The Power of Prayer

The backbone of anything done for God is prayer. The inner core of any work that will last for eternity comes from prayerful dependence on the LORD. Throughout the centuries, those who systematically, consistently, and dependently intercede for the people of God and ministries of the church make up that backbone.

In most cases, it’s the older, experienced, seasoned saints who understand this the best and and pray the most. A lifetime of walking, stumbling, and clinging to God has taught them the necessity of intercessory prayer.

PrayerThose who are younger more often look to external things that make churches thrive, attract people, and build the kingdom of God. Things like the design of the buildings and security of the facilities, the friendliness of the people, the style and the excellence of the music, the communication skills of the preacher, and other aspects of a church are usually seen as determining factors for the effectiveness of a church. Certainly, those are important matters and should be given careful thought and be fully funded, staffed, and led. The biblical and spiritual reality, however, is that virtually all advances of the church for the glory of God are the result of believers in Christ who understand the significance of prayer and faithfully pray.

Early in his military career under the leadership of Moses, Joshua learned that real strength was not in his sword, but in the power of God. The first mention of Joshua in the Bible comes after the Amalekites’ attack upon the stragglers at Israel’s rear following their exodus from Egypt:

“At Rephidim, Amalek came and fought against Israel. Moses said to Joshua, ‘Select some men for us and go fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the hilltop with God’s staff in my hand.'” Exodus 17:8–9

Moses' prayerMoses, now in his eighties, took the staff of God that he used to part the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16) and ascended a nearby hill overlooking the battlefield. Joshua, in his fighting prime, took charge of the army. In the ensuing battle, when Moses lifted up his hands in intercessory prayer, the army of Israel prevailed and when, due to fatigue, he lowered them, Amalek gained the advantage (Exodus 17:11). Soon Aaron and Hur were called to help and support Moses, seating him on a stone and standing each at one side to hold his hands up toward Heaven. When the sun went down, Joshua and the army of Israel had defeated Amalek and his army (Exodus 17:13).

That was a day Joshua would never forget. He learned that real victory was not in his own strength, military strategy, or leadership skills, but in the power of the LORD that comes through prayer. Forever fixed in his mind was the image of Aaron and Hur coming to Moses’ side and lifting his hands up to God in prayerful dependence. Throughout the rest of his life, Joshua put into practice the lesson he learned at Rephidim: the real power for any work done for God is prayer.

It’s the same today for us as the people of God. Prayer is the work that God uses to transform the world. E.M. Bounds said of leaders who have had effective spiritual impact, “They are not leaders because of brilliancy in thought, because of exhaustless in resources, because of native endowment, but leaders because by the power of prayer, they could command the power of God” (Prayer and Praying, Chapter VIII).

praying handsPrayer means much more than just saying prayers and much more than praying by habit or through a list. Prayer is more than believing in the power of prayer. Prayer is calling out to and depending completely upon the the personal, triune, sovereign God of Heaven who wants us to pray, hears us when we pray, and moves because we pray. That’s why prayer is the backbone for the work of the church. Prayer is the essential, inner-core strength that is required for spiritual victory in our lives, in our families, and in our friendships as we lift up our hands toward the LORD’s throne (Exodus 17:15-16, John 15:5-8, Ephesians 6:18, 1 Timothy 2:8, James 5:16).

PrayingPrayer is the reliance upon God that enables us to put on and utilize the  full, spiritual armor of God, “for our battle is not against the flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, agains the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:11-12). If we hope to have strength as the church and victory in this world, we must be the children of God who pray.

I’m praying today for a revival of real prayer to produce a spiritual revolution in our hearts that would empower us to change the world for God’s glory. Let it begin with me, LORD.

Follow me… as I follow Jesus Christ.

 

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

MLK Birmingham Jail“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.
Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.
Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
MLK familyWe have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
MLK Montgomery busLet us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”
I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.
But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
MLK SelmaI have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.
It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
MLK MontgomeryI hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.

State of the Union

state-of-the-unionDuring tonight’s State of the Union Address by President Barak Obama,  the president said, “The future we want – will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.”

What I’ve found is that find that most Americans have grown tired of politics, weary of the rhetoric, cynical of public servants, and fearful of the future of our nation. What is it about our times that government has ceased to work? Why are people simply so angry? Regardless of your political persuasion, it’s easy to be mad or, at least, frustrated by what’s going on in Washington.

