What Martin Luther King, Jr. taught me about faith


We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.Today we will read words honoring a great man here in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr. His life changed our perspective and society in ways few have since, and probably ever will.

Since his death more than 50 years ago, his story has become part of our American narrative, a grand picture of destiny and purpose. We extol him as a man of vision who dreams of a better world, in spite of the evil swirling around him.

His name signifies the promise of the heritage he would ultimately come to embrace.

King’s birth name was originally Michael King, Jr. But his father changed both his and young King’s name after returning from a trip to Germany in the 1930s, just after Hitler took power. The elder King was moved by what was unfolding in the homeland of the father of Protestantism, Martin Luther.

Martin Luther quite literally changed the face of Christianity in the 1500s using his powerful words and his sense of destiny.

No pressure, young King.

Both he and Martin Luther King, Jr. became pivot points in Christian history.

Game changers.

And both men were unashamed in living out their purpose and engaging the world they were born into.

To me, Martin Luther King, Jr. embodies all that we can imagine through simple and persistent hope and faith.

Since his death I think King’s life as a great man of faith has gotten a bit lost.

Before he was an activist and master orator for civic change, he was a man who believed that God’s hand was on his life in the most powerful way.

It all starts there.

Few of us will realize our life’s destiny the way King did. He realized his through the lens of his unmoving faith.

  • This kind of resolute faith is what compels you to take action, regardless of risk to life and freedom.
  • This kind of resolute faith doesn’t always make you feel happy about how things are going in your life.
  • This kind of resolute faith can be full of fear at what may lie ahead because you may just be shaking the foundation of institution.

His faith wasn’t something he decided to try out at a self-help seminar one weekend. This was a conviction and a way of life that went to his core.

His ability to speak the truth so powerfully and without apology was rooted in an unshakeable faith in who he was, who his God was and what he knew his God could do.

  • He must have had some desperate thoughts because he was human.
  • He must have struggled to see the full picture ahead because he couldn’t know exactly what the future held.
  • He must have wondered if he was living up to what he was designed for because it wasn’t as easy as he wanted it to be.

What makes him so special in my eyes is not just his inspiring words for change, but his steadfast obedience to his call.

He didn’t allow setbacks to remove him from his destiny. He didn’t allow the daily challenges of living his destiny to pull him away from his purpose.

Where would we be if he had?

King’s legacy is even more important to us today.

For many of us (certainly not all of us), life has become comfortable and entertaining.

We don’t challenge much.

  • We give away one of our greatest assets — our attention — to the day’s lowest common denominators.
  • We expect fairness in all things and demand that life brings us what we need and want or we won’t play.
  • We allow setbacks to steal our hope in one snap of a finger.
  • We invite the words of others who have nothing invested in us to injure us and pierce our peace.
  • We allow the thoughts inside the space of our very own heads to run unchallenged and roughshod over our purpose and steal our destiny from us.

We give in to a victim mentality that demands our circumstances change before we will engage.

This, even as most of us will never be asked to give our lives for our call.

And we wonder why we struggle to find purpose and meaning in our work and personal lives.

In just 39 short years, King showed what a persistent and obedient life of faith can do for millions of people that he would never meet.

Will we do the same in the much smaller sphere of our own lives?

This is gratitude

Hopefully you live with a sense of gratitude all year round. But at Thanksgiving you’re allowed to include some pie with it. Yesss!

Gratitude may cloak itself in delicious, carb-laden gravies and desserts once a year, but it gets top billing in mental health pretty much all the time.

Because you can’t make real change unless you first acknowledge what you already have.

I’ll go so far as to say that the practice of gratitude should be annexed as a full-fledged member of the anxiety and depression toolkit.

It’s that powerful.

Gratitude is more than being grateful. 

When I was a kid my mom used to tell me that I should be grateful for what I have because so many others are going without right now, even as we speak. 👀

I remember feeling a little guilty enjoying my mom’s delicious banana pudding with the name-brand Nilla Wafers in it because somewhere else in the world someone was wishing they could have some, and I had it just because it was a Wednesday.

