Saturday, October 22, 2011
A Man of Quality - A Tribute to Alfred McCroskey
It is difficult to say the words, “Alfred McCroskey is dead.”
He stared down the grim reaper so many times! It had become commonplace to hear he was in the hospital and that his condition was serious, only to see him in church the following Sunday. He was a force of nature. He was such a vibrant presence in our lives that losing him is like hearing that the last lion has died and that our world is bereft of an entire species.
What can I say about Alfred that will illustrate what I mean?
First, I will acknowledge that he was a bundle of contradictions.
Until the day he died, he was a marine, a cold-war marine from Alabama who ran a Christian bookstore. Nonetheless, he continually pled with us to care for the souls of those he had been trained to hate and to fight.
I think he was the world’s most reluctant Charismatic. He never gave up his Reformed Presbyterian theology and preferred its way of worship. However, his sphere of influence was, almost without exception, within Pentecostal and charismatic circles.
He had a hard time with baby boomers. Sometimes that included me, whom he deeply loved.
Once, when pontificating about the damage inflicted upon the world by baby boomers, I remarked sarcastically that, “yes, all of us baby boomers were at Woodstock, Alfred. We were all there; taking drugs, practicing free love and playing rock music.” Without missing a beat he replied, “ I know. At least you all wanted to be there. I wanted to be there too – to call the cops on your crazy generation!”
How delighted I was when I learned that Alfred’s first contact in Moscow was a long-haired hippie, who had become a Christian after listening to Jesus Christ Superstar. I often pointed that out to Alfred. Believing in God’s sovereignty as he did, I wanted him to notice our Lord’s sense of humor to have given him baby boomer colleagues all over the world.
As we all knew, even as a missionary Alfred never ceased to be a marine.
Once, while addressing a group of Pentecostal leaders about to get on the plane for Russia, he barked: “listen, this is not a sight-seeing tour. You will do a little bit of that, but just remember that while you are looking at monuments, I will be trying to show the love of Jesus to the damned communists!”
I could hardly believe my ears. So I turned and asked Gerhardt Richter, “Did Alfred really say that?” To which Gerhardt replied, “Don’t worry about it. Jean will let him have it all the way to Moscow!”
The friendship that Alfred and I shared revolved around two things: a commitment to missions and a love for doctrines and practices of historical Protestantism. We both loved the classical hymns, the great theologians and the Lord’s Table. The only problem was that I was a Wesleyan and he was a Calvinist. So we never lost an opportunity to argue about things like free will and sanctification. I once remarked that although he thought liked a Calvinist, he certainly evangelized like a Wesleyan. He responded that the Lord had designed him that way.
It was difficult to win an argument with Alfred.
The reason he didn’t run with Calvinists too much because he was so open to the contemporary work of the Holy Spirit. That didn’t please many Presbyterians of his generation. Nonetheless, he would sometimes call me after a Charismatic worship service where he had heard some song or sermon he felt had misrepresented sound biblical teaching. The words of the Reformers would roll off his tongue and then he would lament the sloppy theology of my generation. (Then usually go on to comment on our politics as well.) Had you been listening to our conversation, you might have believed he was utterly opposed to tongues, prophecy or any other spiritual phenomena.
Nonetheless, once, when he got sick, he called to say that he was flying to Phoenix to attend our healing service. When he got there, he said to the congregation; “Look, I didn’t fly all the way out here for prayer. I can get prayer back in Florence. I came here to get healed. So you people do what you do. I need to get back to my work in Russia.”
At that, our Hopi and Navajo ladies ladies surrounded him and prayed. When they were finished, he thanked them, flew back to Florence and went on with his work.
I think sometimes Alfred desperately tired to hide his tenderness. He wanted us to think he was gruff and blunt. So he carefully constructed that perception. However, if he actually thought he had offended us, or discovered we were hurting about something, his tears came quickly and his words would grow soft and kind.
We were friends for twenty-five years.
We met at a mission’s conference in Marietta, Georgia, chatting over coffee. He told me he wanted to put a million Bibles into the hands of the Russian people. So I impulsively blurted out: “well, then move to Nashville and let us help you.”
“O.K. I think I will!” he responded.
He and Jean moved to Nashville just as Christ Church was beginning to connect to the world. We had been a regional, and rather provincial congregation. So we did not have deep ties to the globe or even much desire to form such ties. All we knew was that the Lord was opening up all sorts of connections for us within the Soviet Union. Our hearts just kept opening up to the needs of the Russian and Ukrainian believers. At the center of this work was the old cold-war marine, believing God for funds to launch his mission into Russia. It should be added that Alfred never manipulated people to supply his funds. He believed in God and God did not fail him.
