By Marcelo Tolopilo
I want to take an opportunity to share a story with you that has driven home to me the importance of communicating the Gospel with those who come across our path. I am slowly learning to look beyond my rigid little agenda to discover that God often gives me occasion to share the love of Christ with people He sends my way. Hardly the stuff of headlines, but alas, I am a slow learner.
These divine appointments can transform a mundane moment into an eternal opportunity, a casual conversation into words of life, a “chance” encounter into a defining moment when heaven and hell hang in the balance. We cannot see what is playing out in the heart of people with whom we share the Gospel. Our responsibility is to be faithful to speak the truth and allow the Holy Spirit to accomplish His work. One way or another God will use the words we share, in combination with the testimony of other faithful people, to make an eternal difference.
God is in charge of seating assignments
“Paging Delta passenger Te . . . Tala . . . Topo . . . Topo . . . li . . .to? Please report to the Delta ticket counter.” ‘Who else could that be but me?’ I thought to myself. ‘But what could she possibly want?’ I shot up a quick prayer, “Please Lord, don’t let me get bumped from this flight.” Tired and spent from a long trip, I shuffled to the ticket counter expecting the worst. “Are you Mr. Twe . . . Tlo . . . Poz . . .” “Yes, that’s me.” “Well Mr. Tarpalino . . . is that Italian?” “Depends. If it is, will it help or hurt my chances to board this flight?” Puzzled look. “Uh . . . Mr. Tolophante (I’m always amazed at the letters people find in my name that are not actually there), we’ve sold your seat to another passenger . . . ” Aghast, I cut in to the middle of her sentence, “You’ve soooold my seat?” My pulse began to race. My eyes narrowed. The carotids in my neck swelled with wrath. My face flushed with redness. Spittle readied itself for spastic flight as the lawyer in me instantly mounted a vigorous six point defense outlining my right to fly, but before I could utter another word the young lady offered “Yes, and so we’ve moved you to first class. Is that OK with you?” – blink, blink – stunned silence. “Tolopilo. . . Tolopilo. That’s my name. It’s Polish, and yes, that will be fine. Thank you very much. Have a nice day.” I wiped the foam from the corners of my mouth. “Great!” came the bubbly response, “I would have never guessed that was Polish. Go figure! Have a good flight Mr. Triplelo.”
I really didn’t care what she had called me. I got bumped to first class! It was only an hour and a half to my next destination, but getting to sit in first class was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick – most things are. My old seminary Hebrew professor used to say, “It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick!” whenever something made him happy. He was a genial and happy fellow. He must have had very low expectations. I’m not completely sure what that idiom meant then or now, but I think one says that when one is a happy camper. I was.
I settled into my seat to await preboarding with a goofy satisfied grin on my face and then a thought flashed across the lobes of my tired brain, ‘This is probably a divine appointment.’ I meet some of the most interesting people on planes and because I teach the Bible for a living, the conversation quickly becomes “religious” in nature or it usually doesn’t become anything at all. Once folks find out what I do they are either intrigued and want to know more, or they respond with a polite and distant “Ah! Well, that’s . . . interesting. Very nice. Good for you.” The next words they say to me are, “It was nice meeting you. Have a good stay” as we race for our overhead baggage and file out of the airplane.
I had an inkling that on this occasion God had bumped me up to first class for a reason other than my own comfort. Who would it be this time? A Mormon? A Jehovah’s Witness? A business man? I remember praying, “Lord, whoever it is give me the opportunity and the boldness to present the good news of the Gospel to this person. Prepare their heart Lord and give me courage to say what I need to say.” Sharing my faith with people is a privilege and a blessing but I still get butterflies every time I do it.
An unlikely providential appointment
I took my seat in the first class compartment, 1 A, a bulkhead window and waited for my providential encounter. Before long a tall, older and distinguished looking gentleman sat next to me. He was dressed casually but meticulously. He wore a freshly pressed blue cotton oxford shirt, fashionably faded blue jeans and Topsider deck shoes. With a flare he propped up his feet onto the bulkhead partition, parked his elbows on the armrests, folded his hands under his chin and looked up expectantly at the passengers filing past him. He looked vaguely familiar to me. Many of the boarding passengers met his gaze and engaged him with an enthusiastic smile, followed by a handshake and statements such as, “That was great coach.” “Fabulous talk!” “Enjoyed your presentation.” He relished their offerings and worked the line like an experienced politician. I looked on with interest, the goofy grin still on my face, and during a break from the greeters he turned to me, stuck out his friendly slender hand and with a winsome smile beamed, “What’s your name?”
I shook his hand blurted out my name – I believe correctly – and queried “What’s yours?” “Al McGuire,” came back the reply. My mind raced to match the face with the name “Al McGuire? Al McGuire?” Then suddenly it occurred to me who this man was, “Al McGuire . . . No duh! But this is Al McGuire the Head Coach, men’s Basketball, Marquette University. NCAA champs. College basketball color commentator. Bingo!” I had heard his play-by-play work on several occasions watching NCAA basketball games.
