Remembering Martin Luther King

Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King’s life was frozen in time for the whole world. His words keep living, his story keeps being told, and the events of his life are examined again and again.  It is not that time any more. The pain is more diffuse, spread into new struggles for equality and justice.

It is worth marking the remarkable changes that have happened in that fifty years. We can go to any restaurant and drink from the same fountains. A lot of things are better, much better. But the pain he saw is still in the world–the pain of something not finished, a hope not yet realized, a brokenness needing mending.

The deepest wounds heal from the inside out, and only with the greatest of care. There will be setbacks and infections and discouragements, but there is still much reason to hope and keep trying.

I once attended the Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King day here in Birmingham and heard Diane McWhorter, whose book Carry Me Home  recounts the impact of those momentous days of the Civil Rights struggle on the world.  Whenever someone “remembers” how something was, it invites us to remember it from where we were at the time. I remember the civil rights era in the South, but it was not from the vantage point of an adult in the middle of Big Issues, but as a child growing up in the South.

I remember going on a hot Sunday afternoon with my father to the home of an employee.  She happened to be African American.  Her family member had been killed in a train accident, and my father believed that the proper and respectful thing to do was to go by to see the family.

I remember waiting in the car while he went in, a little boy watching out the window to see people who also lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, but a very different Clarksville than the one in which I lived.  I had never noticed that their children didn’t go to school where I did, or that we never ate in the same restaurants, or that we barely came across one another.  This separation  made my trip all the more startling.  It was as though I had stumbled onto a hidden cave where an entire civilization hitherto unknown to me had taken residence.

I watched people come and go, just like in my community, bringing food, dabbing their eyes, dressed in their finest.  Men tugging at their collars in the hot summer air opened the door for their wives in hats to go in with the bowl or dish.  It was impressive, this little world to which I did not belong.  People laughing, people smiling, people crying, just like us.  But not with us.

I took in the strangeness, but something stirred even deeper in me.  I saw my father speaking to them, as he did to everyone, with respect and courtesy and manners.  I hear people telling tales from the sixties about marching and protesting.  I have no tales like those.  I was young and oblivious to the invisible walls of separation.  But I do remember my father treating everyone the same, kindly, decently.  His employees seemed to think they all counted the same with him.  He never lost his temper that I knew of, or swore or cursed at people.  Just treated them alike.

My examples were different from those dramatic and provocative ones.  My family mostly watched the struggle on nightly television with the rest of the world.  We worried, shook our heads, weren’t too sure how it would go.  We were not allowed, though, to use epithets and inflammatory words about other races.

It takes struggle and often conflict for change to begin.  But there is also the task of taking change in and absorbing it, making it livable and practical and something that can happen every day without incident.  It is one thing to change laws.  It is another to elicit the consent of people to those laws.  And quite another to live out their spirit every day. It means using words carefully, for the purpose of telling truth, not perpetuating our own version of it.

The whole world was changing before my eyes, in ways I did not understand and would not understand, but the example of my father’s kindness did sink deep in me.  And I wonder about the eight year old boys and girls among us.  What are they seeing?  How are we doing?  Is there something impressive enough in the way we are living life to sink deep in their souls and stay with them until they are adults?

In something as simple and apparently random as going by someone’s house to pay respects, in doing what is decent and right and good, you may be causing a quiet revolution in someone who is watching not only what you do, but how you do it.  Someone is watching, always.  So write the script you want remembered.  It will live on after you for a long time, for good or for evilI was one of those little white children that Martin Luther King dreamed about.

So I am going to do every little thing I can to not be afraid, to make friends, to pay my respects, and teach my children and grandchildren that there’s room for everyone at God’s table.  Everyone.

I remember those times with a song I did on my first CD, “Lorraine.”  It was inspired by my first visit to the Civil Rights Institute in Memphis, which ends at the balcony where Dr. King was murdered by fear and hate.  But I like to remember what outlives fear and hate: hope and kindness and the hope of a better day.

Buy the song here

 

Lorraine

Gary Furr

An unfinished cup of coffee

By an unmade bed

Near the concrete balcony

Where a man of God is dead

Looking through an old window

See the painful past

Forever frozen at the last

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine
 

The sound of women weeping

The trickle of my tears

Join the moan of gospel singing

Wailing hope amid the fears

Looking through new windows

for possibilities

In spite of everything we still believ

 

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine

 

Driving through the city

With memories of that place

In that part of town that’s really gone down

I lock the door just in case

Looking through my car window

At a man who looks back at me

After all we’ve been through, we still can’t see.

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine

 

Take the BOTH AND Pledge

“If I spend all day reading Facebook and social media and rant mindlessly over things

about which I know almost nothing and over which I have even less control,

I will either get off Facebook so I can keep my job or seek professional help.”

