Monday, February 27, 2012

Do You Dare to Be An Extremist?

One of my friends recently said that at least once per year he re-reads the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

I agree with my friend on the value of reading this letter.  I, too, find much to be absorbed and re-absorbed in it.   I find myself re-reading it, and sometimes even (heaven forbid!)  thinking about it when I’m not reading it!  

Dr. King taught people how to confront injustice.  His actions in challenging the status quo of the Jim Crow South were not easy or comfortable for those who were in power.  Some church leaders, even those who agreed with King about the injustice and need to change it, were afraid to rock the boat too hard.  They urged Dr. King to be patient.  They urged him to be less abrasive and to wait on a slower pace of change, arguing that his views and actions were too extremist. 

His response?  He wrote: 
Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."
Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."
Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God."
And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience."
And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free."
And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ."
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.
Will we be extremists for hate or for love?
Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
There is a saying, that “he who stands for everything, in fact stands for nothing.”  We must differentiate ourselves by who we are, what we believe, and what we will stand up for.  Think about it.  Who are your own personal heroes?  I bet they are people who stood for something. 


Dr. King was so extremist that he was martyred for his cause.  Yesterday, I wrote about Ryan Boyette, who is putting his life on the line in Sudan.   A few days before that, I relied heavily on works by Shirley Burns, who has devoted her professional career as a historian to preservation of her people in Appalachia, an endeavor which led her in turn to research and write scholarly articles on the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the landscape, ecology, economics, and people of Appalachia.  And then, a few days earlier than that, Stephen Ritz, bringing better food and a more sustainable community to children in the Bronx.  Each of these people draws our attention because of their passion.  Because they stand for something.  Extremists, all of them. 

It may be accidental, but there is another important verse in the Bible with the number 3:16 .  It is Revelation 3:16:  “So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”  Here is the full paragraph or Revelation chapter 3, verses 14-18: 
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Being lukewarm, resting on our laurels or being lazy because we do not need a thing ourselves, is not good enough.   We need to be on fire. 
That we may fail is irrelevant.  When Moses was called to a great work, he had doubts, as well.  He asked God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Indeed, WHO AM I? 

Who am I to tell you this?  Me, personally?  I have no authority!  I don’t know you, and you don’t me.  Nevertheless, I am so bold as to take a stand on this Lenten commitment I have made for 2012.  Namely, each day during Lent, I am writing about one issue related to peace or justice, and will give one action item that people can use to address that one issue. 
So today, I’m writing about the very fact that each of us is called.  No matter who we are, what our gifts are, what our insecurities and fears and limitations.  Each of us is called to be what we can be, right where we are. 
If not these hands, then whose hands, will do God’s work?  If not me, then who? 

My action item for this day of Lent is to do this:  Think on the words of Dr. King, and of Revelation 3:16, and pray about what this may mean for you. 
Is there something care deeply about, that you are ready to take a stand for?  

Can you be set on fire for a cause?

Dare any of us to be an extremist, and is our calling any less? 

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