Monday, January 18, 2010

Misunderstanding the 'dream' of Martin Luther King Jr.

Today is the official commemoration of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and, since he is no longer living, he is subject to the normal hagiography as to what he really stood for.

You see, it's easy to look back and realize that he was right two generations ago. However, back then it was far from clear.

Much of the disinformation comes from the political right. Some insist, with no evidence, that King was actually a Republican and thus would have supported a conservative worldview. In 1964, however, he endorsed Lyndon Johnson for president and, after the election, referred to Barry Goldwater as "the most dangerous man in the country" up to then. (It should be noted that Ronald Reagan dismissed him upon his death.) Others, quoting his "I Have a Dream" speech, said that he would have opposed affirmative action when he was actually among its earliest supporters. In fact, King said that "we can't solve our problems now unless there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power" -- a comment that today would no doubt get him labeled as a "socialist" (indeed, during his lifetime he was often denounced as a Communist).

Lest you think I'm picking on only conservatives, we need to remember that many blacks have been somewhat suspicious of King's Gandhi-influenced nonviolent philosophy. I can imagine the consternation on people's faces when he referred in his sermons back in the 1950s to "our white brothers" [say wha?!]. Even as recently as the 1990s many believed that, had he survived that bullet in Memphis in April 1968, he would have finally rejected nonviolence and and taken up arms. But in making such assertions, it's obvious that those folks never really listened to him in the first place -- armed struggle is precisely what his enemies wanted because they figured they could win that battle. He also said that he was willing to die for justice, a stance that would be nonsensical to the average person but consistent with his commitment to the cause. (I believe now that he's lionized in the black community today because, and only because, he got the desired results.)

Anyway, let's not forget the bigger issue. First and foremost, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is reconciliation -- yes, God with man through the cross of Christ, but also men to each other. This should hardly surprise, especially considering that Billy Graham, a friend and early supporter of King (and one of the few evangelicals who was), has been preaching the same message since the 1950s. We evangelicals generally have the first part down but usually completely miss the second because, frankly, we're often as functionally materialistic and power-hungry as the world we denounce.

While instituting the "beloved community" that King talked about might indeed require a wholesale restructuring of the political and economic order, he also understood that it also calls for an inner transformation -- commonly called "repentance." What both sides often miss, but King did not, is that both are needed.

Some years ago my pastor preached on Psalm 133, which reads:

1 How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in unity!

2 It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron's beard,
down upon the collar of his robes.

3 It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

Now, it should be noted that David wrote that psalm while watching people heading to Jerusalem to worship -- after his son Absalom's rebellion. In other words, it represented a place of healing after the nation of Israel was divided politically.

This is not to say that we should overlook our differences, which is simply impossible. Rather, I believe that we should look at our opponents not as implacable enemies that must be conquered but as whole persons in their own right created in the image of Almighty God -- and that we're not worthy of worship.

And that's the heart of King's dream.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

'Close the Door' -- I get it today

Yesterday, due to cancer, the music world lost Teddy Pendergrass, who originally gained fame as lead vocalist for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and who later became a successful solo artist. A 1982 auto accident left him a paraplegic, but he continued to sing until about three years ago.

His breakout hit was the Gamble-and-Huff ballad "Close the Door," which was released in the fall of 1978, my senior year in high school, and I remember believing that it was horrible because, in my mind, it clearly referred to sex.

What I didn't get then, however, was the context.

In a way, that's understandable. I grew up in a conservative religious tradition where such things were frowned upon. Furthermore, right around that time my parents' marriage, which in retrospect was never that good, was beginning to fall apart. Then, I didn't have opportunities to date (and to this day still haven't had many).

But about seven years ago, after a lifetime of singleness that included some less-than-ideal dating situations, I decided that marriage was something that I really wanted. Sometime after that, I heard that song again for the first time in decades.

Close the door/Let me give you what you've been waiting for ...

It started to click at that point.

Because it turns out that the song is about what he wants to do for, not to, a woman. And not just any woman, either -- his woman, the one with whom he was already building a history. In other words, I realized that "Close the Door" is about true intimacy within a committed relationship. Even now I get misty-eyed just thinking about it, hoping one day those will be my words.

So thank you, Teddy, for singing that song way back then, even though I couldn't appreciate it at the time.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Larger Story: Encouraging a man to commit

I think that all of us single men who have been desired by a woman at some point have faced the question: "Will he commit [to marriage]?" I understand that, completely.

So, for those of you single women who are involved or want to be, here's a little tip. Just follow the "Golden Rule" -- "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you."

In other words, if you want him to commit to you, you need to commit to him.

Now, that's a little more problematic than it sounds. It's more than simply cooking his favorite meals and accepting his friends, family and faults, though those certainly help. You see -- and this is especially the case for Christians -- a man needs to know that his woman is behind him.

So why do I say this? Well, the most important thing for a man is understanding his vision and finding his ultimate purpose on this earth, and a man who doesn't have one simply isn't worth a woman's time as it is -- and I'm not just talking about making a lot of money, either. So, frankly, she should ask him what that is and what steps he has taken toward it. If it seems plausible and reasonable, she can proceed.

Basically, it's what John Eldredge calls the Larger Story. All such relationships have to have an overall context or theme; when God calls a couple together it's always for a specific reason. Some are called to pastor churches; others to the mission field; others do music together. And that theme is what will keep the marriage together when things threaten to fall apart (as things eventually will).

