Every January, I take in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ceremonies from historic Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sweet Auburn Avenue in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia.
I dedicate that day, the third Monday of January, to remembering the life of Dr. King. Since no longer serving a parish, I try to dedicate the long weekend, to reread his academic work, his sermons, and read about his life. This year, I purchased a copy of his doctoral dissertation which is included in his collection of papers. It is a comparison of the theology of Paul Tillich, the first systematic theologian that I studied seriously, and process theologian Henry Nelson Wieman, a person that I have dedicated the last three years of my life to studying, particularly his process of creative interchange which I have written about here. King’s assessment of the two side-by-side has been revelatory.
But I confess, I prefer his sermons. Although academically trained and rigorous in scholarship, it is the heart of the pastor that touches my soul. I sense his deep pastoral care for his people while addressing more significant societal issues of race, poverty, and militarism.
Back in the day, when Dr. Joe Roberts was the pastor of Ebenezer, having succeeded Daddy King, Martin’s father, I could get a good seat just by walking in. Joe was my preaching professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory. He took a special “liking” to me, I think because I was South of God at a United Methodist seminary. He did me the great favor of personally introducing me to Howard Thurman, the mystic godfather of the civil rights movement. He was always a welcoming, sponsoring spirit. Later, after my move to the Episcopal priesthood, I was able to introduce his genius to my new world of high liturgy.
When I left Atlanra and went to Tyler, Texas, there was no King Day celebration. I was able to help start the first one in the city the year after I arrived. My close friend, Art Flicker, the rabbi, and I walked arm in arm that first march from the downtown square to the Roman Catholic Cathedral for the first King Day service, noting the SWAT team on the roofs of downtown buildings providing “protection” as there had been threats.
I believe that it was the second year that I was asked to speak. It was clear to me that the invitation came to me, not out of awe at my doctoral work, or my Episcopal priesthood. Rather it was my Atlanta pedigree, having come from the city of Dr. King. And I was proud of that, working harder on that speech than anything else I had ever done. I wanted to make Dr. King and my home town proud of this boy.
Imagine my surprise as they asked an older black pastor to give a “pastoral prayer” before I was to speak. This old, deeply dark black man, with gorgeous white hair, came to the pulpit and delivered one of those LONG prayers that come from the depths of his heritage and soul. As they say, he went “on”, and on, and on. Hell, by the end, I was ready to join the Church and become a missionary! He was good, which was to be trouble for anyone that tried to follow him.
And that would be me.
Somewhere in my memory, an image emerged that just might help me make a smooth transition to my presentation. As I climbed into that pulpit, I paused, letting the place settle down. Silence, while awkward, can be effective.
I said, “I feel a bit like Dennis Menke.” I knew that only a handful of people knew who in the world Dennis Menke was. I went on. “Dennis Menke was an infielder for my Atlanta Braves. His job was to follow Hammerin’ Hank Aaron in the batting order. Imagine, every day, he would have to wait in the batting circle while the home run king took his turn at bat. That’s how I feel, coming to this pulpit after hearing Rev. Jones deliver that powerful prayer. It occurred to me that Rev. Jones is on a first-name relationship with the Almighty. That’s hard to follow!”
I got the laugh I was looking for, and maybe some sympathy for my predicament. And made a life-long friend with Rev. Jones.
I remember the outline of my talk. I used the image of an alarm clock, meant to wake us up from sleep. How sleep was comfortable, the special sin plaguing Tyler, the sin of comfort. We want to get an alarm clock with a “snooze” button on top, so that when the alarm sounds, we simply have to push that magic snooze button and get five more minutes of rest, And you can anticipate where I took this sermon, talking about alarms going off all around us, but we kept slapping at the snooze button. It was not the typical Chamber of Commerce hype, but a prophetic call. And we know what fate awaits the prophets, don’t we?
There were a number of people in town who did not appreciate me calling out the glaring issues of race and poverty in our town. Some were powerful, leaders in the community who resented this “outsider” from Atlanta telling them what to do. Thankfully for me, I was protected by the Episcopal polity which prevented folks from voting me out, as they did my pastor in the church I grew up in. I also had a cadre of people in my parish, notably of World War II vintage, that had my back in conversations at the country club and in business gatherings. To my surprise and delight, I was able to serve there for a decade, which was quite a trick and gift, weeping when I left the parish and city that I loved and grew to call home.
King Day took on a special value this year, and I am not sure why. It was the usual four-hour service, from 10 AM to 2 PM. If you are a platform speaker, four hours is a long time to hold your water, as they say. A bladder buster, Especially as one ages. I get a perverse pleasure when public officials show up to “be seen”, unknowingly drinking their fourth cup of coffee as they arrive. They are in for a surprise. Watching them shift from side-to-side is hilarious, right around 12:15. Surely this is going to be over soon, they are hoping. It is not.
This year, there was the usual reading by a rabbi of the Old Testament, a reading from the Gospel by a minister, and then a reading from the Koran from an Aman. There is music provided by the Ebenezer Choir, along with solos from various members of the music industry. One of my favorite parts is the dramatic presentation of various portions of King’s words by young people from local high schools and colleges. One of my least favorites is the recognition of public officials who have shown up, but my revenge has already been noted.
