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Friday, August 30, 2013

Taking Meaning from Martin Luther King

“And in the last days it shall be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams;” 
--Acts 2:17 ESV

This week in Washington, D.C., there was a big celebration to commemorate the date when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the speech referred to as the “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial steps.  I was young in the 60’s, and remember some of the race relation events of the 60’s and 70’s well, but others are more sketchy, including the presentation of his speech.  However, for years I taught a speech class at a community college, and every class had to watch or listen to certain great historical speeches, and read others, and King’s ’63 speech was ALWAYS included.  What surprised (and saddened me) was the number of students who were aware of the speech, but had never read or watched it in its entirety.  They were sadly deprived.

Having grown up in a multiracial community, and always attended schools that were just naturally “integrated,” I had a hard time understanding (and still do, for that matter) those who sought to hard to maintain segregation and discrimination.  Just doesn’t make much sense to me.  I love King’s line about judging an individual, “not by the color of his skin, but the content of his character.”  Actually, there are a number of lines I love.  And I love the dramatic style of presentation.  It is more than just what people call the style of the “black pulpit.”  He had a gift, and when he generates excitement and energy in that speech, raising pitch and volume up and down like a rollercoaster, then when he reaches the peak with, “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last,” he doesn’t stand for applause, he doesn’t draw other conclusions, he doesn’t even say, “thank you.”  Instead, he raises the pitch and energy to the peak, and walks away leaving the words ringing in their ears, because he understood it wasn’t the man, it was the message that mattered, and the best way for people to hear the message of that speech was for him to get out of the way.  If you have never watched it through, I highly recommend it.

I didn’t know MLK, Jr., obviously.  I know some things about his life, but I also know there are things that have been sealed away, and that he wasn’t a perfect person.  So I don’t think the man needs to be on a pedestal, but he certainly needs to be appreciated and the message he brought should be valued.  But as I listened to the various politicians and entertainers bring their thoughts (and I didn’t listen to that many completely through), I was struck by what I perceived as the difference.  They spoke about the movement and the dream…which are both important.  And they elevated the man.  But it also felt like there was plenty of ego involved as well….could be my bias.  But I wasn’t so impressed.  I began to wonder why, and came up with what I think made a difference.

King had a dream.  But the dream was not his own.  In all the chatter these days about race relations, I think some core elements have been lost along the way here in America.  

King did NOT create his own message.  He was a man ENTRUSTED with a message.  He was a man called of God as an ordained minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  When he spoke of issues of justice and love and righteous actions, he spoke out of a context: the context of the scriptures, the context of the church he had grown up attending, the context of the Savior he served and followed.  

It was what he gleaned from those contexts that his message was shaped, for it wasn't merely his message, I believe, it was the message God had revealed to him and entrusted him to proclaim.  Go back to the speech, it is peppered not only with references to United States history, but also with references to a multitude of scriptures.  That was his standard.  That was where he derived his authority.  That was how he learned right from wrong.  As the scripture from Joel quoted in Acts indicates, God is a God of dreams, visions and messages called prophecy.  And the dreams the Spirit of God pours out are dreams of substance, value and truth.

Today, so many leaders derive their authority from their own imaginations and designs.  They speak of a vision that is derived from popular opinion.  Their moral authority has become mired in the morass of relativism.  There is, for them, no ultimate truth, only the truth that gets a hearing, produces fans or gets one elected.  In part, I think this has happened because so many parents since MLK’s day have neglected in raising their children with knowledge of scripture, lacking attendance at church or synagogue.  So what is right, what is good, or the idea that our Creator expects something of us is, for those children, totally arbitrary or personal opinion.  And I believe we are paying the price for it as a nation in a great number of ways.

I so love the scene in “Driving Miss Daisy” where she is invited to synagogue to hear King speak, but leaves waiting outside her “Negro” chauffeur  never considering seriously that he was one of the very people on whose behalf King was speaking!  Truth and popular opinion are rarely the same.  Jesus made very clear that real truth is to be found in scripture.  So, for me, the celebration of Dr. King’s speech is not merely remembering what he said, but also a celebration of the Giver of the message Dr. King proclaimed.  When was the last time YOU spent time searching the scriptures for some truth?

(p.s.  I’ll got some thoughts to share regarding divorce again, soon.  Just feel like this is an important enough event that I want to include it, too.)

TL:dr  Reflections on Martin Luther King’s speech celebration and the source of his message.

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