Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Calling in a post-martyr culture

Florida means land of flowers
It was on a Christmas night.
In the state named for the flowers
Men came bearing dynamite
It could not be in Jesus’ name
Beneath the bedroom floor
On Christmas night the killers
Hid the bomb for Harry Moore
                Langston Hughes

 “I have to go to law school for me,” a friend told me after months of reflection. “I have to do it not for others, but because it’s the right thing for me.”

Her words struck a loud chord.  I told her I’ve never been able to make that statement.  Everything I’ve chosen has been for others.  None of it, when it comes to the work I do, has been for me.
I wonder if this is the consequence related to being part of the post Martin Luther King, Jr. generation.  Those who entered ministry after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Harry and Harriette Moore, Malcolm X and King did so out of a deep allegiance to the sacrifices they made.  We entered this work committed to continue what they started, and we did so knowing the costs associated with taking those bold steps.

Ours was no cheap grace with promises of mega-congregations and massive expense packages.  We did it for the people we served.  There was work left undone, and, we believed, God was calling us to finish what the ancestors started.

My friend’s words reminded me of the enormous burden that comes with saying yes.  No, we weren’t carrying crosses that fed an unhealthy martyr complex. We didn’t bring dysfunctional emotional baggage to the work of ministry.  We regarded the calling, and work of ministry, as the continuation of work started long ago. We felt and embraced the pain that stirred revolts led by Gabriel Prosser in Virginia in 1800, Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, and Nat Turner in South Hampton County, Virginia in 1831.

We embraced the model of theologically trained ministers like Henry McNeal Turner, the first southern bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church after the Civil War. Turner was elected to the state legislature in Georgia in 1868.  We took pride in his accomplishments, and sought ways to follow his footsteps.
We did it for the cause. It came out of a sincere commitment to the work behind us and the enormous challenges ahead.  This, we believed, is what it means to be called.  We walked away from more lucrative professions.  The pay in ministry was derisory comparative to other options.  We said yes to the people. 

I say we with the assumption I’m not alone.  When I consider the sacrifices of the men and women who mentor me to this day, I’m reminded of why we do this work.  As I read the emails from Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr., who ministered in Oakland, California during the turbulent years of police brutality, I recall what it means to sacrifice.  When I read letters sent to me by Jeremiah Wright, who taught people in Chicago, Illinois to say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud, I’m grateful for the positions he took during extreme ridicule.
This is what it means to serve. It’s about standing for right even when it could result in conflict.  We’re reminded of why we say yes to this work.  Never should it be said we do it because of ourselves.  Our being called means doing it because we are called to make a difference, not because it’s the fastest path to fulfill our personal agenda.

This is my frustration with the work we do.  The calling to serve has been supplanted by the desire to achieve.  Lost in the quest to hear the voices of the least of these, is the personal thirst for achievement.  The calling to transform the world is supplanted with ecclesial political maneuvering essential in remaining planted within positions of power and ceremonial privilege.
Is that a calling, or the ego interfering with a higher purpose?

Or, have the notions regarding calling changed for the generation once removed from the deaths of Evers, Hampton, Harry T. and Harriette Moore, Malcolm and King?
Those are questions worth pondering.

As for me, I’ve never been able to decide based merely on how it impacts just me.
I wish I could, but there’s this thing we call a calling.




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