December 01, 2014

Gratitudes and Non-Platitudes

I continue to slake my new interest in Martin Luther King by finishing Tavis Smiley's Death of a King: Dr. Martin Luther King's Final Year. He's  fascinating given the gulf between his piety and womanizing, but then people are flawed and complicated. But I have new respect for how much he suffered. Riveting book in that you sense he died at the right moment, before his reputation had a chance to completely collapse given the turn to  violence and riots and away from his non-violence. Even blacks thought he was irrelevant that last year. Too bad he had to see some of it - the last year just pounded him. Had lots of bouts with depression such that I wonder how he functioned as well as he did.

So it was a downer read yet oddly inspiring, like the stories of the saints who persevere through desolate situations. It was semi-spiritual reading given all the references to Scripture. King was supremely motivated by faith in God, something that history books, of course, don't emphasize.

Interesting to do research around the topic, including on killer James Earl Ray. I can't help wondering if there was no George Wallace, there'd be no MLK murder, at least by Ray given the influence Wallace seemed to have on him. The uncanny thing is how King seemed to know he'd get killed soon. He was pushing himself so hard that last year of his life for that reason; his last day was poignant: he was uncharacteristically light-hearted, he saw his brother, his lover. His last words were to a musician he was just introduced to: "Play it real pretty," meaning his favorite gospel song "Precious Lord".

He was so depressed that last year, with thoughts of suicide, that his death doesn't seem quite so tragic, almost as if Ray was an instrument to end his suffering. King seems to have been a Jeremiah, an Old Testament prophet,  focused on this world's injustice and not taking a longer view or to spiritualize the concrete. The "poor" to him always meant financially poor, not the spiritually poor, for example.  Dignity was not something innate but seemingly conferred. I wonder if him being Baptist and thus lacking a monastic tradition if there was a weaker emphasis on anything shy of liberation theology, where liberation is of this world. But ultimately given how much good he did it's hard to argue he wasn't acting according to God's will. "Proceed calmly through life," Pope Francis advised recently but King had about him, in the words of one biographer, a "frantic melancholy". He was born to die young it seems, to flame out at just 39, and in that he seems entirely in tune with musicians like Joplin and Hendrix. Hard to imagine any of them living the bourgeois life that middle and older age tends to induce.

Good thoughts on gratitude in MLK book:


Beautiful reading from Isaiah yesterday that echoes the oft-lament against human free will:
Why do you let us wander, Lord, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we do not fear you?

So affecting and poetic, the Knox version of yesterday's reading:
Majestic power, that led Moses by the hand; that parted the sea at their coming, to win his name renown. Through its waters they passed, sure of their foothold as horse that is led through the desert; carefully as driver on some treacherous hill-side, the Lord’s spirit guided his people. Thus didst thou bring them home, and win thyself honour….Where, now, is thy jealous love, where thy warrior’s strength? Where is thy yearning of heart, thy compassion? For me, compassion is none.
Yet, who is our father, Lord, if not thou? Let Abraham disown us, Israel disclaim his own blood, we are thy sons still; is it not thy boast of old, thou hast paid a price for us? And now, Lord, wouldst thou drive us away from following thee, harden our hearts till worship we have none to give thee?
Powerful on many levels. First, the thought and fear that our lover not loving us anymore. But then the "on the other hand": “Yet, who is our father, Lord, if not thou?”

Later, more angst-poetry:
No better than the clout a woman casts away; we are like fallen leaves, every one of us, by the wind of our own transgressions whirled along. There is none left that calls on thy name, that bestirs himself to lay hold of thee. Thou hidest thy face from us, broken men caught in the grip of their wrong-doing. Yet, Lord, thou art our father; we are but clay, and thou the craftsman who has fashioned us.

St Augustine writes potently on a familiar morning prayer psalm I've long wondered about:

To tell of Thy mercy early in the morning, and of Thy truth in the night. What is the meaning of this; that the mercy of God is to be told us in the morning, and in the night the truth of God? The morning is, when it is well with us; the night, the sadness of tribulation. What then did he say in brief? When thou art prosperous, rejoice in God, for it is His mercy. Now, perhaps thou wouldest say, If I rejoice in God, when I am prosperous, because it is His mercy; what am I to do when I am in sorrow, in tribulation? It is His mercy, when I am prosperous; is it then His cruelty, when I am in adversity? If I praise His mercy when it is well with me, am I then to exclaim against His cruelty when it is ill? No. But when it is well, praise His mercy: when ill, praise His truth: because He scourgeth sins, He is not unjust. Daniel was in the night-season, when he was praying: for he was in the captivity of Jerusalem, he was in the power of enemies. Then the Saints suffered many evils: then he himself was cast into the den of lions; then the Three Children were thrown into the fire. The people of Israel suffered these evils in the captivity: it was the night-season. During the night Daniel confessed the truth of God: he said in his prayer, We have sinned, and committed iniquity, and have done wickedly…He told of the truth of God during the night - what is it to tell of the truth of God in the night? Not to accuse God, because thou sufferest anything of evil: but to attribute it to thy sins, His correction: to tell of His lovingkindness early in the morning, and of His truth in the night-season. When thou dost tell of His lovingkindness early in the morning, and of His truth in the night-season, thou dost always praise God, always confess to God, and sing unto His Name.

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