I was ten years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. I remember that we were watching TV when reports came in about his death. I did not really know who he was or why his death was significant. I did know that it was a time of racial strife. The news was filled with reports of riots and unrest and I understood that there was trouble in our nation, but I did not have the grasp on national affairs to understand it.
I can remember when I was in 8th or 9th grade, I did a report on the “I Have a Dream” speech of August 28, 1963. I was amazed and inspired by those words. But on the other hand, I have heard many through the years who derided King’s theology, his efforts and his personal behavior.
On this day, I would like to take a few moments and reflect on the life and work of Dr. King. It makes me nervous, as a pasty-white Iowa pastor, to discuss the most iconic figure in the American civil rights movement. But I can see the powerful effect this man has had on the life of these United States and appreciate the work that he did. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed America. I have no desire to wade into the controversial aspects of his life or debate politics. I would like to make a few brief observations about his leadership, his impact and the example he left. There is much about his life, his work and his words that can serve as a guidepost for us.
1) The Undeniable Power of Words
What was the heart and soul of MLK, Jr’s work? It was his words. He did not run for office. He did not take up arms to lead his revolution. He inspired change with inspiring, motivating, powerful words. “I have a dream…” Those words set a goal for America’s racial future and advanced the cause of civil rights. His words were active!
We published Mike Leake’s article last week about blogging and doing – a well-known (and controversial) pastor drew a distinction between them. How many variations have you heard of the idea that there are doers who get things done and talkers who just use empty words. Often blogging is discounted because it is only words. Have you ever heard preaching dismissed in a similar fashion?
Dr. King shows (to my joy) that words are powerful. His carefully chosen and massively inspiring words changed the direction of a country. Paul told us that “faith comes by hearing.” Hearing is the result of someone talking, right? When we speak words of truth, we are doing something powerful and life-changing. Far from being empty and meaningless, words can change lives when the Holy Spirit uses them.
Preaching. Writing. Proclaiming truth. When we speak the Word, we are doing something significant.
2) The Power of Perseverance
When Dr. King gave his powerful speech in 1963, the country gave him unanimous applause and immediately changed all of its laws and practices that were discriminatory, right? Uh…well…no. Several state governments brought all their power to bear against him. There are reports that the FBI not only used surveillance but perhaps harassment to stop him. He was vilified, arrested and mistreated with impunity.
And he continued.
Christians are so easily discouraged. In the Bible, every work of God was vigorously opposed and victory only came as a result of perseverance. God’s people continued to do what God commanded even when everything fell apart and people came against them. But we expect that if God calls us, the enemy will lay down, everyone will rally around us, all the doors will open and everything will come together perfectly. I’ve known of preachers who left churches because a few people resisted their “vision” for the church. Spiritual quitters never see great victories.
Perhaps one of the reasons we get so little accomplished is that we are prone to get discouraged and quit when things go wrong. Perseverance is an essential quality of ministry success.
MLK, Jr. modeled that principle.
3) Serving Something Bigger
I am anything but an expert on the life or work of Dr. King, but he seems to have been a man who was committed to a cause much bigger than himself. He put his life at risk to help men and women who were being mistreated because of the color of their skin. Many politicians and movement leaders seem to be motivated more by their own glory and status, but they seldom bring lasting change.
Dr. King had a dream, a vision, one that was bigger than himself. He devoted his life to a cause for the benefit of others.
We, as believers, have the greatest cause of all time. We serve the Savior who is the only hope of all the world. It is amazing how often we turn that cause into a selfish pursuit. Church-building can become self-aggrandizement all too easily. We must fight that natural but sinful human tendency.
Leaders who really make a difference, in politics, society, or at church learn a lesson that Dr. King seemed to understand: It’s not about me!
4) Heroes Have Fee of Clay
Those who do not share Dr. King’s vision were quick to publicize and criticize his personal moral failings. It is clear that Dr. King was not a perfect man. His vision was extraordinary, his words were inspiring, but he had personal flaws that might have undermined his work if time had permitted.
I would make two observations from his foibles. When we do our work, we must remember that private character is as important as public ministry. So often, we can polish the outside and forget to keep the inside in order. It is a common failing of those in public ministry – one that perhaps becomes more of a struggle as we “succeed” in ministry. When we fail, we give the enemy ammunition to use against us.
Second, it is important that we not allow our churches to become too heavily identified with our name and our work. It’s about the Kingdom, not the herald. Just before he died, King gave a speech in which he admitted, “I might not get there with you.” But the cause was bigger than the spokesman. He knew that. We need to remind our people that it’s about Jesus and the gospel, not about the pastor. Too often, those things can get confused.
5) The Means and the Ends
Dr. King is known for his goal – the end of racism and discrimination in America. But he is also known for his means. Having been influenced by Gandhi, he chose non-violent resistance. In that approach, he drew opposition not only from the racist institutions of America, but from some others in the Black community to advocated a more forceful approach.
But King was concerned not only that the ends were just, but that the means to that end were also just.
This is a good reminder for us as we serve eternity’s most noble end, the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What we do is important, but how we do it matters just as much. God must be honored by the ends of our lives, but also by the means we use to seek those ends.
Dr. King was not perfect, but his life made a difference. I want my life to make a difference as well, and I believe that there are lessons to be learned from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
You have anything to add?