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.


Conversations: What is Soul Improv?

Welcome to Soul Improv, a blog about one of the most popular concepts in the world, soul  This is becoming one of the most frequently used words in the English language, even though as a concept in popular usage it is about as clear as a Seattle morning fog.

The word soul has had quite an evolution through the centuries.  Borrowed from the ancients, embellished by a long history of Christian theology, explored by psychology and psychiatry, adopted by other religious traditions, and finally monetized by the consumer cultures of the world, the concept soul is now used so pervasively as to make it difficult to know exactly what it means.

Of course, improv, short for improvisation, is a much easier term to grasp.  A commonly used word in theater, comedy and music, improv is an art form for spontaneous creativity – walking a tight rope without a net.  In music, good improvisation requires the foundation of a melody, an understanding of music theory, particularly the chording and scales that fit the key of the melody, and a sense of adventure and courage to go hunting for new sounds in the song that flow out of some mysterious place in the core of the musician’s being.   A big part of learning to improvise is finding that place in the musician’s consciousness, and developing the habit of returning to it regularly and eventually on command.  To improvise is to develop a sense of comfort in this zone between the written melody and the potential to create or find something new.

The human interest in the soul, which has been a cornerstone concept in western cultures and most of the regions influenced by western culture, seems an unlikely word to slide up alongside improv.   But, this blog is all about putting together unlikely ideas and experiences in search of soul.

Many people still use soul in its original religious sense, as the animating principle of human consciousness, the divinely infused source of life.  It is a term closely associated with religion.  According to its more traditional use, God made us with a soul and this essence or center of our consciousness is what endures beyond death.  For centuries, the soul of one generation was considered pretty much the same as another.  There was also a dependable process and structure for tending to, strengthening or “building up” one’s soul.

Beliefs; sacred texts; rituals; the development of habits of heart and mind that lead to spiritual insight; solitude; prescribed forms or content in prayer or meditation; “holy conversation;” appropriating virtues like humility, forgiveness, courage, fortitude, perseverance; fostering community; accepting counsel from the wise and holy; sacred music and artifacts … These created a kind of garden for nurturing one’s soul.   Spend time in the garden and your soul could grow in focus and strength, preparing you for the best or the worst life had to offer.

These gardens for the soul grew into the great religions and philosophies in the world, and as these systems of human meaning grew lush with depth and sophistication debates developed on the most essential components or the best way to organize or introduce elements of the “soul maturing” religious system.  Graft and corruption fueled disillusionment and more debates.  At certain times and places, pomposity and ethical blindness squelched the very soul the systems purported to nourish.

In the meantime, particularly in the last 100 years in western culture, people started using soul in much different ways.  Building on the massive cultural and social changes beginning more than three and a half centuries earlier, increasing numbers of people started believing that the soul could flourish apart from religious structures and the guidance by religious leaders.  People started recognizing traces of soul outside the gardens, and once this happened religions no longer were perceived to hold the keys to the gardens of the soul, or religious authorities the secrets of the soul’s development or maturity.

Now “soul” is virtually everywhere.  Or, so we are led to believe.  Soul can refer to emotion (he gave a soulful performance); to courageous action (she was a strong soul at a difficult time); to a good meal (soul food); or a type of entertainment (soul music), and to a whole lot more.  There is now a Soul car (made by KIA) that uses dancing hampsters as the sales force.

Soul Eater, a Japanese manga about teams trying to kill evil souls, entertains a generation of eager viewers.  See:

If you Google the word, soul, you surface 1,090,000,000 sites, while lists more than 775,000 products making use of the term in some way.  It appears we are attracted to the concept of soul, even as it is becoming increasingly difficult to decide if it still means anything specific.

I think it does.  But, many people are in a period of massive soul improvisation, trying to figure out how to work with the presence of soul in the world and in their own consciousness.  This has resulted in the dismissal of many of the religious assumptions that kept soul in a narrower field of view for centuries.

You can see this soul improv in the thinking of many who serve as high priests of American culture.  To name just a few: The rock guitarist Carlos Santana talks about his playing as a form of spirituality, the province once believed to belong to religion, while Jimi Hendrix went on record wanting to create an “electric church,” a place to experience the religious roots of blues, which came out of the black church.  Both men seemed to know, or at least intuit, that soul was moving out beyond its familiar boundaries and they fancied themselves psycho-nauts – explorers of the soul.  Their fans agreed.  When The Beatles released the album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album jacket, for the first time in music history, had all the lyrics transcribed.   Their followers could read those lyrics like sacred texts, which they did.  Since that breakout album, reading with such Talmudic intensity has happened with the works of many other bands, as well as popular books, like the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling.

But, precisely because soul is used so loosely in many of these popular forms, and has become such a common marketing term, the seeker of soul in life is easily led down rabbit holes.  This business of soul has been in operation since humans had their first thought and a lot has been learned about how this capacity operates.  Not all expressions in contemporary society pass muster.

So, why a blog?  The acceleration of change and the proliferation of the use of the concept of soul are making it increasingly difficult for us to discern the meaning of the concept.  Even while religious organizations appear to lose their relevance for large numbers of people, many of the contemporary promises to enhance soul ring dramatically (perhaps dangerously) hollow in light of the long history of the human quest for meaning through spiritual authenticity and truth.

Soul Improv will wade into this territory of the uses (and abuses) of the concept of soul.  The blog will explore “soul sightings” in culture, and will attempt to surface the apparent or implied definitions, expressions and manifestations behind those uses of the term, analyzing them against the tried and true wisdom of ancient approaches to the domain of this life of the spirit.

Soul Improv will watch life’s parade as the people, movements, and expressions purporting to represent soul get off the melody lines of this ancient force of human consciousness to create something new, true and beautiful, or a mere hologram of what makes us most human.

I hope you’ll tune your instrument and pipe in with your own thoughts about where soul is and isn’t showing itself in our rapidly changing world.