Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

The second half of life: Encouragement for creative suffering

The other day I was watching International House Hunters, where I learn a lot about life these days. In the episode, an apparently divorced mom was ready to send her one son off to college. She appeared to be nearing fifty years old. Although she did not have a lot of money to spend, she decided to quit the job she hated and move to Merida, Mexico. She bought a fixer-upper outside of town and started her life over as the only Anglo in her whole village. She said life was too short to wait until one was ready to live it. Hers is a second half of life story.

Also last week, my fiftysomething friend said on Facebook:  “I was reunited with some old friends this weekend to celebrate a birthday. I am also thinking about a sweet brave friend in Philly who we lost last week. Life is short. Don’t sweat the small stuff. LIVE.” That represents some second half of life philosophizing.

The second half of life

What is the second half, maybe we could call it our second act? It is a discernible transition in life that people all over the world note. Mid-life has significant characteristics. We sometimes call the entry into that part of life a “mid-life crisis.” Richard Rohr, who wrote a book about it, calls it the time to “fall upward.” The transition into the second half is the time when we face the limits of our capacity, now that we have tested it and probably failed to achieve our idealization of ourselves, and must face the limits of our lifespan, now that our bodies start to tell us we’re definitely not twentysomethings anymore.

The term “second half” implies some kind of dualism: a before and after, this or that, obsolete and improved, foolish and wise. But that’s more of a “first half” way to see things. The second half is more about embracing our inevitable development and not avoiding the suffering that will lead to our wholeness. We had to build the house, so to speak, before we could consider leaving it. We had to learn to drive the car, so to speak, in order to ask Jesus to take the wheel.  We could miss the beauty of our second half altogether if we avoid the necessary suffering of entering it. But we will be pushed hard to give in to maturity, regardless.

Image result for Dolly Parton

Signs of the “mid-life crisis”

As a result of this inevitable transition, we either solidify into a withered caricature of the unique self we have been building, or we become more spiritual, more self-giving, more of a leader, and more comfortable with the ambiguities and joys of being our true selves. Dolly Parton is an interesting mix of both possibilities. I saw an interview with her in which she boldly said she was committed to the caricature that is her trademark, be it ever so withered, as you can see, above. She even had surgery to maintain what she could of the persona she created. But she has also developed her spirituality. She’s not just being a country music legend; she is also a champion of early childhood literacy, through her Imagination Library. Every month, that nonprofit program mails a free book to more than a million children — from infants to preschoolers. In 2018 they reached 100 million books donated.

however we navigate it, we are going to grow into a new season of life. The pressures we face at the beginning of that season are so well known, we can make a list of typical feelings or reactions, such as:

  1. Desiring to quit a good job.
  2. Unexplained bouts of depression when doing tasks that used to make one happy.
  3. Changing or investigating religions, churches or philosophy.
  4. Change of habits. Activities which used to bring pleasure now are boring. Unable to complete or concentrate on tasks which used to be easy.
  5. Excessively buying new clothes and taking more time to look good.
  6. Wanting to run away to somewhere new.
  7. A desire or obsession to get into physical shape.
  8. Irritability or unexpected anger.
  9. Leaving family (mentally or physically) or feeling trapped in current family relationships.
  10. Looking into the mirror and no longer recognizing oneself.

Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises. At some point we will face loss; we will encounter a “stumbling stone” — that we cannot power, finesse, or manage our way through, that we cannot fix, control, explain, change, or even understand. It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering. There is going to be some kind of suffering, regardless.

At midlife, our suffering, inside or out, helps us leave “home” — that stationary place where we are most comfortable — and drives us toward the necessary encounter with the self and with God, who loves to walk through our suffering with us. That suffering helps us deconstruct the persona (or the person we wish we were and want others to see), and to acknowledge and welcome our shadow side into the dialogue. As a result, we have the hope of emerging into later adulthood and blossoming into our full, true selves in Christ. In the second half, suffering becomes more of a friend than an enemy, if we are going to plumb the depths of our new capacity. Richard Rohr says, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day.” That kind of prayer is taking the example of Jesus seriously:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:5-8

There are good examples who show us how to suffer creatively

A great example of moving into the second half, albeit not entirely successfully, is King David. The painting by James Tissot, above, captures the moment of his midlife transition, just before his dissatisfied boredom is distracted by the sight of Bathsheba from his upstairs portico. Tissot, himself, is another interesting example, since, at age 49, he was caught up in the revival of the Catholic church in France, changed the focus of his art, and spent the rest of his life creating the paintings of  Biblical events I love so much.

