Contemplative Life, Justice and Mercy

SOUNDINGS – On the Prayer Life of Dr. King…and Ours (For MLK Day 2019)

As we approach the national holiday honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, it’s easy (and right) to contemplate his activism and commit to carrying on that legacy of justice for all and especially for those who have the hardest time finding it.

It is also good to reflect on and contemplate his spirituality and commit to a deeper life of prayer ourselves.

Last year I had the great privilege of being in Memphis 50 years to the moment of when King’s life was cut short by the assassin’s bullet.  On that visit I was glad to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.  It is a powerful place, worthy of pilgrimage.

There I bought a book that was one of the best I read last year:  Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr. by Lewis Baldwin.  I highly recommend it.  I guess we all have a sense that because King was a true Christian and a pastor, he had some sort of prayer life, but until reading this book I had no idea how central prayer was to his personal life, leadership, and public efforts, as well as how important he knew prayer was to the whole Civil Rights movement.

Just a few quotes, then a question, then an invitation….

King defined prayer variously as an expression of one’s faith in God, as the individual’s ‘response to God’, as ‘sincere communication with God’, and as ‘a natural outpouring of the human spirit.  The act of praying for him was expression of the soul’s deepest yearnings or a reaching outward and upward to the supernatural realm for the fulfillment to needs and desires that cannot be met through humanly contrived means.”  95

King’s emphasis on private prayer as creative energy was consistent with his tendency to place spiritual transformation at the center of every action he took as a crusader for freedom, justice, and human dignity.”  xii

King [had a] self-imposed ‘Day of Silence’ in which he abstained from the distractions of daily life, including the telephone, television, and radio.  That day was spent in prayer and meditation and in developing a rigorous discipline of ‘think time’, which he devoted to mapping strategies for the nonviolent campaigns he led. It was this discipline, I believe, that gave King the spiritual and moral strength to withstand the tremendous pressures associated with the forms of resistance, including the possibility and his eventuality of his death by murder.” vii

As a preacher, King’s life was largely defined by his prayerful attitude and spirit…he literally lived by prayer.  Prayer pervaded every corner of his life, and it also became a vital part of that controlling force that linked him to people of faith from virtually every station of life.”  50

King’s encounter with crisis after crisis in his protest against the personal and institutional racism of white America reinforced his conception of prayer as lived experience and as part of an engaged spirituality developed in the midst of conflict and action.  It is often said that the movement began with a song, but King’s case it actually began with prayer.”  68

In a very real sense, prayer became part of King’s search for more authentic paths to the fulfillment of Christian social responsibility.  That is why, in the context of the movement, he experimented with prayer in different forms and settings, emphasizing the particularly the importance and effectiveness of ‘the call to prayer’, ‘prayer meetings’, ‘prayer pilgrimages’, ‘prayer vigils’, ‘prayer rallies’, ‘prayer marches’, ‘the prayer circle’, and ‘services of prayer and thanksgiving’.” 83

King believed that the more important praying there was on the part of committed persons, the stronger the force against evil and the greater the opportunities for creating a better society and world.”  73

Prayer was King’s secret weapon in the civil rights movement.  In no uncertain terms, he affirmed both openly and in subtle ways the indispensable relationship between the activity of praying and the quest for greater rights and freedoms.”  When movement leaders were cursed, arrested, and assaulted, or killed in street demonstrations, King and others found the will to go on through prayer.  King really believed that under the power of prayer, no force of evil, however great and menacing, could destroy the forward march toward freedom, justice, and peace.  This incurable optimism and hope that King brought to the movement stemmed first and foremost from his unwavering faith in the power and efficacy of prayer…”  85

I am convicted when I read about King and prayer.  I am committed to Kingdom and social action, yes…am I as committed to an earnest and disciplined life of prayer to undergird it?  Not as much as I’d like, and so this MLK Day I will commit to keep working hard, of course, but also to praying harder, more often, more regularly, in many forms.   Join me in this, as it’s another way to honor King’s legacy, but more importantly, to be enabled to do the work that God has called each one of us to do, the work that he wants to do and that only he can do.

I invite you to join me and many others on Saturday, February 9th for our “Journey to Justice” seminar, which explores much more deeply the spirituality of King and many others that undergirded and enabled the Civil Rights movement.



“SOUNDINGS” posts are aimed at considering topics that are important for our society, for the Church, and for our own spiritual journeys. To ‘take a sounding’ is a nautical term about using depth to determine where you are and where you’re going.  These writings are designed to do just that. Follow along when we post on Fridays by subscribing here and selecting “Soundings.” Please share this post with others!

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