MLK and dry-as-dust religion

mlk women's march4

Martin Luther King, Jr., sought not only to change society, but to reform religion as well. From the start, he challenged people of faith to recognize the demands of their faith and live them courageously.

He challenges us today.

He reminds us that we can’t call ourselves people of faith if we lack interest in how people are being treated. We can’t be indifferent to the suffering of others and claim that we’re living by the admonition to love one another.

King understood that people of faith are not only obligated to transform their societies through the power of love, they’re in a unique position to do so.

As a young pastor in Montgomery — in the heart of Klan country — MLK noted that so many churches were talking about heaven but ignoring the injustices right outside their doors. He said any religion that’s not concerned with how God’s children are being treated is “a dry-as-dust religion.”

The Civil Rights Movement got its flashpoint when Sunday school teacher Rosa Parks decided faith impelled her to resist an unjust transportation system. Black church leaders used the moment to push for equality for all God’s children.

Many white churches resisted. Years later, when he was imprisoned for a march in Birmingham, MLK wrote his famous letter pushing back against white clergy urging him to be silent and go away.

King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that any church which fails to bring God’s values to bear on conditions in our world “will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning” for contemporary times.

Irrelevant social clubs

King observes how young people in particular were drifting away, their disappointment turning into disgust for what was being passed off as church in so many instances.

He was prophetic.

A half-century later, millions have left churches that feel dry as dust, searching instead for authentic faith communities. They seek the places that are rooted in love and follow the historical summons to care for the needy, welcome the stranger, embrace the refugee, heal the sick, and challenge systems that harm God’s children.

They’ve given up on churches that are fixated on sex and indifferent to injustice. They want nothing to do with places that are invested in liturgy but lacking in love.

Breathe new life into dust

Love is the foundation of all living religion, and it isn’t a feeling or an ideal. It’s a commitment to treat others as ourselves and stand with those who are marginalized.

When we’re animated by such faith, we follow wherever it leads us, even when the path is unpopular, unsettling, uncharted and unsafe.

If our lives aren’t enlivened by such love, then they’re dry as dust. MLK reminds us that when we refuse to stand up for what is right, our lives have essentially ended. If our lives stand for nothing more than self-interest, it’s as though we’re not even here.

This summons to people of faith extends to us today.

Love — the real thing — can breathe new life into any life, society or religion that has become dry as dust. Love and love alone has the power to resurrect.

“With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
— from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Aug. 28, 1963

The power of our words

mlk spotlight

Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the power of words.

He spoke so beautifully and prophetically about his dream of a world in which everyone is treated as an equally beloved child of God. He challenged society to live up to its founding words of equality, liberty and justice for all.

His enduring words reengage us, reorient us and reenergize us in the daily struggle to decide our values and live up to them.

Words matter because they always take on flesh in some form.

Words have the power to inspire us, touch us, and transform us for better or worse, depending upon which words we choose to allow inside of us. They can bring us more peace, love and justice, or they can increase our levels of division, fear and hatred.

In the last few months, we’ve been reminded how easy it is to get sucked into the pool of hateful words.

A man immersed in racist words shot people in a Kentucky grocery store. A man immersed in fearful words sent bombs to people labeled as threats. A man immersed in anti-Semitic words killed people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Words can inject poison into our veins, or they can be a healing antidote. They can bring illuminating hope, or they can appeal to our darkest instincts.

Words have power

MLK showed us how to change societies in nonviolent ways using nonviolent language. He reminded us that love involves recognizing each person as a child of God and respecting their human dignity, even if they don’t do the same for us.

We can’t return a slur or insult with one of our own. We can’t demean anyone or support those who demean others.

Our aim is never to harm any person, but to challenge their way of thinking and to defend those whom they are hurting. We must disagree and resist without being hateful.

This weekend is a fitting time to remember three important things about words:

First, it’s so very tempting to respond to incendiary, angry words with incendiary and angry language of our own. But when we do that, we’re giving power to the hateful words. We can’t go down that path.

Second, we can harm people with our silence as well as our words. Refusing to stand up against injustice – swallowing our words in the face of something that’s wrong – makes us complicit in the injustice.

Last, we must hold not only ourselves but also our leaders accountable for their words.

Silence can harm too

Religious, political and social leaders all have a “bully pulpit.” Their words are amplified throughout our society and will either elevate it or debase it. Leaders shape attitudes and inspire actions with their spoken and typed words.