How should we respond to the frustrations that so many of us feel with the current state of the union and future of our nation? How do followers of Jesus respond to politics, politicians, and government?

A Brief Historical Perspective

As long as we have had human government, godly citizens have disagreed with the policies, decisions, and activities of their governments. Times of dissent can escalate into a crisis. It’s then the we must decide, if we should actively protest or patiently wait on the government leaders with respect for their authority. Where should the line be drawn?

In the second century AD, the respected Roman scholar Celsus leveled an accusation of atheism against followers of Jesus. Because they did not worship the gods of Rome nor revere Caesar as a god, Celsus accused them of treasonous, atheistic beliefs. When persecution came their way, the early church endured it. There is little evidence of anything resembling early Christian resistance to government persecution.

Confessing Church in GermanyBut in World War II, Christians were among the boldest defenders of another oppressed people group. Faithful followers of Jesus played a major role in organizations such as the Dutch resistance, the French underground, and others that opposed Nazi aggression.  In Germany, followers of Jesus arose in opposition to government-sponsored efforts to Nazify the German Protestant church and stood up against the Nazi persecution and extermination of Jews. Dietrich Bonheoffer, a founding pastor in the Confessing Church, was involved in a conspiracy with members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Adolf Hitler, primarily for the sake of the Jews. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and executed by hanging in April 1945 while imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp, just 23 days before the German surrender.

Closer to home, we find in the founding of the United States of America, biblical preaching and teaching within the churches provided the justification for the revolution against Great Britain and the establishment of a new government. Alice Baldwin, writing in The New England Clergy and the American Revolution, says,

“The teachings of the New England ministers provide one line of unbroken descent. For two generations and more New Englanders had . . . been taught that these rights were sacred and came from God and that to preserve them they had a legal right of resistance and, if necessary a right to . . . alter and abolish governments and by common consent establish new ones.”

The founding of this country – civil disobedience to colonial rulers as well as the framing of the key political documents – rests upon a Christian foundation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the United States is a Christian nation, although some framers used that term. But it does mean that the foundations of the U.S. government presuppose a Christian view of human nature and of God’s providence.

A Broader Biblical Perspective

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was political chaos and government crisis in Jerusalem. King Herod, the reigning king who was paranoid and felt threatened by the prophecy of another king, murdered all the boys under the age of two (Matthew 2:16-18).

Thirty years later, as the disciples walked the lake shore of Galilee with Jesus, they were gradually learning to embrace the principles of the kingdom of God while living under the authority of the Romans. They began to sense that their miracle-working Teacher was fulfilling the prediction of the prophet Isaiah, who said:

For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. The dominion will be vast, and its prosperity will never end. He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from now on and forever. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7).

Could it be that Jesus was about to fulfill the words of the prophet? Could He be the long-awaited Messiah? With anticipation of a divine takeover of the world, imagine the disciples’ wonder—and confusion—when this King told them that they owed a pagan emperor their money and respect! Yet in the days just prior to Jesus’ execution on a cross, that’s exactly what the disciples heard Him say (Matthew 22:15-22). The disciples anticipated political liberation. Shockingly, Jesus taught His followers to respect even a pagan ruler.

But what if the government tells us to renounce our faith, or abort our children, or serve in a military waging an unjust war? The Scriptures also make it clear that respect for leaders does not mean unqualified compliance or complete silence. The New Testament apostles showed us that there are times to appeal to a higher authority. When the Jewish rulers commanded Peter and John to stop talking about the resurrection of Jesus, the apostles responded, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide;  for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20). When there is a direct conflict, Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29).

Centuries earlier, Daniel had similarly refused to comply with government actions when they forced idol worship on all the people of Babylon. For his courage, Daniel was thrown into a lions’ den. His gracious but courageous response to this injustice clearly shows that he did not have issues honoring the authority of King Darius. When he emerged unscathed from the lions’ den because he trusted God, Daniel said to the king,

“May the king live forever. My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t hurt me, for I was found innocent before Him. Also, I have not committed a crime against you my king.” (Daniel 6:21-22).

