Meditation Monday - Remembering MLK, Jr.'s Transforming Spiritual Experience

January 27, 1956 is a significant date in the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr. Just after midnight, he had a transforming spiritual experience that set the tone for the rest of his time as a leader of the civil rights movement. It was during the early days of the Montgomery bus boycott, and Dr. King was regularly receiving threatening phone calls at this home. On this particular night, one such call triggered a spiritual crisis that he later described in a sermon titled “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool.” Here are some of his words describing that fateful night:

And immediately the telephone started ringing and I picked it up. On the other end was an ugly voice. That voice said to me, in substance, "Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house." 

Dr. King goes on to tell how he prayed to God at that moment of fear and weakness.

And I bowed down over that cup of coffee—I never will forget it. And oh yes, I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, "Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.".

What followed was a transforming spiritual experience in which God provided the assurance necessary for Dr. King to go on and endure the opposition and even violent resistance that he encountered not only in Montgomery but constantly over the next twelve years until his assassination in 1968:

And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world." And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin- breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. And I’m going on in believing in him. 

January 27, 1956 may not be a very widely known time in Dr. King’s life especially when compared to milestones such as the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Yet January 27 was the foundation for these milestones. It reminds me that our spiritual formation is at the heart of following God’s call to racial justice so that we know and claim God’s promise to always be with us and never leave us alone.

The video below is the audio of Dr. King’s sermon “Why Jesus Calls a Man a Fool.”

Meditation Monday - Celebrating MLK, Jr. in Word and Spirit

Today is a national holiday in honor of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He is now celebrated as an American hero who helped our nation to live more deeply into our ideals of freedom and justice for all people. He has an honored place with a memorial in our nation’s capital along with hundreds of other places around the country named after him. Yet this is the same person who at the time of his assassination in April 1968 was perhaps the most hated man in America. His leadership of a faith based non-violent movement for social change came to oppose what he called the “giant triplets of evil” - racism, poverty, and war. This threatened the status quo not only of those who wanted to maintain racial segregation but also the policy of the national government that was escalating the war in Vietnam. So to celebrate Dr. King with integrity, we cannot simply choose our favorite quotes from his speeches and sermons without also being open to the spirit of his words in the context of the opposition he faced throughout his 12 years as a leader of the civil rights movement. It is with this in mind, that I lift up the following event from this year’s MKL, Jr. Holiday weekend when Vice President Pence referred to Dr. King in an attempt to support the Trump administration’s immigration agenda that includes funding for building a larger wall along our southern border. The following is a summary from a news source that includes both Pence’s words and Dr. King’s own words about the Berlin Wall during a visit to Berlin in 1964:

Pence quoted King on Sunday during an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” in an attempt to sell Trump’s long-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall.

“One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was, ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,’” Pence said. “You think of how he changed America, he inspired us to change through the legislative process.”

But King did not support using walls to divide people, as he stated in a speech to over 20,000 people during a visit to East and West Berlin in 1964.

“It is indeed an honor to be in this city, which stands as a symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the earth,” King told East Berliners. “For here on either side of the wall are God’s children, and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact.”

Dr. King and thousands of others in the civil rights movement struggled and suffered to bring change through national legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dr. King also opposed what he considered to be unjust legislation and went to jail on multiple occasions, because he refused on obey unjust laws. It does not take much historical knowledge or imagination to know that Dr. King would not go along with using his words to support a legislative process that results in a huge barrier that is not a part of just immigration policy but a symbol of ongoing and dehumanizing separation. Neither should we.

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Meditation Monday - Why We Needed and Need a Movement

January 15 is the 90th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. He became the most famous leader of what became known as the Civil Rights Movement that started in the late 1950’s. Yet the struggle against racism did not begin with Dr. King. This week in the news there was a graphic example from the 1940’s of the pervasive system of legalized racism known as Jim Crow and the struggle for justice and equality that predated the modern civil rights movement. In Florida the Groveland Four received posthumous pardons after being wrongly accused of raping a white woman nearly 70 years ago in 1949. At that time one of the four young men was lynched by a mob before their trial. Two others were later shot by a local sheriff who falsely claimed that they were trying to escape, and one of them died. The remaining two endured two trials and were falsely convicted twice despite the best efforts of their attorney Thurgood Marshall who would go on to become the first African American Supreme Court justice. The video posted below is a brief report about the posthumous pardon of the Groveland Four. It is a story of racism, unjust suffering, and a seven decade struggle for justice. As we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday and give thanks for the civil rights movement, it is important to remember that the struggle against racism goes back to the very foundation of our country and continues today. The story of the Groveland Four is an example of why we needed the civil rights movement. Their posthumous pardon is a witness to the persistence of those who fought for justice against overwhelming odds and a call for us to resist unjust actions and systems regardless of how popular they may be. Organizations such as the Equal Justice Initiative and the Poor People’s Campaign are contemporary examples of the ongoing need to continue the movement for racial justice 90 years after the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and 70 years after the Groveland Four.

Meditation Monday - The Unifying Power of Love

Vickie and I are in New Jersey this week to remember and celebrate the life of our sister-in-law Lisa Semple who died on December 23 from breast cancer. Even as Lisa endured increasing pain and limited mobility, she was determined to finish work on an art exhibit called “Faces of Cancer.” Using her gift as an artist, Lisa completed 20 portraits of people who dealt with cancer, some survivors and some whose lives ended. With each portrait, she included a short written description of that person’s journey. On Saturday, the month long exhibit opened at the public library in Cherry Hill, NJ. Around 200 people attended the opening - a very diverse group all of whom were connected through relationships with Lisa and/or with the subjects of the portraits. There was a sense of grief that Lisa did not live to host the exhibit. Yet along with the grief there was a powerful spirit of love and unity. At the end of the day, cancer did not win - Love Wins. This reminded me of the following quote by the late writer and spiritual leader Henri Nouwen:

There is no clearer way to distinguish the presence of God’s Spirit than to identify the moments of unification, healing, restoration, and reconciliation. Wherever the Spirit works, divisions vanish and inner as well as outer unity manifests itself. (from Life of the Beloved)

Thank you Lisa for using your life and your gifts to bring people together to experience the unifying and victorious power of love.

Postcard of “Faces of Cancer” Exhibit by Lisa Semple

Postcard of “Faces of Cancer” Exhibit by Lisa Semple

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Meditation Monday - Using the Time We Have

Today is New Year’s Eve, a time when many people’s thoughts turn to reflecting on the year completed and the year ahead. Thinking about the concept of time and how we use it, I recall the following words from Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from the Birmingham City Jail:

I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

As we prepare to enter 2019, I share these words of Dr. King written 55 years ago and the images below from the Birmingham campaign to remind and inspire us to be co-workers with God through daily commitment to spiritual growth and following God’s call to peace and justice for all people.

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