You know the story about that powerful evening at Christ Church, when so many great ministries were birthed in the space of a few hours. He was one of the people who stepped forward to announce his dream.
“I believe God wants me to plant a thousand churches in Russia before I die!” he said emphatically.
To the day he died, he claimed that I laughed out loud.
“You did laugh," he insisted. "You laughed just like Sarah when the angel told her she would have a son. You laughed. You weren’t even subtle about it!”
Well, if I did laugh – and I will concede that perhaps I did – the laugh was on me. Year in and year out, Alfred and Jean plugged away at that vision. They trusted God, the made friends throughout the Russian Republic, and they have encouraged hundreds of young people – and some not so young -- to start churches.
That work is accomplished now.
Alfred ran the race. He finished his course. He kept the faith.
As I think about Alfred and his legacy, one word comes to mind: “quality.” He was a man of quality. He used his powers and talents to the fullest to advance goodness in the world.
Great men are not always good men, and good men are not always great men.
A great man is one that alters history in some significant way. He leaves a mark etched in the minds and on the customs of a people. His words and deeds reverberate through time, leaping out from the narrow constraints of his own generation. Alexander was great because what he accomplished was so far reaching that history itself has become inconceivable without him.
Goodness also leaves a mark, but it is not always obvious. Nearly everyone can remember some grandparent or and uncle – perhaps even an usher at church – who seemed invisible against the crowd but who, in retrospect, left a mark of sanctity and grace upon their world.
Bob Dylan once said of Jesus, “He unleashed His power in an unknown hour, when no one knew.”
That is the way goodness works, without regard for either humanity’s praise or for its condemnation.
We praise goodness but tend to ignore it. We are more attracted to greatness. That is evident in the things we study and the things we neglect.
Steve Jobs died a few weeks ago and the world acknowledged his passing with editorials and commentaries. He left a void that is not likely to be filled any time soon. Jobs was obviously great. He altered our technological and social landscape as much as legends like Ford, Edison and Disney. So Jobs deserves the attention.
In contrast though, Alfred McCroskey’s death is scarily unnoticed, except by his family, a handful of friends in Nashville, and a few people in Florence and the surrounding area. When we lay his body down, it will be in a common place without any sort of ostentatious monument to mark the spot. Not only that; he lived and worked in the same kind of obscurity.
When I was younger, I fretted over the fact that even in Christian circles, greatness trumps goodness. How many church conferences have I attended in which powerful speakers with nothing to say rose to speak to invisible men and women who were changing the world! But with the passing of time, one realizes that the obscurity is often a weapon. God has stealth fighters, people who require obscurity in order to do great things.
And yet, it is not true to say that Alfred has no monument. We are his monuments. The thousands of Russians in churches across that vast and great country are his monuments. As he worked, powerful dictators and bureaucrats, churchmen and policemen kept walking on and then off the great stage. They were unconcerned about an old marine who kept flying to obscure places in the Russian tundra and steppes, leaving a word here and a book there – like God’s own Johnny Appleseed – moving on before the plant he had left broke the surface, traveling far away before his fruit became visible.
The oaks of righteousness that now dot the Russian countryside are his monuments.
I have written these words because for over a year I have been scheduled to speak to a group of pastors in Spain. I decided to keep my appointment. I too want to finish well. In fact, Alfred’s life has played no small part in forming my determination to finish well. Therefore, my ongoing work is also a part of Alfred’s monument.
So Alfred has the monument he desired.
But more is coming.
Soon the books will be open.
On the great and terrible day of the Lord, when the secrets of men’s hearts are laid bare; when history’s great and good men pass one by one before the judgment seat of Christ, it will not be a day to glorify the likes of Napoleons and Caesar. Many of the great minds of philosophy and the innovators of industry and finance will be scarcely noted. But a few people that day will be crowned. They will be people who were once faithful in little and have been made masters over much. These invisible hinges of history; these small and seemingly insignificant individuals; these people of quality who work to push time toward its apex and fulfillment, will finally be revealed and acknowledged.
Among them will be a marine from Alabama, a faithful father and husband, a missionary and a friend.; but above all, a servant of God and a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.
My dear, dear friend:
“Go rest high upon that mountain.
For your work on earth is done.
Go to heaven a shoutin’,
Love for the Father and the Son. “