He was no action hero, but he played a pivotal supporting role in my story. When the final credits roll on Andy Butcher: The Life (I’m hoping for an extended cut), Tom Bourne will be listed as Smiling Man With The Flappy Pants.
I had remembered him recently when going through some old photos: there he was three decades ago, smiling in a creased print, his eyes crinkling behind thick glasses, wispy hair flying away in the breeze.
He was wearing the same slightly crumpled tweed jacket he always seemed to have on and, if the picture hadn’t been cropped at the waist, there would have been his trousers flapping unfashionably a few inches above his ankles.
These days it might be considered thrift-store chic; back then it just seemed slightly comical, to me. When he raised his arms out to his sides in welcome, he looked a little bit like a well-fed and unsuitably happy scarecrow.
I met him when I arrived at my new flat in Rotton Park, one of Birmingham’s rather less salubrious neighborhoods. I thought it had been well-named but poorly spelled. Rotton Park abutted the more tony enclave of Edgbaston, but we were the antacid chalk to their nice glass of red wine and cheese.
Prostitutes would sit on the low wall in front of my ground-floor rooms, causing some awkwardness when I’d arrive home from a late shift on the newspaper, at around 2 a.m., and they’d momentarily mistake me for a customer.
It was a Sunday morning, and I was wrangling stuff out of the back of the car, taking it into my new place, when Tom passed by. He said hello, beamed, and welcomed me to the neighborhood. He told me that he was going to the church round the corner, and would I like to join him? No thanks. He could get some friends to help with the stuff, so I’d have time? Thanks, but no. Well, cheerio, come and see us some time.
Harmless, but to be avoided, I decided. Until a few weeks later when life started to fall apart, and I felt a tug back to the faith from which I had drifted. Tom was there to welcome me at the church round the corner, and tell me how glad he was I had come.
Through the next eighteen months, before I moved away, Tom was there to welcome me as I took my faltering first steps of renewed faith, always with a smile and open arms of welcome. I learned that he always stopped to invite people to church on his way over from his home a few streets away. Once a week he went down to the busy main street nearby, to extend a similar invitation to passers-by. He was unabashed by their indifference or rudeness, unashamed in his unflappable love for Jesus.
As I remembered Tom, and the impact he had on my life through a simple moment, I thought of how often I rush through life without even stopping to consider the people around me, much less extend an invitation. So often they are just extras in my big scene, maybe earning a bit of screen time if they help me look good, but too often ending up on the cutting-room floor if they irritate or inconvenience.
How different might things be if, instead of presuming on the starring part, I tried living as an extra in other people’s lives? What small but important role might God have for me to play?
I don’t know much about heaven, but I suspect Peter will not be holding a clipboard at the front gate, checking credentials. If he is, I know that Tom will be standing slightly behind him, arms extended to the side in welcome.
His white robe will probably be flapping above his ankles. There will be a long line of people waiting to get to him. When I do, he’ll smile and say he’s so glad I’ve come. And I’ll tell him, “Thank you, Tom. It’s good to be here.”
Originally published as The Bourne legacy: life as God’s extra, April 18, 2013.