beware of false peaks: we are not yet to the mountaintop

Finding a new church here in Denver was a process I worried about and prayed over. We loved our church in Little Rock, and I didn’t think we’d find a place I loved so much here. Theologically, we line up most with progressive, mainline churches, but we’re not anchored to one denomination. In the past we have attended Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Methodist churches. We visited two Methodist churches here where we were warmly welcomed, but knew neither felt “right.” We visited a gorgeous Episcopal cathedral, where Etta loudly exclaimed that the communion host “tastes like cotton balls,” and we realized our four year olds are just not ready for high church.

And then we visited Montview Presbyterian. Walking in felt like walking into our beloved Little Rock church. Even the architecture was similar. And the music! That first day, there was brass, timpani, organ, and choir, and the music gave us goosebumps. We noted that the church is led by a man and woman co-pastor team. We were soothed and challenged by the prayers and preaching. We were excited to see the classes, events, and mission opportunities they listed in the bulletin. And to top it off, they were having an ice cream social after church that day, and the girls were totally sold. Plus, when Claire ate too much ice cream too fast in the hot sun outside and barfed, several members helped us deal.

We knew our hunt was over. And then, months later, we learned that in our new church, we actually already had some deep roots. Jon’s dad said, “You know, I think Montview is where my grandfather and grandmother met,” and it turned out to be true.

While we are excited to talk to the church historian and see if we can find any members who were around when Jon’s great grandparents were there, our family history is not the biggest historical event that has happened at Montview.

Today being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, yesterday our pastor Ian preached about the civil rights movement and the struggle for social and racial justice which continues today. He started by saying he was always honored and humbled to preach from a place Martin Luther King Jr. once stood. In 1964, MLK visited Denver, and he actually spoke at Montview. In fact, the story goes that he got stuck in a room of the church (I have heard cloakroom, bathroom, and pastor’s study all mentioned) and had to be rescued with a ladder at a window in order to get out and walk around to the front of the church to go in and speak. To the overflow crowd gathered out front, he was just kind enough to come say hello before his talk, but the truth was, that great man had just climbed out a window and down a ladder!

Martin Luther King Jr. at Montview Presbyterian Church.

Martin Luther King Jr. at Montview Presbyterian Church.

It turns out his choice of Montview was significant. Montview is in a neighborhood near ours called Park Hill. In the 60s, as in much of the country, white flight was happening from the city to the suburbs, as many white people opposed the integration of their neighborhood. In Park Hill, there were many residents and many churches who bucked this trend and decided to stay and fight for a unified, integrated neighborhood. Montview was one of those churches.

I am sure that this longstanding legacy of activism and unity is why I can look in my church bulletin and see, just listed this week, that there was a Peace And Justice Forum with leaders from the Denver Justice Project and Together Colorado “to learn more about important issues in Colorado’s criminal justice system, including prison overcrowding, use of force issues, and current reform efforts.” On Tuesday, at least 100 members of our congregation plan to attend a meeting at a nearby AME church to also learn about these issues. In a couple of weeks, people from the Colorado Faith Communities United to end Gun Violence will come help members learn about the legislative process and how to lobby for reforms that will reduce gun violence. And next month, we are invited to a Presbytery-wide conversation about race and the Denver Presbytery.

I also think this legacy is what enabled Ian to stand where MLK once stood, and preach to a largely white congregation about things like privilege, police accountability, and mass incarceration. Like MLK, Ian chose a metaphor very familiar to a Colorado congregation: mountaintops. He reminded us that climbing a mountain is hard work, and that there are many false peaks. A false peak is when you can look and see a ridge up ahead. You are tired, and yet so excited, and yet you get there only to realize you still have a long way to go to reach the top. This is a point where you have to decide if you want to keep pushing on toward the top, or if you will turn back, or stay where you are.

I think for a lot of our nation, we experienced a false peak with the election of Barack Obama. While the election of our first black president was indeed a milestone and a huge piece of history, it was not the mountain top. We are not “there” yet. We are not past racism or “post-racial” as a society, by any stretch of the imagination. The last year has brought a lot of un-dealt-with injustices into the light– things that black Americans have always known were issues are finally being brought to the attention of a white America that has for too long been too insulated by privilege to see– how many young black men have to be shot down in the street by police, how many hateful comments do we have to hear from our own president-elect and his supporters, before we realize that the civil rights movement was not just then but is now, and we have to keep going, keep pressing on toward the mountaintop?

