Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Early morning…April 4…shot rang out in a Memphis sky
Free at last…they took your life…they could not take your
Pride.

Pride (in the name of love), U2


14 days later, I was born.

I’ve spent time in the last few years reading about the decade before my birth. Not having lived through the monumental shifts of the sixties makes it challenging to really grasp the context of reformers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As a high schooler, I knew I was supposed to respect him, but didn’t completely understand why.

In 1991, I went to a Pastor’s conference (with Bob Ramsey), where we had a day of silence. In the afternoon I found myself in the library of the conference center, reading through the 1968 volume of the Annals of America. For me, it was a profound personal moment, full of the emotional idealism of youth. I remember writing in my journal, wondering if my class, born in 1968, were “rising like the phoenix out of the ashes of 1968.” I also wrote this:

Help me be drawn to the higher calling to mighty deeds that you have-for what the world, even the Christian world, feels is mighty is rarely what you have in mind. I want to set my mind on the desires of your Holy Spirit so I will be drawn to the mighty deeds you want.

I read Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the I Have a Dream speech that day. I’m embarrassed to write this, but it was the first time it really dawned on me that the great civil rights leader was a committed follower of Jesus. Biblical imagery and language are woven masterfully throughout his powerful oration. Coming as it did in my first year of seminary, it continued the re-working of my biblical and theological frameworks, placing social justice on equal footing with evangelism in our commitment to following Christ.

Over the past few days, I’ve listened to I Have a Dream three times, the latest tonight with my daughter Talli. If you haven’t listened to it lately, please go here. Listen for Amos 5:24, listen for Isaiah 40:4. Imagine the pressure he faced, the pressure of placating a government afraid of open rebellion (Kennedy had thousands troops positioned nearby), the pressure of African Americans afraid he would sell out. His words in that context, the images, the challenge, grow in my esteem the more carefully I look at it.

And 18 days later, Ku Klux Klan members bombed a church and killed four little girls.

MLK held fast to his nonviolent principles, when almost everyone else couldn’t. His eulogy finds meaning in their lives, honestly speaks of the “amazing democracy about death.” He said these four children died nobly, “the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. So they have something to say to us in their death.”

Then comes the line that assaults me tonight.

They have something to say to every minister of the Gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.

Oh God, may your heart burn in mine. May you challenge my silence.

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4 thoughts on “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  1. There are so many great King Sermons. My favorite is “A knock at midnight”. Most them were recorded and you can listen to them, but if you have ever heard any of his speaking you will hear his voice in anything he wrote. His preaching has been very influential on my own. Like Fox, he breathes scripture, he doesn’t use it as a proof text. When I was briefly adjunct professor of preaching at the great Lakes School of Theology in Bujumbura Burundi, I brought Dr. Kings sermons for my students to read. Watching a congolese pastor tear up as he puzzeled through the English and then the truth soaked in was a moment I will never forget. If the ‘Dream’ speach is the only one you have ever read – Read more!

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  2. About 30 years ago, I bought a cassette tape at at K-Mart checkout counter called “Martin Luther King with a Message to White America” (or something very close to that).

    On the way home from the store, I popped it into the tape player, and out came that magnificent voice and message; it was an anthology of various sermons and speeches to different audiences and was when I, too, realized he was a Preacher of the Gospel.

    My elder daughters and I listened to that tape scores of times while travelling. Long passages are burnt into the hard drive of my brain, like songs, so much like songs that I can recite some of them only by starting at the beginning and not from the middle. (I should re-phrase the last sentence in the past tense; my mental hard drive has lost a lot of data just as the magnetic bits have flaked off the tape, but some parts are still accessible.)

    One piece that I especially remember was his sermon on the three Greek words for “love.” I was especially tickled by his explanation of Eros:

    “Eros is a sort of aesthetic love, a yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine. Plato used to talk about it a great deal in his dialogues. It has come to us to be a sort of romantic love. So we all know about eros. We have experienced it and read it in all of the beauties of literature. In a sense, Edgar Allen Poe was talking about eros when he talked about his beautiful Annabel Lee with a love surrounded by the halo of eternity. In a sense Shakespeare was talking about eros when he said ‘Love is not love which alters when an alteration finds or bends with the removal to remove. It is an ever fixed mark which looks on tempest and is never shaken. It is a star to every wandering bark.’ You know, I can remember that because I have quote it to my wife every now and then. That’s eros. That’s eros”

    The thing is, he said the last two sentences with humor, a twinkle in his voice as it were, and he was literally drumming the book or podium or whatever in perfect rythmn with the last two sentences: That’s Eros (thump thump). That’s Eros (thump thump thump). He knew what he was talking about.

    (Turns out this speech was excerpted from one he gave at Western Michigan University on 12-18-1963. Full text here: http://www.wmich.edu/library/archives/mlk/transcription.html

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