Coach McGuire was a Hall of Fame basketball coach and a gifted commentator. At Marquette University alone his won-loss record was an amazing 295 wins and only 80 losses. He also brought his basketball know-how to the broadcast booth and lifted that profession to a new level. In the sometimes pedantic world of broadcast journalism Coach McGuire filled the airwaves with “McGuireisms” (pithy one liners) that entertained as well as informed. In one incident Al McGuire’s broadcast partner remarked enthusiastically about the loss of weight in an unusually large college basketball player. Apparently this young man had shed fifteen pounds during the post season break. Putting the slim-down in perspective coach McGuire quipped, “That’s like the Queen Mary losing a deck chair!”
Well, here I was sitting next to a celebrity. A confident one at that and shrinking back for a moment I thought, “Lord, are you sure you want me to share the Gospel with this man?” As if the famous, wealthy, and influential needed salvation any less. Funny the things we think when we feel dazzled and intimidated by the glitter and pomp of this world. I didn’t need to hear God’s audible voice answering my prayer. The utter foolishness of my question and emotions struck me with vivid irony. God wanted me to share the good news of salvation in Jesus with a man who desperately needed to hear it. “Lord, give me boldness and an opportunity to speak,” I prayed and waited for God’s timing.
Confidence! Confidence! Confidence!
The parade of passengers over, Mr. McGuire turned his attention to me and seemed eager to engage me in conversation, or at least a monologue. Used to speaking for a living Coach McGuire spent the next forty minutes telling me about himself, his career as a coach, a broadcaster and an after dinner motivational speaker. I learned about the numerous opportunities he received to speak (too many for him to take), the huge fees associated with such speeches, and the challenges of the broadcast booth. This man led an interesting life and oozed confidence from every pore.
As he talked I wondered what I would say when the opportunity to respond presented itself, ‘Yeah, I speak for a living too. I make just enough to put food on the table and my original seat was in coach – in the Hootenanny section reserved for people with straw hats, overalls, bare feet, and corn cob pipes that fit nicely through the gaps in their teeth. We usually bring our own “viddles,” and what’s more they don’t show movies back there; we just entertain ourselves by telling spooky stories about Big Foot and singing songs about grandma’s cornbread muffins. All we need is a banjo, a gallon jug – most planes provide you with spoons for percussion – and we’re set until we pull up to the gate.”
It was obvious this man was used to being in charge and at the center of attention. There was a swagger to his posture. His mannerisms were flamboyant and his speech brimming with confidence. As he continued speaking I kept thinking, “Lord, this man needs You. Give me a chance to tell him who You are.”
Then, during a thoughtful pause, he looked me in the eye and asked, “Now tell me a little bit about yourself. What do you do.” I took the corn cob pipe out of my mouth, adjusted my britches, smiled my goofy grin and began to speak.
A change of tone
I can’t recall exactly how the conversation worked its way to the Gospel, but I do remember it happened rather quickly. I certainly couldn’t impress this man with my fascinating persona, my impressive portfolio, or my worldly stature. I needed to cut to the chase. He needed to hear about the Lord Jesus. As I began to explain the Gospel to him his entire demeanor changed. His features softened, his shoulders drooped. The swagger was gone, replaced by a quiet and vulnerable attention.
I could tell he was listening carefully to my words and occasionally nodded as if he had heard this before. At one point he spoke up softly, his mind absorbed in thought, eyes focused on a memory and said, “You know, I have a friend who believes as you do. A while back he lost his beloved wife to cancer. It was a difficult battle with the disease. She died a hard death and he loved her so much. It pained him beyond words to see her suffer and of course to loose her, and yet through it all he exhibited such strength and grace. He believed the same things you’re telling me and it was his faith that gave him strength in his suffering.”
His friend’s name is John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach from UCLA. The truth I had shared with Coach McGuire he had seen fleshed out in the life of a faithful Christian man. We talked about Coach Wooden’s experience, belief in Jesus and the ramifications of that belief for the balance of the flight. Coach McGuire did not embrace the Lord Jesus during our conversation, but as we readied ourselves to land he quickly commented to me, “You know, I’ve had some medical tests run lately and the doctors say they found something a little suspicious with my blood. They don’t think it’s serious and hopefully we’ll get it resolved fairly soon.”
As quickly as he mentioned this he seemed eager to move on to something else. Within a short time we landed, said our good-byes, and I promised to pray for him and his health. I also challenged him to think about what we had discussed and to consider Coach Wooden’s example. He graciously agreed, we shook hands and went our separate ways.
A destiny sealed
That encounter took place about two years ago. I had not thought of the Coach for some time until I read the title of a newspaper story in late January of this year. The heading read “Al McGuire, Basketball Great Succumbs To Leukemia.” My heart was flooded with sadness and a prayerful hope that he had embraced Jesus as Savior before his life ended.The brief article went on to say that Coach McGuire died quietly at home. His son remarked that his father was a man at peace when he passed away. I hope that his peace was an eternal one with his Creator. I don’t know how Coach McGuire processed the information we discussed, but I have a feeling he was visited by a good friend named John Wooden during his illness. A friend that reiterated the simple and lovely truth that Jesus saves.
What wonderful news to share with a world that is perishing. Good news that the world – in spite of its professed self-sufficiency – must hear and many times longs to hear. I encourage you to look for and seize those providential appointments God graciously sends your way to share words of life with a dying humanity. When you tell them the Gospel news, at that moment what you say will be the most important words they will have ever heard . . . and eternity awaits their decision.