It leads up to the keynote speech. This was someone that I know, attorney Bryan Stevenson, who works with folks on Death Row. His remarkable life story is dramatized in the film, Just Mercies. I had met him several times at the Carter Center and his content and delivery are superb. He has some amazing stories to tell, some confessional as he admits to the discouragement that comes his way in his line of work. The book and the movie are worthy of your time.
This day, he focussed on the systemic effects of racism, particularly reminding us of the history of racism in this country. Our reluctance to face this history, because it makes us uncomfortable, dooms us to not progress in our American dream and vision. He argued powerfully, like a good litigator should, for a renewed effort to face the hard reality of our past so that we can move faithfully into the future.
A powerful part of the service was provided by Dr. King’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King who chided the folks gathered, particularly the politicians, to not just quote her father about unity, and then fall into partisan antics that divide. She said that we love the quotable, convenient King but dismiss the inconvenient King that demands change and transformation of our social structures and values. She reminded us that her father was sent as a prophet to this country to speak a prophetic word that calls for an inconvenience because it challenges us to change our hearts, minds, and our behavior. Dr. Martin Luther King, the inconvenient King, puts some demands on us to change our ways. It was a powerful call to make good the vision of Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community. Poignantly, she pointed out the hypocrisy of politicians publicly lauding the work of Dr. King and yet preventing his words and teachings to be studied in our schools because it made folks uncomfortable. Clearly, Dr. King’s blood and spirit fuels his daughter.
And so, another King Day came and went. It, as usual, was a powerful re-minder to me and others of the Dream. I took the time to reread that famous speech from the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. And then I forced myself to reread the letter he wrote to white ministers from his cell in a Birmingham jail. It chastises for a lack of courage but ends with a clarion call for hope based on King’s sense of the lay of the land of human existence. It was my biggest takeaway, prophetic and poetic:
“In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Sounds to me like Jesus’ Kingdom of God, or more pointedly, the reign of God.
Thank you, Dr. King, for making the call clear.
8 thoughts on “MLK: Much More Than A Day”
David, you might remember Bishop Nolan Harmon, who was teaching at Candler when we were there. He was one of the recipients of the Letter. I’m not sure that he ever understood it.
As ever, thanks for sharing this. Blessings.
I remember him. I think Bevel Jones got a copy. He did “get it”!
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Another home run, man. . . Hammering Hank got nothin’ on you. . .
And I swear you be like Forest Gump! Is there anybody significant in the last few decades that you DIDN’T hang out with?!
Also love that quote from Dr King. It just about says everything that needs to be said IMHO.
Lately I’ve been reading and re—reading — as well as watching — one of my spiritual mentors, Dom Crossan (whom I have met, BTW) who clarifies the difference between John-the-Baptizer and Jesus so powerfully. John preached about a failed world and an angry God who was coming back/down to clean things up (with ‘the axe being laid at every tree. . .’). Our human job was to be baptized to wash away all the human sin so when God did his thing, the baptized would survive to be with God and his reign.
Jesus, on the other hand, understood that the ‘reign of God’ was something potentially present in every moment here and now (‘at hand’ and ‘in our midst’) and that, instead of waiting for God to come back and do it (picture Jesus on a war horse in Revelations), we need to get with that ‘way of being/living’ ourselves and BE it/live it now. ‘What would the budget look like if it were God’s budget?’ ‘How would people be treating each other if we were all following God’s principles?’ ‘What would rulers be doing if they were acting like representatives of God’s way?’
Thank you again, brother, for showing so clearly this approach to living that your (many) heroes represented.
Love from Poland, where we are stumbling in and out of that God-like way of being. . .
Thanks, John. Your comments mean so much to me as I admire your theological and spiritual sensitivities. Crossan was a hero of mine back in the day. I have been reading Borg’s work on the Q gospel that sees the pair of JB and JC in a similar way. Complete rethinking of what Jesus was really all about. Always good to keep it fresh.
Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment. I treasure your friendship and collegiality. David
Roger that, David. . . It’s mutual.
Have you seen the Dan Rather interview with Crosby, Stills & Nash? (I sent you the link.) Watch it, man. Lots of deep stuff there for people like us.
Good piece, David. I had the pleasure of being there for the King service in January of 1998 (while in seminary). Bishop Tutu spoke as did many other notables. I had to sit in the overflow section of the “Family Life Center,” or whatever they called the space. For that reason I had to experience the service on a projection screen. It was still quite moving, as was the whole St. Luke’s experience in Atlanta. Keep pounding ‘‘em outta the park right behind Hank! Robert G. Johnson
Thanks, Robert. I am so glad you got to experience St. Luke’s, my home court. Hope you and Joanie are doing well.
Greetings Dave, I finally took the time to read these. I am sorry I put it off. You brought up some long-forgotten memories. Like your home pastor being, “voted out.” About Dr. King, my dad passed away July 69, but between 67 and his passing he always took relatives and friends from out of town to visit Dr. King’s gravesite at South View Cemetery just south of Lakewood Heights. (Before he was moved to Sweet Auburn) Dr. Kings parents are buried there now, just next to Jonesboro Rd. Growing up like you in the early years, I appreciate your Atl references. I get it! Looking forward to reading more.