Today is a holiday that I know very little about and seldom celebrate in any grand way. Only recently did I read a Time article on the “troubled story” of this holiday–its long road to recognition in all the US as a national holiday. That story implicates a longer road to equality and the realization of King’s own vision than what is so often trumpeted (read the lyrics of Brad Paisley’s pop country song “Welcome to the Future”). And I was impressed to learn that the NFL moved the Super Bowl from Arizona in protest of that state’s reluctance to recognize MLK Day (a boldly political statement).
One reason this holiday seems so “foreign” to me is also because I know so little about the civil rights struggle as it unfolded in the second half of the 20th century. Probably more significant is my ignorance of the man himself: his writing, activism, and (yes, complex) biography. I am familiar with the popular portraits and media sound bites of Martin Luther King, Jr; but I still feel profoundly out of touch with the currents and contours of his life and death.
In Divinity School I was fortunate enough to take a class in which some of MLK’s writings were required reading. I was astounded by what I discovered for many reasons, not least of which was his widely influential “pastor/preacher” identity. He wrote and spoke, one might say publicly preached, in a way I would love to emulate: practically, passionately, biblically, intelligently, purposefully. I was quickly and easily swept up in his words.
So while I’ve only tasted a small piece of his work, and while I know it is not right to idealize anyone–be they a founding “father” of the US or classic Christian thinker–I am struck by the importance of MLK’s vision and work for the life of every American.
Thus, today, in tribute to him (two days after what would have been his 82nd birthday), I attempt to celebrate this national holiday by highlighting a quote of MLK I discovered on the wall of the YMCA: “Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve.” Simple, straightforward, yet remarkably profound. To think that greatness is linked to serving and that serving is open to all peoples is not only liberating, but empowering. What better way to honor the spirit and magnify the mark of Martin Luther King, Jr than to find an avenue to serve our fellows.
And yet that quote can do more than inspire us to serve, it can direct our service. Wouldn’t service be deepened and widened by our efforts not only to serve our fellows in any old way, but to encourage, empower, and equip our fellows to serve as well? Why circumscribe greatness? Why not amplify the greatness unleashed in our ability to serve by making others great, too?
On this day, may we ask ourselves a question as if on the lips of MLK himself: how can I be great? In other words, how can I serve? And may we see our greatness, our service, as more than mere self-enhancement, but intimately connected to the greatness of one another. Yes, everybody can be great because anybody can serve. The fullness of that “anybody” serving is nothing other than the greatness of everybody.