“Dream On” by Mark W. Harris
January 20, 2019 – First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words – from Benjamin E. Mays
It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is sin.”
Reading : from “Unfulfilled Dreams” by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)
I want to preach this morning from the subject: “Unfulfilled Dreams.” . . . My text is taken from the eighth chapter of First Kings. Sometimes it’s overlooked. . . But I never will forget when I first came across it. It struck me as a passage having cosmic significance because it says so much in so few words about things that we all experience in life. David, as you know, was a great king. And the one thing that was foremost in David’s mind and in his heart was to build a great temple. The building of the temple was considered to be the most significant thing facing the Hebrew people, and the king was expected to bring this into being. David had the desire; he started.
And then we come to that passage . . . which reads, “And it was in the heart of David my father to build an house for the name of the Lord God of Israel. And the Lord said unto David my father, ‘Whereas it was in thine heart to build an house unto my name, thou didst well that it was within thine heart.’” And that’s really what I want to talk about this morning: it is well that it was within thine heart. As if to say, “David, you will not be able to finish the temple. You will not be able to build it. But I just want to bless you, because it was within thine heart. Your dream will not be fulfilled. The majestic hopes that guided your days will not be carried out in terms of an actual temple coming into being that you were able to build. But I bless you, David, because it was within thine heart. You had the desire to do it; you had the intention to do it; you tried to do it; you started to do it. . . .
So many of us in life start out building temples: temples of character, temples of justice, temples of peace. And so often we don’t finish them. Because life is like Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” At so many points we start, we try, we set out to build our various temples. And I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable. . . And so we, like David, find ourselves in so many instances having to face the fact that our dreams are not fulfilled.
Now let us notice first that life is a continual story of shattered dreams. Mahatma Gandhi labored for years and years for the independence of his people. And through a powerful nonviolent revolution he was able to win that independence. For years the Indian people had been dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated by foreign powers, and Gandhi struggled against it. He struggled to unite his own people, and nothing was greater in his mind than to have India’s one great, united country moving toward a higher destiny. This was his dream.
But Gandhi . . . died with a broken heart, because that nation that he wanted to unite ended up being divided between India and Pakistan as a result of the conflict between the Hindus and the Moslems. Life is a long, continual story of setting out to build a great temple and not being able to finish it.
Woodrow Wilson dreamed a dream of a League of Nations, but he died before the promise was delivered. The Apostle Paul talked one day about wanting to go to Spain. . . . He ended up in a prison cell in Rome. This is the story of life.
So many of our forebearers used to sing about freedom. And they dreamed of the day that they would be able to get out of the bosom of slavery, the long night of injustice. (Yes, sir) And they used to sing little songs: “Nobody knows de trouble I seen, nobody knows but Jesus.” (Yes) They thought about a better day as they dreamed their dream. And they would say, “I’m so glad the trouble don’t last always. (Yeah) By and by, by and by I’m going to lay down my heavy load.” (Yes, sir) And they used to sing it because of a powerful dream. (Yes) But so many died without having the dream fulfilled.
And each of you this morning in some way is building some kind of temple. The struggle is always there. It gets discouraging sometimes. It gets very disenchanting sometimes. Some of us are trying to build a temple of peace. We speak out against war, we protest, but it seems that your head is going against a concrete wall. It seems to mean nothing. (Glory to God) And so often as you set out to build the temple of peace you are left lonesome; you are left discouraged; you are left bewildered.
Well, that is the story of life. And the thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time, saying: “It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow, but it is well that it is within thine heart. (Yes) It’s well that you are trying.” (Yes it is) You may not see it. The dream may not be fulfilled, but it’s just good that you have a desire to bring it into reality. (Yes) It’s well that it’s in thine heart.. . . Life is a continual story of shattered dreams.
I was looking over the sign-up sheets for circle suppers, and noted how many of the hosts had dogs. It was interesting to see how many of you have these companions as part of your families. I have not had a dog in many years, but I grew up with a dog, and of all my shared memories, my dog has probably had less air time in my sermons than most other relationships I have had. I loved my mostly mongrel Labrador Retriever who was both friendly and protective, and an incessant barker. As I began to write this sermon though, my first memory was of how he slept, because by my observation, he often dreamed. What does a dog dream about? We humans often expend a good deal of energy on dream interpretation. The 20thcentury introduced us to both Freud and Jung and their particular ways of finding meaning in these nighttime visits that interpret what we are thinking, feeling and hoping about our lives. I am not sure dogs do much reflection on the psychological complexities of their lives, but you never know. I think my dog mostly relived his days, which included both times of joy, challenge and trauma, just like me. He made us laugh because in addition to pedestrian kinds of snoozing, accompanied by relaxed heavy breathing, there would be other bodily motions and sounds, such as a wagging tail for seeming happy thoughts, barking for warning signs, and even some running motions, which led me to picture him dashing through our woods.
