We Shall Overcome: Reflections on MLK Day 2015

Yesterday was an amazing day.

I read a lot.

I marched with a large group of people.

I attended a gathering calling for nonviolent police responses to crime.

I dined at a banquet with over 600 people in attendance.

All to honor the memory of a man whose impact has already spanned 50 years, and will likely span hundreds more.

Martin Luther King, Jr., stood up against the evils of racism and prejudice. He fought against societal structures that enabled poverty. He fought against war. So much of our civil rights advances over the past 50 years can be attributed to his work, the SCLC, and those who worked with him.

Yet what struck me yesterday is how much we have tamed his message. We don’t often quote, “There aren’t enough white persons in our country who are willing to cherish democratic principles over privilege.” We sometimes gloss over the fact that he broke the same laws the Ferguson protesters are breaking nationwide. We often forget that his nonviolent philosophy was not about African-Americans passively waiting until white people got their act together, but was an intentional, direct-action approach that called people’s attention to the injustices that existed. It seems to me that we forget how radical he was. It seems we also forget how violent the institutional response was.*

But there was something else that had an even greater impact on me. It was one of the most profound moments of my life.

At the end of the banquet the keynote speaker—himself a man who had faced hatred, racism, and segregation in its worst forms in the 50s and 60s—had all of us stand, join hands, and sing “We Shall Overcome.”

Of the 600 in attendance, there appeared to be close to 100 who sang that song in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Listening to their voices blend with the voices of younger generations moved me in a way beyond words.

“We shall overcome.

Oh, deep in my heart,

I do believe:

We shall overcome. Someday.”

So simple yet so profound.

And to join in with people who lived through an era that tried to take everything away from them taught me some valuable lessons:

No matter how much a people group is oppressed, there is a strength that cannot be quashed. I continue to be amazed by the stories of people who were maced, beaten, chased with dogs, tear-gassed and then arrested. I continue to be amazed that those same things happen in 2015. Yet still people stand. Still they rise. And I am so amazed.

People who have never known better do not need to accept things the way they are. Our country was built on the foundation of slavery. African-Americans were brought to this country and treated worse than cattle to work on the land that was taken from the indigenous peoples. For 300 years they were enslaved. For 100 years after slavery, they were segregated and treated as second class citizens. Yet they refused to accept that was who they were. They believed they were children created in God’s image and they fought to be recognized as such. That indomitable spirit is nothing less than inspiring.

Oppressed groups are not the only ones who need to overcome. Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail is hard on white Christians, especially clergy. Because they were just hoping things would get better without having to get their hands dirty. Unfortunately, that attitude has been passed down in too many church traditions. We must overcome our silence, our apathy, our inaction.

So as I listened to the crowd sing “We Shall Overcome,” I thought about how different things must be from 50 years ago, but how different they need to be 50 years from now. I thought about the example of the people who sang that song 50 years ago and their encouragement to a new generation to pass that message along.

I thought about that word “We.” I thought about how grateful I was to be included in last night’s gathering. I thought about how things could change if we realized we were all in this together; if we would all listen and not discount other people’s experiences.

And then I smiled. Because we shall overcome. One day.

 

Advent 2014

Here are the four Advent lessons I shared this year. Three of them (Hope, Peace, and Love) were presented at Freedom Fellowship in Abilene. The fourth (Joy) is the basis for a fourth lesson, but I just amended it slightly and posted it as a written piece.

I love Advent. I love that we have a season to remember darkness, sadness, and waiting.

Hope: Hoping When There’s Nothing Left to Hope For

Peace: Peace in a Peace-less World

Joy: #icantbreathe, an Advent Reflection on Joy

Love: Protesters, Drummers, and Virgins. An Advent Reflection on Love

Protestors, Drummers, and Virgins. An Advent Reflection of Love

This past Saturday, there was a national day of nonviolent protest. In the wake of events such as Michael Brown in Ferguson and Tamir Rice in Cleveland and John Crawford in Ohio and Eric Garner in Staten Island a large number of people have decided it is time to speak up and speak out in a variety of ways. There were marches. There were die-ins. Stores and major highways were closed due to the amount of traffic generated by the protestors.

In addition to those who were protesting, many supported in other ways. Many did so by promoting the events on social media. Others provided care by supplying needs such as food, water, and in many cases—bail money.

