“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land!” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

Is it possible for a leader to have encountered God so richly that no matter what we are working toward here on this earth, we know we already have what we most deeply want—the presence of God, that which can never be taken from us? Is it possible to get to a place where God is so real to us and we are so given over to that relationship that physical death is just one more step toward the intimacy and union we seek?

Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed this conviction in a speech given in Memphis, Tennessee, on the night before he was assassinated. He spoke of receiving a letter from a little girl after he had been near-fatally stabbed in New York. X-rays had revealed that the knife blade was lodged so close to his aorta that if he had sneezed, he would have died. King received letters of comfort and encouragement from around the world, but the one from this young white girl touched him deeply.

Dear Dr. King, she wrote. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing to say that I’m so happy you didn’t sneeze.

View from the Mountaintop

King then recounted many reasons why he, too, was glad he had not sneezed. He described a litany of victorious events that he had been able to be a part of because he hadn’t sneezed—”I wouldn’t have been around here when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up … or when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill … or later that year, to try and tell America about a dream I had had.”

“I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze,” he said. But then he went on to say that something new had happened within him, something that put him in a different relationship with all that he had been a part of up until that moment. It just didn’t matter like it used to! King alluded to Moses’ experience on the mountain, and with uncanny foresight (which many feel was a premonition), his speech gathered momentum until it reached a crescendo.

“I don’t know what will happen now,” he thundered. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

“And I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!

“And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

Beyond Grandiosity

This journey to the mountaintop is the ultimate antidote to our grandiosity, if we will let be. It helps us find our place in the scheme of things lest we become overly inflated in our view of ourselves and our role in kingdom work. It puts everything in perspective and it is a perspective we need. A prayer written in memory of Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador who was martyred for his outspoken advocacy for the poor, articulates the power of this perspective:

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom [of God] is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace
to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”

For a leader, the promised land is something you see and know that can’t be beaten out of you even when other people don’t see it yet—even when they say it is impossible, unrealistic, idealistic. It is the phoenix that keeps rising out of the ashes of every failure. It can never fully die.

But paradoxically, by the time a leader gets to this promised land, it has usually been stripped down to its barest essence. By the time you get there, maybe you can still see it—as Moses did and as Martin Luther King, Jr. did—but it doesn’t matter nearly as much. What matters is the presence of God right there with you on the mountainside and being able to say yes to God in the deepest way because you are not clinging to or grasping at anything.

A Prophet in Word and Deed

This view from the mountaintop right-sizes our role in kingdom work and makes us leaders who are free indeed. It makes us leaders with strength of soul. This kind of leader is not perfect, but we have been met by God, and that is where our authority comes from. This is the kind of leader who spends a lifetime discerning right action in the world so that perhaps, with Martin Luther King, Jr., we can also say,

“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral.  And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards, that’s not important.  Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody.  I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question.  I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say on that day, that I did try, in my life to clothe those who were naked.  I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”

Indeed, this is the kind of leader who is prophetic both in word and deed, heralding a future and a kingdom that is not our own and yet is absolutely certain.

From the eReflections archive: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Strength of Soul

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2013. Adapted from Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Not to be used without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton, D.D., is founder of the Transforming Center. A spiritual director, teacher and retreat leader, she is the author of Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence (InterVarsity Press).

When have you experienced your own kingdom efforts as a “tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work”?  How has this been liberating for you?

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