Chris Toomey, RIP

Nobody won the game. 

It was long enough ago to still be in the era of the NCAA football tie – when the outcome of a game could still be something other than a win or a loss.  The year was 1993, and the place was Birmingham, Alabama’s Legion Field.  It was the third Saturday in October, which could mean nothing else than a matchup between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Alabama Crimson Tide.  But the 17-17 final score isn’t the story here. 

Nobody likes tie games.

It was my freshman year at Tennessee, and I had never been to an in-person Tennessee/Alabama game.  I don’t remember who exactly planned the trip, but someone worked it out so that Chris Toomey and Matt Morley met Colby Willen and me in Knoxville, and we all road-tripped to Birmingham for the game.  I had secured room and board for the group, courtesy of my grandparents who lived in Birmingham, so the only cost was the price of sleeping on a sidewalk all night in line for tickets, plus gas money ($1.11/gallon avg. in 1993!). 

The four of us had spent our high school years together at Indian Springs Baptist Church, and we knew each other well.  Colby and Matt were a couple years’ older, and Chris and I had been in the same class in school since first grade.  Since ABC Sports was broadcasting the game, and our seats were on the front row of the end zone, we made a sign that said Awrange Beats Crimson in a bid to get on TV.  My grandmother cooked us “pluffs” for breakfast the morning before the game and had cinnamon rolls waiting for us afterward. If I had to make that trip over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. 

Almost 30 years later, both of my grandparents are now with the Lord.  And a week ago, Chris Toomey joined them when he died in his St. Louis home from cardiovascular failure.  Admittedly, this last point is a bit jarring to introduce into this story.  But how could it be anything but jarring?

In the past week, I’ve read countless recollections and memories of Chris from both people I know and people I don’t.  But all of them unfailingly paint a picture of the man I had known for all those years.  Due to geography and our stations in life, we hadn’t talked in quite a few years, but I have no doubt that when we did next we’d be able to pick up right where we left off – the test of an enduring friend.

Much has been said, and as I watched the stream of his memorial service, it was clear that not much had changed.  He was a dear friend to everyone.  He sang in my wedding, but in whose wedding didn’t Chris sing?  In addition to people, he loved fun. Pranks, gags, and general goofiness were endless. I can’t add much more, except to reiterate the impact Chris had on those around him.  He was far from perfect, but I know few who better exemplified Christ.

Chris Toomey
In one of the many gags he pulled in his lifetime. We pulled this photo from the wall of some place and posed with it.

His most lasting impact upon me is undoubtedly in his ability to welcome everyone.  If my memory serves correct, I met him midway through first grade, when he moved to the area.  It was mid-year, and he was a kid even newer in a class where I was a new kid.  The new kid made me feel welcome.

The author of the book of Hebrews said, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2, ESV)  There’s no telling how many angels were entertained by Chris, because he showed hospitality to so many people.  Accomplished as was in nearly every field, he always found a way to make the outsider feel welcome.  As bad as I am today at that virtue, I learned what I have of it from Chris Toomey, in whom the Spirit moved to see even the so-called nobodies as worthy people who were made in the image of God.  I’m forever thankful to Chris for living that virtue so many times right in front of me.

Back to that football game that nobody won.  One thing that did happen was my first appearance on national television.  Tennessee was driving toward our end zone.  We had the ball, and then we failed on 3rd down.  The cameras turned to the Tennessee student section, and if you didn’t blink (I can’t even find it on this replay), you’d see four young men on the front row of the end zone with the very top of a sign that they had draped over the edge.  Three of those young men were looking dejected, frustrated, and angry.  After all, their team had just failed on downs.  But one of them – the red-headed one – saw the camera and was cheering on the Volunteers like we had just scored a touchdown. I hazed Chris about this every time I saw him thereafter.

Nobody won that game.  But Chris Toomey had already won our hearts long before.  May he rest in the peace of his savior.

Tom Fillinger, RIP

“But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Hebrews 3:13

Tom Fillinger was a man marked by urgency. He could have easily been mistaken for a curmudgeon. But if curmudgeons are marked by criticism and inaction, Tom Fillinger was no curmudgeon. Cantankerous for certain, but no curmudgeon.

I first met Tom by reputation. Tales of him from his family were ample, and his influence was made clear in the respect his family had for him. I came to know Tom in the course of his work in helping church leaders to gain a biblical vision of shepherding the flock of God. A retired pastor not content to rest on his laurels, he reached out to me in 2014 to serve on the board of IgniteUs, a ministry he founded to help rekindle leadership in America’s churches.