After what has been pretty much a media-frenzied locust plague over the last three weeks, I began to think, “Hey, what will happen after the election? We’ve been told that if we choose wrong, the apocalypse will come, the sea will turn red and the zombie-takeover will begin. Don’t get me wrong, it matters, but a lot of nutty people have access to the media. I’m at the beach at the moment, and I try to remember that the water is only as sanitary as the least sanitary person sharing it with me. The pool is pretty polluted at the moment with Chicken Littles, convinced that they, alone, know how dire things are if we don’t think just like them. Whew.

A friend sent me a pretty good picture from Oregon. I’m guessing it was a church sign, but I don’t know. Unfortunately, my fellow preachers are all Be coolriled up at the moment, apparently having taken care of local sin and now ready to wipe it out globally. I myself resist this, since I’ve been around to watch a good bit of human foolishness. There’s plenty to take seriously, but there’s so much chaff out there that you need a microscope to find some wheat.  Well, this picture inspired me, so I created my own pledge. I decided to make a pledge for AFTER the election. When we have to carry our shame for all the stupid and ignorant things we’ve believed, forwarded, said and argued. Unfortunately, most of us will NOT get appointed to a new job or, like consultants, get a big fat contract out of it if their guy wins. We have to go back home and eat dinner with Uncle Ernie, who thinks your views are sending America straight to hell. And you yelled at him that he was a racist neanderthal and he looked wounded and looked up “neanderthal” on the web and then stopped speaking at dinner.

And people will have to get offline, and go back to work. And congresspeople will have to do whatever it is they are doing up there, or not doing. So here is a pledge for all of us. I call it the BOTH AND PLEDGE. I am the first signer. Continue reading “Take the BOTH AND Pledge”

Forgiveness: Enough Already!?

NRS Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

How much forgiveness is enough? It’s relevant at the moment, since one Presidential candidate says he has never asked anyone for forgiveness and the other one seems to be unable to get any from the public because of past sins. What does forgiveness mean?

Jesus said, “Seven times seventy is enough.” Peter is seeking Jesus’ approval.  He has heard Jesus talk about forgiveness. I’m sure the question must have occurred, “How long do I have to do this?”  He thought it might be virtuous to forgive seven times, the number of perfection in the Jewish faith.  If some one does the same thing to you seven times in a row and you forgive them, you’re a pretty good person.  I’ve always thought, “On number eight, could I slap the daylights out of them?” I’ve had my troubles with anger. I’m a man. Continue reading “Forgiveness: Enough Already!?”

Standing Up for Children in Birmingham, Alabama

Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become

Rev. Arthur Price
Rev. Arthur Price

friends across differences—race, age, denomination—and learn from each other.  Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together.  He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together.  The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.

kthompson_PKDHAZ6R
Rev. Keith Thompson

Over the course of that few years, we became friends, Arthur much younger, a different personality, a native of the North, me a son of the South.  It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the website of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence.   (For more information about the project Rev. Price and I did together, click HERE)

One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches.  We visited each others’ deacons meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years.  Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that.  We were joined by another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church downtown.

After the massacre at Newtown in December, our sense of commitment was heightened.  Whatever strikes at our Continue reading “Standing Up for Children in Birmingham, Alabama”

What If…

Indians Sue for Possession of the U.S.:

Ask for Return of Lands and Deportation of

Euro-Americans

Squanto called “a sell out”

(Imaginary Press Release)   The immigration crisis in the United States took an unexpected turn today when Native Americans launched a lawsuit to deport all European descendants from the US back to their homelands.  Following the recent Supreme Court decision on immigration, leaders representing all the major tribes gathered together at Little Big Horn to announce an impending lawsuit.  They are seeking a lawsuit to remove all European Americans whose ancestors emigrated to this country illegally during the past 300 years, claiming that they had illegally squatted on tribal land, brought a plague of drug and alcohol abuse, took jobs that unemployed Native Americans could do, like being CEOs, equipment managers for basketball teams, and investment bankers, and ruined their livelihoods by killing off all the buffalo.

They are asking the court to uphold their legal request that requires all Europeans to carry identification cards and wear moccasins except in extremely cold weather.  They also have suggested that Reservation police be able to check identity and arrest Senior Adult Caucasians at Casinos if they have probable cause to think they are here illegally.   The Europeans must return all stolen lands and go live on a reservation while their cases are being deliberated.  If deported, they will go to the end of the line, which is said to be in Iceland and that they may come back in ten years.

Red Cloud and friends

Descendants of Cochise, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Geronimo have hired the Manhattan firm of Dewey, Cheatum and Howe, famous legal counsel for NPR’s “Car Talk,” to lead the dream team.  They will be joined by lead attorney and member of the House of Representatives Chief Enormous Bull as they argue their motion.

The motion blames Squanto for helping the Pilgrims, who kidnapped him and took him to England while his tribe was wiped out by Pilgrim diseases.  Squanto, they contend, did not have authorization to permit them to land in the first place.  The Indians had planned to build an enormous wall around Plymouth Rock but construction had not begun when the immigrants arrived and began squatting on the land.

In a related move, the Geico Cavemen said they would file an injunction blocking the Native American motion as their ancestors likely preceded them and should also be removed.  While their numbers are small, they have considerable insurance assets to leverage for a long legal fight.