After David unified the land of Israel under his rule, he grew discontent. He had done most of what he set out to do. He’s king. He’s got power and accomplishment, influence and comfort. He feels sure of his identity as God’s chosen king. He sits back. Is that all there is? Here we go.

In the spring he sends off his army under the command of others to complete military campaigns. This tests his faith, since in the past he had lived on the edge as a general and learned to trust God for every breath. He came far trusting God. Now how does he trust God? His “shadow” is lurking in the recesses of his success.

Usually in our forties, we are ready to face a similar struggle, but we may not get to it until we are older (or the children we bore in our late thirties are older), or we have retired, or we get divorced, or we lose our job. Laura Ingalls Wilder quit teaching when she got married and helped her husband on the farm. Their first half was very difficult, including the death of a son, the partial paralysis of her husband, loss of the farm buildings through fire and the great depression. She was well into her second half when her daughter, Rose, encouraged her to write a memoir about her childhood. She spent many years improving it. It wasn’t until she was 65 years old that “Little House in the Big Woods” was published. She wrote other “Little House” series, including the last one that came out when she was 76.

Often the mid-life struggle percolates up because we are bored or burned out – maybe even too accomplished or too settled. We can, like David, lose touch with the very essence of what made our lives fulfilling. We might still be perfecting the outside, like Dolly Parton, unable to give up the rush and power of performing. We might meet the dark side of what made us a brilliant young person, like Columba. We can drift from a present-tense relationship with God and lose touch with what is sacred in our day-to-day routine. It’s time to move into the second half with some consciousness, or maybe fall upward.

When David comes to the shocking revelation of what his reactions mean, he reconnects with God. He reconnects with holiness in the everyday routine of his world. Psalm 51 reveals the restoration of David’s relationship with God. It shows his tenacious hold on his belief that God is present; God is good; God redeems.

Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise. – Psalm 51:15-17

The psalm shows a crucial acceptance of paradox:  “I am king and I am powerless to save the baby. I have committed an unforgivable sin yet I can be forgiven. My former life-sustaining pursuits and way of faith were a prelude to this deeper, contradictory, way of life.” Mature adulthood includes anxiety, doubt, and paradox. In the face of all this newness, sometimes shocking and often unwelcome, the second half of life is the time when our creative suffering comes up with our deepest contributions to the Lord’s cause.

Image result for king i have a dream

Some of us may be “early bloomers” like Martin Luther King, who summed up the challenge of maturity well in his famous “I have a dream” speech. Right before he gave the ringing conclusion about his dream, he said,

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation…You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive….Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

King was only 34 when he wrote that and he only had a few more years to brilliantly live out his creative suffering. But in those years, he showed Jesus-followers, especially, what it means to pay attention to the promises of wholeness in Christ. Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises – most likely, we will be on an interesting journey during our “mid-life.” It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering, so when we leave the home we had to build for ourselves in this world, we will be welcomed into the home Jesus has prepared for us in the next. In Christ, suffering is redemptive. As we can see all around us, immaturity is common and cheap. The costly wholeness of life in Christ, becoming our true selves, is a gift worth whatever creative suffering we endure to receive it.

Forgiveness begins reconciliation: “White” supremacy and the Smith family

Last week in our cell, we talked about the Theological Declaration on Christian Faith and White Supremacy which our pastors (including me) signed and asked us all to consider. After the outburst of anger and pain in St. Louis last week, it makes our hope for reconciliation even more radical in the face of society’s persistent injustice. But like the authors of the declaration, we have hope.

True. But “white,” “silence,” and “complicity” could all mean more than they appear if you asked our cell’s members.

We have a relatively large cell, so our reactions to the declaration fell on quite a spectrum. Some did not read much of the statement since it was so long. Some found it hard to understand. Some had never heard of it, yet. But once I provided the gist of it, we all had stories about racist people who don’t get it and our own feelings about white supremacy. So-called white people had their own experiences of wearing supremacy to share.

In the course of our dialogue, I remembered a verse from Jesus Loves Me, which I learned when my parents dropped me off for Sunday School. Many people had never heard it. I looked it up on Google to make sure it actually existed! Sure enough:

Jesus loves me, Indian boy
Bow and arrow for a toy
Big Filipino, wee Chinese
Living far across the seas.