I remember the first phone call I had with him. His gravely voice was fueled with both frustration and passion at what he saw as a cancerous deficit of leadership in American churches. Tom’s frustration led him not to benign grumbling, but to pointed action. For Tom, hand-wringing was an abuse of the time God has given us. Get moving or get out of the way. In the China shop of American church leadership, Tom Fillinger was a Pamplona bull.

When our own church was suddenly immersed in a leadership crisis, I got to see Tom at work firsthand. He first helped us see that our crisis wasn’t as sudden as we thought, and helped us put the pieces back together in a way that, though difficult, formed a more solid grounding. For a group of elders who were reeling from the trauma of a scandal while still trying to lead a church, Tom’s confident centeredness was a gift from God. He led us though a process that made us better, stronger, and more anchored in the word of God.

Tom’s urgency bled into his prolific correspondence. Oh how I will miss his emails! He sent many ministry updates and prayer requests for things like preaching the gospel at a funeral for someone he didn’t even know — and whose family had no one else to conduct the service. Often he would blind copy me (and who knows how many others?) on correspondence that would be prodding some wayward church leader, urging them to fall back upon the Scriptures.

His final prayer letter — in January — was aptly titled, “Looking Ahead.” After all, that’s where Tom was always pointing us. The last time I preached at our church, little did I know that Tom was watching the stream from his home in Alabama. He sent me a short email that simply said, “Jared, Listened to your message – Well Done.”

Now Tom gets to hear those words for himself as he worships his savior face to face. Well done.

2016 in Places

Yet again, following my yearly tradition, here’s a record of all the cities, towns, hamlets, or dots-on-a-map in which I’ve spent at least one night during 2016. New this year is an asterisk, noting multiple nights in each city. Here this year’s list:

  • Anthem, AZ
  • Chattanooga, TN*
  • Holland, MI*
  • Purlear, NC*
  • Minneapolis, MN
  • Kingsport, TN*
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Washington, DC*
  • Woodbridge, VA*

cf. 2005/1999, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.

2014 in places

Oh yeah, I have a blog! And lately, it’s been one post a year. Resolved to post more than once in 2015. Maybe even more than twice, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Thus, following my yearly tradition, here’s a record of all the cities, towns, hamlets, or dots-on-a-map in which I’ve spent at least one night during 2014:

  • Alcoa, TN
  • Charlotte, NC
  • Chattanooga, TN
  • Dallas,TX
  • Grand Rapids, MI
  • Holland, MI
  • Houston, TX
  • Kingsport, TN
  • McLlean, VA
  • Nashville, TN
  • Pittsburgh, PA
  • Prince William Forest, VA
  • Woodbridge, VA
  • Washington, DC
  • Waynesville, NC

cf. 2005/1999, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013.

2013 in Places

Oops. It’s 2014 already. So, following my yearly tradition, here’s a record of all the cities, towns, hamlets, or dots-on-a-map in which I’ve spent at least one night during 2013:

  • Alexandria, VA
  • Benton, TN
  • Chattanooga, TN
  • Holland, MI
  • Kingsport, TN
  • Stamping Ground, KY
  • Nashville, TN
  • Prince William Forest, VA
  • Solvang, CA
  • Stamping Ground, KY
  • Woodbridge, VA
  • Washington, DC
  • Williamsburg, VA

cf. 2005/1999, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.

2012 in Cities

Following tradition, here’s a record of all the cities, towns, hamlets, or dots-on-a-map in which I’ve spent at least one night this year:

  • Birmingham, AL
  • Charlotte, NC
  • Chattanooga, TN
  • Holland, MI
  • Kingsport, TN
  • Shenandoah National Park, VA
  • Nashville, TN
  • Rodanthe, NC
  • Sylvania, OH
  • Woodbridge, VA
  • Washington, DC

cf. 2005/1999, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011.

3 State 3 Mountain Challenge 2012, Part 3

[Continued from part 1, and part 2]

Lookout Mountain

Lookout Mountain is an icon of the South.  As a kid, en route to see my grandparents in Alabama, we’d circle the hump-backed juggernaut as we passed through Chattanooga.  It’s lore was spread via one of the most innovative advertising campaigns in history — painted barns throughout the South emblazoned with “See Rock City,” a simple message that brought the Lookout Mountain tourist attraction to from obscurity to prominence in the twentieth century.

Lookout Mountain

In the century of our present discussion, however, Lookout Mountain is the mountain in the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge.  The other climbs, while respectable, are merely warm-ups.  Whether you’re at mile 13 or mile 32, mile 82 and Burkhalter Gap Road waits ever-so-patiently for its victims. The ride’s website describes it sparsely:

Lookout is by far the steepest – 2.3 miles at a 8-10% grade with a 18 – 20% grade at the top.