Ian wrapped up his sermon by reminding us of the words of Jesus to some of John the Baptist’s followers: “Come and see.” We are called to come and see the injustices faced by our neighbors. We are called to show up for tough conversations, and to get uncomfortable with our own privilege. Because to come and see is to follow Jesus into the way of love. When we see, then we realize we have to act.

So, this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I am planning to do more showing up. To the meetings about racial issues and gun violence, to the marches, and the protests. What are you planning to do?

Of course, after his wonderful sermon, Ian got completely upstaged by the choir. They performed “Up to the Mountain” by Patty Griffin, with actual recordings of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking interspersed with the singing. I was moved to tears, as were many in the congregation. I will leave you with a video of Patty performing the song (click through if you can’t see the embedded video):

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On Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Peace

Image taken by Paul Schutzer, 1961. Via the Google LIFE photo archive.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Last year I learned that my state, and many others, officially recognizes both Martin Luther King *and* Robert E. Lee on this day. I wrote to my legislator, but it’s still the case this year. I hope one day to see it changed.

This day is always really interesting to me.  I think Martin Luther King Jr. exemplified the teachings of Jesus in a way few others have. However, when we narrow his life’s work only to racial equality, we oversimplify a man whose mission was one of the radical oneness of all of humankind. Though he was most known for his work on behalf of civil rights and racial justice, Martin Luther King Jr. also fought for the rights of the working class, and was passionately opposed to the Vietnam War and for the cause of peace. He advocated for “intersectionality” before it was a cool buzzword, realizing that oppression anywhere is oppression everywhere. He saw that racism is bound up with classism and militarism, and he fought against all of it.

We still have a long long way to go before his dreams for racial justice, equality, and harmony are achieved in this country. I hope you watch or read the “I Have a Dream” speech today, if you haven’t already. But here, on my little corner of the internet, I wanted to highlight a passage from his 1967 sermon opposing the war in Vietnam (link goes to full text), because its prophetic words about peace and the role of the US in the world still need to be heard today:

This is a role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolutions impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that comes from the immense profits of overseas investments. I’m convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be changed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.”…This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.”

We shall overcome because the bible is right: “You shall reap what you sow.” With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid because the words of the Lord have spoken it. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!” With this faith, we’ll sing it as we’re getting ready to sing it now. Men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore. And I don’t know about you, I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. To me, Martin Luther King Jr. lived out the teachings of Jesus in a very public and real way that few others have accomplished. I thought I’d share some quotes of his that I find particularly interesting, inspirational, and challenging.

 

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. giving his “I Have A Dream” speech during March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (aka the Freedom March). By Francis Miller, via the Google LIFE photo archive.

 

One of my favorite quotes of all time:

“Through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder.
Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth.
Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate.
Darkness cannot put out darkness.
Only light can do that.”

These next two remind me of a metaphor I heard once: helping people out of poverty one at a time is like pulling people out of a river. But at some point you have to look upstream and see what is pushing them in, and make it stop.  Social justice work must be combined with political activism, or it will always be a losing battle:

“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary. “

“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

This next one reminds me of another line I hear a lot from people involved in justice and equality work: My liberation is bound up in the liberation of others:

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

“Life’s persistent and most urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”

 

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that in my fair state, our official holiday today is Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day:

So, I wrote to my state senator and representative:

Dear [Senator or Representative],

was very disappointed today to learn that in the State of Arkansas, today’s official holiday is Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day. I immediately set about to learn who my representatives are, so that I might ask them to address this disappointing combination of holidays.

It tarnishes the great, nonviolent, positive work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to insist that the State of Arkansas must celebrate him in the same breath as Robert E. Lee. It is a concession to ignorance and bigotry to combine these two holidays. Anyone who attempts to celebrate Robert E. Lee without acknowledging that he fought primarily to defend the cause of slavery is ignorant of history. The confederate states wrote articles of secession making clear exactly why they chose to secede and fight, and in each document, slavery comes up as the #1 issue. Celebrating Robert E. Lee is synonymous with celebrating slavery, and any disagreement on this point is ignorant of history.  It is also un-American to celebrate someone who tried to tear asunder the great United States.

I ask that you and the other representatives work to change the name of this holiday, so that we might truly celebrate the legacy of Dr. King without also celebrating the legacy of the slavery and injustice and hatred that he opposed.

Sincerely,

[erniebufflo]

If you’re an Arkansan and would like to see this holiday be devoted to Martin Luther King Jr. and he alone, you can find your state representatives using this map. Let them know.