Several years ago, I got one of those phone calls.
You know the kind that freezes time around you as even the greeting is laden with foreshadowing:
How have you been, Steve?
Hey, Ron! What an unexpected surprise!
Well, I’ve got some bad news I thought you would want to know. Tom died…
I blinked and it was the summer of 1980 again. Tom Jenkin’s lanky frame loomed over about 200 young campers. The flickering campfire created shadows that danced and stretched his already impressive stature as he began to talk about a life fully committed to God.
I sat spellbound under the stars on that hillside at Camp Ridgecrest for Boys and contemplated my 16-year-old life and recommitted to follow God more faithfully.
Tom kept in touch over the years, periodically checking on my spiritual development. It came naturally for him as a teacher and coach who had taught in places all over the map from Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Georgia to Oneida Baptist Institute in Kentucky and to New Tribes Missions in the Brazilian jungle.
Tom raised his own support and wrote letters from the rainforest that rivaled Paul’s epistles. He wrote about 110 F heat and 100 percent humidity, swimming with piranhas and snakes in the Amazon, and of God’s love reaching students through soccer and basketball games played on a dirt court.
And he always signed those letters: “3.” Tom felt like overuse had trivialized the phrase “I love you,” and so he wouldn’t say it.
You shouldn’t have to say it. It should be obvious.
Maybe that’s why Paul said, If I speak with the eloquence of an angel, but don’t show love, I’m just a bunch of noise. (1 Corinthians 13:1)
So he used the number “3” instead.
I usually saw Tom about once a year. I never knew when he was going to call me, but in the providence of God — and long before cellphones — I was always in the office when the call came.
And it always worked out for me to pick him up from the train station and go out for a meal. We always had great visits, and he even spoke to my youth groups in Florida and Kentucky.
And when it was time to go, we said I’ll see you later … and then Tom would hold up three fingers, and I would do the same.
My mind snapped back to the present as I hung up the phone. I find it strange that I have been laughing.
News like this normally brings tears, but I can’t help myself. I am smiling with satisfaction because I know that Tom’s life well lived in Christ is also bringing laughter and joy in another place.
I’ll see you later … 3.
Dr. Steve Cothran lives in Newnan and has been a Baptist youth pastor for over 30 years.