The Power of the Story

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

I don’t understand the mechanics of experiencing the divine presence. I wonder if, as for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it has something to do with the commitment to give oneself to a sacred calling, or to do the work of justice. I don’t know why some people call for help, and never seem to hear an answer. There is no formula that I can teach you, except to say that trouble can sometimes be a doorway, too, if we knock.

It makes me think about something my grandfather wrote in a little black notebook that disappeared for many years. April 4th, the anniversary of King’s death, is also the anniversary of the death of my grandfathers, one in 1964, and one in 1967. My grandpa Johnson died when I was not quite 11 years old. He was not a Catholic, which was a big deal in my family. But I am told he had been a spiritual man, and had even considered a call to ministry as a Unitarian or a Lutheran. The story I remembered from the notebook was this: My grandfather said that my young cousin Michael at the age of three had gone into a church building and was looking for God. My grandfather commented, “If you can’t find God outside of the church, you will never find him inside the church.”

But just before Easter a few years ago, while my uncle was dying, another cousin sent me a message on Facebook, about going through papers of her father, and finding a copy of Grandpa’s note. It turned out the actual quote was slightly different than I remembered. He had written, “I hope you keep looking. And when you find him don’t keep him confined in church.” But it speaks to the same impulse—that God is beyond what happens in church.

Grandpa's Notebook

Grandpa’s Notebook

Even without a formula, even without a sure way to find this God who helps the lowly, I believe the stories of such a God can give us hope and courage. I am reminded of an old Jewish legend recounted by Elie Wiesel. Whether it is true or not, I do not know. But that is the thing about stories. The truth to be found in stories is not about whether or not they are factual. Some of the most helpful stories happen only in fiction.

This is a story about a Jewish community who had a very wise and powerful Rabbi. When the people were in trouble, their Rabbi used to go into the woods, to a special place, where he prayed a very special prayer, with ritual and song, and the people would be helped. But eventually the rabbi died, and his successor did not know the full ritual with all its songs. So when the people were in trouble, he went into the woods, and prayed the special prayer, and it was enough, and the people were helped.

Eventually, he too died, and the next Rabbi who came to them did not know the place in the woods. But he did know the special prayer, and so when the people were in trouble, he prayed the prayer, and it was enough, and the people were helped. Finally, he too died, and the next Rabbi didn’t know the rituals or the songs, he didn’t know the place in the woods, or even the special prayer. But he knew the story. And it was enough. And the people were helped.

Leslie Marmon Silko writes, in her novel Ceremony:

I will tell you something about stories,…
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
All we have to fight off
illness and death

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

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The God of the Bible is the God of Justice

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.

mlkmemphisspeech1968On April 3rd, 1968, the night before he was killed, Dr. King delivered a speech in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to support the sanitation workers’ strike. There had been threats against King related to this trip to Memphis; he mentioned the threats in his speech. He mentioned earlier dangers, too, including the time he was stabbed by a deranged woman in New York City. But he talks more about his gladness. He speaks about his gratitude for being alive to witness the sit-ins, and the bus boycott, and all the other ways that black people had aroused the conscience of the nation and stood up for freedom. He encourages the striking workers not to be afraid, and talks about all the practical necessities of their current struggle.

He ended his speech in words that his listeners would have known were an echo of the story of Moses. As the Hebrew people were close to entering the promised land, God brought Moses up on a mountain, where he could see the promised land, even though he would not be allowed to enter it with them. It was on that mountain that Moses died.

Here is what Dr. King said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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 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.

There is power in a story. For Dr. King, the story of Moses was a doorway into the power of God to lift up the lowly. King said that preachers should draw on the prophet Amos to say, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He said that preachers should say with Jesus, who himself was quoting the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.” Dr. King took the stories of the prophets and wove them into new words of hope and liberation, words that gave people the power to make a change.

There are still many people who try to argue against this justice-loving God of the Bible. Four years ago, just a few weeks before the anniversary of Dr. King’s death, Fox News commentator and radio personality Glenn Beck attacked churches that preach a gospel of social and economic justice. Glenn Beck said if your church preaches that, you should “run as fast as you can.” According to Beck, social and economic justice are code words for communism and Nazism.

Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive Christian group Sojourners, responded to Beck on his own videoblog. He said,

When I was in seminary, we did a study of the Bible and we found 2000 verses in the Bible about the poor, about God’s concerns for the left out, the left behind, the vulnerable and God’s call for justice. One of my classmates took an old Bible, and cut out every single reference to the poor, to social justice, to economic justice, and when we were done, the Bible was just in shreds. If I were ever to talk to Glenn Beck, I would like to hand him that old Bible from seminary and say, Glenn, this would have to be your Bible. …The God of the Bible is the God of justice.

When you are standing up for righteousness, God will be at your side

Today 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.

There was a time shortly after the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, when Dr. King was seriously doubting whether to continue his involvement in the movement. He had been receiving threatening phone calls and letters at his home, and while at first he took them in stride, after a while, he began to grow afraid. After a particularly strenuous day, late at night, already in bed, he got a phone call with yet another angry threat. He got up and began to pace the floor and then went into the kitchen.

He wrote about this moment:

I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problems to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

He goes on to say,

At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once, my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.

Three nights later, his home was bombed, but he was able to deal with it calmly. His experience of the presence of God had given him a whole new strength.

As in the story of the Israelites leaving the slavery of Egypt, Dr. King experienced a divine Mystery that is involved in the struggles of human beings to achieve dignity, equality, and justice. As I said before, there is no way to prove that such a God exists. At least, there is no proof outside of the experience of it. But there is a power in the experience that enabled Dr. King to go on to lead his people with courage and truth. And there is a power in the story, just the experience of hearing that story about Dr. King, that inspires me in my own search for strength in the work for transformation.

220px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTSTo look closely at the story of Dr. King is to see its deep resonance with the story of Moses. God didn’t speak to Moses to give Moses a comfortable life. When Moses heard the voice of God, in the story of the burning bush, it was a voice calling him to free his people. And just so, Dr. King wasn’t praying about material wealth or success in his career, or even protection for his family. He was praying about standing up for what he believed was right—the struggle of black people to be treated with dignity and equality. He was praying for the courage to bear witness to justice. And the answer he received was linked to that justice work—that inner voice said, “when you are standing up for righteousness, God will be at your side.”

Dr. King went on to lead the movement with courage and strength. There were other threats and many troubles that came his way. His God didn’t protect him from all those troubles, but King felt God at his side. And the story of Moses continued to be a constant source of his inspiration.

Quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. is from The Strength to Love, Chapter 13, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

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.”