Monthly Archives: August 2013

50 Years Later: What Martin Luther King’s Dream Means to Me

Martin Luther KingOn the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”, so many people are pontificating over the speech’s ongoing legacy, what it means today, what Dr. King would say and advocate for in our time, etc., etc. I don’t feel I’m creative or steeped enough in the issues of race and racial politics to add much to the discussion.

But I can share what King’s speech means to me and how his legacy inspires me forward, especially as a middle-class white male whose roots hail from the south and the midwest. (Yes, I  grew up surrounded by overt and subtle racist attitudes in my family.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. died six years before I was born. By the time I became aware of him, King had already been “exalted to sainthood” as the great civil rights leader whose work, speeches, and writing forever changed the shape of racial equality and race relations in America.  It took a long time for me to step through that misty shroud of sainthood surrounding King’s legacy to look carefully at his leadership, vision, and most especially his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.”

What I’ve found is an endearing vision for all of America, black and white, that is still struggling to be actualized today. That vision is a call to action. It’s not enough to simply proclaim liberty, equal humanity, and equality of opportunity for all Americans. We must all work to secure that liberty and equality for all people. That’s justice. Justice is something we do, not just preach.

King’s speech also lifted up  a vision for basic harmony and fellowship between white people and people of color. That part has impacted me the most. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t think I’m superior or claim a greater seat of privilege than people of color. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t hold hatred or bitterness towards people of color. I can say I’m not a racist because I don’t purposely avoid or try to keep myself away from people of color.

But as I let King’s “I Have a Dream” speech sink in more deeply, I can see an area of racism that still exists within me and many others that creates a barrier to full harmony and fellowship. This racism manifests itself as fear and ignorance. It’s mistrust and presumption, formed from a lack of intentional relationships and experience.

We saw this form of racism on full display with the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin tragedy, trial, and fall-out. Blacks and whites clearly misunderstand, falsely characterize, and at times demonize each other in ugly ways. Meanwhile, no one in the midst of the conflict would claim to be a racist! However, if we’re all honest, our failure to truly understand and trust each other is a layer of racism we have yet to overcome. It cost Trayvon Martin his life. And George Zimmerman? I can’t imagine him ever living a normal, everyday life ever again.

Martin Luther King’s work has challenged me to combat this form of racism by intentionally getting to know, love, and work with people of color. Of all the diversity of friends I have, I’m blessed to have several African American friends with whom I can talk about anything. And when a question of race comes up, we can talk about it point-blank without anxiously couching our words so as not to offend each other. I trust them. They trust me, and that has allowed me to learn so much about how a person of color sees the world and issues of race and justice. In fact, I’m always humbled by what I don’t yet know or appreciate within people of color. It’s not a question of agreeing or disagreeing. It’s all about understanding, which builds basic empathy and solidarity, which in turn builds trust and intimacy.

In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville argued that in order for America to fully overcome the effects of slavery, three prejudices must be conquered: the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of race, and the prejudice of color. He couldn’t be more correct. De Tocqeville succinctly identified the three attitudes behind American racism. I restate them this way: the prejudice of superiority/inferiority, the prejudice of  segregation, and the prejudice of fear and suspicion of the other. To date, we have come a long way in overcoming the first two. And I think we still have a long way to go with the third prejudice of fear and suspicion before we can ever say that we are a post-racial America who no longer feels the effects of one race having forcibly enslaved the other. O Lord, within me, remove any trace of suspicion, fears, mistrust, and ignorance that would keep me from fully loving, receiving, and living in absolute harmony with people of color. Only then can I say I am no longer bound to the evils of racism. Amen.

Even so, I’m passionately convinced that King’s dream is not a mere pipe dream. It can find its fulfillment in us. In some ways it’s already happening. And in time, his dream of a post-racial America will be a fully incarnate reality. In the mean time, I want to do my part by naming and casting out any racism within myself. I want to work to assure liberty and equality for all people. And I hope you’ll join me!

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Church Numbers: the Golden Calf in the Middle of the Room

My spirit cringes in disgust every time I hear someone boast of their congregation, “Yeah, we worship 235 on a Sunday morning.” That statement absolutely wreaks of idolatry. For one thing, as Christians, we don’t worship 235 of anything. We worship one– count em’ 1, uno, the one and only– God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We may be blessed… correction… God may be blessed to have 235 worshippers gathered in a particular place on a Sunday morning to worship. But when I hear statements like that thrown around, I can’t stand it. And while I can’t speak for God, I’m sure this whole “yeah, we worship 235 or 75 or 666 on a Sunday morning” must stir the divine stomach, too.

church numbersIt’s time to call it out for what it is. It’s symptomatic of the thinking which plagues the mainline church, my United Methodist tribe in particular. It’s the numbers game. And the way the numbers game is being played these days, it’s nothing more than idolatry, and therefore is a breach of the First and even Second Commandments.

