Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 6:1-18) transports me to a kitchen table in Montgomery, Alabama, around midnight on January 27, 1956. A young preacher sat there with a cup of coffee in hand, agonizing over how to get out of a leadership role he did not ask for, without losing face and appearing to be a coward. He had good reason to be fearful and want out. He had received numerous abusive calls and death threats targeting him and his family, the latest coming on that January night, with the caller assuring him they would be sorry if they didn’t leave Montgomery within a week. With his head in his hands, Martin Luther King bowed over the kitchen table and prayed: Lord, I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone. He would later share that, At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear a voice saying: “Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at our side forever. . . I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.” Coretta Scott King, in her book Standing in the Need of Prayer, says that when her husband stood up from that table, he rose a different person, with a new sense of confidence, ready to face whatever came. Her book documents just how crucial prayer was in sustaining their work in the movement, giving them the power to carry on through the darkest hours.
King’s reliance on the power of prayer in confronting the power of bombs makes me think of one verse in today’s passage, where Jesus teaches the disciples to pray. That well-known model prayer ends with the familiar words, for Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. The Greek word that we translate power is dunamis—it’s where we get our word dynamite. It makes for a great ending to the Lord’s prayer—For Thine is the kingdom, the dynamite, and the glory, forever! Prayer has the dynamic power to blast through fear, anxiety, anger, hatred; it has the power to create space for something totally and radically new, for a new Kingdom of nonviolent love to come on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus warned his disciples not to play around with prayer – after all, you don’t play with dynamite. Authentic prayer is a powder keg waiting to explode. As King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, it creates the capacity of the church to carve a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.
Lewis Baldwin, one of the foremost scholars on the life of Martin Luther King, believes that the kitchen table prayer was perhaps the critical turning point in the life of the great Civil Rights leader, and in the life of the movement itself. Baldwin recently published Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., with the title taken from those words of assurance that came to King that January night in 1956. Baldwin writes that prayer, as a form of creative energy, was the secret weapon in the Civil Rights Movement. King would soon need that secret weapon, for only three days after receiving the midnight call, his house was bombed and his family nearly killed. Within an hour he faced an angry crowd of his own supporters outside his home, ready to retaliate. He met them with these words: We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop because God is with the movement. Go home with this glorious faith and this radiant assurance. He later reflected on the events of that night and shared, A night that seemed destined to end with unleashed chaos came to a close in a majestic demonstration of nonviolence. This is the kind of dynamic demonstration we could sure use now to transform our own climate of anger and violence. So let us pray.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.