ONE WEEK AGO I hardly drew breath as, in the company of several hundred others I listened, awestruck, to Martin Luther King Jr speak of his travels in the US and of the poverty, racial segregation and hopelessness he encountered in the lives of countless thousands. With gravelly voice and indefatigable will the prophet set out, again and again, his high and hopeful vision of a universal human dignity, graphically portraying the misery he witnessed in so many lives in the meantime.
We were in Swanwick in Derbyshire for the 2010 Chester Diocesan Clergy Conference. An excellent sound system made it seem that Luther King was physically present among us. And those with eyes to see could witness the truths of the man engraved now into the DNA of his biographer, Rick Lischer.
Lischer recalled the invisible line on public transport over which black people were forbidden to cross, and the hatred and the passion in Luther King’s opponents that led to his “only ever being comfortable, in the later years, in rooms without windows, for he was forever on the lookout for the fatal shot that he knew would surely come one day.” Life in a tomb: but Luther King was not to be silenced. Day after day, keeping a gruelling schedule whilst smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, he cajoled and preached and prayed “his one story”.
I recall that Bishop Michael Marshall used to speak of a preacher’s having only really one story to tell, and of the calling to tell it over and over and over again. The story of God’s love for Creation. The story of God’s reckless liberality. That’s the Gospel that captured my imagination at 8 years old. That’s the Gospel that captures my imagination and my service still.
But I don’t fear for my life as Martin Luther King did. Here in the UK I don’t need to seek refuge in rooms without windows. I can live in the light. I can tell my one story without fear. I can hear Luther King, I can hear Jesus Christ, living today in a conference hall, and in my heart. I fear windows neither from the inside nor the outside. I’m glad of the light.
So let the Church – let me – be big enough, brave enough, confident enough, to speak out loud and long the one truly important story in the Universe: that of the Divine Love that brings all things into being, sustaining them at all times and in all places. Let the Church be the “sound system” for the voice of Luther King’s Lord and mine:
Jesus said, “love one another” … in Birmingham, Alabama, in Southwark or Soweto. Love one another. Acknowledge no invisible dividing line. Is there a vacant seat? Then take it. It’s yours. Live in the light.