But what if that "vision" doesn't square with your hopes and plans? Well, you have a choice to make -- either bend to that or leave the relationship. That may sound cruel, but it really is the best way because the man does have the responsibility of being the leader of the family.

I know that from painful experience. My last girlfriend, who occasionally complained about my unwillingness to "commit," nevertheless pretty much planned out our entire future together but without even once asking me where I felt God was leading -- and, in retrospect, it completely conflicted with her agenda. Most importantly, she expected me to attend her church, which God Himself told me from the outset not to do, giving me three specific confirmations in the process. Eventually, I had to leave when she refused to listen. (And she's probably still resentful toward me, even after over eight years -- proof that breaking it off was indeed the right thing.)

My late stepfather was a man who knew who he was, what he was about and where he was going (well, not so much the last because he retired just before he married my mother). That's the kind of man that every woman needs and every man needs to be, because a man who cannot commit to his Larger Story has no business committing to a woman.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A romance with -- God?

In the summer of 1988, when I was 27, I met a woman named Nancy, a divorcée 14 years my senior, through a 12-Step recovery program. After one meeting the group went out for more fellowship and the two of us ended up walking back to my apartment, about a half-hour trip from the restaurant (neither of us had a car at the time). After talking for a few more minutes, we exchanged phone numbers and embraced warmly.

Since I'm fairly affectionate, I bent down to give her a chaste good-night kiss -- and, at that, she attacked me. (Well, not really -- she started planting kisses all over me.) Realizing that this evening wasn't about to end, we went into my place and later to hers, another very long walk. To make a long story short, I didn't get home until 3 a.m. the next day.

Without realizing it, in Nancy I had found a woman who not only was completely smitten with me but, in the process, allowed me to experience the "feminine essence" in a way I never had before -- almost all of my previous relationships with women, even those I had "dated," had been platonic. She in fact was willing to sleep with me, but I told her from the outset that wasn't going to happen (and she respects me to this day for that stance). Anyway, over the next three or four months I grew to want to see her as much as she wanted to be with me and it mattered not at all that neither of us had any money, only that we were together.

So what's the point? Well, lately I've been mulling over the idea that I should have a similar relationship with God.

And that in one sense that offends my sensibilities. I grew up in a very strong church which gave me excellent theology. I can quote Scripture as well as anyone. I can tell you the moment, almost to the hour, when I said my version of the "Sinner's Prayer" just before graduating from high school. I have never been involved in immoral behavior, including drugs and sex. Not only wouldn't I dream of missing church, I have always been very active in whatever assembly I've belonged to. I've been known to play the role of "prophet," speaking truth even when unpopular. I even lead a prayer meeting at work.

And yet, if I'm honest, I know that, despite all that religious activity, at times something's missing. Recently, a friend who located me on Facebook last year sent me an e-mail saying, in essence, "Do you realize how much God loves you?"

Perhaps not. Because due to my history and despite my background and lifestyle, relational intimacy isn't something I've experienced much. In the book "What's So Amazing About Grace?", Philip Yancey mentioned that romantic love is the closest thing to grace that most people experience on a human level. And perhaps that's where the "romance," the mystery combined with the intoxication, applies.

Maybe that's the real reason God brought Nancy into my life for that short amount of time -- to experience that kind of desire combined with warmth. So how will it apply to my life in Christ? Check back with me later.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Gospel according to 'Invictus'

Yesterday I saw the Clint Eastwood-produced and -directed film "Invictus," which takes its title from the poem that protagonist Nelson Mandela quoted in part.

The immediate (and true) story was Mandela's use of the national rugby team, which was playing in the sport's 1995 World Cup, to create a sense of national unity in South Africa, where he had become president the year before and where the tournament was being held. (Mandela, who retired in 1999 and now is a part of "The Elders" diplomatic group, was awarded an ESPY late last year.)

Anyway, unifying the country over a rugby team was no small matter. The "Springboks" in particular were seen as a remnant of apartheid, which had officially collapsed in 1994; indeed, many blacks disdained the sport in general for that reason.

Mandela, to his everlasting credit, saw the need to move away from such polarization after being inaugurated. His first move was to tell government workers, most of them white, that they would be welcome to stay in his administration, and he also hired white security detail -- because they had the experience. (That irritated some of his black aides.) Later he reached out to the captain of the Springboks, who eventually conducted a clinic in a black township. In time his efforts to get the country behind the rugby team succeeded, and it actually won the championship in a major upset. (And remember, this was a true story.)

However, let's not forget that Mandela spent 27 years in prison, ostensibly on legitimate terrorism charges but basically for opposing apartheid, and that experience shaped his philosophy. He mentioned that all of his jailers were Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch, German and French Huguenot settlers that came to that part of the world in the 17th Century and were directly responsible for the race-based system of oppression he was fighting; as he got to know them, however, he realized that they had their own history, language and culture that he learned to respect. Any bitterness that he had harbored toward them had apparently subsided by the time he was released.

And that was the primary point of both the poem -- which he said gave him the strength to maintain his dignity -- and the movie.

No one will deny that apartheid was brutal and unjust; that said, at some point attitudes would have had to change lest the blacks who were now in power become just like the whites they resented for their own misrule.

Isn't that what God calls us Christians to do? Because, after all, "All have sinned and fallen short of [His] glory." And the truth be told, had God not forgiven us He would have every right to wipe us out for failing to meet His standards. But He did through Jesus Christ; therefore, we Christians need to repent of any bitterness that we may harbor toward fellow believers who may have legitimately harmed us.

As Mandela said, "Reconciliation [and] forgiveness [start] here."