet the needs of the congregants in personal ministry. This is a bold belief in an era of megachurches. But as I reflect on the last many years, Thomas and the staff were able to be generous, focused, and present because they made sure of that ability, and made sure they were ready to follow the Spirit in regard to growth.

Whenever I meditate on this idea of readiness, I think about the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip is dropped by the Spirit on the side of a road. If that happened to me, I think I’d have some questions, for starters. But then a man shows up with questions, and Philip engages in conversation, ready, willing, and powered by the Spirit to listen and lead him toward salvation. As we consider Philip, and Thomas, and anyone else who models this readiness well, we can reflect on how little of what keeps us busy really matters. What matters is making space in our lives and being available to the Spirit to be used by him in ministry.

Lesson No. 4: The leg-work of truth-telling.

In the aftermath of the accident, I heard many people comment on Thomas’ boldness in truth-telling. Now, while we often hear phrases like “speaking truth to power,” or “telling it like it is,” these weren’t the phrases used to describe Thomas day-to-day. Too often, these phrases conjure images of firebrand personalities, people who seek to provoke for provocation’s sake. This was not Thomas. He was not a firebrand spreading vitriol. But he did speak truth, and boldly. He did make many of us uncomfortable with the truths he affirmed, but he also had a gift for framing those truths well enough that we could absorb them.

As we seek to learn from Thomas’s skill in truth-telling, we first have to acknowledge that not everyone will have his natural gifts. We also need to realize we don’t have to completely mimic Thomas’s theology to communicate God’s truth. There are simply some aspects of Thomas’ boldness that were unique to Thomas. That said, I don’t think Thomas assumed people would respect his authority without some serious work on his part. There are two things about Thomas’s approach to hard truths that I think we can imitate: first, that if Thomas was going to make a claim, he would always explain the context, and second that Thomas would always filter claims through the lens of our Gospel Identity.

Let’s first examine the power of good explanation.

Several years ago, the ACNA updated the Book of Common Prayer to include some new research in translation and to update some language for modern audiences. Thomas sent an email explaining the major changes, which included some new wording within the Nicene Creed. He explained why the ACNA felt the changes were necessary and why he felt it necessary to adopt the new book for our church. He also articulated some of the changes he personally disagreed with, but that compromise, he said, is necessary for a functioning church polity. As I set about reading that email, I noticed my finger kept scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling. It was, let’s say, comprehensive. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine many of its recipients caring too much about the translation minutiae or issues of church polity. Anyone like me would just go with the flow because most of us had neither the bandwidth to engage nor the power to alter ACNA decisions. Whether out of convenience or loyalty or both, we simply trusted Thomas and the leadership to make those decisions.

But Thomas must have felt that this level of explanation was necessary. Either he was exceptionally nerdy (which he was) or there was something else that he needed to accomplish. Surely, any pastor would be anxious about possible schism; churches have been shredded over seeming minutiae before. But hindsight shows a noticeable pattern in Thomas’s leadership style indicating that he never assumed that his authority rested solely in his role. “Because I said so” was never a sufficient reason. He was going to work to earn our trust and keep it, and to honor his listeners with comprehensive explanations of decisions and stances, always with an open door for questions.

I began seeing this pattern emerge more and more over the last few years, a time during which I’d never envy any pastor. We can all agree the last few years have seen a palpable increase in discord, politicization of everything, graceless platitudes, and, of course, a global pandemic. In addition to the suffering happening within our church body, Thomas had to get up to address murders, systemic racism, abortion legislation, immigration, a tornado that tore parts of Nashville to shreds, a bomb that went off on Christmas day, the January 6th insurrection, and the many twists and turns of life during a pandemic, among many, many other horrendously complex subjects that make everyone uncomfortable, regardless of ideology. Through it all, Thomas always brought these issues back to the Gospel, and assisted us in seeing each issue through that lens. He always blessed us with an explanation of his theological conclusions, even when the explanation included unknowable mysteries. Thomas never seemed to shy away from saying “I don’t know,” but rather embraced the times he could admit it, because even in that, if not especially in that, he could all the more point to a God that is bigger than our brokenness and bigger than our brains.

One of the best examples of this contextual explanation came throughout the pandemic in Thomas’s weekly Thursday updates. I remember reflecting with friends how we were all a little sad when Thomas sent his last Thursday update. It had been too easy, especially in the early months of lockdown, to feel disconnected from the Body of Christ. Thomas’s emails created a moment for each of us to remember that we were still united in fellowship, even if we weren’t together in person. This is not to say that the emails were cheery. He did not shy away from expressing his disappointments, especially about that first Easter of Covid, as he and the staff were forced to celebrate the Resurrection through Facebook Live. But the emails were a reminder that he, the staff, and the vestry were all still working towards solutions that would safely reunite us all again. Along with the emotional touchpoint the emails provided, Thomas also used it to explain the decisions he and the vestry were making to try to keep everyone safe. I always came away impressed by the thoughtfulness behind the decisions and the transparency about their difficulty. Had he not explained that context, it would have magnified the sense of loneliness and turmoil.

