Mark 4: 30-32 (The Message Bible paraphrase)
How can we picture God’s realm? What kind of story can we use? It’s like… a pinenut. When it lands on the ground, it’s quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick shading branches. Eagles nest in it.
I think that it has mainly been parables and dreams that have been my moral compass.
My parents when young were depression-era New Deal dreamers. Both of them were among the first in their families to graduate from college. They taught school together for over a decade in rural Southern California one-room schoolhouses. During these happy earliest married years, their first child, and my oldest sister Peggy, was born, my parents’ ‘dream child’. Before long though, dad’s wider-world vocational dream got deferred: his hearing loss made it impossible for him to effectively continue teaching, so he bought 10 acres of irrigatable land in the north Okanogan and became an apple orchardist. While mom continued teaching, dad built the house I was raised in. A new dream started to get realized. Then came the pandemic that was polio which hit my sister Peggy brutally. She died just before the time the Sauk vaccine became available, and just a few days prior to her 15th birthday. The grief of my parents for the loss of their brilliant, beautiful firstborn was immense. My other older siblings were greatly impacted too. I was still a nine-month-old baby, so the effects of Peggy’s death on me were less direct. But dreams of my parents had been and would continue to get battered and beaten down—more than I knew. It wasn’t until close to the end of my mother’s life that I learned that she had also endured the loss of another daughter named Susan who was still-born. Mom silently endured two additional miscarriages as well—in those days, ‘one didn’t talk about such things’.
Today, nearly ¾ of a century later, and after over half a century of judicial precedent saying otherwise, Roe v Wade has gotten overturned, and frankly, I shudder to imagine how many young pregnant women won’t survive, and how in Texas, Ohio, or even Idaho, had my own mother been a young pregnant woman today, she could well have died too, or for helping her survive her miscarriages, her doctor could have been arrested, with the state labeling her unfortunate miscarriages ‘illegal abortions’!
At a much-later period in my own life, close friends of mine suffered terribly and died of AIDS. One of these was my friend, Angel, from Castenar, Puerto Rico, who like me dreamed of becoming a Church of the Brethren ordained minister, but who realized as did I at the time that being gay in that faith tradition made it nearly impossible for that dream to come to fruition.
I speak rather freely of my own and my family of origin’s own story of miscarriages and thwarted dreams because I want others to feel they can do the same. One of the things I’ve very much respected about many of the members of congregations I’ve served as pastor is that they’ve valued ‘being real’ just as much as ‘being good’. These congregants don’t obsess over their woes but are brave and strong enough to be vulnerable with one another. They can speak with candor about their struggles, their losses, and their addictions. They don’t hold in their grief like my mother was once told she must.
I suspect that each and every one of you have known and experienced more than a few dreams deferred—dreams, if you will, miscarried.
There are our private & personal miscarriages: babies not born, yes, but also dashed hopes in having to live alone after a divorce, or the too-early frost of a spouse’s premature death.
One could say there are vocational miscarriages: getting laid off or fired from one’s favorite job, a failure at school, dead ends instead of new opportunities, unconquerably discriminatory barriers.
And yes, wider societal miscarriages: fatigue and burnout in the struggle for a just peace, at best a questionable environmental sustainability for our children’s children, blatant lies and deceptions on social media, centuries-long racial injustice.
What happens when a dream gets so unrelentingly beaten down? “What happens to a dream deferred?” asks the Black gay poet Langston Hughes. “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—and then run? Or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”
Good questions, Langston. Each of these results and more.
I’m actually not much of an optimist. But I am a person of hope. I make that distinction. And it is parables and dreams that have long sustained me.
I also confess to having an unfair share of white male privilege. I am one of those aging baby boomers who fairly recently was quite surprised to see mostly-Millennial Black Lives Matter supporters exploding into the streets in considerable numbers, even in small cities and towns. I thought that I cared about racism, but honestly? It had barely registered how long and how much the fervent dreams of black people had been shattered, deferred, denied by slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, an unjust system that still today puts more young black men in jail than in college. “I have a dream…” We all know that part of King’s most famous speech. But come on, God: will the dream keep getting gunned down forever, forgotten, dried up, festering, sagging, sugar coated and impotent, or… will something else take place, something far more hopeful? I catch glimpses of up-and-coming generations exploding into the streets with a renewed passion for justice. And I get inspired! I keep believing.
Maybe I’m crazy.
But even amid this seemingly never-ending current pandemic, I feel a renewed sense of hope. Not all the time, granted, but sometimes… Sometimes we learn from the pressure points in life. And dreams long deferred, get realized in a whole different form.
You know the familiar saying about how all of us break, but some of us get stronger at the broken places? Granted, some get strong more easily than others. And some get broken more severely.
Still—I don’t believe that God wills that any of us endure suffering or injustice, but to the extent that we must, let’s at least keep looking for ways together to make such times instructive. I’ve learned so much in the past few years about viruses, about racism (The Sum of Us is such a good book), about a woman’s life and death NEED (not only her right) to have choices!
And may there be “an explosion of compassion,” says Ravi Chandra, “Evaporating the walls of self-centeredness” that reign so supreme in far too many places of privilege and power today. May we soon more fully emerge from any and all hard times, having discovered that our shared vulnerability can be for us a strength, not a weakness. May our dreams not dry up or fester, but may we repeatedly reawaken, as from a long sleep. I, for one, am literally dreaming like I haven’t in decades. Dreams, so real that I reckon if enough of us keep having them and telling of them, they’ll actually sustain whole nations and forests and faith communities.
Prospect Church, you as a congregation have been for me and many others over the years a true moral compass. So please do keep telling, hearing, believing those good parables of Jesus and the good dreams they engender. I for one believe God will yet use your modest mustard seed faith, call it pine-nut faith if you will . . . and make of it something that sprouts and flowers and grows beautifully, even becoming a mighty tree, with shade to help shelter, producing food—spiritual nourishment too—that will help feed the masses. And may we know it repeatedly and eternally to be so! Amen.