So why all the fuss over numbers? Well actually, the church has always counted numbers. There were 12 disciples, down from 72 at one point. There were 12 apostles. After Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, 3,000 were added to their number that day. The book of Revelation records 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel sealed for the day of redemption. (And no, I’m not a literalist on this last one. Nevertheless, it’s a numbered count, even figuratively.) Of course, the Old Testament records all kinds of numbers pertaining to God’s people.

But as for our modern obsession with numbers, I once heard United Methodist Bishop James E. Swanson say quite prophetically, “No one ever fussed about evangelism and discipleship until the money started running out.” Amen and amen, Bishop. I wish that statement could be trumpeted to every board, committee, and task force of our denomination. As the church began to decline in both financial and people resources, then we started scrutinizing our statistics and desperately cranked out catchy slogans and programs designed to promote things like evangelism, discipleship, and stewardship.

It’s the same old spiel so many of us have heard every year at our annual denominational gatherings:

Our membership is declining at precipitous rates. Our membership is getting older. We’re running out of money. We need to address this before we die out. How will we do this?

Well, we need to reverse these these trends. We need to increase our membership with newer, preferably younger people. And, of course, we need to get money out of them to keep our ship from sinking.

Idolatry. Sheer, ugly, shameful idolatry.

Instead of fussing over numbers, we need to fuss over Jesus. And therein lies the problem. As congregations became established and static, the fervor and passion of being disciples of Jesus began to ebb away. When we lost our vital connection to a life lived in Jesus, we lost our heart. When we lost our heart, we lost our passion and settled for programs, comfortable routines, maintenance-minded structures, and a club-like, members-only mentality towards congregational life.

Numbers and statistics are important, but only as a one kind of thermometer. For example, let’s say I take my temperature, and it reads higher than it should be. If I were to use today’s church mentality, I’d be saying to myself, “My goodness! This number is too high… I need to find a way to lower this number” and then proceed to shake the thermometer to a better, lower number. (Never mind it was a digital thermometer…) You can see the problem. I’m fussing over the number without diagnosing and treating the causality, the real sickness.

The real sickness within today’s mainline church is our lost fervor for being Jesus’ disciples who strive after him while expecting great, awesome things from his kingdom here on earth and in heaven to come.

Numbers tell a story, but they do not cause or fix problems. Numbers are a gauge of spiritual activity, but they are not our chief, primary focus. Jesus is. The moment we learn that lesson is the moment we can be freed from the bondage of worrying over numbers. Numbers are not to be reveled in when they’re good. We revel in and give glory to God; giving glory to numbers is self-serving idolatry. And, conversely, numbers are not to be consternated over when they’re bad. We wouldn’t worry over a thermometer. We would address the sickness and seek a remedy for it.

In our case, we have a merciful, bountiful, fiercely loving God who is ready to pour salve on our wounds, wash away our sins, cure our spiritual blindness, soften our stony-hearted apathy, smash up our self-seeking idols of worldly success, and fill us to overflowing with the Holy Spirit of Jesus. We have an Abba Father who runs breakneck towards us prodigals the moment we decide to return home. That’s true for us as individuals, and certainly true for our faith communities, too.

In order to smash up the golden calf of the numbers game, we need a revival of biblical discipleship in which we re-learn our identity as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. As disciples, we worship with passionate abandon (no matter the form of worship, form of worship being yet another manifestation of self-serving idolatry). As disciples we build authentic, caring relationships of support, learning, and accountability with other disciples. As disciples, we learn and live the Word of God contained in the pages of Scripture, crafting a thoroughly biblical lens to view God, the world, and ourselves. As disciples, we are passionate about bringing our lost neighbors to a healing relationship with Jesus, fighting for justice, binding up the broken and injured, all the while living in hopeful expectation for the kingdom of God to come. As disciples of Jesus, we seek to be like Jesus Christ, to be the living flesh, bone and sinews of  his way, truth, and life.

When we get at that, the numbers game will care for itself. After all we worship only One.

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