For over a year now, a group of young men have been gathering every Monday night in a duplex on Virginia Avenue to eat, pray, sing, read, laugh, and share the rhythms of our lives with one another. As this week's meeting coincided with the MLK holiday, I suggested that we listen to one of Dr. King's sermons. I chose "Unfulfilled Dreams" for its simplicity, intensity, and intimacy. This is not the venerated King of my education: the towering, triumphant, superhuman hero of "I Have a Dream." The King of "Unfulfilled Dreams" is a humble, transparent mortal employing a vulnerable heart and learned mind to deliver the Word as only a Southern black Baptist preacher can.
On March 3rd, 1968, Rev. King preached from 1 Kings to the congregation which raised him, Ebeneezer Baptist Church--less than three miles from where six white boys were seated around a modest fire, listening to the sermon echo across four-plus decades through a laptop tuned to Youtube. King speaks of David's desire to build a temple worthy of the God of Israel. David's bloodied hands were unfit to build this temple, yet Scripture tells us that David "did well" to have this desire in his heart. King offers a similar blessing to his congregation for the worthy "temples" of peace and righteousness they desire to build.
In the first hours of 2011, my brother and I stood on a balcony high over Obelisco square in Buenos Aires, Argentina, talking about the temples we are laboring to build. We reflected upon the tension between the energy, enthusiasm and gratitude such visions bring and the weight and confusion that accompany their pursuit. In our increasingly complex yet ever-more-accessible global reality, it seems impossible to comprehend the complexity of even the most compactly drawn compartment of reality.
Even if you are fortunate enough to have a relatively clear goal in view, the challenge of utilizing your time, talent and resources effectively can be overwhelming. It's difficult to determine whether an extra hour of "official business" is actually more fruitful than an hour connecting with friends or enjoying a relevant and insightful piece of media.
King soberly acknowledges that like David, we may never see our temples completed. We may even witness their destruction, just as Gandhi saw the peaceful union he labored for obliterated through the violent partitioning of his country.
Journalist Nick Reding relates the heart-wrenching story of the destruction and reconstruction of the American dream in Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. As the social and economic foundations the citizens of Oelwein, Iowa had built their temples upon began to crumble, the desperate and disillusioned are further dismantled by the deceptive promises of an insidious drug.
On Wednesday night, a diverse mixture of twenty-odd undergrads, grad students and professors from every school at Emory gathered to discuss the book and begin a semester-long exploration of the dizzying and disturbing confluence of medical, economic, political, cultural and spiritual factors surrounding this epidemic in the first ever "University Course." Reding's far-reaching, deep-delving, painstaking investigation of this social disaster reinforces the unsettling reality that our world is increasingly impossible to understand and its problems ever-more daunting. By the end of the opening meeting of this academic adventure, we were waist-deep in the ultimate questions of meaning and value which any human tragedy brings to the fore: "What do we need to live? What makes life meaningful?"
The night before, I had attended a gathering called "Praying with the Mystics" at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church. Spiritual director Kimberly Broerman led a dozen or so middle-aged women, one fellow Candler student and myself through a meditation on the words of theologian Howard Thurman, one of Dr. King's heroes. He suggests that what we need to live may be a little different for each of us, and that its discovery is not only essential for our own well-being, but for the world around us:
Don't ask yourself what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive
and then go do that.
Because what the world needs
is people who have come alive.
It might seem that for both King and Thurman, mere good intentions are enough. But Thurman's image of "coming alive" implies action, and King makes the necessity of effort explicit through both word and deed.
As we listened to "Unfilfilled Dreams," my friend Jonathan reminded us that King's message emerges out of the confusion and complexity of the last months of his life. From our vantage point, we see King as one of the most successful social reformers in human history (not to mention a moral and spiritual giant). But amidst the eruption of racially charged riots following his movement's greatest legislative victories, many were calling his nonviolent movement a failure. Towards the climactic end of the sermon, King raised his voice to a desperate, heartfelt cry:
"You don’t need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint. Oh, no. I want you to know this morning that I’m a sinner like all of God’s children. But I want to be a good man. And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, 'I take you in and I bless you, because you try. It is well that it was within thine heart.' What’s in your heart this morning? If you get your heart right..."
At this point, the recording cuts off abruptly. King was killed a month later; a mere sinner like the rest of us, but one who did his best to get his heart right. That heart came alive, and it did all of us a world of good.
In our first meeting yesterday, the members of my Religious Practices Seminar discussed four quite distinct takes on what "practice" means. It's a pretty vague term. Indeed, part of the reason I chose it for the title of this blog is that it allows us the freedom to talk about anything and everything. But I think Thurman and King help us to identify what practice is in the most ideal sense: it is behavior which makes us "come alive," our best efforts to manifest the temples of our hearts in a complex, confusing, imperfect world.
What makes you come alive? What temple do you desire to build in your heart? What can you do, today, to build it, brick by brick? "If you get your heart right..."