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Photo: Unseen Histories, YFS Magazine, Unsplash

What MLK Taught About Life, Work And Servant Leadership

There are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words of this text: length, breadth, and height.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor, activist, leader and civil rights icon. His impact on our world was immeasurable and each January we honor his legacy.

On Martin Luther King Jr. day it seems fitting to revisit one of Dr. King’s sermons called “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” He delivered this sermon at New Covenant Baptist Church, in Chicago, Illinois, on April 9, 1967. In this message, Dr. King preached substantial truths about the intersection of life, work, and servant leadership –– bridging the gap between faith and economics.

He began by explaining the essence of a complete life:

“There are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words of this text: length, breadth, and height. Now the length of life… is the inward concern for one’s own welfare… The breadth of life as we shall use it here is the outward concern for the welfare of others. And the height of life is the upward reach for God.”Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

A rational and healthy self-interest

Dr. King expounded on the length of life, by discussing what it means to have a “rational and healthy self-interest.” He insisted that we are all given something (e.g., gifts, talents, abilities) significant and how we can tap into it.

“Now let’s turn for the moment to the length of life. I said that this is the dimension of life where we are concerned with developing our inner powers… God gave all of us something significant. And we must pray every day, asking God to help us to accept ourselves.”Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo: Unseen Histories, YFS Magazine, Unsplash
Photo: Unseen Histories, YFS Magazine

 

See the dignity of all labor

Dr. King also mentioned our work and how we should approach it. He said many of us will not be the recipient of attention or in the public eye for what we do.

“What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.'”Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo: Unseen Histories, YFS Magazine, Unsplash
Photo: Unseen Histories, YFS Magazine

 

We are dependent on others

Dr. King then discussed “the breadth” of life, our care for others, and the implications of our work. Dr. King understood the necessary dependence on the work of others in a global economy. The free market is fundamentally the interaction between people, each caring for their neighbor through economic transactions. We have the ability to serve others through free exchange of products, services, and ideas.

“Before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you’re dependent on more than half the world. That’s the way God structured it; that’s the way God structured this world. So let us be concerned about others because we are dependent on others.”Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He illustrates this concept of global interdependence in his sermon:

“And don’t forget in doing something for others that you have what you have because of others. Don’t forget that. We are tied together in life and in the world. And you may think you got all you got by yourself. But you know, before you got out here to church this morning, you were dependent on more than half of the world.

“You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, and you reach over for a bar of soap, and that’s handed to you by a Frenchman. You reach over for a sponge, and that’s given to you by a Turk. You reach over for a towel, and that comes to your hand from the hands of a Pacific Islander. And then you go on to the kitchen to get your breakfast.

“You reach on over to get a little coffee, and that’s poured in your cup by a South American… Before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you’re dependent on more than half the world. That’s the way God structured it; that’s the way God structured this world. So let us be concerned about others because we are dependent on others.”

Photo: Unseen Histories, YFS Magazine, Unsplash
Photo: Unseen Histories, YFS Magazine

 

Walk and never get weary

Dr. King ended his message by revisiting the dimensions of a fulfilling life:

“Go out this morning. Love yourself, and that means rational and healthy self-interest. You are commanded to do that. That’s the length of life. Then follow that: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that. That’s the breadth of life. And I’m going to take my seat now by letting you know that there’s a first and even greater commandment: ‘Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy strength.’ I think the psychologist would just say with all thy personality. And when you do that, you’ve got the breadth [height] of life.”Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo: Unseen Histories, YFS Magazine, Unsplash
Photo: Unseen Histories, YFS Magazine

There is so much more to unpack about this sermon, yet these insights on life, work, and servant leadership can inform and reinforce how we show up in the world. Work is essential. It is a primary means by which we develop our own talents an skills. We serve others by sharing those skills within the global economy. In doing this, we express our love and gratitude towards God and unlock a much higher purpose.

Read the full sermon “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” here.

 

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Photo: Unseen Histories, YFS Magazine, Unsplash
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