Life is all about grace. No one is entitled to his or her first breath or next breath. Each breath is a gift from God, according to North Cleveland Baptist Church Pastor Jay McCluskey.
“I really believe the best way to project your life is to say it’s all about grace. Grace is God’s goodness and kindness to us that we don’t earn, merit or deserve,” he said during a recent interview. “Everyone is a recipient of grace.”
People try to eliminate aches and pains, they would like to have more money in the bank, drive nicer cars or rid themselves of some of the negatives in life, “but if we think about the positive things, it really is all about grace.”
The wise way to relate to others, he said, is to make the effort to be a kind person and show grace to others, even if they do not return it. McCluskey adopted that line of thinking while shaping up his theology during his college years.
“Our basis for forgiveness and our promise of eternity in heaven is all by grace. It is a gift.” By understanding all that God does for us is a gift, “it wasn’t too much of a journey to understand that’s how you should treat other people.”
McCluskey, 53, was born in 1960 to the Rev. James and Elizabeth McCluskey in Knoxville, where he was raised. In 1959, his father began his work at Wallace Memorial Baptist Church, serving there for 37 years until he retired in 1996.
“Staying at a church for pretty much your whole vocational career is the model he gave, and it is the same kind of thing I’m enjoying by getting to know people and seeing their children and their children’s children come along — it’s a great illustration of a good way to do pastoral ministry,” he said. “It’s God’s work and calling, of course, but it is a special blessing when you get to stay.”
McCluskey is happy he could provide the same stable experience for his two sons, John and James, that his father provided for him. He is also thankful for his wife, Michelle, a nurse practitioner who works in Rhea County. The two met at Carson-Newman College where he first felt God calling him to some form of ministry.
“I wasn’t sure what it was at the time, but He had something for me so I moved in that direction,” McCluskey said.
The young, green and wet-behind-the-ears minister began getting a few opportunities to preach by filling in for other pastors. After graduation, he worked a year doing orderly work at Baptist Hospital in Knoxville while Michelle finished her degree.
“In May 1983, we were married and in August we loaded up everything we had into one car and a U-Haul trailer, and moved to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Those were the only three years of my life when I haven’t lived in East Tennessee,” he said.
During that time, he had his first part-time pastorate at a small-town church in Indiana.
“I’ve always said the greatest contribution that little churches like that make to the Kingdom of God is probably just letting young preachers learn how to preach,” he said. “I finished up my masters in divinity and that’s part of the story that brought me to Cleveland.”
He graduated from seminary school in May 1986 and one week later, he and Michelle’s first son, John, was born. At that same time, North Cleveland had an interim pastor who knew the elder McCluskey and had other roots and ties in Knoxville.
“Doyle Suits vouched for me. I really don’t think this church would have looked at a guy with no experience at that time,” McCluskey said. “But in one of those great acts of faith, they took in a young pastor.”
James was born two years after their arrival in Cleveland. He is now a teacher at Ocoee Middle School and is engaged to Megan Valadez, a member of North Cleveland. John is a graduate of Lee University who is working on a doctorate in musicology at the University of Kentucky. He and the former Julie Gibson have been married two years. She is the daughter of First Baptist Church co-pastor Jim and Mary Beth Gibson.
“We’ve been blessed with two boys who are married or marrying good girls by the grace of God,” he said.
McCluskey said the people in church are on the frontlines of ministry. They leave the church building on Sunday morning and show grace in their neighborhoods, schools and workplaces, because every Christian is a minister.
“We are all ambassadors of Christ wherever we may be,” he said. “The Jesus I love and read about in the Gospel was out there in the marketplace. He was out there in the community being a voice and showing grace,” McCluskey said. “I think that’s a good way, not just for pastors to be, but that’s part of God’s plan for everybody, for all Christians. Jesus said we are salt and light. There is a lot around us in this world that’s in darkness, so let’s go shine a light.”
He said people get into trouble when they compare their lives with the lives of others.
“But if we would take inventory of our own lives, I would say everyone would say God has been good to me,” he said.