I learned of the death of Tom Shrader in the middle of Chemistry class yesterday. (Yes, I must have taken a peek at facebook on my phone during class. Tsk Tsk.)

Tom was a wonderful pastor and teacher to so many, a father to two amazing women whom I have called friends. I wasn’t close to Tom, hadn’t seen him in years. But my heart felt heavy all day, even as I dealt with the tasks of everyday life: work and worries, picking up kids, making dinner, tucking the kids into bed. I didn’t have time to process it or even talk about it other than a few Facebook posts and texts. Which is why I am now up in the middle of the night doing so.

It was right before Christmas in 2003. I was 29 years old and recently divorced. I had just met this boy on a bike ride. He was refreshing and sweet…but a born-again Christian. I was Jewish. My beliefs may have been fuzzy, but if there was one thing I did not believe in, it was Jesus Christ! And yet…I was so curious.

I pretty much invited myself to church with him. East Valley Bible Church in Gilbert. The pastor, Tom Shrader, was this middle-aged midwestern guy with longish gray hair. He spoke in a no-nonsense tone, and I remember him talking about Jesus in a way I had never heard him talked about. Previously I had believed that Jesus wasn’t “for me,” but Tom Shrader introduced me to the real Jesus and made him accessible. To me and everyone else. He taught me not to be “so open minded my brains fall out.” Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord.

I heard Tom talk about how he had “been saved” and it made me curious. What exactly does it mean to be saved? And could it happen to me? Tom taught me the gospel, the good news that Jesus lived, that he died on the cross and that all I had to do was believe in him and follow him to have eternal life…not a perfect life, not by a long shot. We all had fallen short of the glory of God, but believing in Jesus covered us with his cloak of righteousness.

It was all such a strange and beautiful idea to me at the time. Who could believe this stuff was actually true – Like true, true and not just a fairy tale to be celebrated at Christmas? Ridiculous. And totally unnecessary for me anyway! I was already one of God’s chosen people. Jesus was just a good teacher, a rabbi, a Jew, I had been taught. He never set out to start a religion. Paul did that after he died. He certainly wasn’t God’s actual son any more than I was God’s actual daughter. He wasn’t actually born of a virgin. That’s impossible. He didn’t actually come back alive three days after being brutally put to death by crucifixion. That’s impossible. A Jew can’t believe in Jesus. That’s impossible…

And yet. I went to the library to check out some books on the subject and I ended up checking out a paperback version of The New Testament of the Bible. It had red lettering to show where Jesus was speaking, and a forward by Billy Graham. I read it in secret in my bedroom of the house I shared with my sister. You have to understand, this was blasphemous to be reading this. I might as well have been reading porn.

But I started in Matthew and read Jesus’ words: If you’ve even thought about a woman, you have committed adultery in your heart. Well, I was worse than that… I started feeling hopeless.

But as I kept attending church and hearing Tom’s teaching, I felt the hope of the gospel and that perhaps God actually did mean this for me. Maybe the mistakes I had made, the stupid things I had done, could be forgiven. Maybe Christianity actually was for me, even though I would never stop being Jewish. Tom taught right from the Bible and his teaching helped me make sense of its words. The Bible became alive and vivid for me, even the Old Testament Torah, in a way that it never had felt in Temple.

As we passed the communion plate in church, Tom would say something to the effect that if you were not a believer in Jesus Christ, then you could feel free to just pass the plate along. But you needed to know that in doing so, you were saying no to God’s provision and choosing to do it your own way. How well was that working out for you? He didn’t say that exactly, but his words were like a gentle punch in the gut to me.

On the Monday before Christmas, I was driving home from work on the I-10 freeway west of Phoenix, asking God if this Jesus stuff could really be for me. Could a little Jewish girl from Scottsdale become a Christian? How would I know? And how would I ever break the news to my mom? I was literally talking to God, asking him what I should do. I guess you would call it praying, although in Judaism prayer was a more formal affair.

I looked up out of my reverie and the license plate in front of me said, BLEEV!

Believe. That’s all. OK, I will. I do!

And I wish I could say that I lived happily ever after and rode off into the sunset, but that’s not true. My life of course, has taken many twists and turns since that moment, and thank God, my story is so far from over…

I know that I am just one of so many people whose life was forever changed by Tom Shrader. May he rest in peace, at home with Jesus.

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