Many jeered. Many mocked. Many disparaged.

Yet still the protestors marched on.

What could possibly motivate them to continue in spite of so much negativity and in spite of the cynicism of the age that says the problem is too huge, too overwhelming, for anyone to change anything?

I think it was because of love.

The fourth week of Advent is the week of Love. What greater sign of love than God sending us Jesus, Immanuel, God with us?

There is a verse in the story of Jesus’ birth that stands out to me as one of the greatest proclamations of love and faith in all of Scripture.

Luke 1:26-38:

Six months later in Nazareth, a city in the rural province of Galilee, the heavenly messenger Gabriel made another appearance. This time the messenger was sent by God to meet with a virgin named Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David himself. The messenger entered her home.

Messenger: Greetings! You are favored, and the Lord is with you [Among all women on the earth, you have been blessed.]

The heavenly messenger’s words baffled Mary, and she wondered what type of greeting this was.

Messenger: Mary, don’t be afraid. You have found favor with God. Listen, you are going to become pregnant. You will have a son, and you must name Him “Savior,” or Jesus. Jesus will become the greatest among men. He will be known as the Son of the Highest God. God will give Him the throne of his ancestor David, and He will reign over the covenant family of Jacob forever.

Mary: But I have never been with a man. How can this be possible?

Messenger: The Holy Spirit will come upon you. The Most High will overshadow you. That’s why this holy child will be known, as not just your son, but also as the Son of God. It sounds impossible, but listen—you know your relative Elizabeth has been unable to bear children and is now far too old to be a mother. Yet she has become pregnant, as God willed it. Yes, in three months, she will have a son. So the impossible is possible with God.

Mary (deciding in her heart): Here I am, the Lord’s humble servant. As you have said, let it be done to me.

Did you catch that? “As you have said, let it be done to me.” An older translation of the Bible says, “May it be to me as you have said.”

May it be to me. Let it be done to me.

Such a powerful statement of love, trust, faith, and willingness.

Think about Mary for just a second: she is young. Probably the same age as my daughter—13. She has never been with a man. But she is engaged to one. A young woman. Engaged but not yet married. About to get pregnant.

In churches in 2014 that’s scandalous. But in the synagogue culture of this day and age? Mary is having her life put on the line. Literally. Joseph could stone her. And in the whacked out, patriarchal society of that day, anyone in the town who felt so compelled could have had her stoned to death.

Let’s see if we can grasp this: a teenager, unmarried, pregnant.

Oh yeah, and the baby is going to be the Savior of the world.

Now I understand adolescence, albeit just a little bit. (And I probably understand it in other people’s kids better than in my own.) A 13 year old Mary is probably a little bit more mature than a 13 year old today. The way kids were taught and trained was a little bit different then. But still, at 13 Mary was just beginning to enter society as a woman. She was starting to develop her own identity a little bit. But now, she is having all of that normal development scrapped.

She is being called to be a mother. Under scandalous conditions. To a child that is the Messiah.

And she says, “Let it be done to me.”

Mary knows she may be jeered. She may be mocked. She may be disparaged.

But Mary marches on.

What could possibly motivate her to continue in spite of so much potential negativity and fear?

I think it was because of love.

This brings us to our song for this week: Little Drummer Boy. The song tells a story so simple that it is endearing:

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
Rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum.

So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give a King, pa rum pum pum pum,
Rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?

I play my drum for Him.
So to honor Him.

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
Rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum.

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.
When we come, me and my drum.

Written by Katherine K. Davis in 1941, the song did not become popular until 1958. However, it became so popular that as she neared the end of her life, Davis said the song was overplayed. It was only one of over 600 works she composed.

The song tells a simple story: a young boy travels with the Magi to see this new king. The young boy is moved by the extravagant gifts given that he is compelled to give something as well. But he has nothing to give.

Except pouring out his heart as he plays the drum.

He may be jeered. He may be mocked. He may be disparaged.

But still he marches on.

What could possibly motivate him to continue playing his drum while in the presence of wealthy people who have just lavished expensive gifts on a newborn King?

I think it was because of love.

Do you want to know where I see love on display?

At the Paramount Theater last week, I saw several young people on stage dancing and singing to express joy about the birth of our Savior.

At FaithWorks, Ray has been coming and tending to our garden just to make our space look a little nicer.

