Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, January 17, 2021 | Message from Dr. Blake
If GOD were Good, and altogether good,
And also Wise, and altogether wise,
And had Almighty Power, as real Gods should,
Is this the sort of world He would devise?
If Wisdom had All Power, and would not it scheme
A better way its purposes to win?
And Power, were it Good, might surely dream
Some kindlier juice to stew creation in.
– In Such A Night As This -- Oswald McCall
Last Friday, January 15, 2021, I was privileged to participate in a broadcast from the American Church in Paris, France. The church is pastored by Rev. Odette Lockwood-Stewart, former faculty/staff at Pacific School of Religion. The focus was the mob insurrection at the nation’s capitol – fomented by the President of the United States along with elected Republican co-conspirators –, the Black Lives Movement, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a global context.
The insurrectionists/mob chose chaos rather than community, mayhem over ministry. Dr. King and BLM chose community rather than chaos, ministry rather than mayhem. The choice of the seditionists has resulted in global consternation and shame. BLM’s choice has resulted in peaceful protest in 60 countries globally. For in its demand for accountability to Black and other communities on the margin, BLM spoke to those formerly colonized people globally who are still living the effects of colonialism. The extent of Dr. King's global impact can be seen in a story that I have shared with many of you. It is the story of a boy from Libya in a kindergarten class in Athens, OH, taught by my friend Nan Worthing. The class was basically half American students and half International students. This boy had not spoken a word of English leading up to this day. When we began singing “We Shall Overcome”, we were amazed and overjoyed to hear his voice joining us in English.
Since this is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Weekend, I thought it would be good to reflect a bit on personal influences on his life. For indeed, we are all influenced by those that come our way that God/Life puts upon our paths, who bring light, direction, support, trust, confidence, and vision. They are the ones who help us deal with our fears, our perceived inadequacies, our estrangement from life and each other, our feeling overwhelmed and incapable of living lives of magnificence.
Many of you have some idea of the influence of Dr. Howard Thurman. Today, I would like to share with you a glimpse of the influence of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays. See if you can hear and see Dr. King in the words and life of Dr. Mays.
Dr. King was a student at Morehouse College during the presidency of Dr. Mays. The extraordinary relationship they developed deepened during their lifetimes. King called Mays his “spiritual mentor” and “intellectual father.” Mays shared that it was his desire that if I predeceased Dr. King, King would eulogize him. King ‘s wish was that Mays would eulogize him if he predeceased Mays. Mays began his eulogy of King by stating that the experience was like eulogizing a deceased son because King was so close and precious to him. Coretta Scott King stated, “the decision that finally led (Martin King) to that path was largely due to the example of Benjamin Mays,” . . .
One of Mays’ favorite sayings to the students at Morehouse and others was: It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is sin.
He taught that it is not the quantity of years but the quality of service that counts. It is not how long one lives but how well. Does this sound familiar?
In his: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before he was assassinated, King said:
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Mays also spoke with great clarity and conviction that: Lives are saved by giving them away. . . The truly great men of history are not those who hoard and keep, but those who dedicate their lives to some great cause and who give themselves to the benefit of the people. . .. The only way to save our lives is to give ourselves to others in some worthwhile service. Giving is inherent in living.
Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook delivered Dr. Mays’ eulogy. Cook and King entered Morehouse College at the same time, both being only 15 years old. Dr. Cook was President of Dillard University at the time he gave Dr. Mays’ eulogy.
This is how he described Dr. Mays.
The life of Dr. Mays was the life magnificent – the life lived fully at the summit, on the dazzling mountaintop, the life of impossible possibilities, the life spent in persistent pursuit of the unattainable ideal, the impossible dream. He had a divine romance with the world of higher possibilities. Life for him was the endless search for ever higher and higher possibilities, the life of perpetually creative dissatisfaction and divine restlessness with all of our achievements. Whatever our achievements, higher possibilities always beckon. We can never reach perfection in anything we do, but we have a moral duty to strive for perfection in everything we do. ...
The quality of our lives depends on the quality of our strivings, aspirations, ideals, dreams, hopes, ambitions, self-expectations, choices, and the deep hunger and yearnings of our selfhood, our inner being and essence. We are, in a profound sense, what we aspire to be. We are our dreams.
As I read the following, I thought about our present situation, the juices in which we are currently stewing. Dr. Cook states: Dr. Mays had a love affair with the basic and perennial values of the human enterprise: excellence; decency; justice; nonviolence; love; good will; reason; nobility; concern for others; compassion for human suffering; respect for the dignity and worth of every man, woman, and child; sensitivity to human needs; a heightened sense of personal and social responsibility; and the love of God. He was so many things: prophet, scholar, educator, apostle of social justice, champion of human excellence, author, humanist, humanitarian, teacher, voice of the voiceless, a chief founder of the modern civil rights movement and the black revolution, a major architect of the New South, inspirer, motivator, and transformer of youth, and peerless spokesman of the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.
Dr. Mays’ character is clearly revealed in the life of his student, Martin Luther King, Jr. I think the insights tutored the life of his students throughout his journey. Do they not point a way forward? Do they not give a sense of urgency and profundity to living courageously, committedly, creatively with an indelible conscience of right and wrong? Do they not remind you of the scripture often quoted by King: Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).
Dr. Mays inspired in his students and others with whom he came into contact the idea of their worth, value, not merely to themselves but to the communities of which they were members, of the world that awaited their gifts – gifts always being stretched into a cosmos ever evolving. King was enriched by the treasured life of Dr. Mays.
Immediately responding to Dr. King’s death, Dr. Howard Thurman described King’s bequest to us: Always he spoke from within the context of his religious experience, giving voice to an ethical insight which sprang out of his profound brooding over the meaning of his Judeo-Christian heritage. And this indeed is his great contribution to our times. He was able to put at the center of his own personal religious experience a searching ethical awareness. Thus, organized religion as we know it in our society found itself with its back against the wall. To condemn him, to reject him, was to reject the ethical insight of the faith it proclaimed. And this was new. Racial prejudice, segregation, discrimination were not regarded by him as merely un-American, undemocratic, but as a mortal sin against God. For those who are religious it awakens guilt; for those who are merely superstitious it inspires fear. And it was this fear that pulled the trigger of the assassin’s gun that took his life.
Was it fear that motivated the superstitious mob insurrectionists to storm the National Capitol?
Is this fear in part a result of what King describes as the failure of our educational system to teach one to think intensively and to think critically, that the goal of education should be to build intelligence and character? Is it symptomatic of King’s assertion: Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking? There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.
As we celebrate the life of Dr. King during this time of great turbulence and upheaval, may we take inventory of our own lives. We say no to Rev. Oswald McCall’s question: Is this the sort of world God would devise? The God of Life has entrusted us with the future of the world and has endowed us with freedom, has left us to choose the way we shall live, the paths we shall take, the work we shall do. Clearly, changes are needed in our world and we are called to be change makers. Dr. King reminds us:
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle.”
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right”
“The time is always right to do what is right”
“We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now.”
Dr. Thurman declared: The time and place of a man’s (woman’s) life on earth are the time and place of his (her) body, but the meaning and significance of his life are as vast and as far reaching as his gifts, his times and the passionate commitment of all his powers can make it.
Every man and woman is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive and if he or she does not do it, it will never be done. – Benjamin E. Mays