Rush, Reminder & Revival

Monday was my first Martin Luther King Jr. day in Alabama. There was a march this morning. It ended in front of Franchise Missionary Baptist Church here in Phenix City. Before any marchers could be seen from the church, three police officers on motorcycles came into view. The officers were leading the march with their blue lights flashing. I imagine that the same thing was true for parades and marches all over the country today. There were police officers at the front leading the way. While it may be routine now for law enforcement to lead such parades and make sure that they come off in an orderly fashion, such has not always been the case. Their efforts to do so on this day gave me a rush, a reminder and a revival.

The rush was a feeling like the one I get when I see something good and pleasing. It was like the feeling I get when I see a friend or family member that I have not seen in a long time. It may have even approached that feeling I get when I watch a young daughter or son seeing a parent for the first time after a deployment overseas serving our country. The news we hear so often is not good news. Even when we hear good news, there seem to be detractors who try to convince us that it is not as good as we think it is or not good at all. It is possible for us to start thinking that good acts or good words are no longer possible in today’s world. However, good does still happen. I saw it happen as people marched to celebrate progress made and to advocate for even more. I heard it from choirs singing and from a sixth-grader reciting Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The reminder was embodied in the message of the man the day commemorates. Dr. King’s aim in life was not to have a day named after him. His aim was not solely to lead a movement that would achieve civil rights for African-Americans. His focus was larger than that and more profound. Dr. King was a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His concern was for the human race. Like Jesus, he was particularly concerned for those who were poor. He worked on behalf of people, black and white, who suffered in a social and economic system that kept the American dream just out of their reach.

The revival starts when I am mindful of those folks who still live somewhere beyond both the fruits of the American dream and the embrace of Jesus’ just and merciful kingdom. Not just in our country, but in our world there are those who scrape by with inadequate food, water and health care. Jesus had something to say about them. When we see them and give them food, water and treatment, we see Jesus and give him food, water and treatment.

One time a lawyer ask Jesus a question, “Who is my neighbor?” The question still serves as an effective way to shape and form our lives in the image of Christ for the sake of others. Jesus told the lawyer a story about a man who fell among thieves. They beat him and left him to die. A priest, a Levite and a Samaritan passed by where he was laying wounded. One of them stopped to help. Jesus asked the lawyer, “Who was a neighbor to this man?”

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer forces us to rethink our own answer. Jesus’ answer cuts across boundaries. Human labels and categories do not determine who our neighbor is, at least not as Jesus understands neighbor. Jesus’ approach is simpler. Is the person a person? Is the person created in the image of God? Then the person is a neighbor. Answering the “who is my neighbor?” question is easy for Jesus. The question that is more difficult to answer is implied in the conclusion of Jesus’ story. Will you be a neighbor? Will you be a neighbor to someone different from you?

Dr. King marched to make the neighborhood larger for us all and to show us that there is room for each of us in that neighborhood. I believe he learned about being a neighbor from reading the stories that Jesus told. The Kingdom of God comes near when we recognize the hungering, thirsting, needy Christ in the face of our neighbor. We step into the Kingdom, if for just a moment, when choose to be a neighbor to the person in front us who needs the love and mercy of God.

Free at Last

This week marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The year was 1969 and I was five years old when I first heard Dr. King’s name. I was sitting in a car listening to a radio report about James Earl Ray, the man who shot Dr. King. With the exception of three days in June of 1977, when he and six other inmates made an escape, Ray would spend the remainder of his life at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, not far from where I grew up.

When the radio report was complete, an adult in the car said, “I would like to shake his hand.” I remember being uncertain about whose hand was in question, but the conversation that followed among the adults in the car made it clear that Ray’s hand was the one that deserved of a shake. This left me uncertain about what a man might have done that would cause someone to want to shake the hand of the man who had shot him. Up to that point in my life, all the indications I had received were that killing someone was not a good thing to do.

Slowly, but surely over the next several years, I would learn about slavery, race relations, civil rights and the strongly held opinions of people both inside and outside of my family. In college and seminary, I began to see the significance of the role that the church played in motivating Dr. King to do the things that he did. The civil rights movement for Dr. King was an expression of his understanding of the Bible and an outgrowth of his relationship with God. I do not recall many, if any, references to Dr. King’s faith during my growing up years. However, he was a product of the church.  What became the civil rights movement was for him merely doing what God had called him to do as a Baptist, as a preacher, and as a follower of Christ. He was sharing Christ’s love.  Not everyone understood the importance of Christian faith to participants in the civil rights struggle, but Dr. King made the point in a foundational way in his last speech given in Memphis, Tennessee the night before he was killed:

Bull Connor (Sheriff in Birmingham, Al) next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.

More to the point of the importance of Dr. King’s faith, as he challenged our nation to live up to the ideals upon which it was founded, was the peace and the strength that he found in it in the face of bitter resistance and threats to his life. He obviously spoke out a deep trust in and complete reliance on God that night before he was shot.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Let us always choose to love even when others, maybe many others, would choose to hate. Let us have eyes to see all the ways the Lord is coming to us and may the love we share with others be visible sign of the Lord’s coming to them.

Those that Wait

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31

1619 A Dutch ship captain arrives at Jamestown, Virginia in late summer. He exchanges 20 Africans for food to replenish his ships stores and then sets sail.

1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford, a decision by the United States Supreme Court that ruled that people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves, or their descendants—whether or not they were slaves—could never be citizens of the United States.

1865 The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution officially abolished and continues to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.

1896 Plessy v. Ferguson, a landmark United States Supreme Court decision, upholding the constitutionality of racial segregation even in public accommodations (particularly railroads), under the doctrine of “separate but equal“.

1948 President Harry Truman signs Executive Order 9981, which states, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”

1954 The Supreme Court rules on the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., unanimously agreeing that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. The decision overturns the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that sanctioned “separate but equal” segregation of the races, ruling that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat at the front of the “colored section” of a bus to a white passenger, defying a southern custom of the time. In response to her arrest the Montgomery black community launches a bus boycott, which will last for more than a year, until the buses are desegregated Dec. 21, 1956. As newly elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), Baptist pastor Martin Luther King, Jr., is instrumental in leading the boycott.

1963 About 200,000 people join the March on Washington. Congregating at the Lincoln Memorial, participants listen as Martin Luther King delivers his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Later that year, four young girls (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins) attending Sunday school are killed when a bomb explodes at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

1964 President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin.

1968 Martin Luther King, at age 39, is shot as he stands on the balcony outside his hotel room.

2005 Rosa Parks dies at age 92.

2006 Coretta Scott King dies of a stroke at age 78.

January 20, 2009 A person of African heritage is inaugurated the 44th president of the United States.

When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. From an address by Martin Luther King made to the Tenth Anniversary Convention of the S.C.L.C. in Atlanta on August 16, 1967.