The Testimony of Rev. Tom Shirk
I grew up in the Methodist Church in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950’s and 60’s. During those years, I was baptized, took confirmation classes, and made a profession of faith at the age of nine in 1955. I have only a few faint memories from my early childhood; in fact, I can only tell you the date of my profession of faith because I still have the Bible that was presented to me by Rev. Weston, the pastor of Windsor Methodist Church. Although I can’t recall any details about my profession, I do have a vivid memory of when Christ moved from an academic reality to a personal reality. That incident took place while I was participating in a mission trip in the summer of 1963.
Our youth group spent several days repairing apartments in a tenement district of Chicago. At the end of our visit, we organized a sandlot softball game with the youth who lived in the project. It was just a bunch of kids and our youth leaders, so we served as our own umpires. There was a moment during that game that I can still see in my mind’s eye: a “bad” pitch was called a strike on one of our players. Brian raised his bat in a comical manner towards the umpire. He was mimicking a clown trying unsuccessfully to walk in huge shoes. We were all laughing and didn’t think anything about it until we boarded the bus to go home.
Our youth group received a severe reprimand about the danger that Brian had put us in. It turns out those kids that we played ball with were all members of a Chicago street gang, and many of them probably had weapons. The lecture continued, but it faded out for me as I thought about what had happened. Those teens were being portrayed to us as evil, kids who, if provoked, wouldn’t hesitate to harm us. I had no doubt that they certainly led rough lives, but we had just spent the last several days working with them, getting to know them, and playing softball with them. I couldn’t help but think that we were more alike that we were different.
Then it struck me that we had been brought together for the purpose of teaching me that we are all sinners in this world. I thought about my life. In many ways, it was a “Father Knows Best” life. I had been raised in the church by two loving parents. Three siblings and dog completed the family. Mom was a stay-at-home mom, and dad was a professional engineer. I went to school in an upscale Midwest neighborhood, where drugs were almost unknown, and where strong family values were the norm.
Unlike those teens we had worked with this week, I had never carried a weapon. I had never even had the desire to really hurt someone. I had professed my faith at an early age, and because of that, I had considered myself a better person than those street kids. Those feelings were reinforced when we were told before the trip started that the kids were street kids, and to be careful with our actions. But now, as I looked back on those last few days, I realized that I never experienced any feelings of fear while we were working and playing together. It certainly had been the protective work of Jesus Christ!
But it was at this point that I suddenly saw the ugly truth: I was no different than them. In the face of a Holy God, I was just as evil as they were. The problem was, I had been comparing myself to those gang members, and feeling good. Now I was comparing myself to Christ and feeling bad. I had accepted Christ as my savior when I was nine years old, but coming from an idyllic family situation, I had felt like I had nothing to repent from. Oh sure, I had gotten angry at my siblings, and even my parents from time to time, but that was about the extent of it.
Now I realized that repenting is not a change of life style, but a change of mind. And more importantly, I realized that I still had a mindset that I was better than some people. Of course, there are all sorts of criteria we rank people on, but those are all worldly criteria. So I asked Jesus to give me a true spirit of humility. There was no flash of lightning; no sudden feeling of being overcome by the grace of God. In fact, it would be twenty-five years before I realized that my desires had been manifested in my actions. What transpired during that quarter century?
After graduating from Iowa State University, I moved to South Carolina, where I sought to share the goodness of the Lord first by teaching Sunday school part time for over 20 years. I also partnered with my wife of 38 years, Louise, in the raising of my two daughters with a firm foundation in the Church. During all of those years, the Lord was always my source of guidance and strength.
Then things changed in 2003 when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My thought at the time was that maybe God didn’t want me teaching Sunday school, because I didn’t have any formal theological training. So after a good prognosis for recovery, I enrolled part time in seminary (I took classes at CIU in Columbia and RTS in in Charlotte).
I started seminary with the idea of becoming a better teacher. But the experiences and knowledge I have gained while studying God’s word have excited me to the point that I knew I had to do more than just teach. God confirmed my theory when shortly after graduation in December of 2013, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given at most 18 months to live. But the first night after surgery to remove part of my pancreas, Jesus visited me in the hospital. Without a doubt, I physically felt him touch me and I knew I was healed. I got confirmation of that when, ten days later, the final pathology report showed that the type of cancer had changed to a less aggressive type. That was five years ago, and I am still in good health. I have preached at 14 different churches, and I truly love the church I am currently preaching in, Rocky Springs Baptist in rural Aiken county.
I will continue to share my excitement of God’s word as found in the scriptures as long as Christ allows me to do so.