King & I

It is unlikely I’d be a minister, or a Christian, if it were it not for Dr. King. Yes, that Dr. King. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And it is unlikely I’d be here with my wife and by extension my son if it were not for Dr. King.

How, you ask, can a 45 year-old hillbilly from rural upstate New York, say such a thing? 

The story begins in Cedarville, Ohio, a small college town in southern Ohio that is unbelievably flat, a flat cornfield pancake. In Cedarville is a Baptist-affiliated Christian college named, you guessed it, Cedarville College. I went there from 1990 to 1993 with the goal of becoming a minister. The idea was to get my Bachelors of Arts from the Baptist-affiliated Christian college and then go on to an Evangelical Baptist seminary.

But a couple years in, things began to look murkier. I began to question my faith in a deep way. A couple things I couldn’t get past were 1.) how could a loving God send good people of various faiths doing good works and sharing God’s love to a literal hell to suffer forever; and 2.) how could the church - the Evangelical church - so easily ignore injustice, hatred and poverty in the world yet be so involved in politics mostly in favor of the rich and powerful. My questioning became so great that I wondered if I belonged where I was and whether my goal to be a minister should really be my goal. And I knew somehow there was no going back to the simple answers I had been given growing up. Either I found a new way to get to where I wanted to go or I would have to change my goal and deny my calling altogether.   

This was where I was emotionally, intellectually, spiritually on MLK Day in January of 1992.

Like many I sort of wondered what the fuss was all about. I mean, I respected the man because that was what we were expected to do. But I did not really or completely know why. So during the chapel service that was dedicated to him that day I decided I’d skip and go to the library. I would listen to the famous “I Have a Dream” speech – on VCR tape – in its entirety. Fortunately, Cedarville College’s library had a video of the speech in its media room. This was before the days of the internet and You Tube.

Like almost everyone, I had heard snippets of the speech, mainly the speech’s chorus (“I have a dream that…”). But it was the whole of the speech that inspired me like no speech I ever heard before. I found myself there in the media room swaying to the music of the words. The power and truth prompted tears and hope. I was transformed somehow.

This single viewing led to a baptism, a full immersion into the life and thought of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, a self-study that had a few phases and lasted months .

Scouring through the bin of the Cedarville College media room, I found a dusty LP titled, In Search of Freedom: The Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I brought it over to a record player, plugged in headphones, and placed the needle down.

 The phonograph’s needle moved across the grooves of the black vinyl, bringing crackles of sound and fury, of words and truth, waves of music, a preacher's sonorous baritone masterfully lilting. A prophet's voice pulsed through the headphones across the boundaries of death and life directly to my heart and mind. King spoke music. King spoke the gospel. He spoke the truth. He spoke of Love, God’s love that must move through us and actualize freedom and justice for all. The Power of Love is found in its equanimity and its overcoming of hatred and evil in its many forms.  

Well, the powerful speeches of Dr. King influenced the second phase, an examination of the Civil Rights Movement he led. Again, there in the library basement, in the media room of Cedarville College, I viewed the 10 hour long documentary Eyes on the Prize. I watched it in just a few days. And it wasn’t always easy. 

Oh, the incredulous inhumanity I witnessed on the part of my people toward African-Americans! Fire-hoses and unleashed dogs in Birmingham. Police officers on horses with Billy clubs freely used in Selma. Fists hitting students sitting at restaurant booth in Greensboro. The brutal beating death of a 14 year-old boy from Chicago visiting family in Mississippi. Hatred spewed at young children seeking education with equality and dignity in Little Rock.

I now encountered how torturous America’s defaulting on that promissory note was. I encountered the hatred that sometimes lurks behind our rhetoric. My eyes were opened. My respect for those who marched and who led marches grew exponentially. These were veterans of a necessary conflict, a non-violent struggle to secure freedom and liberty not from enemies abroad, but within our own walls.

