Courage and MLK, Jr.

Monday was the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade here in Oviedo, Florida where I live. And, as I have for the past several years, I joined with several other pastors of various races, denominations, and backgrounds to march under the banner of the Oviedo Christian Ministers Association.

As I stood in the (Florida) cold (it was mid-forties) and waited for my friends to show up, I began to think, as I have in the past. Where would I, a white Presbyterian pastor, have been fifty years ago when such marches were not commemorative but proactive? Would I have been marching for civil rights when it was not safe? Would I have taken such stands that got crosses burned in the yard of a white friend of mine who did?

Or would I have been on the sidelines cheering but unwilling to encounter the risks that stepping into the streets would have entailed? Would I have been among the “Dear Fellow Clergymen” to whom Dr. King addressed his “Letter from Birmingham Jail“? Would I have fallen under Dr. King’s ‘regrettable conclusion’:

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.

This year as I walked with men who have become my friends, and prayed with and for them in front of the gathered city at Round Lake Park, the event was documented by one of my daughters, herself African-American. Just before the march, I was reminded that were it not for the courage of Dr. King, and many others like him, my family as it is and as I treasure it would not exist. I am a debtor to those who had the courage to take a stand.
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A year or two ago, I confessed my self-doubt to one of my African-American pastor friends as we prepared to march. He confessed that he wondered the same thing about himself. That many put their lives and reputations at risk, some to the point of death, is the reason that he and I could have that conversation in the past tense. I am grateful to them all.

How Good and Pleasant It Is

Last night I and several other ministers from the Oviedo area met in the chapel of Reformed Theological Seminary for a time of prayer. For an hour we prayed for unity and revival among the churches, for our civic leaders local and beyond, for the cities we inhabit and care for, and for the particular issues of justice and racial tension sparked by the beginning of the trial of George Zimmerman, charged in the murder of 17-year old Trayvon Martin.

We prayed not to make any kind of social statement and we prayed not to create a public relations event. We prayed because we wanted to pray. We prayed because we have become friends who share a common concern for the issues that this trial in particular highlights. We prayed because we are encouraged to see God work among us despite our differences.

Gathered in that room were men and women who bear clear external differences. Some of us were white. Some of us were black. Most of us were men. One was a woman. Press in the right places and you will find some clear internal differences among us as well – theologically, politically, culturally.

But those differences did not matter, and I found the time, for whatever other value it might bear, to be a wonderfully encouraging time. Somehow praying with others clearly different than I who had no other motivation for meeting than to pray made me believe in prayer more than I might on other occasions. I don’t know if that is theologically defensible or not. Jesus tells us that by the love we have for one another people will know that we are his disciples. Is it possible that by the unity we seek with others, despite our differences, that we ourselves will better know Him as God?

What was critical, I think, to the value of our prayer time last night was that prayer arose out of genuine relationships. These others were people whom I’ve come to know and to love over the past three years. I know them by name. And so though a crisis situation brings us to our knees together, we gather together not as colleagues, but as friends, and more than friends, as fellow pilgrims. Perhaps such a gathering suggests greater power because it reveals to us what heaven will be like.

It is in such unity that “the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” (Psalm 133:3)

Are You Faster Than a 72 Year-Old?

Hannah was a sweet 16 year-old member of my Sunday school class nearly a decade ago when I last ran with any serious intent. I frequently asked about her career as a high school cross country runner, and one day she flipped that on me and challenged me to run in an upcoming 5K, a delightful holiday affair called the “Jingle Bell Run”. I accepted her challenge.

Though I had not run in some time, I soon learned that twice around the figure 8 of our subdivision approximated the 5K I needed to master. I had no clue what kind of time I needed to beat her, but I was thinking that I’d be happy to finish and to give her the joy of beating me.

I did finish. And I finished well ahead of Hannah. And I was immediately filled with guilt. What would a more godly forty-something pastor have done? He would have circled back to cross the finish line in tandem with his young friend. But in the heat of the race, what does he determine to do? To squash her.
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I don’t know if I’ve grown more godly over the years. But I know the competitive impulse has not diminished. At all.