When anyone in a leadership role uses language that marginalizes, demonizes or demeans, we must push back strongly, withhold our support, and hold them accountable.

This weekend reminds us how words can lead us forward or hold us back. They can promote goodness or spread darkness. They can inspire a dream or encourage destruction.

The enduring challenge is to choose our words carefully, speak them prophetically and live them courageously.

Grief, joy and a mom’s ceramic reindeer

Rudolph

My mom had multiple sclerosis and was limited to a wheelchair for her last 15 years. When she couldn’t navigate the house anymore, she moved into a retirement apartment and made new friends.

The apartment offered social activities, including a pottery class. My mom joined and made gifts for family and friends. Each Christmas, we’d receive new ornaments and holiday figures.

She made the Rudolph figure above. She was particularly proud of it. She kept it and placed it next to the small tree in her living room each year. When she died, I inherited it. Every Christmas since, I’ve place it next to my tree.

Holding the figure – the same one she held so tightly and painted so carefully – helps me feel connected to her. I sense her continued presence in my life.

It wasn’t always this way.

The first few Christmases after she died were difficult. Hanging her ceramic ornaments on the tree and setting Rudolph next to it made me miss her even more. It was akin to yanking the bandage off a wound that’s just starting to heal.

I felt I’d not only lost her, but Christmas, too.

Several family members and close friends are experiencing that same feeling this holiday season. They’ve lost someone or some important relationship. Entering a new year feels like closing a door behind them.

Those first years are so difficult! The pain can overpower. Joy seems elusive. There’s an overriding sense that things will never be the same, never as good.

All the talk of good cheer can get swallowed in that black hole.

As I gained distance from my mom’s death, the pain slowly subsided and made room for something else. Pain has been replaced by presence.

Pain replaced by presence

Whenever I look at the reindeer figure now, I think of all the holidays when she was in some sort of pain and yet made Christmas special for us. And now we live in her spirit and do the same for each other.

She’s still here in all of this. The circle is unbroken.

Whenever I hold the reindeer figure, I think of how she held it and put so much of herself into it. How she carefully painted the brown eyes, the long lashes and the red nose, trying so hard to get them just right.

And then she looked at it and smiled, the same way I smile when I look at it now. She put herself into that figure the same way she put herself into her family – so much careful work, so much love, so much attention to detail.

Those things never go away. They form a bond can’t be broken.

That is, after all, the Christmas message: Love is strongest of all, always stronger than hate or fear or the thing we call death. Nothing can separate us from powerful love.

Which brings us to joy.

Joy is mentioned a lot during the holiday season – joy to the world — and yet it seems so distant and alien and elusive when we’re feeling grief and emptiness. But joy and sadness aren’t mutually exclusive; they co-exist. They’re partners, in a sense.

As I’ve gotten older and experienced loss, I’ve realized that joy isn’t a feeling. It’s more of a mindset or a lifestyle grounded in the recognition that life and love endure, even when they change forms.

Joy is a close relative of gratitude and appreciation. It encourages us to step back, realize we’re still in good hands, and smile through our watery eyes.

One more thing about joy: It’s not personal, but collective. We create and share joy together.

Love is strongest of all

Joy involves helping each other through our pain. We sit with each other, hold hands, remind each other that we’re never alone. We don’t tell each other to cheer up or smile or be joyful; we simply give each other our presence.

That’s joy at work.

One of my favorite descriptions of this work comes from Francis of Assisi, who reminds us so beautifully and poetically that when we encounter hatred in someone’s heart, we bring love that can transform it.

Where there is doubt, we bring faith. Despair, hope. Darkness, light.

And where there is sadness, joy.

Not a joy that minimizes or ignores the sadness, but a joy that sits down next to it and listens to it. A joy that’s strong enough to help us through those moments and transform them.

A joy that’s expressed through something as simple as holding a hand. Or holding a ceramic reindeer.

A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old on that Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogi. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home from work so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought some demons home from the battlefield.

The demons emerged during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with co-workers. The co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We got new PJs for Christmas every year, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. It was getting late. Mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. There were two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad walk up the driveway. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was much racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it’s the only time in his life that he had pierogi and mushroom soup.

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

He saw he could help,so he did

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

I never saw the man again. I’m thankful for what he did and for what he taught me. He showed me how race and other differences need not divide us. Love knows no boundaries.

