An MLK Chapel Reflection: Dr. King’s Three Dimensions of a Complete Life

From a post by the National Civil Rights Museum
From a National Civil Rights Museum Twitter post

[I gave the following chapel talk this morning at St. George’s Independent School as part of our annual Martin Luther King Chapel. Our hymn was “Oh God our Help in Ages Past”.]

“This is my faith, and I choose to go on through my days with this faith and I tell you if you catch it, you will be able to rise from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. Love yourself, you are commanded to do that—that is the length of life. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, you are commanded to do that—that’s the breadth of life. But never forget that there is a first and even greater commandment, Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart with all thy soul, and with all thy mind—that is the height of life. And when you do this, you’ll live the complete life.”

Good morning! The words that I just read were from a sermon given by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1960.

On the last day of February that year, Dr. King gave this sermon at the Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena, California. It was the latest version of a sermon he first gave in 1954, and indeed he would continue to deliver updated versions of it over the course of the eight years he had left before his assassination in April of 1968. I became fascinated with it when I spotted a meme on Twitter with this brief quotation: Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” Given our commitment to service to others at St. George’s, which on Monday we will voice as a chorus of action and service on our Day On, I felt the quotation called me to find out more. 


Given our commitment to service to others at St. George’s, which on Monday we will voice as a chorus of action and service on our Day On, I felt the quotation called me to find out more. 


In my brief research, I found out that the words were indeed from Dr. King and came from a sermon called: “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” Finding it was a good reminder for me of the benefits of looking deeper, of not simply allowing pithy quotations to stand in for careful reading of complex material. Without taking the step beyond the original quotation, I would have missed something uniquely powerful.

Reading and re-reading the sermon reminded me of what a brave and brilliant thinker Dr. King was. At the time he delivered this sermon he was only thirty years old, yet he commanded the room with his intellect, his faith, and his force of character. He was also unafraid to call out injustice even when it rested at the feet of the powerful and influential, when it rested at the feet of those he called his “white brothers”. Additionally, he didn’t hesitate to call out a hard truth of our nation when he said, “America cannot remain a first-class nation so long as she has second class citizens.”  With a recognition that I am inadequate to capture its full nuance and complexity, I want to share a few of the key ideas from the sermon as I believe it has a great deal of relevance to us. Its centerpiece is his assertion of the three dimensions of a complete life.

Here are Dr. King’s words: “there are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words length, breadth, and height. Now, the length of life, as we shall use it here, is not its duration, not how long it lasts, not how long you live, but it is the push of a life forward to achieve its inner powers and ambitions. It is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. The breadth of life is the outreach, the outward concern for the welfare of others, and the height of life is the upward reach for God. If life is to be complete, these three must be together, in other words, life at its best is something of a triangle. At one angle stands the individual person, at the other angle stands other persons, and at the tip top stands the supreme infinite person—God. If your life is to be complete, all three must work harmoniously together and be properly cultivated, for the complete life is the three-dimensional life.”

So we have a) the length of life, b) the breadth (B-R-E-A-D-T-H) of life, and c) the height of life. Dr. King calls these three parts a triangle.

The length of life, Dr. King asserts is not about how long our life is but rather it is embodied in this idea: “that before you can love other people adequately you got to love your own self properly.” I am interested in the word “properly” here as Dr. King makes an explicit case against those who “live life as if nobody lived in the world but themselves.” In expounding on the characteristics of such a person he goes on to say, “other people become mere steps by which they climb to their personal ends and ambitions. And if they manage to get around to loving, it becomes a utilitarian love—they love only those people that they can use.”

The breadth of life is the dimension “in which we are concerned about others.” He provides intriguing perspective regarding the breadth of life saying: “an individual hasn’t begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all of humanity.” This is worth hearing again…“an individual hasn’t begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all of humanity.”

And finally, the height of life is our connection God where we: “reach-up beyond self-interest and beyond humanity.” In this part of the sermon he admonishes us not to let, “big cars”, “bank accounts”, beautiful homes”, the “man-made lights of the city”, “skyscrapers”, and “television” get in the way of looking up and thinking about the divine light of God. And he asserts that “if life is to be complete, we must discover God.”

His conception of the three dimensions is helpful for us, as I believe we are surrounded by cultural messages that create the illusion that the first dimension is the only dimension, and in a sermon given long ago, Dr. King continues to call us to higher purpose. We can be so self-obsessed that we not only fail to “love ourselves properly”, but we miss the other two dimensions completely. This was a danger when Dr. King shared this sermon, and it is at least as much of a danger now. While the first dimension is vital and necessary, we have to remember we are called to far more. Our lives take on meaning as we live toward all three dimensions. We live in connection with others; we should strive to live in communion with them, and Dr. King’s challenging question–Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” –should remain before us like a like a gentle and divine push on our backs directing us where to go.


We live in connection with others; we should strive to live in communion with them, and Dr. King’s challenging question–Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” –should remain before us like a gentle and divine push on our backs directing us where to go.


As an orator, Dr. King understood the power of endings, and given our celebration of Dr. King’s legacy, as well as our commitment to the Day ON rather than a day off on Monday’s MLK Day, I think it appropriate to finish this morning with the words he used to finish his sermon that day long ago—almost fifty-seven years ago: “I say to you this morning that my faith is in the eternal God, whose purpose changes not, so I can cry out:

Oh God, our help in ages past,

our hope for years to come

our shelter from the stormy blast,

and our eternal home.

Before the hills in order stood,

or earth received her frame,

from everlasting Thou art God,

to endless years the same.

This is my faith, and I choose to go on through my days with this faith and I tell you if you catch it, you will be able to rise from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. Love yourself, you are commanded to do that—that is the length of life. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, you are commanded to do that—that’s the breadth of life. But never forget that there is a first and even greater commandment, Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart with all thy soul, and with all thy mind—that is the height of life. And when you do this, you’ll live the complete life.”

Amen.

[Below is the flyer for St. George’s families for our Day of Service, our Day ON rather than a day off.]

2 thoughts on “An MLK Chapel Reflection: Dr. King’s Three Dimensions of a Complete Life

  1. Abbey January 13, 2017 / 8:51 pm

    Thank you so much for giving your speech today. It was empowering and true to what SGIS is about.

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