Last weekend at the Christmas Store, Jodi, and Tim, and Mike, and so many others showed up to help people shop and wrap their presents.

Every Wednesday, there are people standing behind the table serving us food at Freedom Fellowship. And then another crew of people steps up and helps clean up after us.

I see love when people decide that instead of doing the most amazing thing they can think of, they simply do what God has given them the ability to do.

There is an interesting link between the Little Drummer Boy and the Virgin Mary. It is believed Davis was basing her song in part on a French legend of The Juggler. In that story, a juggler performs his craft in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. According to the legend, the statue was so pleased with the performance that it smiled at the juggler.

In our song, the little drummer boy played his heart out for the baby Jesus. And Jesus smiles. This song is fiction. It tells a story. But I believe it is a story that teaches us an important truth: when we show our love by using our gifts to honor Jesus, He is pleased.

I continue to be reminded that Advent is for the people who don’t know how the story ends:

The drummer boy didn’t know how his song would be received.

Protestors don’t know if any lasting change will come about.

Mary didn’t know how Joseph, or her family, or her village would react.

Yet still they march on.

Voice to the Voiceless

When Israel left Egypt, they were given a Law to follow. Most people know the 10 Commandments. Or at the very least, they know the 10 Commandments exist. Some of those other laws, however, are less known. Because let’s face it: reading a book of numbers, a book of priestly duties, and a book that repeats and summarizes everything in the previous three books can get kind of boring.

(My apologies to all my Old Testament professors for such a poor job of describing Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.)

But when we pay attention, we learn that from the beginning of God’s covenant with God’s people, God was concerned with how the people pushed to the margins were treated. The weak. The defenseless.

The voiceless.

Consider these examples from Exodus:

“Do not wrong or oppress any outsiders living among you, for there was a time when you lived as outsiders in the land of Egypt” (22:21).

“You must not take advantage of any widow or orphan. If you do oppress them and they cry out to Me, I will certainly hear them, and My wrath will be kindled” (22:22-24a).

“Do not deny justice to the poor among you in their disputes” (23:6).

Outsiders (or foreigners; or immigrants). Widows. Orphans. The poor.

These are the voiceless. These are the ones God’s people need to speak for.

Throughout the Law, there are repeated calls to take care of these groups of people. Those calls continue through the Psalms. The Prophetic books detail punishment on God’s people resulting from their failure to watch out for people who were pushed aside. In fact, in Amos goes so far as to say God hates the worship of the Israelite people because they have neglected justice.

When Jesus began His public ministry, He quoted from Isaiah pronouncing that He would be going to the lost, the poor, the hurting, the lonely, the oppressed.

One of the Apostle Paul’s main objectives on his missionary trips was collecting money from richer Christians (who were often more generous than they were wealthy) to distribute among the poorer Christians. Paul was known as the Apostle to the Gentiles because he spent so much time proclaiming how the Jewish Messiah was the Savior for all people.

In his letter, James wrote that pure religion is that which looks after those who are in need: the widow, the orphan, the poor.

For those who are voiceless, the people of God should be viewed as advocates. The people of God should be looked to as people of refuge, security, and justice. The people of God should be the ones speaking up for those whom no one else will listen to.

So, people of God, I ask us all this question: are we doing it? Are we being a voice to the voiceless? Are we advocating for those with no power? Are we relieving the suffering of the hurting? Are we providing for those who have nothing? Are we giving homes to the homeless? Are we speaking up?

_________________________

Stuff has been crazy for the last two weeks.

Do you know what is wrong with that statement?

Primarily this: stuff has been crazy for years. The last two weeks have just highlighted part of that problem.

Ever since the Ferguson grand jury came back with no indictment, social media has exploded. Many have been decrying the system and its inherent weaknesses and injustices. Many have been saying justice was done and everyone just needs to accept it.

Some have attempted to start conversations and some have just yelled. Some Christian leaders have spoken up and others have tried to avoid addressing any current event situation.

Then the Eric Garner grand jury came back with no indictment in spite of the video and the medical examiner ruling the death a homicide. More anger. More yelling. More avoidance of the issues.

Protests keep popping up in cities all across the country and the world. Some observers are supportive and realize the message that is being delivered: we are being disregarded and it needs to stop. Other observers respond with annoyance, rage, and dismissiveness.

What are we missing? How can things be so contentious in 2014?