He could be alive today, totally unaware of how his kindness that long-ago night is still remembered and treasured. Every Christmas eve, I pray for him and for the courage to be a little more like him.

Maybe you could, too.

Stranded by the side of the road

StrandedMotorist

The front axle on my car broke while I was driving on a hilly, two-lane road a few weeks ago. It was nighttime. I was stranded and felt helpless.

I put on my emergency flashers, got out of the car and waved the others around me while fishing the AAA card from my wallet to call for a tow. Two people stopped and offered to help me push my car to the shoulder of the road.

We were on a hill. We couldn’t push hard enough to even budge it. I thanked them, and they went on their way.

Soon, three young men in an SUV pulled up behind me. One of them was a mechanic. They offered to tow me up the hill to a church parking lot where I’d be out of harm’s way until the AAA tow truck arrived.

I was grateful and touched by their kindness. They didn’t have to stop, but they decided to take the time to help a stranger stranded by the side of the road.

Kind of a parable. And it took an uncomfortable twist.

They stopped to help

The young men pulled their SUV in front of my car so they could connect it to their hitch. They had a bumper sticker that made it clear we have a sharp disagreement on an issue that’s dear to my heart.

In that instant, my gratitude was muted. Why couldn’t the person who stopped to help me be someone, well, more like me?

As I watched them crawl under my car to hook it up, I realized how prone I was to make assumptions about them. Instead of merely appreciating their kindness, I’d judged them based upon a bumper sticker.

Which made me re-think the famous parable.

The story of the good Samaritan starts with two devoutly religious men who pass by a bleeding man, offering nothing more than thoughts and prayers. They’ve drawn lines in their minds – who’s worthy of their help, who’s not – that allow them to ignore someone in need.

Along comes the Samaritan, someone on the wrong side of so many people’s imaginary lines, and he’s moved to do the compassionate thing. The Samaritan has no lines that limit his love.

But what about the bleeding man?

How would he react?

The man who was robbed and left half-dead most likely had lines in his own mind, too. The Samaritan likely would have been on the wrong side of the robbery victim’s assumptions about who is worthy.

How would the robbed man react when he regained consciousness and learned that he’d been saved by someone whom he looks down upon and maybe even despises?

Would it change the robbed man’s view of Samaritans?

Did it change my view of those who stopped to help me?

That roadside moment reminded me how it’s so easy to get drawn into the loud voices saying we shouldn’t help those who are on a different side of our lines, our theologies, our borders.

The parable tries to erase those lines and make us recognize each other from the perspective of our undivided humanity. It challenges us to let our compassion supersede and trump anything and anyone who tries to divide us into groups of those who are worthy and those who are not.

When we see someone who needs our help, we stop. When someone stops to help us, we feel thankful, regardless of what’s on their bumper.

And we say a prayer of gratitude for them as they drive away – not only for their help, but for the lesson learned again.

A bit of grace inside each wrapper

tricktreat

A young girl who was dressed in a frog costume toddled toward my house. Her eyes were wide, her gait uncertain. Her parents said it was her first time trick-or-treating.

I smiled, told her I liked her costume, and plopped a gift into her bag. She looked down at the snack-sized candy bar and then back up at me, unsure how to respond. Her parents told her to say “thank you.” She did. And off she toddled, trying to wrap her brain around this unusual night.

This isn’t how things normally work in our world.

People don’t usually dress as frogs. And people don’t usually smile at every stranger who comes their way and give them something with no strings attached.

The coolest part of Halloween – besides the costumes and the decorations and the pumpkins – is how we set aside a night to celebrate unconditional sharing.

We give to all who ask of us. Everyone who asks, receives. Nobody is turned away. We don’t judge whether someone is more deserving or less worthy. No one asks a child what they’ve done to earn their treat – well, I hope not, anyway!

A reminder of grace

Everything is freely given – no fine print, no hidden agenda. Everyone is accepted and welcomed, regardless whether they’re a young child in a frog outfit or a teenager who has outgrown costumes but still likes to get treats.

This is us at our best. This is what we are called to be all the time.

It’s too bad that we don’t operate this way more often. Instead, we waste so much energy creating standards of worthiness and judging who meets them and who falls short. We reward those who meet our arbitrary measures and deny those whom we deem unfit.

I know one person who doesn’t celebrate Halloween because they think that handing out candy teaches young people they can get something for nothing. They see it as a bad life lesson.

I see it as a reminder of grace.

