Monday, January 21, 2008

Abraham, Martin and John: 1968

Happy birthday, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!

Had you lived, you would now be the age my Dad attained on this earth. I wish you had. I miss your words, I miss your faith, I miss your vision, I miss your conscience. I miss your burning heart.

1968 is now 40 years past. It was a tumultuous year. In the spring of 1968 I was concluding my junior year at the University of Nebraska/Lincoln. As ever, the nation was ripping its guts out with indecision and misdirection in the Vietnam War. We had passed through the dark night of 1967 when at some points up to 1,000 young Americans per month had sacrificed their lives. Then we were met with the Tet Offensive as 1968 began. After a slog of four years of ever-increasing commitments of lives and resources peaking at over half a million men and women deployed to Vietnam, eight years after committing the first advisors, American efforts in Vietnam were met by the Tet Offensive, launched January 30-31, 1968. The Viet Cong attacked Saigon, the U.S. embassy and 37 cities and provincial capitals in S. Vietnam. It was to be a general uprising that would produce a general revolt. It failed to bring the latter.

The VC suffered as many as 75,000 casualties, tactically a crushing defeat but strategically something very different. Along with Walter Cronkite, the iconic anchor of CBS Evening News, many more Americans began to ask, "What the hell is going on here? I thought we were supposed to be winning this war."

March 31, 1968. President Lyndon Baines Johnson announces that he will not seek nor accept the nomination of his party in the '68 elections. Won't ever forget where I was when watching that.

April 3, 1968. Dr. King, in a speech echoing the foreknowledge of Moses, declared that he had seen the promised land of freedom for black Americans, though "I may not be there with you." Chillingly prophetic and, regrettably, dead accurate.

As it always had, the war dragged on. As spring blossoms and short sleeves returned to the UNL campus there was a ray of hope. Also on April 3, the enigmatic dialogue between the US and the government of N. Vietnam bore a small fruit. North Vietnam offered to talk about the beginning of peace talks--a chimera of hope that would dance before us elusively for seven years but finally culminate in the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

Scarcely had this thin ray of light settled on the ground when it was bulldozed by darkness the next day, April 4, 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was cut down by an assassin's bullet in Memphis, Tennessee. Black ghettoes in over 120 American cities erupted in flames and riots.

"So this is where it leads for those who have a dream?" I wondered. The biblical "wrenching in the guts"--that's the literal translation of the NT Greek expression--that had come to me on November 22, 1963, the day JFK was killed, returned to me on April 4, 1968.

First Abraham Lincoln, then John Kennedy. Now Martin. That's what we did to our leaders in America, apparently. Abraham, Martin and John....

We wouldn't find out for a few days that the next day, April 5, 1968, my mother's birthday, had borne yet another sad fruit half a world away. Friend, classmate, fellow confirmand, card partner and high school girlfriend rival Wesley Sperling was MIA in Vietnam. Buddies there knew he had been killed, but it would be a week before his body was recovered. Site of the firefight: a heavily wooded hilltop called Mile High. Wrenching in the guts...

About this time I also learned I'd been awarded a summer language fellowship to study the German language and culture in Vienna, Austria. Unbelievable! Something I hadn't even applied for! Down, up, down, up... Roller coaster.

June 5, 1968. Robert F. Kennedy, running for president, was fatally shot three times in Los Angeles, just short weeks after I had heard him speak at the UNL campus. "Some folks see things as they are and ask why. I dream dreams that never were and ask, 'Why not?'" I had heard these words from his own mouth with my own ears. Another inspiring leader cut down by yet another assassin's bullets. My body wanted to puke. My soul already had.

My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty...??? What land was that song about?

Four days later my college friend and inspiration, Wayne Pfeiffer, was married. Four days thereafter I flew to Europe where I would see both the grandeur of Germanic art, architecture and music as well as the abyss of Nazi death camps only 23 years liberated. Roller coaster. Wrenching in the guts... On August 20-21, 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, a day I was in East Berlin and trying to get to Stockholm. Back home, the Republican and Democratic national conventions turned into theaters of the surreal. Or the absurd.

1968. When that sad year ended, over 14,500 more Americans had died in Vietnam. No end in sight. God, no end in sight!

It took a while for a generation of us to find words. Rockabilly songwriter Richard Holler composed the song "Abraham, Martin and John", including Bobby (Kennedy) in the final verse. Dion DiMucci, newly recovered from heroin addiction, first recorded the song. It became a theme for the year. Therapeutic to a generation, it also helped to save Dion's life.

Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lotta people but it seems the good they die young;
I just looked around and he's gone...

Yesterday at church, we got to hear the entire "I have a dream" speech of Dr. King, delivered in the heat of August 28, 1963. JFK had only 11 weeks to live. There were 200,000 people on the National Mall in Washington, DC. MLK sent them home elevated and inspired with his words and the grandeur of his concepts. But these were things he did not invent. They came from the very words of America's founding documents and from the incredible good news, the gospel of God's love in Jesus Christ. Dr. King simply painted them onto the backdrop they so justly deserved. Lest we forget, he was only 34 years old in 1963. And he would not see his 40th birthday.

The good preacher, Martin Luther King, this prophet of God, sent people home with hope and inspiration, knowing full well that they would still face tear gas, police dogs, billy clubs, fire hoses, smashed windows, burnt churches, burning crosses, imprisonment and hatred--but with the injunction to not respond in kind.

By comparison, the so-called "leaders" of today seem able to speak only in imported plastic and paper replicas of the silver, gold and diamond concepts that endowed the speech and the thought of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "Leaders" twice his age don't seem able to muster 10% of his character.

Terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, a failed attempt on the very houses of our elected leaders in 2001. 3,ooo Americans dead. And, among other things, the President of the United States encourages us to respond by going shopping? And we declare war on a sovereign nation that had nothing to do with 9/11 and had no WMD? Are we really so terrified that our God-given right to shop might be in jeopardy? Or is it our God-given right to oil?

Much has been gained since 1968, but so much has been lost. As much as we seem unable to speak today in better words, we also seem unable to think in higher terms. When all we can visualize is consumption we can't get even the faintest glimpse of the promised land of God's kingdom. Dr. King, I miss you sorely! I grieve and weep and mourn America's loss.

In John 1:29-42, the gospel reading for yesterday, January 20, 2008, two of John the Baptizer's followers go after Jesus whom John has identified as the Lamb of God. Jesus turns to ask what they are looking for. They reply with a question, "Rabbi, where are you staying?" Jesus replies, "Come and see." This is not a conversation concerning lodgings or campsites but what it means when the Spirit of God comes and remains, what it means to see Jesus. In John's gospel, to see is to believe. To believe is to pass from death to life, no less.

"Come and see" is the key to the whole book. "Come and see" is the key to the whole life of being a Christ follower. For that is to see the world through God's vision, not our own. It is a grand view, unrivaled by anything on earth or in heaven.

"Come and see" is our job description as Christ followers. There could be no nobler job on earth. It is a mission entrusted to you, the redeemed.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., thank God for you! You were a great man, a great preacher, a great civil rights leader, a great American. But most of all, you were one through whom we could see Christ. You heard the call to come and see, and you helped so many of the rest of us to do just that. Thank you! God rest you. God inspire and lead us still to see and have a dream.

Google the lyrics to "Abraham, Martin and John." Listen to the "I have a dream" speech from start to finish. Ponder them.

Come and see. And help someone else to do the same, this day and always.


Pastor Roger

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