Remembering Dr. King While We Forget Him

In 1983 Ronald Reagan signed into law a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At that time I was a newscaster at a radio station in northern Indiana. I remember the debate that raged—yes, raged—in America over that holiday. I would watch the AP wire feeds as politicians and pundits argued about whether or not it was appropriate to honor Dr. King in this manner. Some of the arguments seemed a little disingenuous. Some opponents said that the country could not afford another national holiday. They claimed that our economy could not withstand another day of the year in which production would shut down and the banks and post offices would close. Yeah, right.

However, the majority of the outspoken opponents were up front about the reason for their resistance. King was a radical. Most people have forgotten that. Today people tend to see his mission solely in terms of race relations, and in our day, an overwhelming number of Americans would never want to return to segregated lunch counters and “whites only” water fountains. In fact, when we see the video footage of the battles for voting rights, the opponents of civil rights strike us as ignorant, hateful or both. So, most people today feel like they are in sync with Dr. King’s message. But they are not.

Dr. King’s mission—which began as the Montgomery Bus Boycott to end segregation on city transportation—broadened significantly over the years. He focused on economic issues for all Americans—black and white. He tried to be a voice for the poor. And he took on the war in Vietnam. His most significant anti-war speech was delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York. In no uncertain terms, he stood squarely with the clergy that had gathered that day to affirm their opposition to the war. Again, by today’s standards that may not seem exceptionally controversial. But things were much different in the sixties. King was condemned as a Communist, and not just by some crazy pundits. The FBI considered him a threat to our country. He was the most hated man in America.

I’m always a little amused when I hear some people praising King or commemorating his holiday, when it is clear that they would have hated his values. I heard it again today, as leading politicians put out statements for the King holiday. But the statements I heard were coming from people who reject King’s idea of nonviolence. Those military hawks would find the real King outlandish. Consider these words…

“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos, without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”

“What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?”

Those who preach the gospel of American Exceptionalism would also reject the real King. That day at Riverside he said…

“This is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent, based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”

“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continue to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”

He called the war an “enemy of the poor.”

Martin Luther King articulated what all advocates of justice eventually learn. Justice and peace are inseparable. When you listen to or read King’s anti-war speeches and sermons, you hear him saying that his passion for racial and economic justice compelled him to speak out against the war. He knew that his work for justice would be meaningless if he did not also work for peace.

Perhaps the message of peace is the most difficult one for us to hear. Peace does not seem possible. The methods of peace do not seem practical. And the message of peace requires us to put aside our feelings of exceptionalism and superiority. Tough stuff. People hated King for it.

Our historical amnesia helps make King a likable figure. But in 1983—a mere fifteen years after his death—his holiday was not without controversy, because many people still remembered their visceral reactions to the man who challenged their deepest values with the message of nonviolence.

As you think about Martin Luther King’s legacy, think about justice and peace. And remember that, for all of his flaws, King found that message of nonviolence in the gospel of Jesus Christ.


It's All the Real World

What good is it to have your own web site if you can’t use it to post a picture of your first grandchild? Matthew Phillip Moilanen was born on August 4. I’ve just spent three days on the second floor of the Catskill Regional Medical Center in Harris, New York. Roughly half that time was spent standing vigil, nervously waiting for the event. The other half was spent celebrating, making phone calls and taking pictures.

I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals. I’ve held the hand of an elderly woman as she breathed her last. I’ve cried with people who got bad news. I’ve sat through surgeries. I’ve stood with families as they waited for their loved one to pass. I’ve sat with people for hours after the death of a loved one because it was so hard for them to leave the room. And I’ve made more trips to the ER than I can remember. But I’ve also had a lot of good times in hospitals. Births, successful surgeries, good news from the doctor, going home. It really is a mixed bag.

But my time at Catskill Regional was like being in a bubble. I wasn’t checking in on a number of people on different floors. The only places I frequented were labor and delivery, the cafeteria, and the gift shop. It was all good. Even watching my daughter go through pain was a positive thing because I knew this pain had a purpose.

But every once in a while the rest of the world would try to invade my bubble. Every time I saw the “Labor and Delivery” sign I could also see the “Oncology” sign in the background. Several times when I walked to the stairwell I passed the open door of a man groaning in pain. The exit we used was by the ER and more than once as we were leaving the hospital someone was arriving—on a gurney. And when I walked through the lobby to go pull up the car so Scott could drive his wife and new son home, I overheard a man talking on a cell phone saying, “We’re just going to try to remember him the way he looked before.”

I was tempted to think, “That’s the real world.” But, of course, it’s all the real world. Death and birth. Good news and bad news. It’s not that we live in two worlds. We live in one. So today as I was rejoicing at my grandson coming home from the hospital I was also checking my email to see how a friend’s cancer surgery had gone.

