By Paul Baxley
This year we come to the observance of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as the omicron variant of the coronavirus surges dramatically all over the world. Two years into the global pandemic, so many have been ill, too many have died, and there is a deep, debilitating and profound exhaustion affecting so many of us.
That exhaustion already reached nearly catastrophic stages as the Delta variant surged in the late summer and fall, and it has only intensified in the midst of Omicron. As has always been the case, the coronavirus pandemic has only amplified and further clarified so many other pandemics that plague our common life, particularly those around political polarization, racial injustice and economic disparity. The intersection of these pandemics has only intensified the exhaustion being experienced by leaders in all spaces and people in all places.
So I have been asking myself: what does Dr. King have to teach me today? As a Christian? As a minister? As a denominational leader? As a citizen? What, from his life and legacy, might speak most powerfully to me today?
Whether or not it speaks to you or challenges you, I’ve found myself reflecting much these days on the remarkable resilience that was present in Dr. King’s speaking and leading. While we often remember his powerful dream in the middle of January, the reality is that we have still not seen the fulfillment of his dream that one day his four little children would live in a world where they were judged not on the color of their skin but the content of their character.
Dr. King’s little children are no longer little, they are adults far into life. They have their own children, and they still live in a world where judgements and opportunities are far too often based on color and prejudice, not character and gifts. And, Dr. King knew his dream would not be easily fulfilled. Several years later in his final address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference before his assassination, he said:
I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes dashed. We may again with tear-drenched eyes have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. Difficult and painful as it is ,we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.
We have been, even recently, in those painful spaces Dr. King imagined. We have seen black lives taken in tragic and unspeakable acts of violence. We have seen funerals just like the ones he described. Like even the prophets and psalmists of old, we ask how long it will be before a dream that existed in the mind and mission of God, in the words of the prophets and in the life of Jesus, long before it was ever associated with Dr. King, becomes a reality. Yet, Dr. King calls us to walk on in the face of multiple pandemics, to journey on, to keep asking, seeking, knocking and serving toward that holy dream of remarkable, holy resilience, a resilience that perseveres just when all reason for hope seem gone.
How did he understand the source of that resilience? He said it this way in the very same address:
When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in the universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that that arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Not long ago I was in a meeting where black and white ministers were in conversation, and as the discussion progressed, one of the ministers said to the others: “one of the most powerful lessons the black church has to teach white Christians is what it means to preach hope in the midst of despair.” Above and beyond all else, the movement Dr. King led in the 1960s was a movement among congregations and religious leaders to participate in God’s transformation of the world. While it was inevitably and unmistakably political (as systems and structures had to change and still have to change), it was first and foremost an act of resilient, audacious, persistent faith and hope.
All around me today, in the face of multiple pandemics and from places of despair and exhaustion, many of us struggle with the temptation to give up or give in. But into that temptation, Dr. King steps from the best of the black church tradition, informed by Scripture and empowered by the Holy Spirit. His words of a half century ago ring powerfully true today. In our personal discipleship, and in our congregational lives, we are called to walk on with an audacious faith. Dr. King and those around him gave a vivid demonstration of the ways God uses congregations and individuals to transform dark yesterdays into brighter tomorrows. That is our calling now.
So let us pause to pray on this day not just in grateful remembrance, but instead with the petition that God will cultivate in us audacious faith and resurrecting resilience. Let’s find some way to practice that audacious faith and resurrecting resilience in our personal lives and in our congregations. What ministry can your church offer? To what repairing, restoring cause can you give your time? How might you give today to repair the devastations of many generations and send a sign of resilience?
Know that our Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is committed to cultivating bold, audacious faith and seeking resilience in our life together so that we can be used in the transforming work of Christ alongside other Baptists and other Christians. Our Emmanuel McCall Racial Equity Fund, as part of our larger commitment to racial justice and genuine inclusion, is part of our investment in resilience. My family is honored to support that work, and I hope you’ll consider doing so as one among the many acts of resilient faith you will practice in these days.
God, make us an audacious, resilient people, seized by a hope rooted not in improving circumstances but your power to transform, heal and restore.
Rev. Dr. Paul Baxley is Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Learn more at http://www.CBF.net.