At three o clock the sky turns black as night. The wind does things it's never done before. Guests huddle near the TV in the corner of the hotel lobby. "Hailstones the size of baseballs," the man says. "Eight hundred lightning strikes an hour. Worst storm Atlanta's ever seen."
I look up and coming in the door is a man I met on the shuttle from the airport. He looks a little damp and rumpled, but he and his buddy are laughing like they just pulled something off. They're trailing golf clubs and their triumph.
"We played through," he says, this human lightning rod. "We played through."
"There's a golf term for that," one of the weather watchers ventures. "I believe it's: Insane."
The tornado golfers laugh and go off to get dry.
I'm here for a convention. These guys are here for golf. When I met Thomas on the shuttle, we were fast friends. He saw to that.
Within five minutes he knew not just my jetlagged muddle, but my young son's golf handicap, and main rules for the game of baseball I'd invented for long car trips (A road sign is a strike, McDonald's arches get a player to first base, four motorcycles in a row and you're safe on second, and a short, naked priest hitchhiking gives you a grand slam.) By the time I reached the hotel, I felt not just noticed, but known and thought quite well of.
Over the next few days our paths would cross in the lobby as he headed to the links and I to yet another seminar. And every time I felt like I was his friend -- his laughter hearty at my feeble jokes, his interest in my meeting genuine. I liked him. More than that: I felt liked. Not in any calculating way. It didn't feel like anybody was about to fall in love or sell me anything. It was just that in this crowd of strangers, a thousand turbulent miles from home, I had a friend in the hotel.
The last night of our stay, we chatted for a long time, and finally got around to "What do you do?" -- that stock-in-trade first question any good American usually gets around to in the first five minutes of conversation. "Well, I do music," he said. "For a living?" I asked. "Umm," he said. And then almost sheepishly, almost as though a bit embarrassed, he said, "My buddy Milan and I, we're, uh, Commodores."
Commodores? The Commodores? As in 45 million record sales? As in the number five group when the Beatles were number one in People magazine's choice for "The top 10 music groups the world wants to hear again?"
Yep. Same ones.
And Jesus tapped me on the shoulder and the Holy Spirit whispered in my ear: There's your answer, girl.
For months, if not longer, I had been actively struggling with questions about sharing the Gospel -- proclaiming it on street corners versus living it out. Do you lead with the message or the life? Which when? What balance? How do you decide?
And Thomas McClary - living out his love for Jesus -- had just given me a free demonstration. If he had climbed aboard the airport van, plopped down his golf clubs, and said, "Hi, I m a Commodore," I never would have chatted. I would have moved away, mentally and emotionally, feeling a nice little bit of awe maybe, but not much in the way of relationship. (I might as well admit it. I don t like famous people. They make me nervous.) But let this man live out the love of Christ in smiles and silly jokes and random greetings even when he's just returned from 18 holes of soggy golf, and then let him say, "I'm a Commodore," and my reaction s in another galaxy. It s not: "Oh dear, a famous person." It's: "Well, whataya know? My buddy Thomas is big time."
And if we say, "Hello, I'm a born-again believer," the Commodore-I'm-famous wall goes up. The difference is defined, the line drawn in the sand, from the first word. "He's in, I'm out. (Or so he thinks.) He thinks he's got all the answers for my life and he just said hello. Excuse me, Pardon me, Nice meeting you."
But if we love (because He first loved us, and because every day we live the idea knocks us over), if we love in giving up our seat, in lifting suitcases, in laughing out loud and in crying tears with people we believe have nothing -- not a thing -- to offer in return, if we pour ourselves out in friendship when it would be oh so much more comfortable to sit and read, if we love for four days (or four decades) without stopping, and then we say, sheepishly or any other way there is: "I'm, uh, a child of the King," we've laid the sure foundation for the: "Well whata ya know? My friend here's got connections."
But this is not the gospel according to Thomas McClary. Look at the life of Jesus. He wrapped up the Gospel in whatever came to hand, packaged it in love in every shape and color of container. He didn't sit down at the wedding, shake hands all around, and say, "Hello, I'm here to save you." He fermented His love into wine. He poured it into goblets, just to help save face for the father of bride. (Think about how long the wine steward puzzled over that one.)
He spread somebody's coat out on the grass and put the gospel into 5000 fish sandwiches, and just in case one person missed the point, he folded it into 4000 more, the excess basketsful, in witness to His love's profusion.
Jesus said to his disciples, "Their hearts aren't ready to hear it. I hide the truth in parables, and spell it out for you when we're alone." The axiom for writers is "Show, don't tell," but Jesus said it first: "Love God with your everything; love your neighbor as yourself. Do. Be. I'll tell you when to talk."
He put the gospel into mended limbs and sighted eyes and resurrections, into parables and puzzles, into miracles and fervent diatribes. His majesty said, "I'm walking on the water"; His love told Peter, "You can too." He put the gospel into inclusivity -- that word we run from every day. He came to save the world. It's hard to think who gets left out of that group. And may we fall down before Him on our faces every time we leave somebody out.
I am not suggesting here that we don't put the Gospel into words and speak them loud and plain to everyone who needs to hear. I am suggesting that we treat this Gospel like the treasure that it is, that we carry it around in lives that are consumed by love for God, in blown-away astonishment of His love for us. And I am suggesting that, no matter what our shyness or embarrassment, that it is easier for us to say, "Hi, I m a Christian," than it is to live the Gospel out in Love, in service that begins the conversation, in friendship and work and sacrifice, the mediums that are the message. Because the message is love. That's it. That's the whole deal. We need to get up every morning and get down on our knees and pray the dust away, clear all the debris of doctrine and interpretations and understanding, and let our hearts see: "Jesus loves me. I love Him." Get a ballpoint pen and write it on your palm.
How do we spread the Gospel then?
Well, how do we spread S.A.R.S.? It's by contagion. If we are infected, we are contagious. We only have to be in contact and it spreads.
When we are infected with the love of Jesus, when we are knocked out by love of Him, the Gospel's message is on its way.
"So what do you do when you re not being kind to strangers in the Atlanta airport?" I ask this man, this Commodore, Thomas McClary. My friend.
And he smiles. "I love my wife and seven kids. And, I write music Jesus takes to hospitals and deathbeds, to cancer wards and wedding celebrations and silver anniversary parties, and to people listening to the radio late at night when they re feeling all alone. When they think no Jesus cares."
His eyes light up as he continues, "Oh, and I go with my church, New Destiny, and we hang out in the city, in the slums, and we wash windows and sweep sidewalks, and plant flowers God just made this morning. And we cut hair and we give shaves and we buy groceries. For the legal stuff we bring in lawyers, and doctors for the sick, and dentists for the toothaches.
"So I do music. I help people out," Thomas says, "but that s sorta my sideline. Mostly, I love Him."
Linda McCullough Moore is a freelance writer and associate member of EPA.