Yesterday I attended the talk by John M Perkins during Calvin College’s January Series. I’ve known about Perkins for most of my adult life—his leaving Mississippi as a young man after his brother was killed by a town marshal, planning never to return; his conversion to Christianity; his return to Mississippi in obedience to what he perceived as God’s call; his work in community development; his arrest and torture for his civil rights activities in the 60s. He is now 83 years old, and I wondered what sort of old man he had become. Was he tired after years of struggle, discouraged about the prospect for improving the lot of minorities and the poor? Or is he hopeful for the future?
If his talk is any indication, Perkins is not only hopeful for the future, but is convinced that major change is now underway. He described today’s young people as “the first post-racial generation.” He told of many poor youth from Mississippi getting an education and returning to their communities, and of those from elsewhere relocating to join in ministry. Unlike many elderly adults, he lives not in the past but in the present and future. He is generative in the sense that Erik Erikson uses the term: his life is devoted not to personal aggrandizement or self-indulgence, but to helping others build communities and relationships that will flourish long after he is gone.
I was fascinated by a comment Perkins made when talking about his longing for a society free of racial prejudice. He said, “We need to empty ourselves into that longing. We’re going to empty ourselves anyway, so we might as well empty ourselves here.” The wisdom of age is to know we will inevitably empty ourselves—that our energies will pour from us until we are fully depleted. The wisdom of faith is to know that what we deliberately pour out in love will not be lost but will provide irrigation for what is good, just, and lasting.
Perkins lives a God-filled life—not just in the sense that he believes, but that he lives into what he believes. He described God as having a heart centered on love and justice, and sees God’s people as having a “ministry of reconciliation (almost certainly a reference to 2 Corinthians 5),” facilitating human reconciliation with one another and with God. Referring to Psalm 23, he said that God “has given me these 83 years, and now goodness and mercy are about to get me, and I’ll dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” What a marvelous way to frame his eventual death!
Mature Christians are thought to display the Fruits of the Spirit—characteristics of the heart that the Holy Spirit inculcates in those who faithfully follow the way of Christ. Perkins has followed Christ’s way for decades, and it seems that at this point he possesses not just stray pieces of fruit, but whole basketsful of the stuff. He bears no bitterness for the mistreatment he sustained. He says that “God’s heart is for love and justice,” and it is clear that love fills his heart as well. His ministry of reconciliation is evidence of his desire for peace, another fruit of the Spirit according to the list found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Then there is his joy. For Perkins, joy has come as his life’s work nears its fulfilment. Patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness—Perkins seems imbued with each of these. I left the session thankful for the opportunity to see a living saint, one who bears witness to God’s goodness not only by his words but by his life. When growing old means, as with Perkins, growing ever further into the love and grace of God, aging becomes not something to dread but something to celebrate.