Most of the good people I know lead quiet, even obscure lives. Few will ever see their names in a newspaper or highlighted more than in a wedding announcement. But that doesn’t make their purpose less relevant in God’s plan and kingdom than the most well-known evangelist or Church leader. I lost such a close friend this week.
Tom Murphy was born in Detroit and rarely journeyed much beyond the Metro area. He went to a Catholic parochial school in a Detroit parish which he faithfully continued to support through his finances, time and talent for the next 70 plus years, long after he’d moved to the suburbs. As far as I know, his only trip outside of North America was to the 38th parallel of Korea; for he had joined the Marine Corps reserves at the beginning of his senior year and the war began a few months later. Instead of graduating, he spent his 18th birthday on a troop train to Camp Pendleton. Even as a marine, Tom didn’t perform acts of great valor – and the assignment to his specific armored battalion was made solely on the basis that his last named began with an “M.” Yet in this “luck of the draw” Tom discovered God’s grace and shield in a way that guided the rest of his life. On one quiet day Tom asked for leave to drive a jeep and visit a friend in another unit. When he returned seven hours later he discovered that his unit had been bombarded by North Korean artillery and decimated badly. He saw that as a sign that God had preserved his life for a greater purpose.
After the war Tom returned to his home, got a job and completed high school at night. At 26 he married Sylvia and settled into a life of raising a family and helping others. Helping others wasn’t something he had to think about – it was second nature to him. He and Sylvia had two children of their own; but when Sylvia’s brother and his wife ran into life’s challenges, they took under their roof their three boys and raised them as their own. When his sister became ill he took on responsibility for her care (something that continued for decades), visiting her every week, taking her to all her doctor appointments and in and out of hospitals. He helped his own children and grandchildren through various family and economic issues and when Sylvia’s parents got frail he took care of them as well. In the midst of all of this Tom served on his local Parish council for more than fifty years and as a leader of the St. Athanasius charismatic prayer group for thirty years. Whenever we were at their home I could always count on them receiving at least a couple calls for prayer or counseling or encouragement – and no one considered these calls an interruption. It wasn’t unusual for an old friend to ask Tom to drive them to the VA hospital and spend the day with them; or even, if necessary to the Cleveland Clinic. Tom even maintained a workshop in his basement where he rebuilt old bicycles and gave them to some outreaches that cared for the needy and to men that simply couldn’t drive for a time because they’d had their driver’s licenses suspended.
Our lives and our families’ have been entwined for the past 40 years, and still are through our children and grandchildren. Tom and I met through our wives. Sandy and I got married in St. Athanasius parish. Sandy and Sylvia became best of friends as a former Pentecostal and a former Baptist met weekly with other women rolling bandages for the lepers ministered to by Mother Teresa in India. When our daughter was born Sandy decided to be baptized in the Catholic Church at the same time as her first-born was christened. She asked Sylvia to be her God-mother.
Over the years we’d get together often as couples for dinner and as families for important events like birthdays, graduations, christenings and confirmations. But Tom’s and my relationship really began to mesh in the early 80’s. By that time Sandy and Sylvia had both become involved in the Catholic charismatic community. Sandy and two others in the parish petitioned the pastor to form the Joy of Jesus prayer group at St. A’s – something I was less than enthused about – and often vocalized my opposition, and stayed away. I guess in spite of 3 decades of religious indoctrination, I was still spiritually immature.
That all changed in July of 1982. Tom and I were both going through some serious physical problems and our wives dragged us kicking to a Full Gospel Businessman’s Fellowship meeting where a Christian couple involved in the healing ministry were speaking. At that meeting Tom and I each left that meeting miraculously cured of our infirmities, and the experience changed my heart as well. Shortly after that Tom and Sylvia assumed co-leadership roles in the St. A’s charismatic prayer group, roles they maintained until Sylvia’s death six years ago. I likewise got very involved in serving God, through full Gospel ministry and praying for people for physical, emotional and spiritual healing.
When we had our 25th anniversary, it was Sylvia and Tom who performed the renewal of our vows of marriage. When Sandy’s younger brother passed away it was Sylvia’s words and prayers that provided her the most comfort; and a little over a year ago Tom asked me to perform the funeral for one of his nephews who died well before his time. We’ve had the privilege to pray for each other and at times to witness God’s miraculous intervention in our lives.
For this reason, throughout this latest trial I truly believed God was going to bring him out of it again – for Tom had so much more to offer. Each time I prayed with Tom over the last year as he struggled with his cancer treatments, and even last Monday, I reminded him of the promises of Psalm 91. For that Psalm begins with the words, “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High, shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in Him I will trust.” For that describes Tom as much as any Christian man I’ve ever known. That Psalm ends with a promise of long life – and though I think Tom had much more to offer the Christian community he served, he indeed did have a long and blessed life as others who know him much better than myself can attest to.
Over the years I’ve met many of Tom’s childhood friends. I find it interesting that men with such similar roots could end up with such varying attitudes about God and church and humanity and their purpose in life. While others questioned God and the church’s love and compassion as they faced life’s many challenges, Tom held firm to his faith in God’s promise to never leave him nor forsake him. Tom, in his simple and quiet way, affected for the better and for the Kingdom thousands of people in his lifetime. And because he was so low-key about the good that he was performing in several distinct pockets of people, most were unaware of what he was doing in other pockets. It was only when all got together on the occasion of his memorial that each was able to see the larger picture of the impact one man could make in this world.
But God knew and foresaw this that day in Korea that He led Tom away from a situation that might have otherwise interfered in His plan for Tom’s life. I’ll truly miss my friend, a prayer warrior and my Saturday breakfast companion and my bocce ball partner. And I look forward to the day I re-unite with him in the Kingdom of God.