For the third phase I turned to good, old-fashioned books to learn more. And the third certainly offered its own kind of personal charm, if such can be found in such a harrowing study.

I began by reading Taylor Branch’s seminal Parting the Waters: America in the King Years. And then, thumbing through the library’s card catalog (yes, card catalog!), I came upon a new card with a new book that looked very intriguing – Testament of Hope: The Essential Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King.

It is this book that explains the curious statement earlier that Dr. King is responsible for my marriage and that marriage's child. Let me tell you the story now part of family lore.

I excitedly went to locate that book that day. But the book wasn’t in the new arrivals section as it should have been. I wrote down the call number, went downstairs to the stacks, and where the book was supposed to be there was just empty space. I went to the checkout desk and asked about it. They informed me it had just been checked out, but that I could place a reserve on the book so that no renewals could be placed on it after the short borrowing time for new books. I did just that.

A couple weeks later I got a notice via inter-campus mail (no email yet either) that the book was ready to be picked up. I went straight to the library and checked the book.

I carried that book everywhere. I read it as often as I could. In chapel. In classes big enough to hide it. At meals. It became my Bible for those days I first had it.

A couple days after, I brought it into a student organizational meeting. I was early and so I began reading the book. I planned on doing so until others began arriving. 

The first to arrive was the chairperson of the organization called Social for Social Justice. She was a petite young woman with dark brown hair and almond shaped eyes. She easily distracted me. I placed the large book on my desk as she sat down. Immediately, she frowned.

“So you’re the one!” she spouted

Surprised by her remark, I answered with a one-word question, “what?”

Continuing in her faux-frustration, she responded, “I was enjoying that book just a week ago, but wasn’t able to finish it. I was kind of disappointed with the unknown person who took it away from me. That unknown person is now known! I am glad someone is enjoying it.”

Of course, I offered to let her finish it. But she was herself - gracious and patient enough to wait. She then introduced herself – Holly Glenzer. 

This introduction began our love story, one that resulted in our son and one that continues to this day. We still share our own copy of the book. It sits prominent on our bookshelf as a reminder of not just the greatness of a man and of the movement he led but as a testament of our own shared hope as well. 

So without Dr. King, namely through his book of speeches, Holly and I most likely wouldn’t be and neither would Corey.
       

As for me being here as your minister and a Christian, Dr. King helped me find a different path to faith and to ministry within that faith. He helped me see a different way forward when I thought there was only one way, a way I could not in good conscience take.

First, King helped me to see beyond the narrow confines of a passive faith lacking a social consciousness and see a more active view of faith. For Dr. King, it wasn’t whether you accepted Christ as your savior necessarily, but it was about imitating Christ and choosing love over hate. It wasn’t whether you were born again, but what you did to help birth compassion and justice in this life and for all walks of life. King in effect asked the scandalous question: what good is a faith that ignores the hellish problems here and now for some dream of eternal life in the hereafter? Faith was meant to benefit those hurting and suffering in this life, not merely as a security check for the next life.

Secondly, King helped me to see that faith was a practice. It was the practice of non-violence, the practice of no-harm, the practice, the way of godly love. Dr. King saw the practice of nonviolence and the way of love as the means and end of spirituality and faith. And in the Beloved Community, love is a fully lived reality, where “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics…join hands and sing” of ultimate freedom.

Thirdly, Dr. King pointed to a Universalist styled inclusivity. Dr. King judged a person not by his proclaimed faith but by the person’s character. He did not discard or disregard those who did not claim his Baptist Christianity, as evidenced in his deep respect for and emulation of Gandhi, a Hindu. It didn’t stop there

A few years after leaving Cedarville, Holly and I got married and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. It was in Raleigh that I began a rather extensive study of Buddhism. I could often be found perusing the Buddhist section of the local Barnes & Noble. It was at Barnes and Noble where I picked-up a book titled Living Buddha, Living Christ. The book would be one of the influential books about Buddhism I would read. It significantly influenced me almost immediately.

