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Good Friday Meditation: Maturing Downward

April 22, 2011

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

The day of crucifixion is not far but near to me in the cross-shaped lives of four friends who matured downward before each departed, too soon, to heaven.

I saw it in the brilliant Lem Tucker, president of Voice of Calvary Ministries in Mississippi, who chose a neglected, troubled zip code in Jackson, Mississippi over a rising “Who’s Who” career.

Spencer Perkins allowed Jesus near enough to his powerful frame and mind to realize that after 43 years of evangelical teaching, he simply didn’t get grace.  I saw the tears roll down as we sang “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and came to the words, “prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the Lord I love, here’s my heart Lord, take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.”

I shared 12 years of Christian community life with Gloria Lotts, whose upbringing was full of disappointments.  Gloria had every reason not to trust me yet loved my children as if they were her own, and enveloped me with a tight hug of forgiveness at one of the lowest moments of my life.

God, how I miss them each today.  Death is real, the loss of each of them still leaves a hole (1987 from lymphoma, 1998 of a heart attack, 2005 of breast and colon cancer).  Yet resurrection is also real, the living power of their witness.

Finally there was John Alexander.  Ten years ago John went into the hospital with leukemia on Ash Wednesday, and died 40 days later on Good Friday.  No one taught me more about maturing downward.  I offer the article I wrote upon John’s departure as a gift to you.

John Alexander

The Virtue of Irrelevance (published in Sojourners Magazine, July/August 2001)

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. Eight years earlier John had disappeared off the national radar screen. Suddenly I ran into him at a conference in his new identity as pastor for an obscure little house church in San Francisco.

Later that year, five members of the Church of the Sojourners community—including John and his wife Judy—drove 40 hours to our Antioch Christian community in Mississippi just to paint the foyer of our house, cook with us, wash dishes, and hang out.

Through many subsequent visits, it gradually dawned on me that John and Judy had been sent to us with a message from God. While my African-American co-worker Spencer Perkins and I told the nation how to do racial reconciliation, we often weren’t reconciled between us. John and Judy had a lot to say about this, and I usually didn’t like it. Most of the blame, they said, was mine. They said I was lost in jealousy and envy of Spencer.

But I also didn’t understand how unimportant it was. “Your failure isn’t even interesting,” John would say. To live in this world was to live in the expectation of sinning and being sinned against. The big deal about Christianity, he said, was whether we understood that we were forgiven. The big deal about the church was creating a culture where we constantly reminded each other of that fact. “Success with evangelicals is a detail,” said John. “What counts is being a reconciled, multi-racial community.” John’s re-definition of success alarmed me: “It’s caring for each other, forgiving each other, and washing the dishes,” he said, especially across the lines of race and class.

I know now why John was able to speak the uncomfortable truth to me with such compassion. He had rocketed upward from a prestigious Oxford scholarship to a spectacular academic career to a prominent national platform. But as John began to internalize weakness, and then grace, he gradually matured downward. As far as success is defined, John had chosen to make himself irrelevant.

At his memorial service in April, I kept waiting for “dignitaries” to show up. Then it dawned on me how drastically John’s investments had changed over his life. He started on top of the world and ended in relative anonymity as an itinerant peacemaker for struggling Christian communities. John’s body lay in a simple pine casket built by the brothers of his church. Etched into the side were the words “It is well with my soul.” The church sisters wrapped him in a quilt made out of patches of John’s clothing—including a piece of his beloved tie-dye T-shirt. As Judy said of his last hours, “Not many people die with so much love around them.”

John taught me what is enough. 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.

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

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gann Herman permalink
    April 22, 2011 3:13 pm

    thanks Chris–John’s life makes me ask myself when will i ‘mature downward’? what does a ‘first step’ look like? who are my personal role models?

  2. Delmarshae Sledge permalink
    April 23, 2011 10:10 am

    Thank you so much Chris! As you may recall, at Richmond Hill we focus on one pillar of our rule during our 6pm prayer office. This week’s rule is humility – Living one’s life in perspective, in a commitment to assess and honor one’s own gifts and those of others. Twice this week the evening prayer leader selected Philippians 2 as the reading for our meditation. So, this third Holy Week encounter with the admonition to have the “mind of Christ” (along with your testimony) is convicting. Living in community is not for the fainthearted or the arrogant. I don’t think I ever told you how much I identified with you as I read about your time in Mississippi and your relationship with Spencer. Getting to the place where one truly honors one’s own gifts and those of others is much easier to say than it is to do. As an Alabama born, Cleveland raised black woman of my generation having as many white male role models as I claim these days must mean that I’m on the way – though I have not arrived. You are one of them. Three of the historians who participated in my training at Pitt are role models too. They are Marcus Rediker, Van Beck Hall, and Seymour Drescher. Last, but certainly not least, my friend and brother Ben Campbell. Why am I feeling convicted? Better get off this computer and get quiet before the Lord.

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