While I have not read enough about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., I have read a fair serving of his writings and sermons over the years. Occasionally I have seen video clips of his speeches, as many of us have. A book that has been on my far-too-long book list, is a work from the latter days of King’s life, entitled, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years by Taylor Branch. He was a complex person, which made him a real person … not a caricature of the right or the left, but a marvelous mixture of holiness and humanness. That is the kind of person I can not only admire but relate to. An example from his writing that speaks to that complexity is this short excerpt:
A French philosopher said, No man is strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked.” The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites. Not ordinarily do men achieve this balance of opposites. The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic. The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant. Seldom are there humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble. But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony. The philosopher Hegel said that truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.–Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love
As I think about the liturgical season of Epiphany we have begun, these words strike a rich chord of harmony for me. For we celebrate the ministry of Jesus, who was both divine and human. We speak about and recall the ministry of Jesus that was both intensely private in terms of his devotional life and prayer with the Father, and yet terribly public too, in terms of preaching, teaching, healings and miracles. We remember Jesus as a man who tore down many of the conventional religious ideas of his time, while also fulfilling the essence of those same religious conventions. What a study of opposites, which found their synthesis in the Three Great Days, and in the life of the church since his resurrection.
As you pray this week, consider the places where opposites are apparent in your life. If you are like me, you may tend to want to resolve those conflicting forces. After all, conflict leads to ulcers and anxiety and disagreements, right? Well, maybe not. Maybe Dr. King’s image of this complimentary synthesis of opposing forces in our lives does more to make us three-dimensional human beings than any other force in life. In prayer, reflect upon those places where you can see the nuance created by opposing forces in your world, and how they may life richer and fuller, albeit more complicated. Martin Luther (our Martin Luther, the 16th century Reformer) had a word for this crisis of the soul. He called it “anfechtung.” Literally meaning “affliction” or “attack,” Luther used the word to describe the spiritual wrestling match he experienced when confronting the great antitheses in life. And then he went a forged his theology around this very image of the antitheses of our faith lives. As you pray this week, if you can find some meaning in the contrapuntal places in your thanks, fall on your knees (if you aren’t already there) and give thanks for finding your way into the Lutheran fold. For in my estimation, no denominational perspective on Christianity does a better job of seeking this synthesis of antitheses. MLK may have been raised a Baptist, but he was a Lutheran in his thinking!