On the back of the book, I read the following: “Thich Nhat Hanh [the author] is a holy man, for he is humble and devout. He is a scholar of immense intellectual capacity. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., in nominating Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.”   

This floored me! Dr. King, a Baptist preacher, nominating a Buddhist monk for the Nobel Peace Prize? Astounding!

Come to find out, in 1967 – three years after he won the same prize himself – Dr. King nominated his friend and kindred spirit Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. King and Nhat Hanh only met a couple times, their first meeting lasting only “five minutes or so.” King nominated Nhat Hanh in a letter dated January 25, 1967, three months before his famous speech at Riverside Church, where King, like Walter Conkrite would a year later, came out against America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King saw in each other holiness. King called Nhat
Hanh a “holy man, humble and devout.” Nhat Hanh mirrored King’s words, writing this in Living Buddha, Living Christ: "I knew I was in the presence of a holy person. Not just [Dr. King’s] good work but his very being was a source of great inspiration."

King’s close friendship with Jewish Rabbi Abraham Heschel also pointed me to a different way of being a Christian and a Christian minister, a way grounded in the way of Jesus but one welcoming and open to other ways of compassion and justice. This is the Universalist way, isn’t it?

So all of this is to say, Dr. King’s preaching and practicing of the way of Love helped me to find an alternative path to religious ministry, one far different than the Evangelical Baptist one I knew and thought was the only. And so this white hillbilly from the boonies of upstate New York stands before you deeply grateful as we remember Dr. King. I am deeply grateful for his pointing me to the path of inclusive love, a path that has led me here. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Dr. King's Conversion

PRAYER: 

"Most Gracious and all wise God,
before whose face the generations rise and fall;
Thou in whom we live, and move, and have our being.
We thank thee for all of thy good and gracious gifts,
For life and for health;
For food and for raiment;
For the beauties of nature and the love of human nature.
We come before thee painfully aware
of our inadequacies and shortcomings,
We realize that we stand surrounded with the mountains of love
And we deliberately dwell in the valley of hate.
We stand amid the forces of truth
and yet choose to travel the low road.
For these sins, O God forgive.
Break the spell of that which blinds our minds.
Purify our hearts that we may see thee.
O God in these turbulent days when fear and doubt are mounting high
Give us broad visions, penetrating eyes, and power of endurance.
Help us to work with renewed vigor for a warless world,
For a better distribution of wealth,
And for a brotherhood that transcends race or color.
In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray. Amen"
                                                  - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sept. 1953

REFLECTION

Maybe the central element of the Evangelical Christian tradition, the only segment of the Christian church that is still growing in North America, is the importance placed on the conversion experience. If you spent any amount of time in an Evangelical church, you would have heard the term “testimony.” To become a member of a church, you had to give your testimony. If you were going to get baptized, you told your testimony. If you were asked to speak at church, you were asked to give your testimony. A testimony amounts to someone sharing with others their conversion story, how they got saved, how they became born again.

I hinted at the question last week, but what would a testimony look like for a progressive Christian, mainline Christian or a Unitarian-Universalist? Can we even conceive of such a thing? Some might say, we mainline folks don’t do conversion. We’re all about the process, about contemplating theology, about getting out there and doing the work of justice and peace. Conversion is for sissies.

However, I think we underestimate the power of conversion. We underestimate the testimony. Surely, a mainline, progressive testimony would be more diverse and pluralistic, but it still would be powerful to hear each other’s stories, to hear about how each of us came to experience spiritual truth and meaning.

What’s more, this kind of transformation, this kind of heart-change, this kind of turning from meaninglessness to the truth of love is the first step to social transformation in us, to hearts-changing in our culture, to a nation turning from meaninglessness to the truth of love and compassion.

I remember the song we often sing here – Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

Dr. King, who taught us that love was a practice, the practice for our time and the struggles we face, experienced his own conversion. It was this conversion that set the stage for the rest of his work as leader of a Movement. Without his conversion, a conversion to God’s presence with him, who knows where things would have ended up.

