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Light for the Midnight Darkness of the COVID Winter

 

It is midnight in the parable; it is also midnight in our world, and the darkness is so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Knock at Midnight”

 

Christmas brings the hope for light at the onset of winter darkness. The star over a stable in Bethlehem signals the arrival of God’s love to brighten the path through cold, hard times before spring returns.

The Christmas of 2020 is darkened by the mounting toll of sickness and death overwhelming our medical systems. A year-long recession is accelerating poverty as seen in miles of cars lined up at food banks and growing numbers of unemployed persons. Mental and spiritual distress are seen in depression and pandemic fatigue as treasured holiday gatherings are modified or called off. This is a season of unusual darkness prompting desperate hopes for light.

The great temptation for individuals and societies is to withdraw into themselves in dark times. Prayers for personal deliverance or healing may become increasingly internal and plaintive, moving us away from concern for others and positive actions. Anger and outrage can lead to acting out in ways that disregard the welfare of oneself and others. Channeling physical, mental, and spiritual energy into positive strategies for navigating a national crisis becomes especially important in the dark, cold months after Christmas.

I have found two books to be especially helpful this Christmas. Living under COVID restrictions is like being imprisoned. Sermons written by Martin Luther King, Jr., while in jail speak directly to the concerns of today, although he was thinking of the situation in the 1960s. The titles of the sermons grab attention – “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” “A Knock at Midnight,” “Shattered Dreams,” and “Antidotes for Fear” are a few examples. Strength to Love is available in an edition of 2010 with a Foreword written by Coretta Scott King in 1981.

Many facets of life at midnight are described in “A Knock at the Door,” an exposition of the story in Luke 11:5-6 of the man who kept knocking at a neighbor’s door to borrow food for a late-arriving guest. Persistence is the message of the parable, but King thoroughly explores all the shapes of darkness that can be found today as well as in his time. The outcome of persistence is hope. “The dawn will come. Disappointment, sorrow, and despair are born at midnight, but morning follows.”

Similar examples that speak to a COVID winter are found in other sermons in this collection. No wonder that Coretta Scott King began her Foreword with this statement: “If there is one book that Martin Luther King, Jr., has written that people consistently tell me has changed their lives, it is Strength to Love.”

A second book for this Christmas is intended to encourage persistence to overcome the dark forces of the Trump administration. John Lewis died on July 17, 2020, just before Joe Biden was nominated for president and began his campaign to heal the soul of America. Biden took his theme from Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels which was written in 2018 as a call to action against the forces of Trumpism. Immediately after Biden was nominated and a month after the loss of John Lewis, Meacham published a biography of Lewis, His Truth Is Marching On. Written in cooperation with its subject, the book featured an Afterword written by Lewis in his final days.

The theme of this book is persistence and hope in pursuit of a powerful vision. The ultimate goal was the Beloved Community, a utopian yet achievable approach to the Kingdom of God – a vision Lewis and King shared – which is a human society based on love, justice, and non-violence. Meacham was with Lewis on his last visit to the Edmund Pettis Bridge in March 2020 and recorded his last words to those who marched with him that day.

On this bridge, some of us gave a little blood to help redeem the soul of America. Our country is a better country, we are a better people, but we still have a distance to travel, to go, before we get there. I want to thank each and every one of you for being here … for not giving up, for not giving in, for keeping the faith, for keeping your eyes on the prize.

These books are especially relevant this Christmas because national events hang on a pending election in Georgia. Control of Senate leadership depends on a runoff election for both Georgia Senate seats in January. The extent to which President Biden can achieve his plans for overcoming the emergencies in our country probably depends on this election. Especially significant is that one candidate, Jon Ossoff, was mentored and heavily supported by John Lewis and the other, Raphael Warnock, was Lewis’s pastor as the lead minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church which was previously pastored by Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr.

Whatever the outcomes of the elections and the Biden Administration, the Beloved Community will not arrive in its entirety. Mortal imperfection will continue to raise obstacles. But this COVID winter, dark as it already is with three thousand people dying per day, can be overcome no matter how much darker this midnight experience becomes. Inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and Jon Meacham can encourage us forward until the dawn arrives.

 

References:

Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love (Fortress Press, 2010), ix, 64.

Jon Meacham, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope (Random House, 2020), 14-15.

 

Edward G. Simmons is a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who teaches history at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is a Bible scholar, Unitarian Christian, and Sunday School teacher in a Presbyterian Church. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible and two chapters in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Christian Evangelicals on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald J. Sider.

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