I might even say that, in some ways, Thomas did his job too well. With all the chaos flung at us over the last couple years, Thomas’s gift afforded us the luxury to become complacent in our reflections and questions. We took Thomas for granted, in short, knowing he would explain the hard stuff. Then the accident happened, and we all felt that the best person to give context to Thomas’s death was of course Thomas himself, which makes the loss all the more wretched.

The second way in which Thomas shed light on complex subjects was through focusing on our identity as believers. This theological stance allowed Thomas to address hard subjects and current events without “taking sides” in the culture wars. When understood as Thomas understood it, this stance allowed many of us to shed much of the tribalism that so defines contemporary America and to see complex subjects through the lens of the Gospel. And this stance continues to be critical, not just for Church of the Redeemer, but for any Christian trying to navigate a hostile world. By loosening our tethers to the many identities and loyalties we have in the world, we can better filter out what is true, what is noble, and what is beautiful from the cacophony of stimuli.

The best way I can think of to communicate this theological stance is to borrow from Sacred Fire by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser. In this passage, Fr. Ronald illuminates the significance of Jesus removing his outer garment before washing the disciples’ feet. This act emphasizes the movement toward humility and the embrace of deep identity to be able to complete the service he is about to perform.

“In order to let go of the pride that blocks any human from stooping down to wash the feet of someone different from himself, Jesus had to strip off a lot of outer things (pride, moral judgments, superiority, ideology, and personal dignity) so as to wear only his inner garment. What was his inner garment? As John mystically describes it, his inner garment was precisely his knowledge that he had come from God, was going back to God, and that therefore all things were possible for him, including washing the feet of someone whom he already knew had betrayed him. That is also our own inner garment, the reality that lies deepest beneath our race, gender, religion, language, politics, ideology, and personal history (with all its wounds and false pride). What is most real is that deep down, beneath these other, outer, things, we are imprinted with the dark memory, the brand of love and truth, the inchoate knowledge that, like Jesus, we too have come from God, are returning to God, and therefore are capable of doing anything, including loving and washing the feet of someone very different from ourselves. Our inner garment is the image and likeness of God inside us, and when we are in touch with this, we can find the strength to wash one another’s feet across any divide: liberal-conservative, prolife-prochoice, Catholic-Protestant, Jew-Muslim, Muslim-Christian, black-white, man-woman, and begin to feel sympathy for one another beyond our wounds and difference.”

I believe that Thomas wanted to help each of us to excavate our inner garments, however buried and fossilized, because it was only when we identify our inner garments are we able to accept hard, uncomfortable truths and grow closer to Christ, stronger in Christ, and more compassionate like Christ. Thomas’s sermons helped us remove metaphorical outer garments so we wouldn’t confront hard things with only our shell, but with our core. Likewise, we can speak—and receive—bold truths only if we communicate with one another from core self to core self. Adding some choice stories is always a good idea, too.

Lesson No. 5: Remember the ministry of high-fives.

When we told our four-year-old about Thomas and Charlie’s accident, her immediate response was, “But I liked giving him high-fives!” While she, like the rest of us, struggle to understand this loss, I want to draw attention to a lesson in this reaction that often gets overlooked: children’s ministry does not stop at the Sunday School door. The whole church must agree that children are disciples too, and their presence must be welcomed, and their personhood treasured.

Thomas and the community of Redeemer have done such a wonderful job of making children feel seen and heard. My favorite example of this is from the first Story Night we ever attended. Story Night is a grand Redeemer tradition that takes place on a cozy December evening when people gather in the Abbey house and share true stories about themselves. The topics range from love stories to travel stories to faith stories, or in the case of a then five-year-old Carolina Howard, a sleepwalking story. She jumped up to the mic that night, and Thomas, along with the rest of us, was delighted as she told us about how one night while sleepwalking, she stepped on a slug and screamed until she woke up. The fact that Carolina was so young in a room of adults seemed to pose no problem to her. I love this because it should never be a problem for any child. She knew she belonged. In the same vein, a few years ago Thomas started the tradition of Pancake Supper karaoke, and kid after kid took the mic and belted to the crowd with abandon. They too knew they belonged. Thomas made a point of welcoming children into the life of the church, high-fiving the little kids and building inside jokes with some of the older ones. Our daughter was growing increasingly excited about the high-fives just before the accident, and she would seek Thomas out to make sure they happened. In fact, the day before he died, she did just that—racing to find him immediately after the service, that moment of belonging being so worthwhile to her that it took priority over everything else, even the playground swings. Thomas, along with so many people at Redeemer, have encouraged that atmosphere of belonging, and it may serve his memory more than any other to make sure that atmosphere continues to shape the legacy of our church forever.


Had things been different, Thomas would have returned to us from his sabbatical on All Saints Sunday. This tradition was precious to him and he made a point of scheduling his sabbatical accordingly. Instead, we find ourselves mourning what might have been, and looking for meaning in the memories.

There are many more lessons left to contemplate in the legacy of Fr. Thomas McKenzie. Like I said, this is a start. In the midst of paralyzing grief, and on this All Saints Day, I sense the Holy Spirit calling all of us who were blessed by Thomas’s life to make use of our blessings, to ponder the grief alongside the wisdom he leaves behind, and to commit the work of our hands to the God who promises resurrection and the hope that we will see Thomas, Charlie, and all our beloved lost again.

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