That said, I would like to play for you Dr. King’s own testimony, his sharing the story of his coming to a deep and saving faith. It is from a sermon Dr. King gave in 1967 referring to the beginning of ministry and leadership in 1957.


 The Korean Zen tradition which I studied for a while would call Dr. King’s moment of conversion, Sudden Awakening or Sudden Enlightenment. In a moment of deep despair and an acute sense of vulnerability, Dr. King realized the eternal presence of God and compassionate companionship in Jesus Christ. Dr. King’s heart was open and he experienced that his open heart and God’s heart were connected, that he would progress forward with God always with him, never leaving him alone.

Religious scholars and students would call this experience of sudden awakening a mystical experience. Pretty much, testimonies like this or like the ones I heard growing up in my Evangelical church or even the one I shared myself tell the story of a mystical experience where Jesus comes into a human heart and changes it.

Korean Zen, like the Methodist tradition and its discussion of sanctification, says there is a follow-step, a step that must occur if that sudden awakening is to mean anything for anybody else. The follow-up step is called “gradual cultivation.” This amounts to the internal spiritual practice of prayer, meditation, scripture-study, and worship. It amounts as well to the external spiritual practice of doing justice, loving compassion, and making peace. However, sudden awakening, spiritual conversion, to use a metaphor, sets the table for us our partaking of a nutritious meal.

Conversion is nature; spiritual practice is the nurture. Conversion is the birth of the child; spiritual practice is the rearing of that child.

So as we begin a new era this week, let us awake to the Truth of Love, let us experience the wonderful salvation of an endless Compassion, let us be born again to a grace in the universe that doesn’t let us go. Let us racked with concern amid our chaotic times, rocked by stress, the distress, and a society under duress and fearing oppression, let us sense in our deepest recesses that indeed there is a balm in Gilead, a peace that passes all understanding, a power that embraces us and takes us forward. Love is that power. Love is that peace. Love is that balm. Love is the answer.

Then let us sit together, worship together, pray and meditate together, reflect together, cultivate the compassionate community together. May we see Love as a practice, a daily practice, a holistic practice. And from this warming fire of love we keep together, let us seek with that fire’s light enlighten and reveal the truth of things. And if the medals of freedom and democracy, of justice and equality become tarnished beyond recognition, let that fire of love we know and keep alive refine and purify, restoring us to the original shine of God. 

For now, I close with this prayer from Dr. King:


"O God, we thank thee for all of the insights of the ages, and we thank thee for the privilege of having fellowship with thee. Help us to discover ourselves, to discover our neighbors, and to discover thee, and to make all part of our life. Grant that we will go now with grim and bold determination to live the complete life. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen."

Epiphanies & Conversions

A couple days ago, January 6th, was the Day of Epiphany. The word epiphany is actually one of my favorite words. It is a lovely word. And it has several meanings.

When it comes to the Christian holy day known as Epiphany, there are actual two versions of Epiphany. Western Christianity’s version of Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Wise Men coming to visit baby Jesus. We Three Kings of Orient Are. They come bearing gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

In Eastern Christianity, Epiphany, sometimes called Theophany, commemorates the Baptism of Jesus in River Jordan. Today is actually the Sunday we commemorate Jesus’ baptism.

There are a couple more general meanings of the word. It can be a religious term that refers to an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being. So in Greek mythology and Hindu mythology have a range of epiphanies, the appearance of various gods to bring a message or reveal a judgment.

Lastly, there is the common usage we hear a lot. This is how the Mirriam-Webster dictionary puts it:

a (1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something

I experienced an epiphany listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – I saw the truth of God – that would be an example of this definition.

(2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3) : an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure
      b : a revealing scene or moment


An example of these definitions? Today, I had an epiphany – Winter in New England is no fun.