The verse is a nice, little lesson for “Jesus loves everybody, even people who are not ‘us.’” The sentiment is nice, as long as you can erase the white supremacy from the mixture (which is unlikely, of course). The song also teaches that we are the center of the universe and tall Filipinos (they are the little ones in other versions) and those wee Chinese people with their funny clothes and language are also partakers of our grace. I say “our” because God gave it to us to give to them. They’ve gotten into this Christianity we have owned for a long time. All that is also laced into the message and fed to youngsters.

Anthony Lamar Smith, Jason Stockley victim, Anthony Lamar Smith photo
Click the picture for the Smith story

For instance, after Charlottesville, the members of the BIC List had an argument as to whether white supremacy exists. I imagine some are shaking their heads over the family members of Anthony Lamar Smith who were at the forefront of protests  in St. Louis after Jason Stockley was acquitted of murder last week. While the family already received $900,000 in their wrongful death suit, justice for the policeman, personally, did not happen in their estimation. All this again reminded so-called black people to remember that they can be killed by the police without repercussion.

What do Jesus followers do in the face of this?

To be clear, it would be impossible to list all the things Jesus followers do about these things because they do a lot, from trying to change the justice system, to alleviating the impoverishing impact of injustice, to invading the prison system with grace, to flooding the streets with those who are brave enough to say “No!.” Many of our members in Circle of Hope are leading us every day to do a lot.

But generally, what should we all do about white supremacy, the long oppression that continues to raise its ugly, often-denied head?

Repent

So-called white people need to repent. The violence, self-aggrandizement, systemic division and oppression, the persistent self-interest all happened; it created and maintains white supremacy. Yes, you may not have done much personally, but you continue to benefit, whether you want the white privilege or not. Donald Trump is the president of white privilege. The election was a whitelash. Maybe the whole term “white” will begin its long-needed decline, soon, but it is alive and destructive right now. To repent means admitting the sin and turning away from it. Admitting is not quite enough. It is the turning that transforms and heals.

Forgive

So-called white people can forgive themselves so “people of color” (yes, that is the pernicious label for everyone who is not “white”) can get along without having to comfort you in your guilt. Guilt might be a starting point, if you have never felt it about your privilege. But that should last for about five minutes, maybe. If you carry your guilt like a badge of your awareness, it is, essentially, yet another feature of your privilege.

So-called black people, of all the people who experience the ill-effects of white supremacy, need to forgive, if they follow Jesus. Desmond Tutu taught this so much during the South African transformation that he put it all in a book: No Future without Forgiveness. Here’s a quote:

“To forgive is indeed the best form of self-interest since anger, resentment, and revenge are corrosive of that summum bonum, that greatest good, communal harmony that enhances the humanity and personhood of all in the community.”

Forgiveness is the beginning point, like Jesus says. Forgive as you have been forgiven. As Tutu adds, it makes you human and no one can take that from you.

…working in the lives of all genders, of course.

Many “people of color” to whom I have spoken are afraid not being angry and out for retribution makes them disengaged or cowardly, even a traitor. That could be true. But getting loud for justice can also be an endless, unproductive fight against the windmill of evil humanity. Jesus followers are going to keep prophesying and acting, but if that’s all we’ve got, good luck. Martin Luther King had more than that to motivate his efforts. Here’s a point from one of his early sermon outlines:

Forgiveness is a process of life and the Christian weapon of social redemption. Forgiveness is always spoken of for others. Give Peter’s attempt to put it in legal and statistical terms.[How many times should I forgive?]

Here then is the Christian weapon against social evil. We are to go out with the spirit of forgiveness, heal the hurts, right the wrongs and change society with forgiveness. Of course we don’t think this is practical.

This is the solution of the race problem.

Forgiveness is often mistaken for reconciliation. If the dominated believer thinks that forgiveness means everything is settled, a call to forgiveness could mean “I need to roll over and take what the oppressor dishes out because I forgave them” or “I need to make it work for white people because I love Jesus.” That’s not accurate. Forgiveness begins the road to reconciliation, which is God’s goal. We forgive for the redemption of the person who sins against us, not to preserve their status quo. Forgiveness is a weapon of transformation, not the imposition of self-denial, as if not being my true self in Christ will help the world, as if letting someone live a lie will save them from some suffering. In the hands of Jesus, forgiveness is the tool that begins the possibility of new individuals and instills the hope of the beloved community. Without it, we just keep using the tools of the world to change the world, and nothing really changes; no one is new and no new community is formed. Perhaps something changes in us, though, since we become the tools of hatred and violence.

