Musings on MLK Day 2020
“And now abide these three; faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.” -I Corinthians 13
When my daughter Lydia was in high school we didn’t really talk much. We spent time together but we didn’t really talk. In fact, I used to joke that the words she most often spoke to me during her teen-age years were, “Dad, is mom there?” and that was over the telephone. When we did pass each other of a morning or of an evening, I would always ask, “How are you doing green eyes?” And she would smile and say, “Just fine.” A few year later, I discovered that she really wasn’t doing all that well and one day I asked, “Why didn’t you say something about what you were going through when I asked each day?” She replied, “Daddy, I just told you what I knew you wanted to hear.” It hurt but she was right. That is what I wanted to hear.
I think most people would prefer to maintain the polite illusion that all is good and well…until we can’t any longer. But there always comes a time when justice demands that the truth must be spoken. Some things are plain wrong and must be named or what is or what has always been is what will always be. And that conversation is often difficult and jagged at best, angry and polarizing at worst. We saw many such occasions in 2015 and there may be more in 2016: Times when the volcano blows and the lava flows and creates a magma river and you have no real idea where any of it is going or when it will cool.
I hate it when my wife Melissa’s volcano blows. There are times when she needs to spew her truth and I must confess that it is often hard to hear…especially if I am an antagonist in her story. I always want to be Moses. It sucks being Pharaoh. Even as she is speaking to me in such emotionally jagged and even angry times, I must consciously remind myself that I need to love her enough to stay at the table, even and especially when I want to run. I must listen, feel and empathize. I need to hear her…even and especially when she is hurting my ears.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke truth to a nation that did not want to hear what he had to say. But there were things that justice required be removed: Systemic and illegal barriers to things the Constitution guaranteed but did not seem self-evident at all in King’s American South. I cannot imagine the burden of having to speak such weighty truth. A prophet’s mantle is heavy and carrying such a mantle has always been dangerous work for guys like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Martin. Some wonder whether USAmerica has really made any progress since those days but I can tell you this American has made progress. Because I have learned that how we listen in those uncomfortable moments is more important that what we have to say. Sometimes people in my church get cross-threaded with me. It’s hard to believe but it’s true. On occasion, they will walk into my office with a lot of anger, frustration and emotion on their faces. The volcano is about to blow. Surprisingly these meetings normally go really well these days! They didn’t used to but they do now. It has been my recent experience that two people of common faith and goodwill who think very differently about very substantive issues can actually grow in love of God and neighbor through difficult conversations and perhaps that is the gift the church can offer America in 2020. I have found that as I continue to think through areas of undeniable systemic oppression, the dehumanizing effects of both rural and urban poverty and racial tension that still tears at the soul of this nation I have learned much indeed.
This is a story from my book “Re:Member” that can now mainly be found at rummage sales and on the door prize table at charity events.
Not Everyone Thinks Like You
(Leawood, Kansas circa 2013)
Troy Melvin Benton is my Associate Pastor at Christ Church. His fellow senior staffers include Executive Director Alan Prass, Pastor of Worship Arts Don Frazure and Director of Campus Ministries Larry Weber. I hope I have taught him some things about leading a large congregation forward in its mission but there is no way to tell you what all he has taught me. Troy is an excellent pastor, sees the big picture, African American, a few years my junior, originally from Cleveland and doesn’t think like me at all…I mean not at all. Each year we attend a conference held by a church larger than us to learn best practices but also to plan our next ministry year. We choose somewhere about four or five hours away because the van rides are great opportunities to drill down on our interpersonal relationships and think critically about our ministries. This year we headed to the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection just over the state line from Kansas City. Once we arrived at the hotel, the five of us assembled together and began our work.
As we were discussing times we would be away from the church, a discussion emerged concerning Troy’s invitation to speak to a congregation who were holding their 102nd anniversary. I said, “Troy, churches celebrate their anniversaries in years divisible by one hundred, fifty or twenty-five. Nobody celebrates their 102nd church anniversary.” Troy looked at me (as serious as rain) and replied, “Not everyone thinks like you.” Undaunted, I turned to Alan to see if he thought like me on this matter. He did. And so did Don and Larry. All eyes then turned back to Troy who unapologetically responded (without even blinking and with no emotion), “Not everybody thinks like you all.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. He hit the nail squarely on the head! That is why Troy has made such a huge impact on my life and ministry. Most of my friends think like me and my unscientific polls only affirm the original hypotheses that my positions and observations were right all along. Thank you Troy for reminding me that not only does everyone not think like me, they don’t think like “you all” either. The friendship of those who do not think like me, have become some of my most valued friendships of all.
Sometimes I watch the news and peruse the Social Media and I am tempted to despair. We are a people fractured, on edge, fragile, angry…and all waiting for the next shoe to drop even as we pray it won’t. The problems before us are complex and deeply engrained; the answers are not clear, if there are answers at all. Sometimes I wonder how the American church, that clay pot of which Paul speaks, can dispense priceless treasure in such times as these? Paul wrote, “And now faith, hope and love remain.” I can honestly say that I have faith that the difficult issues before us are not too hard for our all-powerful and creating God. I also have hope. I noticed a long time ago that people with hope act one way and people with no hope act another way entirely. Those with hope remember there is an end game; a time of forgiveness, reconciliation and healing that by faith will come…and as much as I would like for it to come right here, right now, I know it can’t be rushed. And perhaps it shouldn’t be.
Some years ago I was in New Orleans for the Mardi Gras on a faith sharing trip and my dad’s appendix ruptured. They were busy at the Tulane Hospital ER that Fat Tuesday and they sort of gave him a room, a round of antibiotics and surprisingly left the wound open. I wanted his sewn up and make better so I could get back to my family, my life and my church. “Make him better now!” The doctor told me he couldn’t can’t sew things up until the infection cleared because the wound will heal fine, even as dad became sicker and sicker on the inside. The idea was not to make my dad look healthy or get me back home for that matter, it was to make my dad truly healthy and that was simply going to take some time! We should not and cannot gloss over pain and ignore obvious inequities and injustices; just because we would really like to sew things up, send the patient home and tell everyone to act like the are feeling great. We need the wisdom of the Great Physician in 2016.
I know the challenges ahead of us are as great as the abuses were behind us. I have no doubt the infection will flare here because we are not yet healthy. But I have faith that we will one day be reconciled, healed and united. I have hope that has me always conscious of an end game and I have love enough to stay at the table and hear the truths we need to speak to one another…even if they hurt my ears. Paul wrote, “And now abide these three; faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love.”
So as we enter 2020, ready or not, let us walk in faith, hope and love. For like Dr. King said so long ago, “I have decided to stick with love, hate is too great a burden to bear.”
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, A Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, is the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois