What I’ve Been Reading, Watching, and Listening to

In a world with an avalanche of information and the potential for experiences coming at us at any given moment, it is important to learn to create filters and discernment processes for the kinds of things we are going in ingest into our souls. Throughout history, the printed word has served as a ferry for all kinds of conversion – intellectual, emotional, spiritual. All of the arts can have this effect as well, and this is an important dimension of all of our spiritualities.

When it comes to discerning what to read, watch or listen to in the precious time we have, it is always helpful to have the suggestions of people who read and experience new information as part of their living. Most of us have a stack of books at our bedside, while some of us have stacks near our reading chair, our cocktail table and any other horizontal surface capable of supporting weight. Most of us also have long lists of films we want to see or music groups we hope to experience. Below are some films, books, talks, and music that I’ve enjoyed over the past few months–I hope it serves as a good starting point as you decide what to read on your journey, especially as we move closer to the months of summer.

Because I often travel quite a bit, I sometimes make use of airplane time to catch up on films I had heard about, but never had time to view. Here are some films I’ve seen recently:

  • Raggamuffin is a 2014 movie about Rich Millins, the popular Christian contemporary musician in the 1980s and 1990s. The movie provides a penetrating exploration of an enormously gifted musician, who lived a tortured life with the scars of his childhood and adolescence, yet continued to write songs that touched the hearts of millions. Mullins became one of the most successful Christian pop stars and had his songs sung by the biggest Christian pop stars, such as Amy Grant and Michael W Smith.
    Despite internal turmoil, deep loneliness, and struggles with addictions and strained relationships, Mullins remained a strongly committed Christian who often spoke boldly and prophetically about the wrong-headedness of the “prosperity” and feel good Gospel message that was so rampant in Evangelical circles in the 80s and 90s. Mullins made millions, and yet, only accepted an annual salary that was determined to be the average salary of an American worker. The rest of the money went to charities and churches. After becoming hugely successful, he went back to school for a music education degree and worked as a music educator with children on a Native American reservation.
    The movie references Mullins relationship with Brennan Manning, a contemplative-activist who had his own life long struggle with alcoholism, which led to his writing of the Raggamuffin Gospel, a book published in 1990 that had the simple message that God’s grace is not dependent upon performance. The book brought God’s mercy to a central location in the Christian message, something that scandalized many people at the time, but proved a source of liberation to many others.
    Mullins was so inspired by Manning that he formed a new band – The Raggamuffin Band – that provided revival-type concerts centered on music dealing with the real interface between everyday human struggles and religion. Mullins’ constant message of religious authenticity, God’s mercy and unconditional love and forgiveness, and the Christian obligation to serve the poor, was an early example of the return of a “social gospel stream” in the evangelical movement that has emerged in the past two decades in modern Evangelicals, particularly the young.
  • Noëlle, is a 2007 movie that was released for the Christmas season. It explores in a fascinating way the role guilt manifests itself in human lives, and the challenge a person has in finding a path to redemption. In the film, a hard-hearted priest, Jonathan Keene arrives in a small fishing village in Cape Cod. His task is to decide whether the small church in the community should be closed due to its dwindling and aging attendance, and the young pastor who has a drinking problem that is on full view to the community. As Keane becomes involved in the lives of the people in the village, his guilt for a decision he made as a young man surfaces in an uncontrollable way. The guilt manifests itself in his recurring vision of a young girl, who appears to him with a look of sadness and longing. The movie moves slowly, but is a unique look at the role guilt plays in redemptive actions and choices, a topic rarely explored in modern film.
  • The 100-Foot Journey is a modern-day fable invites viewers into a meditation on the longest journey any of us ever take – crossing from our world into the world of others. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, there is a feel-good quality to the film that can overshadow the very complex issues underlying the narrative. The movie is based on the international best-selling fictional book by Richard Morais, which is based on the middle-aged reflections of an Indian immigrant cook who rose to the top of French haut cuisine, becoming one of the most celebrated chefs in France. The movie follows the book fairly closely: a noisy and close Indian family, running a popular restaurant in Mumbai, is driven from their home because of civil unrest and searches Europe for a place to settle and begin their lives anew. Based more on the father’s intuition (if not superstition) they buy an empty building in a rural area of France that just happens to be located across the street from a highly decorated French restaurant that is run by a haughty and somewhat bigoted Frenchwomen, Madame Mallory, played exquisitely by Helen Mirren. As the Indian family launches their own restaurant 100 feet from Madame Mallory’s famous restaurant, competition, misunderstanding, humor and personal transformation all occur in the collision of cultures, personalities, cuisines, ethnicities and values. The 100-foot journey is a metaphor for the ways in which globalization is forcing the human race to learn how to reach across the divisions that separate us – from the food we like to the way we envision the world.
  • Transcendence is a mind-bending film about the possible outcome of an artificial intelligence (AI) achieving human-like consciousness. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a brilliant AI researcher on the verge of death, has his “mind” uploaded into a program and supercomputer by his loving wife (Rebecca Hall) and friend (Paul Bettany), resulting in the apparent creation of a human consciousness operating within a virtual world. Caster, (or is it just something resembling Caster?), has an unlimited ability to assimilate information and reason about it, and sets in motion the building of a new kind of society and world. The film surfaces a host of theological and philosophical issues, and is an excellent meditation on the issues associated with the interface of technology and transcendence. What constitutes the unique capacities that make us human? Could such capacities go digital, and if so, what would happen to our ability to make ethical decisions? Can a computer transcend its hardware and software and have a “soul,” as we have traditionally defined this unique dimension of the human person? Would such a computer supported “soul” exist in reality, which might support the thesis that our humanity is nothing more than electrical impulses and chemical reactions, or would such a computerized soul only create the illusion of its human counterpart? If a computerized soul did exist in reality, however, would this “soul” differ qualitatively from the primary descriptors of the core of our own humanness? Lastly, can love and idealism survive in such a digital environment, and if so, how might it manifest itself? If you give yourself over to the theological and philosophical implications of the narrative, this movie is a mind-bender.
  • St. Vincent is an unpredictable story of a crude, self-absorbed, gambling, boozy, and politically incorrect neighbor (Bill Murray) who agrees to babysit the son of a next-door neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) who is going through a nasty divorce from her two-timing husband. McCarthy’s son is a precocious and almost annoyingly polite child, who is adjusting to a new home and a new school, and a growing awareness that his young life is not in neatly folded corners. Murray’s character, Vincent, is a decorated war hero with an institutionalized wife. He has an intimate relationship with an equally crude Russian stripper, prostitute girlfriend (Naomi Watts). Yet, he finds himself a role model for an impressionable young boy going through a difficult life transition. To a young boy in a religious elementary school, who has been given an assignment to tell the story of a modern day saint, the hideously flawed Vincent seems like something more than a slovenly, burn-out, degenerate. The story explores in very subtle ways the nature of love and caring, and the influences that shape a child’s understanding of a messy, imperfect world. A major message of the film is that human goodness and kindness, and the virtue of fidelity are sometimes found in the most unlikely people and places.
  • The Good Lie. I saw this movie on a long plane ride, a tale of four Sudanese refugee siblings trying to adjust to American culture after a hideously traumatic childhood and adolescence, which included the genocidal murder of their parents and a decade in a refugee camp. Great cross-cultural humor mixed with profound demonstrations of the way character and spiritual grounding can empower the human spirit to rise above virtually any challenge.

Here are some books I’ve read or re-read for both work and pleasure:

  • M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy
  • Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder
  • Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
  • JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit (My son-in-law is a Tolkien fanatic and a quarter of the time I miss or barely catch the meaning of his allusions in conversation. This is the first time I’ve read The Hobbit since I was in high school and I forgot what a captivating and multi-layered work it is.)
  • Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (This is one of the most popular required texts in jazz schools throughout the U.S. Nachmanovitch integrates many spiritual traditions into the neuroscience of play and practice and the spiritual traditions of east and west. A great text for anyone who would like to understand why jazz musicians–and other artists–often like to explain what they do as an exercise in “spirituality”)
  • Heather Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (The conservative evangelical movement has had a remarkable sophistication with the use of technology, which is ironic since the movement often has been highly resistant to modernity and post-modernity. Hendershot gives a good, non-judgmental evaluation of the meaning systems this part of Christianity has created through its engagement of culture)
  • Gerald R. McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (One of the most famous and arguably impactful public theologians in the United States is Edwards. Despite the common error in reducing this important thinker to his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” this text is a good companion to a much more detailed analysis of Edwards and his very nuanced thought found in George Marsden’s, Jonathan Edwards: A Life)

What I’ve been Listening to:

  • Pharoah Sanders, “Journey to the One.” These are some classic tracks from one of the most famous saxophone players in the world. Sanders mixes very mellow soft improvisation with grittier bebop sounds. While part of a theological education research consultation with Auburn Seminary, our group had the great opportunity to see 74-year-old Sanders perform at Dizzy’s Club at the Lincoln Jazz Center in New York City, one of the most famous jazz clubs in the U.S.
  • Jesse Cook: “The Blue Guitar Sessions.” A famous Canadian jazz/rock/pop guitarist with Latin influences. The album was a Christmas gift from my daughter and son-in-law, along with a print of Pablo Picasso’s famous painting, The Old Guitarist, one of my favorite paintings. I also received an original copy of Wallace Stevens’, The Man with the Blue Guitar.
  • Two talks I found interesting on the most significant popes impacting the shape of 21st century Catholicism are Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church by Leonardo Boff, and The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy by George Weigel.

Giving Women their Due, A Challenge Societies Still Don’t Have Right

Until the late 1960s, U.S. culture tended to ignore the profound contribution women played in American society, a grievous oversight shared by many other cultures of the world. Women have always played important roles in the lives of those around them. But, it is only relatively recently that historians have taken seriously what some feminists have referred to as “her-story,” a term coined by Robin Morgan in her 1970 book, Sisterhood is Powerful. Morgan and others challenged the assumptions made by most of the world’s “his-torians,” charging them with having masculine biased assumptions about the people, activities and events that have been worthy of memory for later generations. The concept of “her-story” has spawned books (like this one), writers’ workshops (example here), theater productions (like this), and even organizational networks (like this and more).

Bringing the role and impact of women from the past into full reflective view is not a matter of “revisionist” historiography. It is actually a corrective action in an almost universally flawed process of telling the story of our human roots and the individuals making special contributions to our families, communities, societies and cultures down through the centuries. And, the sin of historical omission is not just a female problem.

Gustavo GuiterrezAs the Peruvian liberation theologian, Gustavo Guiterrez noted in the early 1970s, history is written by and about the economically and politically dominant voices of any given time period. This perspective filters out many of the most important stories of a generation, distorting not only our understanding of the past, but skewing the way we make sense of the present. One of Guiterrez’s projects was to create a case for telling history from below, to write the human narrative from the perspective and the contributions of the poor and to develop the Christian tradition’s theological thinking about the role of liberation in this life, as well as the next. This gained him the title of the father of liberation theology in some quarters, but he was riding the wave of a more profound awareness of the enormous gaps in our remembering of what’s worth remembering from the past.

Many pioneering women were committed to same project as Guiterrez, but in relation to the role of the female. They tried to recover, re-discover and celebrate the women who have shaped our world. Historians like Mary Blewett and Joyce Oldham Appleby learned the trade of the historian and applied their skills to uncovering the tales left untold by the chroniclers of the past who over-emphasized men and largely ignored the role of women. Some, like Linda Nochlin, focused deficits in one particular cultural area. In a famous 1971 article she asked the world’s art historians an embarrassing question: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Of course, there had been great female artists; it’s just that the art history establishment ignored them.

Old Elizabeth, bookWhile all women have been slighted by history, those from racial or ethnic minorities have been particularly invisible to historians. Fortunately, far-sighted individuals from the past did what they could to leave breadcrumbs for later generations. The Quakers, as an example, helped to save the memory of Old Elizabeth, an African-American woman who was born into slavery but became a traveling preacher and founder of a black orphanage. In 1863, with Quaker assistance, she published her life history at the age of 97: Memoir of Old Elizabeth: A Colored Woman. She is just one of thousands of women who left an indelible mark on the people around them, but never caught the attention of those writing about the past.

Once enlightened, one might think it a fairly easy task to surface the accomplishment of women through history. But, surfacing a more accurate and sustained reflection on the contributions of an entire gender seems amazingly difficult for many societies. In 1987 the U.S. Congress decided it was so difficult that American culture needed to declare the month of March as Women’s History Month, in the hopes of eliciting greater awareness of the female gender’s impact on society.

Some specific fields of study have felt a similar need to awaken awareness of the role of women shaping a particular area of the human condition. During the month of March in 2014, for instance, the Royal Society in London is conducting a “women’s history writing event.” Scientists will meet to collectively update Wikipedia’s entries on female scientists. Why? Because the women who have made major contributions to science usually have thinly written biographies, if they are mentioned at all. The Royal Society intends to remedy that deficiency, at least for the world’s largest open-access encyclopedia.

Deborah, Hebrew BibleIt seems odd that it has taken so long for women to get recognized for the significant roles they have played in human history. The Bible is filled with strong and effective female leaders. The Book of Judges tells the story of the tough female judge and prophetess, Deborah, and the even tougher Jael, who drove a tent peg through the temple of the tyrannical Sisera. (Jael was the kind of woman you could take on a date to a Blues club even in the toughest Chicago neighborhood). Jesus had strong, courageous women around him, and they funded much of his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). The Koran gives special reverence to Mary, the Mother of Jesus (Surah 3:43), and the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija Bint Khuwailid, was a smart and successful businesswoman when she met the Prophet. Many of the most powerful gods in the Hindu tradition are goddesses. The word for goddess, in fact, shakti, means power or energy.

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot PonsardinWomen have also played strong roles in every society: from gutsy queens to the bold abbesses of medieval monasteries. The business world has had the likes of the young 17th century French widow Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, who built a champagne empire through her family label, Maison Veuve Clicquot, which is still going strong. In more contemporary politics you have such commanding figures as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in England; or the first woman elected to run a Muslim nation, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto; or the facto leader of the European Union, Germany’s indomitable Angela Merkel; or the former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

After 45 years of working at a more accurate representation, the role of women in history has improved. But, there are still huge gaps in our understanding of the past, with nearly half of our history still missing. There are practical problems with this omission. If women seem less important to our past, they are less likely to take their rightful place in our present. Although more than one in two humans in this nation is female, only one in five women are members of the U.S. Senate, less than one in five are in the U.S. House of Representatives, and only one in three comprise the nation’s population of physicians and lawyers. We don’t even need to get into the differential in pay for equal work and the raft of other issues of inequality still borne by women of this nation and nearly all other societies on this planet.

It is also unbalanced in religious organizations. Although women are 20% to 25% more likely to worship on Sundays in the U.S., and most volunteers in religious organizations are women, females provide miniscule part of the leadership. The Faith Communities Today 2010 national survey took a multi-faith representative sample of all the religious congregations in the U.S. (11,000 in all) and discovered that only 12% of the communities had a woman as a senior or sole leader. In mainline Protestantism the figure more than doubles to 24%, although for Evangelical communities it drops to 9%. Although Catholic laywomen have run congregations for many years, particularly in rural areas, and Mormons serve in volunteer “lay” leadership, those positions are not even listed officially as senior leadership for their congregation.

There is a connecting line between how we remember the role of women in our past and the role they play – or are allowed to play – in the present. Until we fix our memories we are unlikely fix our present.

I remain hopeful for our future because I believe in women, their ability to rise above the limitation placed on them, and the amazing capacity to endure and persist. It has been often said that if men had to deal with the pain of birth the human race would have become extinct long ago. One day in the future, women will take their rightful place in the human collective memory of the past, and they will have access to positions of influence and leadership that is proportionate to their percentage of the human population.

In the meantime, let us hope that our species is not selective in what it remembers about the struggle women had to undergo to find respect and justice. As Karen Fowler notes in Memories For Sale, you can’t treat the past fairly if you pick and choose what you remember. “Ignore the turmoil, chaos and pain – and the truly great memories would not shine with such luster.”

Women will one day shine in our understanding of human history. But, their luster will be magnified because for so many years the chroniclers of the past tried to hide or extinguish their light. But, women, and the men who loved them, will not allow this to happen forever.

~ Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD

Our Best Laid Plans

Plans1In the higher education calendar, August is a time of last minute planning for the academic year.  Of course, it does not take too many cycles of planning for a school year to realize that things often do not work out the way we painstakingly plan.  Indeed, one of life’s most difficult learnings is  that the future often ends up different than we planned.   One of the most poignant pieces of American literature wrestling with this human challenge is John Steinbeck’s 1927 novella: “Of Mice and Men”. The principal characters in Steinbeck’s story, you may  recall, are George and Lennie, two migrant field hands with a powerful dream of purchasing their own farm someday.  The book ends tragically, with the reader taken into the heart of the greyness of some moral situations, as well as the sadness and disorientation of witnessing  human plans getting crushed in the mortar and pestle   of life’s challenges and disappointments.

Plans2The title of Steinbeck’s book comes from a famous Scottish poem written by Robert Burns in 1786: To A Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough. The poem is written in the voice of a farmer who accidentally ploughs up a mouse nest and speaks to the mouse of his regret and his realization that the situation is a reflection on the tenuousness of the planning cycles of all mortal beings.  Says the farmer to the mouse:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.

Garden Design Blueprint SketchingPerhaps the master of discernment (or “spiritual planning) in the Catholic tradition is the founder of the Jesuits – Ignatius of Loyola – who  developed discernment into a high art form, one that remains as psychologically astute in our own day as it was in the 16th century of his times. Ignatius discovered the art of spiritual discernment has as much to do with the events and circumstances in life as it does with our prayer, attentiveness to the subtle movements in our consciousness, and study.  Yet, despite his commitment to the careful planning of what he believed God called him to be and do, Ignatius rarely had his plans work out.

He wanted to take his Society of Jesus into the mission fields of Africa, but instead laid the foundation for the largest private educational system in the world.  He wanted to live out of a suitcase, responding to the special needs of the church of his day, but instead spent most of his ministerial life in Rome, embroiled in the details and politics of launching a new religious community.

PLans4Ignatius had so many plans dashed on the rocks of reality that a Jesuit friend of mine, Fr. Jerry Fagin, SJ, once wrote a journal article he originally named: Plan B (later published under another name*).   Jerry taught at Loyola Univeristy New Olreans in a ministry education program for mostly Catholic lay ministry students. An Ignatian scholar, Fr. Fagin noted in his article that Ignatius was dreamer and an optimist and always had a Plan A. Often, and certainly with some of the most significant decision-making times in his life, Ignatius had to move to Plan B.  (You’re welcome to read Jerry Fagin’s originalarticle here in a PDF.)

In moving often to Plan B, Ignatius came to realize that planning, preparation, implementing, and on-going discernment in response to changing circumstances are part of a continuum of discerning God’s dream for our lives.  In the implementation of a plan, the doors to the future open into a mystery of what comes next; and, as one steps into this mystery, new, unimagined opportunities open him or her. This interpretation thrwarted plans helped Ignatius to never see failed dreams as God willing or orchestrating obstacles. Rather, as Jerry Fagin notes, Ignatius came to believe that in each dashing of a plan “God used the circumstances to place a new path” under his feet, one leading to “great good for others and achievements far greater than Ignatius ever envisioned.”  Once more, unlike Robert Burns, who saw “grief ‘an pain,” rather than the “promised joy” of the original plan, Ignatius found profound meaning, purpose, and yes, joy, in following Plan B.

Plans5Sometimes we can only see a Divine hand in our life when we look through the rearview mirror.  But, the process itself often leads us to a place we could never have imagined unless we were first on the path to implementing different plan.

As we begin a new year filled with our “best made schemes,” perhaps we can remind each other that our plans wil point us down a path that may change direction into something unforeseen.  Should this happen, may we hold to our original plans gently enough to make room for a greater Plan that may break into our life.

~ Dean Mark S. Markuly
   Seattle University, School of Theology and Ministry

*Rev. Gerald Fagin, S.J., “Surrendering to God’s Plan for Us,” Human Development. Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 2005

Happy Holidays from Dean Mark M. Markuly, PhD

All of us at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry wish you a joyous, peaceful, and deeply meaningful celebration of this sacred time of the year.  May you experience a new depth in your relationship with God, those around you, and the natural world.  May you also gain greater access to the numinous depths of your own consciousness, that place of vision, dreams and the “something more” in life, the place of encounter with the grand Mystery vivifying reality.