Epiphanies at their most powerful lead to transformation, to some kind of conversion to a new way of being. In the epiphany experienced by the wise men who come to visit baby Jesus this is certainly true. They come and are changed. They head back home different somehow. They feel closer to God. They experienced a moment of deep peace and redemption and they journey home with a sense of freedom and a deeper insight into the meaning of Grace.


With the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, we can imagine something changed in John in the process of baptizing Jesus. John experienced the real meaning of humility and selflessness in Jesus. He also heard the voice of God claiming Jesus as his beloved.

But I also think Jesus experienced some kind of transformation.

The Gospel of Mark begins with the Baptism of Jesus. There is no Nativity story in Mark. No story of angels coming to Mary and Joseph. No virgin birth. No shepherds or wise men visiting. Mark begins with an adult Jesus arriving on the scene and John the Baptist’s introduction of Jesus as the anointed one, the promised one, the one. Jesus is baptized and then is tempted in the wilderness and passes the test, then Jesus returns to begin his ministry.

Does Jesus simply go through the motions during his Baptism? Was it simply a thing he was expected to do, something to get out of the way so he could begin his ministry? Or did the Baptism hold some importance and meaning in Jesus’ heart?

I think it was a very meaningful experience for Jesus.

In the early days of the church, all the way up to the 300’s, there was a school of the Jesus tradition that would come to be known as Adoptionism. The school asserted that Jesus became the Anointed One and the Son of God upon his Baptism. The Holy Spirit in the form of the dove coming down as Jesus ascends form the water, anointing Jesus. The voice of God declaring that this One, this man, the beloved Son of God. This amounts to God adopting Jesus as Holy Son and sending Jesus off to do the Father’s work of salvation.

Now, whether this is correct doctrine or not I won’t get into. But the fact that a whole school was built around the event of Jesus’ baptism in the earliest days of the church, and that the oldest gospel, the gospel of Mark, begins with the Baptism, tells us that the Baptism of Jesus was no insignificant experience. It was incredibly important in the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus felt God’s presence extraordinarily. Jesus experienced the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Jesus heard God’s voice break into time and place. This scene of transcendent glory is only matched by the story of the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

The Baptism also represented Jesus accepting his calling, his ministry, his appearance to the wider public as Son of God. It was a moment where there was no turning back, the point of no return.

Conversion means “turning toward” something. Well, Jesus with his Baptism, where he experienced the anointing of the Spirit, a mystical experience that marked his life, turns toward his mission in the world, his ministry to the world, his message of love for the world. It was a turn to the work at hand, the work of the Father. It was a turn where there was no turning back.

What about our own epiphanies? What about our own insights into the truth of Love that changes hearts and minds? What about our own conversions, our own deep experiences of God, our own heart-turning toward God?

In mainline churches like this one, we often dismiss the reality of conversion, of heart-transformation, of turning toward God, of a heart-decision to truly see Jesus and truly internalize his life and teaching and follow the Way of Love he taught and lived and died for. We also dismiss the reality of mystical experiences where we sit and commune with, have quiet time with God in a personal way, and experience the indwelling of the Spirit. It is something more Evangelical churches talk about a lot and foster it in its members. “Growing in the Lord,” it is called. Some call it “Getting to know God.” I call it sitting with God. In sitting with God we naturally experience sacred moments, peaceful moments, strengthening moments.  

There was a recent article in the Washington Post that talked about a survey of churches in Canada. The headline says it all, “Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving.” I wonder what is lacking. The lack of spiritual and emotional buy-in in the liberal church? The lack of a devotional element where we feel a deep connection to God or to the Truth of Love or to Jesus the Way-Shower? The lack of expectation when it comes to contemplating and studying sacred texts, practicing prayer and meditation, and worshiping together?

I am not talking doctrinal correctness here. But devotional depth.


So I will asking in the next few Sundays this question – what does it mean to be a devout progressive follower of Jesus? What does it mean to be a devout Universalist? I will be answering these questions in the next couple Sundays. I look forward to it and hope you do too.