A Letter to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dear Rev. Dr. King,

I’m writing to you on what would have been your 86th birthday.  This is not an update on race relations in America.  Bishop White’s yearly epistles carry the heavy lifting in reminding those of us in pulpits and pews how far we’ve come and the great distance that remains.

My letter is to pose a series of questions; many of which may never be fully answered.  Your legacy continues to be debated in our society today.  As a prophetic voice, you saw how racism, poverty, and militarism worked together to alienate the idea of America from all Americans. I wonder, in the years following Birmingham and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and as your vision expanded toward injustices beyond America, how did Jesus shape your message?  Did the kingdom of God matter to you in 1965 the same way it did in 1955?  Had your views on Jesus evolved?  I’ve been in ministry almost 18 years and I’ve never been beaten or arrested.  Yet, my theology is still evolving.  Surely, over time, how you saw the kingdom and the meaning of the resurrection changed.  If you’re that close to reality of evil do you start to rethink the reality of good?  I would love to talk to you about this; preacher to preacher.

In those crucial years of 1964-1968,  how did you see the Poor People’s Campaign as your ministry?   During the dark nights of the soul, who did you think was listening?  Was it a God beyond the “ground of all being”?  You’d studied Paul Tillich at Boston University in graduate school?  I like to think it wasn’t some man who lives on a cloud in the sky.  Who was God to you?

You came to realize that religion isn’t solely a matter of belief. Religion also involves a measure of action.  God is found in the interactions between people.  Then men who wrote to you while you were in the Birmingham jail had religion of the heart but they couldn’t translate it into positive change.  They wanted the kingdom to wait.  Why, I wonder, are we still asking God to wait on our schedule?

Blessings,

Richard Bryant

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Food for Thought-I Will Not Condemn Donald Trump

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I do not agree with Donald Trump’s recent statements regarding Muslims coming to the United States. I am opposed to this idea. As a clergyperson, what should I do about my disagreement? One of the ideas repeatedly hitting my inbox is an “Open Letter from Clergy to Donald Trump”. The letter raises important concerns about dividing America along religious lines. I hold these same concerns. Despite my sympathies, I’m bothered by this letter. If religious leaders started sending such petitions, in their role as defenders of the moral and ethical status quo, to everyone who said something stupid, racist, bigoted or xenophobic; we would spend all day writing letters. The immense volume of correspondence would bring the work of ministry to a halt. Inevitably, we’d have to start sending letters to each other (pastors to pastors and church members to church members or church member to pastors and vice versa) asking our neighbors and friends to repudiate positions we find morally repulsive and religiously offensive. We would be perpetually offended, pissed off at the world and angry at something all the time. Sound familiar?

Welcome to reality, religion, and life in America. In essence, this is the platform Facebook and other social media outlets provide. In an instant, we can alienate our family and friends with instant calls to attack them, they way I’m being asked to condemn Donald Trump. Petitions and open letters aren’t new; we now do them quicker and in 140 characters or less. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” was written in response to an open letter signed by several pastors. Which one do we remember today? Is it the open letter of moral indignation or one man’s thoughtful reply and call to action? Online petitions lack the eloquence of Dr. King’s call to tangible action.

Doesn’t this come back to the essence of the issues raised by Trump and others in world dominated by war and religiously motivated terrorism? How does one remain faithful to their religious tradition without telling someone else their faith sucks and they’re going to hell? How do you condemn others without implicating your own sinfulness? You can’t do it.

One place to start would be universal declaration of non-religious suckiness: Thou shalt not say that anyone’s religion sucks.  I could sign that letter. I am also more than willing to sign a letter which bans Hell out of existence and states no one is going there for not believing the way I do. When and if I see such letters, I’ll let you know.

I would love to condemn Donald Trump. I’m not a fan. Although I agree with the premise, “America isn’t America if it’s divided along religious lines”;  I can’t sign such a letter.   Yes, people of faith shouldn’t remain silent.  But this isn’t the way to be heard.  I cannot sign the letter because of the log in my eye, the sin in my life, and the grace I’ve received which tells me the best means to reject Trump’s ideas is to love in ways I don’t think I’m capable of loving.  I wouldn’t be signing such a letter out of love.  It would be out of fear and hate.  I can’t change Donald Trump’s mind or heart. Online petitions merely feed his publicity machine. Trump needs to be hated as much as he is loved by his most ardent supporters. This is the fuel on which his campaign runs.

I can take away my hate.  At some point, I need to be comfortable in praying for Donald and letting the Holy Spirit do her thing. I can, however, feed every refugee I meet, house those I encounter, clothe the needy, comfort the sick, and visit those in jail. Our positive actions can stand in stark contrast to his dark words. Or people of faith can condemn Trump, with a host of others, online. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, “Let’s see how that’s works out for you.”

Food for Thought-Martin Luther King’s Clerical Robe

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I read an article by one of my colleagues in Tennessee concerning preaching attire. He always preaches in jeans. I’ve done the same, usually wearing a tie, blazer, or clerical shirt with my Levis. More often than not, I wear a preaching robe or black cassock. There are times when I don’t want to wear a robe and other times when I enjoy donning the symbol of my office and role in the church. In those moments of doubt and indifference, when questions pop into my mind about how this black gown is perceived by my congregation that I remember; Brother Martin wore a robe.

It’s difficult to find pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King preaching when he’s not wearing a robe or stole. Whether in the pulpit of his father’s church or his own congregation in Alabama, Martin can be seen wearing his preaching robe and stole. In a day and time when African-Americans were subject to ridicule and scorn, King dressed in a way that placed him on a level with his white colleagues. He was not any less a human being or religious professional than white clergy. He had earned a degree from an accredited seminary. King studied preaching not only as a street corner practice but as the means which civilization had shared how God is revealed for centuries. The robe, a visible sign of an inward calling, helped to set him apart as a voice for those who had no means of being heard. White and black, racist and non-racist all knew what the robe meant.

Martin Luther King was a man of the cloth. What he said, what he preached, was all framed by the Bible he carried and the God he believed in. When you put on that robe, it’s a humbling experience. You realize you’re representing more than yourself; you’re speaking the words you believe God wants you to say. Wearing the robe means you take the task of preaching seriously. Martin Luther King believed in meeting the challenges he faced because those challenges were shared by his entire community. When I don my robe, I am to take my calling seriously because my congregation and I both share struggles on a common journey of faith. The robe is one way preachers ask their congregations to follow them on this path.

So this week, not because of Martin or for Martin; will I wear my robe. I’m wearing my robe because Martin and I are preachers and that’s just what we do.

Food for Thought-Remember the Silence

Remember the Silence

There is no silence,
In shame,
There is no shame,
In silence,
Let go of the blame,
Without words,
Life isn’t the same,
Live between the letters,
Exist without James Crow’s fetters,
Wipe off the sticky residue of fear,
Embrace the humanity which is clear,
Grab a consonant and take a vowel,
Smash them together and make them howl,
Give your life a voice,
Ignore the neutral choice,
Scream if you choose,
Or whisper this news,
We will remember the silence of our friends,
Not the words of those who frightened us again and again.

–Richard Bryant