A few days ago Elaine and I received from Sydney, Australia one of those dreaded, urgent phone messages. When we finally connected by Skype, our long-time friend John Hirt (pictured above) conveyed to us the surprising and depressing news of his diagnosis of late stage prostate cancer. “I’d prefer not to do video from my end,” he said haltingly, “I’m a bit of a mess.”
John is one of my oldest friends and mentors. I met him in late 1975, in the living room of Jim and Carol Rowley’s place in Berkeley, CA, part of the newly-formed Berkeley Christian Coalition. (That old shingled home, graced by a cluster of redwood trees fronting Grove St—long before it was renamed MLK Blvd—would eventually become my “incubator” as I transitioned into community with Jim, Carol and others later the next year.) The evening meeting was a house church gathering, and someone had told me I should go check out the visiting preacher who was passing through on his way from Europe back to Australia. I was just shy of 21.
It’s not too many sermons one can recall vividly (including one’s own). This was one. John, fresh from studies with New Testament theologians Athol Gill in Australia and Thorwald Lorenzen in Switzerland, presented to us that night a vision of “radical discipleship.” It was the first time I’d heard the phrase, but it instantly became the flag under which I would march—and remains so to this day.
“Hirty” was a brash young Baptist preacher already notorious in Australia for his street evangelism, public witness and alternative Christian community-building—and just as interesting to me, he was a fellow surfer. I remember clearly that he preached from 1 Kings 19:19-21 and Matthew 8:19-22. John contrasted Elijah’s call of Elisha with Jesus’ summons to discipleship. Though the former narrative presents two of the greatest prophets of Israel, the gospel midrash asserts Jesus’ uncompromising, over-the-horizon call to follow the Way—no excuses, no delays, no equivocation. In this radical demand was an end to religion-as-usual, and it was the Kool-Aid I’d been longing for since I’d decided (with some ambivalence) to try the “Christian thing” at age eighteen. This spark lit a fire in my belly that was stoked in quick succession over the following months by the likes of Ladon Sheats, Daniel Berrigan and finally folks at Jonah House. That night, John opened the door, I walked through it, and nothing was the same thereafter.
For that, I owe John nothing less than my life-in-Christ. He, and the indefatigable Carol Rowley (who became his partner) and their three wonderful offspring Sierra, Sydney and Jonathan, have been a faithful part of my journey all along the way, for almost four decades now. They have all done remarkable things since those days in Berkeley–but that is for another post.
Preachers typically use each other’s best stuff, sometimes shamelessly; after all, the gospel is public domain, and that’s how the good news has always gotten passed on through place and time. But John’s sermon that night was so significant to me that I’ve chosen since never to preach or write on those texts. It’s sacred ground for me.
In light of this news about John’s health, however, I invoke the “epilogue” to Elisha’s call, in order to offer some promises to John. There are four archetypal movements in the apotheosis-like end of the Elijah story found in 2 Kings 2:
To the community’s lament that Elijah is about to be taken away, Elisha responds in refrain: “I know; keep silent” (vv 3,5). I am familiar with that silence—the emptiness of loss, of endings, of abandonment. There is no easy comfort; words cannot heal. So Elaine and I simply join John, his family and colleagues around the world in this silent vigil, as we wait to see what shape things will take.
When Elijah tries to depart, Elisha insists: “As the Lord lives, I will not leave you” (v 6). I feel that kind of fierce loyalty to John and his family. We’ve lived a common story, put our shoulders against the same wheel, struggled for the same hope. Across the Pacific Ocean’s vast miles, we’ve stayed connected–partly I think as an act of will, so that all those years (and “cheers and beers” as John would say) might count for something. Brother, we will not leave you.
Yet Elijah’s time comes all the same, as he is taken up into the whirlwind—and his missing-in-action status has haunted Israel and the church ever since (v. 11; see e.g. Mal 4:5; Matt 11:4). We all pass on, and John told us he’s not afraid, indeed looks forward to the Great Reunion. I believe him; I feel that way myself, most of the time. But I’ve had too many skirmishes with mortality and lost too many beloved people to avoid the subject. Our goal now is to support you, John, so you can go “further up and further in” in your own “fiery chariot”—and maybe haunt a few folk in the process.
Only Elijah’s mantle is left behind; and when Elisha picks it up, the prophetic movement continues (2 Kg 2:13). Back in the day, John and I both imagined we could change stuff. First, the big stuff. Over time, we hoped to change littler stuff. But we both eventually realized that the most we can do is to just try to keep the story going, to keep the mantle of radical discipleship alive for the next generation. Brother, without knowing it on that night long ago, you threw a mantle onto my shoulders (I Kg 19:19), as you have for so many others. You wore and bore that mantle at real cost, and I gratefully wrap my life in it. Because it alone enables us to encounter the Word of the Inscrutable One (I Kg 19:13), empowers us (sometimes) to part waters (2 Kg 2:8, 14). And it is what remains when our time is up.
So John and Carol, I pray (in the great Jubilee words of the prophet Isaiah) that throughout the coming days, the Compassionate One might “provide for those of us who mourn… a garland instead of ashes… the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (61:3). We love you truly.
[Note: I commend Ben Myers’s reflections on John in this same vein.]