I was standing in the lobby of the Anaheim Hilton Hotel in the late fall of 1989, two years into my graduate studies with Tom. The Hilton was one of the host hotels for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and, boy, did I feel lost. The AAR meeting is a huge affair, with thousands of people in attendance, from well-known professors and authors, to throngs of unrecognized graduate students like me. I, like all of my graduate school peers, was hoping to get a job teaching someday, and to perhaps even write a book. Yet prospects looked dim.

There is a catch 22 in the writing world. Yes, publishers publish books because they want to disseminate important ideas. But they also want to make a profit. And so, apart from a very small group of blessed souls, most published books are written by people who are already well-known. But how can I become well-known if I’m not published?”, I asked myself. Catch 22

So, there I was standing in the Hilton lobby, discouraged by my most recent tour of the huge book hall where publishers on religious topics were grandly shopping their wares. Some of the publishers whose books I had read for years were there: InterVarsity Press, Eerdmans, Baker, and Zondervan. As I walked by the book stalls I spotted well-known authors, identifying them by their name tags. They, too, were browsing the book offerings. Perhaps they had an appointment with an editor to talk about a new project. I was too shy to approach anyone, author or editor. I felt invisible. 

Then, across the lobby, I spotted Ward Gasque, a mentor and professor of mine when I had attended Regent College in the late 80’s. As I walked toward him to say hello,” I noticed that he was talking to David Neff, the Editor in Chief of Christianity Today. I had always wanted to write for CT, but they did not accept unsolicited manuscripts, and why in the world would they want to solicit one from me? 

Ward smiled as I walked up and graciously introduced me to David; David nodded and then continued his conversation with Ward. I still haven’t received that manuscript from Tom Oden. I wonder what’s going on?,” David commented to Ward. He’s supposed to write on his theological and spiritual journey, but we haven’t received anything from him. The article is long overdue.” 

I had news concerning Tom that neither Ward nor David knew about, for Tom had recently had open heart surgery and would be laid up for quite a while. He’s had heart surgery,” I shared. That’s probably why you haven’t heard from him.” 

Our conversation quieted for a moment as Ward and David pondered the news about Tom. For me, it was as though time stopped, like a Tevye moment from Fiddler on the Roof.” On the one hand,” I said to myself, you can simply remain quiet and not embarrass yourself before the Editor in Chief of Christianity Today.On the other hand, you can offer to write the article on Tom’s behalf. The worst that can happen is that David will say no’.”

I decided to offer my services. I think I could write that article,” I calmly said to David. Inside my stomach was doing cartwheels. I remember David looking at me intently. Ward remained quiet. After a moment, David said, Let me think about it. I’ll get back to you.” 

In a few weeks David indeed contacted me and asked me to do the article. Why? He had talked to Tom and Tom had expressed his trust in me and my abilities. Tom had regained much of his strength by the time he talked with David and could have written the article himself. Yet Tom was being Tom: kind and thoughtful. He saw something in me that could be developed, a budding writer of sorts. Through Tom’s willingness to step aside and allow an unknown graduate student to present his life to CT’s audience, my life changed. Doors were to open for other articles, reviews, and books. Perhaps most importantly, though, Tom willingly invited me into his mind, his heart, and his life. What I learned in the process, both in writing this first article for CT and in working with Tom on many projects, has changed me deeply for the good. 

And yes, when I think about this first article and how it came to pass, I sense the loss. Kindness, goodness, and grief, all woven together into the fabric of thankfulness.