Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The King and Dr. King

Yesterday, my family, church, and I celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. day by helping update the cafeteria of the Salvation Army in downtown Little Rock.  On a daily basis, this room feeds the hungry and homeless breakfast and dinner.  Throughout the day, I thought about Dr. King's words about racial reconciliation, peacemaking, and economic justice (by the way, why do we so clearly remember what he said about racism but neglect his preaching on nearly every other subject?).

In Arkansas, however, Dr. King shared the day with Robert E. Lee.  How one day can hold that ironic juxtaposition of figures together, I'll never know.  I guess someone thought the day was big enough for the both of them.  Chalk it up to one more example of how the south is trying to make peace with the ghosts of our past, although the ghosts make for awkward dance partners.

Both Lee and King cared passionately for their causes.  However, one sought to bring about change through proclamation and the other sought to prevent change through force.  One used the raw materials of language and dreams.  The other employed guns and cannons.  One was willing to pay the price of war.  The other was willing to pay the price of peace.

And yet, one could argue that both were engaged in a sort of warfare.  Lee's warfare was physical, involving blood, guns, and cannons.  And yet, while the Civil War changed our country in innumerable ways, it did not, and could not, address the depths of the issues that remained until the civil rights movement a century later (and some would argue remain today).  Truly, the battlefields of the Civil War were not where the real battles took place.  Instead, the Civil War was the result of years and years of a dehumanizing ideology that seeped into the politics, economics, religion, and social structures of the day.  This ideology shaped "reality" in those days, so that people couldn't even imagine an alternative way of living.  The powers and principalities had a grip on that society in ways that people couldn't even see.  Slavery didn't exist simply because the wrong people were in control; slavery existed because the wrong people were telling the stories- or they were telling the wrong stories.

That is, until a preacher became a drum major for justice and peacefully spoke truth to those powers and shattered the paradigms of his day.  Dr. King's dreams did more to correct the injustices than all the battles of the Civil War.  His sermons pulled back the veil of "reality" and revealed the lies for what they were, naked affronts to the truth of God's good news.  A preacher did what years and years of violence and bloodshed couldn't do, and never will be able to do.

To be completely honest, there are days when I wince when someone finds out I'm a minister (or even worse, a preacher).  All sorts of loaded and false expectations arise, and the conversation either ends at that point or it shifts towards some fake, say-Jesus-in-every-sentence sort of direction.  I think part of my discomfort stems from the fact that ministry has become a sort of harmless vocation.  We preachers bless little children, give nice talks, and say nice things when the elderly die.  Ministers simply speak to captive audiences, drink a lot of coffee, and pray behind stained glass windows.  For many, ministry is an exercise in banality.   Meanwhile, the real movers and shakers are those who get things done:  doctors, lawyers, politicians, generals, financial planners, etc…   

Occasionally, however, I'm reminded of the sheer potency of the spoken word.  In Genesis 1, God speaks creation into existence.  In many of the other creation stories in the ancient world, the deity creates the world through an act of violence, but in Genesis, God peacefully speaks reality into existence.  Last week I was reading in Mark 1 (verse 38 to be exact) where Jesus, in the midst of numerous acts of power, declares, "Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for."  Preaching was primal for Jesus, as he sought to announce God's ultimate reality amidst all the other false realities.  And yesterday, while painting walls at the Salvation Army, I was reminded that MLK's words shaped our country more than Robert E. Lee's troops did.  Dr. King's dreams captured us in a way that no general's commands could.  In a way reminiscent of Genesis 1 and Mark 1, Dr. King stood high on that mountain, looked to the other side, and pronounced a new reality into existence.

So I'm going to begin paying more attention to my words.  I'm going to guard them as if they are as potent and explosive as cannonballs.  I'm going to pay more attention to dreams, for a dream is nothing short of a down payment towards a new reality.  And today, I take new pride in my vocation, in the hopes that all of us would-be-preachers speak a new reality into existence Sunday after Sunday.  I'm even beginning to believe that those whom we allow to mold our notions of reality (cue the poets, musicians, writers, and artists amongst us) carry greater weight than those who control us from positions of power.

Yesterday, Arkansas honored a general and a preacher.  While the general captured the enemy and shaped the South, the preacher captured the imagination and shaped our consciousness.  Lee's influence, while significant in his day, has come and gone.  King's voice echoes on because he tapped into a power that outlives him.  To be sure, preaching is a strange, baffling, and mysterious reality in which we participate- but so is the Kingdom of God.  And our words have a power that power knows not of.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, "To pray is to dream in league with God."  For Dr. King and Jesus, preaching was doing the exact same thing.  

Today, I give thanks to the King for Dr. King…and for all preachers everywhere who preach the truth in love.

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