At age one-and-a-half, his mother received a telegram announcing that her brother had died in the war’s European theater, and when Thompson was 4, he witnessed his mother covered in blood, her back and neck broken after a collision with a drunk driver. He still tears up when he talks about it.
“I can say, as with all good believers in Yahweh, this is not fair,” Thompson said. “We do not live in a world of fairness.”
That’s a truth that has followed him through each of the seven parishes he’s served in during his 45 years with the United Methodist Church, and it’s one that the former pastor of Waynesville’s First United Methodist Church seeks to explain in his new book, God is not Fair, Thank God! Biblical Paradox in the Life and Worship of the Parish.
“I told my wife, ‘I know our bucket-list has travel, but I’m not going to travel until this is written,’” Thompson said. “I hadn’t written a word when I said that.”
So he set to work, using the first two years of his retirement to cobble together some kind of reconciliation of the good with the unfair. In doing so, he drew upon the Bible stories that have informed his life since he was knee-high and the critical thinking skills he gained as a student at Pfeiffer University and Duke Divinity School.
“All through the Bible, we find that there is a God who is not fair. If you think life is fair you probably haven’t lived long enough, and you certainly haven’t studied history because we have piles and piles of violence, even in the natural world,” Thompson said. “Within it all, running through is a strand in all of these stories that when you begin to connect them all, there is a thing called mercy, a God of mercy.”
The power of paradox
That might seem a contradiction, but the word Thompson prefers is “paradox,” and the Bible is full of them. A non-human God manifested in the human body of Jesus, teachings that the last shall be first, the meek inherit the earth. In his book, Thompson breaks down the series of paradoxes that comprise the Bible and attempts to make sense of them.
As he wrote, he kept the words of physicist Niels Bohr in mind: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.”
So, systematically — an obvious trait of Thompson’s — he takes his best stab at it, peppering theology with tales and anecdotes in 279 pages of conversational prose. In the first 10 chapters, he examines the paradox of the baseline doctrine of God. How can a loving God inspire fear? How can judgment coincide with love? Next, he moves toward the gospel, looking into the coming of Christ and that ultimate paradox of eternal life begotten through the death of God’s son. In the final 10-chapter section, Thompson explores the Holy Spirit and the post-resurrection church, all those conundrums of a faith that is strongest in weakness, of victory that occurs through self-sacrifice.
Thompson still isn’t able, though, to boil his book down into an answer to that age-old question: If God is good, why do bad things happen?
“The Bible doesn’t really have a conclusion to that,” Thompson said, “but if you look at that through the eyes of the Bible, you always come up with the paradox that this God who allows tragedy, this God who allows unfairness, is really a God of mercy. It’s probably best expressed in one line that I picked up in Qoheleth [the book of Ecclesiastes].”
The line? “All rivers run to the sea, and the sea is never full.” Meaning, God’s grace and mercy are unquenchable. Those lines also happen to be the titles of the two-volume memoir of Eli Weisel, the Jewish author, Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor.
“If a man that has experienced that can see the world as a place of hope and the power of love and community, then why shouldn’t I?” Thompson said.
The union of unfairness and mercy
Unfairness and mercy meet, Thompson said, in worship. As you take that hour out of your day to sing hymns and to pray, he said, the bread and wine symbolizing Christ’s body and blood stands up front, symbolizing the ultimate unfairness — the crucifixion of God incarnated for the sins of his creation. And that ultimate unfairness translates into the ultimate mercy: forgiveness.
And that, in turn, translates into a calling to do more than sit around and wait for heaven to come.
“The entire goal of the Christian life is not just to get to heaven,” Thompson said. “That’s the dessert on the cake. But the cake is transforming the earth, and that’s what I want to be involved in.”
Throughout his life, he has been. Back during his tenure in the Waynesville parish, Thompson was on the board of REACH of Haywood County, a shelter for victims of domestic abuse, and he spearheaded the revitalization of Haywood Christian Ministries, a nonprofit that helps people in crisis make ends meet.
At that time, Haywood Christian Ministries existed only on paper. Thompson and a group of community leaders got together and decided to hire a director.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘We don’t have a bit of money,’” Thompson recalled. “I said, ‘Money follows mission. We will.’ And we did.”
Knowing the unfairness and hurt that pervades the world, Thompson has long held it as a personal mission to bring God’s mercy to the places where hurt gathers. After his retirement, he moved back to Waynesville from his then-home in Greensboro — for the arts, the culture and the people, but also for the opportunity to minister.
“It’s a good place to practice what you preach,” he said. “There are a lot of poor people in this county, the division between the very rich and the very poor with a strong middle class.”
As a retired pastor, he’s focused his current ministry efforts on the children, teaching the 3rd grade Sunday school class. Even that, though, has branched into personal efforts to share mercy with families in need.
“One week a family came by and asked for money, and the pastor said, ‘We can help you, but look, we expect you to come to the church. You don’t have to, but we think it would be good if we did,” he said, laughing that they didn’t know what they were getting into when they enrolled their little girl in his class. “She hardly ever missed for the next several years.”
Now, the family is involved in Circles of Hope, a program that puts people in poverty in the leadership role as they collaborate with more financially secure peers to learn how to manage money toward prosperity.
Guided toward hope
The ultimate goal of Thompson’s book, though, is not to guide people toward financial wealth. Rather, it’s to guide churches toward hope and a renewed sense of purpose in carrying out the paradoxical message of the gospel on earth.
“All these churches, they’ve been declining in numbers,” Thompson said, “and many of the laity are feeling very discouraged. They’ve given it their best shot, and what’s happened? Many clergy have looked back over their career and said, ‘Is it worth it?’”
Through the pages of God is not Fair, Thompson hopes to drive home the point that success is not about numbers. Rather, it’s about how well the church delivers the mercy of God to the earth. For an example of what, exactly, that means, Thompson points to a denomination well outside his own: the Amish.
In October 2006, a gunman entered an Amish school in Pennsylvania, shooting 10 girls and killing five. It’s a tragedy that has played out too many times over the past few decades, but the response of the community was anything but typical. The parents of the dead children went to the home of the shooter’s wife, and they offered grace, forgiveness and a consistent, loving petition to continue living in the community.
“I wrote in my journal that day when I read that, that if the world can understand the meaning of what they just did and follow even a modicum of that,” Thompson said, “that little Amish community in Pennsylvania just saved the world.”
When mercy shines through tragedy, it is at its most beautiful. To illustrate his point, Thompson points to Psalm 22, which begins with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” a question that Jesus repeated centuries later as he was dying on the cross.
“You know how that psalm ends? In a prayer of thanksgiving,” Thompson said. “Even though I don’t understand, God is going to do something great, ultimately.”
But that doesn’t mean that, even 45 years of ministry and one published book later, all the questions are answered.
“I’ll go into heaven with my hand up,” Thompson said, miming the gesture he plans to make in the afterlife. “Got a question, got a question.”
First, though, he and his wife Pat are planning to cross some post-book items off their bucket list. They’re starting with a summer trip to England to tour the heritage sites of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church. Thompson’s looking forward to it, but he’s far from ready to put a period on his ministry.
“When I get up in the morning,” he said, “I ask ‘How can I serve Christ?’”
Give it a read
Thompson's book, God is not Fair, Thank God! Biblical Paradox in the Life and Worship of the Parish is on sale locally at Blue Ridge Bookstore and Lake Junaluska Coffee Shop and Bookstore, as well as directly from the author, who may be contacted at 828.246.9187.