Tribute to James Tan

Pastor James Y.K. Tan passed away a few days ago after half a century of ministry in Boston. I won’t mention much of his life history here as one can read about it in his book “Grace Upon Grace.” But I was moved by two anecdotes during the funeral service, both shared by Peterson Wong.

The first anecdote was when Peterson first visited Boston Chinese Evangelical Church thirty-some years ago. BCEC was still meeting in the Pine Street Inn, an organization which served homeless men struggling with alcoholism. The place smelled terrible. Each Sunday morning, church members would arrive early to scrub, bleach, and clean the room before the worship service. Peterson recounted when he first arrived at the Pine Street Inn to attend BCEC. HE could see people cleaning and smell bleach in the air. Then a man with a broom noticed him, dropped the broom and walked over to warmly greet him. The man said, “Welcome. I’m the pastor!”

I was inspired and touched by my mental image of a humble pastor. Peterson’s first glimpse of Pastor Tan was with a broom cleaning up after addicts to get the room ready for church. Though I understand in a larger church with many volunteers and staff, today’s senior pastors usually focus on preaching and vision– and so they should– the attitude of such pastors should always be that of Pastor Tan’s humble heart of service. In fact, most people would assume that the person using a broom before church is anybody but the pastor!

The second anecdote was when, years later, Peterson had to fly back from Hong Kong to Boston in order to negotiate some loans. His business faced severe problems, and if he did not get several million dollars in loans, he would face bankruptcy and lose it all. Peterson had just left the bank after negotiations. He was not confident that he would get the loan. He began walking towards Chinatown. On the road he saw Pastor Tan who was walking towards him. They came to meet outside a restaurant and Pastor Tan asked him how he was. Pastor Tan could tell things were bad, so he offered to treat Peterson to a bowl of noodles in the restaurant while they talked. As they sat and talked, Peterson shared about needing money for his business, but didn’t get specific about the amount of money. Pastor Tan told him, “I can do two things for you. First, I have saved up over the years several hundred dollars. I want to give that to you to use for your business. Second, I will fervently pray for you.”

In his recounting, Peterson went on to say that he told Pastor Tan that he didn’t need several hundred dollars, but several million dollars. But that he would appreciate prayer, which is by far the more important thing. Peterson then said, “”Miraculously, several weeks later, the loan was approved…”

This story moves me not because a quaint old pastor naively offered a few hundred dollars to a man who needed millions. It moves me because these several hundred dollars was perhaps all the worldly wealth Pastor Tan possessed, and he was glad to part with it to serve someone else. Echoes of the widow’s small but great offering in the temple.

For me, I’m seeing a model of biblical greatness in Pastor Tan’s life. No matter the role, size, or scope of ministry, Pastor Tan was a servant who sacrificially served others with literally no thought of himself. And during each of these stories, I was moved to tears by the example of this truly great man. May God bring the example of Pastor Tan’s Christ-likeness to my mind when I need encouragement to be the kind of pastor God wants me to be.

May God comfort Pastor Tan’s family, and strengthen the church founded by His servant, Pastor Tan.

Pastor Tan, after your initial meeting with Jesus in heaven, I hope you enjoy meeting my father-in-law. I wish I could be there to watch two great men meet for the first time. Oh, and I’m pretty sure my grandmother would love to meet you too.

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