As many know, I took up running a year ago for reasons of health. My initial goal was to be able to finish a 5K by or near my 55th birthday. I did, with a great sense of satisfaction. My next goal is a 10K the end of March. But in between I was encouraged to run in a charity race this past Saturday for a local mercy ministry called Hope Helps.

I discovered that this event would be timed with chips embedded in the number bib, and that race results would be broken down by age brackets. Suddenly, running was not about exercise and it was not about finishing. It was about winning. My age bracket, anyway.

In the course of the race, of course, I had no idea where I was in relation to anyone else. I had chosen the race wisely. It being a new venue, there were not that many participants, so my chances of winning were substantially boosted by the lack of competition.

At 4K, however, I was passed by a man sporting a gray beard. I wanted so much to ask him, “Excuse me, sir. Do you happen to be between the ages of 55 and 59?” in order to determine whether I should try to beat him. But I thought that would be tacky. So, I just presumed he was.

Had he kept his pace, I never would have been able to catch him. But when the finish line came in sight, I realized that I had a real chance of overtaking him. I dug for whatever reserve I had and crossed the finish line wasted, but 2 full seconds ahead of my competitor.

So, yes, I won my age bracket. I beat the other 55-59 year old guy who ran it. I chose my race well.

After I’d recovered, Parry, the man I passed on those last seconds, came up to me, shook my hand, and congratulated me on a good race. I reciprocated.

Later I went to the results board and discovered that my new friend Parry was not in my age bracket at all. No, he left the 55-59 bracket a long time ago. I out-raced a 72 year old to the finish line.

So my racing resume is quite stellar. I can beat 16 year-old girls and 72 year-old men and, when the competition is light, other 55-59 year olds. Be impressed.

The Color of Water

This past Sunday night, Hope Presbyterian Church, the church I pastor, shared a worship service with our friends at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church. We will do the same this Thursday, Thanksgiving morning, which is for our two churches, an annual affair. Hope is predominantly white; St. Paul predominantly black.

As much, though, as we enjoy these times of cross cultural fellowship, we all are realistic enough to know that our worlds, black and white, are simply intersecting at these times. We do not live in each other’s worlds, and we don’t understand each other’s worlds.

To cross that bridge to understand would require a type of immersion that few of us will ever experience. To read about one who made that transition cracks a window into that world, ever so slightly, and yet positively so.

A few months ago, in a random conversation with a woman at a Starbucks, a woman, recently retired as a librarian at a local high school, directed me to a book which is apparently often assigned in schools. The book is called The Color of Waterand subtitled “A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.” The subtitle captures what the book is about.

James McBride is a journalist and musician who is one of twelve children born to Ruth McBride Jordan. Ruth was born Rachel Deborah Shilsky. She was raised by her Jewish parents (her father was a rabbi turned shop keeper) in a Virginia town that did not like Jews any more than it liked blacks. Rachel was so traumatized by the experiences of her childhood, not the least of which being her domineering, abusive father, that she would never speak of it, until prodded by her grown son.

When she married a black man, this white Jewish girl was considered dead to her Jewish family. Changing her name to Ruth, to obscure her background, the couple moved to New York and began to raise a family. Her husband died after 16 years of marriage, but not before Ruth came to trust in Jesus, a trust that was real and sustaining for her (and celebrated in the book). In that time the couple jointly founded a church which her husband pastored and, along the way, they became the parents of a brood which would eventually number 12 (some born to Ruth’s second husband).

The family was raised in the neglected projects of NYC, but Ruth was a woman who would not allow that to be the downfall of her children. Taking advantage of every cultural offering one could grab and using every tool available to get her children into the best possible public schools, this woman made it happen. Though she lost direction after the death of her second husband, all of her children not only went to college, but two became doctors and one a PhD professor chemistry, along with the journalist-author, nurses, and other professionals. It’s an amazing, though often sad and painful story.

I will never enter that world. I will never be black, or Jewish, or amazingly both at once. I will never know the anguish of living in fear simply because of the color of one’s skin or the ethnic heritage one has inherited. I will never know the racial confusion that one raced in this setting is forced to confront.

But this is one of the reason we read books. McBride has cracked the window to allow me to peer into his experience and that of his mother, to glance at their worlds. If this helps me to better understand the worlds of those friends with whom we worship on Thanksgiving and other times, then the read has been worth the time spent.