There is a rest station right before the climb.  My family met me here, which was a bit of encouragement, since none of the other riders seemed to be talking about what was before them in great detail.  Only a sense of doggedness was evident, with sparse tips here and there (save weight by not loading two full water bottles, as there’s another food station at the top).  After too long procrastinating the inevitable, I mounted up and turned the corner to Burkhalter Gap Road.

Remember those old photos of the Alaskan Klondike Gold Rush?  You know, the ones with prospectors lined up, single file, slogging up a mountain pass? Minus the snow, the view from the bottom was pretty similar. As I turned the corner and looked uphill, a line of slow-moving cyclists angled upward as far as I could see.  The grade looked manageable as I rolled over the electronic timing mechanism that marked the showcase climb. However, it didn’t take long for my already weary legs to run out of gears.

On my compact gearing setup, 34×26 is as low as it goes. A quarter mile into the ride, I had bottomed out.  The temperature was hovering around 90 degrees, and it became difficult to turn over the pedals even in my lowest gears.

Here’s where I wish I could tell you I fought the good fight and disregarded the burn in my legs and powered up the mountain on guts alone. I wish I could tell you that, but here’s what really happened: About a mile into the climb, I noticed a shady spot on the side of the road. My tumble into temptation began here.  The mirage effect took hold.  It was so hot, and that spot looked oh-so-shady. Just a one minute rest to get my heart rate — already near maximum — settled down.  One minute, no problem.  I paused for about 60 seconds.

The problem was, once I began the ascent again, it didn’t take but about 15 seconds for my heart rate to again max out and for the burning in my legs to ignite anew.  About 1.5 miles into the climb, I paused again. After another quarter mile, I rested yet again. As I encountered several riders walking all the way from the halfway point in the climb, my hopes were fading — this mountain was tough. I have ridden similar climbs before and survived them, but this climb, at this stage in the course — had become a menace.

Just before the last insanely steep 300 meters, the grade levels out a bit — a tease before the mountain eats you alive.  Once I reached the steepest upturn with 250 meters to go, I dismounted, knowing that the grade was too steep here get back on the bike and clip in.  I was done.  I joined the Klondike-like stream of walkers pushing their bikes up the right side of the road.  A fellow rider who walked beside me commented, “I don’t think I could do this hill even if it wasn’t at mile 82.”

To our left, the heroes of the day powered up — all standing, and all zig-zagging up the slope with barely enough momentum to keep their bikes upright. I looked over with admiration at those who summited beneath the red archway with grunts, pains, and gasps.  There was no shame on my part at the time.  After all, I had done all that I could do.  The haunting would come later.

No one lingered long at the rest station atop Burkhalter Gap — there were still 18 miles to go.  At the top of a mountain, one would think they’d be easy miles, but at that stage, nothing was easy.  It’s that point in a monumental effort when quitting is out of the question, but continuing cuts you to the core.

The long, gradual climb up Lula Lake Road was just long enough to be disheartening, when I encountered two twelve year-old boys on the side of the road clapping and yelling encouragement, calling out riders by number (who says there’s no hope for America’s youth?).

When it became apparent that there was nowhere else to climb, the police officer holding traffic shouted enthusiastically to the small, disheveled group of riders I had joined, “It’s all downhill from here, boys.”  Music to my ears.


The 5-mile descent down the scenic Lookout Mountain highway is harrowing.  Fast downhills are tedious enough, but with constant switchbacks with tourists crossing the road, it was no time for a weary cyclist to be groggy.  I “saw Ruby Falls” in the blink of an eye. Make no mistake, it was fun, but I’m often just as relieved (in a different way) to reach the bottom of a mountain as I am the top.


Immediately upon reaching the base of the mountain, I was back in downtown Chattanooga, and the two miles back to the finish at the stadium were largely ceremonial. Just like the rest of the preceding 100 miles, all intersections were manned with cheerful volunteers.  An immense sense of relief came over me as I rolled into the stadium parking lot to the finish line where bounteous refreshment awaited.

A short two hours later I would be asleep after simply just stretching out “for a moment.”  I slept well that night, but it wasn’t long until that last stretch of Burkhalter Gap Road began to haunt my dreams.

As I write this, I’m staring at an event decal on my desk from the 3S3M.  It was given out to finishers of the century course, and reads “I Conquered The Gap, May 5th, 2012.”  However much I actually conquered, I know well that on that day, the Gap conquered me.  I also know that in 2013, Lord willing,  the Gap will be put in its proper place. Stay tuned…

3 State 3 Mountain Challenge 2012, Part 2

[Continued from part 1]

Sand Mountain

Your author, struggling up Sand Mountain, AlabamaThe showers drenched, but didn’t dally. By the time I made the turn onto the rough rural roads of northern Alabama, the rain had ceased and a steamy vapor began to rise from the pavement.  Aside from the bad roads, there was little clue save for a sparse state road marker that I was actually in Alabama, but the Sand Mountain climb soon gave all the verification I needed.