Our dreams sometimes seem like a replay of the day’s activities and concerns, but more often they reveal some deeper concern that we are trying to discern. If we are willing to listen, they tell us what’s on our mind. Once upon a time dreams were interpreted as a sign from beyond, usually God’s messages for us, as they are often depicted in the Bible. While we mostly would not interpret dreams as signs of God’s voice, I think I have shared with you that over the last generation of clergy, classes in dream interpretation are typical for seminarians.. What do these dreams reveal about our secret longings or the psychic angst we are having trouble confronting? Does seeing a baby mean that something new is breaking into our lives, or does a horse mean we are trying to claim our power. I shared with you once a remarkable and affirming dream that I experienced while I was in seminary. One night I was walking across a desert with another person. I immediately recognized him as Jesus, at least the long haired, robed man we have all come to identify as the prophet. He spoke to me saying, “Don’t be afraid. I am with you. I am at your side.” While I am not going to tell you that Jesus actually appeared, I can say that it was spiritually soothing and affirming that I had chosen the right profession.
And so I began to see the wisdom in such Biblical passages as found in the book of Joel, which also happens to be the name I chose for my oldest son. In Joel 2:28, the prophet says, “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” Perhaps the idea of old men dreaming has a certain personal affirmation to it. I can still believe that dreams are possible. Dreams present with mind with incubators for visionary possibilities. We know they sometimes reveal a part of ourselves that we have been suppressing, such as a desire to write or paint. They may tell us to reconcile with a part of our past that we cannot let go of, some grief or some anger. As I get older I often return in dreams to my childhood home, and greet my parents, who are long deceased. Perhaps most rewarding of all is that dreams often make associations for us between things we may not see or be willing to admit in waking life. This has sometimes allowed hidden insights to be revealed, and major discoveries have occurred as a result of a dream.
These major insights or discoveries may also help us cope with a life that in the present is painful and difficult. The great poet Langston Hughes grew up with his gramdmother Mary Langston who instilled in him a lasting sense of racial pride. He identified with the beauty and the longings of black people all his life. He lived most of his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas. In his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea, he wrote: “I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books—where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.”Our responsive reading today reminds us that Africans Americans especially had to hold fast to dreams, or they die and will never be realized. This passage provides the hope we feel in dreams for a better, more fulfilling life. In another poem we also sense the searing pain, and the unfulfilled longing that cannot wait for justice and equality forever. Hughes also asks:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
As I prepare to retire from here in a few months, I have begun reviewing files both at home, and in my church office. Some of those files at home include travel brochures from all over America and the UK. Now dated, but still filled with memories, I have been glancing at everything from the Herbert Hoover National Birth Place in Iowa to Zion National Park in Utah. After a quick trip down memory lane, the brochures are recycled. Among them was one from the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Georgia, which has the words, “I Have a Dream” emblazoned across the top of the fold. This speech, which King gave at the March on Washington in 1963, is an enduring memory of his vision for how justice and equality would be achieved in America. He famously said, “I have a dream . . . that one day my four little children will live in a nation where they are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This was his dream, to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope for equality. Could this dream be realized within the shadow of the racist heritage of Stone Mountain? We may wonder how any African Americans could have conceived of a dream of freedom, when they fell under the lash of slavery. I am reading a biography of Frederick Douglas. Once he converted to Christianity, which was illegal for a slave, he agonized over how Christianity was corrupted and destroyed by slavery, and his dream became not only his own freedom, but to become the prophet of a message that God did not ordain anyone to suffer under slavery.
But let us not fool ourselves, it was, and often remains a mountain of despair for Black people in America. It is interesting in that context to compare the “I Have a Dream” speech with the “Unfulfilled Dreams” sermon. It is true with both the March on Washington speech, and the reading about dreams that we commonly reach the conclusion that if we believe strongly enough and fight for these dreams, they will come true. Yet King reminds us in “Unfulfilled Dreams,” that it is the dreaming itself that is the powerful tool of transformation not the result. As we know, we may not see the promised land, but we have to have a vision of it, in order to begin to conceive that it might happen, and to motivate what strength we have for action. This sermon was given five years after the March on Washington. Selma was history, and King was falling under the influence of the Black Power movement. He saw change occurred incrementally, and often political leaders were duplicitous scoundrels.
King reminds us in the sermon that we all start out building our own castle of dreams and many of them do not work out. Our jobs disappoint us, or our children are a burden. My father never went to college, but his great dream for his children was that they would have the opportunity to be educated, an opportunity that he never had. While his oldest son flatly refused, his younger sons fulfilled that dream. Our parents had purchased the World Book Encyclopedia so that we might learn all the knowledge they did not. We were church goers and lawn mowers. Then how many of us took Sunday drives with our parents to see dream houses in the country or the rich part of town? It was a reminder both of what we strived for, but also that perhaps the dreams might not come true.
