I went back and looked at an old post this morning to see when I first met my friend John Thomas. It was February 7, 2007, because I wrote a post about him. I will never forget the occasion because he made a lasting impression on me. It was following a graveside service that I did for a friend of his, that he strolled up to me. He looked like a worn out old cowboy whose skin was a tough as leather. He waited until I was off by myself, then he walked over with his hat in his hand, struggling a little to hold back his emotions. In total sincerity and with the only words he could muster, he said, “Hell of a funeral preacher, hell of a funeral,” and walked off. Those were simply the only words he knew to say. I remember going home after the funeral and telling Lea, “You’ll never believe the cussing compliment I got today…” and told her the whole story.
John and I bumped into each other over the next few months. I’d shake his hand, ask him how he was, and we’d visit a little. John and I were about as different as day and night. I still don’t know how or why John liked me, but he did. It’s as if he adopted me as his preacher, and better yet, his friend.
Over the next year John did a lot of thinking about his life. He’d lived a hard life, and he knew he needed to make some changes (his words, not mine). I was amazed when John called me and said he was ready to give his life to Christ. When I baptized him, I remember him telling me, “I’ve lived a hard life, so you may need to hold me under a little longer just to make this work.” I smiled and assured him it would work fine. He left the building that day still looking like an old cowboy on the outside, but inside he was as clean and pure as a new born babe.
A week later John amazed me again. What did he do this time? He simply came to church … for the FIRST time … EVER! I saw John while I was preaching. He was in his best “Sunday” clothes, and even his best clothes were what most folks might call their work clothes. I couldn’t help but shake my head in awe thinking about an old cowboy who’d lived a hard life, packed in a pew surrounded by three hundred people. When asked later about his first church service, John said, “Never been around a crowd that big. What few crowds I’ve ever been around were those in dance halls and bars.” He was much more comfortable being on a horse surrounded by a bunch of cows than he was a bunch of people. It’s hard to imagine just how uncomfortable he must have been in his first church service.
Mine and John’s friendship grew over the next two years. Even though John was battling cancer, he would regularly call to check on me when I was sick or just to say hello. One of the things that meant the most to me was when John invited me to one of his family get-togethers… which I gladly accepted. I have been greatly blessed by an old cowboy’s friendship, a friendship that has made me see people in a very different way.
My friend John died early yesterday. This Wednesday, almost 3 years to the day that John gave me the “hell of a funeral” compliment, I’ll do his graveside service. That old cowboy reminds me of the thief on the cross. The thief had nothing to lose and took a chance on Jesus’s ability to save him at the end of his life. 2000 years later, a hard old cowboy took a shot on the same Savior. I think both gambles paid off big. I’ll see you in heaven, John.