Tuesday, January 27, 2015

MLK and The Most Excellent Way

One of the ministers at my church asked me to write a short article with some of my thoughts on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" for our church newsletter.

Below, slightly edited so it will make sense here, is what I wrote. (Regular readers of "Blogarithmic Expressions" may recognize a couple of sentences from previous posts.)

Dr. King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April of 1963. Four months later, he delivered his incredible “I Have a Dream” speech. My parents were in the crowd there as a part of the Freedom March, also known as the March on Washington.

I first encountered this Letter in a freshman philosophy class. That was 31 years ago, closer to Dr. King’s day than to today. Some of the circumstances he saw in the 1960s and I saw in the 1980s are still prevalent. We still face racial injustice.

Other issues of the sixties have been surpassed by issues unforeseen by Dr. King and unimaginable to the philosophers and political scientists of his time. We now see animosity directed toward “different” people … and the “differences” that give rise to hostility are many and varied and not always easily categorized. Officials lose their jobs because they express their religious beliefs. We experience vitriol in our public debate that has so deteriorated that many, if not most, of us would rather tune out than get involved.

I believe the problem is this: We don’t love each other enough. We are unwilling to put up with differences. We feel compelled to correct each other – just skim your Facebook feed if you don’t believe me. Too often, we decide that someone who disagrees with us cannot be trusted. Seeking our own way is the new normal.

In his sermon about Jonah, our pastor Brent Beasley said, “Am I prepared to reach out with God’s love to people who are different than I am, whom I don’t like, who make me uncomfortable?” Our church's written order of worship from that Sunday included this quote from William Carter: “When are we going to get it straight that the love of God is for all people?”

Jesus commanded us to love one another and told us people would know we are His disciples by our love. Paul writes: “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.... Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.”

We still hear Dr. King’s call. Whether you choose individually to stand against discrimination or poison politics is your decision. Whether Broadway chooses to accept and love those who differ from us – the fundamentalist, the radical, the one who sincerely understands scripture differently - is for us as a congregation to consider.

But if we do not first heed the call of Jesus and Paul to love better than we do now, our other choices will be as “resounding gongs and clanging cymbals.” (1 Cor. 13:1)

Dr. King recognized this. The essence of his Letter is his impassioned discussion of “the most excellent way of love.” He closes the Letter by imploring, as perhaps only a Baptist preacher can: “Let us all hope that … in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

In the words of Dr. King, let’s follow Jesus and be “extremists for love.” It is, after all, the most excellent way.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

...That We Should Be Called the Children of God

Poets or children or lunatics.

Rabbi Yehuda Berg writes:"As children, our imaginations are vibrant, and our hearts are open. We believe that the bad guy always loses and that the tooth fairy sneaks into our rooms at night to put money under our pillow. Everything amazes us, and we think anything is possible. We continuously experience life with a sense of newness and unbridled curiosity."

It is a curious moment. When Jesus is asked who will be the greatest in the kingdom, His response is to grab a little child, pull him to the center of the crowd, and tell all who will listen that only those who become like little children will enter the kingdom.

The characteristics of such a child - what Jesus must have in mind - include things like openness, confident reliance, acceptance of gifts, candor (Mark Twain said, "Children tell all they know and then stop."), affectionate love, dependence, honest curiosity, and energy. A child comes into Christ's kingdom trusting and accepting what the Lord offers, loving God and God's people, innocently depending on God for everything, looking around with open eyes to take it all in and find a place to serve. Children are unpretentious, loving and praying and helping without stopping to look at themselves to see if they are doing it right.

Fredrich Buechner says that this passage from Matthew 18 - "become like little children" - may be the most tempting verse of all scriptures to sentimentalize. I think what he means is that it is easy for us to create a laundry list of characteristics of children to recite. We smile as we run movies in our own mind of our children or grandchildren, or of other precious children we have known, or of our own remembered childhood. The problem, for us, comes when we try to look at this verse not as a sentiment but as a command - if we are to wake up tomorrow and become more childlike, what would that mean? For, you see, we cannot just quit our jobs. We cannot abandon our responsibilities, for we have children of our own and elderly parents and employees and customers and clients and bosses and many others who depend on us. We have the worries of this world bearing down on us. We have been taught - carefully taught over many years - a set of biases and judgments and, yes, prejudices that guide how we see everything and everyone around us. Innocence is far behind us all.

Unlike us, children ask questions not so much to gain information as to reassure themselves that we adults are seeing the same thing they see. Buechner goes on to say that a child's "Why is the grass green?" is not an inquiry into the process of photosynthesis; the child wants to be sure that we also see the greenness. We adults, on the other hand, have moved far beyond the wonder of discovery; we ask so that we can know, can understand, can control.

And then Jesus's words become a problem. We cannot become a little child. It is impossible.

And what is impossible with us is God's specialty. Jesus calls the child into the middle of the circle and tells them (and us), flatly, that they (and we) cannot get into heaven absent a miracle. We cannot become little children, but God has already declared that He is our father. He offers us the right to be come His children. When Paul writes about it, he uses the term adoption. When Jesus describes the gift to Nicodemus, he speaks of new birth. Either way, the message is clear: we cannot do anything to become children, but God can - and does - make us His children.

It is a miracle, and like most of God's everyday miracles, we seem blind to it. Buechner continues:"In the realm of our blindness, we need poets or children or lunatics to show us the miracles that we do not notice." The poet writes it, and we chalk it up to metaphor. The lunatic tells us what he knows, and we say "there he goes, hearing voices again." And so,once more, enter that child that Jesus brings among us. The child shows us what our guarded, adult selves cannot see through our responsibilities and prejudices and education. There is a miracle going on - God is accepting us, adopting us, rebirthing us as His children.

What manner of love is this, that we should be called the children of God. And that is what we are.