In Remembrance of MLK Jr. 2018
Yesterday, like many people across the world, I took a moment to reflect and think about the life of Martin Luther King and his life’s work. One of the great things about being alive today is the accessibility of some of the great works and speeches from King and other great leaders and thinkers of this world. The streaming service Tidal actually curated a list of his speeches for ordinary folks like me can listen to and gleam an idea into his thinking and mindset at that time. One of the speeches that caught me and led me to give it a few listens was the “Unfulfilled Dreams” speech given on March 3, 1968 given at Ebenezer Baptist Church — just a month before he was assassinated in Memphis, TN.
You can hear the sadness, resentment, anger, and cry in King’s tone as he shares the 21 minute speech to an audience of listeners, who also are quite solemn for a Southern Baptist church. King has been labeled an enemy of the state by the government. Him and his family have faced death threats and has seen resistance at every level. He sounds broken in so many parts and in some points of the speech, he sounds if he’s having a personal conversation with himself as his voice quivers at time — full of questions and reflection.
But, in this sermon, King recognized that we all have dreams and aspirations and that many never come to fruition. He began his sermon by referencing the eighth chapter of First Kings, which tells the story of King David’s long-time dream to build a temple — a dream he did not fulfill and gave him so much personal pain and grief. Instead, God had made this the vision of his son Solomon, who built the temple after his death. I think at this point in King’s life he learned that life is a continual process of “shattered dreams”. Before yesterday, I had never heard this speech but was so taken by it for many different reasons that I could probably write several other posts on — however, the most prevalent was that it reshaped the perspective that I had of King based on my limited understanding of him and the time he lived in. The King many of us know is the King who on Lincoln Memorial gave one of the greatest speeches in history — “I Have A Dream”. However, this speech was more of a counterpoint to that speech and seemed more personal… More confessional.
Initially, King takes as his text verses in 1 Kings 8 about David’s failure to build a temple:
“And it was in the heart of David my father to build an house for the name of the Lord God of Israel. And the Lord said unto David my father: ‘Whereas it was in thine heart to build an house unto my name, thou didst well that it was within thine heart.’”
I think King is finding contrast in the story of David and the temple and his own story in racial equality and the American Dream for all. I believe MLK hopes that God will judge well of him too, based on his desire to erect “temples of justice,” even though he will likely not live to fulfill this dream. King anticipates that he will die like Gandhi, who “died with a broken heart, because that nation that he wanted to unite ended up being divided.”
That thought… The thought of ‘how’ Ghandi died and all he did to bring about this ‘temple’, is what leads King to begin lamenting his own ‘temple’.
“Life is a long, continual story of setting out to build a great temple and not being able to finish it.”
As he’s sharing this ‘confession’ (as I would call it) with his long time friends, supporters, family, and community he shares the battles within his own heart which are more widely known during his movement. King mentioned that he had saw ‘the better things of life’ and yet ‘the evil things of life’ he succumbed to. It was almost like he had to come to a moment of truth with himself and also with the people who loved him the most. It was strikingly quiet in the room and I can imagine it being a very sad one as well. I think people in the room knew that he wasn;t speaking necessarily to them, but through them — reaching out to God in hopes of being free from the things that persecute his heart and keep him from receiving the grace and mercy that he so longed to receive.
I grew up in the church with a very devout and faithful grandmother who not only made the church a part of her weekly diatribe of activities, but also made sure my mother and her son were there as well (“As long as you are under my roof…’ she would say). In that time of learning how to find the books in the bible in a quick and timely manner, remembering key scriptures & stories, and wondering how she was able to see me sleeping in church alllllll the way from the other side of the room I have come to realize that there are two types of preachers:
1) The Preacher who speaks to the church from a high ground and can come off as ‘the holder of truth’ and commands his congregation to obey God’s commandments or there’s a fiery pit of hell that awaits you that no man can save you from.
2) The preacher who speaks for the masses and knows their struggle and their hearts. This preacher knows that he is in a room full of sinners and identifies with them because he is one too. Together, he leads their cry for mercy and grace as they approach God and ask for forgiveness and love in their day-to-day plight.
Now, there is no right or wrong way to do it and each hold their value and place in creating an extension to God from man, but I think the ones who are best have been the ones who can do both. The first type would be like your Amos or your Jeremiah in the bible who instruct the people to repent or face the wrath of God. The second, would be more like David, who is crying and pleading for mercy. David was sharing his heart and sincerely showing through his understanding of the relationship between him and God where he had fallen short. I think this is why King used his story with the temple as an example. This is the premise of “Unfulfilled Dreams.” In this sermon ‘evil’ does not lie simply “out there” in the world’s social injustice, but inside every human heart — including his own. One can also say that King was looking for forgiveness and understanding from his inner circle, but one can also say that this doesn’t make the speech any less poignant or reflective of him examining his soul.
What I find the most compelling and impactful of the speech was the final 3 minutes, where King has revealed his flaws, but “he carried the intention of righteousness at the center of his being.” He hoped that God (and his loved ones in attendance) would judge him as he preached that we should judge each other, not by the “separate mistakes we make, but by the total bent of our lives.”
I appreciate that there is a day that we can remember Martin Luther King Jr and his amazing life and dream.