The climb, up what is apparently known as the “goat path,” is wooded with switchbacks and is not too steep, but long enough to make you use your lower gears (the website’s promised “2.5 miles at a 6-7% average grade” is about right).

It was still early enough for the field to still be pretty crowded, and the roads were wet,  it was a  fun climb.  I began to see, however, that my fellow riders were no novices when it came to climbing.  I did my best to make a good show to the top, but having two mountains down and only one to go offered little comfort.  Though still 50 miles away and out of sight, Lookout Mountain’s Burkhalter Gap still loomed large.

Geographically, Sand Mountain seems more like a large plateau.  Once on top, the course went on for miles and endless miles of rollers and flats.  Two rest stations at around 34 and 55 miles broke the monotony a bit, but large stretches of long, straight roads where you could see cyclists for miles both forward and backward nearly made monotony a mountain of its own.

As I pushed through those desolate miles, a couple of guys in a paceline (with powermeters!) took pity upon me and invited me to join in with them. I took a few pulls on front and rotated through for about 15 miles until we joined with a larger group and the pace ramped up.  Too blistering blistering for me, I was dropped, and dogged out the rest of the rolling plateau on my own.

As we neared the descent of Sand Mountain, we crossed into Georgia and began to see some stunning views from the mountaintop into the valley below.  Also coming into view was Lookout Mountain, just across the way, waiting patiently.

Finally, Sand Mountain had come to an end — the only place left to go was down.  The descent was fast and furious, but not fatally so — despite the ominous rescue vehicles parked at couple of the switchbacks. Once at the bottom two roads diverged in a wood.  Would I take the one less traveled on, leading me back to the finish via the 90-mile route?  Or would I turn right with most everyone else and face the suffering that awaited me on the legendary climb up Lookout Mountain?

Continued in Part 3…

3 State 3 Mountain Challenge 2012, Part 1

Given the recent Lance Armstrong and pro cycling doping scandals, I thought it might be worthy to show what the cycling world looks like more often than not — that is, undoped, unpaid, underprepared, and wickedly fun.  What follows is a report (in three parts) from an ride I undertook earlier this year.

One hundred miles in a day

In the opening to the band Alabama’s song “Mountain Music,” an old man wearily groans, “See that mountain over there? One of these days I’m gonna climb that mountain…”  We’re not told why the old man wants to climb the mountain. Perhaps it’s the clichéd “because it’s there” or perhaps he simply needs to get out of the valley. Whatever the reason it is that we scale such heights, there was plenty of mountain climbing available in Chattanooga’s 25th Anniversary 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge on 5 May 2012 — and for me, some left over.

The century bicycle ride wasn’t the first 100- mile trek I had done (I rode the excellent Storming of Thunder Ridge in central Virginia in 2011), but this course certainly put me in my place.  More about that later — for now, let’s start at the beginning.


With around 1500 riders in the race (I think, judging from the finish results), the starting line was pretty crowded. Keep in mind, this is only the third organized ride I’ve ever done, but it was by far the largest group.  The start outside Finley Stadium was well-orchestrated, however, and traffic was managed to keep us all riding smoothly to the first climbs just outside downtown Chattanooga.

Thankfully, most other riders were more experienced than me with pack riding, so it was relatively safe. I did, however, have to make an emergency stop to retrieve a water bottle when I veered onto an outside-lane rumble strip on a descent that sent my much-needed 2nd bottle into the ditch.

Elevation Profile of 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge 2012 from MapMyRide

Aetna Mountain

As you can see from the course profile, it wasn’t long before the roads began going up. The first “real mountain” was a short, gradual climb up the side of Aetna Mountain. I mean no disrespect here, but the only way I could be sure that we were on the mountain was by looking at my odometer — it was that easy a climb. It did have a fun and fast descent where I picked up my maximum speed for the day (42mph) on the long and straight ride down to the water.

Shortly thereafter, we reached Ladd’s Mountain — a smaller but similar climb to Aetna that doesn’t figure into the “3 Mountain” count. Ladd’s seemed to take as much effort as Aetna, and was easily manageable. Upon the descent of Ladd’s Mountain, I reached the first food station at 23 miles, with dark clouds looming overhead. I had learned from my previous century that the first rest station one is not one at which to make a pit stop. The lines were long, so after a quick top-off of my bottles, I was quickly back on the bike, but I was too late — large, heavy drops of water began to fall from the sky.

Continued in part 2…