Thoughts on Dr King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

For the past few years, I’ve made it a personal duty to read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” each MLK day.  It takes me nearly half an hour to read it.  Today I looked at some other sources and found a video re-enactment of his letter, along with some video clips of the issues he addresses and the audio of the letter to the newspaper written by Birmingham clergymen that prompted the writing of his letter.

This letter was written in 1963, the year Jean and I married.  It reminds me of how far our nation has come, of how far we still have to go, and of the price good people are willing to pay to find freedom.  It convicts me of the complacency that often comes with privilege.

This morning, as I read the letter again, I felt strongly to share it on social media and to share it with my daughters and their husbands.  My grandsons are only seven and five years old now, but I’m thinking that as they get older, we could and should find some creative ways to help them understand the privilege they have as white, middle-class Americans, the inequalities that still exist, and the price others have paid in the on-going fight for freedom and equality.

The letter takes me almost 30 minutes to read to myself.  This video, which contains the audio of the clergy letter and a video re-enactment of Dr King’s letter is about 56 minutes long.

I hope you can find some creative ways to stay aware of our privilege of position and race and other’s pain and sacrifice and that you can find creative ways to help your kids understand and care.

See video links below:

Grace and peace,

Jim Stephens

Letter from a Birmingham Jail video

Letter from a Birmingham Jail full text of speech


Dog License

Buddy The Dog
Buddy The Dog

Dog License

When we went to the Post Office to check the mail today, there was an envelope in the box from the Deschutes County Dog Licensing Department.  It was the annual renewal notice for Buddy the Dog’s license.  The card inside contained all the details about Buddy’s breed (mixed), color (black and brown), size (just right), and about our contact information, and it had instructions for renewing Buddy’s license to practice being a dog for another year.

At the bottom of the form was a box to check if we were not renewing the license because “The dog is no longer in my care.”  And below the check box was a blank line labeled “Reason.”

I checked the box, confirming that “the dog is no longer in my care.”  Then I thought about the reason.

  • The reason is that when we got Buddy I was 60 and he was about a year old.  And while I was slowly (it didn’t seem slow at the time!) making my way from 60 to 71, Buddy was living a whole wonderful, happy, dog lifetime.
  • The reason is that there are some things in life you just can’t fix no matter how hard you try!
  • The reason is that after caring for him through ACL surgeries on both back legs, and making sure he had all his shots, and feeding him, and protecting him, and giving him the best life we could, he got sick with something the vet couldn’t cure.
  • The reason is that the world we live in, the real world, has light and dark, easy and hard, good and bad, joy and pain, love and loss.  And we loved him and we lost him!  (By the way, the predictable pain of loss is never a good reason not to take the joyful risk of loving long and deeply!  I promise you that!)
  • The reason is that we had to make one of the most difficult decisions of our long and happy lives and put Buddy down so he wouldn’t suffer, and then second-guess ourselves for the next few weeks even though we knew then and we know now we did the right thing at the right time.
  • You want the reason the dog is no longer in my care?  Those are the reasons!  But even I know they didn’t want a philosophical exploration of the amazing relationships that develop between people like us and our dogs.

So I wrote “the dog died” and sealed the form in the envelope and took it to the Post Office.  Then I had a little cry.

A Walk In The Park

It was frosty early Sunday morning, when I started out for my morning walk.  From my porch the sidewalk and the path to the park looked like it could be pretty slippery so I wasn’t sure when I started if I’d walk far.  It turned out to be fine and before long I was walking along the trail in the park, missing Buddy the Dog.

I thought about how people say “Pets and other friends aren’t really gone.  They live on in our memories.”  As I walked I pictured Buddy running and sniffing, peeing on rocks and trees, completely lost in the smells and sights, the way he did in his better days, when we were both younger!

It’s not unusual to encounter another walker on my early morning walks, but today, this morning, the park and the path were all mine!  I guess I was kind of lost in thought and dialoging with God the way I do when I get quiet enough.  I was saying, “Father, I don’t know what I know!  My mind used to be full of the certainties of the young.  Now my thoughts are full of the questions of age. I’m realizing I don’t have all the answers.  But I sure have plenty of questions!”

Suddenly, the sun rose over my right shoulder and the frosty path ahead of me exploded into sparkles of brilliant diamonds!  I kept walking a few steps.  Then I stopped and simply looked.  It was incredibly beautiful.  The kind of beautiful that a camera, even a good camera, won’t capture.  It seemed like a holy moment.  Or at least that it could be if I didn’t rush on.

I said, “Father what do you want to say to me in this moment?”  Then I waited.  In less than ten seconds, this came to me.  “Keep walking.  Stay on the path.  Keep walking.  Be aware, notice the beauty.  Stop when you see it and be fully present.  But stay on the path and keep walking.”

As I stood quietly and expectantly, I began to hear the winter birds singing to the sunrise.  I felt the cold breeze on my cheek.  I looked farther ahead and the path stretched out like a river of diamonds.  I saw the cloud of vapor as I breathed.  I waited maybe five minutes, until my legs were getting cold (I was dressed to speak at church later in the morning).

Then I started walking on a path of diamonds.  The path sparkled all the way home, except for a short section that lay in shade.  But I knew the beauty was there, even as I walked in the shadows.  I also knew it would only last a few minutes.  The same rising sun that turned the frost to diamonds would melt the frost and take it all away in minutes.  But it was mine for the moment!

Thirty hours later, I’m still processing “Stay on the path!  Keep walking!”