In our cell we were tempted to refight all the battles the world foists upon us when I brought up white supremacy, how it labels us this or that, creates division, rewards white people and despises the rest. One of our members with an “Asian” background (who has a great story about teaching some racist tormenters about his culture and changing his environment one time), reoriented us when he talked about having nothing when his family arrived as immigrants to the United States and now having houses in which to live. He had a perspective which differed from most of us. We see things in many different ways in our diverse church. As my friend finished his story, I secretly celebrated our capacity to have a great conversation about white supremacy and still enjoy the cookies. We all took a sweet next step on the road to the beloved community.

Your socks are going to get dirty on today's march. Keep cleaning.

Life in the Spirit is like cleaning. Clean the inside of the cup, not just the outside you think people can see — stuff a cloth way down in that spiritual “cup” and scrub out that dried crud on the bottom. Don’t do it to because you must be perfectly spotless to be presentable (God help you!). Do it to participate in the cleansing that is freeing us from what gums us up. Cleaning is a big thing to us Jesus-followers. We get good at it. Today is a good day to roll up our sleeves.

Jesus demanded that self-appointed spiritual authorities that opposed him get some cleaning skills even though they thought they were already clean enough.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Matthew 23:25-26

For a great dramatization of this part of the Bible, check out a clip from the famous movie, Jesus of Nazareth. (And yes, I know putting a blue-eyed Jesus in this post is ironic).

Continue reading Your socks are going to get dirty on today's march. Keep cleaning.

Imagine a Clean Floor for MLK

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Matthew 23:25-26 (For a great dramatization, check this out from Jesus of Nazareth)

The “cleaning the inside of the cup” part is on my mind today. One reason for that is that I’ve done a lot of cleaning lately. I had a moment to continue my ongoing cleaning-out of the Shalom House basement the other day – that man had the best stuff buried in the debris he left! I have a construction project going on in my house, so that part of my life is pretty dirty. And Circle of Hope BW just hired a new cleaner (thanks, Lord!).

My parents were big on cleaning, so I am kind of picky about it. That’s mostly because they were picky with my cleaning abilities, not because I find some moral purpose in having things spotless! One of my specialties in the family housekeeping was floors. My father, the bosun’s mate, was a passionate trainer for cleaning floors. For him, the use of brooms, even mops was a purely-preliminary step for swabbing the deck. No floor was clean until one got down on his hands and knees and scrubbed. If brushes (down to toothbrushes) were necessary, they should be at hand. And the big thing, the thing that separated real cleaners from pretenders, was the art of rinsing. Here is the theory for rinsing: Even if one doesn’t use soap, the goal is to extract every bit of soapy/dirty water off the floor, get it ALL into the bucket and out the door. (And don’t spill it on the back porch or your mom will slip on it when she gets back from the store). Do not, under threat of unpredictable repercussions, just spread that dirt around into an even layer that makes it look like the floor is clean. If Dad is running around in his socks and undies (which he will be!) the evidence of your sloth will be quickly discovered.

While floor cleaning may be a subject for me and my therapist, thorough spiritual cleaning is a good subject for Jesus and me. It is tempting to just sweep the dirt here and there in our lives and never get it into the dust pan and out the door. Our relationships, our leadership, our societal obligations show even more evidence of random sweeping. We spread more toxic dust with our wifty attempts to appear tidy than we accomplish cleaning, most of the time. Much more is it challenging to get down on our knees and inspect the floor for the layers of waxy build-up and grime that we can’t see, it is so far under the nose on our face that is so plain. It is even more challenging to give the floor of our hearts a good scrub, dump the bucket far outside our spiritual house and be ready for living water.

I hope my metaphor is doing more than entertaining you. Along with all the personal dirt you should stop sweeping around, we should all get out our dustpans and begins with the mess building up around us. For instance, today should be called “national racism day” in honor of Martin Luther King. The whole country keeps sweeping that sin around. It is not just the sin of being mean and depriving people of their rights. It is the sin of losing sight of what a clean floor looks like. Behind racism is the sin of imagination-deficit. It is the sin that makes us blind to what we can do to make a difference, like making a friend with someone who is not immediately likely to be our friend, like letting our anger about societal lies and injustce boil over, like Jesus. I know you have heard this before. But I don’t know why  Jesus is the only one who seems to notice his socks are dirty.