There is often an ever present reminder of how many dreams do not happen. But there is, as King says, the overriding passion in your heart to make it a reality. How hard my father worked to make his dream a reality, and yet there were shattered dreams of a child who was unstable, family squabbles for decades, and diseases which made a long retirement something that could not be fulfilled. Yet in retrospect, he loved this life, and what dreams did come true, so that on his death bed he could say I’ve really enjoyed myself. There is excitement and vision in just creating dreams. I see that now as Andrea plans our kitchen in Maine. There is a dream for how the cabinets will be, and what kind of flooring, colors and designs. Dreams like this can be fulfilled in part, or perhaps the money will run out. But we can all wonder at what is possible, and see what we love. Think of how you feel at those moments of excitement.
Sometimes the joy is thinking up possibilities, or dreaming of the future. Thoreau once said, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours..”
Sometimes a dream works out in spectacular fashion. The “father of modern science,” Rene Descartes was a brilliant student in 17th century France, but he lacked self-confidence, and dropped out of school because he believed he was completely ignorant. After a few failures he retired at the old age of 20. Everyone in his life pleaded with him to change his mind, but he refused and for the next two years did little else but stay in bed, read, think, dream, and write. Sounds like one of those twenty something basement dwellers who only play video games. Yet while he was apparently lazing about, Descartes had a dream in which the essence of what we now know as the “scientific method” was revealed to him. Yet it was hard for him to get credit because he did not come to his discovery by rational means, and he did so as a total dropout! His dream actually resulted from years of intense reflection. Tired of his thinking, he went to bed and dreamed three dreams.
In the first dream he was spun around by a whirlwind and terrified by phantoms. He experienced a constant feeling of falling. He imagined he would be presented with a melon that came from a far-off land. In the second dream thunderclaps and sparks flew around his room. In the third dream, all was quiet and contemplative. An anthology of poetry lay on the table, he opened it and read, “What path shall I take in life?” He was so overcome, he began to pray. Was it like a dream from the Bible, a sign from God? He finally concluded that the third dream pointed to no less than the unification and the illumination of the whole of science, even the whole of knowledge, by one and the same method: the method of reason. Eighteen years later his “Discourse on the Method of Properly Guiding the Reason in the Search of Truth in the Sciences.” became the guiding “method” to be applied when knowledge is sought in any scientific field. Can we have dreams that change the world, or the way we think about things?
I certainly believe we can each have dreams about how we want our lives to be, or what we want to do or achieve. If we don’t have dreams then we have no ideals or no stars to reach for. And dreams are not just for the young. We all need to dream about where we will live, or who we will be with, or what we might envision for adventures and learning opportunities, dreams of helping others or making a real difference. In my first ministry in Palmer, I started a food pantry. Perhaps my future will lie in helping to feed the hungry in Maine, to serve a dream that no one will go hungry. Perhaps there will be a history project or two, another book, or stint of teaching, fulfilling a dream of sharing knowledge and vision with others. Perhaps I will take amazing photographs with my new camera, and have photo exhibits, sharing my pictures with the world, fulfilling a dream that we all need to find beauty in life and see it through our own creative lens. I want all of you to dream about what is possible for you to do and see in your life.
Earlier I said that I was going through old travel brochures, and recycling those out of date files. I am also going through church files. It is a letting go of all those years of meetings and discussions, and most importantly, of connecting with others. – We see and learn what each of us wants for our church. But now for me, it is coming to an end. So here is Fellowship, Here is Building and Grounds – gone, gone, left to those who carry on. But they have a charge to fulfill. Do they want to see their church continue to have a vibrant life? Then they need to express their own dreams. In a file called Capital, there was one piece of paper with the title – Dreams That We have Heard.” Below that title were long lists of peoples dreams for the building, for the grounds, for programs, for governance and for finances. In the midst of this sorting and recycling, I came across all the possible dreams for the future. Where would the community go? What did they want it to be? You can have new bathrooms, and carpets and AV systems. Those are dreams of sorts. But why do you want them? What do they mean? What are the values behind these projects? I love life so I want to expand my mind and soul and body into all kinds of new things. I won’t do them all, but maybe I can do some. And think how much I will grow. I love my children so I want them to enjoy life, and have meaningful jobs and loving families. I dream for them, too. And here I love this community, and by that love I want it be an expression of all that is good and true and beautiful.
A few years back I wanted to see this sanctuary renovated and made beautiful. Not for its own sake, but because I love the church and I wanted to see the people show pride in their house of worship. This building I felt needed to be a reflection of your love for the community. I wanted you to dream of creating something beautiful. And what of your dream for the world? Do you want to see the hungry fed. Well, maybe you dream of a community dinner. I did that once here, but it never worked out. Some dreams go unfulfilled. I will leave here with several visions that didn’t work, but the beauty is that I had them. And so did you on this long list. The tragedy would be if you had no list, and behind that list no reason for why you wanted this community to be a vibrant, spiritual home for many people.. May you always have dreams. May you dream big. What is possible? What can we do? Never, an attitude of we are small. We can’t do anything. Remember, it’s a dream. Believe you can do it. Dream of expanding your faith. Broadening your visions. And it may just come true.
Closing Words – from Louisa May Alcott “ Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”