In the middle of the night with Dr. King

Last month I received the unexpected news that I had a cancerous brain tumor. A few days later, I had brain surgery, and started radiation and chemo not long after that. A complication from the surgery put me back in the hospital for a week with a tube threaded up my spine.

Between 1 and 2 am on one of those nights in the hospital, I felt like I was floating in some anxiety and sadness, making it hard to sleep. Then I felt like Martin Luther King, Jr. came to hang out with me in my hospital room, reminding me of my favorite speech of his–the one he gave the night before he died. When he gave that speech, he knew that his life was especially in danger. Next to me in the hospital bed, it felt like he delivered the ending of the speech again, as a message for me:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

“And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

In talking with my primary care doctor, Mt. Nebo has been an important reference point for both of us. This is the place where Moses first saw the Promised Land, which his people eventually made it to. While on the mountain, Moses realized that he was going to die there, but that the rest of his people would make it to Israel without him. My doctor told me recently about a powerful experience he had while visiting Mt. Nebo. In my hospital room, MLK was bringing home the connections between his life, Mt Nebo, and my journey, like the preacher that he is. My imagination and emotions might’ve been partly driven by the hospital stay and meds from a couple days ago, although hanging out with MLK felt as true as almost anything to me.

MLK reminded me that the biggest gift I can personally receive is knowing I did my part in getting us to the new land that is coming, and feeling the satisfaction of knowing how my little part is part of a larger movement towards that land. That feeling of faithfulness takes away fear. It removes the sting of death or failure. Dr. King reminded me that the Promised Land, for him, is not just solving one social issue or campaign. It is living now in the reign of God’s love on Earth. He breathed some of that power into me last night, washing away the pool of anxiety that had been in the hospital bed with me.  It felt like MLK was asking each of us to continue moving towards the beloved community he gave his life for.

MLK has been an important inspiration for me for the past 25 years, but I’ve seen him from an intimidating distance. We’ve never been on close speaking terms before. Last night, though, he seemed to be quite close, frequently calling me “son.” He talked with me about a night after his house was bombed and how he had to get to know God in a new way, instead of just knowing the God secondarily through his father or through others. Dr. King told me that was true for me now, that God was with me in new ways.

The conversation with Dr. King seemed to then shift away from just the two of us, to include all of you that I’m connected with, even though I was still alone in the hospital bed in the middle of the night. Dr. King seemed to be asking all of us questions like:

What is the Promised Land you are committing your lives to get to?

Who are your people, your land?

What would make that land good and real enough that it would be worth contributing your life to the journey, even if you don’t personally make it there?

What will help you let go when your part is done, and stay at your own Mt. Nebo?

I’ve grieved recently for the ways I probably won’t be to make it to all the places I long to go, with my family, with my community, with my nation, with our planet.

I’ve said before that I want to contribute my life in service of broader shifts in society from systems of domination to cultures that sustain life:

From wealth for a few to enough for all
From security based on force to security based on the quality of relationships
From predict and control management to trust and equip self-organizing
From industrial growth to local sustainability

I also long to see my kids graduate from high school, to impatiently hope they have kids of their own that I can fall in love with, to bike across the country with my son, to befriend a dolphin in the ocean with my daughter, grow old with my wife, and much more.

I still want all those things very much. But my conversation with Dr. King last night helped me feel more deeply in my body that what I most want is to be attentive and faithful to the small parts I’m asked to do, while fully breathing in the gifts of mountain top views of where we, together, can go. None of us can go to all of those places,

I feel sobered to realize that I’ve already lived five years longer than MLK. I affirm that his life was not lived in vain, and I left the time with MLK also clearer that my work is not done.

I pray that we may all see the glory of the coming of the promised land, see and trust our parts to play, and live savoring the reality of the reign of love, even as we help it be born.
Michael Bischoff

Here are Dr. King’s own words:

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