Thursday, January 14, 2016

Spiritual Formation and the Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I taught Spiritual Formation at Payne Theological Seminary this January 5-9. Here are my notes on the prayer life and spiritual formation ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is a mistake to portray King as a great leader while leaving out his Christian theistic spirituality and deep prayer life. Such things were foundational to King, in his own mind.


All quotes unless otherwise cited from Lewis Baldwin, Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

See also:

Prayer as a conversational relationship with God.

  • King defined prayer as “the human response to God.” (1)
  • Prayer is a daily conversation and walk with God. (2)
  • King honored his slave ancestors by practicing prayer as “talking with God.” (21)
  • For King prayer was “communion with God.” (28) Because of this prayer is far more than “inspired speech or religiously informed rhetoric.” (28)
  • King described prayer as “intimate conversation with God.” (32)
  • Sometimes God’s communication to the praying person comes as “prophetic revelation.” (33)
  • Sometimes the praying person is given “mystic insight” into the being and nature of God. (34)

If you don’t have a prayer life you have no business being a pastor.
  • “King was thoroughly convinced that it took fervent and persistent prayer to pastor a church, and his own life bore the stamp of that conviction.” (54)
  • King believed that “the need to develop a prayer practice or habit and indeed a vibrant prayer life was axiomatic for the both the pastor and the congregation.” (59)

If you don’t have a prayer life you have no business preaching.
  • King never engaged in prayer-less preaching or prayer-less sermonizing. (6)
  • King was a praying preacher who approached the act of preaching in a prayerful spirit. “Indeed, prayerful preaching is the key to understanding King as a master pulpiteer, and it explains much of the power and creativity he brought to his sermonic discourse and to his art as one who proclaimed the Word as revealed in Scripture.” (39)
  • King was convinced that the ability and energy to preach came from God. Therefore “King made prayer an all-commanding factor in his sermon preparation.” (40)
  • King “prayerfully surrendered to God” as he prepared his sermons. (40)
  • King was “intentional about praying in the privacy of his home, church office, hotel room, and other relatively isolated places in which he found a greater measure of peace, silence, and solace.” (40-41)
  • King depended on “’preparatory prayer’ in thinking through and writing his sermons.” (41)
  • “King never engaged in prayerless sermonizing and/or preaching.” (44)
  • King “literally lived by prayer. Prayer pervaded every corner of his life.” (50)

Prayer as abiding in the presence of God.
  • Prayer became King’s way of expressing himself to God, of experiencing God’s presence and companionship, and of witnessing on behalf of others. (28)
  • King’s “pastoral prayers at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church moved people and were effective because he spent quality time with his parishioners in what he called “the valley” of life.” (58)
  • For King “prayer… was the source of and pathway to a grace-filled life.” (59)

Intellectual ability is not enough.
  • King combined a deep personal piety with intellectual ability and a profound social vision. (1)
  • King never separated intellectual ability, moral responsibility, and social praxis from deep personal spirituality and piety. (5)
  • For King “prayer became a matter of invoking the supernatural and an expression of his humble submission before the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent God, without whom the preaching becomes a meaningless play of words.” (42)
  • For King, “the preacher had to pray for guidance to ay what needed to be said and to proclaim what needed to be proclaimed… The thought of sermons having the same effect as water on a duck’s back, which is easily shaken off, bothered King immensely.” (44)
  • “King understood that his seminary training and intellectual gifts, though necessary and significant, could not guarantee what was called in clack church circles “power from on high.” This view helps explain why King, in both his private and public lives, mastered prayer as the art of pastoral conversation with God.” (54)
  • Once King received a phone call at midnight from a racist who verbally degraded him, and threatened to kill him and “blow up” his home. This deeply disturbed him, and he was unable to sleep. “Knowing that the theology he had studied in the corridors of academia could not help him and that he had nowhere else to turn, King had a face-to-face encounter with what he, in the tradition of his forebears, called a “Waymaker,” exposing his fears, insecurities, and vulnerablities with sincerity and humility. Great comfort came as an “inner voice” spoke to King, reminding him that he was not alone, commanding him to stand up for righteousness, justice, and truth, and assuring him that “lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”” (69)

Prayer and Solitude
  • Solitude, getting alone with God, just you and God, was important for King. (69)