As we move closer to the shortest day of the year, all of us at the school pray that you experience once again an immutable truth: the darkness surrounding us (whether in our interior life, our family, our job, our heatlh, our faith community, our society, or our so very troubled world) will eventually yield once again to the advancing power of light.  Regardless of our religious tradition, this mysterious, holy pattern is woven into the fabric of the universe and the spiritual realities supporting it.

For many of us, the Christmas season is a joyful time, wrapped in an assortment of customs celebrating family, friendship, and the power of love, kindness, and charity.   But, as Christian liturgists so frequently remind us, during the weeks prior to December 25 our churches are not in the Christmas season but Advent, a time of waiting (in the deepening darkness of approaching winter) for the promises of God to become fulfilled, for the world originally conceived by God to finally emerge in an unambiguous way.  Despite our differences in theology and culture, so many of our friends from the religious traditions of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and others share this dream for the world with us.

Although Advent is a liturgical season with as murky an origin as Christmas, (surfacing in the 4th century along with the first real Christmas on December 25, 336), it may have emerged because early Christians realized gradually that the Reign of God on earth was not going to happen in a literal fashion any time soon.  At least in the short term, it appeared God was less interested in coming to earth to slay evil than to build up a people who are committed to their last breath to model, persuade, educate and inspire humans to choose a common path more befitting our stature as children of God.  And, oh, how we still wait and hope …

Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry is filled with students, faculty and staff, and surrounded by a host of friends and supporters who long for justice, mercy, peace and love, and authenticity and truth. The cloud of witnesses, gathered in and around the school, seek this better world and pledge themselves to do what they can to make it more of a reality.

May this time of Advent and Christmas prepare us for another year of both waiting and struggling to bring about this noble vision.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Dean Mark S. Markuly, Ph.D.


Conversations: Grace Under Fire

As we end a deeply contentious presidential election cycle, the divisions among the American citizenry are as visible as always.  In the midst of this divisiveness, we need people who can lead from a soul-depth that inspires others, but also can sustain itself in a pressure cooker.

One of the finest measures of the human soul is the ability to maintain grace under fire.  Most people who have distinguished themselves in rising above the chaos, evil and fear swirling around them speak of having “received” inner strength from outside their own interior resources.   This strength allowed them to rise above the circumstances of a stressful situation, to think clearly, to respond compassionately, and to ultimately display the very best in human character.  It also gave them the capacity to lead the process of change needed to move the community to another place.

History is filled with examples of people receiving the gift to act with grace under fire.   A somewhat recent example comes from the so-called “kitchen epiphany” of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the middle of the 20th century.    Charles Marsh gives as good of a rendition of this experience as you can find, in his book, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. <Photo Credit: Lisa Singh, American Detours>

Dr. King had taken a position as pastor of a small congregation in Montgomery, Al., after completing his doctoral coursework at Boston University, but before writing his dissertation and completing the degree.  He was newly married and had his first child, Yolanda.  He took the job, against his father’s wishes, because he dreamed of one day becoming the president of a college, but wanted some pastoral experience prior to entering higher education.   The congregation in Montgomery was not his first choice, and a little smaller than he had hoped for in his first “church call.”  But, he accepted it thinking the size would allow him to finish his degree requirements.

After a little more than a year on the job, Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the “white section” of a bus and refusing to relinquish her seat.  At the time, Montgomery, like other cities in the south had Jim Crow laws that allowed communities to segregate African-Americans from schools, public eating establishments, stores, and even from sitting in the front of a bus.   Several days after Parks was arrested, local activists, hoping to challenge the Jim Crow laws, created a social action group they called the Montgomery Improvement Association.  Under duress, King accepted the position of president of the association. <Photo Credit: Denver Public Library>

The Montgomery Improvement Association, under King’s leadership, spearheaded an African-American boycott of the bus system.  Not yet a man willing to take unnecessary risks, King convinced the activists to demand only modest concessions, such as the bus drivers speaking with courtesy to African American riders, and blacks having the right to sit in the front of the bus, only if the back was already full.  The activists were unhappy with King’s timidity, but followed his lead.