No doubt your mom said the exact same thing. She probably heard it from her mom, who most likely went through The Great Depression and knew exactly what she was talking about.

“Well, at least I’m not that guy.” This is typically how we view gratitude.

But gratitude is more than just being grateful that you have more than others. It’s appreciation for what you’ve been given and a desire to share with others out of that gratitude.

Gratitude is a discipline that can take your focus off of your needs and place it squarely on what you can do for others.

And like any other discipline, gratitude can be practiced, developed, ritualized, taught and shared.

How do you “practice” gratitude? 

A few years ago Oprah Winfrey shared with her ginormous audience her daily practice of writing in a gratitude journal. Like almost everything Oprah endorses, the idea of capturing daily reminders of the goodness in our lives took off like a truant firecracker.

It’s a good thing (I’m now clearly mixing my media tycoons).

Gratitude journals are indeed a tangible way to visualize the things we’re grateful for. And it’s something I recommend to people struggling with depression because it reframes your focus off of so many negative thoughts.

But the practice of gratitude really takes off when you realize that not only can you capture the good things on paper, but you also can take specific actions to thank others who have helped you, or pay it forward in a similar way.

  • You can write a thank you note (with old fashioned pen and paper) to a coworker who helped you solve a thorny problem at 3pm on Friday. There is something special about getting a real card at work.
  • You can text an encouraging message to a friend who has helped you through some stuff. You never know when others may need that little notification to pop up on a tough day.
  • You can write a letter (again, pen & paper) to a loved one who has meant so much to you. I guarantee they will keep that letter until the day they die.
  • You can give a little financial support to a cause or organization that has helped you. You don’t have to give enough to trigger a press release or a naming opportunity; just enough to show that you appreciate the work on your behalf.
  • You can buy someone’s lunch just because you are grateful to have had enough food on your table for most of your life.

Just spitballing a few ideas here. You can DIY your own.

Try this at least once a day, in some way, big or small. Get creative.

Now you’ve taken action to help others, instead of just letting the gratitude serve you and making you feel better about you.

Gratitude is helping you change your behaviors. Good job! 👍

Gratitude has some science on its side. 

A recent study out of Berkeley showed the power of this kind of actionable gratitude.

Researchers studied three groups of 300 adults, who were mostly college students seeking counseling with mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

In addition to counseling, one group wrote one gratitude letter each week to another person. (Gratitude letters describe what someone did for you and how it affected your life.) They kept up this practice for three weeks.

The second group received counseling and wrote about their negative thoughts, feelings and experiences.

The third group just received counseling.

More than four weeks after the writing exercise ended, the first group reported improved and continued mental health, as compared to the other two groups. Interestingly enough, only 23% of the participants in this group actually sent their letter. (Personally, I’ve always been terrible at this part.)

This positive effect lasted an additional eight weeks (this brings us to 12 weeks post-writing exercise, for you math geniuses).

The writers felt better long after the exercise was over, and they most likely improved the life of someone else with their letters.

Writers for the win! 🍾

Gratitude is a brain changer. 

Gratitude appears to be a reward loop. The more you practice it, the more you want to do for others, which makes you feel good, which makes you practice it more, which makes it… you get it.

Inside your head, your brain is registering this loop as a dopamine rush. Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter in the brain.

When you experience that rush through a pleasurable activity, your brain says, “Yes, that was very good. I would like plenty more of that, please and thank you.”

Your brain then provides a deeper pathway for that dopamine to make sure the next time it comes through it can capture it better. It’s like little neurological high-fives going on in your head.

More importantly, those deeper pathways mean that your brain is adapting to accommodate the pleasurable activity, which means your brain is physically changing.

If you’re doing illegal drugs, this is not good news. But if you’re conditioning your brain to recognize and express gratitude, then this is pretty great news.

Your brain is helping you create a habit, and good habits create good practices.

Now you have a gratitude mindset. 💃🏻

Happy Thanksgiving!


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