When I was in the 7th grade at Charlotte’s Wilson Middle School, the school system facilitated a poetry contest for students in honor of Martin Luther King day. Surprisingly, I more or less remember the poem I entered, even though I don’t know that I have an actual copy anywhere (you’d have to check in with my Mom for that).
In a land in a storm
Of fury and hate
Stepped out a man
Who opened a gate
Of freedom and faith
For all mankind.
his faith he would not resign,
Until he showed us the truth,
we did not want to find.
With visions of peace and strength to love,
He showed us the way that came from above.
I feel like I’m missing a section, but it was something like that, anyway. As you can guess, I didn’t have much of a future as a poet. Winning 2nd place in this contest was the height of my, um, career. I tried writing some poetry in college, and I would assume what I wrote in middle school was better than the self-conscious artiness and white middle class of a 20-year old.
But the poem does bring me back to a time in my life when I was captivated by the dream of Martin Luther King with an ideological purity and simplicity that is difficult to recapture by the time you become an adult. I wasn’t really all that knowledgeable about King’s life or legacy then, but I knew enough to know that his message was deeply related to the gospel I learned and the Jesus I loved. When you are in the 7th grade, it is easy to dream big and dream out loud about the world you want to live in. Cynicism is the most insidious of demons, and one of the first you have to stare down. That was a demon I had not yet faced.
This weekend at Renovatus, I told the story of how the Holy Ghost sent me to Memphis. In the middle of meetings in Colorado Springs, CO and Nashville, TN, a storm in Atlanta forced us to Memphis unexpectedly. Having a little less than a day to kill in Memphis, we decided to go to the Lorraine Hotel, the site where King was killed, now the National Civil Rights Museum.
Not unlike my experience on the bike I shared awhile back, it was the second time in a narrow span of time where God brought me back full circle to something about my life and calling He actually established much earlier. I have been to holy sites all over the Middle East and in Rome, but never been as overcome by the presence of God attached to a physical place as I was when we walked up to the Hotel and saw the spot of his death. As soon as the scene was in view, a sacred hush settled over Amanda and I, and we both began to weep. I was undone.
Part of what the Spirit had for me there is clearly related to the revelation God’s been given me on Revelation. After we came into the museum, we intended to take a quick look and be on our way to Nashville. Our ticket gave us access to the screening of a free film, which we planned to skip. But when the announcement came over the speaker that the film was about to start, I heard the Holy Ghost (inwardly) tell me to go in no uncertain terms. I was startled by what I saw. Getting ready to preach about the two witnesses in Revelation 11, feeling God’s message already burning in my heart, the film was called Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306. The 2009 documentary tells the story of the Rev. Billy Kyles, the last living “witness” to have shared the final hour of King’s life inside the Lorraine Hotel.
I will not linger here, as I told the full story this weekend and you can hear it online. (You can also watch the astonishingly powerful 32 minute for free here.) But I didn’t tell this weekend any of my own back story, and what the experience meant in my own narrative. Ever since, I have been haunted, disturbed and inspired by what I saw of his legacy. The last time I had been re-introduced to King was when I read Charles Marsh’s wonderful The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today, which makes the case brilliantly that King and the civil rights movement cannot be understood apart from its explicit grounding in Christianity and its vivid biblical imagery. While intellectually I understand that fine, there is no question but there was something about the fire and vision God imparted to me as a poetry-writing 7th grader from the legacy of Martin Luther King that got lost until the Holy Ghost sent me to Memphis.
So apart from my direct connection of the idea of witness from that experience with my preaching of Revelation 11, I am doing two things here: building an Ebenezer, a monument to a demonstrative experience of God, that I may not forget and that you won’t let me forget; and 2, to tease out some of the thoughts and questions that linger since I came down from that mountain.
(part 2 to follow)