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Good Friday Meditation: The Virtue of Irrelevance

April 1, 2010

John Alexander, passed into heaven Good Friday, 2001

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant …
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”

Philippians 2:5-8

There are many days I wish I could pick up the phone and share my dilemmas with John Alexander.  Or jump on a plane to go spill my guts to him in a coffee shop in San Francisco.  I came to expect a word into the heart of the matter, even the heart of my soul.

John understood my yearning for success.  He was once the editor of The Other Side magazine, as influential as Sojourners at the time.  Yet he did what I have never heard of anyone else do — give up a major national platform to become part of an obscure Christian community.  That’s why he could reach me like no one ever has.

Here I thought we were supposed to change the world.  “Success with evangelicals is a detail,” John once said. “What counts is being a reconciled community.” John’s re-definition of success, his mantra, alarmed me: “It’s caring for each other, forgiving each other, and washing the dishes.”  If others taught me that reconciliation is as big as tackling America’s race problem, John taught me that reconciliation is never bigger than the nearest person who is most difficult to love.

I especially miss John today, on Good Friday.  On Ash Wednesday nine years ago, John went into the hospital with leukemia.  He died forty days later on Good Friday.

His quirky, whiny voice mattered so very much to me.  His patient bodily presence as we walked and talked, transmitting into my stubborn DNA the strange and powerful logic of the cross, of not grasping, of “making oneself nothing,” of his journey of maturing downward.  I wonder sometimes, amidst continuing struggles over what is really significant and what really isn’t, do I still really believe he was right?  It is such a leap of faith to truly believe.

“John taught me what is enough,” I wrote in Sojourners after he died.  “It is enough to get the love of God into your bones, and to live as if you are forgiven. It is enough to care for each other, to forgive each other, and to wash the dishes. The rest of life, he taught me, was details.”

God can literally use his people to save your life.  I know this because John saved mine.  I don’t know who I would be without him.  John believed in me even in the depths of my greatest sins, my greatest struggles.

In his love, given so generously to me, I do claim this:  Bigger is not better.  On this scandalous day of downward mobility to the seeming irrelevance of a cross, I remember the one who showed me who I want to be when I grow up.  At least I hope so.

Besides, he constantly made me smile.  Here’s how I began the article.  I hope it’s a gift to you on this Holy Friday.

“At 50, John Alexander looked like a relic from the ’60s with his rainbow-colored tie-dye T-shirt. It was 1992. I knew Alexander as a celebrity from the ‘Who’s Who’ of Christian social activists, an author, and a magazine editor. But something was amiss …  Read the rest here.

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. His writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers with Chris Rice.

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