Dallas Willard says that we live in a “God-bathed world.” One of our challenges is to see God in all of it—birth and death and everything in between.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the Kingdom of God—both in its present form in the here and now and in its future form in the here and then. I couldn’t help but think about it this week. You won’t be surprised at the Kingdom passage that was going through my mind…

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Romans 8:22-25)

I know God is redeeming His creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is the hope for which I patiently (well, sometimes patiently) wait. At times when people I love are going through cancer or depression or death I can vividly hear creation groaning. This week reminded me that Paul says that groaning is part of something meaningful that God is doing. It also reminded me that it’s worth the wait.


Profound Compassion

I guess I’ve had kids on my mind lately. With good reason. My wife, my younger daughter and I are in New York waiting for my first daughter to go into labor. Any day now we’ll be meeting my first grandchild—a boy named _____________ (believe it or not, Scott and Bekah still haven’t come up with a name!).

It’s not just my grandbaby. Friends, staff and a number of people in our congregation have greeted new arrivals. Those little people are all around me and it’s difficult to express the joy and perspective they bring to our lives. And it’s not just the babies. Toddlers, teenagers and every age in between have increasingly been on my radar screen. My younger daughter is an amazing twelve-year-old. Her approach to life is an inspiration to me. She somehow takes it seriously—with great compassion—and enjoys it as she laughs her way through it.

I understand kids can be cruel. They’re human beings. I understand that like all of us they have a capacity for meanness and exclusion. Like us, they need guidance and grace. But many times you’ll see within them a compassion that is so profound that we find ourselves wishing we could be like them. Their simplicity gives them an advantage in communicating their compassion that many of us have lost. Their naiveté inspires us.

While on vacation my wife is always telling me to read fun stuff. Sometimes she forbids me to bring books from home because she believes I should do some recreational reading. So the other day I went to Borders looking for some fun reading. I had read Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies several years ago and remember laughing and enjoying it. So I picked up her Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith which was published in 2005. She began a chapter entitled, “good friday world” with the following story. It’s not one of her humorous stories, but I don’t think it will leave me. She was writing from California at the beginning of the Iraq war.

“There is the most ancient of sorrows in the world again, dead civilians and young soldiers. None of us knows quite what to make of things, or what to do. Since the war started last week, the days feel like midnight on the Serengeti, dangers everywhere, some you can see, but most hidden. The praying people I know pray for the lives of innocent people and young Americans to be spared, for peace and sanity to be restored on the global field. Everything feels crazy. But on small patches of earth all over, I can see just as much messy mercy and grace as ever: yesterday at Sam’s school, for instance, the kindergarteners and first-graders were outside when a dozen military planes flew overhead. The children knew we were at war, and were afraid, but when their teacher, Miss Peggy, told them that they were safe, that the planes were going to the Middle East, far away, the children relaxed. They watched more planes fly over. Then one smart child began to worry that there might be children in the Middle East, too, but that maybe these pilots didn’t know that. The children started to fret. Miss Peggy could not lie and say there were no children in the places where the planes were going. So she and the children got a giant sheet of paper, and the kids drew a huge peace dove on it, flying over children. They got some older kids to help, including Sam, and they all signed their names. The kids kept telling Miss Peggy that the pilots must not have known—otherwise they would never go to a country where they might accidentally bomb children.”

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).


Feel the Wind

In a sermon called, "The Birth," Frederick Buechner presents the thoughts of the innkeeper who went down in history as saying, "no room!"

"I speak to you as men of the world," said the Innkeeper. "Not as idealists, but as realists. Do you know what it is like to run an inn - to run a business, a family, to run anything in this world for that matter, even your own life? It is like being lost in a forest of a million tress," said the Innkeeper, "and each tree is a thing to be done. Is there fresh linen on all the beds? Did the children put on their coats before they went out? Has the letter been written, the book read? Is there money enough left in the bank? Today we have food in our bellies and clothes on our backs, but what can we do to make sure that we will have them tomorrow? A million trees. A million things."

"Until finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into a thing. The sparrow lying in the dust at your feet - just a thing to be kicked out of the way, not the mystery of death. The calling of children outside your window - just a distraction, an irrelevance, not life, not the wildest miracle of them all. That whisper in the air that comes sudden and soft from nowhere - only the wind, the wind..." (Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner, HarperSanFrancisco)

Of course, the "wind" in the New Testament is loaded with meaning. Pneuma means wind, breath and spirit. Jesus used these meanings interchangably when He said, "The wind (pneuma) blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (pneuma)" (John 3:8).

I've determined that today - as I walk among a million trees, a million things - I want to feel the wind. When the "whisper...that comes sudden and soft" touches me, I want to recognize the nudging of the pnuema.

As I was writing this I received a phone call from my oldest daughter. "Dad, I heard the heartbeat today!"

The wildest miracle of them all!

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