Life Worth Celebrating
One of the things I know about myself is I prefer the routine and normal. I hope this does not mean I am incapable of living in different kinds of times---special times and, perhaps, even crisis times. I have had some of both, as would be natural for anyone my age. But in the end, I prefer the normal and the routine. Maybe that is because so much of life happens in that sphere.
However, special times do come at regular times. There are the religious holidays. If you are Christian, the two big ones are Easter and Christmas. If you are Jewish, there is Passover and Yom Kippur, which is the most important holy day. Of course, Muslims, Hindus and other major traditions have their holidays, such as the Hindu Diwali. As I write this, I realize a particular day can be a religious holiday for some tradition and just a normal day for another tradition. I don’t know very many Christians who celebrate Diwali.
And then, there are holidays that are not religious. In this country the obvious ones would be Thanksgiving and July 4, Independence Day. They may seem quasi-religious, if you are American. But I would argue, they are not religious---even though they are important.
And then, there is a different class of holidays. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s day is one such example. There is no question that day honors a person who was a pastor, hence religious in that sense. MLK day also is a national holiday that is political. It honors the man and the movement that worked for civil rights. Perhaps because of the nature of the man, Martin Luther King, and what the day stands for, many Americans are not quite sure what to do with it. In that sense it is very different than Christmas or Passover, holidays that are centuries old.
Let’s ponder a little more fully what we can do with a holiday like MLK day. As I think about it, I believe there are three ways to understand it. In the first place, MLK day is indeed a day. It is meant to honor MLK and is associated with his birthday. He was born on January 15. However instead of celebrating it on that specific day, it moves around a bit so that it is always on the third Monday of January. It became a law in 1983, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. Many of us are old enough to know when this happened and can remember life without that holiday.
So in the first place, MLK day is just that: a day that we celebrate. The second way of looking at MLK day is to see it as a chance to celebrate a life, namely, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. No one my age can forget the tumultuous times of the 60s. MLK was right in the middle of it. It was a time of change and he was a key leader of the change that was happening. In biblical terms, MLK was a prophet. And as with so many prophets, there was a price to pay. He was calling the country and its people to a new way of seeing and acting. There was a price to pay.
And King paid the price---the ultimate price. He lost his life to a bullet on the second floor of a Memphis hotel. The bullet killed the man, but it did not kill the dream or the changing times that he led. Not only was he a prophet. He became a martyr. The bullet probably created the memory of a man’s way of life. He had a dream, spoke about it and died for it. It is that way of life that MLK day celebrates.
Clearly, we can celebrate the day and we can celebrate his way of life. But that is mere history. The deepest move we could make is to change ourselves. We could endeavor to live our own lives, so that they also might be celebrated. This is the challenge to which I want to dedicate myself. I can imagine King would put it simply: our age has a choice to do our own thing, or, to do God’s own thing.
Doubtlessly, much of our culture encourages us to do our own thing. There is nothing inherently evil about this, but I do think God and MLK would say we were created for more than simply doing our own thing. What does it mean to do God’s thing? There are many answers to this, but I think the answers basically boil down to a couple. Perhaps the biblical tradition still says it best: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Perhaps it really is that simple: love.
If you are loving, then you would also try very hard to be just. You would treat others as well as you possibly could. You would share and have compassion. You would do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself. These things are old as dirt, but every new generation has to learn them, as if they were newly minted. And learning them is only the beginning.
They must be lived to be real. That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. did. He lived them. And his life was celebrated. We are called to live them, too. If we do, our lives will be celebrated. It won’t matter that a national holiday will be created to immortalize us. In the eyes of God and our neighbor, we will be honored for a life worth celebrating.