Awkward and uncharacteristic silence pressed down and filled the entire house as I took a deep breath, holding on to the old oak doorframe while slowly stepping into his room. I had never before noticed how much the aged wooden floor creaked when one walked across it. That night I did.
Although it was nestled off campus, slightly out of the way and in the thick of an old 1930’s suburban-turned-urban neighborhood sometimes affectionately referred to as the ‘student slums’, the ramshackle rental house was quite welcoming and popular amongst the students – several of whom now hovered or sat in the thick silence. Phil’s other roommates – the inhabitants of the house – found it even more difficult than I did to cross the threshold of his room. It was beyond surreal.
Everything was in order in Phil’s room – just the way he had left it very early that morning. I reached for his Study Bible beside his bed. Pages worn, it seemed to open without any resistance and flopped into my lap – landing on a couple of verses which had obviously been underlined and marked by Phil:
And He said to him, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40
Twenty-two fleeting years. But indescribably full and meaningful years. While impossible to summarize Phil’s life in a couple of sentences, for me these verses perfectly coalesced the impact of his character surrendered to Christ: “Love God completely. Love people thoroughly. Depend on Me as the Fulfillment of each of My Commandments.”
Phil Clarke was a student involved with Cru at Georgia Tech two decades ago. He entered heaven in December 1995 after a hunting accident. But his contagious smile and life have been far from forgotten. In fact, his life has been multiplied many hundreds if not thousands of times. Through his friends and fraternity brothers, he left an indelible impact. Phil shared his faith with many students – I accompanied him at least a couple of times while Phil, in quiet conversation, invited and introduced another college student to life in Jesus Christ. After Phil went to be with Jesus, several believing students, being motivated by Phil’s vision to talk openly about how amazingly good Jesus is, began to share their faith as well.
Before I go further I must give major credit to John Gunter – my friend and former teammate at Georgia Tech. John was a roommate of Phil’s at the time of his death and probably was Phil’s closest friend and spiritual mentor from college years. If you want to read the best synopsis of Phil’s life or the eulogy delivered by John, visit JohnGunter.net. Thanks too for the photos, John.
Why am I remembering all this now?
That day in December 1995 was a somber but defining moment during my first years ministering on campus with Cru at Georgia Tech. Every so often I reflect deeply on Phil’s life. Eternal perspective and great lessons emerge. But what does it mean to me right now…almost 20 years later?
It’s not just so I can force myself to remember a good man. It’s not so I can point validation to the vision/purpose behind the ministry of Cru. And it’s not only that I want to implore you to live a life like Phil – following Jesus according to Matthew 22 by loving God, loving people and depending on Him as the complete fulfillment of the Law. More than all this, what I felt prompted by the Lord to convey through writing about Phil is this:
1) God radically changes people like Phil from the inside out. It is an amazing work of God. And it is the work of God alone. Love for God and care for fellow man to the degree that Phil practiced are not normal behaviors. In fact, these qualities are impossible without…
2) The Holy Spirit. Phil had found the secret to consistently loving God, loving people and depending on Him. It was not and is not a secret power source that does not end with Phil. Romans 8:1-6 describes it as the “life-giving Spirit” Who frees us from constantly failing to do what God’s Law requires and empowers us to please Him in all things, yielding true life and peace. You and I can be filled with love in a unique and exhilarating way through faith in the Holy Spirit to live His Life in the middle of our surrendered lives to Him.
You and I both know many people who walk and live as Phil did. Without Phil’s (and others) contagious joy and sincere desire for others to know the love of Christ, we might not taste and see that the Lord is so good! Phil’s life is a surrendered life. Although I grieved for Phil, my grieving was not without hope – just as Scripture declares…
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” 1 Thessalonians 4:14-14