The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was martyred 40 years ago on April 4. I was born 40 years ago on April 6. My mother once told me that while she was in the hospital giving birth, there were riots going on outside the hospital in Youngstown, OH in reaction to the assassination. Dr. King was 39 when he was gunned down. As I write this, I have one more day of being 39.
I was telling this to a friend of mine and she said, “It sounds like a relay.”
40 is a big number in Christianity. Noah got 40 days and 40 nights of rain. The Jews were wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus was in the desert for 40 days. Lent is 40 days long (because we don’t count Sundays which are feast days and not really a part of Lent… Christ is always risen on a Sunday).
Recently we read in our Pastoral Theology class about what it means to be 40 and single. Apparently, I’m supposed to be “addressing the fantasy of the Ideal American Family by accepting the possibility of never marrying and accepting the possibility of not having my own biological children” in addition to learning how to define myself through my work… yadda yadda yadda. You’ve heard it before.
So, I’m turning 40 tomorrow. I can feel my feet on the precipice and things are moving fast.
The wind is wild up here as I look down and out and over this abyss. Things are coming at me from all directions, swirling memories around me sink in through my skin where they slip into some black pool of nothingness. Life outside… things, people, events… moves so much faster than they were before… so precious, so beautiful… while each moment lasts forever. And these pieces of my identity, parts of my memories, all starting to make sense and clicking into place like the final pieces to the sky of some big cosmic jigsaw puzzle. Meanwhile, I stand still on this precipice. Still.Calm. Waiting.
Instead of the usual set-up for yesterday’s Eucharist, we read portions of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (which I wholeheartedly commend to you), followed by a reflection on today’s world from one of us. It was powerful to hear Dr. King’s words 40-odd years later. He talked about being an extremist:
“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
And here I am waiting on the precipice. I have to ask myself why. Why am I waiting? What am I waiting for?
And I listen. And I hear this answer coming from some place deep in my belly. I hear:
This precipice is just that… an in-between place of staying on safe ground and jumping off into an abyss. You have jumped off before and have landed hard, with bruises and broken body parts. You have also stayed on safe ground before and gotten nowhere. The precipice is a choice point but it’s not the choice you think it is.
The extremist path is not one that does the extreme merely because the extreme is there. So there will be no jumping. But it is also a path, so there will be no standing still. The extremist path is one that moves deliberately forward without worrying what the landscape ahead might look like. The extremist path is one of being led by the heart. The extremist path is to love from a place of knowing exactly who I am and seeing without fear. The extremist path is one dancing step at a time.
I’m 40 and it’s time to be an extremist.