I found God in myself and I loved Her fiercely

I am continuing in my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I am exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

I want to acknowledge that there are many people who do the work of justice, without relating to a God of justice. Their work comes out of a belief in human dignity and connection, and God has nothing to do with it, for them. And that is really fine with me. When we have experienced the connection we share with other human beings, I believe it naturally leads to a concern about justice and equality.

But for some of us, there have been moments when we were in despair about injustice, or afraid of what our truth was revealing to us, or ready to give up, like Dr. King had been in his moment of despair. And in those moments, we also felt a divine presence, a presence of courage and hope and strength, empowering us into transformation. This God may not have intervened to take away a difficult challenge, but rather enabled us to find wholeness and self-worth in the meeting of it.

For me, the divine presence gave me the courage to leave the church of my childhood, and leap into the unknown, to find myself as a woman, as a whole and equal person. When all around me the church was saying that women had their place, and it was not in the priesthood or the leadership, when I was hearing that women were weak and vulnerable and needed men to guide and protect them, something enabled me to reject that characterization, and claim fullness. Something I barely even had a name for—but it was a sacred power nonetheless.

Photo by Rick Kimball

Photo by Rick Kimball

For me, the risk involved imagining that God might be a woman, a Goddess. That I might be created in the image of that Goddess. And even though there was nothing in the Bible that described this Goddess, yet it was still the stories of the God of justice that led me out of those old male-dominant images and into new possibilities. As Ntozake Shange put it, “I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely.”

This experience in my own life became a window to understand, at least in part, the kind of transformation the slaves had experienced. How miraculous and lonely it could be, how long the journey, and how frightening the desert. But yet, something unmistakable like a fire to guide the way. It taught me that the divine is a power beyond institutions, beyond containers, yet able to be present in our lives—especially in those moments of transformation, when “the mighty are cast down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up.”

I do not ask that anyone believe in the God of my own transformation. It doesn’t work like that. But I do offer it to you as an option of hope. If you are going through a hard time, if you are discouraged, if you are seeking to follow the truth of your heart, if you are sore oppressed. If you are having trouble believing in your own worth and dignity. I invite you to call on that God, and see whether there might be a presence that can help you through.

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The One Who Lifts Up the Lowly

 He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Luke 1:52-53

April 4th will be the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Earlier this year, I invoked his presence to explore how the values of partnership and nonviolence were important to find an experience of wholeness.  I spoke about the concept of the Beloved Community, a goal to which we might strive in the process of reconnecting to our fellow human beings.  I want to focus for the next several days on further reflections about his life and faith, and how our connections to each other are related to our experience of the Mystery at the heart of life, that some have called God.

Four years ago, I heard Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell speak at the MLK Breakfast in my city. She is a professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Princeton University, and also studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York. I was struck by her comments about the amazing faith experience of black people in America—how black people “came to believe in a loving, benevolent and just God when there was so little empirical evidence to support that world view.”

After being stripped of every vestige of human dignity, forced to abandon their languages and religions, and cut off from their families, they were compelled to adopt the religion of the slave-holders. And while the masters used the Bible to justify slavery, within the stories of Moses and the prophets black people began to find a message of hope and liberation. They were inspired and encouraged to believe in their own worth and dignity. She said,

It is humbling to remember that women and men who were born into slavery, and never expected anything but slavery for their children and grandchildren, nonetheless believed that they were equal human beings worthy of the love of a benevolent and intervening God. It is a different kind of knowing, one with at least as much power as reason and evidence.

220px-Runaway_slaveThey were inspired to rebel against the masters, to escape from their bondage, and seek a path to freedom. And really, what were the slave-holders thinking? The central story of the Jewish scriptures, and also adopted into the Christian bible, is the story of Moses leading the slaves out of bondage in Egypt, on a journey toward freedom and the promised land. If you take away that story, you don’t have a story. The God of Moses, the God of the Bible, was willing to intervene to help a suffering people find a new life.

Now, I want to interject a comment here, to say that there is no way to prove that this kind of God exists. How could anyone prove that God intervenes on the side of the poor and the outsider? We can’t. In fact, historians and scholars will argue that there is no historic evidence that the exodus of slaves from Egypt ever happened. We are moving outside of the realm of reason and evidence and into the realm of mythic truths. As Harris-Lacewell says, “It is a different kind of knowing.” But we do know that the slaves in America created their own kind of exodus. They found some kind of power in the stories that strengthened their hearts and lifted up their spirits and set them free.

Quotes from Harris-Lacewell are from “Progressive Bible Study,” and “Our Jeremiah.” 

Loving Nonviolent Action Is Always a Force for Human Dignity

When African American students sat down at the segregated lunch counters, they were asserting their own dignity by refusing to obey a law that treated them with contempt. They were holding onto the dignity of their harassers by refusing to engage in violence or harm. They were harnessing the power of love to make a change in an unjust system. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of the many heroic civil rights activists, used loving nonviolent action to restore the dignity of an oppressed people, and also to restore the soul of the oppressor.  

Loving nonviolent action is always a force for human dignity. Whether the political outcome is successful or not, a change has already taken place. The night before Dr. King was killed, he said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop. It doesn’t matter what happens to me now. I’ve seen the Promised Land.” I used to think this meant that in some mysterious way he had seen the future, and he had faith that black people would eventually win their rights.

But I saw it differently after I was involved in the struggle for equal marriage for same-sex couples in Massachusetts. I believe the mountaintop is less about the future, and more about the present. When lesbian and gay people began to imagine that they might get married, they had an inner experience of equality. It didn’t happen all at once. Two members of my congregation on Cape Cod were part of the  lawsuit for equal marriage. They told me how terrifying it was, in the days leading up to the lawsuit, to ask the town clerk for a marriage license when they knew the answer would be no. It was also terrifying for many others to carry a sign in public, or to have a conversation with their legislator or their neighbor.

Wedding of Linda & Gloria Dewitt Photo 5/17/04

Wedding of Linda & Gloria
Dewitt Photo 5/17/04

But each new act in honor of love lessened their fear and strengthened their dignity. Same sex couples became aware of the burden they had been carrying, the hidden assumption that they were somehow less than the others. Once they felt a glimpse of equality, they couldn’t go back. They had put down the burden, and they were free. So even if there were opponents holding signs that said, “Homosexuals are demons,” it didn’t matter. A young lesbian woman carried another poster that said, “Your signs are mean but we love you anyway.” No matter what happens next, such love releases an inner power that is indestructible.

I think that is part of what Dr. King was talking about. It was visceral and immediate. By tapping the power of love through non-violent action, he felt first hand a new way of being in the world. He fully experienced his own dignity and the dignity of his people. After that, what else could matter? He had been to the mountaintop. As he said, “whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere.” He knew there was no turning back.

King quotes from “I See the Promised Land”, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.