The anniversary of 9/11 is not only a marker of a terrible historical moment, it is a reminder that we have lived an entire decade in the collective shadows of fear and diminished hopes. Our children graduating now have spent their childhoods absorbing tsunamis, wars, terrorism, hurricanes, earthquakes and economic catastrophe. They enter a job market that will test their ability to hope. It may be a great moment not only to remember 9/11 but also to remember how to hope.
Howard Thurman once wrote that “as long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.” (Meditations of the Heart, 36-37). He went on to say that realism, daily facts, are unavoidable, but without that ineffable presence of something bigger inside us, life turns into “a swamp, a dreary, dead place and, deep within, a man’s heart begins to rot.” This dream does not have to be some world-shaking vision of dramatic change, although moments of history sometimes require these. Instead, “the dream is the quiet persistence in the heart that enables [us] to ride out the storms of [our] churning experiences.”
Thurman grew up in Daytona Beach during segregation, but rose to national prominence as a preacher, writer, pastor and academician. He traveled widely and participated in many Christian missions and among his travels, spent time with Gandhi. He was a college classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr., and was the Dean of the Chapel when King’s son, Martin, came there for study.
Thurman took the young man under wing and mentored him. He was, in many regards, King’s spiritual director through his short life. His book, Jesus and the Disinherited, written in 1949, profoundly influenced King. In 1953 Life magazine) rated Thurman among the twelve most important religious leaders in the United States, but time has moved on and, outside the African American churches and historians and theologians, Thurman is not well-known.
When we think of all of these echoes of Thurman in the life of a young preacher from Atlanta, and how Thurman’s thoughts lived out through King’s life, it underlines the importance of his words about dreaming. Our dreams do not have to be cosmic or political and yet they can roll out to change the world. The Apostle Paul had a dream one night of a Macedonian man who said, “Come over here and help us,” and the gospel came to that place. Peter had a vision that opened the gospel to the Gentiles in Acts 10. Dreaming is powerful.
These dreams do not have to be world-sized. They can be quite simple—dreaming of a better life for your children, to help a friend whose life is crushed, or as simple as “I want to be a better person than I have been up until now.” It can be a dream to rebuild out of financial ruin or when your circumstances have taken a devastating turn. We can dream of helping the next generation do more than we ever imagined and so give ourselves to a career of teaching and guiding.
There is something very determined about dreaming. While “dreamy” often describes escape, inward dreams are just the opposite—they occupy our hearts and minds and drive us toward something that is ultimately better. We imagine a future worth attaining.
Don’t underestimate the dream. It is quite powerful. It raised the ancient Jewish patriarch Joseph out of prison and into the Pharaoh’s court, and ultimately Israel into existence. Thurman’s dreams lived into a young man who was part of calling America to its best self.
In these times of rebuilding, re-imagining and renewal, biblical people ought to dream. Who knows what might come of it? Just when life is at its worst is when dreams matter most.