This past weekend, I was honored to offer the invocation at our community’s prayer breakfast in celebration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To have been asked was a surprise of grace. I grew up in Atlanta, Dr. King’s hometown, during the most intense days of the civil rights movement. From my earliest days, therefore, I knew about him, and I knew that many of the people in my school and church feared him, because he called into question almost everything they had been taught about race, class, and status.
Since I was in Atlanta, Dr. King’s image and voice were often on television. I have vivid memories of him. There was, of course, the sheer dynamism of his voice, his poetic gift for choosing precisely the right word, his impeccable sense of timing, and his unmistakable passion—a passion that burned in his heart and radiated from his life.
And, there were his eyes; I was always transfixed by his eyes. They seemed simultaneously sad and hopeful, and were trained on a distant vista which he could see but I could not yet—may not, to this day—perceive. Most of all, there was the sheer truth of what he said. Even as a child, I knew deep in my soul that, no matter what others around me thought of him, King’s words echoed the song I had been taught in Sunday School: “Jesus loves the little children/ all the children of the world,/red and yellow black and white,/they are precious in his sight./Jesus loves the little children of the world.” And, I knew that his words resonated with the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag we said every morning at school; that pledge had convinced me that America was supposed to be a place where there was “liberty and justice for all.” Dr. King was speaking the truth, and I knew it, and his truth, slowly at first, and often painfully, has been, and is, setting me free.
Notice, that I said “is setting me free,” not “has set me free.” Unlearning fear and prejudice requires a lifetime of work. It takes discipline to make room in our lives for people against whom we have been taught to slam the door. Dr. King’s message is not something we can hear once, agree with intellectually, and be done with it. Instead, it is something we have to ponder over and over again, take into our hearts, and struggle with in our day to day living.
Prayer is part of the struggle. Here’s the prayer I offered on Saturday morning at the Grove Park Inn:
Mighty, Merciful, Mysterious God, your word causes creation to leap out of chaos and makes a way out of no way. Your love cradles the earth and embraces all people in all places. Your ways are not our ways because you never swerve from the paths of justice and peace. We praise and thank you.
Make us, we pray, good stewards of memory. As we celebrate the witness of Dr. King and others like him who gave love in the face of hate, forgiveness in return for vengeance, and their lives in the search for the promised land of freedom, don’t let us remember superficially and easily. Instead use their examples to call us to prayer and action for the sake of the least and the last, the bound and the broken.
We lift into your Light and Love the struggling, weeping people of Haiti; those who live in harm’s way on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those in our own community who live on the edge of despair—without jobs, without adequate healthcare, soon to be without the means to keep their homes, or, already, without a place to sleep in safety and warmth.
Bring us into that Beloved Community of which Dr. King dreamed, that great good place where your will will finally be done on earth as it is in heaven. Hasten the day when the nations will learn war no more, when all of your children will have enough of whatever they need to rise to their full potential, when the haughty will learn humility, the timid will become bold, the fearful will find courage, exiles will be welcomed home, strangers will become friends, and peace, glad sweet peace, will triumph at last. Amen.