Friday, January 29, 2010

didn't expect that

I've been widdling down the number of emails in my inbox after the insaneness that was November and December, and tonight I came upon an email that jostled me. It is the obituary of a mentor, friend, adviser, professor, and much more who was the 70-year old spark that opened the door for theological inquiry, openness to new ideas, and a belief that I was capable of something great. Rev. Dr. William Thomas helped to change the course of my direction of life, as he simply entertained a question about a then unknown theologian to me Karl Barth, and whose Philosophy 101 class forever opened my mind to the mystery of God, humanity, and the complexity of life.

The next class that we had after I had asked him a seemingly small question on Barth, led to a brown paper bag sitting on my desk with a few new, great smelling books that he hoped would continue to help me ask more questions, keep up the conversation, and spur me on towards greater learning. Over the four years in college, and the next four years afterwards, we kept in touch, meeting occasionally for a meal, to discuss my going to seminary, to meet other prominent professors, to introduce Shey to some fantastic art historian, or just to catch up...he always listened, and he helped me to believe in myself in ways that I had never believed in myself before. He asked great questions, and he somehow kept ahead of the curve theologically, and was in tune with a broad swath of conversations and theological discussions across the spectrum.

Dr. Thomas passed away the right before I graduated from seminary, and the news was sent to me while Shey was in the hospital, in the middle of some of the worst weeks of my life thus far. To be honest, I haven't even begun to process the hole that is in my life now that he is gone. His death represents so much more than simply an absence of guidance, great questions, and insight...his absence is sorely missed as I evaluate Ph.D. programs, read a new theologian, or simply need a helpful voice to speak into my life. I know that I wasn't the only one impacted by this generous, humble, and kind man, he had a way of impacting every student in one way or another that he came in contact with.

So as I read tonight:

The Rev. Dr. William W. Thomas, Honorably Retired pastor

The Rev. Dr. William W. Thomas, age 74 and Honorably Retired pastor, died on Saturday, May 24, 2008, at the Bridgewater Nursing Home in Bridgewater, VA. Dr. Thomas was a longtime resident of Harrisonburg and retired from James Madison University as a full professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion in 1997. Since then, he taught at JMU on a part-time basis and continued his involvement with the students, faculty and staff at JMU. Prior to teaching at JMU, he taught summer sessions at Bridgewater College.

He was the last survivor of his immediate family. The Rev. Thomas Reynolds will conduct a graveside service at 2 p.m. Tuesday, May 27, at St. Matthew's Cemetery adjacent to Reformation Lutheran Church in New Market, VA.

Memorial contributions may be made to Bridgewater Nursing Home or Bridgewater College, Bridgewater, Va.

from an email that I can't get myself to take out of my inbox, I was jostled a bit, because Dr. Thomas' life has left a lasting handprint into the very way that I see the world, and his generosity, kindness, humility, challenge, and strong spirit I know lives with me as I try to live and learn as he taught me. The truth is: I miss him. In the midst of the pain of watching Shey and Rowan fight to make it, I simply ran out of tears to cry, and so tonight, as the tears well up, I know that it wasn't because I didn't care then, that is when I first heard, that I didn't cry. It was because I had nothing else to give.

So tonight, Dr. Thomas, as we come closer to celebrate Rowan's two years of life in June, we will also remember you, and pray that we can spur on and spark in Rowan the joy of God, life, theology, hope, and curiosity that you worked so hard to create and cultivate in both Shey and I. Thank you for believing in me and helping me to believe that with some hard work, we can grow, learn, and open our minds to amazing things if we are just willing to listen and be open to the great diversity of ways that God can work in the world.


Robyn said...

Thanks, Josh, it's good to see such honesty in walking through the goodbye's, and it's also an excellent reminder of the huge impact we can have on the lives of those around us with relatively little time involved.

Amanda said...

Josh -

You were so right when saying you weren't alone in being influenced by Dr. Thomas. His selfless inspiration touched my undergrad years (1983-1987) like no other professor, before or after. Whether the course was Old Testament, New Testament, or The History of Christian Thought, Dr. Thomas consistently made each member of the class feel special. Everyone was encouraged to contribute - even the music or bio major went away feeling like they had offered something meaningful to the conversation. Last Tuesday (2/2/10), I faced the note I was hoping to never receive - Dr. Thomas' returned, undeliverable Christmas card. It was so comforting to find your message, after following up with an online search. Dr. Thomas touched everyone around him in such a genuine way, never allowing the spotlight to focus in his direction. Whether it was driving us to Sweet Briar College for dinner & a guest lecture (at 18 years of age) or reuniting again in the Spring of 2005 for an impromptu Sunday afternoon lunch, memories with Dr. Thomas remain vivid and vibrant. One of his last correspondences was a book sent in the mail entitled "The 20 Most Asked Questions About the Amish & Mennonites". It arrived after he learned of my interest in Dayton's old order congregation. I, too, miss him tremendously, Josh. However, In my mind, and in the lives of so many of his other students, Dr. Thomas and his ways continue to live on.

Thank you, Dr. Thomas -


Josh said...


Thanks for your thoughts and comments on Dr. Thomas. I know that his influence runs much deeper than probably either of us could even be aware of. It is great to share in his spirit of generosity and humility with others. I am sad that you are just hearing of his loss, but glad that you were willing to share your story of his influence in your life. It made my day.

I pray this finds you well, and well on your journey of exploring the Amish and Anabaptists!