Barack Obama, John BoehnerWhen we have issues with our government in Washington, we would do well to consider the way Daniel respectfully resisted King Darius. When weighing our response to the government for the sake of our conscience, we must also consider how we are to respond to an institution that has been established by God. It’s an exercise in balance and perspective, requiring careful wisdom.

In our current political climate how should followers of Jesus respond? God has given us two clear guide-rails from Scripture as dual citizens of Heaven and of the United States or wherever you live (Ephesians 2:19Philippians 3:20):

1. Trust God’s Sovereignty. God is the One who has established government and it’s leaders as a servant in His hand to accomplish His purposes and plan.

1 Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. 2 So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. 4 For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. 5 Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience. 6 And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s public servants, continually attending to these tasks. 7 Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.  (Romans 13:1-7; underlining for emphasis)

Governments – both good and bad – are established by God as His servant. Therefore, He will provide the submissive, obedient follower of Jesus what is good from His perspective (Romans 8:28-31) – even when He allows adversity and suffering by the hand of those in authority.

Ted CruzGod is also the One who moves the hearts of rulers whom He has established as His servants. King Solomon, intending to prepare his son to rule in his place over Israel, gave his son the following wisdom in governing a nation: “A king’s heart is like streams of water in the Lord’s hand: He directs it wherever He chooses.” (Proverbs 21:1) A farmer directs water by digging irrigation canals. Similarly the Lord directs the hearts of kings – for example, Pharaoh (Ex. 10:1–2), Tiglath-Pileser (Isa. 10:5–7), Cyrus (Isa. 45:1–6), and Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:21; Neh. 2:1–8). God is sovereign, therefore, no wisdom, no understanding,  no counsel, no government, no president will prevail against Him (cf. Prov. 21:30).

Governments, people of position and office, as well as the decision-makers in Washington, may appear to wield power, but they are really under the enthroned authority of God (Isaiah 40:22-23). He can dispose of any human leader because He is over all of them. He can dispense with any government just as easily as He can make flowers wither and blow chaff away (cf. Isaiah 40:6–8). He can reduce them to a state of comparative nothingness. God is not only superior, but sovereign. Whatever form of government we may live under, God is still in control of it’s past, present, and future. Trust Him.

2. Pray for God’s Servants. God answers prayer that shapes both governments and our individual lives.

First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 1 Timothy 2:1-2

Paul used four different ways to describe the kinds of prayers we should offer on behalf of our governments: petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. Although the first three of these words have similar definitions, it is likely that Paul intended to emphasize the different ingredients that should be part of our prayer life for those God has placed in authority over us. Taken together, Paul’s call for such prayers reminds us that God wants us to pray continually for all those He has placed in authority over us in order to express our confidence in God’s authority and sovereignty that are His alone. Pray to Him for them.

Capitol buildingHenry David Thoreau, in Civil Disobedience and other Essays wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” At times, it feels, like we are experiencing frustrations with government that lead to desperation like never before. Quite frankly, I’m fed up with the Fed!

It’s during times like these when I look out and feel beat down that the best option is to look up – to keep looking to Jesus. How should we respond to government frustrations? Trust God in His sovereignty and pray for the servants He has placed there – even and especially the ones in Washington.

Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ.

The Nativity

The Nativity

“The Nativity” by Gari Melchers is one of my favorite artistic portrayals of the birth of Jesus because it seems to capture the harsh realities of the night that changed the world.

Before the shepherds appear to tell about the angelic announcement, before the wise men arrive to worship Him and present their gifts, there’s just Mary, exhausted from child birth, and Joseph, overwhelmed by the task in front of him, and the baby in a feeding trough, an unplanned pregnancy and inconvenient birth that saved us all.

“I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.  This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.” Luke 2:10-12

MERRY CHRISTMAS!
Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ.

Unplanned Pregnancy

Unplanned birth“The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant…” (Matthew 1:18).

There it is in the Bible: the birth of Jesus was an unplanned pregnancy. Certainly it wasn’t the first in the history of the world nor would it be the last.

