This is my first blog post on my own site since late August. The longest stretch I’ve ever gone between posts. As many of you know, my wife and I contracted covid-19 in late September. It was pretty brutal, though thankfully we were not admitted to the hospital or needing oxygen. But afterwards I had the ‘long-haul’ version, and fought heavy fatigue and body pain for weeks until just recently.
So this is not only my first post of the new year, but first in several months. As I write, the pandemic continues to rage here in the US and many countries around the world. There have been scenes of unrest and violence in the U.S. Capitol in the past week, and this coming week brings the inauguration of a new President. Friday was the 92nd birthday of Martin Luther King, with the national holiday in his honor today. Recently I read the last book he wrote, published by wife Coretta Scott King after his assassination in April , 1968. King had gone away for several weeks in the fall of 1967 to write this book, titled ‘Where do we go from here?‘.
For me this title is such an appropriate question for our world as we emerge into 2021. Still facing a pandemic seemingly without end, but also with hope of vaccines distributed more and more rapidly. Political unrest continues in the U.S. but with some hope of a cooling over time back to the usual partisan rancor of a functioning democracy. Last year in March as covid-19 began to bring shutdowns globally for travel and the economy, I felt in prayer the words ‘Pause, Shift and Re-set’. I blogged about that at the time. All three continue to be happening almost a year later.
As this year started, I felt the word ‘Shatter‘ but also ‘Restoration‘. There is a continued shattering happening in many lives due to events that are ongoing. But there is also a promise of restoration that God brings in that shattering. Right now in so many ways it feels like there is much more shattering going on than restoring, to be honest. For Martin Luther King, the months before his untimely death were a time of going even deeper to try and look far into the future of the nation and the civil rights movement. In this thought provoking book, he asks four key questions that we can all be asking both personally, as groups and as nations.
The first two questions dealt with present and future context, and the second two the deeper places we all need to probe more carefully. King was not only a reformer, but a question asker. In asking these questions, and being self-aware of the mistakes he was making personally or the failures of the movement, he found a grace to go deeper. But in this grace he also opened himself up to disappointment after disappointment, and fought constantly the specter of bitterness until the end of his life. Perhaps we are facing our own disappointments today.
The first question Martin Luther King asks:
1) Where are we at?
As he asked this in the fall of 1967, he had to weigh honestly the progress of the civil rights movement in the United States, but also where the nation was at as it fought the divisive and costly Vietnam war. We ask this question today as we enter the year of 2021, following a year of great pain and struggle yet also a year that held glimmers of a new world connected in new ways. Are we disappointed with our lives or the progress of our hopes and dreams? Often the first step in change is to be self-aware of where we are at presently. Facing our lives or our organization or our nation with eyes that commit to not hide the scars and blemishes.
And the second question follows:
2) Where do we go from here?
So much of the future, even this year, is still uncertain. For my wife and I, how soon until we can go back to Asia? How fast will vaccines roll out in this nation and globally to bring the world back a bit more towards normal? For King, this was the title of his book. The subtitle of the book is Chaos or Community? Are we headed towards more chaos this year and the years ahead, or more community? That could certainly be asked in this nation politically right now: will there be ongoing and continued division and chaos at even a greater level? Or can we see renewed hope for community across political and racial differences?
The last two questions King grapples with are even more foundational. We could argue that if we don’t get them right, or struggle with them in self-awareness, we may not be able to answer the first two.
3) Who are we?
A deeper question. One that requires a deeper sensitivity and attentiveness, a deeper honesty. Who are we as a nation now? Who are we as individuals? Is it possible to get back to that deeper understanding of identity, of purpose? Letting go of those behaviors and attitudes that cause us to veer away from who we really are, to follow people or ideas that lead us into deception or error? Often asking this question takes a time of silence or retreat. Answers may not come quickly or easily. Who are we as the Church?
4) Who are we meant to be?
I love this question. It challenges us to think again of purpose. What are we called to be? Why are we here on earth? What does our Creator want us to be and do during our short time here on earth? These are deeper questions that arise the deeper we go. Martin Luther King was a man shaped and formed by his Christian faith and service arising from it. One of the greatest tragedies of his death at such an early age was what would he have become? What prophetic type challenges could he have continued to give to this nation and the world? What further service would he have given, even in political leadership? King was not a perfect man. He had flaws and sins and weaknesses like all of us. But as this final book of his shows, he was connecting to the deeper places, knowing he needed to go into retreat and silence to do so.
I’ll end this post with a quote I love from Reinhold Niebuhr, theologian and public intellectual. He wrote this in 1952, towards the end of a life given to asking deeper questions such as the four above. Let it give us hope entering 2021, placing our lives in a longer context than simply today.
‘Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.’