I believe one of the major problems to be this: those who are in the majority people group (in this case, White people) have failed to truly listen to the voices of the people in the minority people group.

Consider the history of Black people in America: from the 1620s until the 1860s they were treated as a commodity: kidnapped, chained, transported to another country, sold, beaten, bred, worked to near death. They were not even considered fully human. From the 1860s to the 1960s, slavery was no longer allowed, but indentured servanthood was. “Separate but equal” was the rule.

340 years of oppression, suppression, and generally being disregarded. We just celebrated the 50 year anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. 340 years is much more than 50. More than 8 generations of oppression followed by just over 1 generation of (supposed) freedom.

Do we really think everything is going to be okay that quickly?

We must listen to the voices of the millions of people in our nation who feel they are treated as less than. We must listen to the voices of the millions of people who are afraid of the people hired to protect us. We must listen to the voices of the millions of people who live in neighborhoods that are financially deprived. We must listen to the voices of the people who are protesting. (Side note: did you realize that the protests have been occurring daily for the past 122 days? They did not start with the grand jury decision; they started the night Michael Brown was killed.)

Are we willing to listen?

_________________________

There are people hurting in your communities. They believe they have no voice. Will you be willing to do two things?

First, listen to them. No reply. No explanation. No defensiveness. Just listening. Listen to their stories. Listen to their hurt. If you feel you must ask any questions, make them questions of clarification or explanation. Listen to the experiences people have endured.

Second, only after you have truly listened, lend your voice to theirs. Speak out right along with them. Be bold in what you say. Let people you regularly interact with learn the lessons you have learned. Understand that for voiceless people to have their story heard, people need to listen and then lend their voice.

This will not solve all of our problems. This will not cure all of our society’s ills. But maybe it can short circuit some of the arguing. When people post pictures and make comments that rub you the wrong way, listen to the pain behind the statement. Before you dismiss someone by telling them to get over it consider the past experience that has led to their current pain.

Then, maybe you can share some of those things, as well; pictures like the one at the end of this post. You might upset some people. You might make some people angry. But that’s okay. In order to process our hurts and move to a better place, we will need to move through some discomfort.

_________________________

So, people of God, I ask again: will we do it? Will we be a voice to the voiceless? Will we advocate for those with no power? Will we relieve the suffering of the hurting? Will we provide for those who have nothing? Will we give homes to the homeless?

Will we listen?

Will we speak up?

i can't breath

Hoping When There’s Nothing Left To Hope For

Imagine you are an old man. (Easier for some of you than others.) You have lived a long life. You have witnessed a lot of pain and loss. In fact, most of your life has been lived as part of an oppressed people group. For all of your life you have yearned for freedom. For all of your life you have waited for deliverance. And not just deliverance, but the right leader to come along to take your people out of oppression; out of despair; out of the negative reality you have known your entire life. You know the Scriptures. You worship God. In spite of the difficulties of life you persist in your pattern of living according to the tradition of your elders.

Imagine you are an old woman. (Can I make the same joke?) You married early in life and were widowed while still young. Although you lived in a society that tended to discount the role of women, you were viewed as wise. People listened to you. They came to you and trusted you. You also were devoted to God’s people and to the deliverance that only God could bring. You waited and waited.

Whether you are imagining yourself as that old man or that old woman, ask yourself this: how long could you wait and still remain hopeful that one day justice and deliverance would come for your people? How long would you continue hoping in God to act?

_________________________

Now, think back to your childhood. Bring to mind the earliest Christmas memories you have. Try and recapture the joy and awe and mystery and excitement that Christmas used to bring to your house when you were young. Let me share some of mine and see if you relate.

I grew up in Massachusetts. We had a lot of snow. As I recall, I used to think that every Christmas was going to be a white Christmas. We would always have snow covering the ground. There would always be a ton of presents under the tree. Everything would be shut down so there was never any traffic outside. There would always be lots of food. In my mind, every year was always going to bring a new Norman Rockwell-esque picture.

Fast forward to my experience as a young parent. I thought it was always going to be the same for my kids: white Christmas, tons of presents, lots of food.

But those things did not always happen. Some years, the ground was clear. The temperatures were warm. Rain fell and washed away all the snow. Some years, different parts of the family got together in different places at different times. Some years, there were fewer presents under the tree. The feast of a meal consisted of whatever restaurant might have possibly been open. Or leftovers.

Some years, all the hope and anticipation of Christmas fizzled.

In 1974, Peter Sinfield wrote the lyrics to the song linked at the end of this post. Sinfield begins the song with his memories from childhood and then talks about the cynicism that living in this world can bring. He closes with a verse that cries out for hope—hope for deliverance from the pain that plagues us. Listen to these words:

 

Father Christmas

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin’s birth
I remember one Christmas morning
A winters light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fire

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
’till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in father Christmas
And I looked at the sky with excited eyes
’till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
Hallelujah noel be it heaven or hell
The Christmas you get you deserve

Life isn’t the Rockwellian dream we have always hoped for, is it? But does that mean we have to give up on hope completely?

That last line of the song is haunting to me: “The Christmas you get you deserve.” But maybe it shouldn’t be. At first, it may sound pessimistic, but what if it is an exhortation instead? Maybe we get the Christmas that we focus on and work for. A Christmas that depends entirely on the silver and gold and candy canes and tinsel may leave us feeling a little more empty than a Christmas that provides no material blessings but is full of an expectation of a Savior.

Think back to the old man and old woman.

Right after Jesus is born, in Luke 2:25-38, Joseph and Mary take Him to the temple where he is blessed by two older people: Simeon and Anna. Simeon sees Jesus, thanks God, and then blesses the family. Anna also blesses the family and then goes on to spread the word about Jesus.

Two people: Simeon and Anna. Waiting for God’s deliverance. Waiting for freedom to come for their people. How often in their lifetimes did somebody pop up as “The Messiah” only to be revealed as a fraud? How many times did they eagerly anticipate an event only to find it coming up empty?

But still they waited. Still they hoped. And did it ever pay off! They looked into the eyes of the Messiah!

And what does Simeon say? Does he say, “Now I will see I have been hoping for!” “Now my people and me will be freed from the Roman oppression!” “Now all those who have fought against us will get theirs!”

No. He says, “You can now let me die in peace.” Just knowing that what he had been hoping for would be fulfilled was enough for him. And although we have no recorded words of Anna, we are told she kept talking about Jesus; she kept spreading the good news; she kept saying her people would one day be free. She knew her hope was going to be realized, even though she wasn’t going to live to see it.

The fulfillment of hope does not mean you get everything you want. The fulfillment of hope means knowing the Presence of God will be realized, even if you don’t get to see it yourself.

I read this earlier this week and it is powerful (I am sorry, but I do not remember the source): “We misunderstand Advent by knowing what comes at the end of it. Those before Christ had no idea he was coming. They waited.”

Simeon waited. Anna waited. And when they saw Jesus, they worshipped.

_________________________

This brings me to the world we live in today. Regardless our opinions of Ferguson or Cleveland or Staten Island this simple yet uncomfortable fact remains: many people of color in our country are terrified. They are oppressed. Their lives are discounted.

When we hear those things we may squirm in our seats, we may get defensive, or we may shout out in affirmation. Whatever our response may be, we have to deal with the reality that people are living out every day.

If you do not have the right color skin, or the right address, or the right socio-economic makeup, then you are considered a second class citizen. Fodder. Easily cast aside.

And that is what Simeon and Anna were, as well. That is what the nation of Israel had become. Second class citizens. A post on the fringe of the Empire. People who could easily be cast aside.

And it was to that group of people that Jesus appeared. The story of Advent is not a story for people who are warm and filled and well-stocked. The story of Advent is a story for people who are lost and hurting and shut out and hungry and overlooked.

This first week of Advent means that we hope for what we do not have. And for people who do not have justice the story of Advent means waiting for a day that justice will come.

If we live in a society that says justice is shooting or choking to death those who commit crimes, or frighten us, or look different than us, then we live in a society that desperately needs to cling to hope:

Hope for justice.

Hope for redemption.

Hope for light.

Hope for a Savior.

For far too many people in our own country, Christmas has been selling a lie. For too many people, the American Dream has turned into a nightmare. For too many people, Christmas is a reminder of everything they don’t have.

But Advent says, “I wish you a hopeful Christmas.” Advent says, “Look into the eyes of the Savior.” Advent leads us to saying, “Now you can dismiss your servant in peace.”

The Christmas you get, you deserve.