Joseph, being a godly, righteous man, had options. He could hardly let his fiancé’s pregnancy pass without action since it implied that she had been unfaithful and had violated the Mosaic Law. So, he had three options concerning how to proceed. First, he could expose Mary publicly as unfaithful whereby she would have suffered the shame of a public divorce (Deut. 22:23–24). A second option was to grant her a private divorce in which case Joseph needed only to hand her a written certificate in the presence of two witnesses (cf. Num. 5:11–31). His third option was to remain engaged and not divorce Mary, but this alternative appeared to Joseph to require him to break the Mosaic Law (Lev. 20:10). So, he decided to divorce her privately (Matthew 1:19). This preserved his righteousness, that is, his conformity to the Law, and allowed him to demonstrate compassion for his young fiancé, Mary.

But there was another option that Joseph had not considered, let alone imagined: Mary was indeed pregnant, but it was not a pregnancy born of promiscuity. Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. It was a miracle by the power of God’s Holy Spirit to fulfill His long-awaited promise of a Savior (Isaiah 7:14).

“An angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

unplanned pregnancyThe virgin birth of Jesus is technically the virgin conception. Mary was not just a virgin when she bore Jesus in Bethlehem, but she was one when she conceived Him in Nazareth. Who was prepared among their peers to understand such a biological anomaly? And yet, this real option of Jesus’ miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit was crucial if Jesus was to be our sinless sacrifice.

The virgin conception was necessary to preserve the baby from the stain of sin. The angel explained the appropriateness of this name (cf. Ps. 130:8). The name “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” Jesus, the sinless Savior, is God’s gift to us to accomplish what no other child could ever do.

“Joseph did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named Him, Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25)

My earthly life and eternal future were changed forever by one unplanned pregnancy that saved us all. “O come, let us adore Him.”

Follow me… as I follow Jesus Christ.

Trials

Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem ICould there have been anything more tedious, anything more ill-timed for Mary and Joseph than following political orders to travel for a census when she was 9 months pregnant?  I imagine the tiresome commute to Bethlehem and their disappointing search for lodging was not immediately recognized by Mary and Joseph as something “good” from the Lord.

The journey south from Nazareth was not an easy one through the rugged, Judean hill country, especially for a an expectant, first-time mom. Nor was the occasion a happy one since the census decreed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1) was undoubtedly a prelude to a burdensome financial tax liability for their growing family. Furthermore, Mary and her husband would be far removed from the comforts and conveniences of home. And when they finally arrived in Bethlehem, there was no room for them there (Luke 2:7). No one had reserved a Bed & Breakfast. No one was looking out for them. No one seemed to care. They were alone.

Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem IIThe tedious trials of life are often tools in the hand of God which only time or eternity will make clear to us. For Mary and Joseph, the decree of Caesar Augustus was divinely intended to cause Jesus’ parents to make a long difficult journey from their home town of Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea because Joseph was in the royal bloodline of King David (Isaiah 9:6-7). The political orders of a pagan ruler were used to fulfill God’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born in rural Bethlehem rather than royal Jerusalem (Micah 5:2-5). The humble manger would be the perfect place for humble shepherds to find the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-15) so that they might worship Him.

Mary and Joseph in BethlehemThe birth account of Jesus in Luke 2:7 ends with almost a note of human tragedy: “there was no room for them…” Think about that for a moment — the Son of God, covered with rags and placed in a cattle feeding trough! How could that be? How tragic! And yet, for Jesus, a feeding trough became His first throne on earth (Philippians 2:9-11).

God’s purposes are often achieved through difficulties, even when they are not immediately apparent to us (James 1:2-4). Whether it’s simply too much rain or heart-wrenching, unbearable pain, the trials of life are often tools in the hand of God. Wait on Him. Believe His Word. Trust Him.

Follow me… as I follow Jesus Christ.

In Those Days

TheophilusFaith in Jesus’ incarnation certainly requires belief in the supernatural work of God, but it’s not a leap beyond reason.

In the Gospel of Luke, the author carefully investigated and provided specific details about the political rulers and setting surrounding Jesus’ birth that were important to Theophilus (Luke 1:3-4), perhaps a political leader himself, whose faith needed historical validity and intellectual credibility.

The coming of Jesus, the Christ, is not a fairy tale that begins with, “Once upon a time…” Instead, it’s a promise fulfilled, “In those days…” The human birth of God’s Eternal Son was a real event in real time among real people so that we might have real hope and not just wishful thinking.

Follow me… as I follow Jesus Christ.