Thelma was one of those women who never missed church. Every time the doors were open – in those days, Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night – she was there. Thelma was about eighty, I suppose, retired from lifetime standing on her feet in a school lunchroom where she scooped out Turkey Tetrazzini and other assorted lunchroom gourmet entrees. Thelma was quiet, never saying much, except for her worry about her husband Frank.
Frank never attended church. Never, not even on Christmas and Easter. He was a couple of years older than Thelma, and had retired twice: first from General Electric where he assembled refrigerators for forty years; the second time from Churchill Downs, where he was the night watchman. Frank fought in the Pacific Theater in World War II; thieves didn’t scare him much.
While Thelma attended church faithfully for fifty years, Frank stayed home, reading the Sunday paper, puttering around in his yard, waiting until Thelma got home so they could have a simple lunch of soup and crackers.
Though Thelma was shy, she summoned the courage to insist every new pastor come and witness to Frank. If you are not familiar with the idea of witnessing, you share with another person what Jesus did for you and invite them to follow Jesus for themselves. Before me, ten pastors made the trek down Camden Avenue on mission to convert Frank. He would listen politely, thank the pastor for sharing, and then say, “I’ll think about it.” Frank thought about following Jesus through Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan.
You may not be familiar with the idea of “Revival.” Revivals were a time for a guest preacher to come and preach powerful messages (usually ones he had tried out at home first) to motivate the lost to come and follow Jesus. Thelma invited every revival speaker to make the visit to her home in hopes that he would succeed where her own pastor had failed.
Frank’s health began to fail and the little house, likes it occupants, showed a slow decline. By the time I arrived to pastor the church down the street, Frank, Thelma, and the house all had seen better days.
Thelma was not there my first Sunday, but she was there my second Sunday. She lingered after the service, and made her now familiar request to the eleventh pastor to hike down the street and attempt to convince her husband to follow Jesus. Dutifully, I went that week, and found Frank to be a fascinating man. He told stories of staying up all night, waiting for the enemy to charge his foxhole with a ‘Banzai’ cry, of catching a thief sneaking around the barns of the eventual winner of the Kentucky Derby, of growing up in the mountains of Kentucky to an impoverished farmer turned coal-miner. We didn’t get to following Jesus that day. Given Frank’s health, I didn’t know how many more chances I would get, so I proposed to return soon.
I made the trip to Frank and Thelma’s a half-a-dozen times, each time looking for me chance to share with him the great story of God’s love. I suppose after listening to all the preachers and guest evangelists, Frank knew how to steer the conversation away from spiritual matters.
Frank took a turn for the worse and Thelma stopped coming to church. Frank had to have someone with him all the time now. Thelma’s world collapsed to size of their tiny lot and her telephone. I visited Frank again, finding him weakened, and this time shared Jesus as plainly as I knew how. Well-worn words came out of Frank’s mouth, “I’ll think about it.” I told him, “Frank, I respect that, but I think you are running out of time.” He grinned at me, and said, “Soon, preacher, I’ll decide soon.
One day my phone rang. It was Thelma. The visiting nurse had been by and said Frank would probably pass away in the next three days. Through her tears, she begged me to come one last time.
When I got there, Frank was in bed, Thelma by his side. I asked her if I could speak to him alone. I said, “Frank, the nurse said you will not be here much longer. Frank, you’re out of time. Do you want to follow Jesus?”
This time was not like all other times. Frank looked at me with old faded blue eyes, and said, “Yes Pastor, I want to follow Jesus.” I invited Frank to pray a prayer telling that to God. In soft tones, he rasped out a prayer confessing his sins and committing his life to Jesus. After he said “Amen” he looked at me and said, “I want to be baptized.”
How do you baptize a bed-bound man? Frank could not leave his bed. My tribe, the Baptists, believe in total immersion. I wasn’t sure how we’d pull that off.
I asked God to give me a pass on total immersion (I sure he did; after all, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans all sprinkle). Thelma came back in the room with a bowl of water. I traced a cross on Frank’s head while reciting these words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Frank’s eyes never left me. He smiled, and said, “Thank you preacher.”
Frank died the next day. According to Thelma, his last words were, “I got baptized, didn’t I honey.”
Doubters will say Frank just wanted to get into heaven. Maybe so. But after thinking about it for so long, Frank finally took his first steps toward Jesus. They were enough. I feel confident that Jesus welcomes even those who wait until the very last minute. I’ll bet on that day Jesus said to Frank, “I’m glad you quit thinking, and you did it.”
Maybe it’s time for you to stop thinking and do something too.