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January 18, 1999

Reflections on Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday...

Last summer I stood at the grave of Martin Luther King Jr Several bus loads of people were gathered in the area, so I was not alone. Water cascaded around the stone tomb rising majestically in the middle. I had seen pictures of this grave many times, but now being here in the middle of an the inner city neighborhood it felt different than it looked in a photo. Something of the unfinished business that Dr. King stood for and died for was more evident here. I read the words etched in the stone of the tomb.

“Free at last, free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”

Words from his famous speech delivered on the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Words that had one meaning when they were delivered, but conveyed something quite different here.

The struggle that Dr. King stands for is something that has fascinated me more as an adult than it did as a young child when the events of his life were being acted out. I grew up in the northeast in a town that was very European and very white. The problems of racism seemed very far off then, even though I often heard the racist terms used in daily conversations.

In fact my first encounter at four with someone of another race was rather momentous. It would have taken place sometime during the summer of 1962 in the small city of Keene, NH. While my father was doing business in a store, I sat in the car waiting with my mother and baby sister. A black man (from the only black family that lived in Keene at the time) was walking down the street. I pointed him out to my mother and said rather loudly, “Look Mommy a Nigger!”

The man who my mother knew came over and told my mother that I should teach her son a better way to refer to people. My mother apologized to him and said that she didn’t know where I had learned that since they did not talk that way, which was the truth. But even at a young age I had already learned to see the world as disparate place made up of us and them.

Later when I served in the US Army, I would have several black men as roomates. I learned as anyone else learns when they get to know people that they consider different that Black men were the same as me. Not to say that the sin of racism still didn’t wield it’s nasty influence over me for years to come.

Some years later when I was working as priest in a suburban parish, a rather young black man was waiting for me one day after mass. He said that he wanted to go to confession. I had never seen the man before, and I was convinced (because of racism—not anything factual) that he was there for a handout. But I played along. It turned out that I was totally wrong, the young man was actually in his 50’s, really wanted to go to confession and on top of everything else he was a Monsignor (a high ranking priest in the Catholic church).

Over the past four years I have taught a social concerns course to teenagers at a Catholic high school. My preconception at the beginning of the first year that I taught was that these young people had grown up in a different world that I had and therefore would not be racist. I was wrong, in fact it often struck me that they were worst than my friends and I were at a similar age.

They did not attend a segregated school, they counted black students as their friends. Yet they would claim that so and so the black student who was their friend was not like other blacks. In other words the black friend did live up to their stereotype, but rather than question the false stereotype they just figured out that the guy they knew was the exception to the rule.

After several years of trying to reason with them that prejudice was based on ignorance, I rediscovered why this had little effect on changing their minds. It’s an old theory, one that has been out of fashion of late, something called original sin.

There is something that distorts our vision, clouds our reason and makes us prefer darkness to light. I could reason with my students all day long, they would dig deeper into their position and I would keep firing away.

Sin, simply put is something that separates us from God, it also in Christian teaching is something that we can not save ourselves from. We need a someone to rescue us to keep us from drowning in our ignorance. It is Jesus who offers this salvation. There are millions of Christians, so why is there still so much ignorance.

I can only speculate, that the main reason is an unclear picture of what exactly it is that Jesus saves us from. I confess that I studied Theology for eight years in an intensive seminary program and to the best of my recollection the question never even came up once. Why not? What sense does it make to change the way I live or better put why should I believe that Jesus is the savior and what is Jesus saving me from?

Most of us readily figure we know the answer. Eternal life, without Jesus, death is the end of our existence. Unfortunately this simple truth is ignored by the vast population who accept a scientific view of life with regard to everything except their own death. It is a scientific, observable fact that when you die, you are dead! So this is not a bad place to start. Who can save us from that sad end? Christians believe because of the Resurection that Jesus can save us from death. Hence the words on Dr. King’s tomb testify to his Christian believe in life after death. So a Christian is right to believe that one of the things that Jesus saves us from is death, and that is the hope of everyone who is baptized. But what else, is it just the dying who are in need of salvation?

I probably would have answered in the affirmative ten years ago after all of my years of seminary education. But in the summer of 1990, I had the priviledge of attending Creighton University in Omaha, NE and taking a course called the Biblical Foundations of Spirituality taught by Father Martin Palmer S.J. of St. Louis University. Fr. Palmer’s course sought to answer the question, “What exactly does Jesus save us from?”

To answer that question we have to examine the state of humanity without Jesus. Admittedly for me, that would simply mean an examination of conscience. In the book of Genesis we have the biblical account of what happened when humanity chose itself over God, in the account of the Fall.

Adam and Eve had Divine instructions not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil which they disobeyed, what most of us probably overlook are the seven consequences put forth in the story of this disobedience. There are seven distinct separations that enter creation as a result of sin.

They are a separation: felt within humanity, felt between humanity and God, felt between humanity and nature, between what I do and why I do it, within families and career and finally within my very self at death.

I remember a professor stating once that when a priest places ashes on the forehead of a Christian on Ash Wednesday and says the words, “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” he was committing a heresy. I didn’t understand it at the time, but have come to see what he meant. A Christian is not destined to become dust, but someone without a savior certainly is.

Death is the final separation, that in some way completes the previous ones in life. A person’s belief in Jesus needs to touch all areas of their life if they are to be truly saved by him. This book aims at providing the reader with a look at each of the separations that are a result of the fall, and how belief in Jesus can liberate us, save us from our sin in order to restore the unity that God wishes for creation.

The water’s that surround Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s tomb in the Auburn district of Atlanta recall his baptism, his immersion into the saving grace of Jesus Christ. The freedom walk that borders his gravesite recalls that the liberation that he preached is not an experience reserved for the end of earthly life, but one to be experience in every moment of this day. May the words of this text lead you to hand the chains that bind us to sinful ways to Jesus, so that he may unlock them and we might all be free at last!

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