Of course, the local white leaders condemned the boycott, and tension in the city intensified.  A month and a half into the social justice initiative, King was arrested for doing 30 miles an hour in a 25 mile an hour zone, was handcuffed, put in a police cruiser and driven away from downtown and out into the darkened Alabama countryside.  As he sat alone in the back seat of the car in the dark, he panicked and prayed that God would give him the grace to endure whatever awaited him when the car stopped, which he assumed was his own torture or murder.

Fortunately, King was taken to the city jail and incarcerated with other people.  Bail was made and he was released, but the following day he had back-to-back meetings and activities and returned home late and exhausted, his wife and child already long asleep.  After checking on his wife and daughter, King received a telephone call filled with obscene words and a death threat.  He had such calls before, but this one rattled him.

He couldn’t get to sleep and sat alone in his kitchen, trying to figure out a way to get out of his leadership position without looking like a coward or disillusioning those trusting in the possibility of promoting change in their southern society.  In desperation, Kin called out to God, not from his academic preparation at Morehouse, Crozer and Boston Universities, but from the depths of the shared humanity he had experienced with the social justice activists, drifters, and alcoholics sharing his prison cell the previous night.  He also cried out from the heart of his formation in the black church.  He told God he was terrified for himself and his family.  He thought he was right in the cause of greater respect for African-Americans, but he felt incapable of bearing up under the pressures bearing down on him.

Suddenly, King said, he was filled with a Divine presence that made him feel ready for anything coming his way.  He felt God standing with him and the rightness of the movement.  Three days later, he convinced the Montgomery Improvement Association to not settle for modest changes in the laws and practices on city buses, but to challenge the legality and morality of the entire system of segregation law in Montgomery.  Four days later, while he was giving a talk, King’s house was bombed with his wife and child in the building.  He rushed home and found he city police and confused and scared white leaders in his house and an black crowd on his front lawn growing more and more angry.   Walking on to his shattered porch, King raised his hand to silence the crowd and gave an impromptu speech that launched the Civil Rights Movement.  King’s epiphany changed him from a would-be college president to one of most effective social reformers in American history, delivering a message and a methodology that has inspired people throughout the world.

Although far from a perfect human being, Martin Luther King became a person ready and eager to act with grace under fire.

At the Mic: Excerpts from a Talk, 9/23

The following are excerpts from a talk given at Plymouth United Church of Christ today– Sunday, September 23rd, 2012.

‘We the Purple’: Becoming Both-And Communities of Faith
in an Either-Or, Red and Blue Society

“Are Americans really as intractably divided into red and blue political positions as the pundits would have us believe?  According to Bill Bishop’s, The Big Sort, the nation is, indeed, fractured deeply.  The journalist Bishop tracks the ten-year relocation of 100 million Americans, and notes that many of them settled in neighborhoods, counties and states that are more likely populated by like-minded people.  From the segregated, freely-chosen “hives” in which we live, says Bishop, we have our most passionate ideas about politics, truth, justice and culture reinforced and rarely challenged.

As religious sociologist David Kinnaman has noted in his book, You Lost Me, young people 16-29 are leaving the church and re-thinking their understanding of faith, while those in the same age group looking at churches from the outside see faith communities as empty moral and spiritual shells, filled with congregants engaged in behavior that is either unchristian, or a mere pawn of the political divisions of the society.  The upshot: many historic traditions of faith are losing the next generation, in large part because red-blue polarities seem as rabid inside as outside communities of faith.

If red and blue is truly descriptive of a major part of our political reality, it is not the only force in society.  Over the past 20 years, the Independent movement has attempted to find a pathway between the polarities of red and blue politics.  Independents now comprise a significant number of the electorate (although the media often misunderstand who they are and what they believe).  While this movement has not yielded a third-party alternative as some had hoped originally, it has offered a new perspective on the handling of differences of principle and opinion among Americans, and a different kind of strategy for building a common life in the United States.  Can “we the people,” find a new way in our politics by striving to become ‘we the purple?’

I would assert that we can discover this space between the anger and broken hearts generated by our red-blue world, and that faith communities may offer the best hope for achieving sustainable oases of purple.  But, this will require us to trade in the “machine brains” of the 19th and 20th century, an inheritance of the Enlightenment that took the dynamics of democratic republicanism for granted, and adopt “garden brains,” which see democracy as something we have to weed, feed, and water.  This talk will ’till’ the terrain of creating purple garden space in congregational life.”