June 11th 2020
Sixty years ago, on April 5th, 1959, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, at the age of 30, delivered a sermon called Shattered Dreams to his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. I still marvel at its depth and enduring significance.
That particular Sunday morning King preached from an obscure verse of scripture in the book of Romans: “When I take my journey into Spain, I will come unto you.” (15:14). I love when preachers thoughtfully amplify scripture and make application to their current realities.
King reminded his congregation that the Apostle Paul dreamed of traveling to Spain to share the Gospel. As he would make that long arduous trip from the Middle East across the Mediterranean, Paul promised to stop in Rome to visit a small and vital community of Christian believers—a community of people he deeply loved. This was Paul’s dream—his destiny. Yet the dream is never fulfilled. Paul never made it to Spain and only arrived in Rome as a fugitive to be confined to a small jail cell.
“Very few, if any, of us are able to see all our hopes fulfilled,” emphasized the young preacher. “Paul’s life was the tragic story of a shattered dream and blasted hope.”
At this point in the sermon King brilliantly pivots and asks his congregation the million dollar question: “What does one do under such circumstances?” Or to put it more directly: how do we deal with our shattered dreams?
According to King, people tend to deal with disappointment, shattered dreams and unfulfilled hopes in three ways. The first is bitterness and resentment. It’s a “coldness of heart” and the development of “hatred for life itself.” King adds that we take our anger and bitterness out on those closest to us—children, spouses and our neighbor. These kinds of people “love nobody and they demand no love.”
The second way people deal with their shattered dreams is withdrawal. They detach themselves from what is going on around them. At the cost of self-induced psychological and physiological damage caused by repression, reminded King, “they attempt to escape the disappointments of life by lifting their minds to the transcendent realm of cold indifference.”
The third way is fatalism. King believed this was particularly dangerous for religious folk. People resolve that everything is foreordained and inescapable. They believe that people have no freedom. “Everything is God’s will, however evil it happens to be.” King admits that in order to preserve human freedom, God does permit evil. But there is a difference between permitting something and ordaining something. It’s a dangerous mindset, according to King, to just throw up one’s hands and surrender one’s disappointments and call it “the will of God.”
So what then is the answer?
Honestly confront your shattered dreams and believe that almost anything that happens to us can be woven into the bigger purposes of God. “On the one hand we must accept the finite disappointment,” King concludes. “But in spite of this we must maintain the infinite hope. This is the only way that we will be able to live without the fatigue of bitterness and the drain of resentment.”
That “infinite hope”—in the face of very real disappointments—led this pastor (without a national stage at the time) to act on a local level by organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott in a church basement, an event that propelled the civil rights movement forward. King did not resolve to bitterness, neither did he ignore the injustices in his city, nor did he resolve that segregation was simply God’s will. For months on end a handful of his congregants met, prayed, hoped and planned how best to act as God’s people...in that moment.
For many, the events of the last few weeks and months may represent a shattered dream of sorts. Your hope has been “blasted”. For some of us who grew up in the 1960’s, we hoped for a world where people would not be judged by the “the color of their skin, but the content of their character”*—that dream has been shattered. For many who witnessed the protests and riots in the early 1990’s around the Rodney King beating, we believed that comprehensive police reform would take root and make our communities safer for all people—that dream has been shattered. And for our young people today, who imagine a world of equality, decency and respect for human life for their friends and brothers and sisters of color—their dreams have been shattered these past weeks.
On another level, some of you may be dealing with other kinds of shattered dreams as well—the loss of a career due to the coronavirus, a closing of a business you spent years building, a dissolved marriage, a wayward child, a scandal in your church....all real disappointments. All asking for a response.
So we have a choice. Bitterness and resentment. Indifference. Fatalism. Or infinite hope in the face of disappointment—a hope that forces us to engage our disappointment and propels us to act in ways that reflect the heart of God.
Fortunately we have examples of those who went before us. St Paul and Dr. King Jr. neither resolved to bitterness, to cold indifference or to a toxic fatalism. They faced their disappointments, dug deeper into their faith, looked for God’s deeper purpose and continued to act as followers of Jesus. We must do likewise.
PS. My summary does not do Dr. King’s sermon justice. You can read in its entirety here and be challenged and encouraged by its fullness: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/draft-chapter-x...
*Quote from MLKing Jr, “I have a Dream” Speech, August 28, 1963