Prayer and Personal Transformation
  • King’s prayers highlighted the necessity for the transformation of the soul and uniting the soul with God in heaven. (31)
  • King believed in the power, potential, and possibilities of prayer as a “life-transforming force.” (36)
  • For King, one must “sustain a life of prayer.” This involves “a profound surrender of the self to God, not prayer rooted in self-pride, self-righteousness, and self-centeredness.” (54)
  • “King had a deep appreciation for contemplative prayer and of the potential of the Christian inner life… [He also had] an intense longing for the simple presence of God, a deeper understanding of God’s Word and commandments, and the will and capacity to listen to and obey God. In this regard, solitary prayer was as important to King as communal or group prayer.” (56)
  • In being interested in contemplative prayer King was not stepping outside of his tradition, “for there is a contemplative trajectory in the black prayer tradition that is not ecstatic and theatric.” (57)
  • For King the worship experience also involves “silent communication with God.” (57)
  • “For King, the lives of the ancient Hebrew prophets and of Jesus highlighted the essentiality of contemplative prayer. He say that the prophets and Jesus withdrew at times to quiet places to communicate with God, thus becoming a model for every sincere believer. King also understood that periods of quiet prayer and meditation were necessary for him and his church folk because of the pressures of black life I the South and the hectic pace and rapid change of modern life in a noisy world.” (57)
  • Because “prayer can change the very fabric of reality… prayer was a catalyst for positive change in one’s self and one’s circumstances and that the promises of God are met largely through prayer.” (59)

Prayer and Social Transformation

  • Prayer has a unique role in any serious and legitimate effort to achieve social transformation. (4)
  • “Prayer and praying became for [King] powerful resources in the effort to transform civic and political culture and in the quest for a new nation and a new world order.” (65)
  • Prayer is connected to God’s work in the world. (67)
  • “King made prayer central to the struggle for civil and human rights.” (67-68)
  • King saw himself as essentially involved in a “spiritual movement,” and not simply a struggle for equal right, social justice, and peace.” (68)
  • Because the root, basic struggle is about a total way of life, without prayer’s connection to God “the quest to redeem and transform the moral and political spirit of the nation and of humanity as a whole would ultimately prove futile and perhaps even counterproductive.” (68)
  • “King believed that the more praying there was on the part of committed persons, the stronger the force against evil and the greater the opportunities for creating a better society and world.” (73)
  • “King taught the people of Montgomery that the weapon of prayer was ultimately more powerful and effective than any gun or bomb.” (75)

In prayer, the self gets exposed.
  • In prayer as intimate conversation with God the self gets exposed in all of its nakedness and with all of its perplexities, struggles, and temptations. (32)

Prayer and Healing
  • King saw and practiced prayer “as a dimension of healing ministry.” (59)
  • King “believed… that prayer embodied infinite possibilities for healing.” (59)
  • King lived in a church culture where people “believed that prayer influences God’s dealings with humanity and in which a frequently heard remark was that “prayer changes things.”” (59)
  • Prayer can change the very fabric of reality. (59)

Prayer as a weapon of warfare.
  • Prayer has a place in the struggle against hatred, intolerance, and war.” (35)

Effective prayer
  • King was “convinced that the power of prayer, much like that of preaching, is largely affected by the character and conduct of the person who prays.” (49)
  • “Prayer and a clean spirit are the preacher’s best and most durable weapons when faced with the perilous and capricious nature of life and human existence.” (50)
  • “King was effective because his praying and preaching were effective. True leadership in his case made prayer and preaching indispensable.” (50)

Prayer and Obedience
  • Prayer needs to be combined with intelligence and responsible, positive action. “King wanted his people at Dexter to know that genuine prayer is never an opiate but rather a life-giving power that stimulates effort and energizes the believer for a courageous and persistent engagement with life’s struggles… [King] also repeatedly reminded them that God should never be regarded as some “cosmic bell hop” to be called on for every trivial need and desire.” (61)

Prayer and Theology
  • For King prayer “was a theological activity, or in more precise terms, an exercise in practical theology.” (64)

For King to pray is to engage in a rational activity, a natural activity. Prayer comes out of “a throbbing desire of the human heart.” (34)

“Praying as an act of selfishness was repulsive to King.” (35)