Grace can’t be earned or owned, only accepted and shared. Our next breath, our next heartbeat, our next moment of love is handed to us with absolutely no merit on our part. They’re just plopped right into our bag.

How do we react? We look at the gifts, and then we turn toward the Giver and we say, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” And then we go and do the same.

The universe has bumped along for billions of years without you and me, and it’s done quite well without us, to be honest. And then, we got this unearned moment of grace, We were invited to join the party — along with everyone else — and enjoy all that it entails.

Filling each other’s bags

Yes, each of us is a divine charity case. And yes, there’s part of us that hates that. We’d rather live with the illusion that we merit and deserve all we have. We prefer the delusion that we’re self-sufficient and we somehow earned what we’ve actually been handed.

Grace reminds us otherwise.

I remember the times I’ve been the one wearing a costume and opening the trick-or-treat bag on someone’s doorstep. I recall bundling up against the October chill in Cleveland and going door-to-door to experience the kindness of strangers.

I can still feel those warm moments of giving and receiving.

I also remember the many times in my life when I was running low on important things – hope, joy, love, money, you name it – and someone came along and filled my bag again. Often, it was a stranger.

That’s how this works. We give and receive, enclosing a bit of grace inside each wrapper.

Every day begins with more gifts plopped into our bags — another breath, another heartbeat, more possibilities and opportunities to give and receive love. Then for the rest of the day, it’s our turn to give generously and joyfully. And to receive thankfully and appreciatively.

To fill each other’s bags until they’re overflowing.

On the square: Lives written with the same words

Market Square

Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh was vibrant on the autumn afternoon that Gloria and I visited. Folks got a cup of coffee or a sandwich from one of the surrounding shops, sat at a table and enjoyed the company of strangers on a delightful day.

Some read books. Some listened to music. Some talked. One couple chased their young boy around. People made eye contact and smiled. Everyone was in their own space yet sharing this space.

I couldn’t help but wonder about each person’s story.

For instance, there was an older couple sitting nearby, holding hands and sharing one cigarette. How did they meet? What tough times have they overcome? What is it about each other that makes them smile?

Oh, and why only one cigarette?

Each one’s story

On the other side of the square, a couple doted on their young boy, encouraging him to run and watch the pigeons fly away. Will this moment become a fond memory for all of them? How many times have they been to the square already, enjoying the miracle of watching a child grow step by step?

Soon, a group of high school boys walked briskly through the square on their way home. Two boys in front were teasing one of the others. A boy in the back of the pack hung back a few steps and looked unhappy. Had he been teased? Does he get teased often for being different? Did he have that teenage feeling of wondering if you’ll ever fit in?

From the other direction came a student from the nearby college. She walked briskly and appeared troubled. Was she away from home for the first time and feeling homesick? Missing someone who had always been there for her? Wondering how she was going to get through the semester?

A family of Middle Eastern descent found an open table. They spoke in their native language. How have they been treated lately in their adopted country? What do they tell the children about our times? Do they live in fear?

A young man set up shop on a corner of the square, offering to draw portraits for $10. He was an extrovert, happily welcoming anyone who walked by. How did he learn to draw? Who are the most unforgettable people he’s met in this place?

As I looked around, I wondered how many of the people on the square had overcome cancer or some horrific health problem. Which ones were grieving the recent loss of a loved one. Which ones just got good news – a clear scan result, a promotion, a pregnancy test that came back positive – that had them feeling more alive than ever.

Each of us was in our own little world and also sharing our world with everyone else. Places like Market Square reminds us of our innate connectedness.

The same words

We give into our tendency to fixate on superficial differences, and we create opposing categories — young or old, male or female, gay or straight, single or married, black or white, Democrat or Republican, this religion or that one, this sports team or another one, and on and on. We draw many lines between ourselves and others.

As we do so, we overlook how we’re so much alike at our core. We’re all made from the same ingredients. We’re all doing our best to try to navigate through life at any given moment, in our own unique and yet universal way.

Our stories differ in their details but not in their genre. All our stories fit on the same shelf marked “human,” tucked snugly next to each other, cover to cover. When we listen to others’ stories, we’re reminded of our similar experiences and familiar feelings.

In swapping stories, we recognize that our lives are written with the same words.

As the shadows grew longer in the late-afternoon sun, the older couple got up – still holding hands – and walked away, taking turns sharing drags off that one cigarette.

They were walking each other home. Like all of us.