Neither group has said specifically if the motions would apply to all Caucasian Americans, or would only affect those whose ancestors actually took Indian lands.  Both groups said they would be willing to negotiate a settlement, and neither had interest in taking Manhattan back, and said that Arizona could remain as a reservation for whites until arrangements to move in with relatives could be made.

Cavemen expected to enter the dispute

The American Bar Association said it looks forward to the years of billable hours that this action implies.  Leaders in China said whoever wound up with ownership of the country would be responsible for its current and future debts.  Europeans announced a counter-suit denying the return of the descendants until they could prove that they would be good citizens and not a threat to security.  Mexican drug cartels protested the removal of their largest customers citing exorbitant shipping and transportation costs.  Meanwhile, Alabama and a dozen other states said they would begin deportations immediately, whether there was a country to take them or not.  In the absence of a place to go, white people will be given large flat barges stocked with bottled water, Spam and saltine crackers, cable television and country music CDs while they wait until a country will receive them.  The suit has specified that those being placed on the reservation will travel by Greyhound bus along the Trail of Tears.

A spokesman for the Euro-Americans protested the move, citing the damage it would cause to families and especially children, and members of Congress met through the night and said because of the urgency of the matter that Immigration reform could be ready as early as Tuesday.  The President said he would rush back from vacation to sign the bill, which would resolve the situation.  “This affects millions of voters…er, people.  We have to fix this.”  Observers say it may be the fastest action of this magnitude that the Congress has ever achieved other than declarations of war, voting on raises for Congress, and motions of appreciation for professional athletes.

“The Blind Side” Gets Blindsided

We prefer a safe mediocrity to a persuasive truth telling.

Baptist news wires recently carried the story about a successful protest by a Baptist preacher to remove a movie from Lifeway stores.  The movie is “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock.  It was based on the book by the same name by Michael Lewis, who also wrote, Liar’s Poker and Moneyball.

Michael Lewis

I happened to meet Michael Lewis years ago when he was writing the book, and he told me he was working on a “really interesting story.”  It was about a young man from the meanest streets of Memphis who was adopted by a family and placed in a white private Christian school.  The story is well known by now—Michael Oher went on to be a football star at the University of Mississippi and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.

I bought and read the book when it came out, and went to see the film.  Football movies are pretty well required viewing in Alabama.  So I was more than amused with all the other moral problems at the moment—debt, wars, racism, the disintegration of families, and do I need to go on?—that a PG-13 movie could cause such an uproar.  According to the report,

LifeWay Christian Stores will no longer sell videos of “The Blind Side” after a Florida pastor proposed a resolution for next week’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting protesting the sale of a PG-13 movie that contains profanity and a racial slur…[the stores decided to] pull the movie, an inspirational film starring Sandra Bullock that tells the true story of a white Christian family that adopted a homeless black teenager who went on to play in the NFL, to avoid controversy at the June 19-20 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans.  [The pastor who brought the resolution] said there is much about the film to be commended, but there is no place in a Christian bookstore for a movie that includes explicit language that includes taking God’s name in vain.

I get it.  It’s Baptist to speak your mind.  I know language has become debased and misused.  And, it’s the right of any store and its owners to sell or not sell what it wishes.  Still, it stirred a few thoughts about the mostly non-existent tie between Christians, especially evangelical ones, and the world of the arts.  And why fewer people want to be Baptists.

Walter Brueggemann once said that in the book of Leviticus, which for some odd reason has become a moral center for a lot of people today, there is an emphasis on holiness as “purity.”  There are other forms of holiness in scripture—moral and ethical righteousness, for one, that sometimes comes into conflict with the notion of purity.  Jesus encountered this among the Pharisees, who could not do the deeper right things for fear of disturbing their own ethic of remaining personally removed from what might compromise, taint and violate their ethic of purification holiness.

I have thought a lot about Brueggemann’s distinction since I first read it.  Somehow, a fully biblical notion requires more than avoiding “impurities.”  Yet purity is important.  An obsession seems to lead always to a rather puny moral energy that dispirits more than it inspires.  Inevitably, it ends up with an account of morality that is always boycotting, removing itself from sinners and sin, and circling the wagons.

Continue reading ““The Blind Side” Gets Blindsided”

To Kill A Mockingbird…50 years later

Here in Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our great treasures.  You can still go to Monroeville, Alabama and see a live re-enactment of the story every year by the local citizenry.  You start out in the yard, then move inside the courthouse, and it is eerily reminiscent of the movie because Hollywood built a replica of it for the film.  When I went with friends a few years back, I felt a flash of shame and pain when the n-word was uttered while African American locals up in the balcony were in our presence.  I was embarrassed.  So we’ve made some progress, I guess.  As a child in North Carolina the word was uttered around me thoughtlessly, as a part of an unquestioned culture of resentment and vulnerable entitlement. Continue reading “To Kill A Mockingbird…50 years later”